Peter felt like he was dreaming.
Mister Stark – Tony – had assured him he wasn't, and Peter wanted to believe him. The pinch had hurt, and his explanations made sense – in the same way anything made sense since that crazy day he went to Germany and met the Avengers. But as he sat shotgun in Tony's fancy car heading upstate to his rustic lakehouse every aspect of the situation felt surreal.
When he'd tried to climb into the back Tony had flat out told him to sit in the passenger seat, without even making a joke out of the awkwardness.
Peter hadn't been able to handle the silence, too afraid that he would wake up and Tony would be gone, so he started a scientific discussion about time travel and parallel worlds that eventually devolved into a pop culture analysis. "I kinda feel like we should watch Back to the Future," Peter suggested, emboldened by the way Tony kept watching him out of the corner of his eye and all the strange mushy stuff he'd said back in the apartment. "Just so we can point out all the ways it got it wrong."
When he'd first met Mister Stark he'd never have dared to ask that. In the months before the Snap-ocalypse he might have tried, but it was unlikely the man would have had the time or interest.
Now Tony said "Sure" as casually as if Peter has asked him if he wanted a soda. "We should invite Lang. I think he's still a little iffy on how this all works."
"Okay!" Scott had introduced himself at the funeral, and Peter had felt a little better as they swapped stories about Germany, even as the dark haired woman by his side scowled in disapproval. It was a shame the man had gone back to California. "Scott's cool."
"I don't know about cool," Tony argued, but there was no bite behind his words. "But he was the one who got the Mötley Crüe back together and convinced them to get their asses in gear, so the whole world owes him one. Though his powers are mediocre at best."
"Come on. He can get big and small!"
"He has a giant pet ant. That's weird."
"There was a talking racoon at your funeral."
"Rocket's not my pet," Tony fired back. Soon the both of them dissolved in snickers, which were just about under control until Tony added, "Pretty sure Thor still thinks he's a rabbit."
"We should watch all the Back to the Future movies," Peter pressed once they'd finally calmed down. "For research."
"First one's clearly the best. But I could be persuaded."
"Maybe we should watch a few other time travel movies too. To compare." It felt like whenever he shot out a web – there was always a moment of freefall before it caught hold.
But his aim was true. Tony shrugged, his mouth turning up in a strange, soft smile. "Make a list. Better yet, make two lists. Ones Morgan can join us for and ones she'd better not."
"You're baby monitoring your own kid!" Peter crowed, thinking of protocols he'd been anxious for Ned to disable.
"I'm supposed to do that. It's in the parenting job description. The kid's four. There's a lot she doesn't need to see."
Peter conceded that point. He didn't remember what his parents let him watch when he was four. He didn't remember much about that time – or them – at all.
"So how's the neighborhood?" Tony asked once the silence stretched too long. "Anyone buy you a churro lately?"
Peter still regretted sharing that particular anecdote. For a moment he scrambled for something equally as trivial to say. But his mind wouldn't settle on a lie, and the truth spilled out of him, unbidden. "It's good, I guess. I dunno. I haven't been on patrol since I got back."
"Why not?" There was something strained in Mister Stark's voice. Something Peter knew he wouldn't really like the reason for.
"It's silly. It's just, the last time I wore the suit – we were in space and then that battle." He stared out the windshield, not wanting Tony to see the tears that had come to his eyes.
He could hear the way Tony's heart sped up. "PTSD isn't silly."
"I don't have PTSD. I didn't have an attack or anything. I just thought that if I put on the suit – I might – and I don't want to panic when I'm several hundred feet off the ground. I was trying to be responsible."
Suddenly Tony's hand was on his knee, exerting a grounding pressure. "Deep breaths, Pete. It's okay. Do you need me to pull over?"
Peter dropped his head in his hands and breathed out hard through his nose. "I need you to drop this."
Because Peter was okay. Most of the time that wasn't even a lie. The past eight days had been some of the weirdest in his life – and he'd been to space and fought a battalion of rouge superheroes – but he was handling it. May was over the moon that he was back, and that was smothering but it was also reassuring, to know that he was so fiercely and unconditionally loved. Which he'd known for a long time, on some background level, but now it was in his face every time she looked at him and nearly broke down in tears. And most of the kids he'd been closest to had all gone dusty together – Ned and MJ and even Flash – so as weird as school was now at least they were facing it together.
But sometimes the wind blew and he remembered watching pieces of himself float away, and sometimes he heard raised voices in a crowd and Mister Stark was yelling at him because This was a one way trip and he felt the weight of his mortality in a way he'd only done once before when he was underneath a parking garage, and sometimes for no reason at all he was back on that battlefield with ash in his throat and the smell of burnt flesh nearly bringing him to his knees as he listened to Tony Stark die, the greatest man of their age. If Tony Stark wasn't untouchable then no one was. And Peter had had the Infinity Gauntlet in his grasp, but he hadn't been able to do whatever it takes, and Mister Stark had paid the price for that.
Mister Stark, who had a wife and kid now and would never know what his attention had meant to Peter, as undeserved as it had been.
"Nope. Not happening." Then Mister Stark was veering off the road and Peter wanted to disappear into the leather seat. This was the second time he'd broken down in front of Iron Man in a few hours. It was mortifying. But Peter couldn't bring himself to wish that he was anywhere else, because somehow Tony was alive and that was reassuring even if Peter somehow still felt like he was falling apart.
Peter clenched his eyes shut so he wouldn't have to see the pity in Mister Stark's. "You should keep driving. Morgan's waiting for her cheeseburgers."
Suddenly there was a warm hand pressed against his cheek. Peter leaned into it instinctively. The touch was so much like something May would do. "She can wait another fifteen minutes," Tony said, soft but sure. "There's nothing more important to me right now than your wellbeing."
