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grief (is a freight train)

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Every year, the world rejoices, flocking to the streets to celebrate a world rid of Thanos, a world full of all the people once lost in the Decimation. 

Every year, the world takes a moment to be grateful for its fortunes.

And every year, there are some who don’t. There are some who grieve, who see the day as a curse instead of a blessing.

Every year, there are some who gaze upon the larger-than-life monument of Iron Man with sadness instead of gratitude.

Because every year, the world remembers Tony Stark as Iron Man, their hero, the man they have to thank for bringing back the ones they love. His family remembers him as more.

 

(Pepper remembers the man with the tired eyes and the unfaltering resilience; she remembers the man who fought so hard for a world of people who, before realizing he was responsible for reversing their nightmare, would have mercilessly judged him every chance they had.)

 

(Morgan remembers the warmth, the love, the selflessness. She remembers calloused hands running through her hair, holding her up, tucking her into bed. 

She remembers the father who let her eat juice pops even after she already brushed her teeth, who told her bedtime stories and kissed her goodnight every night without fail, who whispered I love you 3000, kiddo to her from beyond the grave.)

 

(Peter remembers the constant check-ins, the hourly snacks to accommodate his enhanced metabolism, the upgrades to his suit that kept Spider-Man even more protected than Iron Man. 

He remembers the genius who sat patiently with him as they worked through his pre-calc worksheets together, never once complaining even though they doubtlessly bored him to tears. He remembers the mentor who helped him grow into the superhero he now is. 

He remembers the fighter who bore the weight of the world without protest, who gave everything for nothing, who cared too much but was too afraid to show it.)

 

(Rhodey remembers the witty kid with a thousand ingenious ideas who showed up in his dorm room, the all-nighters driven by cans of disgusting energy drinks and stacks of pizza boxes, the frat parties and drunk stories spilling through loose lips.

He remembers the kindness and selfless generosity his best friend hid beneath a veil of biting sarcasm and snide remarks. He remembers every dollar Tony threw around in an attempt to rid himself of his misplaced guilt, the list of charities he was knee-deep in growing by the week.)

 

(Happy remembers Tony’s patience, his compassionate hazelnut eyes, his supply of second chances. He remembers his boss and friend’s sense of humor, all of the times Tony laughed at or with him.

He remembers Tony’s trusting side. He remembers what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that trust. He remembers thinking he never wanted to break it. He also remembers thinking, shoulder-to-shoulder with Rhodey at Tony Stark’s funeral, that he’d failed.)

 

And when everyone else smiles to think of the day Thanos was bested, they don’t. 

Pepper enfolds Morgan in her arms, holding her little girl tightly as the sun rises on another day without their missing family member, and prays that they won’t have to lose each other, too. 

Peter locks himself in his room and desperately clutches his mask to his chest as he listens to KAREN play recordings of Mr. Stark over and over again, pretending he can’t feel the tears spilling over onto his cheeks.

Rhodey stares blearily down at his certificate of graduation from MIT and imagines a world where Tony Stark wasn’t his roommate. When he can’t, coming up short, he drinks himself into oblivion.

Happy finds himself at his (and Tony’s) favorite gym and wears himself out in the ring, throwing himself at contender after contender, none of them Tony.

 

 


 

Seven months after Tony Stark dies, Peter stumbles across the framed photograph of him and Tony grinning at each other, an upside-down certificate held between them. It’s sitting there on Tony’s desk for all to see.

Lying innocently next to the photo, so unaware of its own implications, is the blueprints for the time machine.

Peter’s heart stutters in his chest. Eyes transfixed on his mentor’s smile, he feels himself fall, fall, fall—

(“Why?” he remembers asking Pepper months ago, after Tony’s funeral. “Why did he do it? Why did he have to die for – for a world that never even truly appreciated him?”

Pepper freezes, her fierce stare fracturing for a brief moment, falling apart to reveal the tears that seem so natural to her now. 

