Peter sat on the edge of the dock, hands clasped tightly in his lap and legs hooked together with the tips of his dress shoes brushing the surface of the water. He could still see the wreath if he squinted, floating along gently as the delicate current whisked it away, carrying it off into the beam of sunlight that lingered across the lake in the near distance.
Behind him was the remnants of the service; Avengers past and present, family young and old, all coddled together under a heavy blanket of grief that allowed for only the briefest moments of fond remembrance before reality snatched them back into the present again, back into the real world.
A world where Tony Stark was gone.
Peter inhaled sharply through his nose and tapped his fingers together in an anxious beat to try and shake off the sudden jolt of awareness; one of many that he’d been experiencing over the course of the last few days.
It seemed so shatteringly unjust for someone like Tony to be taken away by something as mundane as old age, especially when there could have been at least another ten years to go if they’d been lucky. But Tony had been worn before his time. All those early days of excessive drinking had been one thing, and living with a hole in his chest and poison in his blood for some time had done a fair bit of damage to be sure, and of course surrendering all but momentarily to the surge of the most fearsome power in all of the universe was bound to knock a few years off the grand total but -
But that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
It just didn’t seem possible.
But it was. It had happened.
Tony was gone.
Not in a cataclysmic act of heroics or with a two fingered salute like Tony had morbidly and somewhat gleefully predicted on the odd occasion.
It had been quiet and understated, as though he had simply fallen asleep with the traces of a smile on his face.
It was the kind of death that people, in all the strangest of ways, wanted for themselves; to be able to pass on gently, surrounded by those who loved them.
It was a death that Tony deserved.
The thought made Peter flinch, because Tony hadn’t deserved death. Not one bit.
It came for all of them eventually, but for some reason, no matter how close the grip of the inevitable came to snagging hold of Tony and pulling him away forever, Peter never truly believed it would happen.
Because he was Tony Stark, and if anybody could live forever, it was him.
Peter felt his chest quiver as a silent, trembling sob left him. His fingers knotted painfully together as tears blurred his vision.
It didn’t matter how many years had passed, how the toll of time had begun to make itself known on them all. Whenever Peter had looked at Tony, his eyes somehow seemed to look past the weathered nature of the older man’s skin, past the silvery grey of his hair and the tired slope of his shoulders leaving him with the image of a younger Tony, strong and dark-haired and seemingly ageless, infallible, unbeatable. All he saw, no matter how much the tell-tale signs of age began to show, was the Tony that had appeared in his apartment all those years ago and kicked open the door of a brand-new adventure that had never ended, not for one second.
Peter, so foolishly and naively, had somehow believed it would go on forever.
Even in that moment when Tony had risen up, bleeding and desperate, and stared Thanos dead in the eye as the terrible illumination of the stones had embedded themselves into his arm, Peter had never lost faith, never doubted for one second that the man would live.
Because he was Iron Man.
He was an Avenger.
And more importantly, he was Tony Stark, and such a person had no business being dead.
But he was.
And there was nothing Peter could do.
Peter’s focus zeroed in on the noise around him, bouncing back and forth from voice to voice as he tried to block it all out, tried to shut off all the sorrow that wasn’t his own because the pressure in his aching chest was already too much. Once upon a time, they’d come so close to not having any of this, to having a future that didn’t include the chance to stay together and grow older - grow old – with one another. Instead, they’d found a way to fight back, to survive. Tony had saved them all, saved the world, the universe, and gifted them with so many years to do what they wanted with. In that time, Peter had proudly accepted the title of Morgan’s big brother, given his blessing to May and Happy, married MJ, revolutionised Stark Industries and became a father to his own son years after Tony had declared him as his own.
They’d been blessed, so lucky and so deserving of all the happiness they found in the wake of the collective horrors they had experienced, so why was this happening?
Why was Peter now having to live a life without Tony in it?
Suddenly he was fifteen years old and back on Titan, the crushing weight of terrifying realisation burying him under a mountain of fear as he clung to Tony, desperate not to leave, desperate for the man he had come to adore to hold onto him, to keep him safe.
