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“Well? What do you think?”

Tony startles, turning away from the lake to face Pepper. She’s standing only feet away from him with a giant smile on her face. They’re out at the end of the dock; he hadn’t even heard her walk out from the shore.

Tony gives her a grin and moves to wrap an arm around her back, palm splaying across the far stretch of her large belly. 

“I think it’s perfect.”

Pepper’s eyebrows raise. “Are you sure? It’s the opposite of the city, and it’ll only be us three out here. I just… don’t want you to get too lonely.”

Tony looks back out across the lake. A late fall sunset casts an orange glow that glistens across the still water. Somewhere in the distance a loon calls, another one answering it. Tony closes his eyes, imagines laughter from his little girl echoing out across the large clearing behind them. It sounds so real - almost like he could reach out and touch it - and for a moment he lets himself indulge in what it would sound like if there was an older brother joining in.

“Tony?”

He opens his eyes. Pepper is still watching him, a sad smile on her face, as if she could hear the children too. 

“Pep, I think a bit of time with just our family is exactly what I need.”

 


 

They move the second week of April, when Morgan is almost four months old. 

Their land totals forty acres in size, including the lake, and stretches out behind their house all the way to the main road a mile away. In her initial research of the property, Pepper had found the listing had originally been for 45 acres, and included a small hill with a hunting cabin to the west.

“That parcel was sold off about eight months ago to an older gentleman, a widower if I recall,” the realtor explained as Tony sat in his office, signing form after form. “He’s your nearest neighbor, but I doubt you’ll see much of him. I met the guy a few times during the sale. He likes to keep to himself.”

For that, at least, Tony was thankful. He had been hoping to find a place with nobody for miles, somewhere they could truly enjoy the peacefulness of their new home without worry of any passerby. 

Then again, he supposed, as far as neighbors go an old man who doesn’t want to be bothered sounded about as good as it gets. With that thought, Tony stored the information away in his mind palace for safekeeping and then promptly forgot about it. 

 


 

“Damnit,” Tony mutters for the fourth time, eyeing the gathering clouds he can see past the treetops above with disdain.

When he’d told Pepper he was going out to explore more of their property earlier that day, he certainly hadn’t planned on getting lost in the woods.

“You’re not even taking Friday?” Pepper had asked as he put on a pair of never-used hiking boots. “We’ve barely been here a month, Tony. You can’t possibly tell me you know what you’re doing out there.”

“Pep, I’ll be fine,” he’d assured her, pulling out a compass only to be met with a skeptical expression before pocketing it again and kissing her cheek. “There’s already a path. Seriously, I’d have to be an idiot to get lost.”

The best laid plans, he thinks grimly now as he trudges along. Because of course he’d come to an unmarked fork, choosing one way only to be met with another, and not long after that yet another. Backtracking he’d been certain he’d gone the right way. But after an hour of walking he had to admit he didn’t really know where he was in relation to the lake, or even if he was still on his own damn land.

Shit,” Tony curses as he nearly trips on a root, stumbling.

“Mister Stark, are you alright?”

Tony’s head whips up. About ten feet down the path stands a man, looking at Tony with slight concern. He’s wearing a plaid button-up and khaki work pants, and beneath a brimmed cap Tony can see wisps of white hair, curled about his forehead with dried sweat.

Tony blurts out his first thought. “How do you know my name?”

The man doesn’t appear fazed in the least by Tony’s rude tone, just gives a small smile as he walks forward until they’re only a few feet apart. 

“Everyone knows Iron Man. Though I will admit, I’m a little curious as to what he’s doing out in the middle of nowhere upstate New York.”

Before Tony can give a reply, the man puts out a hand, wrinkled with age. “Richard Jones. I own a small cabin just up-” the older man lifts his other arm to point past Tony’s head “-that way.”

