Tony remembered dying.
Pepper’s face was framed by fire and destruction, but his vision was so blurred he could pretend it was only sunlight around the woman who had always been his guardian angel. “You can rest now,” she told him. He knew with a part of his mind what she really meant (that it wasn’t a gentle permission, rather it was something grief-filled and regretful and raging against the world for another way even as she knew there wasn’t), but most of his mind was toasted inside and out and so he was already going without thinking about it.
He saw Peter too— was he before or after Pepper? Time was weird after learning it could be manipulated and especially so when on the cusp of one world and another— and the kid was crying. The kid was there- he was alive. It should’ve been a beautiful thing. Instead Peter’s hands were on his chest, like he was pleading for Tony not to leave him the same way he’d begged not to have to go himself, five seconds or five years ago, and his hair was dirty and mussed and his eyes looked the way that shrapnel in Tony’s chest had felt and Tony finally had just got him back.
Tony remembered not wanting to die.
He died anyway.
“Rest,” she’d said.
Was this ‘rest’? It didn’t feel like it.
“Peter, I swear to Odin up in Asgard, if you make this leap I will come back to life just to slap you to kingdom come. Better yet, I will possess you and make you slap yourself. I’m pretty sure I can do that.”
The kid readying himself on the ledge several hundred feet above the ground did not hear. He didn’t listen well even when a chastising authority figure existed on the physical plane, but he certainly never listened to what Tony told him these days.
“Karen, what are the odds of me reaching that building over there…” Peter said pointing, his voice quiet, excited; the voice of a teenager as reckless as ever there was one. Tony couldn’t hear the AI’s response but he could tell by Peter’s eye lenses narrowing and the lift in his cheeks that he was smiling. Tony wondered if it was a real smile or one of the fake ones Peter was giving out like candy recently.
“Slim to none you say? Those are my odds.”
And the little twerp leapt.
The thing about being a ghost was this: Tony didn’t have a body.
Okay, duh, but listen: he didn’t have all the things that came with a body, for good or bad.
Good: He didn’t have bones to ache from one too many superhero injuries. He didn’t have bad brain chemistry to keep him up with nightmares and anxiety. He didn’t have the breathless old-man weezing that used to overtake him when his overworked heart was tested with shenanigans of children left unsupervised except by the dead.
Bad: He didn’t have vocal chords to call a suit to come snatch said unsupervised children out of the air when their recently picked-up habit of daredevil stunts got to be too risky.
Spider-Man’s yell of delight doppled as he fell further and further from where Tony sat left behind on the rooftop of the literal freaking Empire State Building. Tony sighed long-sufferingly and hid half his face with a hand, elbows on his knees as he tracked the kid’s descent. Peter was doing this more and more- picking tall buildings, far-between buildings, jumping and falling and not catching himself until the last second or doing ridiculous flips in the air that made Tony’s nonexistent heart somersault. He half expected to be joined by a ghost spider-kid in this limbo any day now.
For today at least, Peter caught himself on a building far below (barely) and went swinging in a dizzying arc of momentum up onto a rooftop maybe half a mile from where he started.
Tony squinted and focused on the spot right next to where the kid now stood. He blinked, and then he was there, at Peter’s side again as the kid laughed maniacally to himself and tore his mask off, face flushed and exhilarated.
(Good: Tony didn’t need legs to walk places.)
“So it’s settled: I possess you and have you slap yourself,” Tony decided.
Peter did a happy cartwheel that turned into a handstand that turned into a backflip. He exhaled a laugh then checked his phone when it buzzed and sighed. “That’s all for tonight, I guess,” he said, slipping his mask back on.
“You bet it is. Now please get home to May; I need to be around someone who has a modicum of common sense.”
“No,” Peter responded petulantly, sounding like he was responding to Tony when it was actually to something his AI had said, as he shot out a web. “No, I just like the feeling of falling, okay? It’s not a big deal, K. Don’t be lame.”
Tony pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes after the kid as he shot off again. Leaving Tony behind but Tony knew he deserved it because he had left Peter behind in the first place.
(Bad: He didn’t have arms to wrap around Peter when he was sobbing into his pillow at night.)
When Tony first materialized after, it was at Peter’s side.
Specifically, it was at the funeral. At that time, it wasn’t clear that he was at Peter’s side in particular because everybody (like...everybody) was there and Tony was distracted by the surreality of it so much that he didn’t notice being tugged around by Peter himself until after the fact of his death sunk in.
One second he was watching the vision of Pepper fade away, then it was like he took a deep breath with his eyes closed… and at the end of the exhale, he stood on the pier of his lakehouse home with his arc reactor heart wreathed and floating before him. Around it were the reflections of his family new and old but he did not see himself in the water’s surface; he raised his hands and saw through them. Looking around he saw the people in their black dresses and suits and solemn faces and distantly understood what kind of event this was and who it was for...but also there was an extra layer suddenly...like seeing through 3D glasses. He saw colored auras around every living thing. Many of the people here appeared heavy and dark with suffering, but animals in the woods and floating wisps of somethings darting around were bright as ever like little lanterns.
It was a lot to take in.
In life he joked darkly- sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily- that he was done with living. In truth, he was not. Tony Stark wanted to live. He just wanted to live in peace and privacy and recovery from each trauma before the next one began and since it seemed the world would never give that to him— too many sins to atone for in life, maybe, whatever— the other option for rest was pushing up daisies.
Now that he was dead...he made up his mind that he preferred life.
Peter’s “aura” was a bubbly blue, electric and vibrant as the kid himself, but Tony didn’t know it til later because at the funeral it was so dim and faint it was little more than a shadow clouding his countenance. Even Pepper’s had a little more color to it (a royal violet), a reflection of who she was as a pillar of resilience and acceptance and dignity. Peter, though… Tony had only to look the kid in the face to see that he was gone in himself. He was the opposite of Tony: present in body, but not soul. Where his soul was, Tony didn’t know, but the sight was perverse and awful, worse than seeing newly revived Peter cry over his near-corpse.
The Parkers stayed at the lakehouse for a few weeks while they worked on figuring out where their possessions were (in a storage unit in Queens) and how they would live now that May’s job had been filled by others and their old apartment had strangers in it.
He watched how Peter would lie awake in the dead of night, then mechanically get up to look with glassy eyes for things to do. Tony understood this. He liked his hands and mind occupied when there were nasty thoughts to be avoided, too. Nasty concepts, like the fact of turning to dust in a traumatic way and coming back to a half decades’ difference.
As a ghost, Tony also got to experience what some of his teammates had but which he only ever simulated through tech: having supernatural powers. Unfair that he had to die for it, but there you go, that’s being “extra”, as Peter would say.
There were the things he could see: the auras, the wisps (which he had come to decide after a few months were probably other dead spirits, less formed than he was), and occasionally other sentient-looking beings that were as invisible to living people as he was. They ranged from blobby shadows that moved to people-looking entities that were washed out like they had been laundered one too many times. These never spoke, but sometimes they followed specific people or loitered in specific places. Sometimes they looked back at Tony but most of the time they did not, intent on whatever was keeping them tied here and nothing else, he supposed. This couldn’t be the only place to go after death.
Then there was how he moved: Tony could teleport, basically. He could pull a Vision and walk through walls. And as he had found out through repeated testing, he also phased through people and they phased through him- as much as he wished to change this. Pro-tip: watching people mourn you sucked.
And finally there was what he heard: if Tony got close enough to a person, he could hear them thinking. A faint buzz like radio static if he listened that turned clearer and clearer into words the closer he put his head to theirs. He hypothesized that whatever non-matter element his non-body was made of in this conscious existence he took up now, it was on the same plane as other non-matter, non-body things. Like thoughts.
Peter passed as a ghost himself amidst Tony’s stuff looking at the wooden architecture and rustic furnishings like it was a museum rather than a house, and he hovered his hands over framed photographs as if they were fragile displays with “do not touch” labels. Tony trailed behind him, still getting used to the fact that his feet didn’t touch the ground, and watched the kid he’d ravaged the universe to save discover the life lived in his absence for what it was: a big fat balancing attempt to forget Peter and also not forget him (never forget him) at the same time.
There were photos of the orphanage, the one Pepper and Tony started themselves in the aftermath of the Snap. So many children were left without parents or relatives- either because these had been dusted, or because they had died in accidents following the dusting- and when all Tony’s desire to be a father disappeared on Titan with Peter, the kids left behind became his new mission, his new second chance. A tiny contribution to fixing his massive failure. Steve did counseling groups and Tony did this. Natasha helped a lot, to find and extract kids from their empty homes and transport them and build them new lives. One would never know from the way Natasha Romanoff peek-a-boo’d with infants or cradled crying toddlers or indulged pretend play of 7-year-olds that she had ever been anything but this.
Tony himself loved rocking the babies to sleep on insomniatic nights, but he found he couldn’t play with kids once they started crawling… when one of the little girls he’d tended began to get mobile, he fell into a depression deep and puzzling enough that he couldn’t leave his bed for a week and it wasn’t until later that he realized those determined little limbs reminded him of a different kid crawling across walls.
So there were pictures of the kids, and of Tony and Pepper building their home, and being married there with a few of the close friends and relatives who remained, a bittersweet affair.
Then Peter found the photo that had started and ended it all: the fake internship award photo. It was no longer stuffed behind others on the kitchen shelf, but polished and displayed proudly on the counter for every time Tony took a food break in his frenzy of time travel research a short but long time ago. Peter did pick this one up, but touching reverently, only with his fingertips. He stood there for so long staring that Tony heaved himself onto a seat on the counter across from him to wait out whatever was going on in the kid’s head. His face was still as broken and empty as glass windows after a hurricane, but in the wreckage there were sparks.
Eventually Peter inhaled sharply, shakily. For the first time since he sat dying, Tony saw tears fill the boy’s eyes and they spilled over when he blinked.
“Pete...” Tony said softly. He hopped off the counter and closed the small distance, already knowing and questioning and accepting and resenting that he could not be seen or heard or felt. Still, he put a hand against Peter’s cheek. Hovering it there, imagining it wouldn’t go through, that it could actually offer comfort. He could feel the despair spilling out of Peter’s aura just as vividly as he felt the warmth coming from his skin.
Peter lowered the photo and slumped, a hand coming up to cover his face. Tony’s emotions swelled and he leaned closer, wishing he could press a kiss to the boy’s temple like he had when he first got him back...He’d thought then that there was time to make up for all his stupidly repressed affection for this stupidly wonderful child, but it was gone before he truly had it. This was all there was left.
It’s my fault.
Peter’s voice didn’t come from his mouth. Tony startled back a bit, but sure enough, Peter’s face was still covered by his hand and the only noises he was making aloud were the shallow breaths that hold back sobs. Furrowing his brow, Tony leaned in close again and heard in Peter’s voice, strangled by guilt and hurt:
Tony is dead because of me.
Tony realized what he was hearing and a beat later he was filled with indescribable anger.
“I don’t know how you’re justifying that crap but you listen to me, kid,” he bit out sharply. “My actions are my own. I pull the stunts I do because of my own idiocy and no one else’s. I lived five years in this makeshift heaven that was actually hell and you wanna know why? It’s because you are the- the one thing—”
The one thing I couldn’t pretend wasn’t gone. The thing worth getting back, no matter the cost.
For one without a throat, he found himself getting choked up an awful lot in this new version of life.
“Yes, I did it for you,” he whispered as Peter wiped his eyes and set the photo back on the counter. “But you should never have had to leave in the first place...” ( I don’t wanna go, sir, please-) “...and my life was a small price to pay to fix that.”