Except now, instead of vanishing himself, Tony was the one who was gone, and Peter wondered how he wasn’t crumbling into dust once again underneath the sheer volume of his grief. Somehow, he figured it would hurt less.
Peter immediately looked round at the sound of his son’s voice. Benji’s gaze widened a little at the sight of the tears clinging to Peter’s eyelashes and he hurriedly stepped closer, a hand settling against Peter’s shoulder. Peter reached up to take the small fingers into his hand, squeezing gently as he pulled Benji down to sit beside him, keeping their palms pressed together while he stared at what Benji was holding in his other hand.
An Iron Man helmet.
It was the one that had sat on Tony’s workbench for the best part of nearly twenty years. Peter couldn’t remember which suit it belonged to. It was scuffed and tarnished in places, though the vibrant sheen of the red and gold was still bright enough.
Peter reached out to take the helmet, his gaze moving to Benji’s face as the boy watched him. His brown eyes were framed by a sore redness and the tip of his nose was red and slightly crusted; tear tracks stained the freckled skin of his cheeks and his chin was trembling in the way it had been for the last few days.
Within the depths of Peter’s sorrow, a furious, biting rage made itself known; a spitting anger for what had been done to them, for what had been stolen from them, for the revelation of death in his son’s life.
Peter had experienced more loss in his first fifteen years than most people did in an entire lifetime. Parents were only supposed to leave when their children were grown and uncles weren’t meant to drop to their knees on the rainy streets with a bullet in their chest before they reached old age.
Benji had never lost anybody until now. He’d never had to know the feelings that Peter could face knowingly as a master of experience, an expert in all that pulled and broke and tore whatever lay in its path. Peter had been unconsciously grateful for that, because he never wanted his son to know a single iota of what such loss could feel like.
It was an inevitable harm that even Spider-Man couldn’t protect him from.
It seemed so wrong. Benji had only been gifted with eight years of time, had experienced less than a decade’s worth of the unique kind of love that only Tony Stark could give; the kind that could lead him to destroy a titan just as easily as tuck you into bed at night, the kind that made you feel as though anything was possible because he would be right there with you to make sure that it was.
Peter had been given so much longer, had a never-ending track of memories to run through whenever he wanted to but that would never be enough; for more than half of his life, Tony had been there and now -
How could something like that be gone? How could someone so powerful, so strong, so necessary be gone from the world; snuffed out as quickly as a flame on a candle, snatched away with such cruelty that Peter just wanted to find a way to reach out and hold on, pull back, dig his heels in because –
Because it just wasn’t fair.
Peter felt untethered, so much more broken that he ever thought possible and as he held the Iron Man helmet in his hand, the desperate urge to crawl out of his skin and scream seemed so inviting that it was a wonder that he managed to stop himself from doing it.
Instead, he tucked Benji in close for a hug, nuzzling his nose into the strawberry-scented curls, exactly like Tony had always done whenever he’d hugged Peter. The gesture had changed when Peter eventually became just that little bit taller than Tony, turning into a kiss to the temple instead, except for the odd moment where Peter would purposefully angle himself so Tony could reach the top of his head, keen to catch a piece of the years gone by.
They sat together quietly, Benji’s little chest rising up and dropping down with a quick heartbeat that pulsed through Peter’s side, seemingly chanting a chorus of mourning that Peter could recognise note for note.
''Was Grandpa Tony always a superhero?''
Peter was expecting a question. Really, he was expecting a lot of questions, but that definitely wasn’t one that he’d been bracing himself for.
''No,'' Peter sniffed, resting his cheek against Benji’s hair and letting out a deep sigh. ''No, he, um…he was different, in the beginning.''
God, he wasn’t ready for this conversation. It wasn’t even meant to be his conversation to have. It was something that should have been Tony’s; a quiet moment that would belong to just Tony and Benji in a snapshot of comfort and peace, a bedtime story to excite and dazzle and amaze a little boy who already needed no more reason to think of his grandpa as a hero but wanted to know more anyway. That's what it would have been until Tony felt the time was right to tell it like it really was, but until then, it would be nothing more than a story.
