Facing the chasm that stretches out in front of him, teeming with beasts, failed supersoldiers with paper skin pickling in their containers, titans more smitten with violent dreams of peace than their own children, Tony is happy.
His family is his crutch through it all, this five-year canyon.
Pepper maintains a garden, and under the summer heat the zucchini and pea yields are so excessive that Morgan nearly throws a fit when they get desperate enough to make zoodles. Internally, Tony can’t help but agree that making pasta out of vegetables is outright blasphemy, but hey; he’s not the boss of this household.
Their home blends in with the nature around them, tucked away from the rest of the world, away from failure. Tony teaches Morgan how to read, flipping through the phonetics flashcards his wife insists they use, Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He introduces his daughter to DUM-E and U.
Each breath of air is bittersweet, but it’s more than enough.
In contrast to his long history of self-destructive tendencies, alcoholism, overworking, fumbling with the concept of a hero, Tony’s no masochist. He doesn’t keep many reminders of Peter around the house – limits himself to one framed photo in the kitchen that doesn’t get set until Morgan’s about six months old. The kid still has such a gigantic lease on his heart, his soul, dead or alive, but he has an obligation to remain in the present, look forward.
He’d always thought Peter would be leading the future. He’d so simple-mindedly believed that.
Pepper presses her mouth against his right cheek, soft, when he comes back from furniture shopping with a dark frame. He slides the picture in – Peter in his uncle’s hideous olive jacket, smiling brightly with Tony next to him – faintly embarrassed like he’s exposing some dark secret, hands steady.
He’s not physically there – he’s ash on an alien planet, slipping through his fingers like fine sand – but Peter’s presence permeates through every crevice, persistent and headstrong like he was. Peter Parker, awkward teenager extraordinaire, had never had any talent with presence, the kind of energy that brought a hush to the room upon stepping in, never had the larger-than-life charisma that Tony was groomed to exude. Nothing about Peter Parker immediately screamed, hey, look at me, you know who I am.
Instead, Peter’s there in the ways that matter. It’s in the way he holds Morgan like she’s the most important, most precious thing in the world – and she is. How he sits through every objectively awful episode of her favorite cartoon and very maturely blows raspberries at her from across the table when she refuses to eat her green peppers. It’s in how he’ll never pass up the chance to make sure she knows she’s loved, that he loves her.
In a way, it’s his redemption. Tony thinks of Peter and hopes he’s doing the most idiotic, kind-hearted boy he’s ever met justice.
Tony tucks the folder away to share a juice pop with his daughter. When he comes back downstairs, Pepper is curled into the sofa, reading about the newest advances in plant fertilizer, and her smile stays steady, unwavering when he brings up time travel.
He’s been in love with Pepper for so long. Had only been good for her for a measly fraction of that time. For whatever reasons his shit emotional intelligence had taken ages to grasp, her worst fear is losing him.
Nonetheless, she comes closer, runs her hands through his thinning salt-and-pepper hair.
“I’m proud of you,” she says.
That night, he falls asleep facing Pepper, breaths fanning against her collarbone, praying to something – anything – that he won’t hurt her again, won’t leave Morgan behind.
The Avengers fight tooth and nail for a single stroke of luck, the one in fourteen million that’s eluded them. For the first time in what feels like forever, they succeed.
Tony rouses to bright, unnatural lighting.
Peter hiccups against his still sore chest, hair greasy and unkempt, sclera completely bloodshot. It’s the best sight.
“I’ll be okay,” Tony soothes. “I’m okay, Pete, I promise.”
Peter scoffs. “You scared the fuck out of me,” he croaks, voice clogged, face puffy. “I thought – I thought you were dead, your heart – it – stopped, and –”
Tony grabs Peter’s hand and places it centre-left of his chest. “You feel that?” he asks. Peter nods, frantic, as if desperate to convince himself. “It’s beating. I’m okay.”
I love you, Tony thinks, still weakly holding Peter with his one arm as May storms in, sending the man a teary, grateful look. I love you, he thinks, when the kid bristles upon her insistence that he needs a shower, Peter, you look nasty, and laughs at the kid’s expense.