Tony shakes the older man’s hand, noting his firm grip. “Tony Stark, but you already knew that. My wife and I, we just bought the home down by the lake, which is…”

Tony drops the man’s hand, looking around before turning back and shrugging. “To be frank, Mister Jones, I have no fuckin’ clue.”

The older man laughs at that, though not unkindly. “No worries, I’ll show you the way. And please, call me Richard.”

 


 

“So, where are you from?” Tony asks as they wander down the narrow path, shoulder to shoulder. Tony keeps his eyes on the ground, watching for stones and roots, but can’t help but note that Richard keeps his eyes forward, never even glancing down. 

“New York City, born and bred,” the older man replies. “Lived there my entire life, besides a few years going to college. Showed up here about oh, a little under a year ago now, and never really left.”

Tony chuckles at the odd phrasing. “So what, you just stopped one day and said ‘this looks like a good place to hang up my boots’?”

Richard smirks, finally looking down. “Something like that.”

At Tony’s questioning gaze, he continues, “My wife passed away, and after that the city didn’t feel like home anymore. Too quiet, too lonely.”

Tony’s smile fades, and he looks back down. He doesn’t ask if Richard’s wife died in the snap, doesn’t feel like it much matters. The fact is the man’s wife is dead, and nothing is what it used to be. 

Tony understands, remembering when he broke into an apartment in Queens only to find nothing but a pile of ashes on the couch next to a full laundry basket of unfolded clothes, the television still blasting CNN. 

“I know the feeling.”

Richard doesn’t respond, and they quickly fall into a companionable silence, trudging along. At the third fork, Richard stops, turning to Tony. 

“That path to the right there will take you back to your home. Shouldn’t be more than a half mile at most.”

Tony puts out his hand, the older man shaking it readily once more. 

“Thank you, Richard. Please feel free to come by sometime. I know Pepper would love to meet you, especially after hearing how you saved my ass from becoming bear food.”

Richard’s answering smile reaches all the way up to his eyes, and Tony can’t help but grin back. For having just met the man, Tony feels unusually comfortable with him.

“Will do, Mister Stark. You take care now.”

 


 

It’s less than a week later that Richard wanders out into the clearing from where the dirt path begins. 

Tony is busy building a birdhouse, but puts down his tools as soon as he sees the older man, waving him over.

“Looks like it’s coming along nicely, Mister Stark,” Richard greets.

“It better be,” Tony replies, “I built the first Iron Man suit from a box of scraps. If I failed at this, well…”

Richard stares at him scrutinizingly for a few moments, before looking back at the birdhouse.

“I can’t imagine you failing at anything you put your mind to, Mister Stark,” he says with conviction, still not looking at Tony.

Tony doesn’t know how to respond in the face of such genuine sincerity, hasn’t really had it directed at him since he’d lost Peter. Honestly, he hadn’t thought he ever would again.

But he can’t say that to a relative stranger, so after a few seconds he just shrugs before asking, “So what brings you out this way?”

“Oh, just figured I’d take you up on that offer to stop by, is all.”

Tony gestures to the house. “Follow me, I know Pep’s been wanting to meet you.”

They go up the steps of the home and walk inside. Pepper is in the kitchen, putting together a lunch of chicken caesar salad and breadsticks, while Morgan sleeps in an automatic rocker in the nearby living room. 

“Hey Pep, we have company! This is our neighbor I was telling you about, Richard.”

Richard steps forward, offering his hand. “Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Potts-Stark.”

Pepper wipers her hands on a towel before taking Richard’s and shaking. “Pepper is fine. So very nice to meet you too, Richard. Would you like to stay for lunch?”

Richard glances over at Tony, before turning back to Pepper and nodding.

“Certainly, it’d be my pleasure.”

 


 

“So Richard, Tony tells me you grew up in the city,” Pepper says between bites of her salad.

“Yes, I grew up in Queens, but really the whole city felt like my home,” Richard replies, grabbing two more breadsticks and putting them on his empty plate. 