Because that was what Tony did. He never sang lullabies, unless you counted humming rock songs under his breath as such a thing. He told stories. Gently spoken tales that eclipsed the senses and fought off demons and threw up the sails of the ship that would take you off into a dream of wonder and amazement, and he’d always be there in the morning with a knowing smile, wanting to hear just what had taken place in that strange place beyond the veil of sleep.
Peter had originally thought it started with Morgan, as an age-old remedy of helping the little girl to go to sleep, but had soon realised that Tony had been doing the same thing for him for a long while before. All those nights when he couldn’t sleep and had tucked himself into Tony’s side in a hopeful search for rest and comfort and all the times when he’d been injured and hurting so badly, Tony had been there with his soothing voice, timbre low and lulling, murmuring words both nonsensical and meaningful until Peter drifted off, warm and safe.
Even as Peter grew older, the trick never failed and it had been a joy to see the same magic work on Benji whenever he lay in Tony’s arms, content and secure, listening to the soft rumble of Tony’s voice as he talked about anything and everything.
And now, that was gone too.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
How could Peter take that story, the story of Tony Stark and Iron Man, and tell it now at a time like this?
Peter considered employing the most frustrating and dastardly of all the parenting tricks that he knew. He thought of all the lies that he could tell, all the fabrications he could spin, just to get out of this moment, to avoid having to say a word.
Instead, he tried the other thing, where a parent fudged the truth, smoothed it over as much as possible to make it more palatable, to protect their own feelings just as much as those of their child.
''He wasn’t a very happy man.''
He knew he had failed the second he spoke. The words felt like a lead pipe being driven into his already caving chest, the truth in them bashing away at the cracked remains of his heart until another fissure came into existence. It had taken a while for Peter to discover the road paved with demons that was Tony’s history. As a kid, Peter had been a walking fact file on Tony Stark, a fan long before he burst out of a cave and back into the world with a scrap heap suit and a desire for change, and his hero worship had been at critical levels of embarrassing when he’d stepped into his apartment years later and found the man sitting on his couch eating walnut date loaf and drinking tea with May.
Peter tried to swallow the thick ache in his throat. ''He…It’s a long story, kiddo.''
Oh, c’mon kid. You can do better than that.
''Can you tell me anyway?''
Peter closed his eyes, searching for the last remnants of his inner strength.
Where would he even start?
The beginning, he supposed.
But which beginning, his or Tony’s?
Whether he could truly admit it to himself or not, Peter was scared. Benji didn’t deserve to see Tony as anything but what he had always known him to be; a loving, funny man who filled their moments together with joy and magic. He didn’t deserve to know the mere shadow of the man Benji had loved so fiercely, just as Peter did. Though the bonds had differed in their ways, as was typical due to the freedom that being a grandparent provided over being a parent, the connection between Benji and Tony had been an undeniable extension of all that was shared between Peter and the man he loved as a father.
Their old habits had never faded. All the lazy hugs and fierce embraces and teasing ruffles of hair just transcended with them as the years ticked by, stretching out to reach Benji too, wrapping the boy up in so much love and turning Tony into the gentlest version of himself.
''I swear, kid,'' Tony had chuckled one lazy summer afternoon as they watched baby Benji roll around on a blanket in the grass with Morgan smiling indulgently at him, ''I thought you and Morgan had ruined me, but this little guy takes the crown. Don’t you, kiddo, huh?'' he cooed, moving to stretch out on the ground so that Benji could crawl over him. ''You’ve obviously been taken lessons from your father. Never could resist those ridiculously big eyes,'' he added with a chuckle as Benji had loomed over him with a loud giggle.