She smiles sadly at him, shakes her head, and tells him not to worry about it.)

It was for him, Peter realizes now. All for him.

He’s the reason Tony Stark is dead. He’s why Pepper cries herself to sleep these days; why Rhodey no longer has his best friend; why Happy often stares off into the distance like he’s remembering every “Forehead of Security” joke Tony teasingly made at his expense; why Morgan lost her father.

He did this. He killed Tony Stark.

For the first time in almost a month (a record, Peter, May pointed out, lips smiling but eyes sad, so sad, let's aim for the small victories), Peter braces himself against reality and cries.

 


 

It takes him weeks to muster the courage to confront Pepper about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter because she finds him first, sitting with Dum-E in her and Tony's garage, looking down at the photo cradled in his hands with red, dry eyes.

“Oh, Peter,” she whispers. “Put the photo down, kid. Don’t do this to yourself.”

He looks up at her and sees a woman who’s lost everything. His eyes drag to the ring on her finger and flinches; she might still be wearing the ring, but she’s a widow now—because of him.

Pepper must realize where his thoughts are spiraling to because she shakes her head firmly, tears splattering onto the concrete floor of her garage. “Stop it, Peter,” she begs. “I had to watch Tony go down this road, too. Don’t make me do it again.”

“He did this for me,” Peter whispers before he can stop himself. “He – he had you and Morgan. He had the life he’s always dreamed of, but he risked all of that. For me. Why?”

Pepper’s face is painted in grief, and Tony’s death is the artist. (Peter is the artist, because this is his fault, he thinks. His.) “He wanted you to have the chance to fight for the life you deserve,” she whispers hoarsely. “This,”—she sweeps her arms around herself, a gesture to encompass everything he now has—“this is the life you deserve.”

The photograph clatters to the floor, falling out of Peter’s shaking hands.

He knows she means the fact that he is alive at all. He knows she‘s talking about all the extra time he and Aunt May has together, about Ned and MJ and him banding together as the inseparable Three Musketeers once again, about all the reasons he has to smile nowadays—

“Live it, Peter,” Pepper’s voice is soft, a broken plea. “Tony can’t anymore, but you still can. So fight, Peter. Live. Make him proud.

—But when he looks at his life now, when he takes stock of everything that is a part of Pepper’s all-inclusive “this”, all he sees is Mr. Stark’s absence.

 


 

When Peter gets home that night, he thinks of Pepper’s words and considers it. He even manages to imagine it—living the peaceful life Mr. Stark would have wanted for him, full of joy and laughter, full of eating Thai with Aunt May and watching Star Wars reruns with Ned and debating politics with MJ.

But at the same time, it seems impossible. He can’t truly see himself reclaiming that life anymore—a part of him knows it’s because the old him died with his hero.

Happiness is miles away from him, a faraway dream.

But for so many people in the world, it isn’t just a dream. Thanos has been defeated, and the people lost in the Snap have been returned. Millions of people have gained their loved ones back.

And he knows better than ever now how fickle life is. 

Peter looks through his bedroom window, peering out at his neighborhood, and knows that the streets of Queens are as rife with crime as ever. There are girls and boys everywhere staring out the windows just as he is, wondering where their mothers are, wondering when their fathers will come home to them.

Mr. Stark is gone, but other kids still have their parents. (For now.)

Peter’s lost his mentor, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should have to lose their own families. That doesn’t mean he’s allowed to use that as an excuse and wither away, hiding from all of the screams for help.

 


 

Eight months after Tony Stark dies, Peter Parker shakily lifts himself up to his feet, wipes off his tears and dusts off his pants, and finally lets his eyes fall onto his Spider-Man suit.

For the first time in eight months, he doesn’t recoil away from it.

And finally, finally, finally—Queens’ beloved hero returns.