I love them is the melody that chants through his brain, still delirious with joy and painkillers when the dullness in Peter’s eyes – which they are one hundred percent addressing later on, mental health is hip now – retreats when he chats with Morgan. They’re both motormouths, bouncing nonsense off each other and Tony can tell that Morgan is absolutely dazzled by Peter. Peter has this weird compassion override that makes him calm down if someone else’s distress surpasses his own – he’d talked and joked and grinned to keep the mood light when Morgan kept fixating on her father’s arm, crying and scared. Peter had been promoted to super cool, super nice, can he hang out more, please in three days flat.
“Now that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone call you cool,” Tony had said.
Peter asked Tony, politely, to shut up.
I love you, Tony mouths, rubbing the ball of Peter’s shoulder. Peter’s hunched over a tablet, flicking through the news, eyes darting from headline to headline, expression blank. Sanitation crises, billions displaced, messes and chaos here, there, everywhere. Don’t blame yourself.
“I love you,” Tony says, loud and clear as they share a hug in the parking lot of Peter and May’s new building, snowflakes landing slowly, gently on dark hair. The chilly air makes their ears and cheeks flush pink as they stand below a streetlamp, their jacket-clad selves casting long shadows against crisp, fresh white. Morgan is drowsy, only half conscious in Pepper’s arms; they better start making the drive back upstate soon if they want to arrive to the lake house by midnight.
Rhodey, bless his heart, is making needless, teasing commentary in the background and Tony almost pulls away to send his friend a heatless glare. Peter’s arms constrict against the synthetic down of Tony’s coat before he shifts and puts some distance between them.
He crooks slightly to one side, and he’s beaming – the bright, happy beam that Peter makes with his eyes scrunched shut. “I love you too, Mr. Stark.”
Tony’s brows furrow. “No,” he says, “say ‘I love you, Tony’.”
Peter rolls his eyes. “Oh, come on!"
“You little –”
“This is all very aggressively wholesome,” Pepper says, making May snort, “but Morgan is dead weight in my arms and at the rate we’re going we’ll be home when the sun rises.”
With a half-hearted shrug, Tony messes up Peter’s hair with a gloved hand. “That’s it for now, then,” he mutters, sensing the beginnings of a heavy throat, a stinging behind his eyes. Jesus fuck is he ever a sap now. “Touch base often, okay?”
With a heart kept beating by an arc reactor until he’d finally gotten over his fear of having the shrapnel removed, an arm amputated from the rotator cuff down, Tony is intimately familiar with phantom pain.
The whiplash is pretty intense, Peter’s absence of five years abruptly becoming quiet days in the lake house with his entire family finally intact again, catching up on lost time as Tony recovered and for the others, the grueling process of healing. It’d been over a month of fragile bliss before he had to let the kid go back to Queens.
He knows that Peter is alive again, busy restarting his life in his beloved borough – getting ready to go to school again, unpacking any remaining boxes, re-establishing a pattern. The decimation had been reversed. The universe had righted itself.
Still, Tony dreams of Titan like he had since Danvers found him and Nebula, the capillaries in his eyes half-hemorrhaged and mere hours from being a deoxygenated bag of bones. The vacancy of Peter’s room aches like a missing limb.
It’s a terrible figment of his imagination, a rerun of Peter re-manifesting alone in space, lost and stranded among fire-coloured dirt as he calls out to Mr. Stark, asking where Tony went, why he left without him. Mr. Stark, dream-Peter would sob, dirty with dried blood and sediment, come back, I’m still alive; don’t leave me here.
Peter isn’t a pile of soot on Titan. He’s back where he belongs in New York but it’s hard, Tony finds, to remember that when he lies restless in bed with no more tangible proof than Peter’s new number loaded onto his phone.
Careful not to wake Pepper, Tony shuffles out of the duvet and as lightly on his feet as he can, grabs his phone from the nightstand and makes his way downstairs to mope in the living room.
This, he figures, is another facet of laser-precision karma for not answering Peter’s texts and calls after the skirmish in Germany. Divine justice. Tony wants nothing more to dial Peter right now and hear his kid’s voice, reassure himself that the snap’s been fixed beyond staring at his vibranium arm for evidence. It’s not the same as having Peter here, voice unfiltered by crackles of static, but it’s the next best thing.
It’s late, he reminds himself – the sky is pitch black outside. The only source of noise is the hum of the fridge from the kitchen and his own breaths. It’s literally 3 a.m.