Peter had laughed hard, immediately moved to join them and the rest of the afternoon had been spent listening to Tony’s grousing and Benji’s shrieks and Morgan’s teasing. It had been a simple moment, nothing extraordinary at all. Except now it was exactly that because, like everything else to do with Tony, it all meant so much more now that it would never happen again.
Yes, Tony had been so far from perfect, had made so many mistakes and done his fair share of wrongs, but Benji didn’t know that. To Benji, Tony was perfect. All he knew of the man was built upon a foundation of twinkling eyes, mischievous laughter and playful whispers. Nothing tainted by the horrors of war and loss. Even the metal arm and scars upon Tony’s cheek had been kept an intriguing mystery, never becoming frightening because to Benji, they were always a part of Tony, a part of the story Tony had always promised to tell him one day.
So how could Peter take that feeling away from his little boy? How could he tell stories that had the potential to shift and change his world more than it already had been? How could he take the risk of Benji viewing Tony as anything less than the loving, patient man that he knew so well?
How could he do any of this without Tony?
The Tony that Peter had first met had been living under a cloud of something grim and heavy, something that prevented him from getting too close, something that had him holding back, even when the glimpses of warmth inside the hard shell of his persona peeked through.
Then Titan happened and everything changed and Peter came back into the world to find himself locked in the embrace of a man who was no longer afraid to be the person that Peter had known him to be all along.
Peter moved to look at Benji, pushing a few curls away from his forehead, exactly the way Tony always did. The time where Tony was looked upon negatively was long gone, but it was still a part of their history, of who Tony had been. Tony had even declared himself as being spiritually dead once upon a time, though Peter couldn’t accept that anybody had ever truly believed such a thing.
Then again, Peter knew Tony – had seen enough of his faults and complexities over the years, felt the brunt of his anger and stood helpless in the face of his sorrows; seen him rise and fall and rise again – and not a single shred of the darkness that had lived in Tony’s soul had made Peter love him any less.
Was it so crazy to believe that Benji would feel the same?
No amount of years of play-boying, flamboyant arrogance and shark tooth smiles could contend with all that followed after Tony stepped out of that cave. Even before Peter had met Tony, the goodness and kindness had been breaking through, the well-hidden light of selflessness seeping through the gaps of his inner armour, making up for the lingering sharp edges that still pointed out towards the world.
Tony would blame Peter and Morgan for turning him soft, but a look between Rhodey and Pepper would tell a different story, one they had always known the plot to since the very beginning.
As true as it was, Peter knew that to tell Tony’s story was to be honest. Open and exposed, as brave as he could be; as brave as Tony had always taught him to be. There could be no stone left unturned, no sugar-coating of words, no brushing over the bad in favour of the good, because Tony wouldn’t have been Tony without it.
Benji was still looking at him, heartache and despair on his face, and Peter breathed deep, grabbing for that last bit of strength and holding on tight.
''What do you wanna know, bud?''
Benji’s eyes immediately lit up, sparkling with the desire to know, with love for Tony.
''How did you meet him?''
Peter frowned. Benji knew that story already. It had been the basis upon which Tony, because he had insisted on being the one to do so, had explained the connections that bound them all together in everything but blood.
It took a moment for Peter to understand why Benji was asking for that story, but then he studied the look on his son’s young face again. It was a look that he knew had crossed his own face many times in his life. Benji was scared too. Scared and wanting his dad to make it better; scared of what was preventing Peter from telling him what he wanted to know but still asking anyway; scared of the fact that it would be the last story, the last tale that Tony had left for him, because after this, there wouldn’t be any more.
The smile that came across Peter’s face was the first one he’d given in days. It felt alien at first but settled comfortably into place as Benji’s eyes locked onto it, seeking comfort from the gesture as he huddled uncertainly into his father’s side.
You can do this, Pete. You got this.
''Well,'' Peter said, his voice coming out croaky, ''when I was fifteen, he came to the apartment I lived in with Nana May and pretended he wanted me to come help him at work, when really it was for something else.''