 


 

For a while, Peter loses himself in his crime-fighting. He takes down criminal after criminal and pretends he can’t hear the worry in Pepper’s voice when she calls to check in every few days, or the wistful longing in Happy’s voice when Peter admitted he’s finally taking up the mantle of the mask again, or the sob caught in Aunt May’s throat when she asks after his injuries every night. 

He pretends he doesn’t hear Mr. Stark all the time, a ghost chiding him for his recklessness, pointing out every gang fight, and cautioning him against all of the gun-wielding muggers.

And for a while, it works. 

 


 

Things get better. They get better—until they don’t.

 


 

It goes like this.

Peter’s lost in his thoughts, walking absentmindedly down the sidewalk with his fists in his pockets and his head in the clouds, when all of a sudden a man crashes into him. Peter yelps, yanking his earbuds out of his ears, eyes wide as he stares at the dark pool of hot coffee spreading across his t-shirt. He doesn’t even register the pain until the stranger curses and apologizes profusely, his own hand red where the coffee spilled over his paper cup and scorched his skin.

Peter doesn’t hear him. 

He can’t hear anyone but Tony, laughing hysterically at him when Peter trips over an errant wire and takes Tony’s coffee down with him. He can’t see anyone but Tony, rolling his eyes in fond exasperation and waving for Dum-E to “clean him up, buddy.”

It’s not real. 

Peter knows it’s not real. 

But that doesn’t stop him from wishing it is.

 


 

It goes like this.

Peter’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of MJ’s hostel room, his Decathlon teammates gathered around him in a messy semi-circle. MJ’s flicking through her flashcards, calling on them one by one and helping them revise for their competition tomorrow as the murmur of the television hums in the background.

For the first time in a while, Peter feels grounded in the present in this cramped hostel room, with his friends surrounding him and the room’s one light cheaply flickering on and off above them.

But nothing good lasts forever. Peter should know that by now.

Because twenty minutes into their studying session, Charles looks up at the TV in awe, whispering something about a new hero, about how “he’s like Iron Man and Thor rolled into one,” and—

Iron Man Iron Man Iron Man 

—Peter’s world comes crashing down around him for what must be the umpteenth time.

 


 

It goes like this.

Peter’s at his first Thanksgiving dinner without Mr. Stark when it hits him.

They’ve been going around the table, giving each person a few moments to utter their gratitudes: 

I’m thankful we can all be together again, like this.

I’m thankful I got to celebrate my son’s birthday last week. I’m thankful he’s alive to grow older.

I’m thankful for this team we can all count on to have each other’s backs.

I’m thankful for all of you.

He has no idea what to say.

A part of him knows, objectively, that there’s a lot to be thankful for—he’s alive. So is his aunt, his best friend, his classmates.

But looking beside him at little Morgan, knowing she will never get to have another Thanksgiving with her father, realizing she’ll hardly even remember his face come a few years’ time...

What is there to be thankful for?

The world thinks they’ve won. Peter sees Morgan, fatherless at four years old, and asks how victory can taste so much like defeat.

 


 

It goes like this.

He’s building LEGOs with Ned, listening to his best friend ramble about how Betty agreed to go on a date with him when he accidentally knocks over one of the Millennium Falcon’s laser cannons. The section lands on the floor with a loud crash as it breaks apart into its individual components, black and grey and white lego pieces bouncing away and rolling under his bed. 

Ned cuts off his endless chatter with a sheepish apology, but Peter just laughs and shakes his head, dropping to his knees and feeling blindly for the LEGO pieces. Eventually he gives up, tugs out his phone with a groan, and shines a flashlight into the darkness.

The light from his phone casts a bright glow over the scattered LEGO pieces. 

It also lights up the plastic Iron Man mask he’d cherished as a little boy.

Peter’s heart stops. His phone falls out of his grip, crashing to the floor with a thud. 

When Ned asks him what’s wrong, it takes every ounce of self-control he has to stop himself from saying: “Everything.”