Peter opened his eyes to find Tony only a few inches away. "Why?" he asked. "You barely even know me."
Tony flinched, but he didn't move either of his hands. "That stings. But maybe I deserve it."
"Is this because of the timelines? Maybe you were super close with your Peter, and now you feel guilty about leaving him?" Peter was shocked by the wave of jealousy he felt at himself at the mention of that idea. Was there really a version of Peter Parker that had earned this sort of devotion from Tony Stark? What had he done that Peter hadn't? How had he been better? "Because here I was just the annoying kid who let you down a bunch of times and sometimes came over to your lab so we could pretend I had an internship."
"Sounds about right." Tony let go of his knee so he could scrub a hand over his face. His right hand, which the last time Peter had seen had been blackened beyond all repair. "But you're wrong, Pete. You're so wrong. And it's on me that you don't know that."
Tony was practically vibrating with energy, and Peter half expected him to get out of the car so he could pace. Peter recognized the feeling. If he was having a conversation like this with Ned he'd probably be swinging from the ceiling. "This isn't a timeline thing. Least, I don't think it is, but I can't really be sure – haven't quite figured out all the differences yet. But most of my emotional issues started way before 2012. Clearly I was a shitty mentor, and that was just as true in my spinoff version as it seemed to be in timeline prime. But that was my fault, not yours. Getting mad at you for being reckless – have I met myself? I think I just finally understood how Pepper must feel all the time and it freaked me out. Our whole acquaintance I was practically on the verge of a panic attack."
"Are you trying to make me feel better or worse?"
Tony scowled, and Peter couldn't help his resulting smirk. "Here's a few things I do know about you. You're the smartest kid in your school full of braniacs but you're angelically humble about it. Life's thrown a lot of shit at you and somehow it's made you a better person instead of a mess. And I recruited you because you didn't seem like me at all, but the more time we spent together the more it was like looking in a mirror, and even though that terrifies me I couldn't be more proud. Sound about right?"
Being around Mister Stark had always made him anxious, because every moment felt like a test, and more often than not he failed. But there was something about his soliloquy that reminded Peter of those precious afternoons in the lab when Tony would praise him for some discovery and Peter knew that he actually meant it, because Mister Stark didn't do nice just for kicks. The thought of earning that pride on some permanent basis was like finding a brand new bike under the Christmas tree, far too expensive to be expected and precious beyond reckoning.
"I guess," he mumbled. Though he wanted it to be true. Because Mister Stark was brilliant and heroic in all the ways Peter longed to be. And his absence had hurt in a familiar way that Peter had not expected to ever feel again.
"I know." Tony's voice was steadfast as vibranium, impossible to be argued with, even if the words he said were stranger than a woman with antennae poking through her hair.
Tony patted him on the cheek before straightening in his seat and pulling them back on the road. "You don't have to go back in the suit if you don't want to. But don't let fear stop you. Not when I can get you the good therapy."
The man was being inexplicably kind, so Peter gave him what he wanted. "Thanks, Tony." It wasn't as difficult as he expected. There was something comforting in the informality.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it Underroos?" Tony laughed at the face he made at the awful nickname and then turned up the radio, until the bass and the tempo chased away all soft, sad feelings.
They pulled up to the lake house ten minutes later. It was the exact opposite of any place Peter would imagine Tony Stark living, though he'd noticed, even through the hazy numbness of the funeral, all the high-tech touches to the rustic décor.
It was the second time Peter had been this close to a lake. He hoped, with a vague certainty that took hold hard, that it would not be his last.
When he opened his door he was assaulted by a wave of fresh air, smelling of pine and pollen instead of sweat and smog, so clean it burned his lungs like disinfectant.
"Home sweet home," Tony declared, removing the sunglasses he'd used to drive. "Oh, and a heads up. There's a chance Morgan's gonna call you her brother. Just run with it. We can correct her later if you want."
Tony climbed out of the car, leaving Peter sputtering, "Huh?" and pondering over the loaded phrase, "if you want."
Then a shriek pierced the air, and a dark haired bullet streaked towards Tony. He intercepted her with ease, swinging her around once before settling her on his hip. Her tiny arms wrapped around his neck as he pressed sloppy kisses to her face. Instead of squirming away she pressed herself further into his neck. "Missed you, Daddy."
The scene did something funny to Peter's stomach. It was private and mushy from a man who did neither, but there was something so pure and intense about the love these two clearly shared that it radiated. Peter couldn't help but be a little jealous. If his own father had ever loved him that much he couldn't remember it. That love had never had a chance to mature into something more distant but just as steadying. And Morgan had been so close to losing that opportunity as well – had lost it – but due to a trick of luck and physics and a hearty dose of Captain America's dang blasted stubbornness Tony was still here, alive.
Tony tugged on the end of one of Morgan's pigtails and then bopped her on the nose. "I was only gone a few hours, pumpkin. I had a big important recovery op, remember?"
"Just because I remember doesn't mean I have to like it."
Peter had never seen Tony smile so wide. "Well advised, Miss Sassypants. You're feisty today." He tickled his way up her side as she squirmed in his grip.
"I'm feisty every day," she said in between giggles.
"Indeed." In two large strides Tony carried her towards Peter who had stopped a few steps from the car, overwhelmed by the spectacle in front of him. He touched her face and tilted her towards the not-quite-strange teenager that was standing in her yard. "I have someone very important for you to meet. This is Peter."
Part of him wanted to remind Tony that they'd already met, but the man seemed keen on this moment, so he kept his mouth shut. He was about to say something generically lame like, "How do you do?" when the girl shrieked, "Spider-Man!"