Peter nodded, eyes drifting away for a moment and head turning to look over at the porch where Steve was standing, talking quietly with a sadly smiling Sam. Memories of an empty airport, the authoritative cry of a nickname that would forever become part of him and flying through the air with Captain America’s shield in his grip came flooding through his thoughts, somehow grounding him and wrenching him apart at the same time. He remembered a Steve without failing eyesight, a Pepper with red hair instead of grey, a Rhodey who stood tall instead of sitting in a wheelchair –
A Tony smirking proudly at him as he gave his shoulder a gentle punch and offered him the chance to be an Avenger.
''Yeah, bud. Spider-Man stuff.''
Benji reached out to touch one of the eye slits of the mask sat in Peter’s lap, his index finger running gently around the edge. ''Grandpa Tony built your suit, didn’t he?''
Peter nodded, a weak laugh breaking free. ''A few of them, yeah.''
''Oh, a whole bunch, kiddo.''
And so he talked long into the afternoon and well into the twilight, only pausing when an understanding and utterly wonderful MJ came out with blankets and sandwiches, and even with a mouthful of bread the words didn’t stop, pouring out of him like water, expelling the anguish just enough for the fondness and love to push through to the forefront.
Benji gasped in all the right places and laughed at the moments Peter expected him to. He went still and quiet for some parts and bounced excitedly in others and his lip trembled along with his chin during the bits that had him gripping Peter’s hand in an impressively tight grip, not minding when Peter held on back just as tightly.
And it was sort of cathartic in a sorrowful sort of way. The telling of the stories, of the tales that made up everything that had ever been Tony, of everything that had ever happened. All the befores, the meanwhiles, the afters; each moment brought to life with meaningful clarity and all the while, the light of love that Benji reserved just for Tony never left his eyes. In fact, it seemed to grow the more Peter talked, and Peter felt bolstered by it, comforted by the notion that nothing could stop Benji from seeing Tony like he always did.
Because that was the thing about children. So simple and so complex in their thought process, in the way they viewed the world and all that it threw at them. They could turn something bad into something good with just a few words, altering the viewpoint so significantly that there was no room for argument in the face of such acceptance and tender belief in the ones that they loved.
Benji had an explanation, an idea, for every wrong and every mistake and though Peter knew it was all from a quiet stubbornness that refused to let him believe that Tony had ever been anything less than a good man, it was the same stubbornness that had pushed Peter to never give up when he’d taken on the Vulture. It was the same obstinacy that had Peter clinging to the side of a flying donut as it hurtled into space after Tony had tried to send him home. It was the same tenacity that had made him do all the things that had eventually torn down Tony’s walls. It would be a trait of Benji’s that would both terrify and elate Peter for the rest of his life, something that he knew a smug Tony would see as comeuppance for all the days where he had felt the same about Peter.
He was mid-way through a sentence when the harsh smack of reality struck again. For some reason, he was laughing and then there was a pause, just the perfect moment for Tony himself to jump in with a teasing one liner, a sharp twist of the tongue that would make the moment all the more moving or all the more humorous, depending on his mood.
Peter knew that Benji had sensed it too because the boy looked up at him then, brown eyes swimming with tears and teeth baring in a sob, the very picture of childlike anguish, of a boy who knew not what to do with the agony that was welling up inside of him and growing in strength with each passing second.
It was another look Peter knew well, a hurt he was so unfairly familiar with, and he felt his heart totally shatter then, the pieces sharpening into spikes and piercing his insides with fervour, booting the crushing weight of a sob up from somewhere in his sternum and out through his mouth just as Benji let out a mournful cry of his own.
''I’m so sad that he’s gone, Daddy,'' was all Benji had to say before Peter had the boy in his arms, tucking him in against his chest as tightly as possible while Benji wound his limbs around Peter’s torso, trembling fiercely as he howled fiercely into Peter’s neck.
When people think of becoming parents, they imagine big Christmases, cuddles and kisses, reading bedtime stories and passing on all the things that matter. The sleepless nights and scraped knees were a given, as were the angsty teenage mood swings and tears that could be brushed away with the knowledge that everything would be alright in the morning.