He tried to ruffle Peter’s hair, but as usual it passed through and all Tony got before Peter turned and shuffled back to the bed where he would lay unsleeping for a few more hours was another disembodied thought, streaked with pain and resolute:
“Shrek 5?” Peter said incredulously. “Please tell me that’s a joke.”
“‘Fraid not,” sassy-girl-who-Peter-obviously-liked said. “Except half the cast was gone so they have blatantly different voice actors. It’s being re-released at half-price for returned dusters, aren’t we special.”
“Thanos was right, humanity needs to be saved from itself,” the kid said in a horrifying display of Gen Z humor, and true to form Tony cringed while the teen boy and girl at Peter’s side laughed.
They were walking the strip mall, passing theaters and clothing stores and making leisurely stops here and there until arriving at the central water fountain where they stopped to rest and buy smoothies. The kids did anyway. Tony only watched, envious.
“What kind do you want, Peter?” Ned asked, he and sassy girl MJ lagging as Peter sat by the water’s edge.
“If they don’t have Tide pods or bleach... surprise me,” Peter said, kicking his feet up.
Tony stared. “I hate this generation.”
But Ned simply gave a thumbs up and then they were alone. Tony took a seat next to Peter and made a self-satisfying shove with his arm that, had it been real, would’ve sent the kid plummeting into the fountain. As it was Peter just shivered as Tony’s ghost arm passed through him. Tony blew out a defeated raspberry and shoved his hands in his pockets. He had on whatever outfit he imagined he did, and today was a casual hoodie and jeans- something he would wear, along with a baseball cap and shades if he were real and on an incognito trip to the mall with this kid and his friends.
“You should be careful, you know,” Tony said ruefully. “You don’t know the flavors they invented while you were gone. Chair Guy and Micheal Jordan might surprise you in a way you don’t want. And the Shrek thing? Don’t bother, not even for the laughs. People tried to be creative with their grief for five years and it was a massive disaster in most cases.”
He felt a flare of annoyance from Peter’s aura and tilted his head- the kid was glaring at something across the way. Following his gaze, Tony swallowed a lump in his throat because there in full glory was another memorial- a minimalist-style painting of Iron Man thrown up on the brick wall of an abandoned building.
The memorials gave him a lot of mixed feelings. He’d craved attention for much of his life and it was nice to be appreciated for once, but…he didn’t feel right getting this much credit. Selfless savior he was not, no matter how the story played out.
Every time the kid came upon a tribute- and they were everywhere- Peter seemed to give off a new strain of emotion. There had been anger lately. Last week the two of them had passed a poster put up outside Peter’s school that depicted Tony wearing the gauntlet like a king in crown jewels (far from the bloody awful scene it had really been) and Tony had balked while Peter tore it down, crumpled it into bits and then tore those bits to shreds for the rest of his walk home.
Peter turned pointedly from the sight and a moment later his friends rejoined him, brightly colored drinks in hand. Tony was about to turn back with him, but from beside the memorial, movement caught his eye: a Shade person was watching.
There was no reason to think shades were anything but harmless, but they still spooked Tony. Even as a ghost himself. So he glared in a territorial way and stepped in front of Peter. The Shade’s featureless head tilted as if curious, but he stepped back and faded into the paint on the wall.
“Uh, what is this?” Peter hacked, choking on his straw.
MJ said, “Chocolate Watermelon.”
“Told you so, kid.”
On their way back to the parking lot they passed one lone cafe-slash-bookstore situated separate from the rest of the mall. MJ stopped and looked in the shaded windows with some interest.
“My mom is gonna kill me if we miss this bus,” Ned warned.
The girl glanced at him, then smirked and entered the shop with a chime of the bell over the door. Ned groaned.
“We’ll be quick,” Peter said, giving his friend a sympathetic smile and following the other inside.
Tony went after Ned and immediately froze. The interior of the nondescript store certainly had a quirky flare to it, with haphazard stacks of ancient-looking books and something herbal and earthy scenting the air. What concerned him were the wisps: dozens of them, floating like little jellyfish throughout the room, more than he’d ever seen in one place. He hurried forward to Peter’s side and reached to bat one out of the kid’s way as he and his friends stepped awkwardly through the mess of oddly ordered shelves.
At the cafe counter, a plain-looking woman with long moonlight-colored hair set a thick book down and looked at her customers. Her eyes moved from MJ to Ned and Peter and then, shockingly, to Tony. She narrowed her eyes in interest though Tony wondered if he was imagining that before she looked back to the live guests and offered a welcoming introduction to her store.
Tony eyed the chalkboard behind her. “Tea Leaves with Persephone” the place was called. Three main attractions: books, food, and psychic readings. He groaned within himself… Dr. Strange with his hand wavy stuff was one thing. Basket cases who read palms and played with tarot cards were another. Were he alive he would’ve ushered the kids out of there before they accidentally sold their souls or something… knowing Peter, he wouldn’t put it past him.
“Can I get anything for you four?” the woman asked, referring to her small menu of cakes and drinks. The kids glanced among themselves in confusion, and it was Peter who said tentatively, “There are only three of us, ma’am.”
“Ah, yes,” she said. “I apologize, my sight gets confused sometimes.” Again her eyes lingered on Tony as he sat on a bar stool beside Peter.
“Can you see me, lady?” Tony asked, but the woman just turned and got to fixing one order of herbal tea for MJ.
“Do you run this place by yourself?” Ned asked curiously, flipping through a random book. He paused on a page with an eye in a triangle and gaped, showing it to Peter under the counter. “Illuminati,” he hissed, and Peter put his face in his armpit to stifle a snort.
“Oh, it’s not hard to do alone,” Persephone sighed, passing MJ her tea and leaning on the counter. “Not too many customers. It’s a shame mine isn’t closer to the rest of the stores, but it is nice to have a bit of quiet.”
In time with the soft nature music playing overhead, a wisp drifted by her face and she watched it go. It was the same green-blue color as her own aura.
“Are you really psychic?” Peter asked skeptically, and Tony turned to him, surprised by the normally polite kid’s bluntness.
“Would you like to find out?”
“No, he wouldn’t,” said Tony.
“No, thank you,” said Peter.
He turned to the kid. “Thank you. For once.”
Persephone laughed to herself quietly. “That’s quite alright... I would like to tell you though, Peter,” and both teen and man stiffened because she wasn’t told their names, “...you’ve got quite the securely attached tagalong there.”
Peter’s brow furrowed confusedly. He opened his mouth, but closed it again.
MJ finished her drink then and slapped a few bills on the counter. “Thank you for having us,” she said in rare genuity. “I only aim to be as exquisitely off-putting as you one day.” Then she stood and led the way out of the store, not waiting, same as how she entered. Ned followed quickly, checking his watch, but Peter held off, one hand on the door handle as he looked back. His aura buzzed with askings unsaid, his face read like a tender bruise. The woman just smiled and after a moment Peter let the door swing shut.
Tony remained at the counter, knowing he would be tugged back to Peter’s side soon anyway.
He glared. “What’s your deal?”
“What’s yours?” Persephone replied.
“...I’m dead, that’s what,” Tony said after a moment, though it wasn’t delivered with the edge he would’ve liked, because he hadn’t really expected her to answer. This was bizarre to no end, but at the same time he wondered if it was too late to get Peter back in here… maybe…
“That’s true, you are,” she said without sympathy. She tapped her chin. “But you’re not dead the way most dead people are, are you, Mr. Stark?”
Tony lay on the top bunk of Peter’s bunk bed and listened through the thin separation of mattress and wood to Peter’s light snoring and the buzzing of his dream thoughts. Sometimes Tony listened closely and saw the random images appearing behind the kid’s eyelids in his sleep; sometimes he could even focus and influence good feelings into them. It helped soothe on nights when the kid tossed and turned, but tonight it didn’t seem to be needed. That was good. Even if Tony liked being needed.
May and Peter were in the midst of re-furnishing their new apartment so the bunk bed would go soon. Tony wondered how many changes he would live (die...?) to see Peter through in this state of being.
“If the rest of my afterlife really is just following you around, kid, I guess it’s not so bad,” he said into the stillness.
Peter mumbled nonsense in his sleep.
“I agree, it is too bad you don’t see or hear me. But if this is what I got, it’s better than nothing.”
Trying to placate himself.
(He still wondered about the lady’s statement.)
“Stupid bug!” said the brilliantly eloquent thug, aiming a gun at Tony’s kid. This was not okay with Tony, not by a long shot, but as per the new norm he could do nothing about it.
Peter was up against three guys attempting a bank robbery- kid got the hostages out like a pro but one of the guys decided to be real smart and initiate a showdown even while the police waited outside on Spider-Man’s signal.
“I honestly don’t know how many times I have to say it,” Peter sighed. “Spiders aren’t bugs, they’re arachnids. Third grade failed you, my dude. Is that why you’re like this? There are better ways to cope with—”
Shots went off and Tony, standing a few feet behind Peter, yelled compound words of profanity at the attackers (it made him feel better) even as Peter flipped out of range and shot webs that caught the weapons out of their hands. The closest guy spat and charged like a bull. Peter’s sixth sense made the attack useless; he was stuck in a blossom of white ropes before he knew what went down. The third guy immediately dropped his weapon and put his hands in the air, but Trigger-Happy reached into his belt for yet another gun. This one, it seemed, was not the bullet variety, but an actual home-made-looking grappling hook gun. He fired it upwards, into the rafters of the building— was he planning to escape out a window?— and Peter just laughed.
“I can climb walls, you know that, right?” the kid said, miming the crawling act with his hands.
Trigger-Happy gave no response but to yank on his device and go sailing into the air like Spider-Man on a web. Peter strolled over to watch him with a whistle of appreciation, not seeming concerned about hurrying to catch up.
Tony saw what happened next in slow motion: the support beam the guy used as his lever was evidently not the strong thing it appeared to be, at least not for grappling hook purposes. It snapped- not completely in half, but denting out of shape enough that it threw off the guy’s trajectory. He lost a few feet and shrieked as he swung instead into a heavy-looking column several feet short of the rafters. The rope still hooked in the ceiling strained and the architecture of the room shifted.
Then the pillar was tipping, falling right at Peter.
For one millisecond Tony waited for the kid to dodge- he was obviously able to, with how long it took the heavy thing to arc down at him, and he was looking right at it. The next millisecond was spent in confusion as to why the kid was not doing so, and in the next came a realization: Peter was rigid, fear in his aura, frozen like an ice sculpture waiting to be smashed. Tony was running before he could care that it wouldn’t make a difference, and with the increased proximity, he caught a glimpse of the kid’s thoughts: a warehouse collapsing, trapping, pinning, petrifying—
“Peter! Move!” Tony screamed, and in the last second before the weight hit, he reached Peter and threw himself at the kid.
The world tilted dizzyingly. Tony didn’t know which way was up and which was down and he felt like he’d just fallen into a shockingly cold lake. He realized he was lying on the hard floor of the bank foyer, his eyes jammed shut and his hands clenched over his head and there was silence save for someone’s shallow breathing, a pulse drumming fast in his ears.
He opened his eyes. The partially smashed pillar was inches from his face.
“Gah!” he yelped, springing upright and away from it. He barely had time to process that his voice was not his voice, when in scrambling away, he caught sight of his feet and legs— clad in a spider-webbed red suit.
He looked at his hands- they were solid. He could make out Peter’s blue aura hovering there but it was overshadowed by a golden hue, the color of his own aura. He blinked.
“Kid, I swear, all the times I’ve threatened to possess you, I was just joking,” he said hoarsely, but the words came out in Peter’s young voice and that was just too weird. So, so weird. He breathed a laugh and put Peter’s hands on Peter’s forehead. “I can’t believe this.”