Tony raises an eyebrow. For an old geezer, he thinks, the man sure can pack away the food.

“And until recently you were still living there?”

“Yep,” Richard says, taking a large bite. “Though not always in Queens. When I got married my wife and I moved into Manhattan, and resided there until she passed away.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Pepper says, then more softly adds, “Was it the snap?”

Richard shakes his head. “No, I’m afraid something far more mundane. Stomach cancer. Though if you asked her, she would have said she was just tired of staring at my old mug.”

Tony gives a small chuckle while Pepper looks on fondly. “Did the two of you have any children?”

Richard shakes his head again, looking almost sad, but doesn’t comment. 

Peppers continues, “Any extended family nearby?”

Richard twists his head to look out the large bay windows, toward the lake. “A long time ago, I had quite a large extended family. I’m afraid most have passed on by now.”

He turns back to Tony and Pepper, eyes going soft, before he glances over at the rocker where Morgan continues to nap peacefully. 

“I have a younger sister, but she lives quite far away these days, to put it mildly.”

There’s an awkward silence as Tony glances at Pepper, who is looking at Richard as though he were a stray puppy they found on the side of the road. He clears his throat.

“So what did you do before you retired?”

Richard gives Tony an appreciative smile. “I worked in R&D, mostly sustainable energy tech and robotics, though I dabbled a bit in everything.”

Tony perks up. “Oh? Would I know your work?”

“Oh no, most certainly not,” Richard says with a chuckle. “Even on my best days I was never anything on the level of you, Mister Stark.”

“Try me.”

 


As it turned out, Richard was massively under-selling himself. 

Soon after they finished eating, Morgan began to cry. Pepper took her upstairs while Tony and Richard cleaned up lunch, Tony’s initial dare soon evolving into a back-and-forth over possible projects related to Stark Relief Foundation’s post-snap supply chain restructuring initiatives. After the two men migrated to the porch, and Tony gets to talking about arc reactor tech and how it had translated to the renewable energy sector, Richard filling in with questions or ideas as they come to him.

Talking like this with Richard reminds Tony of the few years he worked side by side with Bruce at the tower, when the two would riff on each other until Tony would finally say with a smirk, “wanna give it a try?” and they’d get down to work. 

And if he’s honest, it reminds him of Peter too. The kid had been an endless fountain of ideas, and Tony had always made an effort to make sure he knew they were more than welcome. 

At least five of those ideas were currently in notebooks packed somewhere in the dozen or so plastic containers - all marked ‘PP’ - that were currently stacked in a corner of Tony’s makeshift lab in the smaller side garage. They gathered dust, waiting for Tony to muster the courage to get back to them, but on his own now.

Or so he’d figured before today, he thinks.

Surprisingly, the thought almost doesn’t hurt.

 


 

They see Richard nearly every week after that, and he quickly becomes a welcome fixture in their new life. 

He and Tony tinker in the garage every so often, mostly on simple projects but occasionally going back and forth over far larger ideas like the true nature of dark matter or theories of time travel. Tony ultimately falls on the latter being a pipe dream best left for sci-fi and fantasy films, but Richard isn’t quite as convinced.

After Pepper admits she has a brown thumb, Richard helps her plant a vegetable garden at the back of the house. He even goes so far as to give her a book on composting, “just in case it thrives more than you expect.”

One afternoon he assists Tony with replacing some old planks on the dock. For an old man, Richard is impressively strong, having no trouble keeping up with Tony as they carry two-by-fours back and forth from the truck well into the evening. 

But what really endears Tony and Pepper both to Richard is how he is with Morgan. Richard loves to hold her, happy to take her from their arms even when she’s screaming. Morgan seems to like him too, almost always settling down after only a few minutes of the man’s gentle shushing. The way she lights up every time she catches sight of Richard only adds to the implicit trust Tony seems to have toward him.