Tony sighs, audibly.
He sighs again.
He opens up his phone and presses a thumb against the call button on Peter’s contact page.
Tony cringes immediately, regretting his impulsivity, though not enough to cancel – he could have texted Peter first to see if he was up instead of risking waking the kid up when he knows sleep is something Peter finds hard to come by.
His worries turn out to be unfounded: two rings in, the call connects. Peter’s voice, a whisper, asks, “Hello? Tony?”
Not really thinking he’d get this far, Tony just says, “Up this late, huh?”
“You’re literally the one who called me, but go off, I guess,” Peter replies. He sounds alert – not drowsy at all; the kid must still be wide awake. The he pitches his voice lower again, probably not wanting to wake May. “Everything okay?”
Tony nods yes even though no one can see it. “Everything is fine. Were you about to sleep?"
“More like I’ve been trying to for the past two hours,” Peter sighs, frustrated. “Hold on for a minute; I don’t wanna wake up May by accident.”
He doesn’t need to know that Tony tends to forget that Peter’s not dead anymore whenever they’re not in the same room, anxious energy thrumming through his body even now because his heart is still mending itself. Not yet, anyway; he’ll let the kid focus on his own problems for now. Tony just hopes Peter understands the invitation to start talking, let Tony listen to the music of his rambling.
Through the receiver, Tony hears the sound of shuffling, the creak of a closet door opening. About a minute passes of nothing more than obscure, muffled noise before Peter speaks up again.
“Okay, on the balcony now,” Peter says. He exhales, deep and long. “May’s been sleeping pretty lightly, too – I’m pretty sure I’m getting more adrenaline sneaking back into my room than like, fighting guys that are one-hundred twenty percent muscle.”
Tony blinks. “Wait – sneaking? Why were you out that –” he starts, before his tired brain stops lagging behind and the pieces click into place. “Patrolling, Pete? So soon?”
Without any other word between them, the mood shifts.
True to stubborn teenage form, what Peter says next betrays hints of irritation. More subtly, it’s just drained, because hundreds of versions of this conversation exist already. In one super-ear, out the other. “I’m Spider-man,” he mumbles, defensive, “that’s what I do.”
It sounds petulant, and to an extent, it is; Peter had sobered up considerably after losing his suit, but the thrill of superheroism can be near addictive. Tony remembers the pure joy of getting the Mark II to work for the first time. It was euphoric – it made his hands flutter with something other than alcohol withdrawal. Peter’s webbing was his typical hallmark as Spider-man, but to Tony, it laid more in the whoops of joy that the kid shouted out every time he took a particularly harsh, sharp swing.
Tony gulps. He gets it; he was that person, manic with urgency and making suit after suit after suit to quell his own deep-seated fears.
“Hey, hey,” Tony says, aiming for neutrality because Peter closing up is the last thing he wants. “I’m not mad; just… surprised, Pete. It’s hasn’t even been a week.”
“I’ve gotten enough time.” His voice is still so sulky that Tony can almost visualize Peter’s slouch, the mild glower around his mouth. “It was fine – I’m not overdoing it, I swear, and school’s not even on yet. It was only a few hours.”
Okay. Let’s not push that button for now.
“Tell me, then – what good deeds did Spidey do tonight?”
Peter does. New York is in the throes of winter-time right now, so there’s not as much crime to stop on the streets, but tonight he stopped a robbery in a CVS about a kilometer south of his apartment and got an older man, who had been getting sluggish from the cold, back home safely. Peter talks about all the emergency shelters, the people huddled inside together for warmth because the shoddy heating barely suffices, still apart from their families even though Thanos’ defeat had been two months ago. How he’d spent the bulk of his night there, talking, asking about who might be contactable, if there’s anything in particular that Spider-man could do to help.
“They’re still on the waitlist for housing,” Peter says, sounding so, so sad. “Mostly just people with no kids, who aren’t sick or not super young or old. They tell me they’re really scared, Tony, because it’s been two months and people are reuniting but they’re still alone.”
Yeah, Tony knows. Clearing enough buildings has been an arduous work-in-progress; hotel owners don’t want people rooming in their suites indefinitely, even though SI is promising to cover all costs and then some. A mind-boggling percentage of abandoned buildings are too decrepit, rampant with mould to be safe to stay in without another month of work, at least. No access to running water. No electricity.