“You okay, man?” asked the guy still dangling from the ceiling. Tony looked up at him, startled, but then processed the question and glared.
“No thanks to you,” he snapped. “You almost killed my kid.”
“Um...what?” the guy said, squinting behind his ski mask.
Tony just rolled his eyes and stood shakily. Oh man, he’d forgotten what being in a body was like; all heavy and restricted by the laws of physics, but at the same time grounding and comfortable like wearing a glove. Outside, the police lights flashed and an amplified voice called, “Spider-Man, is it safe to enter?”
I guess I’ll work on un-possessing in a minute, he thought, taking careful steps over to the wide double doors of the bank.
After sending the cops in and offering an awkward wave to a crowd of fans behind the police barricade, Tony, being too afraid to attempt amateur web-slinging with Peter’s body at risk, made for the nearest dark-and-empty alley he could find and hid behind a dumpster. There he slid to a seat against the wall and took off the Spider-Man mask. Close by was a puddle of runoff rainwater, and with a deep breath he crawled over and peered in.
Peter’s worried face looked back. His irises were otherworldly orange: brown overlaid with glowing gold. Touching a hand to his cheek caused the reflection to do the same.
“Okay, bud,” Tony told Peter’s face. “Let’s see if we can fix this…”
He sat back and braced his arms against the brick wall. What did he do before? He’d just shoved the kid, so… He closed his eyes and thought of the blue and gold swirling within this one body and imagined separating the two like velcro strips unsticking. In one swift motion, he pulled forward and left the body behind.
The feeling was the same as before: he felt upside down at first but when it settled, he found himself light and airy and incorporeal again. All at once he was exhausted, like he’d exerted a great amount of energy.
Behind him, there was a gasp.
Whirling, Tony saw Peter from the outside once more. The kid was blinking rapidly like he’d just woken up, and he looked pale as he took in his surroundings, a furrow of confusion on his face.
“Karen?” he asked, but then realized his mask was sitting nearby and snatched it. “Karen,” he tried again with the thing over his head, “What just happened? I- I think I blacked out. Wasn’t I just dealing with some bank robbers?”
Tony could hear the AI’s reply from how close he was sitting in front of Peter, his knees partially eclipsing the kid’s as the sat across from one another: “The altercation with the bank robbers ended about ten minutes ago, Peter. The NYPD has them in custody. You have been sitting in this alley ever since leaving.”
Tony studied the kid’s form in genuine concern. Didn’t people in movies who got possessed usually like… vomit and seize and stuff? Besides a bit of amnesia and shakiness Peter seemed fine, but at this point Tony didn’t know what could happen. Really earned my ghost card today, he thought.
To none but himself he said aloud, “Is he hurt?”
“Uh… did I get hurt or something?”
Karen paused as if doing a scan. Then: “Your electrolyte levels dropped suddenly when you avoided the bank’s structural collapse, and remained low until about 45 seconds ago. They have mostly returned to normal but drinking fluids is recommended. I detect no other physical concerns.”
“Oh man, the pillar…” Peter muttered, rubbing his arm as though embarrassed. The eye lenses narrowed like he was wincing, but then they widened and he shrugged and got to his feet. “Whatever, I probably just hit my head...I’ll, uh, keep an eye on that.”
“And I’ll keep an eye on the ghost powers,” Tony promised, watching the kid climb up the wall of the building but remaining too exhausted to move himself. He felt his eyelids getting heavy and noticed his body was dimmer and more see-through than usual.
Not a great place for a nap, but one couldn’t be choosy when one was dead, he supposed.
When he came to, he was, as usual, back with Peter. It was dark outside according to a glance out the kid’s bedroom window, and though Tony couldn’t immediately see Peter, he heard the shower running in the adjacent bathroom as well as the kid’s off-key mumbling of song lyrics.
He got up and phased into the kitchen, where May was listening to an audiobook on her phone and mixing ingredients in a haphazard way. One had to hand it to the woman, she always tried with the cooking despite her world-famous ability to kill the recipes she touched.
“Evening, Mrs. Parker,” he said. “Always a- oooh my g-whaaat are you doing here?!” Tony broke off in a shriek.
Because May had turned and standing behind her was a Shade. In the bright lights of the kitchen he was barely visible but Tony saw the dim outline that shouldn’t have been there and he didn’t know how but he recognized it. Maybe it was the way it held itself, or the shape of its memory coat, or something else, but he knew right away: this was the same Shade that watched Peter at the mall several weeks ago.
At Tony’s admittedly rude greeting, the thing turned its head, its suggestion of eyes pointed his way. It said nothing.
“Seriously, what’s your deal, man?” he said, once he’d gathered himself. “How did you find these people? Are you even allowed to be in here?”
The Shade lifted an arm and pointed at Tony.
“I’m here because I don’t seem to have anywhere better to be,” Tony said defensively.
Behind them, Peter’s door opened and the kid came out running a hand through his shower-curled hair. He wrinkled his nose at May's phone on the counter.
“Okay, the baby is here!" he announced. “Time to turn off the raunchy romance novel."
"You're the baby, are you?" May grinned. She turned up the volume and Peter whined, covering his ears.
The Shade perked up at Peter’s entrance. It moved towards him.
“Ey, ey, easy there, partner,” Tony barked, slipping between the kid and the unseen entity (the other unseen entity). “This is my kid to haunt. Poaching is prohibited. Go be a spook elsewhere.”
The Shade stopped, tilting its head like it had at the mall. They each stood their ground for a moment longer as the Parkers bantered and sat down to eat in the background. Then the Shade looked around and began shuffling into the living room. After a moment of dithering, Tony followed.
It (he? It felt like a he) was looking at the photographs framed around the room as if searching for something then finally stopped and attempted to grab one. Of course the movement was useless, but it did get Tony’s attention. He stepped forward hesitantly at the Shade’s apparent prompting and analyzed what he saw.
It was a family photo from when Peter was probably 10 years old. In it, May walked alongside a man who carried Peter on his shoulders. The man had a leather jacket and a smile big enough to rival the kid’s, and he was handsome in the way Peter was growing up to be. The kind of man Peter would have as a namesake.
“This is… you?” Tony asked, realization dawning.
The terribly washed-out version of the photo man nodded.
Looking between the alive and dead versions of Ben Parker… that was the first time Tony feared “moving on”. Because clearly Ben was, or was close to it, and it made sense now that that’s what Shade people were- souls dithering between here and oblivion… and Tony felt real fear at the concept. He didn’t want to become washed-out. He was dead but he wasn’t ready to be gone.
He also felt incredibly uncomfortable in the presence of Peter’s uncle, now that he knew that’s who it was. A person who actually deserved to be here, with his family. Tony took a step back.
“Sorry… I’m- I don’t know what to say. Sorry,” he said helplessly. How long had Ben Parker been watching over May and Peter? Since his death? Since before Tony entered their lives? Did he see Tony lie to his wife, steal his nephew away to other countries and planets? Yell at Peter over that dumb ferry boat?
He gestured for Ben to return to the Parker’s dinner table, ashamed.
Shade Ben’s smile was barely there, but still the most reassuring thing Tony had seen since becoming dead. He reached out and put a cold hand on Tony’s shoulder, and then led the both of them into the kitchen.
Every time Peter hit reject on a call from Nick Fury, Tony felt a life-giving (ha) burst of satisfaction. He found that, as another ghost power, he could mildly interfere with electricity and unseen energy waves, and so he had a great time intercepting and ending a few of the calls himself when Peter wasn’t looking.
How’s this for ‘ghosting’ Fury, Hap?
Peter’s little plot to confess his feelings to MJ was probably the most entertaining thing Tony thought he’d ever seen dead or alive, especially while watching the plane ride seat switch go exactly opposite to the kid’s plans. He sat in the aisle for the majority of the 9 hour flight, alternately cackling and wincing during the rundown teacher’s story of his wife’s faked death and subsequent funeral and Peter’s unending “kill me now” expression.
When Peter finally dozed off, Tony wandered around the cabin in boredom. In first class, he found the Flash kid (oh, he knew about the Flash kid) on his laptop compiling and labeling memes about “#Blipped life”, and easily reached out a hand as he passed. When his fingers brushed the laptop, his aura sparked and the computer screen darkened accordingly. He smirked to himself at Flash’s indignant squawk and kept walking.
“This is my favorite part, wait, look- blood spurts from this guy for like, 20 feet,” came an annoyingly charming voice, followed by hushed laughter.
“Ah, Robo-Brad,” Tony sighed, stopping to appraise the boy Peter had apparently deemed his competition. He tried to be sympathetic over that...he knew how it felt when he’d watched other bachelors flirt with Pepper...but seriously. Peter was more oblivious than he thought if he didn’t see how MJ looked at him with the same awkward puppy-dog eyes that he had when looking at her. This, he wasn’t going to step into. A rom-com was in the making and Tony quite wanted to see how it went.
As with the rest of this little trip: it was a nice change of pace, and he really, really wanted to see it lift Peter’s spirits. Kid was holding something back, something stuffed down within himself, and Tony had a feeling it needed to come out before he could really be okay again.
Nick Fury’s days were numbered.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown… Stark said you wouldn’t get that because it’s not a Star Wars reference.”
Outwardly, Peter had on his resting innocent-confused face. Inwardly, Tony caught a glimpse of the thought, I quoted ‘Alien’ that one time and it saved our butts, but do I get a mention of that, Tony? No I do not.
The truth was, E.D.I.T.H., and everything Tony had put in place for Peter with Fury… he did all that so long ago he’d practically forgotten it. He made the glasses, what, 7 years ago? Definitely before the “Blip” or whatever kids were calling it (an overly euphemistic way to refer to trillions of deaths and five years of post-apocalyptic mayhem, but okay), and then came up with the AI and the whole “next Tony Stark” thing, well… pretty much right after he met Peter.
Like he told Strange, and Steve, and everyone: he knew something was coming, and he knew the moment he walked in that tiny apartment and met the younger, sadder, but no less wise-beyond-his-age, incomprehensibly good-hearted Peter Benjamin Parker— this was who he wanted to succeed him one day.
He just didn’t think that day would come while the kid was still a teenager.
“I’m just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man…” Peter was saying, voice small and weak— two things Tony knew Peter was not, but the kid had yet to see that in himself. It pained him to no end, that the phrase Tony had used to help Peter slow down when he was an overeager 15-year-old was now his only parachute of protection in a fall he was being pushed towards without his consent.
Then there was Beck…
Mr. “Don’t ever apologize for being the smartest one in the room”.
“Actually that’s me, Bubble Brain,” Tony had said from against the sewer wall. “But if I possessed someone to tell you that, I might not stop myself from actually maiming people in this room—Fury— I mean, dear lord, do any of you have a brain? ‘The Snap tore a hole in our dimension’? Which Snap, there were three! And as one of those I think I can say I know what effects it did and didn’t have.”
He knew there was something wrong with the story, he just knew it.
Of course he ranted on deaf ears.
And unseen to them, Beck’s ugly red aura preened with all the attention he was getting.
Guy rubbed Tony the wrong way immediately. The outfit was overdramatic, the demeanor was nauseating, and the guy’s face was familiar in an I-already-dealt-with-you-and-put-it-from-my-mind way… and for another thing- for another thing he looked at Tony’s kid like, like that.
Tony petulantly rolled his eyes throughout the sap story he spun. He questioned and quipped and mimicked to distract from the admiring in Peter’s eyes.
“Excuse me sir, can I help? Let me help, I’m really strong and I’m sticky!”
The familiarity of the plea made Tony more bitter than coffee grinds. Is this how Ben felt watching me...?
