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after (part i.)

 

when tony opens his eyes, everything is awash in grey, full of dust and death. he blinks once more, and the entire place turns the color of afghanistan, orange and yellow, dust and death, dust and death. 

 

he smacks his lips together, wipes stardust—no, peter , he has to remind himself—off his lips, stands up. dust (again, peter ) falls from his body, and he doubles over in pain. 

 

his hand is pressed to his side, and when he pulls it away, red blood covers it, but there are scraps of metal too. red shards that glint in the dying sunlight. red , tony thinks.

 

before (part iii.)

 

“Mr. Stark, what about adding cloaking tech to your suit? Wouldn’t that help make it a little stealthier? You know, help you get the drop on the bad guys a little bit.”

 

The words shake a memory out of Tony, the same way you shake salt over fries. retroreflective panels whisper in his brain, but he smiles at Peter and shuts it off. Thankfully, his mind chooses to listen, for once. “Not a bad idea, kid,” he says, dropping a pen next to where Peter’s been tinkering with the suit. “But you know me. When have I done anything with any less celebration than strictly needed?” 

 

Peter cracks a smile, one that breaks open Tony’s heart a little more. “I’m just saying, Mr. Stark. You don’t need to be hanging on to the good old days while fighting.” 

 

Tony gasps in mock outrage, the happiness coursing through his veins a testament to how comfortable this kid, his kid, has gotten now. “How dare you. I am not old, thank you.” 

 

Peter’s eyes twinkle, even more, if that’s possible. “I don’t know, the grey in your hair might say otherwise.” 

 

“Yeah, yeah, kid,” Tony grumbles, picking up a stray repulsor lying on the table and chucking it into the trash. “Keep it up and I’ll program your suit to play your impressions all over the internet.”

 

Peter pales at this, and Tony tempers down the slight stab of guilt before color floods the kid’s face once more. “You’d never do that, Mr. Stark. You like me too much.” He shoots Tony a smile far too cocky for his 16 years, and Tony rolls his eyes. 

 

“Keep dreaming, kid.” 

 

“Done,” Peter announces triumphantly, stepping away from the suit. Tony honestly hadn’t thought much would come from letting Peter mess around with his latest model, even with how brilliant the kid obviously was, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. 

 

( and if the wide-eyed, heroic look peter had given him when tony showed him the new suit was part of it....no one else needed to know about that)

 

Tony raises his eyebrows and stepps closer to the suit, running his fingers over the red plating on the side of the arm. “What the hell did you do to my suit, kid?” he asks, but he’s smiling, happy to see Peter so clearly in his element. And if the way Peter stares at the suit, eyes running over his for any flaws or imperfections, reminds him of the way he looks at the kid’s own suit, well, that’s ok. 

 

“Not much,” Peter shrugs. “Just updated your music preferences to something that’s not supremely old and configured your visor so that you would know exactly what you’re playing when you listen to it. 

 

“How-how dare you. AC/DC is a classic .” Peter smirks at him, but Tony can’t resist offering him a smile. “Not bad, kid. Maybe one day I’ll let you around the big guns, actual things that you might be able to change for the better.” 

 

The punch Tony feels in his gut when Peter offers him a smile, picking up his backpack, is stronger than anything else he’s received in his life, but happiness is bubbling underneath his skin, popping like champagne, sending little sparks of contentment through his system. 

 

“Thanks, Mr. Stark. I really gotta get going now,” Peter says, glancing at the clock on his phone as he pulls it out. “May’s gonna kill me if I miss dinner.” 

 

“Your aunt is a travesty in the kitchen and should never be allowed anywhere near it. Why don’t you stay here?” 

 

Peter laughs. “Thanks for the offer, Mr. Stark, but May said that I’m not allowed to eat with you unless she or Pepper are there. She doesn’t trust your ability to eat healthy enough for a growing teenage spider boy.” 

 

“That’s ridiculous.” Tony protests, even though he knows Peter’s probably right. And Pepper’s currently in London, dealing with SI affairs, so he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. 

 

“You, I mean, if you want,” Peter stammers, and Tony rolls his eyes.

 

“Spit it out, kid. What’s up?” 

 

“If you want, I’m sure May wouldn’t protest too much if you wanted to come to dinner with us. I know Downton Abbey has a new episode tonight, so Happy isn’t gonna be free, Rhodey is on duty, and Ms. Potts is in London, and I just didn’t want you to eat alone.” 

 

“Peter,” Tony starts, softly. 

 

“Never mind. It was a dumb idea anyways. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than come eat dinner in Queens. I’ll get going now, Mr. Stark. School night and everything.” 

 

“Peter,” Tony says again, a little more insistent. 

 

“See you tomorrow, Mr. Stark.” He’s almost out the door, and Tony’s panic kicks in.

 

“Peter!” he snaps. He hates the way the kid freezes, almost as if he expected Tony to be angry at him, the way he turns around and looks so small. 

 

Tony sighs, letting a small, tired, but genuine smile grace his lips. “Tell your aunt I would love to join you for dinner. As long as she isn’t cooking.” 

 

The joy that spreads over Peter’s face is unprecedented, and Tony knows that in this moment he would do anything to see that same innocent joy once more. “Don’t worry about that, Mr. Stark. I think we’re getting Chinese tonight.” 

 

“A ridiculous amount of fortune cookies along with it?” Tony grabs his jacket and slings it over his t-shirt, grabs his keys on the way out of the lab. 

 

Peter scoffs. “Is there any other way to eat Chinese?” 

 

Tony looks over at the kid, so good, with so much potential, and finds himself shaking his head. “Of course not.” They arrive at Tony’s garage, and an idea comes to him. “Hey kid,” he calls out. “You wanna drive?” 

 

Peter’s mouth drops open, and Tony’s sure that had books been in his arms, he would have dropped all of them on the floor. “Are you serious?” he says, breath hushed, as if disrupting the peace would make Tony regret his decision. 

 

Tony tosses him the keys, and Peter catches them effortlessly. “They’re meant to be driven, but I never drive all of them as frequently as I probably should, to keep them in their condition. But, I can drive all of them myself. Pick,” he nods, gesturing to the line of cars that gleam, mostly untouched by their owner.

 

Peter’s completely silent as he looks over the cars, and Tony takes this moment to study the kid. Stupid t-shirt that has a periodic element box decorated to look like Thor (he tries not to take this to heart, getting caught up in jealousy) that says Thorium . Ratty jeans and sneakers that definitely look like they’ve seen better days. Curling hair. The thing that worries Tony the most, a faint bruise on his neck. No matter how many times Peter had assured him he was fine, that the guy who had done this to him was securely behind bars, it had taken everything in Tony not to go hunt him down and tear him to shreds, only stopping when he decided fussing over Peter would have a better outcome. 

 

But he wouldn’t be Peter if he didn’t throw himself into the thick of the battle, if he didn’t do whatever he could to protect everyone he knows. 

 

Fuck, Tony thinks. 7 billion people on the planet, and the kid picked me . Not for the first time, he questions how smart Peter truly is, but he wasn’t gonna push the kid away anymore. He was going to protect him, even if he did think Peter was deluding himself, picking Tony. How did he not see what Tony saw?

 

“This one, Mr. Stark!” Peter exclaims happily, jarring Tony’s attention back to the present. Right. The car. He’s patting a bright red model, and Tony smiles. It’s the exact same shade as Peter’s suit, and of course the kid would pick this car. 