They don’t imagine the moments where not a single thing can be done to make it better.
Nobody ever signed up for being a part of their child’s heartache.
In that moment, as he held Benji close and rocked him from side to side and hushed him brokenly, Peter felt like a child himself. Achingly desperate for someone to come and make it all go away. To stand against the tide of nagging sadness and bail them out. To save them from the darkness from which there seemed to be no escape from.
Tony had always been the one to do that.
But he was gone. Peter was the one left behind to explain to his son what death meant, to watch him stare into a frightening new world that was no longer as warm and safe as his parents had made him believe it was; as Tony had made him believe it was.
Peter knew that feeling well, too.
The memory of their last moment came to him then.
It had been nothing spectacular, like most people imagine last moments to be. It had been normal. A passing on the stairs, a promise of what they were going to do the next day, a kiss to the forehead and a soft 'I love you' before they parted ways at the edge of the hallway.
They’d no idea that Tony would be gone in the morning, no way of knowing that Pepper’s startled and broken scream would be the thing that would ring in the dawn of something so heinous and unforgivable.
They’d cried then, cried the next day and the day after that; cried nearly every minute since and now was no exception.
Peter let Benji’s tears fall with his own, burying his face further into the boy’s curls and hiding away, clenching his teeth to hold back the screams.
It was truly dark by the time he resurfaced. His eyes stung like fresh grazes and his entire body trembled. Benji held tight, shivering and sniffling wretchedly, the patch of shirt beneath his head soaked through with tears.
''Hey, hey,'' Peter murmured, giving Benji another kiss and moving so he could look into his face. ''How about you and I blow this popsicle stand and go to bed, huh?''
Benji nodded and moved to stand up, all of his fingers curled around Peter’s forefinger as he waited for him to stand up. Peter clutched the rim of the Iron Man helmet in his other hand and gave the side of it a stroke with his thumb as he looked out onto the lake. There was no sign of the wreath but somehow, he felt like it wasn’t very far away.
He glanced down at Benji.
''Do you want to say anything?''
Benji nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. With a wobbly sigh, he swung Peter’s hand back and forth twice before he spoke.
''I love you, Grandpa Tony. More than I love cake, more than dinosaurs…more than, than…all the stars in the sky.''
The innocent, candid declaration sent Peter’s heart into free-fall.
''That’s good, buddy,'' he rasped. ''He’d love to know that.''
Peter faltered for a moment. He’d spoken at the service, a brief passage of words that had left him and everyone else openly sobbing. It wasn’t anything they didn’t already know but somehow, the statements of love and expressions of grief and short anecdotes had turned the air sharp and jagged and threw yet more salt into the open sore of their world.
God, Peter missed him. It was a cavernous sensation, one that threatened to buckle his knees and tear him apart at any moment.
''I love you, Tony,'' Peter said into the darkness after yet another deep breath, voice cracking on the name. Benji squeezed his hand as the tears spilled over again. ''So, so much.''
As they turned to head to the cabin, Peter thought that there were a million things he could have said then, but for now, for that moment, that seemed like enough.
I love you too, kid. Both of you, all of you.
The process of getting Benji to bed was rushed, like it had been the last few nights. It was as though they were running from something, avoiding the incessant reminder of what was missing from the little routines they had. As the boy scrambled under the covers and yanked them up to his chin, nestled in a bed in the room that had once belonged to a teenage Peter for all the times he would visit the cabin, Peter couldn’t help but marvel at the parallel.
Sure, he had been much too old for tuck ins and bedtime stories long before he and Tony had met, but that had never stopped the bedside visits or their whispered chats across the expanse of one pillow.
''Just think, bud,'' Tony had murmured sleepily one night, reaching over to playfully tweak one of Peter’s curls, ''one day you’ll be doing this with your own kid.''
Peter, eighteen and only a few months into the world of dating, had chuckled with all the arrogance of youth. ''Sure. I bet he’ll love me breathing my coffee breath all over him and snoring all night when I don’t make it to my own bed.''