If he didn’t mention already, he was going to kill Fury.
“It was meant to be your choice, kid,” he tried over and over, but the truth was lost on them all.
Lies filled Peter’s head: I’m not right for this, I’m really honestly- Why didn’t I just quit for good when Tony took my suit? Everything would be different if I had, just a normal kid who only ever used his powers to do stuff like open pickle jars and- and- and that would’ve been great. Because if I’d quit then I wouldn’t have gotten close to him and I wouldn’t have had to see—
(An ugly image: Tony’s body, half blackened and eyes dulled)
(Anguish despair loss alone alone alone why can’t I keep just ONE of them what is wrong with me)
Beck’s knowing smile looking on all the while.
A weird buzz of electricity wafted around him. Quite potently wrong and reeking the way the “water monster” did, if only Tony hadn’t been distracted by trying to keep Peter alive in his bell tower fiasco he would’ve investigated more. Nobody else seemed like they were going to and certainly nobody was taking care of the 16-year-old child the way they ought to be either.
So the class trip was hijacked even though Peter clearly said no and that was when Tony determined that he needed to do what he’d wanted and feared and hoped for and hesitated from ever since he woke at his own funeral:
When Peter smiled, it was akin to seeing something like a flower bloom or a firework go off. It was magnanimous, it was effervescent, it was other big words that still weren’t enough to describe it.
When Tony smiled, it was veiled in at least five levels of disguise peeled back only on the basis of how well the viewer knew him, and as with all his expressions it was mostly in his eyes. He could be frowning on his whole face but smiling with his eyes.
When Tony smiled with Peter’s face, it was a diabolical combination of the two: it was mischievous and allegiance-inspiring, the kind of thing that would get him marked as a trouble-maker by teachers on the first day of class.
“Okay, take one of- hopefully one,” Tony said in Peter’s voice, looking into the webcam on the kid’s old laptop and smiling this blended smile that had Tony’s practiced confidence and Peter’s nervous tells. “I have about three minutes to make this count, I’d guess, so let’s get started.”
He felt a little bad about hijacking the kid again but ultimately concluded it was the most convincing thing he could do; someone else acting weird would only make Peter concerned for them in that signature way of his and Tony didn’t think his claim would be well-received that way. It wasn’t going to be well-received in any form, truthfully, and the kid was gonna think he was crazy or sick or sleepwalking and it was gonna stir some major turbulence in his fragile underlying emotional state but it had to be done (maybe). Tony trusted Peter to be believing in Tony even when Tony wasn’t believing in Tony because it had happened before and could happen again.
The video adjusted lighting as the boy shifted, highlighting the eerie orange of their eyes. A deep breath as the recording went on.
“I don’t know how to begin something like this,” he admitted, rubbing his wrist under the cuff of Peter’s suit jacket. “I guess, to make it brief… five months ago, I died.” A wince. “Sorry you were there for that, kid. Since then things have been- I mean, I don’t know what I expected or what anyone is supposed to expect when they kick the bucket, but for me it’s been like this: I’m not gone. My body is, but my soul or spirit or essence or whatever— that’s tied to you, kid. I haven’t left your side once in all this time.”
He shifted, drummed a hand on the wooden desk a moment. Then the plunge:
“Underoos, it’s me. Tony Stark the Friendly Ghost- Or, uh, possibly not so friendly since I’m hijacking you to send this message but them’s the breaks when you can’t be seen or heard any other way. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
A pad of paper sat nearby with a pen, and with the camera app still rolling, Tony pulled it over and leaned in to scrawl out a note. There was a tearing sound as he separated it from the pad.
“I really hope you give this a chance, kid,” he said, hovering a hand over the spacebar. “I wouldn’t believe it if I were you, but there’s something I’ve kept from you for far, far too long: you are better than me. Always were. Now I don’t wanna overwhelm you in one go, but if you accept this, we need to find a way to talk again about all that’s going down over there. If you don’t accept this, well… I’m still here for you anyway. See you in a sec.”
The video saved. The energy in the room shorted, then came back alight.
Peter Parker blinked dazedly.
“Um… what was I just…?” he mumbled, reaching to rub at his forehead as though dizzy. Then tilted his head in surprise when the hand he used had something clutched in it: a small piece of paper.
He pulled back to look at it, then went stiff and unblinking for a long moment. Finally he turned his head and looked around as though looking for someone else in the room to pop up and explain. The only someone other than him, however, could do no such thing despite the rapt attention he was giving.
When Peter turned back, a crease deepening between his eyebrows, he noticed the laptop sitting open in front of him, its screen filled with a thumbnail of himself in the same spot he was now and talking though he had no memory of what was said. His eyes drifted to the ‘play’ button and slowly, slowly he reached for it…
“Peter, I hope you’re ready in there ‘cuz I’m coming in!” Ned’s voice preceded the boy himself, the hotel room door swinging open all at once. Peter jumped to his feet, knocking his chair back clumsily as he did.
“Ned,” he said breathlessly, “Hey, what’s- what’s up?”
The other boy was rifling on his side of the room, snatching a tie and coat, but he paused to give Peter an odd look. “Uh, the opera? Harrington is about to do roll call and head out, man, let’s go!”
“Right, right, the opera and the mission…” Peter nodded, unconsciously clenching his fists. The note crumpled a bit and he looked down at it one more time, then set it on the nightstand and closed his computer. “Yeah, I’m ready.” He looked around once before following his friend out the door, saying, “Dude, do you remember if there’s any Gatorade in the lobby’s vending machines?” and leaving darkness and a click of the lock in his wake.
“...You have got to be kidding me,” Tony groaned, falling onto one sheet-rumpled twin bed.
Exhaustion closed in on him the same as it had when he overshadowed Peter the first time, so Tony missed the fire-and-terror battle in the middle of poor Prague’s summer festival.
When he came around, it was to seeing Peter giving Beck the glasses given him as his primary inheritance from Tony, blatant relief in his eyes as he did so.
Ouch. Ouch from here to the next dimension.
“‘To the next Tony Stark, I trust you’,” he groaned, hitting his head into the wall behind Peter. “Okay, that was my bad, I should’ve said more but I’m dramatic and that’s my weakness I admit, but how explicit do I need to be, kid? I picked you. I trust YOU. That drink better be alcohol-free by the way, or I promise someone’s gonna--”
Someone caught his eye, distracting him from this fantastically awful development. Was that- was that Janice? Why would the little old lady who once worked at SI on...something or other...be bussing tables in the Czech Republic of all places?
Come to think of it, he recognized the bartender too. And the people at the table behind them. And the custodial worker. And—
Oh. Oh, no.
“You guys are really cute, but d’you think you could speed it up?” Tony demanded, pacing stressed circles around and rambling quite disrespectfully through Peter and MJ’s long-awaited but poorly-timed feelings hash-out. “There’s kind of a madman with my tech on the loose planning mass destruction and I find myself again in the position of depending on a teenager for its retrieval.” He pointed at Peter’s stupidly innocent face. “But this time, it’s your fault, not mine.”
It wasn’t the truth and he knew it as soon as he said it.
“Night Monkey, alright- well, do Night Monkey and Spider-Man use the same webs?”
Both Tony and Peter’s eyes widened on the clunky piece of machinery MJ had pulled from her purse, undissolved webbing still stuck to one side.
That’s how he’s doing it, he realized. The tech feeling surrounding Beck, and the monsters— it was all fake.
He felt only the slightest bit guilty for scaring the teens, but swiping his hand out and flaring his aura over the thing for a demonstration was almost instinctual. As expected, it sparked and spewed a projection of unnatural storm clouds to confirm Tony’s fast-forming theories.
Things went downhill from there.
“Maybe if you were better...Tony would still be alive.”
The look on Peter’s face was hidden by the stupid black suit but his aura was a mine field under a stampede as he slammed into walls and tripped himself on things only he could see.
“I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!” screamed the ghost of Tony Stark. “DO YOU HEAR ME? YOU’RE EFFING DEAD!”
He was phasing in and out of Quentin Beck, who he remembered now, the acting school dropout turned inventor of things that tricked the brain but whose own brain was unhinged in a way Tony should’ve taken more notice of before, when he could stop it, when he could protect this kid who was everything good in the world but was vulnerable and terrified and alone and thinking hollowly he’s right.
But no matter how many times he threw himself at the showman striding calmly after Peter, attempting to possess and to throw him off a roof or stab himself in the heart, he found he could not and Peter fell out the window and was cowering from shadows in broad daylight and his voice shook as he was deceived over and over and all the world was wrong.
And the train was coming.
“No, no, no no no nonono kid Peter please listen—“
He tried to stop him, to push his back from behind, but all he did was overshadow him right as they were hit.
In the rushing dizziness made infinitely worse by wind and noise and pain, Tony held onto Peter for dear life (Peter’s life, the dearest thing) though their fingers were slipping with blood and losing hold. He yelled out in the kid’s voice, pushing, climbing and wishing so sorely to use a ghost’s phasing ability that he did somehow and they were impossibly intangible for just a second before falling to the floor of the train’s interior in a crash of tangled souls.
Pain and pain, his neck and his face and his leg and his hands and a shower of black spots made the dark room darker— Peter was losing consciousness. Tony used the last shred of both their energy to stumble into a seat- better there than on the filthy floor where wounds would be infected- coughing weakly and the train window was rattling and their body weighed tons under the blackout that descended.
... what is this place ?
… is anyone else here?
(...where is here?)
Nothing and nothing and then
Tony and Peter stood across from one another.
“That’s you, right?” Tony said, pausing the holograph of Spider-Man stopping a carjacker right as his blurry masked face filled the screen.
Peter blinked. His arms fidgeted, folded. “Um, no. No, what are you, what are you—”
The man kept his gaze, interrupted with a knowing, “Yeah?”
“So...you’re the Spider-ling. Crime-fighting spider. You’re Spider-Boy?”
Such wide dark eyes stared up, reflecting the world, and Tony, and holding Tony’s world within them- another unfair weight put on this child. Those eyes watched, apprehensive, but then rolled with signature teenager-ness and Tony couldn’t believe such youth was in front of him as the kid corrected petulantly, “Spider-Man.”
They skirted around each other, unsure of how to act in this moment that was kind of like a job interview but also something that turned the universe. Everything seemed cast strangely in orange, like an old sepia photograph.
“Who else knows? Anybody?”
Because Peter Parker was constantly being made alone.
Is this a dream?
Tony knew what Peter was going to say next. He had replayed the words over and over again because he was haunted in many a quiet moment of self-reflection by the upside-down intensity of seasoned wisdom inside someone who was pure despite everything, viciously so:
“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t- and then the bad things happen...they happen because of you.”
It was the most childishly-worded explanation Tony had ever heard.
At the time he had broken eye contact, unable to fully comprehend why until later, and gone on with his intended business of recruiting a vigilante from Queens as that’s all this was supposed to be.
Rather than follow the script, Tony said, “You know my death wasn’t your fault, right?”
And instead of getting flustered about Germany and homework, Peter looked away, his face unsurprised as though this was how the conversation was supposed to go all along, and said softly, “I guess… Rationally, I do. It’s just, I keep thinking-- if I had said no…you might have found someone better and then—”
“If you had said no, I wouldn’t have recruited you but everything would’ve gone the same, minus your becoming a war veteran at age 16. That’s all that would change, kid.”
Unshed tears glistened, bright in the low light of his tiny bedroom as Peter looked up at him.
“I miss you, sir,” he whispered.
Peter was not the only one choking.
Tony said, “That’s okay, too.”
“Everyone expects so much but I’m just- I’m just a kid from Queens.”