The easy trust is something Tony admittedly can’t explain, because any time he asks Richard about his own life and past, the man only ever answers with short, vague, almost cryptic replies. It bothers Tony a little bit, and he can’t help but wonder if the man is hiding something on purpose. 

The old version of himself would have had Friday downloading every scrap of information out there on Richard Jones the AI could find. But Tony these days respects that everyone has a right to their privacy - to their solitary grief - and he decides to let it go.

Maybe having a neighbor isn’t really so bad, Tony finds himself thinking as the summer wears on. At least if the neighbor is Richard.

 


 

Tony’s alone in his lab in the side garage. He’s sitting in front of a computer, eyes focused but red-rimmed. For hours now he’s been doing little but staring in wonder at the screen in front of him as Friday played every one of the last remnants he had of a living, breathing Peter Parker.

“Hey, May. How you doing? What are you wearing? Something skimpy, I hope.”

Peter makes an almost comical frown as he turns to Tony, who pats his shoulder before Peter gives him an uncomfortable smile. 

“Peter, that’s inappropriate. All right, let’s start over, you can edit it.”

He’d already run through every home video of Peter’s visits to the compound twice and was now on whatever Friday had left that was deemed worthwhile. Including, apparently, Peter’s own home-video of Germany, which Tony had never seen. The new footage had been a cherished find at first, but watching himself in it now, and his casual dismissal of the kid, he can’t feel anything but horribly ashamed.

“Three, two, one,” Tony continues.“Hey, May. My gosh, uh, I wanted to tell you what an incredible job your nephew did this weekend at the Stark internship retreat. Everyone was impressed.”

Peter offers the camera a closed-mouth smile, trying his best to play his part.

“Friday, pause.”

Tony stares for a few more moments before lowering his head into his hands, taking a few slow, shuddering breaths, before letting out a mirthless laugh. In his attempt to lie, Peter appeared anything but innocent, and yet still managed to pull off being completely endearing. Looking at him from this angle of that moment, Tony can’t help but feel anything but endless love for this kid who was trying so, so hard, who was hanging on Tony’s every word.

Only for Tony to ignore him for months afterward.

Tony wants to reach through the screen, grab his past self by the suit coat and shake him for being such a damned idiot. For not realizing what he had in Peter Parker. For not holding him close and never letting him go. For not taking every moment between that day in the car and the kid’s cursed last moments on Titan to let Peter know that he was the one who deserved the awe and admiration, not Tony.

Tony shakes his head where it still sits cupped in his palms. 

There’s two soft knocks on the door then, and Tony glances up. “Yeah Pep, just give me-”

“Mister Stark? It’s Richard.”

Tony stands, frantically wiping at his eyes with a sleeve before going to the door and opening it halfway.

Richard is standing there holding a large metal tin.

“Hiya, Rick,” he says with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, which is almost none. “What can I do you for?”

“I had some sheet cake batter left over so I made a second one, and thought to share it with you fine folks,” Richard says with a soft smile, shaking the container a bit. He glances past Tony into the lab, eyes stalling on the frozen computer monitor. Tony doesn’t know why he feels so embarrassed just then, but he does. In an effort to conceal - well, Tony isn’t sure what, but something - he rather rudely steps forward out of the doorway and into the older man’s space, shutting the door behind him.

He holds a hand out, hoping Richard doesn’t notice how it shakes. “Thanks. I’ll, uh, I can take it inside.”

Richard doesn’t hand the tin over right away, and Tony glances up to see a remorseful expression overtake the man’s face. 

“I truly didn’t mean to intrude-”

“It’s fine,” Tony interrupts, then wipes a hand over his face. “Sorry, sorry. Today’s just… a hard day for me.”

Richard nods, then slowly hands over the tin before putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I understand, Mister Stark. If you ever need someone to listen, I’m here.”

Normally Tony would flinch at being touched like that by someone he’s only just getting to know, but with Richard it’s somehow different. Like they’ve known each other for much longer than a few months.