 

“Excellent choice, Mr. Parker.” Tony comments, sliding smoothly into the passenger seat and putting on his sunglasses. He smirks at Peter. “Try not to destroy the car on your way, ok? Your aunt would kill me if you died.”

 

Peter swallows, climbing into the driver’s seat, and his hands shake as he reaches for the gear shift. Something clicks on Tony’s brain, and he pushes Peter’s hands away from the console. “Kid, have you ever driven a car before?” 

 

“Not frequently,” Peter admits, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “The last time was the night of homecoming, with the plane...and everything.”

 

Tony’s heart clenches in his chest, because he will never, ever, ever , stop feeling guilty for what happened on Coney Island that night. But he can’t change the past, no matter how much he wishes to, so he shoves down the trauma those memories brings, and offers Peter a smile. 

 

“Well then. You do have the best driver on the East Coast sitting in your passenger seat. Why don’t you let me show you what I can do?” 

 

As Tony takes Peter through the steps, patiently explaining to him how exactly to work the very expensive car that he’s not exactly looking to destroy, something occurs to him, as Peter grips the wheel and carefully maneuvers them out of the garage. Teaching Peter how to drive, that’s something a parent does. That’s something a father does. 

 

It’s an almost unsettling realization. One that Tony knows he will be freaking out over in the future, one that will keep him up at night and will change his entire life. It will be something that will upend everything he knows. The implications of it, the potential for the damage it could do to his life, it’s something he doesn’t want to think about but also knows he will have to.

 

But right now, in this moment, as he looks over at Peter, hair threaded through with the lights from the city, Tony couldn’t care less. Because if there is one thing in his life he feels is good, it is this kid, with a smile made up of all the constellations in the sky. 

 

after (part ii.)

 

he closes his eyes and counts to ten, but when he’s done, he’s still stuck on this hellscape of a planet, not in his bed, sweating after a terrible dream.

 

understanding doesn’t dawn on him. it slams into him with all of the subtlety of a freight train, leaves him gasping for breath much worse than thanos had earlier. oh god. oh god. peter.

 

many times in his life tony has wished he were dead. it comes with the torture and ptsd, and although it has gotten far better recently, he knows what it feels like, to hate your body for breathing. but this is another pain entirely. he simply cannot bear it, simply cannot continue. he wants to rip out his heart from his chest before it pulses one more time. 

 

and then, the blue-skinned woman ( nebula, he later learns ) reaches a hand out. he grabs it, stands up. she is cold, calculating, and then offers him a nod that speaks of more than words ever could. 

 

every cell in tony’s body wants to stay here, wants to stay with the ashes of his son. but what he wants more than that is peter, with his smile and too large jackets and laugh lines. his only hope for getting peter back is on earth.

 

and so he turns, and follows the alien back to a planet that has never seemed more hopeless than it does now.

 

before (part v.)

 

Tony wakes up covered in sweat, not an unusual occurrence for him. Insomnia is practically his sidekick. He rarely sleeps more than 5 hours a night, and they’re never peaceful hours. 

 

And it’s happened so often that he knows once he wakes up, there’s no chance that he’s going to be able to go back to sleep. 

 

And so he stumbles downstairs, rubs the sleep out of his eyes to see the lights of the city, small pinpricks. It’s particularly bad this night because Pepper’s away; had she been there, he probably would have been able to stay in bed, working on emails, at the very least. 

 

But because Pepper’s solidly 84% of his impulse control, he finds himself heading downstairs to his lab. Whenever Tony’s bored, occupying his hands always helps. He finds that the more things he builds to save people, the quieter the voices in his head are. 

 

They may never go away, but that does not mean he has to feed them. 

 

It’s still a surprise, though, when Tony stumbles into the lab and finds Peter hunched over one of the tables, red pen loosely grasped in his hand as he stares down at a notebook. Tony glances over at the clock on the wall, it’s 3:53 in the fucking morning , and the kid’s awake. 

 

Tony’s about to yell at Peter, to threaten to cut his training and lab days short if the kid doesn’t go to bed this second, but as he steps in front of the kid and locks eyes with him, he understands everything he needs to in a split second. 

 

Because the kind of sleeplessness in the kid’s eyes isn’t because of too much homework or too much caffeine. It’s the kind of sleeplessness Tony sees when he looks in the mirror, the kind that he tries to rub out of his eyes but is afraid will always be there. He never tried to fix it, and now he thinks it will never go away. 

 

He sees the beginning of the look in Peter’s eyes, and he’s not going to let the kid become like him. He’s going to protect this kid from everything, and if he can’t do that, then he’s going to protect this kid from everything he can. He will not let Peter become like him, he can’t—

 

does he have any choice, really? peter has already admitted how much he wants to be like tony, and there is nothing he has said so far that frightens tony more. he is trying to be better every single day, but whenever he closes his eyes, all he can see is his failure. he doesn’t want peter to end up like that, always haunted by the possibility of more. peter is enough, and that is the only thing tony wants to teach him

 

—bear if these nights become regular for Peter. The kid looks up at him, and he is so pale, with dark bags underneath his eyes, that Tony has to restrain himself from reaching out and brushing his fingers against the kid’s cheek, like that would help at all. He settles for running a hand through the kid’s hair.

 

“Mr. Parker, what are you doing up so late?” Tony pushes some amusement into his voice, but Peter’s smart enough to know it comes more from worry and not from anger. “I thought only old geniuses were allowed to stay up so late. You know, with my arthritic joints keeping me up late at night. Spider babies need 8 hours a night to function.” 

 

Peter sighs and leans into Tony’s touch, and Tony cannot help but find this completely adorable. “I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, all I see is the plane, going down in flames. But it doesn’t crash into the beach, it crashes into the high school, with all of my friends in it. Or it crashes into this tower, and you and Ms. Potts and Happy are all here. I just keeping losing everyone I love.” 

 

Tony’s heart breaks right then and there, and he feels like Peter can hear it, the clean crack that echoes through the lab. 

 

“Come here, Peter.” He gently steers the kid away from the lab table and onto the floor. They sit with their backs pressed against the wall, Tony’s arm draped across his shoulders. “Peter, you can’t shove this kind of stuff down.” Tony’s firm about this. Ignoring his mental health was the worst decision he ever made, and he’s so incredibly grateful to Pepper that she pushed him to seek help, pushed him to try and heal himself. 

 

“It’s not that, Mr. Stark,” Peter mumbles. “I’m afraid if I start talking about it, I’ll start reliving it, and I don’t know how to handle that.”

 

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Peter, aren’t you already reliving it, every night you have these nightmares?” Peter’s silence is answer enough, so Tony shifts so he’s facing Peter and grips his shoulders. “Peter, you need to figure out how to cope with the experience without reliving it. Just because you need help doesn’t make you weak.” 

 

“But that’s not why I can’t sleep!” Peter snaps. Tony doesn’t reel back, even though he’s more than a little shocked. Peter has rarely yelled at him, practically never save for that one time after the ferry. But the edge in his voice, Tony knows, comes from a place of intense grief, so he doesn’t let himself be angry. 

 

“Then why can’t you sleep. Peter?”

 

“Because every time I close my eyes, all I can see is that I will fail you. I’m not good enough, Mr. Stark. I never have been, but I wanted to try to be. I wanted to be the person you saw in me. But I’m so terrified of disappointing you, of failing you, it literally keeps me awake at night.”