The walls dissolved slowly with whiteness, until it was just Tony and Peter and blank space.
“You’re so much more than that.”
Blinding light. A flashlight in his face.
Tony blinked Peter’s eyes and grimaced. “Can you not—” he tried, but whoever was standing over them just spoke in a language he didn’t understand and gripped an arm to stand them up.
I don’t know what could happen if we’re like this for too long, bud , he thought, mind filled with the vivid memory turned conversation and what it could mean. So I’ll let you be you again but I’m not going anywhere.
When the ghost left the boy, they both blacked out once more and this time it was to dreamlessness.
Peter was awake before Tony was but they both had plenty of time to keep each other company in the warm pastels of a wide empty tulip field.
For the three hours it took Happy to get a quinjet to the Netherlands, Peter grieved.
It was what had been backed up in him all this time, all these eight months of waiting. It was the cause of the recklessness, the moods, the fake smiles- it had been smothered and smothered until it was unable to be smothered any longer.
Happy would get the tail end, would see the resulting red eyes and the edge of hysteria and would offer the comforting words needed...but Tony, helpless and unhelpful, was there through it all.
He was there when Peter dug fingers into the roots of his scalp and rocked back-and-forth on the damp earth crying, “I hate you. I h-hate you. I hate you, Mr. Stark—” a sobbing string of curses— “how could you leave me ?” He was there through the long stretch of time where the kid cried so hard he choked and vomited among the flowers. He was there when Peter wiped his own tears away and then blinded himself looking into the sun and telling whatever listened with a voice of hoarseness, “It should’ve been me. Mom and Dad, and Ben, and now Tony— I just- I wish it were me instead. Can I trade? I wanna trade. Please, let me.”
He was there, but all the while he wished to turn away and hide from it, to sink into the ground with his body a thousand miles away the way a dead person seemingly should.
Instead he whispered over and over again, “I’m so sorry, Peter. I’m so, so sorry.”
Denial to anger to bargaining to depression to—
“I don’t think Tony would’ve done what he did if he didn’t know you were gonna be here after he was gone.”
—the tentative blooming of acceptance.
Happy spoke nothing but truth. It had the effect of salve on wounds.
And Tony thought, watching Peter reappear like the sun after a storm with excitement over the prospect of making a suit all his own, Maybe I shouldn’t interrupt this after all…?
(There was still time to delete the video from Peter’s laptop.)
Despite the pain of it, all he said was, “‘Led Zeppelin,’ kid? Really? You gonna make me roll over in my grave like this?”
And then he settled in, nervous beyond all description but bursting with pride all the same to watch the resilience personified that was Peter Parker come into his own at last.
The thing about illusion-Beck was, he had no aura. While he had his green gas clouding him, it wasn’t the musty red Tony saw on him in person. One he realized this it became clear to his ghost eyes which versions of him were fake and which was real and it made shorting out drones alongside Peter with his electric manipulating abilities a whole lot of fun. He held nothing back in doing so and in cheering unheard praise and taunts at Spider-Man and Mysterio respectively.
“You can’t trick me anymore,” Peter said, Beck’s wrist gripped in his hand.
The kid waited until EDITH’s confirmation of reality to break into a bout of violent trembling and post-adrenaline-rush shock. His new suit was completely shredded but Tony was going to do his ghostly best to be sure Peter lived plenty long and full enough to make as many of his own “Marks” as he wanted with his tech— 2 through 80 or more.
“Easy, kid,” Tony said, holding his arms out as though he could steady him, “You’ve been through a lot, just—”
Because Peter was looking at him.
Or...in his direction at least. His eyes were searching the space Tony’s soul inhabited.
Tony did not move. “...Kid?” Did this- was this—
Peter shook his head sharply, looking away.
“You’re spazzing, Peter-Tingle,” he muttered, wiping at the blood under his nose.
Peter and MJ sat side-by-side on the plane ride back.
Tony occupied an empty seat a row behind them, half giving them privacy, half listening in on their quiet whispering. At this distance he could still kinda hear Peter’s lovesick thoughts (can she tell my hands are super sweaty? oh gosh...did I remember deodorant today—) even as silence fell over the two and they calmed down. Watching a movie or something else with the kid’s special headphones, maybe.
“What’s that?” MJ’s voice asked, and Tony peered around to see.
The note in Peter’s hand, in Tony’s handwriting. Kid was smoothing it with a thumb on the knee of his jeans but startled with the attention. He cupped it shyly so she could read the words:
I’m always here for you.
“It’s…uh, it’s a note from Mr. Stark,” Peter said softly. “...I think, I mean- I don’t remember when he gave it to me, but May might’ve slipped it in my stuff. She does stuff like that.”
MJ took this in before asking slowly, “And he called you ‘underoos’ because...”
Tony smirked as Peter went red, saying, “It’s because- listen, don’t laugh, it’s because of the very first suit I made to- you know. When he saw it, he called it a ‘onesie’, and ‘cuz I was young or whatever, and he never let the joke go.”
The girl accepted that but didn’t quite oblige his request not to laugh— it was in her eyes. Tony liked her. She then said, somewhat randomly, “Do you know the Emperor’s Seed story?”
Peter blinked. “The what?”
“The Emperor’s Seed, it’s a Chinese folk tale, kinda.”
“Is it super depressing or hilarious?”
She tilted her head at him, saying, “No, you eavesdropper. It’s one of the few things I like unironically. Like ice cream. And pit bulls.”
“Oh…” Peter made a face like he wasn’t sure what the right reaction to this ought to be, but tentatively he tried, “Tell me about it?”
Tony listened in as she did so...increasingly understanding the reason for it:
“So basically… there’s an emperor who has no kids of his own to take the throne after him, but he knows he’s gotta pick someone for when he’s gone, right? And he issues this, like, competition to the kids in the kingdom: everyone gets one seed and whoever can grow the most impressive plants out of it will become the new heir.”
“How does that—“
“And there’s this one kid who tries everything he can to get his seed to sprout but it doesn’t, not for the entire year til they show up to be judged on their plants. All the other kids have these super big or super pretty plants, but this loser just has an empty pot. Turns out, the emperor had boiled all the seeds he handed out so none of them were gonna grow anyway- he just wanted to see which kid had the integrity to show up even feeling like a loser. And it was only one. Everyone else switched their seeds out to look good.”
She paused, then nailed at Peter with a look of suggestion. “And the one kid who thought he failed ended up being the next king.”
Peter pressed his lips together, laid his head back against the seat. “Did the kid have to take the throne right away or what?” he asked.
“Story doesn’t say,” MJ shrugged. “Just says the emperor was getting old and that kid was who he trusted most, young or not.”
Her fingers laid atop his and gave a light squeeze.
“I think he was ready to rule, even if he didn’t know it. Even if he was a loser. A loser so honest, he was probably really obvious about his secrets too.”
Peter cracked a wry smile. “Boh.”
Some warning would’ve been nice but then, Tony’s been used to not getting what’s nice for a minute or two.
Peter had barely unpacked after getting home— it really didn’t take long, because as May had pointed out, much of his stuff got destroyed— before collapsing and sleeping in a motionless lump for 12 hours straight. It was now around 3AM and because of jet lag he lay sprawled on his bed, idly eating a banana and chatting with EDITH (this kid and his ability to make genuine friends with his AIs…it’s...not unlike Tony himself if he’s honest, but for Peter because of an ability to make friends with anything where for Tony it was inability to do the same). Tony was pleased to see that the visible cuts and scrapes were healing up nicely and, at least for now, he seemed to be free of shellshock. Not that that meant he was out of the woods for good. He just deserved at least one day of normality.
(Tony supposed Peter was used to not getting what’s nice for a minute or two himself.)
“EDITH, are you and the other AI’s siblings? Do you get together for like birthdays and stuff?”
“I suppose we could be considered as such, though ‘getting together’ would be difficult seeing as very few computers can handle more than one of our systems running simultaneously.”
“Oh. That’s cool. I’ve always been an only child. People say it makes you more spoiled but I’ve seen Ned’s sister and I don’t think I was ever that bossy. Karen told me once—“
Tony, overhearing, rolled his eyes fondly.
He was in the other room, curiously watching that Tony Stark documentary he caught sight of on Netflix via May’s computer left on and open to manipulation from electric ghosts (silent and with the captions on, of course). So far the facts were pretty well-checked, if presented in a cringey format. How did they even throw this together so fast? he wondered, and then a clip of Pepper Potts being interviewed came on screen and amusement died in a swell of something exactly like homesickness.
Her face in the video was composed and lovely and awe-inspiring as a poem. He almost turned on the sound just to hear her voice again. What was she doing right now? Was she still at the lake house, or did she move back to the city? Knowing her, she’d want to be up and about, active with the Orphanage and in Blip aide efforts… he did see her name on that check, after all. She’d be shredded inside from loss but she’d also be holding it together, systematically processing grief like a checklist and converting the hurt into forward movement, getting stronger all the while. Pepper Potts-Stark was the eighth Natural Wonder of the world.
Tony decided swiftly that he had to see her in person. In other words, he had to get Peter to visit.
It was a goal, when he phased back into the kid’s room, no real plans formed. His mind was still away with Pepper when he said, “Hey, kid, what is our itinerary for the rest of summer because I was thinking-”
He didn’t get to say what he was thinking. What he was thinking flew straight into oblivion when Peter slammed back against the wall as if struck.
Tony spun to look at him, alarmed.
Peter was looking back—
Not just in his general direction—
His gaze was raking Tony up and down, converse to cat shirt to goatee and ultimately to a crash landing on his face with eye contact that was infectious in its terror—
And it was so unexpected that Tony didn’t comprehend the obvious right away.
“What’s wrong?” Tony asked, looking around himself frantically, searching for the threat. “Kid, what’s-- is it me? Am I doing a new weird thing I don’t know about? I’m inflicting ghostly terror or something aren’t I, oh great, I’ll- I’m gonna—”
Peter’s chest was rising and falling rapidly, his mouth open and gaping but as Tony stepped quickly toward the door, he jerked out, “W-wait!”
Tony froze. A silent staring on both parties ensued, as the embers of hope made a treacherous appearance in Tony’s chest and Peter made no further move.
“...Kid?” Tony dared.
The word was tentative but it still had the effect of a slap- Peter flinched behind the glasses. But he didn’t look away and after a long moment of staring and processing on both sides he said, voice small,
“EDITH… am I asleep? Is this a dream?”
Tony heard the AI respond, “You slept for eleven hours and thirty-eight minutes completing a total of six REM cycles and have now been awake for forty-five minutes.”
A swallow. “You sure?”
“I am sure, Peter.”
Tony tried again, “Pete, I’m--”
He was interrupted almost desperately: “Is- is there another person in this room besides me?”
EDITH replied, “You and your aunt are the only life sources in this apartment.”
Peter’s face fell, drawing into himself even as he was looking and looking at Tony’s face like he physically could not look away.
“Then my brain is messed up. I’m imagining things. Y-you said- Beck is gone, there’s no other way...”
Whatever served as Tony’s heart within this form trembled. After all this time, why now? Why all of a sudden? Why after Peter had just defeated a guy who specialized in illusions of all things—
“I can do a psychological evaluation if you like, Peter. However it may be of worth to note that there is a disturbance in the electrical field in front of you: an anomaly commonly associated with spectrology.”
Peter’s eyes widened- EDITH seemingly outlining Tony’s form in a representation of said anomaly. Slowly he reached with both hands...removing the glasses and appearing short-circuited by the fact that Tony was still there when he looked with bare eyes.