“Thanks, Rick.”

“Look, I’ll come back tomorrow, yeah? We can pick up again on building Pepper’s armoire then.”

“You really don’t have to-”

“Yes, I do,” Richard interjects, voice kind but determined. “Today wasn’t a good day to come by, I can see that now.”

Slowly, Tony nods. With a small smile Richard walks across the clearing, giving a small wave, soon lost from view.

After a minute or so, Tony goes back into the garage, setting the cake tin down on a workbench before resuming his position at the computer screen, Peter’s soft smile still greeting him.

Tony reaches out a hand, carefully caressing the screen down the curve of Peter’s cheeks and jaw. 

“Happy eighteenth birthday, Pete,” he whispers, before pulling his hand away and leaning back in his chair with a wet sigh.

“I miss you, kiddo.”

 


 

Once the snow comes, the Starks see a lot less of Richard. The paths between their homes are often nearly impassable, and with a few miles between them it’s simply not realistic to clear a way. The older man had made a point to stop by a few days before Christmas with a hand-carved wooden toy horse for Morgan, only to pull out a matching doll “in honor of the little miss’s birthday,” but otherwise they never see him.

Tony finally buys a snowmobile in mid-February for the express purpose of checking in on the man. Richard greets him at the door of the hunting cabin bundled up in three layers of thick plaid, despite the nice fire Tony sees he has going inside. 

As they catch up over tea Tony offers to buy a second snowmobile for Richard as well but the man waves him off, reassuring Tony he is just fine with his own two feet. 

“Besides, winter has always been my least favorite season,” Richard adds as he takes a sip from his mug. “I really prefer to just stay in if I can. Never done too well with the cold.”

The old Tony would have just gone and bought another one anyway, but now he merely nods and doesn’t push.

After all, he’d originally come out here seeking solitude himself. Still, it feels good to spend time with a friend again.

 


 

Tony and Richard are out in the garage, trying to fix Tony’s riding lawn-mower motor. It’s a beautiful late spring day. Pepper is also out of the house, planting summer crops in the garden, Morgan playing on a blanket nearby. Morgan had only just begun walking in earnest a few weeks ago, and was proving quite the handful.

“Hey, Rick, grab me that wrench over by the door?” Tony asks from where he’s hunched over the lawn-mower engine. “The one with the red handles?”

Richard sits up and walks over to where the wrench hangs, one of hundreds of tools Tony has systematically organized across that wall. Just as his hand goes to grab it though he pauses, the hand moving instead to the back of his neck. 

Tony watches him for a few seconds before softly calling, “Rick?”

Richard lets go of his neck, shaking his head, before grabbing the wrench and walking back over. At Tony’s questioning gaze he just shrugs. “Thought I felt a bug.”

Tony gives him a weird look but doesn’t comment, instead turning back to the machine. He twists a knob a few times. 

“Okay, now turn it over and let’s see if-”

“Do you hear Morgan playing?”

Tony glances up at the odd question, a confused “what?” on the tip of his tongue, only to have his jaw go slack at the sheer terror in Richard’s eyes. The man doesn’t wait for a response, twisting around and bounding out of the garage. 

Tony runs out the door, expecting to see the older man making a beeline for the back of the house toward the garden. Instead he’s racing in the opposite direction, toward the front. 

Just then Pepper turns the back corner of the house, quickly spotting her husband. “Tony, I can’t find Morgan. I turned away just for a moment and she was gone!”

Tony’s head snaps back toward the direction Richard had ran in– not just the front of the house. Toward the lake.

“Oh my god.”

He takes off before he has time to truly process the decision, running faster than he ever has before. Pepper is right on his heels as they come around the side of the house just in time to see Richard pluck Morgan up from where she is leaning over the end of the dock, a hand reaching for the water. 