"What? No!" Peter sputtered, the denial automatic, because having his identity revealed to the entire world was in his top three fears, right behind watching someone he loved die and not being good enough to stop a tragedy. (More often than not those two were combined.) Now that he'd had to add disintegrating to the list he supposed being outed as a superhero has fallen to number four.
Tony was calm about it, though he had come out as Iron Man at a press conference, so clearly this was one of the many ways Peter could never live up. "That's a trade secret, Little Miss."
"Like extortion? And Mommy's secret word shit?" the girl said with complete innocence – no trace of Tony's trademark snark quite yet – and Peter couldn't stop the laugh that burst from him. But instead of even pretending to be annoyed Tony smiled even wider. Peter was struck by how he'd never seen Tony look this genuinely happy. There had always been a glitch in the hologram, even in those times they were messing around in the lab, where the sarcastic veneer couldn't quite render properly over all the dark things he'd been through. But Peter didn't detect any of that now.
"Can you believe this kid? Four years old and already getting me in trouble. By the time she's a teenager all my hair will be grey."
Mister Stark used to make jokes about Peter turning his hair grey. But Peter found he didn't mind much that he'd been replaced, not when it clearly made Tony so happy.
So he reached out a hand, immediately feeling dumb about the gesture but knowing it was too late to take it back. "Hi, Morgan. My friends call me Peter."
Just as he feared, she looked at his hand but did not reach out her own. Peter didn't need super-hearing to pick up Tony's muffled snicker.
"Are we going to be friends?" She tilted her head, and Peter couldn't help but think that she was cute as a puppy. He didn't have much experience with kids, except when he rescued their cats or took selfies with them in the park. But the thought crossed his mind that he and Morgan would have fun together, especially when she was so clearly such a small, girly, innocent version of Tony.
He smiled at her, and she grinned back. "I hope so. If you want."
"Of course I want to be friends with my favorite superhero!" She surged toward him and Tony had to readjust his grip.
"I'm your favorite superhero?" he repeated, dumbfounded for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which that he'd been dust on the wind for the entirety of her life up until a week ago. "Why?"
She answered without a second of hesitation. "Cause you're Daddy's favorite superhero."
It was like the ground dropped out from under him. He'd always loved that feeling – the rush of freefall – but he wasn't expecting it. His eyes found Mister Stark's as he stammered, "What?"
The look the man was giving him was unfamiliar on his face, though he'd seen it on May's – soft and fond – and he realized with another plunge that it was the same way he'd been looking at his daughter.
God, he was actually serious about this practice kid stuff.
"Who do you think was gonna beat you out, kid? Sir Ages a Lot? But don't tell Rhodey. He'll think he earned it, but War Machine is just a lame Iron Man knockoff, and everyone knows it. Solid dude. Sub-par superhero." Tony's voice was light and breezy, but his words were anything but. They lodged in Peter's chest and spread like the warmth of the heaters in his suit, always there to thaw him out if he got in a tough spot.
"I figured you'd say the Hulk," he rambled. He knew he had a habit of running his mouth before his brain caught up. "Because of the science. And the rage."
Tony shook his head with a wicked smile. "Good guess. Brucie's in the top three for sure. But I stand by my answer. Definitely you, kid."
But Tony knew all the superheroes, and Tony had been disappointed in him time and again. But Tony had no reason to lie, and had never bothered to spare his feelings before.
Suddenly Morgan grabbed his hand, snapping Peter out of the strange spiral of trying to figure out why and how Tony Stark had come to care for unlucky and awkward Peter Parker. "Wanna see my tent?"
There was something about the way the girl was batting her bright brown eyes that made Peter powerless to say anything but "Sure." He needed the space to think anyway.
"Might as well give Pete the grand tour, Little Miss," Tony said, setting his daughter down with one last kiss to the top of her head. "I'll fire up the grill."
"Cheeeeeseburgers," Morgan shrieked as she grabbed Peter's hand and pulled him towards the lake.
Pepper felt like she was still dreaming.
It had started so familiar. She'd dreamt about Tony coming back to her more often than she dared count, alternating with nightmares that reminded her all too vividly why he couldn't. She wasn't sure which was worse when she woke – brutal reality or the devastation of hope crushed anew. Neither released her from her promise that she'd be okay, or explained how she was supposed to be both mother and father to Morgan when really she just wanted to curl in a ball and rage against the unfairness of the universe.
She'd always known she was likely to lose him. Afghanistan had cemented that notion, though she'd fretted long before that that he'd drink himself to death or OD in some upscale hotel room. After his Iron Man reveal she'd known his loss would mean something. That was better than him throwing his life away in senseless debauchery, but it was also worse, said a brutally selfish yet practical voice that she couldn't quite silence. It hadn't taken long in his employ for some silly romantic bit of her heart to imagine that she could save him from the emptiness that led to his playboy ways. She'd cleaned up dozen of trashed parties and escorted out legions of nameless women without any hint she was right, until he had almost died from something far more serious, and the reveal of his feelings for her had come with the even bigger arrival of a hero complex far more dangerous than fast and careless living. The very first time Pepper had come across him in his suit she'd known that Iron Man would kill him – but how could she blame him for that? A switch had flipped in him in Afghanistan, giving the directionless man a clear outlet for his genius. He was determined to make the world a better place instead of not caring whether his company made it a worse one, and while that was sexy as all hell Pepper knew she couldn't save him from that.
Most times she lived with that because she had to. Sometimes it became too much, and they took breaks that hurt them both more than healed. She'd never been able to stay away from him, even when she knew it would be for own good. He needed her. She knew how hard it was for him to admit that no matter how often the words fell from his lips – a plea or a bribe or a joke depending on the occasion. He made quite the effort not to need anyone else. She'd become his drug of choice.