Not knowing what else to do as the silence stretched and both appeared to be waiting for the other to decide, Tony slowly took a seat on the floor. He wet his lips and tried to be careful as he summoned up his voice- this moment was tenuous, barely lit by the desk lamp and heavily silent save for occasional cars outside because it was 3AM still, a problematic time to ask for belief in the unbelievable.
“Hey, bud. I’m guessing you can see me and- and hear me too, right?”
Peter nodded despite being tense, untrusting still. Tony counted it a blessing and reigned in his excitement, though he couldn’t help but smile, laugh breathily even as he said,
“Crap, kid, I can’t imagine how much I just scared you. Sorry for that. It’s just I’ve been, you don’t know how much- I’ve been hoping for this? Didn’t necessarily think it would happen with you suddenly seeing me out of the blue, but...let’s make it count in case it goes away, yeah? Peter, I’m- it’s me. It’s really me. I’ve been here as Casper all along, can you believe that?” He obliged sticking one transparent arm through the wall to validate this. “Very hard on my ego to not be seen or heard, let me tell you. It’s an anvil of a thing to swallow but I can prove it if you like, give you information the same way Happy did to prove he wasn’t fake by the jet. Like- here, let’s see…”
The little speech- whether its sound or its content or both- seemed to be having an effect; Peter’s face was gentling, fear ebbing like ripples dying out in a pond. Tony continued, this small encouragement lending to his own anxieties and to faster, choppier speech:
“Uh, how about- the other night, before your group left London, I watched you pour not three, not four, but five packets of sugar into your Starbucks. And then proceed to practice a British accent with Ned all night long, giggling with your beds pushed together like literal toddlers. What was it, a travel journal you two were working on? I mean, I’m glad you bounce back fast but you were supposed to be resting from a final boss level showdown at the time, kid. Good grief.”
Peter’s face began folding in on itself—
“Or does that not count as proof because it’s something anyone watching could know? In that case, here’s something only you and me know: About a month before your little field trip to MOMA that ended up not even happening— which, now that I’m thinking about it, you have really bad luck with field trips, don’t you? Let’s try not to do those from now on. Anyway— about a month before, you and me took our cover-up internship photoshoot. We had lunch afterwards just the two of us and we got ham and swiss subs and you told me about the stray dog you’d found on patrol and named ‘Sandwich’ of all things.”
But at the same time his mouth was upturning—
“Though if you want really solid evidence, I’ll let you in on something only I know so you can fact check it and know it’s from me: there were two days every year for the duration of the so-called ‘Blip’ that never went unobserved at the lakehouse. The first was Pepper and my anniversary, duh; but the second was your birthday. I’d order that cookies-and-cream ice cream cake you like and have kids from the Orphanage over and show Star Wars on a projector on the lawn after dark and generally pretend I wasn’t, you know, depressed out of my mind. Ask Pep if you don’t believe me. There was one other anniversary- the one of the Snap— though that one was more about getting blackout-level drunk and having meltdowns at the sight of dust of any kind, so...not exactly a celebration.”
Tony smiled wanly and took a transitional breath. “The bottom line of all this painfully awkward word-vomit is that I really, really, really missed you, kid. Can I also say, it’s really weird to be the one rambling right now? If I remember correctly, that was usually your part in this relationship, so if you could just- say something- that’d be great.”
Peter breathed out like a gust of wind. It was like a cry without noise, happy and pained at the same time in the way it emphasized both the smile on his face and the shining of his eyes.
He said, “Mr. Stark?”
“I love you.”
Tony’s heart felt wrapped in barbs. “I love you too, bud. Sorry it took this long to say.”
Shuffling forward, Peter admitted, “I’m still not sure if this is real but I- I want it to be.”
Heaven knew this boy deserved to keep something he wanted for once. “Don’t worry about it. We have time to figure things out, I think.”
“Can I- can I touch you?”
Tony winced. “Doubtful- I can’t really touch anything. It’s part of the ghost gig.”
Disappointment, then scientific curiosity entered Peter’s expression. He lowered himself to the floor across from Tony, a felt blanket pulled behind him and pooling around his shoulders as he studied his mentor. “So...you’re really a ghost.”
“I really am.”
“That’s… wow. What is it like? Do you think you’d show up on an EMF reader? Talk through an EVP recorder?”
“This isn’t Buzzfeed Unsolved, kid,” Tony said. Then considered. “But actually, maybe. Maybe.”
“Are you haunting anyone?”
He grinned. “ Am I… How long you got?”
Luckily, Peter had all night.
Tony started from the beginning- waking up at his funeral- but skipped over the depressing bits as best he could for Peter’s sake, avoiding using the word dead in relation to himself and keeping private how he’d seen close-up the grieving of his friends and family and Peter in specific. He described the auras around living things and the shades and wisps of other dead spirits (not mentioning Ben just yet because again, he wanted this to be as light a retelling as possible and couldn’t know how Peter would react), and how he figured out that he could mess with electricity and hear thoughts. Peter made him display this by influencing the nanobot charger holding the Iron Spider suit, then by repeating aloud random phrases Peter said in his mind, much to the kid’s delight. He revealed how he hadn’t left Peter’s side once since his afterlife began: if he even got too far away he would pop back to Peter’s location somehow, and this made them both quiet— the truth of Tony’s omnipresence added a new dimension to Peter’s adventures that clearly made the kid rethink things. Excitement was elicited again, however, when he brought up the bank robber’s heist and revealed why and how Peter had ended up in a back alley in the blink of an eye.
“Are you serious?” Peter gaped. “That’s- that’s kind of terrifying, Mr. Stark.”
“I know, I know, I promise not to possess anymore except in cases of emergencies.”
“No way! Can you think of the pranks we can pull with this? Like, if you possessed Brad—”
It was brought up how Robo-Brad probably suffered enough having a missile aimed at him; Peter got sheepish and red-eared that Tony knew as much, but muttered about “how was I supposed to know calling something a target would immediately launch space weapons” to which Tony countered, “try listening to the user instructions EDITH would happily have explained to you, maybe?” Maybe he did overdesign, but...there was no such thing as “overboard” when it came to protection measures for this kid, that was proven more and more.
He continued retelling up to the present, saying only about the events with Mysterio that he was there for the duration of everything, and this made Peter’s expression go neutral.
Then Tony said, “I can’t believe all that was put on you so soon after coming back, kid. That wasn’t right, and I could tell you were under way too much pressure. You should know that...the note Fury gave you with EDITH? I didn’t mean- I don’t want you to be another me. Iron Man is what the world used to need, but it’s got something better in— what? What’s wrong with you?”
He couldn’t finish because Peter surprised him by laughing. The kid pressed his lips repentantly like he hadn’t meant to let it out, though his eyes still sparkled.
“Sorry, it’s just really good to hear you say that,” he said, looking down with a small smile. A tear slipped down his face. His chin wobbled. “It’s- it’s been a long eight months without you, Mr. Stark.”
Tony didn’t care that he knew every bit of Peter’s eight months; he was one hundred percent genuine when he said, matter-of-factly,
“Well...I wanna hear all about it.”
So Peter told him.
The first thing the kid did, when he woke up after noon the next day in a pile of blankets on the floor, was sit up and look around wildly, hair askew and eyes wide. When he saw Tony sitting at the desk with his feet kicked up, relief flooded his face.
“You’re still here,” he breathed.
Tony had to admit he felt the same calming of nerves: “You can still see me.”
Peter laughed, flopping tiredly back on his blanket nest and closing his eyes. He stayed like that for another fifteen minutes or so, then groggily stirred enough to roll over and climb to his feet. Before heading to the restroom he halted and pointed at Tony, pulling the man’s attention.
“Stay. There,” he commanded unsurely, like Tony was an unpredictable dog.
Tony raised an eyebrow.
Peter nodded to himself then continued, shutting the door behind him.
When he came back ten minutes later, looking much more awake with hair wet on his forehead and a toothbrush in his mouth, his eyes were anxious until they caught sight of Tony again and crinkled happily.
“‘Ou’re still ‘ere,” he said again, mouth full of toothpaste.
May was on the couch looking over some paperwork when Peter went out for breakfast, Tony following, and here a new revelation came: May, apparently, did not see or hear Tony. That or she was being remarkably calm about a dead man walking in her kitchen.
So that answered that: it was, as ever, only Peter.
It saved Tony from having to hand out more explanations, but it would no doubt make Peter’s sanity questionable in the long run if he kept looking at empty air and whispering conversation to himself the way he couldn’t seem to stop from doing now even as his aunt cast odd glances his way. The radio was on and hopefully covered the more incriminating nonsense coming from the kid’s mouth as he poked at a cereal bowl on the counter.
For example: “Hey, why didn’t I get to be a ghost?”
“Kid.” Tony was whispering, if only to encourage Peter to do the same. “Why do you like to remind me of things that I hate.”
Peter peered up, only slightly apologetic. “I just mean- all I remember from the Blip was the- the leaving and then the coming back. No in-between time. It’s the same for everyone, I think.”
“Are you talking to me, hon?” May called.
“No, sorry, I’m just, uh- I’m watching something on my phone,” Peter said over his shoulder, then turned back and brought his voice even lower. “No, really, why wouldn’t it—”
A knock on the front door interrupted. The three of them looked up- Tony at Peter and Peter at May and May at the door.
May answered it.
“Peter?” she called a moment later. “You’ve got a visitor, mister man.”
Please, please tell me she didn’t just call me that in front of MJ , Peter thought, standing and hurriedly brushing his fingers over his shirt, through his hair.
“What, it isn’t cool to be babied in front of your girlfriend?” Tony snickered, and knocked an intangible hand through the kid’s shoulder. Peter started.
“You know, the chills I’ve been getting lately make a lot of sense now,” Peter hissed, rubbing the spot on his arm and glaring back on his way to the door. “And no reading my mind without permission!” Tony just rolled his eyes and came along, curious.
It was not MJ standing in the doorframe of the Parker’s apartment.
It was, in fact, Stephen Strange.
“Oh,” said Peter, at the same time Tony said, “Long time no see, Dumbledoor.”
Stephen, like May, took no notice of Tony. He was dressed in street clothes, hands casually in pockets, and had the perfectly mild look on his face that seemed to be his norm. Cool as the forest green aura that surrounded him. His head inclined with interest when he laid eyes on Peter.
“Doctor Strange,” Peter said, blinking like this was the last person he expected, despite having the ghost of Tony Stark at his back. “Um...hi! Do you- how’ve you been? It’s been-”
“Yes, hi,” Stephen dismissed distractedly. To May he said, “I’ll have him back before dark.”
Tony had had a suspicion growing for awhile now.
“You’re not dead the way most dead people are”— he felt that.
As he made up a trio of ghost, wizard and super-powered teenager, he felt it acutely.
“What do you know about the soul stone, Peter?” Stephen said. It was the first he had spoken since they began down the streets outside the apartment ten minutes ago, and Peter’s already nervous aura buzzed at the question from where he skittered at the man’s side.
“Uh, it’s one of the space rocks— I mean, the infinity stones— right? I don’t really know what they are, no one ever told me. Just that they’re the ones Thanos used to…right?”
They turned abruptly and came upon a park bench that was surprisingly secluded from the rest of the street, obscured as it was by a broken wall-- probably broken from some past battle and yet to be repaired. Stephen indicated for Peter to take a seat and he did so, sitting on his hands and glancing from Stephen to Tony. The sorcerer was looking back as if to make sure they were really alone, so Peter whispered, “Can you hear what he’s thinking?”
Tony looked at Strange and realized he actually could not. He shrugged, “He’s probably gonna tell us anyway,” and before sitting beside Peter, shooed off a wisp that was drifting a bit too close.
“What was that?”