 

There’s complete silence in the lab, and then Tony bursts out in laughter, so incredulous he simply cannot help it. “You’re worried about disappointing me? You’re worried you’re going to fail me?” He grasps Peter’s shoulders, forces him to look him in the eyes. “Peter, I’m terrified of the day you wake up and realize that I’m the one who’s failing you.”

 

Peter’s got that look in his eyes, the disbelieving one that always springs up when Tony tells him he doesn’t think he is good enough. But before he can even open his mouth Tony holds up a hand, silencing him. 

 

“My father never, not once, told me he was proud of me to my face. And my entire life I lived in fear of disappointing him, until I was around fifteen. Then I realized I was never going to be what he wanted. I wasn’t a super soldier and I wasn’t a robot, so I wasn’t what he was proud of. I stopped trying to make him proud of me. It was like beating a dead horse. Peter, you are sixteen years old, and you are one of the bravest people I have ever met. There is nothing, nothing , that you could do that wouldn’t make me proud of you. You will never fail. Not if you’re the man I think you are.” Tony lets his hand drop from Peter’s shoulders, offers him a smile. 

 

“Peter, I am worried I’m going to disappoint you. You’re twice the man I am now, and you will be a better man than I could ever hope to be.” 

 

Even before Tony’s finished speaking, Peter’s shaking his head. “No. Mr. Stark, you can’t seem to see what everyone else sees in you. You didn’t have to become a hero. You didn’t have to save lives. You don’t have a super powers or a hammer or anything other than a big heart. I want to be like you because you are the only hero who has ever made me feel like I could be one.” 

 

Tony smiles through wetness, reaches out and ruffles the kid’s hair. “You’re the first person in a long time that makes me feel worthy to be one, kid.”

 

Tony tucks Peter’s head under his chin, holds the kid close to his chest until he feels his heart slow down, his breathing deepens. And when he’s sure Peter’s ready, he helps the kid stand up, guides him back up the stairs, and back into sleep. 

 

And if he stands by Peter’s bed, counting the breaths the kid takes until he’s sure his own heart has calmed down enough, that’s no one’s business but his.

 

after (part iii.)

 

it’s the worst when he steps onto the grass, the worst when fresh air floods his senses. vaguely, he thinks he understands what peter had been talking about when he talked about his senses, dialling up to 11. everything is too bright, too vivid, too much for him to take in. 

 

it is a bright, sunny day, cloudless and beautiful, and tony wants to scream at the injustice of it all. nothing should be beautiful, nothing should be sunny, in a world without peter, in a world without the best person he has ever met. 

 

he turns, and one of the worst best people he has ever met shows up. 

 

tony , steve says, reaching a hand out to touch his shoulder. tony flinches back. he cannot do this, not now, not with all that weighs on him. ( peter. peter weighs on him .)

 

get away from me, he says, or, at least tries to. he’s not exactly sure what to call the infernal sound that tears itself from his throat, rusty with disuse and scratched, after being forced to scream himself awake the past couple of days on the way back to earth. 

 

he doesn’t think the nightmares will ever go away now, not when he can still feel peter’s warm body crumbling beneath his fingers, not when he can hear his voice break, carried away by the wind of a planet he hopes never to return to. not when he looks at his hands, eternally shaking, and sees them covered with the blood of a sixteen year old boy. 

 

he is aware of people around him, of pepper and rhodey, and part of him tears apart at this, because now he can’t join peter, he can’t give up. not when the rest of his heart beats, standing in front of him. so he tries to ignore steve’s glances from the corner of the room, and rolls up his sleeves. 

 

peter never stopped believing in him, never stopped believing he was a hero, that he could do the right thing. it’s time to prove the kid right.

 

before (part vi.)

 

His hands won’t stop shaking, no matter how hard he presses them to Peter’s side. “Hey kid, stay with me, ok. Please, stay with me.” Tony Stark does not beg, will not lay himself prostate before anyone in the world. But he doesn’t care about that. Stark men are made of iron, but even iron rusts. 

 

Tony swallows around the lump in his throat as he watches Peter grip his arms, hands slick with blood, the stain growing. God, he could see it through the suit. How bad could this get?

 

“Peter, I promise you, help is on the way.” The words feel heavy and sticky falling from Tony’s lips, like maple syrup. 

 

“You’re gonna be fine.”

 

Tony Stark has lied. He lies easily, falling from his lips tasting as sweet as spun candy. But he cannot bear for these words to be a lie. He needs these words to be the truth. 

 

“Mis’r St’rk.” Peter’s head lolls forward, and Tony eases them both to the ground, where he can press his hands into the side of his kid. “I’m—” he’s stopped by coughing, hacking up blood and spittle, flecks dotting his lips. The sight sends a knife through Tony’s heart, and he runs his hand through the kid’s hair. 

 

“Don’t try to talk now, Peter,” Tony murmurs, thumb pressing against the kid’s cheekbone. Tony has never wished to trade places with someone else more in his life. He wants to give this kid some of the life running through his veins. 

 

By some grace of god, someone out there is looking out for Tony, or more likely the kid, because the med team arrives them, leaving Tony with streaks of blood on his arms, swaying. Everything starts to collapse in on him at the same time, and he gasps, pitching forward and only just managing to catch himself on one of his lab tables. In the corner of his eye, he can see the shattered glass from when Peter had stumbled in, bloody and limping, and bile rises up in his stomach, attacking his throat. 

 

Tony rips open his shirt, presses a bloody hand to the center of his chest, right on top of the large, sunken scar where his arc reactor used to be. He closes his eyes, gripping the edge of the table so hard his knuckles turn white. If only Peter was a robot. If only he had an arc reactor, something that Tony could fix with his own two hands. 

 

His hands were made for fixing, but as he stares at them, he can only see Peter, bloodied, pale, and gasping, underneath them. Ribs that could snap too easily, thin skin. He’s got his healing, but Tony knows that only goes so far. 

 

You can’t heal from death.

 

Somehow, it is this thought that snaps him into action, and he heaves himself up, forces himself to stumble to where Peter’s sure to be. For someone who got rid of Avengers Tower, full of horrible memories, he’s still got plenty of space in the city for Stark Industries alone, and in anticipation of this day, had a full medical bay put in. 

 

Tony’s always been hailed as the futurist, the man who can look forward and see the potential the world holds. When you lose the ability to look back at the past, though, it makes him wonder if he’s running towards a future, or away from his past. He has seen this same scene play out thousands of times in his mind, thousands of different endings, thousands of scenarios where he loses the people he loves. 

 

Tony’s mind is his superpower. It is what he loves, what he has been blessed with. Tony’s mind haunts him, every day. It drives him to the brink of insanity and pulls him back before he can give in. 

 

Tony tastes blood in his mouth, and stumbles into the bathroom, spits it out into the sink. When he looks at himself in the mirror, he looks pale, almost as pale as Peter. Peter . The thought rips him out of whatever deep hole of grief he has tumbled into within the past ten minutes—

 

but that is what children do, isn’t it? wrench up your life, your heart, your soul, and you can’t even find it in yourself to be mad at them. tony could never be angry at peter for seeing him as his hero. because peter sees tony as the man he could be, not the man he is. how can he take that away from a kid who’s already had too much taken away from him?