The truth was she needed him too. Even though everything stormed around him he was her anchor, giving her purpose and resources and a steadfast encouragement that never waivered. Even when his conduct flirted dangerously close to sexual harassment he'd taken note of each one of her accomplishments, pointing out her achievements even when they revealed the lack of his own. He'd seen her, underneath the tight skirts and high heels, and unlike most men in power he hadn't felt the need to push her down to raise himself up. You're the best person for the job, Potts, he'd say, as if that actually mattered in business.
He'd given her his damn company, and even if it had been on a whim while he was spiraling, he'd never doubted that decision.
It wasn't until they were finally married, more than ten years later, holed up in their little hideaway from the fallen world, that she'd admitted how much his confidence had meant to her. How she'd become the woman she was in his eyes because he'd already seen it.
He'd kissed her forehead and rubbed his hand across her swollen belly, the promise of a future yet to come. "You're the only thing holding me together," he whispered. "And I'm so damn lucky you ever gave me the time of day."
The problem was there was nothing holding her together now. As much as she'd tried to mentally prepare for his loss she wasn't ready for the pain of it – how her head pounded and her stomach rolled as her mind screamed that it wasn't fair – except for the times when the numbness took hold and she wasn't sure if she'd ever feel another emotion again. Everything was always too much or too little now. She saw Tony everywhere and it hurt. But she feared the moment it stopped more than anything.
If it was just herself she would have buried herself in work, and maybe that would have distracted her enough to keep going. But Morgan needed her, not just to be present but to be strong, like she'd promised Tony. Morgan needed normalcy and routine and a mother who wouldn't break down every time she saw Tony's empty seat at the table.
Pepper tried to provide that, bearing herself up with the same strength and patience that had handled Tony all those years – but Morgan looked a bit like Tony and she acted even more like him, and she knew it was only a matter of time before the girl realized how it hurt Pepper just to be around her. It wasn't her daughter's fault. But she'd always been a Daddy's girl, and she didn't understand how her constant questions about why Tony had gone shredded Pepper up inside. Made her wonder with that same insidious voice whether Morgan wouldn't have preferred if Tony had stayed, and Pepper had gone.
Morgan never said that. But Pepper feared it every moment they spent together.
Feared how she might actually consider making the trade, if it were possible.
She'd been an independent woman once.
Pepper hated those thoughts, but she hated everything nowadays, so that wasn't new.
This morning she'd woken to the sound of Morgan and Tony conspiring, each muffled giggle healing a fissure in her bleeding heart. Somehow he'd been there even in the daylight, and that was new.
She worried it might be a dream within a dream, like that fool Inception movie Tony had taken far too scientifically.
But he'd stayed, even as they bickered about inconsequential things and spent some sexy time in the shower. He'd stayed, as Rhodey made breakfast and innuendos which turned into a nostalgic recounting that perfectly aligned with what Pepper knew of Tony's tawdry youth but included details she'd never heard and did not think herself creative enough to make up.
She had waited for the fantasy to fade, but eight hours later she was still awake and he was still here, returned from his sojourn to the city with Peter in tow. The boy was wide eyed and skittish, and Pepper understood how he felt. Joy left her off-kilter. If the other shoe fell, she was going to fall with it.
Once Morgan dragged the boy off Tony kissed her hello and then took up his station at the grill. He'd been a universal disaster at food prep when they started cohabitating, but something had changed when they'd moved to the lake and there'd been no suits to distract him. Tony needed projects to survive, and in between all the infrastructure remodeling he was contracted for he watched youtube videos on how to cook until he'd acquired several specialties. He liked providing for his family, he'd say, and then he'd pretend to gag at how domestic he sounded. Grilling had become a particular favorite. It's rugged and manly, he'd quipped.
Pepper didn't suppose today would be his best work, because instead of watching the burgers Tony was watching Morgan and Peter play in the yard. Morgan was shrieking in delight as she threw rocks and sticks into the air, which would have been a bad idea except Peter snatched every one of them with his webs and dropped them in a neat circle like some kind of performance art.
It was good to see Morgan laugh. She'd been so solemn since Tony died that Pepper had feared that the bright and bubbly girl had lost her happiness along with her father.
Pepper came up behind Tony and ran her hands down his arms before snaking them around his waist. She rested her chin on his shoulder, turning towards his neck so she could smell his aftershave. "I hope that dissolves."
Tony chuckled as he leaned back into her. Pepper noticed the way he'd trembled at her initial touch, and felt her heart flip in an equally unprompted gesture. "Give it a couple hours. If need be I'll reseed the lawn myself."
She snorted. "You will not."
He rested the hand that was not holding a metal spatula over hers, his fingers moving just enough to make her skin tingle. She's always appreciated his strong arms and clever hands, long before it was wise for her to act on that.
Acting on that had never been wise, exactly. But it had been well worth it.
"All right. I'll pay someone to reseed the lawn."
"That's better," she conceded, speaking the words into his neck before pressing a kiss there. He didn't crumble into ash, or burn with radiation, or otherwise disappear.
"Look at them, Pep," he said, his voice bleeding a reverence his younger self would have scoffed at. "The two of them, getting along. They're both here. I thought about this moment hundreds of times but I barely dared to hope – and now. If I was a religious man I'd say this was a miracle. Life doesn't give do-overs like this."
She ran her hand up his arm and pulled him a bit tighter against her. He had mourned Peter for years, but her week of grief had felt just as final. "You're here. That's a second miracle."