She giggles in delight as Richard kisses her on the side of the head, whispering things Tony can’t make out as he and Pepper jog over to meet them at the shoreline. 

Richard immediately hands Morgan over to Pepper, who holds her daughter tight, tears already leaking as she kisses Morgan all over her face and head. “Oh my god, sweetheart. You scared mommy so much. Oh thank god, baby.”

Tony tenderly runs a hand over Morgan’s head, reassuring himself that she’s safe and unharmed before kissing Pepper’s temple gently. 

He has tears in his own eyes when he turns back to Richard and without thinking, tightly embraces the man. Despite knowing each other for almost a year they’ve never exchanged a hug, but he supposes saving your daughter’s life qualifies as a good reason to do so if there ever was one.

“Thank you. Just, thank you.” 

Richard doesn’t reply, but his chin digs a little harder into Tony’s neck as he leans into the hug, and Tony knows he’s genuinely most welcome.

 


 

“Before Morgan, there was Peter.”

Richard sharply turns his head to look at Tony, who is staring out into the dark of the woods. It’s late evening now, and the two men are seated out on the porch swing, two beers between them. 

After dinner Pepper had gone upstairs to put Morgan to bed and never come back down. Tony knew she had probably decided to stay with their daughter after the terrible fright they’d had earlier that day.

“Peter,” Richard repeats, before softly asking, “Was he your son?”

Tony shakes his head. “No.”

He takes a swig of his beer, feeling Richard’s questioning eyes on him. “Go ahead, it’s alright.”

“So if he wasn’t your son, what was he?”

Tony finally turns to meet the man’s gaze.

“Everything.”

 


 

Tony’s fiftieth birthday party is a small affair. Rhodey comes up from DC, Happy from New York, but otherwise nobody else is invited besides Richard. 

The five of them share a nice dinner together, Tony overjoyed to have (almost) all of his family together in one place again. Richard stays mostly quiet unless spoken to, seemingly content just to listen as Rhodey, Happy and Pepper recount tale after tale of Tony’s exploits over the years. Tony cuts him some slack, knows the man probably hasn’t been around so many people at once in some years, if not longer. 

Around nine Pepper retires to bed, Rhodey and Happy going upstairs shortly after. It’s not until it’s just Richard and Tony left that Richard pulls a small box out of his pocket, reaching his hand out in offering to Tony.

“Ah, Rick, you shouldn’t have,” Tony says, but he takes it anyway. He undoes the small piece of twine bowed at the top and takes the top off to reveal what appears to be a bracelet underneath.

It’s metal, with an oval-shaped design in the middle where there was probably once some sort of jewel but is now only an empty inlay. As Tony picks it up he realizes the shape is not meant for one’s wrist but rather to slide over one’s fingers and rest across the back of the hand.

Neither functional and with an empty hole where a gem or some other aesthetic design might go, it’s perhaps the most confounding gift Tony has ever received.

“Rick, I, uh-”

Richard gives an appreciative laugh. “It’s alright, Mister Stark. I know it must appear an odd thing to gift someone. But I wanted you to have it, all the same.”

Tony raises his eyebrows and gestures for the man to go on. Richard takes a deep breath, his eyes going soft.

“It belonged to the greatest man I ever knew. He was like a father to me, in many ways, but unfortunately he died before I had a chance to tell him that. Like you, he was very intelligent but a bit of an emotional enigma, even to himself. I spent years after he passed away wondering if he already knew that I loved him, that it didn’t matter a bit to me that he wasn’t my flesh and blood because he was still everything good that ought to come with such an honor as being someone’s dad.”

Richard glances down at his hands, before looking back at Tony. “That bit of metal is all I have left of him, now. And, I guess– I thought– perhaps since you never got to tell your Peter how you felt about him, and I never got to tell this man, that perhaps this gift could somehow be…” Richard pauses again, looking away. “Well, I thought maybe it could bring us both a bit of closure, I suppose.”