 

—and he walks out of the bathroom, tugging on another shirt, before rushing to the med bay. 

 

On his way, he runs into Rhodey, who grabs Tony by the shoulders. “Tony, Tony, what’s wrong.” 

 

“The kid,” Tony gasps, taking a breath for what feels like the first time in hours. His lungs are screaming, and he is dizzy, so very dizzy, but all he can think of is getting to Peter, getting to his kid. 

 

Rhodey grips him tighter, and Tony wraps a hand around his best friend’s arm. He needs this. Needs to stay grounded to he doesn’t walk off the balcony rushing to his kid. “Tony, look at me.” Tony lifts his eyes to look Rhodey in his eyes, and there is something that cracks open in his chest at the kindness there. 

 

“Tony, they took the kid in to the med bay. He’s going to be fine, ok?” 

 

The thing about telling lies is that you become excellent at knowing when other people are lying to you. Tony can tell, from the heavy way the words settle on his skin, from the way they shatter in his brain like glass, from the way that his hands shake throughout the whole time Rhodey is reassuring him, that falsities spew from his lips. Nobody knows whether or not Peter is going to be fine. 

 

Tony rubs a hand down his face, tries to suck some air into his lungs. He can’t pass out, can’t leave the kid. He has to pull himself together—

 

bullshit. his kid, his sixteen year old kid, is lying there, bleeding out, dying. how the hell is he supposed to pull himself together?

 

—for Peter’s sake, at the very least. He would stitch the world together for Peter, would tear it apart at the seams and rebuild it with his own hands. Would pluck every star out of the sky if that kid so much as even mentioned it. He can pull himself together. He can make it there. 

 

Tony heaves himself up ( when had he collapsed? ) and makes his way towards the medbay, taking the stairs two at a time. 

 

He practically throws himself into the room, but he can’t see anything, just a blur of white, people rushing. 

 

“FRIDAY, where’s Helen Cho?”

 

“She’s already been summoned, boss. She’s on her way, a minute out. Mr. Parker’s injuries warranted immediate action.” If Tony didn’t know better, he could have sworn that FRIDAY’s voice cracked at the end of her sentence, anguish seeping in. 

 

Good going, kid. You made an AI emotional about you . If there was one person on the earth who could make streams of code and nuts and bolts have emotions, Tony was sure it was Peter. 

 

He’s thrust to the side suddenly, pushed out of the way. Tony scrambles, ready to yell at the person who dares get between him and his kid getting better, before he sees Helen’s dark hair, white lab coat. She pauses in her barking orders to look at him for a miniscule second, before nodding her head once, and then firmly shoving him out of the room. 

 

Tony’s entire body screams to be back in the room, to protect his kid from the entire world, to try and take a fraction of his pain, to heal him. But no matter how smart Tony is, no matter how much he can learn, he wants his kid to be safe, more than anything, more than he wants to breath. 

 

So, he steps back, and does the hardest thing he’s ever had to do: wait for his kid to breathe. 

 

It seems like an eternity plus three years when Helen finally emerges, and Tony’s stomach rolls over at the sight of blood ( peter’s blood ) smeared on her scrubs. Her hair is a mess, falling around her face, and she looks almost as pale as Tony and Peter. 

 

Tony shoots up at the sight of her, trying to peer past her into the room, but she gently pushes him back, a hand on his arm. “Tony, sit down.” 

 

Tony knows that tone in Helen’s voice, had heard it before Ultron, had heard it while he was waiting for Pepper’s system to purge the Extremis. Shaky legs give out, and he collapses into a chair, hands wrapped around the arms so tightly he’s afraid they might break. 

 

he’s afraid he might break underneath the pressure.

 

“Peter’s still alive, Tony.” Helen doesn’t mince her words now, thankfully, and the relief washes over Tony like the sun on a warm day. He slumps back in his chair, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, all of the adrenaline previously running through his body leaching out. “But that’s all he is,” she says softly, forcing Tony to look her in the eyes again. “He’s alive. The problem is the very thing that is keeping him alive is also slowly killing him.”

 

Tony’s lips twist into wry smile at this. palladium , his brain murmurs, memories lurking behind explosions and alcohol. 

 

He shouldn’t be smiling. He shouldn’t be smiling because holy fuck this is all so fucked up because his kid is in there barely clinging on to life and he doesn’t even know what’s wrong with him so he can fix him and Tony hates feeling helpless but the feeling starts to drown him starts to choke him because Peter’s lying in there prone and still and dear god he can’t breathe

 

“Tony, Tony, breathe.” He registers Helen next to him, talking to him softly, working him through what possible may be the worst panic attack he’s ever had. His palms are sweaty and his heart is racing, and there’s just so much going on that all he wants to do is close his eyes and pray that this is all a twisted nightmare and wake up. 

 

It takes Helen 15 minutes to calm him down, to wrench him out of despair.

 

“God, Helen.” He stands up, paces around the room restless energy back with full force. “Why are you out here with me? You should be in there!” he yells, jabbing a finger at the closed door. He stalks closer to Helen, who, to her credit, doesn’t so much as flinch as he approaches. “You should be in there, making sure my kid doesn’t bleed out in the MIDDLE OF A HOSPITAL ROOM IN NEW YORK CITY!” Tony all but roars the last part and slams his first into the wall. His knuckles split open, blood streaks over his hand, but he cannot bring himself to care. 

 

He sighs, squeezing his eyes shut as faces the wall, and turns around slowly, to find Helen staring at him impassively. “I’m sorry, Helen,” he breathes, even though he’s not, really. He slumps against the wall and sinks down to the floor, putting his head in his hands. “What’s wrong with him?” 

 

Tony’s voice has always been commanding. Sharp even when soft, like the edge of a knife as it cuts through the water. It is something that he has always appreciated, when he needs to get ahold of attention or when he needs to fix things or when he is in the thick of battle. He commands attention. He demands it. 

 

But now, waiting for Helen’s answer to either break his heart or fix it, his voice seems small. Small in the way Peter’s voice seems at times, small in the way kids’ voices always are, when they’re scared. 

 

“Is he gonna be ok?”

 

Helen sighs, and to his surprise, folds her legs underneath her, sitting right next to Tony on the floor. “Honestly, Tony, I don’t know. Peter’s body works incredibly differently from normal human ones, even different from Steve’s. He nearly bled out because we can’t use any donors as his blood is specially radiated, and since he can’t thermo-regulate we need to effectively replace all the heat he’s losing because of the blood. We’ve barely managed to stabilize him, which in and of itself was nothing short of a miracle, and his body seems to be healing on its own, but we had to put him in a coma, so his body had the time to heal.”

 

Tony feels his heart break and fall to the floor. A coma? But that wasn’t Peter. Peter wasn’t still, wasn’t silent and unmoving. He was vibrant, he bled life wherever he went and managed to crack smiles out of the most stoic of people. Peter was the best fucking person Tony knew, and screw the universe if it thought it could take its best person away. Thought it could take his kid away from him.

 

“Can I see him?” Tony pinches the bridge of his nose, clenches his hand into a fist. He needs to see Peter.

 

Helen sighs, glancing at her watch. “Of course, Tony. If he wakes up on his own, that’s a great sign. It means he'll pull through. He’s unresponsive currently. But you can see him now.” She offers him a small, hopeful, but hesitant smile. “If his abilities work in the way you think they will, I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Her fingers tighten on the clipboard in her hands. “You just gotta be patient, Tony.” 