Just then Morgan let out a particularly shrill shriek. Pepper had assumed when she accepted that dating Tony Stark was a lifelong commitment that she'd never be a mother. Tony was surprisingly good with kids, but he feared fatherhood almost more than he feared wormholes. Even if he hadn't made that clear during several alcohol fueled confessions through the years he had spelled it out a few weeks after they started sleeping together. "I'm just not father material," he'd said. "You know I'm a mess. Alcoholism runs in the family, and that much money's not good for anyone. I'd be a terrible dad, and I can't do that to a kid, you know? If that's what you want you should tell me now, before I'm in so deep I can never let you go."
Pepper had always been too focused on her career to think much about children. She was apathetic about motherhood, but far less so about Tony. She'd already realized the morning after they slept together when he hadn't snuck out of bed that it was already too late for her to let him go. She didn't need kids to be fulfilled. It's not like they had to worry about who would take care of them when they were old.
Robots, Tony had said. I'll build us a house full of robots that can wait on us hand and foot.
Tony had said a lot of stupid things through the years, but he'd never been so spectacularly wrong. Despite his past and his flaws, he was an exceptional father.
"Three miracles," they said simultaneously, and Tony turned his head to kiss her on the chin. Pepper thought she'd been happy before, with her career and her fiancée, but nothing had prepared her for what it was like to be Morgan's mother. Chaotic and messy and so so worth it.
"You owe me a soda, Potts," he said, nonsensically, and she elbowed him gently.
"I actually went to the store and bought us all sodas today."
"So prepared," he hummed, but his eyes never left the scene on the lawn. "They're great kids, right?"
"The best," she answered, not caring how sappy that sounded. Because the dream hadn't faded, and she'd never seen Tony this happy – not the first night they'd spent together or the day Morgan was born. There had always been something haunted about him. All that differed was how deep he hid it – how tinted his shades of the week were. Last night everything shattered had been close to the surface. But she could find no trace of it now. He radiated such pure unadulterated joy. She'd always found him distractingly attractive, but there is something about the look on his face that made her want to ravish him right there.
It was the first time she thought she might not lose him to Iron Man. That maybe he would actually retire and focus on civilian projects and be happy with that. They'd had peace after the Decimation, but Pepper had known that couldn't last. Not with Peter gone and Strange's strange behavior unexplained. They'd both known they were biding time until a reckoning was coming, and it was hard to argue that his life wasn't fair payment for the restoration of half of everyone across the galaxy.
But the price had been paid. And he'd never been this happy with his suits, even if they made him the smartest and the strongest and the only one able to fly in the room.
"Thanks for letting me pick up Peter. I just wanted him to be here, you know?"
"Of course. You've been dreaming about your kids meeting for so long."
Tony stiffened in her arms and looked at her sideways with narrowed eyes. They'd never talked about this, because talking about Peter had been too painful after the Snap and before Tony hadn't been ready to admit anything. But Pepper had watched how much Tony had grown to care for the boy, his sense of responsibility deepening into affection, pride, and love. And when he'd mentioned a baby in Central Park before everything went to hell she knew exactly who to thank for his lack of trepidation at the idea.
"I'm that transparent, huh?"
"Only to anyone with eyes."
He scoffed, but she pressed her chin a little harder into his shoulder. Most of what she knew of Peter Parker was secondhand, but she looked forward to that changing. Tony and May both spoke of him as some paradigm of genius nerdy goodness. She knew it particularly threw Tony for a loop, all the ways they were similar and all the ways they were not.
"He's welcome here at any time."
Tony let out a breath Pepper hadn't even realized he'd been holding. "Thanks, Pep. For being so good about this. I know it's a little unorthodox."
"I always knew there was a good chance you had a kid or two who would show up some day. The fact you're not biologically related to this one is just bonus irony." They'd established long ago that the best way to deal with his past was to face it head on. She didn't have to pretend it never happened, and he didn't get to make jokes about it.
He chuckled into her neck. "Love you, Potts."
They'd been together for far too many years for her to still swoon, but still her heart flipped in her chest. "I know he's the reason you were ready for Morgan. I owe him a lot more than some burgers. Which you're burning, by the way." The grill had started to smoke, and Pepper reluctantly stepped out of his grasp.
"Shit," Tony swore, rushing to see if any of the meal could be salvaged.
"There's an extra package of burgers in the fridge," she advised. "I'll go get everything else ready."
"There's an everything else to this meal?"
Pepper rolled her eyes. Of course she'd bought corn on the cob and potato salad, because she was the only one who thought of those things. And Cool Ranch Doritos, because she'd straightened up the rec room in the Avengers Compound often enough to know they were Peter's favorite. "Yes. You're not feeding your children just cheeseburgers. Or your wife."
"You're the best, honey," he called as she retreated back to the house.
Tony had finished the second round of burgers and Pepper was bringing out her assortment of side dishes when Rhodey's black government issue SUV pulled into the drive. Boring, Tony had lamented more than once, but Rhodey had never been one for flashy sports cars. Today its size came in handy, as Bruce stepped out of the back in his hybrid form.
Pepper had seen him on the battlefield and at the funeral but there was still something shocking about his appearance.
It was not nearly as shocking as Steve's appearance when he stepped out of the passenger seat. The man has aged at least fifty years in two days.
Tony had warned her, but it was still something to witness. But Pepper knew that Steve was the only reason her husband was back, so she marched right up to him and embraced him tightly.
He seemed more brittle than he was at the funeral, but she knew he wouldn't break.
"Thank you," she whispered into his shoulder. "There's no way I could ever thank you enough."
"Just take care of him, Ma'am." They both laughed at his archaic phrasing, and when Pepper pulled away she swiped tears out of her eyes.
"Of course." She glanced over to the grill, where Tony had convinced Peter and Morgan to help him bring everything to the picnic table. Morgan was carrying her platter with intense concentration, while Tony laughed about something Peter had said.