 


 

It goes like this.

Peter turns eighteen. Mr. Stark isn’t there to see it.

 


 

It goes like this.

Peter walks into a bookstore with Ned at his heels, both keeping their eyes peeled for the type of book MJ might appreciate as a gift. 

He scans title upon title upon title, but in the end it isn’t a novel that makes him stop in his tracks, his heart lurching into his throat. It’s a little girl in the comics and magazines section, making animated gestures to her big brother, who smiles and nods indulgently at her, reaching up and picking out the book she‘s been indicating.

It’s an Iron Man comic book.

For a second—just a second—as he watches the little girl hold the comic book close to her heart—as he sees the effect Iron Man still has on the people who hold him up as their hero—Peter lets himself imagine Mr. Stark is still here.

(Peter wishes he could call his mentor up right now; wishes he could let Mr. Stark know that it is Iron Man who managed to bring a smile that wide to her face.)

But Mr. Stark isn’t. He’s never going to be here again.

Peter stumbles away from Ned and his friend’s excited babble of “look, she’s going to love this one,” and locks himself in the nearest restroom, collapsing against the toilet bowl and throwing up.

 


 

It goes like this.

Happy is the one who ends up teaching Peter to drive. When they both finally manage to convince themselves to go through with it, Happy pretends he can’t see the way Peter’s knuckles are white against the steering wheel.

Peter pretends he can’t see the way Happy shoves on a pair of sunglasses halfway through the lesson, his choked voice the only sign that betrays his anguish.

The whole time, Peter remembers a far-off past, Mr. Stark’s eyes twinkling at him as he swears he’ll let Peter test-drive all of his favorite cars as soon as it’s legal (and maybe even before then, as long as you're with me the entire time, alright?).

 


 

It goes like this.

It only takes Morgan three weeks to get attached to Peter and start calling him her “big brother.”

It takes her eleven more months after that to tell him, “I love you 3000, Petey.”

He doesn’t have to look around the room to know that Pepper and Rhodey and Happy are all freezing in place, staring at Morgan with the thought of Tony in their eyes.

He feels the same way. He swallows down a sob, cradles Morgan to his chest, and brushes a soft kiss to her forehead. His mind chants Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark like a prayer as he whispers, “I love you 3000, Maguna.”

Morgan smiles innocently up at him. Peter silences the sound of his heart breaking before Morgan can hear it.

 


 

It goes like this.

He and May are in the middle of having a quiet dinner in—the first in months, with May getting busier and busier at work and with him avoiding everyone he cares about in his grief—when he finally hears back from MIT.

May ends up opening the sealed envelope for him when she sees how much his hands are shaking. She takes one look at the letter and screams in delight, wrapping him up in a hug so tight he can feel it in his bones.

She lets him go eventually, eyes bright and full of joy, and Peter snatches the letter off the table. He knows what it must be, given May’s sheer enthusiasm, but—

He stares at the acceptance in disbelief, barely hearing May’s giddy laughter. 

He got in.

He should be happy. He should be thrilled. He should be jumping up and down out of sheer excitement.

MIT was his dream, after all. Still is, beneath all the misery.

For some reason, he isn’t. Instead of a smile, it’s tears that grace his face as Peter presses a trembling hand to his mouth, silent sobs rattling his body.

(If he’s honest with himself, he knows the reason. 

MIT is Mr. Stark’s alma mater. For months before the end of the world, Mr. Stark sent Peter brochure after brochure advertising MIT. When Peter asked, Mr. Stark’s only response was to wink cheekily.

Mr. Stark isn’t here for him to ask anymore.)

(MIT wasn't just his dream for himself. It was their dream, his and Mr. Stark's. It feels wrong, somehow, to hold this letter that contains some of Mr. Stark's greatest hopes and aspirations for him, in a world where Mr. Stark can't see it. It feels like betrayal.)

 


 

It goes like this. 