 

Tony nods and lets Helen lead him into the room, and he feels like he’s been stabbed in the gut, a phantom pain that spreads into his heart and echoes throughout his body, poisoning him from the inside out. 

 

Peter doesn’t look very different, the kid’s always been small, despite his impressive strength, and rather pale. But he’s so quiet , Tony’s tempted to ask FRIDAY to play some music to fill the silence. Tony’s always loved the quiet, especially after Afghanistan, when loud noises would make him jump, when he would slam his hands over his ears at night to drown out the sounds of past screams. The quiet has always been the place where he can relax, rest happily in the rhythm of his own heart beating. 

 

But ever since Peter crashed into his life, Tony’s become less adjusted to the quiet. Especially because the mindless chatter the kid fills his days up with is less mindless than it is exciting, interesting things an eager kid wants to share with his hero. Tony no longer loves the quiet. He loves the sound of Peter’s voice far more. 

 

Tony inches forward, drops into the chair next to Peter’s bed, and grabs the kid’s hand. It’s cool to the touch, freezing almost, but Tony doesn’t care about that, wraps his fingers around it without a second thought. He bends forward and brushes a piece of hair off of the kid’s forehead, which is also cool. 

 

“Hey there, Peter. God kid,” Tony’s voice breaks, and he swallows back tears as he looks at Peter. “You’re scaring me, kid. You know how old I am. My heart’s been through enough. It can’t take you shaving years off of my life like that. You want me around for a long time, right? So I can be Iron Man? So I can be there for you? So how about you wake up, ok?” he pushes, gripping Peter’s frail hand tighter. “Please.”

 

Peter doesn’t move an inch, besides breathing up and down, before a sound from outside the room makes Tony turn his head, and his heart drops into shoes. 

 

Because May Parker is standing there, looking every inch the fearsome goddess he knows her to be, and Tony Stark has faced down death itself, stared into the endless darkness of a black hole, watched the love of his life fall into flames, seen his best friend fall from the sky, but there is very little that frightens him more than this woman who holds the entirety of Peter’s heart in her hands, who defies the universe every time it throws more tragedy her way. 

 

May shoves into the room, and he can see her mouth open before his eyes crawl up her face to lock with hers. He sees in them an exact mirror of what he feels inside, swirling pools of grief and stubbornness, empty yet wanting. 

 

He braces himself for the tirade, waites for the yelling to begin, and it never comes. May simply closes her mouth and drops into the seat on the other side of Peter, taking his left hand in hers. 

 

“Hey there, kiddo,” she says softly, and part of Tony feels like he is intruding on something incredibly intimate and private, but hell if he’s going to leave this kid right now. May leans forward and brushes that very same curl back, and Tony’s struck with a realization so potent, he nearly doubles over. 

 

People always overestimated the weight biology played in love. Assuming that because DNA and gene pools were shared, memories and affection were coded in. Biology was never that simple. And as Tony watches May rub circles into the back of Peter’s hand, he knows how true this is. I will love you for the rest of my life, and past that, Tony thinks, watching the steady rise and fall of Peter’s chest. He couldn’t love Peter anymore if he had been his own, if he shared half his DNA. Love wasn’t something as simple as chromosomes, wasn’t as easy as a check on a form. There are memories built into Peter’s DNA, and Tony’s. There are a thousand moments, a thousand smiles that threaten to break open his face, a thousand moments that threaten to break open his heart, a thousand years worth of love built up in his veins. The boy Tony knows, the boy who loves with everything he is, everything he ever will be, and Tony closes his eyes and makes a promise to himself. He will do whatever it takes to save the world, to make it a better place, to make it a place worthy of his kid. He loves this kid, loves him with the fading impressions of Star Wars movies, loves him with the lingering scent of popcorn, with the smudge of pencil charcoal on his hands, loves him with the small way his brow furrows when he looks at calculus, loves him with the way he looks at puppies, loves him with the way he stares after the girl he has a crush on. He loves all of the parts of Peter, loves everything about this kid, every last atom of this superhero who has saved Tony’s life countless times, loves his son with every fiber of his being, every strand of DNA they don’t, but do share. Biology has always been the least of Tony’s worries, and it will never haunt him again. Tony has built this love, he realizes, in a stunning flash of clarity. He has built the love between him and this kid with his bare hands, stacked it piece by piece with moments and cemented with memories, fortified with laughter and smiles. 

 

Tony has been an inventor his entire life, but he cannot help but think that this, the love he has built with Peter, was his greatest invention. 

 

There is a sort of inevitability, he realizes, in having Peter be a superhero. He never knew this sort of feeling, was sure Pepper battled with it on a daily basis, but the very thing he loved most about Peter was also the very thing Tony was sure was going to get him killed if he wasn’t careful. His heart was simply too big for this world, and the world could never help but strike down everything good in it. 

 

It’s an odd thing, he thinks. He has always thought of children needing their parents, after all, it makes sense. Of course all children need their parents. But it wasn’t until now, with him sitting beside the bedside of his barely moving child, that he understands just how much parents need their children. 

 

He needs this, needs Peter to remind him that the world is not bad, needs Peter to show him how to be a better man. He cannot understand why he is anyone’s hero. Tony’s hero will always be Peter. 

 

He can barely stand to look May in the eyes now, can hardly even glance at her. Everytime he does, a fresh wave of guilt hits him, overtakes him so completely he wonders if he will suffocate in it. So he settles for tracing the lines on Peter’s palms, soft and so very small. 

 

will this kid ever stop being small to him?

 

“It’s not your fault, you know.” May’s voice breaks Tony out of his daze, jolting him so violently out of his despair he’s afraid he might actually be shaking. He looks up at her for the first time, meeting her eyes. She offers him a small smile, although she looks like she’s aged ten years. Tony’s sure he looks the same. “Him, getting hurt. It’s not your fault.” 

 

Tony’s shaking his head. “I just don’t get it,” he rasps. “I should have been there with him. The suit should have told me the second he was hurt. I didn’t protect him, May. That makes it my fault.”

 

Even before he finishes speaking, she’s shaking her head. “Never, Tony. Don’t you delude yourself into thinking this is your fault. It’s no one’s fault but the person who stabbed my kid with a knife,” she says, voice breaking, “ six times. ” 

 

“He’s just a kid, May.” 

 

“Yeah. But he’s a kid with the biggest heart I have ever seen and superpowers. Do you really think either of us could have stopped him? Do you think even after we tell him to stop, he's going to stop?” She reaches over and grips the hand Tony’s cradling Peter’s own hand with, linking all three of them together. “He was putting himself in so much danger, Tony. Even with his powers, that suit he made.” May’s crying now, silent tears dripping down her face, but she still looks as strong as ever. 

 

stark men are made of iron, tony remembers his father saying. he wants to laugh at that. sure, stark men may be made of iron, but everyone knows iron isn’t strong. it’s better to surround yourself with steel. may parker is made of more steel than tony will ever know, and he respects this.

 

“God, I used to watch those videos and worry for that kid, before I knew he was my own. I used to think about how easily it was for him to get killed . But Tony,” May presses, curling her fingers around his own, “you gave him his suit. You gave him a way to protect himself. Peter’s always going to be a little reckless. He’s always going to put himself between the bullet and everyone else in the world. You put yourself between him and that bullet.” May smiles at him. “How can I ever be mad at someone who loves my kid like me?” 