“Wisp. One of the floaty spirits I told you about. You can’t see those too?”
“What, no! What does it—”
Stephen cleared his throat, making them realize he had turned back. He was eyeing Peter suspiciously. “Conversing with yourself?”
“Who pulls out ‘conversing’? Just say ‘talking’ like a normal person, yeesh.”
“Um,” Peter said, rubbing his neck in seeming concentration on who he should and shouldn’t respond to. “Yes?”
Strange said, “So it wouldn’t happen to be that the spirit of Tony Stark is sitting there next to you.”
Peter and Tony both froze. Stephen smirked with one corner of his mouth.
“Eh, not surprised,” Tony said after the shock of it died down. He crossed his legs and put his arms over the back of the bench. “Tell him I say he’s still a pretentious showpony.”
Peter did so hesitantly.
“And he’s still a bit chalky, it seems. Credit where it is due, however: he has my thanks and my respect for what he did. It was the only choice to save the universe, but only he could make it.”
Tony saw Peter’s jaw clench.
“Listen, Dr. Strange,” he said, closing his eyes and putting his hands out like he could reign in the turns this conversation had taken. “I think you’re really cool and stuff, but what’s- what are you- do you think we could get to the point? I’ve had kind of a long week. Does...does Mr. Stark being here have something to do with the soul stone? Is it part of the reason he can only be around me?”
Stephen appraised him, the boy he had once mistaken for Tony’s ward, with the gaze of a teacher made recently aware of a star pupil in their class. Without a word he turned, opened a sparking portal in the air, and stepped through, motioning for them to come along. Tony couldn’t help but think of the last time he’d seen these portals- seen Peter come through one of these portals...face glowing like the sun, untouched by time or death. Not like the world he returned to.
“Pretentious showpony,” he repeated quietly, and though Peter cracked a small smile, he looked unsettled as they followed the sorcerer.
The cool, clean air of Tony’s lake house met them on the other side of Strange’s portal. Bees hummed in the afternoon sunshine, the flowers were overpowering and these along with the gentle sounds of water running and trees swaying struck in their stark inversion of dirty New York streets. It was almost stunning to be back— the overgrown grass and dandelions showed him that Pepper had not been keeping up the landscape nor did she live there currently. Likely it was still privately owned land and always would be, but it would ultimately be what it had started out as: a monument to isolation.
And now, the final resting place of Tony’s burnt body...because wasn’t that right that he too should be at least half ashes in the end?
Peter didn’t seem to think so, as the horror on his face registered: they were standing at the edge of the stone marked “Anthony Edward Stark: 1970-2023”, and it was polished marble and tasteful engravings but in the kid’s mind, Tony glimpsed a crumbling gray tomb in a field of graves— his skeletal body half clad in decaying armor crawling out toward him. It was macabre, and Tony gaped even after Peter pushed the thought away with some effort, blinking rapidly.
The three of them sat cross-legged in the grass, but only two bent the stalks under them.
“At the dawn of the universe, there was nothing,” Strange began. It was a story Tony’d heard before, so he simply watched Peter’s face until the words became new information:
“Among the infinity stones, Soul holds a special place; a wisdom if you will. While it is speculated that the others are sentient, it is almost certainly true of Soul. For a time it was kept on a planet called Vormir under watch of a Stonekeeper fated to guard what he could never have, and granted only to any who would exchange the life of a loved one. How this came to be or why is unknown, even to me, even in all my research. I say research, because as you may know, it was recently obtained and used by the time travel efforts of the Avengers; what you do not know is that it was returned to me by Steve Rogers and is still in my possession.”
He pushed aside the long grass at the foot of the headstone and revealed that laying there like a nugget of gold in the dirt, was a walnut-sized orange jewel. It winked at them in the sunlight.
“Uh, wasn’t that thing supposed to be taken back with the others? So we didn’t mess up the time lines and whatnot?” Tony questioned. Looking at it, the stone filled him with a queasy sort of energy and also...familiarity. Its closeness resonated in something.
“Mr. Stark wants to know why it wasn’t put back in time,” Peter relayed.
Strange nodded, “It was taken for such. However, once obtained, the stone can be used by whoever holds it. It is not precisely known what Soul does for a user, but enemy hands may well find a way to use it problematically— and that is what the Stonekeeper was, according to the Captain. While the other five stones were needed in their particular times and places...I saw no reason this one couldn’t remain. And it appears that was the will of Soul itself after all— it’s made that clear to me. I have some experience in handling infinity stones, you see; they have a sort of language.”
The sorcerer closed his eyes, hands clasped over his knees. “And now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the two of you.” Peter did nothing but wait earnestly, and Tony did not prompt him, so after a pause Strange opened his eyes and looked from Peter to the tomb of Tony Stark.
“From what I can tell,” he said, “Soul fixates on relationships of love and sacrifice. Is fascinated with them, even. ‘Soul for a soul’ is its chosen means of earning loyalty after all. That, and it can read the memories, the emotions, attributes, et cetera of the soul by proximity. Peter, yours was one of the souls the stone suspended five years ago and it that time it knew you; Tony, you were a user of the stone and gave everything to keep Peter and the rest of the universe safe from Thanos’ attack. The stone recognized this…and I can only guess it decided you were an impressive match. You mentioned that Stark can’t leave your side, Peter; is anything else connected between you?”
Peter blinked, looking a little overwhelmed. He said slowly, “Well…I’m the only one who can see him now. And Mr. Stark said he can hear my thoughts, and, like, overshadow me sometimes— but that’s a thing he can do with everyone since being a ghost, right, Mr. Stark?”
As it was said… Tony realized: it was only Peter. It had only been Peter all along. He had tried to take over Mysterio to stop his attack and it hadn’t worked. And he hadn’t noticed not being able to hear anyone’s thoughts but Peter’s until today.
He said as much and Peter repeated it.
“As I thought,” Strange approved. “The stone has been trying to tell me something since coming into my possession, and I only now realized what it wanted and followed through: last night, I brought and placed it here, on the earth where Tony Stark’s body lays.”
“And last night is when I was able to see him for the first time,” Peter realized. He was jiggling a leg, fidgeting with the blades of grass under his fingers, and Tony wished to put a calming hand on his shoulder for both their sakes.
“Precisely,” said Stephen. “I had my theory, having been around you two before, and having seen a future wherein Stark would be motivated to do what’s necessary for the restoration of your life, Peter. And it seems to be correct: the stone is amplifying him, allowing him to remain with you. To what end, I’m not sure...but here we are.”
They went quiet then, all looking at the stone. A tiny thing, for so much meddling. Warm breezes blowing waves across the field was all to be heard for a long moment as information sunk in and stirred with possibilities.
“Here we are,” Tony repeated. “So…”
“What now?” Peter finished, meeting his mentor’s eye sideways.
Strange sighed. “Now...now I think you’d best talk to the stone yourselves.”
Peter said, “Talk to it? Like… just talk? Out loud?”
“Sure, why not,” Tony muttered. “Talking to rocks: the epitome of what my legacy has boiled down to.”
But Stephen clarified, “No, not the way you and I talk. Stark’s done it before, though I don’t know if he recalls because there was admittedly a lot going on— that moment he commanded all six and asked them to get rid of Thanos’ army. You will both need to touch the soul stone at the same time, and then… see what happens.”
Peter bleated a nervous laugh, like the end statement was a joke. It didn’t seem to be. Before Tony could voice his concern, the wizard beat him to it: “It won’t hurt you. Anyone whose soul was taken in the first Snap has met the soul-for-soul requirement. Whenever you’re both ready…”
Tony knew right away he was going to do it. If whatever was going on really involved Peter’s soul, that worried him instinctively and he wanted to learn the details.
When he met the kid’s eyes, about to assure him that Peter didn’t have to do it too, he stopped short: determination strong as flint in brown irises looked back and Tony knew Peter’s decision was no different. He didn’t have to read his thoughts.
He weaved a dead hand through Peter’s live one. Peter took a sharp breath in.
And together they touched the Soul Stone.
It was almost like the sensation of overshadowing… there was a head rush, the topsy-turvy feeling of the world spinning wildly like a top—
Then a world of glass. Still.
The sky was the color of wildfire smoke, its hazy orange clouds reflected in pools stretching as far as the eye could see. The air was neither warm nor cool, it was neither dark not light; it was a place seemingly nondescript and yet old and new, familiar and foreign at the same time. Being there felt like the quiet aching of rest inside oneself after a long day, or like looking into a star-filled sky or out at the ocean and pondering eternity, or being extremely thirsty and then taking a long, satisfying drink of water. It was nostalgic. It was anonymous.
It was unlike anything Tony Stark had ever experienced.
“Hello?” Peter’s voice crackled, echoed.
Tony spun and there was the kid with his back to Tony, having not noticed him yet. “I’m here, bud,” Tony said, approaching, and Peter whirled just as fast to look at him, eyes wide.
“Where…?” he wondered. Tony just shook his head, squinting as he looked around.
Even though they were seeing and hearing… nothing felt physical. It was deeper than that.
Tony started, not sure where his name had come from. He knew he’d been addressed, and yet—
—they weren’t being named in the conventional way. Peter met his eyes and the epiphany seemed to dawn on them together:
It was a backwards language- where normally, hearing words spoken would result in meaning, whatever this was gave first the feelings, which then could be traced back to tangible words. Unlike spoken sentences, which were flimsy bridges to shared meaning and open to hundreds of different interpretations, this was direct in its intention: it was soul-to-soul communication.
Tony jumped slightly when his hand was grabbed; he barely had time to register that Peter had reached for him and hadn’t gone through, though, because the reverse-language came again...
Now see, this phrase said aloud could mean anything; it could mean ‘time for an explanation’, or ‘time to ask questions’...either of which would have been welcomed. But, there was no need for clarification here.
The accompanying feelings were those of saying goodbye.
The stone meant, it’s time to go. It meant, it’s time for Peter to keep living. It meant, it’s time for Tony to pass on.
Peter’s hand shook in Tony’s but his fingers gripped tighter still as his mouth fell open.
“But...why?” he said, sounding like a kitten.
Because it is the price he paid. I have given you this much time back...I am giving you this opportunity now.
(This is the natural order of things. This is what will happen whether it’s accepted or not. This is what it means to love another person: to let them go, even when it feels like dying.)
“Peter,” Tony said softly. His hand untangled from the kid’s and instead took his arms and faced him. They had been in this place only for minutes, realistically, but it felt somehow lengthened into hours or days in the way every unnecessary thing was sloughed away. Things were magnified. The understanding was magnified…and they knew.
Both had done their grieving before now. There wasn’t denial or anger or any of that.
It was just hard. It was just hard.
Peter said, “I...I hope they have cheeseburgers, wherever you go next. And AC/DC music...Happy told me that’s what that band was.”
Tony said, “You’re gonna help so many people, buddy. And you’re gonna have so much fun you won’t believe it.”
In a way, he didn’t even feel scared anymore. He didn’t feel sad that he wouldn’t see Peter become an adult because he was busy being happy that someone would get to.
And Peter was busy being happy because Tony was happy.
So they embraced.
And the glass world fell away.
Tony opened his eyes.
“Hmm, yes… I thought that might happen.”
Sunlight blinded him and he blinked against it- Stephen Strange’s smug face was there, smiling, just a few feet away. The rest of him was obscured by a curly-haired head burrowed in Tony’s collar bone, and this led to the realization that someone was hugging him— someone short, but not so short as they used to be, and who was gripping Tony’s middle with unchecked super-strength because his lungs spasmed and his bones creaked.
His lungs. His bones. His body.
Peter stepped back and Tony couldn’t help gasping for a much-needed breath— his first.