Peter’s shaking his principal’s hand, looking at the certificate proving his graduation dazedly, when he makes the mistake of looking up at the audience. He catches a glimpse of Aunt May beaming at him proudly, of Pepper and Morgan grinning beside her, of the assortment of colorful heroes decorating the front row.

His eyes zero in on the empty chair beside Morgan, with only a tiny Iron Man toy figurine sitting atop it. 

His heart plummets to his feet. Blood roars in his ears, deafening him to everything but Mr. Stark’s first words to him, a lifetime ago—“Nice work, kid.”

 


 

It goes like this.

Father’s Day arrives. Peter wakes up with an itch in the back of his mind, picks up his phone, and then nearly drops it when his eyes immediately dart to the date.

Mr. Stark.

Peter swallows down the memory of the first Father’s Day he showed up at Mr. Stark’s lab, a sheepish grin on his face and a clumsily-wrapped present in hand.

Today... today, though, he has to remind himself firmly, It’s just another day. 

But it isn’t, and he knows it. 

Because ever since that first time, all of his following Father’s Days had turned into movie nights with Mr. Stark, the two of them armed with an abundance of popcorn and soda and ice cream. 

This year, there’s no text reading ready for another movie marathon, kid? on his phone. There’s no one to pick up when he instinctively calls Mr. Stark, a cheerful Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Dad! burning at the tip of his tongue. There’s no friendly reminder from KAREN that Mr. Stark’s waiting for him in his home theater. 

(There’s just an empty lock screen, his and Mr. Stark’s mischievous grins beaming up at him from his phone wallpaper. 

There’s just his mentor's haunting snarky voice and the familiar voicemail greeting of "You know who I am, and I’m assuming you know what to do, or you really shouldn’t be allowed to operate a phone in this day and age," that leaves his ears ringing and lungs heaving and eyes stinging for almost an hour afterwards.

There’s just a quiet You have no new messages, Peter, when he finally manages to yank his suit on and pull the mask down his face, only to press frantically at the spider emblem on his chest and take it all off again, his stomach rolling with nausea.)

This year, Peter spends it in bed, staring blankly up at the ceiling, eyes dry but still aching. 

(This year, Peter spends it alone.)

Except he doesn’t.

Hours later, the Starks (missing one member, always missing one member) show up at his and May’s apartment, a watery smile on Pepper’s face and a subdued hey, Petey coming from Morgan. They’re each holding a bouquet of hydrangeas.

As soon as she’s close enough, Pepper offers him her bouquet, her smile stretching an inch wider. “You were his kid, too, no matter what your DNA says,” she whispers, and her voice is hoarse, like she’s spent all morning crying into her pillow. 

(At least, that’s what Peter’s been doing before they came.)

Peter opens his mouth to protest, but all it takes is one look at Morgan’s red-rimmed eyes and Peter knows he can’t say no. 

“Okay,” he breathes, even as he thinks thank you, even as he tries not to break down. 

(He fails.)

(That Father’s Day marks the beginning of a new tradition—one he dreads instead of looks forward to.

These days he spends every Father’s Day in a clearing in the forest that fringes the Starks’ lakehouse, holding Morgan’s tiny hand tightly in his own as she weeps into her father’s headstone.)

 


 

It goes like this.

He’s sitting through a lecture at MIT when his professor quotes Mr. Stark.

He shouldn’t be surprised. He isn’t surprised. Anthony Edward Stark is a genius, after all, and this is a physics class. 

Still, it takes him back to the lab, to Tony Stark standing across him and giving him advice. He hears himself huff in annoyance and remind Mr. Stark that he’s hardly in a position to caution Peter about lab safety given his own infamous recklessness.

He strains to hear Mr. Stark’s response—strains to listen to his mentor tell him that the rules only applied to smart-but-stupid Spider-Kids with a penchant for self-sacrifice. 