It was what she did best, after all.
It had never before seemed like it might be easy.
"I want to see pictures," she said, dragging her eyes away from Tony because there would be plenty of time for that later, and it seemed like Steve might be running out of time in front of her very eyes.
Steve turned back to the car and returned with a frame. He handed it to Pepper with a strange little smile – bright yet melancholy. "Tony said not to, but this is much better than the one I showed him yesterday."
She wasn't expecting to see her own face staring back at her – more freckles, fewer wrinkles – leaning against a clearly less haunted Tony while a whole gaggle of strange children crowded around them. Not one of them was Morgan, but the setting was almost familiar; though it was not the same lake, it was close. And the happiness she saw reflected in both Tony's eyes and her own seemed to mirror what she felt today. This other version of herself had just known it longer.
"That's –" Pepper was not often speechless. She had spent decades witnessing Tony's shenanigans, after all. But the photo left her at a loss for words.
Tony had explained last night. Steve had gone back to Peggy and created a new timeline. One where Howard was a good father and Tony was less of a mess – and he and Pepper had still found each other. Even when he hadn't needed her quite the same way.
But there was no use dwelling on a life that would never be. Especially when she so loved the one she had.
"I meant a photo of you and Peggy," she finally said. Steve laughed and took the frame back. She expected him show her his phone. Instead, in true form, he pulled a worn leather wallet from his pocket and showed her the photograph tucked inside.
The faded wedding picture was beginning to fray along the edges, but both bride and groom looked effortlessly happy. Pepper had never seen Steve smile like that.
"You're beautiful. Both of you." She couldn't stop the tears that welled up in her eyes. They were so in love, and it was over, but the last time she'd seen Steve it had never been possible at all. He'd had a life without them, and it had been glorious, but soon enough they'd be the ones having to go on without him. After the week she had her emotions were a mess.
"It was more than I could ever dream."
Pepper laid her hand across his forearm. "Tell me all about it."
This was better than any dream Tony had ever had – his family and closest friends all sitting down to dinner without one whiff of imminent danger. He felt euphoric, like he was on the best trip ever. He'd never been this light without substances.
It was crazy to think that just three days ago he'd been lower than he'd ever been.
Tony couldn't have been happier with one of his kids on each side, both returned to existence and filled with potential. Morgan was acting up a bit, being louder than usual, but Tony could hardly fault her enthusiasm. Not when she stuck so close to him, and called him Daddy on every other breath, and pushed every single button that turned him into a pile of paternal pushover mush.
But Peter was quieter than normal, and Tony suspected he was a bit shell-shocked by all of today's developments. He'd looked lost when he returned from his tour, so Tony had saved him a seat right next to himself and across from Happy. Eventually he'd loosened up enough to ask Bruce how Professor Hulk came about, and that had spiraled into a very interesting - tedious, Rhodey had coughed – conversation, until May arrived halfway through dinner and walked right up to Pepper, crushing her in a hug.
Whatever she mumbled sounded a lot like, "I am so happy for you."
"Hey now. I'm the one who traveled across timelines to be here," Tony said with a smirk, swinging himself off the picnic bench. "Shouldn't I be the one getting that hug?"
May rolled her eyes, but forwent a smart retort and wrapped him in a brief but firm embrace. "It's good to see you, Tony."
"What is going on here?" Peter asked. His voice was light with amused disbelief but there was something fragile beneath it.
"Auntie May!" Morgan shrieked, pulling on May's leg until the woman swept her into her arms. "Daddy came home! Can we eat juice pops while you braid my hair?"
"Morgan Benjamina Stark, manners," Tony scolded, trying to sound firm.
Morgan stuck her tongue out at him, but then turned to May with a smile and a considerably lower volume and added, "Please."
"I need to have dinner first, Princess," May countered, pushing the hair out of Morgan's face and behind her ear. She tugged at the end of a few strands. "Then I'll braid your hair."
Morgan pondered that a few seconds and then relented. "Sounds fair."
"Seriously, what is happening right now?" Peter asked, his arms crossed at his chest. "Did you all hang out while I was gone?"
Those last four words put a damper on Tony's mood, for all the memories that prompted were tinged with sadness. Peter's loss was an ache that had never gone away – not until the moment he swung up to Tony on a battlefield and launched into a rambling explanation. But he and May had both learned to cope, and they'd done that together. She'd become an honorary Stark, and there were plenty of times where joy outweighed pain.
But to Peter just last week May had been mildly disapproving of Tony and almost entirely removed from his life, not a part of his close knit inner circle.
Had to be weird.
"Oh honey," May said, setting down Morgan so she could scoop her nephew in a hug.
"Sometimes," Tony cracked, a joke but the truth. He was already imagining all the ways their worlds could mesh now that they had him back as the nexus point.
It only lasted a second, but Tony saw the way Peter grimaced.
By the time everyone had gathered around the fire pit to make s'mores Tony was pretty sure he knew what was wrong.
Peter had said it himself, just a few hours ago. You don't even know me.
Rewind five years and Tony had been just as awkward around Peter as he was being around him now. Then Morgan had been born. The first time he held his little girl in his arms he was bowled over by a wave of pride and love and terror, and the strangest part was how that particular emotional cocktail had been familiar. "Shit," he'd whispered, running his finger across his daughter's tiny wisps of hair. "I'm gonna be better, baby, I promise." Suddenly there was more than one reason for the tears in his eyes and he tried to blink them away. "For you. For Peter's memory." Morgan blinked up at him sleepily. "For me."