 

Tony swallows, tears welling up in his eyes. He doesn’t want to start crying, because if he starts, there’s no goddamn way on Earth he will ever stop until Peter opens his eyes, smiles at him.

 

“I want to protect him, May. I wish I could protect him from everything in the world.” 

 

May sighs. “I’d never thought I’d see the day Tony Stark was a parent . Now you know what it’s like. Having a child is unlike everything else in the world. You don’t just love them with everything you are. You love them with everything you ever will be, you love them with every single cell in your body.” She blinks back tears. “You can’t bear to ever stop loving them.” 

 

“I can’t lose him, May.” 

 

“You think I can, Tony? He’s my kid . It’s not something you recover from.”

 

Tony Stark knows grief. He knows it far more acutely than anyone ever should have to. He knows what it is like to have every single leg swept out from underneath you, to try and lose yourself down a bottle. He knows what it is like to have a black hole open in your heart, to crave for the loving words of your parents, to trade everything just for another day with them. Howard Stark was a legend. But a legend can’t wrap its arms around you and tell you how proud they are of you. A legend can’t be waiting for you at home. 

 

Strangely enough, Tony knows this loss is much worse, but he can barely even compute it. Is it worse? Is it just a different kind of pain, so deep, so acute he can barely survive it? Because this isn’t craving someone to come home to, craving someone to tell you they love you. 

 

Losing a child is craving to have someone to come home to you. Losing a child is waiting for pride to well up in your body, waiting for love to erupt from your heart at a moment’s notice, because of everything they do. Losing a child is living a lifetime feeling like everything is off, like nothing will ever be right again. It is not an ache that surges and subsides with every breath, but rather an ache that turns you inside out. For the rest of your life, you will always be waiting, for a fraction of a second, waiting for someone who will never reappear. You will always be waiting for someone to make you feel whole again. Losing a child is losing every piece of yourself, losing everything about you that makes you who you are. 

 

sometimes tony wonders, on his worst days, if he is unlovable. and then he looks at peter, and for the life of him, he cannot figure out what this kid sees in him, but he's going to try to be the man peter deserves. the hero he deserves. there's a reason peter loves him, and even if tony cannot understand it, he is forever grateful for it.

 

“Mr. S’ark?” The question is soft, groggy, but Tony’s eyes tear away from May instantly to see Peter’s brown ones, half open, but awake. Awake .

 

“Hey there, kid,” May says. Peter turns his head to her, and she strokes his cheek with her hand. 

 

“May?” Peter’s voice sounds so incredibly small that Tony’s heart breaks all over again, but only slightly. Because right now Peter is awake, eyes already growing heavier, but breathing steadily, snuggling his head into May’s hand. The hand Tony’s gripping moves just slightly, and now Peter’s fingers are decidedly wrapped around Tony’s, and that little movement sends so much happiness into Tony’s body he is not sure he will be able to contain it all. 

 

“I larb you, kiddo, so much,” May says softly, stroking Peter’s cheek with the back of her hand. “Go to sleep. When you wake up, we’ll be here. Both of us.” She glances at Tony, but all he can focus on is Peter. 

 

“I’m not leaving you, kid.” And Tony knows that he will probably be here again, that he will be forced to accept that Peter will never stop putting himself in danger. That this very scene may happen again. 

 

Tony wonders if this feeling will ever go away, dancing on the razor’s edge between earth shattering grief and the most potent happiness he has ever known. He has never been so acutely aware of what he has, and how easily he could lose it all. That every single second he will always be holding his breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Peter will always throw himself into the thick of danger. And somehow, against all odds, Tony will have to learn to accept this. Will have to come to terms with the fact that his kid will never put his life first. He’s not sure if he can do this. He’ll have to be able to do this. 

 

But right now Peter is breathing, and Tony has not lost him yet. His kid still has blood coursing through his veins, a heart beating in his chest, and so Tony lifts his eyes to the sky, presses his lips to Peter’s hands, and hopes against all hope that it continues. 

 

after (part iv.)

 

there are more atoms in a grain of sand than stars in the universe, but as tony looks out into the vast expanse in front of him, he cannot help but think that the universe is endless, no matter what carol may say. 

 

he hears peter’s voice all the time now, in the shadow of movements, in the endless space between the beats of his own heart, in the final spark of electricity in his veins. 

 

he sees peter everywhere, in the split ice cream on the sidewalk, in the color of fire, in the bloodied lip that he dabs at when he’s been working too hard, and his teeth had sunk in. 

 

he is haunted by his own son, and it is a dichotomy of being, because he cannot figure out whether or not he wants peter to leave. the ghost of peter hangs around him, the albatross around his neck, weighing him down. he cannot bear for the albatross to fly away. 

 

but he is atlas, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he must survive this. he has no choice.

 

he stares out at the black sky, and wonders if peter knows dichotomy also refers to the moon. always half. never whole. 

 

before (part ii.)

 

Tony can’t stop laughing, even though he knows he probably shouldn’t be. 

 

“Mr. Stark, it’s not funny,” Peter whines. And yes, Tony knows this, but he still can’t help if a little chuckle escapes him every now and then. 

 

“You look absolutely ridiculous, kid.” 

 

“Mr. Stark!”

 

Peter just groans, burying his head in his hands. Tony doesn’t even feel a little bad about it, though, because Peter does look ridiculous.

 

Tonight is the Annual Stark Gala, and Tony himself is dressed in a tux. He kinda hates them, but tonight is really important, or at least, it’s really important to Pepper. And since he’s got to impress a lot of people tonight, he might as well show off the best parts of himself. ( read: Pepper, Happy, Rhodey, and Peter )

 

And so here’s his “intern”, standing in front of him, dressed in a suit that looks way too large on him, red tie dangling from his fingertips. And Tony can’t stop laughing. 

 

“Mr. Stark!” Peter just whines again. Tony manages to temper down the last of his chuckles, just sending a couple smirks at the kid. His cheeks are flushed, bright red, and Tony can’t help but be a little happy at this sight. He’s still a kid.

 

“Come on, Pete. Let’s find something that works better for you.”

 

Tony drags Peter upstairs, to his closet. He rummages through, trying to find something, before settling on a suit that he wore when he was far younger, but that’s still in pristine condition on the account that his parents had forced him into it once and he had refused to wear it again. He pulls it out and tosses it at Peter. 

 

“Wear this, kid.” He hears Peter grumbling, and then the rustle of clothes behind him that indicates that Peter had decided not to argue with him and just take his advice, for once. 

 

“Ugh,” Tony groans, moving over to his collection of watches and pulling one out. “You can keep that, by the way,” he adds, glancing over at Peter, who’s pulling on the white button down. “I haven’t worn that more than once and I am not 15 anymore, so it is never going to fit me again.” 

 

He turns around to find Peter shrugging on the jacket, navy tie in his own hand. “Now. This tie.” 

 

Peter glances at it. “No.” 

 

“No?”

 

Peter, for his part, looks a little abashed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Stark. It’s just…” he trails off. Tony raises an eyebrow, and Peter sighs. “This was Uncle Ben’s tie. I just didn’t want to let go of it, I guess.” The kid glances down, and runs a thumb over the fabric. 