One week wasn’t much when the average person lived to see about 3,700 of them, give or take. One week could easily fly by without being noticed. Some people collected empty weeks by the handful, either by obsessing too much about the past or worrying too much about the future.
If you were particularly productive though...you could really fit a lot into one week.
For example, you could make a life-changing discovery. Such as the fact that a really, really, really obnoxious space rock might say it’s about to send you to the great beyond, when in reality it’s all a freaking test, and when you make the right choice and pass, voila! Your reward is something you absolutely were not expecting nor preparing for, either in the short term temporally or the long term emotionally. At least you’ve got friends at your side, right? Too bad one of them talks in self-satisfied riddles and the other is a teenager running circles around you in unrestrained mania.
And that was just Day One.
By the end of his day one of his first week of being alive again, Tony Stark had learned these things:
- Space rocks are a pain, but handy when they feel like it.
- This space rock had decided, according to Strange, that Tony was its new keeper.
- It was really good to be alive.
He was pretty certain of that last one, especially when the aforementioned teenager, having refused to leave his side all day in a sudden reversal of roles, fell asleep in a warm weight on his shoulder during a showing of A New Hope in the lake house living room (because why not). His aunt was called and told he wouldn’t actually be home by dark. Not the reason why though, not yet— that was for day two.
There was also time very early in the week to invite one Pepper Potts-Stark into the Parkers’ living room and explain, as carefully as one could, how the life-changing discovery came about and what result it had. Tony waited with his heart in his throat until Strange and Peter called him in, and then his wife was all he could see. It didn’t take long for her to overcome the fact that she was no longer a widow. Not long at all.
And later, when Strange magic-ed them all into Pepper’s New York penthouse, it turned out she had a surprise of her own—of the non-supernatural variety—in the form of a tiny brown-haired girl who came running out to meet them.
“Morgan!” Pepper said in surprise, seeming unprepared to explain either the girl’s presence to those stepping out a portal behind her, nor the latter to the former. “Where’s Happy? Isn’t he supposed to be watching you while—”
“He’s on the phone,” the little girl interrupted factually, immediately giving the impression that she was a very knowing child. Her amber eyes peered at every face in the room and then went wide on one.
With a delighted “Mr. Tony!” as the only warning, she launched herself at the newly-alive man. He caught and lifted her like it was something he’d done before, but his gaze was on Pepper and it was full of questions. He managed to keep a level child-directed tone with her until the opportunity to say, “Hey Magoona, this is my friend Peter. Wanna show him around?” came, and off bounded one kid pulling the other by his hand.
“No family came to claim her,” Pepper explained quietly, as they were sitting at the kitchen table while Strange made tea. “She was- well, you know she was so little when her parents died…” and Tony nodded, remembering Nat’s report of a crushed vehicle, the other car driverless from dusting and this one carrying a dead couple, there a miraculously still-crying baby in the back. It felt like fate that her name, according to records located, was Morgan.
She continued, “Every other child has either been taken home or settled with relatives, but after a month of waiting, Morgan had to go into foster care. She...wasn’t adjusting well. She had so many friends at the orphanage, and when I checked up on her, her caretakers told me her best days were when I visited. So, I- I got legal guardianship.” She cleared her throat and gave a smile that was part wince. “I thought...if I was alone, and she was alone, we may as well have each other.”
The noises of Morgan introducing Peter to her stuffed animals one by one and Peter’s enthusiastic greetings to each floated down the hall. Tony never thought a few sound waves could make the entire universe feel so complete, and his soul felt like a kite.
“Let’s all have each other then.”
Thus by day two, he went from having no body, no voice, and no idea what was going on to having all three plus his wife, a daughter and a future with them.
That was when Happy strode in, saying something about the security not notifying him of Pepper’s return (magic portal probably wasn’t registered) and what is everyone and their dog doing here— and then stopping short, eyes popping out of his skull at the sight of who exactly sat there, quite alive and with a mug of tea in hand.
Explanations resumed. Near heart-attacks were recovered from. And talking and eating and generally having an inconceivably good time in each other’s presence took up the rest of the evening.
When Morgan was in bed, Stephen off to his layer, Happy gone and Peter finally forced to give up following Tony’s heels like a guard puppy in favor of going home to May (“Trust me, kid: you don’t know it but you deserve a bit of time off from me, you really do”)...Pepper and Tony got re-acquainted.
When he could stop kissing her, he said, “So… how much longer is the lease on this place? Think we could get outta here anytime soon?”
The lease was flexible with persuasion. And an empty apartment down the hall from the Parker’s had a moving van outside it not long after…not until day five, though.
In the meantime, Tony had a phrase from Stephen rolling around in his head and it had a lot to do with the tiny weight in his pocket (he had yet to determine a more secure carrying method): “It is not precisely known what the Soul Stone does for a user.”
Shades and wisps and auras had disappeared once more from his vision, he no longer phased or affected electricity, but in quiet moments Tony still felt a lingering sense of the superordinary within him that sourced back to the orange stone he carried, just waiting to reveal itself in full.
On his fourth night, he dreamed that he was back in that strange orange place, but rather than Peter standing there with him it was Ben Parker. Not a washed-out, barely-there version, but the high definition version where Tony could look in his smiling blue eyes and catch a real glimpse of who Peter had looked up to as a father figure for fourteen years of his life.
“Thank you for being there,” the man said simply, before walking off into the rosy mist, his gait at ease as he disappeared. Tony knew without being told that, were he still able to see what he had as a ghost, he would no longer see the shade of Ben Parker. From somewhere unseen, the voices of a different man and woman added respectively, “Tell him we love him,” and “He’ll always be our sweet boy.”
‘Our sweet boy’, as he learned the next day, was what Mary and Richard used to call their son Peter, back before a plane crashed.
Then, on the sixth night, he was awakened by a feeling. He knew distinctly that the feeling wasn’t his...or rather, it didn’t come from him. It was being shared...similar to the way that feelings were shared to communicate in the Soul Stone.
Following that feeling, he got out of bed- being careful not to stir Pepper- slipped on a jacket and shoes and crept into the hallway, shutting the apartment door silently behind him. When he easily spotted a figure silhouetted by city lights and velvet sky, his mouth upturned and he made his way towards them.
“Kinda precarious perch, don’t ya think?”
Peter jumped. His sticky fingers and bare feet held him to the stair railing upon which he sat staring out over the night-veiled neighborhood, but upon being discovered he twisted around in a way that was anxiety-inducing even with the knowledge of his powers.
“Uh…uh, good evening, sir!” he stuttered. “Sorry to block your way, I wasn’t really expecting anyone to be- sorry, I’ll just…” He clambered down in one smooth motion and stepped aside to allow entrance to the stairwell, face averted shyly.
“Pete,” Tony said. “It’s me.”
Fairly certain that they were safe from prying eyes at this ungodly hour, Tony reached up and turned off the projection on his photostatic veil over his face. It shimmered holographically, and the facial disguise melted away— clear in the way Peter let out a relieved breath as his mentor’s familiar features appeared.
“That thing is so cool,” the teen said. “I just keep forgetting you’re under there.”
Tony shrugged. “Eh, SHIELD tech has its better inventions. It’s lucky I managed to get my hands on a few of these before kicking the bucket,” he said. “And, I think we’ll both get used to it. I’m not going away anytime soon.”
If he knew one thing about his retirement, it was that it was going to be undisturbed. As far as the world (outside of Peter, Strange, May, Pepper, Morgan, Happy and the recent addition of Rhodey) knew, Tony Stark was still and would forever be, dead as a doornail.
Peter beamed openly at this, but then bit his lip and looked away a moment later. He took a seat on the top step and was soon joined by Tony, who leaned patiently against the wall.
After a few minutes the man nudged him and prompted gently, “So, are we going to talk about why you’re so nervous in the middle of the night that it literally woke me up from a few doors down?” He didn’t bother explaining how real those words were… whatever bond lingered between himself and Peter Parker, he didn’t need to trouble the kid with it just yet.
Peter blew out a breath. Staring up at the toenail-shaped moon, he said, “I got my first date with MJ tomorrow.”
Tony couldn’t help it; he laughed. At the kid’s sideways glare, he attempted to douse his amusement with some sympathy: “Sorry, sorry… you’re just so precious.”
When Peter glowered on, Tony tugged at the hem of his Pajama bottoms and said playfully, “Hey…forgive me, kid, I’m old. What have you got planned for this date of yours? Flowers? Chocolates?”
Peter pulled away the leg that Tony was tugging at, only to stick his foot in the man’s face. Tony batted it away with a mock cry of disgust, tugging a giggle from the kid and while the smile still lingered, he admitted, “I’m taking her swinging.”
“Swinging?” Tony repeated. “Like…” he mimed the Spider-Man’s hand shape for shooting a web, trigger fingers curled aside extended thumb, pointer and pinky. Peter nodded, swallowing.
“I just hope she doesn’t think I’m...weird,” he whispered.
“Kid, I don’t know if you’ve met MJ,” Tony said slowly, “But it seems to me she’s a fan of weird. Especially your painfully nerdy, authentically big-hearted brand of it. And web swinging? For a first date? Casanova, you’ve got her heart in the bag. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
He reached a hand out and rubbed the kid’s shoulder soothingly. It struck him softly how this gesture he attempted back when he first met Peter was, seemingly out of nowhere, so much more relaxed and comfortable now.
Peter ducked his head shyly but Tony caught a pleased grin. They were silent for a few minutes longer before he peeked up again.
“Mr. Stark… I’m really, really happy you’re here.”
Happiness bloomed. He mussed the kid’s head from behind before withdrawing his hand. “You and me both, kid… and now I think it's time to catch some Z's, okay? Old men and young studs alike benefit from Z's.”
Peter nodded in acknowledging, standing and offering a hand to pull Tony to his feet as well. They were each at the door to their own apartments when Tony suddenly called,
“Oh, and Peter—”
Peter stopped and looked back, eyes bright as the stars above. Tony loved him, loved him, loved him.
“Make sure you remember this time which way to turn your head when going in for a kiss.”
Yes, one week was plenty more than one ghost-turned-man could have ever hoped. It was enough to teach a lesson to the seemingly all-knowing Tony Stark: that he would never, ever take for granted a moment of however many weeks came after.
“So what’ll it be… jam, or honey?”
Tony held his hands up defensively even as he smiled at the bread and reached for the honey bear. “Yikes, that attitude… and still eight years out from being a teenager. That’s terrifying.”
Morgan put her chin on her tiny fists, watching her new dad fix lunch from across the counter. Peanut butter was spread on three open sandwiches and then came, dutifully, a generous layer of honey.
“Peter’s a teenager,” she piped, “and he’s the greatest person there ever was.”
An eyebrow was raised. “Greater than Iron Man?”
She pursed her lips, cheeks dimpling. “Peter can do a backflip. Can you do a backflip?”
“Alright alright, go get Pep and tell her it’s time for lunch. Sheesh.”
With a grin, the girl hopped off her bar stool and ran through the maze of unpacked moving boxes to do just that. Tony shook his head after her. So much for your time as an only child, Peter, he thought, a content smile forgotten on his face. He stretched and sighed.
This. This was rest.
Just then from the family room, something flashy on the muted TV caught his eye: a breaking news alert. Frowning, Tony wiped his hands and grabbed the remote to turn up the volume. Cold dread, his own as well as Peter’s from wherever the kid was watching, settled over him as the message proceeded...
“—Spider-Man’s real name… is Peter Parker!”
Pepper, entering the room at that moment, had just enough time to clasp her hands over Morgan’s ears when Tony exclaimed a loud and indignant,
“WHAT THE F—”