And he had been. It hadn't been easy, facing all his oldest demons in the sad emptiness of the post snapocalyptic world. But he'd been the father Morgan deserved – the kind he'd wished he'd had, growing up. And every time he looked at Peter's picture by the sink he felt regret, not just that Peter had died, but that Tony hadn't been the man he needed while he'd lived.
He'd determined that first day in the hospital with Morgan that if they ever got Peter back that would change. Yet he'd still failed the Peter of his timeline, abandoning him to chase after ghosts. But this time he wasn't running. Never again.
But Peter hadn't been privy to all these years of soul searching, so how was he supposed to know how much Tony had changed?
Tony recognized the signs of a lonely kid who'd come to believe they weren't worthy of someone's attention. He and Peter really were alike in too many ways. It almost killed Tony in this timeline to think that he'd ever torn the kid down that way – but he was done playing Howard Stark in this reboot. As his little adventures in time travel had taught him, the past couldn't be changed, but the future could be rewritten.
He would make Peter see how much he loved him. It might not be easy, but the kid had a solid support system and a good head on his shoulders. Besides, now that Tony had retired from the superhero life he needed a new side project. He was already imaging several stages of a plan. He was really excited about the Extravagant Gifts phase, already thinking about the best car to buy and some badass suit upgrades.
But first up, a Grand Gesture.
He waited until Morgan was tucked into bed – and even though she demanded three stories she was asleep halfway through the sanitized version of Spider-Man's origin story which he'd mostly made up. When he went back outside he found Peter sitting besides Captain America, laughing softly while they burned marshmellows together and Peter ate them with too much chocolate. Tony's heart swelled inside him, because the kid was alive and he was here.
"I'm gonna steal my kid away, Cap," Tony said, coming up behind the teen and resting his hands on his shoulders.
Anyone else might have jumped, but with his enhanced senses Peter probably knew he was there. But there was something tentative in his eyes when he turned his head to look up at him.
Right. He'd called him, "My kid." Tony knew that maybe he should tamp things down a bit, but he really didn't want to.
"I've got something to show you in the garage, Underroos. That okay?"
"Sure, Mister—" He stopped at Tony's glare, ending his sentence with "Tony."
For the first time Tony realized just why it bothered him so much when Peter called him Mr. Stark. Pepper had done it for years. Everyone did besides Rhodey, and the formality provided a layer of protection just like his sunglasses. But he didn't want to keep Peter at that distance.
Tony wasn't really what he wanted the kid to call him either.
But that was getting ahead of himself. Grand Gesture. Extravagant Gifts. They'd get there eventually.
He kept his hands on Peter as he guided him to the garage, and unlike most surly teenagers he didn't shrug him off. It was a tangible reminder that the nightmare was over. The last time he and Pete had had so much physical contact Pete had disintegrated in his arms.
The garage opened at his command. Peter didn't even blink at the magnificence of his workshop – all the never before seen tech right next to his familiar bots. "Morgan showed me all this already."
Tony finally let go of Peter to rustle through some old protypes piled in a corner. It was nice that this version of himself was still a mess. It would have sucked to come here and learn that chasing after Loki had turned him into a neat freak or something.
"I didn't come to show you my workshop," Tony countered without turning around.
"Then why are we here?" Peter asked.
Tony opened a drawer and found what he was looking for. "Ah ha!" he exclaimed, spinning back to face Peter. "Catch!"
It was astounding that a boy who was such a klutz with a bowl of cereal could snatch the reactor from the air with such effortless grace. He turned it over, his eyes widening when he realized what he was holding. "What are you doing?"
"I believe you said something about wanting to try on the suit."
Peter stared down at the arc reactor in his hand as if Tony had thrown him a fistful of diamonds. "I couldn't."
"Why is that? Because you thought you were asking your dream subconscious so you didn't have to be embarrassed?"
"Well, yeah." Peter's eyes were still fixed on the tech in his hand, and Tony hated that he knew how he was feeling. Tony contemplated the best way to get the kid to look at him – a soft command or a hand on his shoulder. He'd tip up Morgan's chin, but he and Peter weren't quite there yet.
But Peter wasn't Tony. And Tony wasn't Howard. After a loaded few seconds Peter lifted his gaze himself, finding Tony's eyes with a look so tentative it broke his heart and knit it back together again all at once.
This was the time when his old self would have gone for a joke, needing to diffuse the emotional rawness in the air, but Tony knew in this moment that could be just as damaging as channeling Howard. So Tony offered him a genuine smile, holding it for a few seconds before he answered.
"There's no need to be embarrassed, Pete. The Iron Man suit is wicked cool. Of course you want to try it on. Everyone wants to try it on."
Peter's gaze didn't waiver now, and Tony considered that a win. "You really don't mind?"
He'd always been territorial about his suits. Had begrudged Rhodey the one he'd taken, even though on some level Tony had given that to him intentionally. But there was nothing in Tony that protested now.
"I really don't, young padawan. Just press it on your shirt and the nanites will attach."
Peter's head tilted. "Like Velcro?"
Tony hoped enough time had passed that he could make jokes again. "Yeah, like Velcro," he scoffed, rolling his eyes. "The world's most expensive Velcro."
Peter smirked and did as he was told. The burst of light on his chest was strange and unfamiliar, but Tony reminded himself that it was okay, that Peter didn't need it. "Now double tap twice."
Tony had watched his armor form hundreds of times, in so many iterations. It was always thrilling, but it was never like this. He wasn't ready for the swell of paternal pride that consumed him, making it hard to think clearly. Surprisingly, it was his old man's voice ringing in his head. One word in particular.
"Whoa! This is insane." Peter's voice sounded strange filtered through the mask, deeper and mechanized, and Peter must have thought so too, because the faceplate retracted, revealing bright eyes and flyaway curls. He looked so joyous that Tony wanted to cherish the moment forever.