“They’re scared – and pissed,” Peter tells Tony. “They’re worried that they’ve been forgotten – that’s why no one’s come to take them home or tried to look for them.”
He could reassure the kid that maybe families are still looking – that five years isn’t enough to sever a bond, but that’s not giving the kid or the situation enough credit.
It certainly couldn’t for Tony, but he can’t guarantee the same for everyone else. All blanket statements have their outliers. It wouldn’t be fair to all those people still suffering to wave things off with forced optimism. All that would be is an abdication of responsibility. He knows Peter knows that, too, as young as he is.
Instead, he says, “Seeing Spider-man hopefully lifted their spirits a bit.”
Peter hums. “That’s the goal. I’m gonna go back later, visit other locations too. May’s volunteering at the Queens homeless shelter – I could go with her,” he says. “I want to be dependable.”
“Thanks, Tony.” It’s still subdued, but the pleased note in his voice tells Tony the compliment’s settling in. Then, a long huff. “I – I just can’t imagine, y’know? Coming back to nobody.”
The if I came back and meant nothing to you anymore goes unsaid.
Peter’s expressive, still an uncontrolled spout of emotions that write all over his face and body language. He’s gained more command over it since Tony first met him as a fourteen-year-old boy, but Tony’s well-versed in Peter Parker’s little tics and nuances at this point. He hadn’t commented on the brief flashes of hesitation, of insecurity as Peter drank in the sight of the lake house, the way his mouth thinned, and he tightened his grip around May’s arm as he stepped into the life Tony had built without him. But he’d seen it, mentally penned it down for later.
“Is that what’s been keeping you up, kiddo?”
“Part of it. There’s a lot of – other things, too – there’s so much going on, I feel like I can barely keep up even though I’m really lucky, you know? I don’t even know why I feel so overwhelmed.” He sighs. “I’m really, really lucky. I just feel bad.”
“Pete,” Tony tries, “You’re doing your best.” His kid always gives his all and it’s endearing, admirable.
“I’m not,” Peter says weakly, wavering, before he laughs to himself. “I’m already half-assing stuff.”
“Like – not as Spider-man – that’s somehow easier. Like Ned? Tony, I haven’t even tried to find Ned yet. I don’t even know how to put it into words; I just don’t feel ready to see him.”
“Doesn’t feel like it. I’ll be on the news by tomorrow thanks to the robbery thing – what is he going to think – that I can go out as Spider-man before I spare my best friend a second thought?”
Tony rubs at his nose bridge, prosthetic hand still holding the phone to his ear. With him, Tony figures, Peter’s less obligated to put in the labour of contextualizing, hence his tendency to open up to Iron Man instead of his best friend since middle school. The two of them have the advantage of shared experience, common trauma.
This knot really needs to be untangled before the kid breaks down under the weight of his own guilt.
“From that angle, no, not the best move,” Tony admits.
Peter grumbles from the other end of the line. “Thanks. Ugh. I’m a shit friend."
“But this is something you two can work out. You’re struggling – you’re allowed to give yourself space when you think you need it, and it doesn’t mean you don’t care about him.”
“And if he’s upset with me?”
“Apologize,” Tony answers. “And try to be better.”
Tony thinks he hears a faint okay before the other end dissolves into faint sniffling. Alarm doesn’t run through him, even though the sound of Peter upset bothers him like it always does – Tony had called to reassure himself that Peter is real, and there is nothing realer than this, proof in the compassion that saturates Peter’s actions. Even the kid’s dumb inferiority complex.
Peter yawns. “I’m really glad you called. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, kiddo,” Tony says. He glances to his left, where the digital clock, glowing bright red, reads 4:21. “How about we both try to sleep before the sun shows its ugly mug?”
“Ugh, okay,” Peter says. There’s a brief pause. Then, “I, um. I love you?”
Tony never thought he’d see the day where he’s somehow less emotionally constipated than Peter. With a snicker, he says, “I, um, love you too.”
“Hey, don’t make fun of me. That was heartfelt.”
“Then stop being an easy target,” Tony says. “Goodnight.”
goodnight cow jumping over the moon
and the red balloon
good night noises everywhere
- margaret wise brown