 

Tony sighs. “Yeah, I get it, kid.” He does. There’s a reason he kept his mother’s piano, why he named his grant foundation after her, why he still has Howard’s robe after all these years. “Well then.” He tosses the tie to the side, stepping forward and pulling Ben’s tie out of Peter’s hand. “The least I can do is teach you how to tie it properly.” 

 

Peter listens avidly as Tony guides him, telling him how he and May had to watch video after video on Youtube to figure it out for the homecoming dance because Ben had always tied his own ties. Tony’s smiling by the time he’s done and steps back. 

 

“You look good, kid.” Tony hands Peter the watch, fixes it on his wrist. “This is my favorite watch. I think you should keep this, as well.” 

 

“Mr. Stark.” Peter glances down at the watch. Tony can tell, just by looking at the kid’s eyes, always so expressive, how he feels. 

 

“Listen, Peter.” Tony steps close, puts his hands on Peter’s shoulder. The kid’s almost as tall as him, barely has to look up to meet his with his own eyes. And yet, every single time Peter glances at him, Tony feels like the kid’s looking at his hero. Which he knows for Peter is objectively true, but he feels amazing anyways. “You’re brilliant. You’re selfless. You’re one of the best goddamn people on this planet.” He squeezes Peter’s shoulders. “You’re going to kill it tonight.” 

 

Peter looks down at his shoes, back up at Tony. “Thank you for that, Mr. Stark.” 

 

“Kid, I can promise you something. I will never stop believing in you. I promise.”

 

after (part v.)

 

the gauntlet is heavy, as tony picks it up, and he is not exactly sure how they got here. he vaguely remembers thor taking thanos’s head off, courtesy of a spectacularly impressive performance by their newest team member, carol. 

 

and of course, because the universe deems it so, atlas must shoulder the burden. he knows what he has to do, and even if every cell in his body screams that it is instant death, that he will never see peter again, tony cannot think of a nobler cause to die for. 

 

he has lived a lifetime with voices in his head, thanos, obadiah, peter, but as he slips on the gauntlet, everything falls perfectly silent for the first time.

 

tony grew up with stories of heroes, and he has always found himself fascinated with the myth of icarus. how intoxicating it is to chase something you know will kill you. you don’t miss looking over the edge and you don’t miss hitting the ocean. but you miss the two glorious seconds in which you fall.

 

tony tastes power on his tongue; he closes his eyes, and snaps his fingers. 

 

and for a heartbeat, maybe, he feels the whisper of a hand hitting his shoulder.

 

before (part i.)

 

The leather of his seat is sticky, and Tony digs his nails into his palm so hard little crescents, red, raw, deep, show up on his hands. Everytime he closes his eyes all he can see is Peter, getting thrown across an airport parking lot, hurtling through the air. When he closes his eyes, all he can see is Rhodey, falling, falling, falling, until he can’t catch him. 

 

This is the price a hero has to pay, Tony thinks. The true enemy is his own mind. 

 

“Hey Happy!” A voice jolts him out of his thoughts, and he realizes he has accidentally pressed play on one of the voicemails Peter has left Happy. 

 

Despite himself, Tony cannot help a smile grace his face. Trust the kid to pull him back from the edge without even knowing. 

 

“Nothing much happened today, I guess. I saved a couple of kittens from trees, and a puppy from the East River, which, I’m glad I’ve already got radiation, because the stuff in that place is nasty . I hope I didn’t catch some disease, or anything.” 

 

Even across the phone, Tony can hear the tired edge to the kid’s voice. He wants to do more. He needs to do more. And Tony respects that, he really does. But Peter’s not ready, and he needs to protect him. Puppies and kittens were perfect for the kid. The world was dangerous, and even if Peter was superpowered, he was still 15, and he needed to grow up first. 

 

“I also helped a bunch of little kids pick up some trash in the park, which was actually really nice because all of the kids are really small, but so cute. But anyways. Just let me know when our next “mission” is. I’m looking forward to it. Things are kinda slow here. I’m ready to help out Mr. Stark in anyway I can.”

 

Tony presses a fist to his mouth, moves to turn the voicemail off, but something stops him for a split second, and that’s all Peter needs. 

 

“Sometimes I can’t believe he chose me, you know. I used to watch him all the time, back before he was even Iron Man. I just want him to pick me again, I guess. Sorry for the rambling, Happy. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

 

Tony has to physically bite down on his tongue to restrain himself from calling Peter right then and there and telling him that he’s fine. And he’s kinda shocked, to be honest. He never thought he would be a hero, especially before the Iron Man thing began. He didn’t even start doing Iron Man to be a hero, who would want womanizing, drinking, all around mess Tony Stark pre-Iron Man as their hero?

 

A kid from Queens, apparently.

 

He knows he has to call Peter back, hell, he wants to call Peter back. But the last thing he wants to do is turn the kid into another him. Howard was a terrible man and a terrible father, and Tony still couldn’t help love him. If Peter never loves him, Tony can never mess him up. He doesn’t want to be the one to steal the light from that kid’s eyes.

 

after (part vi.)

 

it is bright, so bright that tony sucks in a breath. it feels like a rainbow is exploding around him, like he is trapped in a raindrop. he feels like he is on the line between a dream and a nightmare, darting between worlds. 

 

he can taste the air trapped in his lungs before it is stolen out from underneath him, drown in the blood around his own heart, suffocate because of his brain. 

 

he is dying, and yet, he has never felt more alive. 

 

it takes three tries, full of pain ( pain makes you human ) but eventually, he manages to open his eyes, and his entire world tips onto its side. 

 

because peter is in front of him, pale skinned, cuts marring his face, but he is there, he is alive, and he is breathing—

 

and he is saying something, but tony cannot hear him. he cannot think about anything other than the gauntlet on his arm, until peter removes it, and his lips part open in surprise

 

—then, his son reaches out trembling fingers, brushes his cheek just like tony had done countless times before, and tony realizes that the universe has given him one last gift, because he can hear him now, hear his voice one last time. 

 

i’ll take care of them, now, mr. stark. you’re off duty. you can rest now. peter presses a hand over the arc reactor on tony’s chest, and he wonders if his son can hear it, thrumming, like he was always able to. 

 

you’re earth’s greatest defender. and you will always be my hero

 

tony wonders if this quiet will remain, and so he closes his eyes, thinks of pepper and peter and rhodey and happy, thinks of the world he is leaving behind, and thinks of how it does not deserve his son, but his son deserves it. his son deserves a life, full of happiness. 

 

we are all stories in the end, and tony cannot think of anyone better to tell his than peter.

 

before (part iv.)

 

When Tony stumbles onto the roof of the Avengers compound, the night is far noisier than he ever thought it would be. There are crickets, and the wind in the grass. His hair, always perfect, is messed up and ruffles slightly in the wind. 

 

But the air is cool, and as it hits his lungs, it feels like cigarette smoke, burning and soothing at the same time, a brand and a balm. 

 

He turns his head and sees a lone figure sitting on the edge of the building, face turned up at the sky,, and his lips twist up in a smile. He can’t blame the kid. 

 

After New York, Tony hadn’t liked the stars much, was never able to see them with the same wide-eyes wonder he had when he was a kid. But Peter’s from New York City, and Tony knows this is probably the first time he’s seeing the stars in person, and the knowledge makes Tony appreciate the stars for the first time in years. 

 

Tony has seen brilliance, has held it in his hands. But still, he struggles to find a time when this kid has not awed him. 