But the words never come. In a flash, Peter’s back in Professor Johnson’s classroom, sitting in a cheap, uncomfortable chair that’s too stiff and nothing at all like the plush rolling chairs in Mr. Stark’s lab.

The rest of the world continues to spin on its axis, his professor continues to drone on and on about electromagnetism, and his classmates continue to whisper conspicuously amongst each other, but Peter’s world came to a standstill long ago.

The moment passes, but the breathless feeling never fades. Tony Stark’s perfected ‘Mentor Knows Best’ stare drilling into the back of his head, Peter struggles to inhale, exhale, in, out as despair strangles him, crushing his throat in a vice grip.

 


 

It goes like this.

The first time he visits back home from MIT, Pepper asks him to take over as Head of R&D at Stark Industries.

He feels the color drain from his face.

She reassures him that he won’t have to drop out of MIT, that he’ll be able to dedicate most of his time to his education, that he’ll only have to put in a few hours and chip in a few ideas every so often.

She tells him she knows he’ll succeed.

Peter doesn’t bother correcting her. He doesn’t say that that isn’t what he’s worried about.

He doesn’t say that even though he knows it’s been ages, he still can’t fathom someone else taking up the mantle of his mentor’s job, even if it’s him. (Maybe especially if it’s him.)

He doesn’t say that he wishes no one would ever have to replace Tony Stark, in any and every capacity.

Instead, he forces himself to breathe and tells her he’ll do it.

 


 

It goes like this.

Morgan grows up. She becomes a teenager, smart and gorgeous and full of life. 

Eventually, she meets someone. Tony isn’t there to greet her date with a firm shake of the hand and a piercing, intimidating stare the first time she brings him home.

Peter is.

Pepper thanks him when the night is over. Peter lets her hug him, and realizes with sudden, startling clarity that Morgan won’t have her father to walk her down the aisle one day.

The thought drives him to his knees, trembling, gasping, convulsing—

—breaking.

 


 

It goes like this.

Peter is older now. He's not the snot-nosed little kid who just lost his mentor (father figure) anymore.

He goes to sleep smiling, heart full and content. He’s so sure he’s turning around, starting on a new path—beginning to well and truly heal.

Except—

Except.

He wakes up screaming, hands fisted in his sheets, tears already burning his eyes, and Mr. Stark’s dying, unseeing gaze is all he can see.

 


 

So things get better, until they don’t. 

Even years after Tony’s death, Peter finds his grief violently, all-consumingly unpredictable.

Some days, it no longer hurts to breathe in a world without his hero.

Other days, it does hurt.

Other days, it takes next to nothing—a stray word, a picture in the news, a laugh that sounds too much like long days in the lab—to send Peter careening back into the past, into a time when he could simply take out his phone and text Mr. Stark about anything and everything—science fairs, birthdays, Decathlon competitions, cute dogs he ran into at the park.

Other days, it seems like anything can drown Peter, thrusting him back into the midst of his grief, a maelstrom of horror and shock and anger and misery ripping him apart. 

Other days, the littlest, most random thing can set him off, hitting him like a punch in the gut. (You’re terrible at this, Underoos. Who in the world taught you to fight—wait, no, don’t tell me. Was it Youtube? I bet you learned to fight from Youtube. Can’t even take a punch like you mean it, god. That’s it, I’m taking over—you and me, in the gym, 5:00 A.M. sharp. I'm just kidding, kid, stop looking at me like that. Of course I don't actually mean 5:00. I mean, look who you're talking to. God knows I can't function before ten without at least two cups of coffee. Preferably three. I don't even want to think about how many coffees I'd need to down if I wanted to be useful at the ass crack of dawn—Pepper would kill me, literally, and convince FRIDAY to help hide the body. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Training. Let's set a date for 11:00 A.M. and call it a day, yeah?)

Other days, Peter fears he will never recover.

 


 

The rest of the world moves on. 

Peter Parker can’t.