Luckily he was prepared. "Fri, enact the Pictures Last Forever protocol." His faithful girl snapped away from various angles, the shots projecting in the air for a few seconds before being whisked away to her data banks for his future perusal.
"All good, Boss?"
Not quite yet. He stepped next to Pete, threw an arm around his shoulder and placed the other behind his head in a two finger salute. "One more, dear."
The picture was perfect, Pete's expression an amusing mix of befuddled joy while Tony beamed, a far cry from his usual look of detached disinterest that he'd perfected for the paparazzi.
"Now that's a keeper," Tony crowed, already thinking of how it was going to go not just in his kitchen but also on the mantle and the background of his workshop computer. "You can have that internship photo back."
Peter's eyes widened as if he'd just faced a cosmic slight. "No fair. Can I have a copy?"
"You can have as many copies as you want, Pete." Tony squeezed his shoulder, but he didn't think the kid noticed because he couldn't feel it through the suit. That was the danger of encasing yourself in iron.
"You should keep the suit too." The words slipped out without any forethought, but as soon as they were voiced Tony realized how right they sounded. "I mean, this is an outdated version, so I'll have to remake you the latest model, and we should make a few adjustments to incorporate your measurements, but symbolically you know what I'm getting at."
Peter shifted toward him, his stance closing down. "You sound serious, but you have got to be kidding me."
"I'm not kidding." Tony could see it all so clearly now, and the future was far brighter than a suit of armor around the world. It was an optimist in a suit full of guns he wouldn't use, looking out for the little guy in every neighborhood. Turning a history of violence into a future of peace. "I'm retired now. I finally mean that. I used to need the suits but now all I need is you and Morgan and Pepper. It's time to pass the torch. It's time for a new Iron Man."
"I'll never be Iron Man," Peter protested, but he was wrong.
"You'll never be me. But that's okay. I've told you before, that's good. But Iron Man was never supposed to be about me, although I'll admit I forgot that sometimes. Iron Man is a symbol, and a protector. And it's time for someone else to wear that mantle for a while. Cap gave his shield to Wilson. So I'm giving the suit to you. I can't think of anyone better."
"What about Morgan?"
"Pepper would skin me alive. She's far too young for that. Plus that would open up a whole Iron Man / Iron Woman can of worms which, though valid, might really just muddy the waters. She'll find her own way when she's ready."
"You think I'm ready?"
There would always be a part of him that wanted to say no. To wrap Peter in bubble wrap and protect him from every dark part of the world, not push him towards it. But he'd been choosing this life for years, and Tony had no right to take away something that was a part of him.
"Can't put that genie back in the lamp now."
"I don't think that made any sense."
"I take it back," he said, deadpan and altogether not serious. "You are too young for this."
"I don't know." Peter took a step and seemed surprised by the weight of it. "You've done all these amazing things and I want to be like you but I don't feel worthy yet, you know?"
"Trust me kid, you are."
"But that's it. I am still a kid. Just because I want to be Iron Man doesn't mean I should be Iron Man, right? It doesn't mean that I actually could."
He really should have stopped being surprised about the kid making smart choices. "Ok, valid point."
"Also, as ridiculously cool as this suit is, it's impossible to make use of my spider powers. I can't swing. I can't stick to stuff. And it would look pretty silly if I shot webs out of these arms." He lifted a gauntlet to proof his point, and Tony chucked at the image it prompted.
Maybe he had gotten a bit ahead of himself.
"I'm sorry for letting you down."
"Hey." This time Tony did put his hand on Peter's chin without thinking, needing to stop that particular train of thought before it left the station. "You making a rational, mature decision will never let me down. You don't think you're ready to be Iron Man? You don't want to be Iron Man? That's okay. I'll never love you any less for wanting to make your own path. I promise you that, okay. I didn't mean to push." His hand drifted upwards and ruffled through Peter's curls. "But I want you to know that I believe you can do it, whether that's today or in ten years. If you ever change your mind I'll make you a suit in a heartbeat. Cause I'm proud of you kid. Whatever you decide."
Peter's smile started slow, but in a few seconds it had consumed him, making him seem both younger and lighter. "Maybe one day. When I'm older. Or if the world really needs it."
He hoped the world never would. "Agreement to table this discussion until an undisclosed future date. Though you're keeping that suit. Just in case. Or for Halloween. Whatever."
"Thanks, Tony." There was no hesitation this time, and Tony suspected they'd be moving on to what he really wanted to be called soon enough. He wasn't expecting the kid to tackle him in an iron hug, but he returned the embrace willingly, finally understanding what Pepper meant about the suit getting in the way.
"In the meanwhile, Iron Spider sounds pretty badass, doesn't it?" Peter said into his shoulder.
Tony blinked sudden tears out of his eyes, because Spider-Man was Peter's, and the fact the kid wanted him to be part of it meant more than him being willing to take up something Tony had created. "It sure does."
He pulled away once he had himself under control. "All right. Now it's time to test out what this puppy can do. After you go flying you might reconsider waiting on the upgrade."
"Flying?" Peter squeaked.
"Yeah. What's the point of Iron Man if you don't fly? But we have to go outside for that. I learned that the hard way. Went right through the ceiling of my workshop. Pepper was not amused – and it wasn't even her house then."
"This is the best day ever," Peter said as the mask reformed around him and he followed Tony out into the night bright with stars.
For Tony, the best part was that it was only the first of many.
And that's a wrap, my friends. I hope you've enjoyed my little Iron Family wish fulfillment. I'd love a final review if you did. And if you need more Iron Dad/Spider Son, please check out my post Infinity War fix-it stories, Phoenix Rising and After the Smoke Clears, which you can find on my profile.