 

When he sits down next to Peter, the kid nearly jumps a foot in the air, and Tony laughs. “Looks like that “spider sense” isn’t as refined as you’d like everyone to believe, huh?”

 

Peter just grumbles, and Tony steals the red blanket wrapped around the kid to wrap around the both of them. “Mr. Stark! It doesn’t work when I’m around people who make me feel safe.” At this, Peter blushes a vibrant red, but Tony just laughs. 

 

“I’m glad your weird power has developed so you don’t freak out if a cat comes running up to you.” 

 

“You don’t know, Mr. Stark. It could be some weird killer cat or something, hell bent on destruction.” 

 

Tony snorts. “Ok kid. We ever run into a cat that makes your weird spider senses go off, I’ll be sure to trust you that it’s a killer cat.” Peter laughs and leans his head against Tony’s shoulder, looking up at the sky. 

 

“Are you ok, Mr. Stark?” Peter’s voice is soft and calming in the air, drifting on the back of the wind. 

 

“Of course kid. Why wouldn’t I be?” 

 

“I just know...after everything that happened in Germany, you’ve been dealing with a lot and it’s been kind of difficult, with, with Cap, and—”

 

Tony interrupts him. “I’m fine, kid. You don’t need to worry about stuff like that anyways. I’ve got it under control. Remember, I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years.” 

 

“Mr. Stark.” Tony looks at Peter, and he seems more serious than the kid normally is, lips pressed together. “I know you’re strong, Mr. Stark. You’re probably the strongest person I’ve ever met, after May. But you don’t need to be strong all the time. You can take a break, every once in a while.” 

 

Tony rubs his eyes and lets out a tired sigh. “Peter, you don’t get it. I don’t take a break because I think I need to be strong. I don’t take a break because if I rest, then the world isn’t safe, Peter. Do you remember, a couple years ago, the attack in Sokovia, by Ultron?”

 

Peter nods, quiet. His eyes are searching, always searching, and Tony will probably spend his whole life trying to figure out what this kid is looking for. 

 

“That was my fault, Peter. I created Ultron, because I saw a vision. The whole world, the Avengers, all dead. Gone, because we couldn’t see that Loki was just the beginning of something much, much worse. I needed to put a shield around the world. And in trying to, I broke it.”

 

Tony locks eyes with Peter. He needs the kid to understand this. “I broke the world in trying to protect it, and I will never stop paying for that. But just because Ultron was a failure doesn’t mean I was wrong. I need to protect the world. And to do that, you just can’t rest.” 

 

Peter sighs, looking out into the void of stars above them. “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” he murmurs. 

 

They sit in silence for a long time, Peter looking at the sky, Tony looking at the green grass that surrounds the compound. 

 

Finally, Peter breaks the silence, pointing up. “I never got to see the stars in the city, you know. I used to love them, used to look for them every single day. When Ben died, I stopped looking for the stars. I guess I just didn’t see any reason in spending time up there when things were already so bad down here. If he could die, then nothing else in the world would be right.” 

 

Tony swallows down the grief that bubbles up in his throat. It’s a feeling he knows all too well. But he stays silent, and waits for Peter to continue. “And then you took me to Germany, and I helped Iron Man. I helped Tony Stark .” Peter lets out a little laugh, almost disbelieving. “I helped Tony Stark, and I tried to make a difference. And I started looking for the stars again.” 

 

“Kid…” Tony starts. But Peter shakes his head. 

 

“You don’t need to say anything, Mr. Stark.” 

 

“No, Peter, I do.” Tony smiles genuinely at the kid, for the first time, he thinks. “You are the strongest person I know, Peter. I think,” he pauses, tasting the words on his tongue. “I think that this is the life we choose, when we decide to do this. Especially as Avengers. When you dedicate your life to something, the way any of us do, Bruce, Thor, Nat. When you decide to be the shield between mankind and something horrible, there are some things that will never leave you.”

 

Peter nods. “Yeah. But that’s the sacrifice we make, right?”

 

Tony’s lips twist into a bitter smile. “There’s a reason they call them tragic heroes. Choosing something other than yourself is the surest way to damn yourself to a life of tragedy. I will not let that happen to you, Peter.” He looks at the kid, smoothes his hand over his hair, slightly curling. “You have so much tragedy in your life already. Why would you ever want to add more?”

 

“Why would you, Mr. Stark?” 

 

It’s a simple question, rather straightforward, but it stops Tony’s blood cold nonetheless. “What do you mean, Peter?” 

 

Peter lifts his legs from where they’re dangling off the edge of the building. “You’ve lost just as much as I have, Mr. Stark. Been through a lot more, in my opinion. Why do you keep fighting?” 

 

Tony’s speechless, for possibly only the third or fourth time in his life. He’s never really thought much about why. It’s always been there, the need to right wrongs, the need to fix injustice. It’s been a part of him for the past 10 years, probably for longer, and it’s as integral to him as all the bones in his body. It’s always been more of a heartbeat than a choice. 

 

“To be honest kid, I don’t know. The universe is full of so much pain, and I think all of us carry a little of responsibility to ease that pain, to fix it bit by bit. Remember something, Peter. The world is never worse off for having you in it unless you hurt someone. But doing nothing just as bad as doing something bad. To ignore suffering, to ignore pain, is the same as it is to inflict it.”

 

Tony pauses, looks at the very stars he has hated for years, tries to draw strength from them. If there is one thing he remembers about the wormhole, it is that the universe is stronger than anything else in the world. 

 

“Do you know what it is called when a star is born?”

 

Peter shakes his head. “Stellar nucleosynthesis. And when a star dies, it is called supernova nucleosynthesis.” Tony chuckles bitterly. “The same name in birth and death, eons apart.”

 

The stars have been there before, and they will be there after you. Thousands of lives have birthed and grown and died in the time it took for their light to reach you, and this is a fact that will never change. The stars will outlive you by centuries, but even their deaths are eons longer than any human lives. 

 

“Be like a star, Peter. Live beyond your body, beyond everything you are. And when you die, spread your last light further than ever before. You are composed of the same thing as the heart of dying stars, and it would do you well to remember that you should shine, brighter in death than any point in life. Let it be your last act of defiance in this universe.” He smiles at Peter. “Be a star. Live bright, and never forget who you are. You are made up of stars, and you should be like one. To live passionately, to love with everything you are, is never a wrong thing. It is the only truly right thing you can do in this world. Be a star, kid. Live long, and when you go out, if you must, then force the world to take notice. Let your light touch the eyes of millions for eons.”

 

between

 

he knows you cannot be trapped in light, he knows you cannot breath underwater, but he thinks this is what it would feel like, if you could. 

 

he closes his eyes and tries to remember, only comes up with empty concrete streets and aliens, falling from the sky. the stars have aligned, and now, in this moment, they have chosen to place him here.

 

he sees a comet flash behind his lids, and a smile stretches across his cracked lips. the stars might align, but not for long, and fate is never carved in stone, but written into wet clay, easily smudged and malleable. 

 

he has never placed much stock in fate, the gods. he prefers to put his faith in people, prefers to trust those around him, those who have earned it, with everything he has, every cell in his body. 

 

wherever he is, this halfway world, he knows mr. stark will come for him. will come for all of them. 

 

if it were tony who was trapped, nothing could stop peter from doing the same.