Tony looks down at the gift again. After a few moments he takes a breath, moving to speak but Richard continues before he can.

“I apologize for the state it’s in. I sort of broke it the last time I used it, and I couldn’t give it to you looking a mess so I removed what was inside. Anyway, I know it must seem silly to a man of your esteem, but–”

“Thank you.” Tony looks up with red-rimmed eyes, meets Richard’s gaze. 

“It’s perfect, Rick. Thank you.”

Richard looks surprised, but his expression quickly turns soft. “You’re most welcome, Mister Stark. And for what it’s worth, I truly believe that your Peter knew, even if you never said the words. And if not, he most certainly knows now.”

 


 

For Peter’s nineteenth birthday, Tony doesn’t watch any videos. But he does dig through the plastic containers in the garage, fingers and eyes roaming over all the things that made up his first kid’s precious, cherished life. 

When he’s done, he carefully puts everything back but for one framed photo of the two of them that Peter had kept on his bedroom desk. He takes it inside the house, looking around for a few minutes before placing it somewhere out of the way but never far.

Pepper finds him after she finishes up the dishes the next morning. She doesn’t say a word, but the long hug she gives him is one for the ages.

 


 

Their second winter at the lake, when it comes, is one of the coldest the area has seen in decades. As with the year before, Richard barely visits, showing up for a day in November with the promise to come back the week before Christmas to celebrate Morgan’s second birthday. 

Tony takes the snowmobile to see him twice a week, the two of them always sharing either a pot of tea or coffee before Tony takes off again.

But as the afternoon of Morgan’s birthday wanes on and still Richard hasn’t appeared, Tony finds himself looking out the window anxiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dark red and blue of Richard’s familiar wool coat against the harsh white snow. 

Finally, around four, Pepper clasps his arm, a worried frown on her face. “Go, before it gets dark.”

Tony is thankful to encounter exactly zero prone bodies along the now-familiar path as he rides over to Richard’s home. However, his anxiety rises again when he encounters a dark, cold cabin upon arrival.

The front door is unlocked when Tony tries the knob. “Rick? You in here?”

He walks through the empty kitchen - spotting two boxes with twin twine bows that are undoubtedly Morgan’s birthday and Christmas gifts sitting at the table - toward the lone bedroom at the back.

“Rick? It’s Tony, are you– oh, no.”

Richard lays in bed on his back, eyes closed. Someone else might mistake him for sleeping, but Tony knew from the second he spotted him that he was gone.

A swift check at his pulse point confirms as much, and Tony’s heart sinks. He slides down onto the floor, back resting against the side of the bed. Without looking he lifts a hand over his shoulder, grasping for Richard’s own cold one. 

There he sits until long after it’s dark out, holding the hand of his friend - his friend who was so kind and strong and good - and cries.

 


 

Richard Jones left the Starks everything, the faceless estate lawyer who contacts them a week later explains. It’s not much - just the five acres of land the hunting cabin sits on, along with his few possessions - yet the gesture is immeasurable in its own way, at least to Tony and Pepper.

They hold off on a funeral while the lawyer tries to track down the sister Richard had mentioned. However, when even Friday cannot find any record of her, Tony can’t help it– he finally starts to dig himself. 

There is no record of Richard that Tony can find before 2018. No birth certificate, no jobs, no school reports, literally not one mention of a Richard Jones that Tony can tie to Rick specifically. When further investigation finds that the driver’s license and other documents Richard had submitted to buy his property were forged, Tony sits back in his chair in the garage, rubbing at his eyes. 

Sure, Richard had been private, but Tony never would have guessed the man was a fraud. Had he done this all just to get close to Tony Stark, a broken man and one of the failed Avengers? But no, he had bought his own property months before Tony and Pepper, so it couldn’t be that.

But then why? He had been a good man, or seemed to have been. Was Richard even his real name? It just didn’t make sense.