Tony had glared at him, eyes sharp like flint in the cosy darkness of the room. ''I hope he gets your sass, Underoos, I really do. I’ll accept that as sweet revenge for all the disrespect I’ve had to put up with over the years.''
Peter had whacked him with a pillow then and the night had ended with Pepper coming to scold them and drag a grumbling Tony off to bed.
Now, here he was, exactly like Tony had said he would be.
Peter shucked his shoes and jacket, threw his tie aside and rolled the sleeves of his shirt up before settling on the bed beside Benji, immediately capturing him in a hug as the boy snuggled in close.
''Will you tell me the rest of the story now?''
They’d reached the point just before the journey to Titan. It was the part that frightened Peter the most. Even after all these years, the rush of terror and the stuttering panic of his fading heartbeat was as clear as it had been that day in the red dirt of the dead planet.
It was too much.
''I, erm…’’ Peter reached out to run a thumb across Benji’s cheek as the boy peered up at him. ''That one will have to wait a little while, bud.''
If there was ever a time when he needed Tony...
It’s okay, kid.
So, in as much of a gentle way as he possibly could, Peter told him. Told him everything. The only sign that Benji was listening was the way his body trembled and the heavy rush of his breath hitting Peter’s neck.
The room filled with furious battles and swelling loss and epic triumphs as Peter spoke. He kept his voice gentle and easy, a low hum that seemed to soften the blow of the tale enough for Benji to hear it. The words set off a chain reaction in Peter’s heart, muscles working furiously against the onslaught of memories that worked their way through him until he finished, exhausted and timid in the face of what might come next.
Benji’s voice was sleepy. ''Grandpa Tony was the biggest hero ever.''
A choked cry of euphoric relief came out of Peter, jolting Benji ever so slightly before Peter pulled him closer, weeping silently into his hair. Benji clutched him back just as fiercely, his heated skin seeping heat into Peter’s aching limbs and filling him up with warmth.
Peter felt like he could breathe easier against the fire of grief that still swirled hungrily inside him. Just a little bit.
A knock at the door broke the spell of the moment. Peter didn’t have time to answer before it opened and Morgan, dressed in a baggy shirt and Peter’s faded Hello Kitty pyjama pants, stepped into the room. In her hand was a glasses case and there was a tearful smile on her face.
''Can I join you?''
Peter nodded, scooting over so that she could squeeze onto the other side of Benji. Peter rested a hand on her back as Benji reached out to toy with the edge of her sleep-shirt.
''How are you holding up?''
She sighed and pulled a face that was so eerily like Tony that Peter had to fight the urge to cry again.
''Oh, you know. Waiting for him to pop up somewhere with that stupid grin, like it’s all some big joke,'' she whispered with a trickle of a laugh.
They share a look, one grieving sibling to another, and Peter knew that right now wasn’t their moment. It would come, but tonight was for something else entirely.
''The will reading is going to be in the next few days but…'' she held out the glasses case to him. ''Happy had these on him. Said he’d been taking care of them since the end of the war, under Dad’s instructions.''
Peter took the case slowly, fingers curling around it warily, like it would strike out and bite him. Benji watched curiously, shifting his position to get a better look.
''He said that Dad had made him promise to give these to you when…well,'' Morgan explained.
Peter frowned. ''How could he have possibly known – ''
''Oh, I don’t think he did,'' Morgan said, smiling gently at Benji as she stroked a few of his curls. ''But that’s Dad for you, always ahead of the game.''
There must have been something in the look Peter was giving her, because Morgan reached out to touch his shoulder.
''I know it’s hard to believe right now, but I don’t think he left feeling like he had any unfinished business.''
''How can you think that?'' Peter whispered, desperate to know her secret. How could that be true? Tony would never see Morgan have children, never walk her down the aisle, never see her blaze the Stark name across the world in her own one of a kind style that was so reminiscent of her father and yet so uniquely her own.