There’s no answers Tony can find. Ultimately, Tony only knows one thing for certain.

The only real friend he’s made since half his world disappeared in his arms is dead, and Tony never even knew him. 

 


 

They bury Richard in March, once the ground has thawed out and after Pepper feels enough time has passed for them to reasonably say his younger sister will never be located.

The grave is at the top of the hill, near the hunting cabin but not close enough that they’re within visual distance of one another. Tony picks it because it’s quiet and set away, but still with a gorgeous view of the lake– all reasons he thinks Richard chose the land to begin with. 

Rhodey and Happy both come out for a few days so they can be there, despite only having met the man a few times. 

Nobody makes a speech, and the funeral is a short affair. Tony had remained stoic, a version of his past self he couldn’t stop from resurfacing. 

Yet something wells up in Tony’s heart at the sight of Morgan throwing a crisp red rose into the grave. He decides there’s a second thing he knows for certain as he fingers the cool metal band resting across his palm.

The rest of it - everything he’ll never know the truth of - doesn’t matter. Because Richard Jones was a good man. Of that, Tony is certain.

 


 

Three years later

 

But would you be able to rest?

Pepper’s words echo through Tony’s brain as he sits in the garage, where he’d gone after she went to bed. He still can’t believe he solved time travel, still can’t fathom that it is now more than just a theory. The thought makes him think of Richard, about how he had always been a believer and Tony a skeptic.

With a smile he opens a side drawer, pulling out the gift the man had given him.

It’s still a confounding device, Tony thinks as he puts it on, making a few experimental fists. It has no real rhyme or reason to it, no need to exist that Tony can tell.

But, looking a bit closer, Tony realizes… the inlay is a good size for the time travel GPS schematics he’d already had Friday design. In fact - he takes out a measuring tape just to double-check but he knows he’s right - the perfect size. 

Tony’s mind races. He tries to think back to what Richard had said that night, after Tony had opened the box.

I sort of broke it the last time I wore it, and I couldn’t give it to you looking a mess so I removed what was inside. 

Wait, no. That wasn’t right, Tony thinks. He closes his eyes, tries to imagine the scene, and thinks… 

I sort of broke it the last time I used it, and I couldn’t give it to you looking a mess so I removed what was inside. 

Tony opens his eyes. That’s it. 

Richard hadn’t said wore, he’d said used.

He thinks back to everything he knew about Richard– really knew. 

He knew the man was strong, and smart, and that he hated the cold. He knew he was kind and reserved. And he had saved Morgan so he was definitely a hero–

Tony’s head twists to look over at the door, as if Richard was still standing right there, seemingly frozen in time. He gasps, raising a hand to the back of his own neck as the memory hits him.

God, all it would take– all it would take is asking Friday to do an iris recognition test. If the irises match, then Richard would no longer be Richard. He’d be Peter Parker, the kid Tony thought was lost to him forever.

And if Richard is Peter, that means– that means… Peter came back.

Tony slumps over the desk, his head in his hands.

If Richard is Peter, then that means they win… 

It belonged to the greatest man I ever knew. He was like a father to me, in many ways, but unfortunately he died before I had a chance to tell him that. 

… and it also means there’s a good chance Tony doesn’t live long after.

And suddenly Tony realizes, with shocking clarity, that he can never know. He can never find out if Richard is Peter, not for sure. 

Because too much might already be altered in this timeline if it is. Simply Peter having been here could be enough to ruin any chance of success. Tony hopes to god that’s not the case, has no choice but to believe they have a chance.

Yet if Tony finds out for certain that Richard and Peter are one, it could be the tipping point of fate and– and they might not win. 

They have to win.

Tony looks down at Richard’s gift again. He thinks of the cherished boy he lost, of the kind old man he barely knew. 

Gives himself just a few minutes to imagine they’re one and the same. 

And then he lets it go, forever.

“Fri, pull up those schematics. We have a kid to bring home.”