''Because we loved him and he loved us,'' Morgan replied just as quietly. ''He saved the world for us and we’ve been happy ever since…what more could he have wanted?''
So much more, Peter thought.
He knew deep down that there was a ring of truth to what Morgan had said, but that didn’t stop him from feeling robbed, from feeling resentful for all that Benji had been deprived of.
Morgan squeezed his shoulder and he looked into his sister’s face, so young and so like Tony.
''You going to take a look?''
Peter looked down at the case and swallowed. He set the box on his lap and with a trembling hand, pushed back the lid. He gasped a little at the familiar frames that sat inside, the edge of one lens sparkling a little in the lamplight. A peek of white beneath them drew his attention to the card sat at the bottom. He drew it out, flipped it over and a wobble of a breath left both him and Morgan as the neat writing met their eyes.
'To the next Tony Stark, I trust you.'
Below those words sat an instruction that Peter just knew would activate the A.I within the frames and he quickly shut the box after tucking the card back inside.
''Daddy?'' Benji asked, frowning. ''Why did you do that?''
Peter didn’t quite know how to explain it, but from the look Morgan was giving him, it was like she knew. With a weak smile, she kissed both him and Benji on the head and left the room, throwing one last glance over her shoulder as she went, no doubt heading down the hall to be with Pepper.
''Daddy? What is it? Is it not a good present?''
There would always be an emptiness in his soul; a raging gap left behind in the wake of his loss, just like with Ben. There would always be days of sorrow, moments where the missing presence of Tony would be as painful as the very first day he left and Peter knew he would never truly get over it. He knew with an unbreakable certainty that he would miss Tony for the rest of his life.
But though he couldn’t quite accept it yet, he wanted to believe that what Morgan had said was true. That Tony had achieved all that he needed to be happy, to be at peace.
He looked down at Benji. Though he had hints of MJ in his features, he was all Peter, right down to the tiny path of freckles up the bridge of his nose. Peter had always thought that he knew and understood just how much Tony loved him, but the truth was that he didn’t have half a clue until he experienced the surge of breath-stealing love that overcame him as Benji came in the world.
He recognised then what it was that seemed to burst out of Tony whenever he looked at him, because it was the same kind of feeling that filled Peter up whenever he looked at Benji.
Strong, ferocious, irrevocable and so very unconditional.
He understood it then, and he understood it now.
This was what Tony had fought for. This was what he had faced the ultimate evil for; so that he could see his family safe and able to bloom; so that he could be there through and through to watch them love and live together, to adore and secure what he would eventually leave behind.
Stories that would be told until the end of their days.
A legacy that would reach so much further than Morgan and Peter.
Peter smiled at the notion as he reopened the case and lifted out the glasses.
''No, buddy, it’s…um…it’s great, it’s just…'' he huffed out a laugh and reached out to cup Benji’s cheek before holding the glasses out to him. ''They’re for you.''
Benji cradled them as though they were the most precious thing, not realising that Peter was regarding him in the exact same way, just like all the times that Tony had looked at him with that half twitch of a smile and a fond gleam in his warm eyes.
There was no way of knowing if Tony had predicted the decision that Peter would make, if he’d suspected that Peter would pass the gift onto Benji, but something inside Peter told him that Tony would have been happy. Now, Benji would have a bit more time, a bit more of the Tony Stark experience, at least in some way.
It was Benji’s turn now.
Yeah, Peter was sure that Tony would have definitely been happy about that.
And sure enough, as Peter felt sleep finally come for him, soothing the fighting protests in his mind and coiling alluringly thorough his body, a gentle presence seemed to wash through the room, turning everything soft and warm as a familiar whisper met his ears, proving him exactly right.
Good job, kid.
Peter smiled, finally acknowledging that comforting voice he’d been hearing since the moment Tony had gone.
''Goodnight, Tony,’’ he whispered into the night as he curled around Benji, familiar stories approaching him in his dreams with all the softness of a lullaby, with all the love Tony had ever given him.
Goodnight, Underoos. Sleep tight.