“Tony, are you gonna help me or not? I’ve got my hands full with Morgan, and Peter and May are on the doorstep.”
Tony follows the sound of Pepper’s raised voice, grasping blearily at the handle of their bedroom door. “Okay, I’ll get the door, honey.”
“I still have potatoes to peel for the picnic. Can you handle them too?” He notes the hint of playful sarcasm in her reply.
“You do remember Peter can’t stand them, right?”
Pepper curses under her breath; Tony catches a faint sound of utensils being hastily discarded. “Right. Okay, no more potato salad. But get your ass to the porch.”
As Tony crosses the hallway, passing the kitchen in which he presumes Pepper is preparing food, he runs his fingers through his hair in a futile attempt not to appear as if he’s just napped for two hours. He might be retired, but he still has pride.
There is certainly not a spring in his step or a rapidly coalescing grin on his face as he strides to meet the Parkers. Nothing of the sort.
Okay, he’s missed the kid. It’s been 19 days since he last saw Peter in person, and he suspects the abrupt thought of 19 days too many that invades his mind is a product of parental mushiness. The arrival of a red-faced Morgan into the world just 3 months previously has shaken up not only the external routine between him and Pepper but also some chemical balance inside him; in short, she’s lodged a firecracker into the hard-to-reach parts of his heart. Cue mushiness, which, lucky for the kid, happens to extend to him.
In the 10 months since the dual Snaps that won them back the world, Tony has helped Peter and his aunt resituate in a marginally nicer place in Queens. May had been too proud to allow him to aid them on many fronts but had relented on the subject of Peter’s therapy. And – Tony ventured to say – the investment seemed to be working.
But Queens was just too far away for the boy he’d spent 24 days in close quarters with. So ensued regular video calling and visits when the Parkers had the time.
The heavy wooden door swings open to reveal the kid and his aunt wearing matching smiles and laden with Tupperware tubs. Knowing May, there will be an array of concoctions ranging in quality from gruesome to ungodly in those innocent-looking containers. Tony smiles anyway, planning to usher the pair in to drop off the food and hopefully forget about it after.
“Tony!” Peter blurts.
“No, just… happy.” A touch of Peter’s trademark bashfulness worms its way into the accustomed, sass-tinged tone he normally gets out of the kid. It’s cute.
“I’m impressed you two made it through the wilderness in one piece,” Tony remarks, turning to the pair.
Peter shrugs, a smile tugging at his mouth. “Well, I did all the navigation, so we didn’t get lost.”
May frowns in mock-offence. “Hey! I’m not that bad, am I?”
Peter throws her a look that Tony’s going to have to patent soon for its impressive shade-throwing ability.
Tony smirks knowingly at him. “Come on in.”
The very second Peter’s set down the food, Tony wraps him in a tight but tender hug which Peter gently reciprocates.
“It’s good to have you back, Pete,” Tony murmurs into the kid’s hair where Peter has burrowed into Tony’s neck. He’s grown, even since the last time Tony laid eyes on him, and no longer fits against Tony’s collarbone, a change which both unsettles and thrills him. The pitch of his voice, however, remains around the level of a chihuahua high on helium, much to the amusement of his peers.
“Good to be back,” Peter replies.
Pepper swiftly breaks up the scene by entering with a snuffling Morgan in her arms. Breaking away from the embrace, Peter makes a beeline for the baby. “Pepper, it’s great to see you!” he grins. “And how’s the little troublemaker?”
Morgan registers Peter’s appearance instantly and flexes her starfish hands with a beam, grabbing at Peter’s hair in the way she reserves only for the kid. She has her priorities straight, Tony thinks as Peter stoops awkwardly to allow her to fist tiny hands in the curls spilling over his forehead. Another gloriously endearing discovery that has emerged since the birth of Morgan and Tony and Pepper’s subsequent settling down at the lake house he’d dreamed up while lulling Peter to sleep on the Milano all those months ago is Peter’s natural affinity with babies – or, more specifically, a certain Morgan Stark, who Tony suspects adores Peter more than her own parents. Plus the hair-playing thing, which she totally gets from her dad.
“Mind taking her for a minute while we take everything down to the lake?” Pepper asks him.
“Yeah, of c— ow! Morgan, I’m flattered, but my hair isn’t a climbing rope, okay?”
“How he actually enjoys swimming in 80-degree water is beyond me,” Tony says as he watches Peter cutting frothing lines through the lake water about 20 feet away from where he, Pepper and May sit at the shoreline on deck chairs.
“It’s refreshing!” Peter yells, briefly righting himself to tread water. Tony twitches before recalling the kid’s superhearing.
“I’ll take your word for it, kid,” he hollers back.
Flicking his dripping hair back from his face, Peter smiles devilishly and dives away, heading towards the centre of the lake.
May laughs lightly from his left where she dandles Morgan on a knee. “He’s a water baby. Even before he got bit, he couldn’t get enough of it. It was one of the few things that didn’t make his asthma worse.”
An endearing image of a pre-pubescent Peter, goggles secured over a mop of hair and preparing to dive into a pool teeming with other kids, floats into Tony’s mind. He smiles.
“He always looked at home in there,” May continues. “I could just… watch him for hours.”
“Yeah, that happens,” Pepper coos in Morgan’s direction, allowing the baby to wrap a tiny hand around her index finger.
May shifts Morgan in her lap. “She’s getting so big!”
This is something Tony is acutely aware of: how his kids are growing and flourishing and he’s on the other end of the spectrum, shrinking and disappearing. It’s a bittersweet change.
“Don’t you ever wanna know what they’ll be like when they get even bigger?” he speculates aloud, occupying his ever-restless hands with the virgin mojito Pepper had expertly mixed for him. “Maybe she’ll surpass me in intelligence. Maybe she’ll go through a goth phase that never wears off and dress up like a vampire for her wedding. Maybe she’s gonna start up a career in bioengineering, decide it’s totally wrong for her, then run off to join a travelling circus. And all that is gonna come from that one little baby.”
One corner of May’s mouth quirks upwards in a sympathetic smirk. “It does feel like that sometimes. You look behind you and suddenly all those years are there, and you remember the day they came into the world, and it’s pretty damn scary. But amazing, too. Who would’ve guessed a kid like Peter would come out of that five-pound miracle on August 10th, 2001?”
“I would’ve,” Tony blurts. “If I’d been there. I can sense greatness.”
“Sure, you can.” Pepper shoves him lightly with her fingertips extended. “Thanks for ruining the mood.”
“Okay, first off, you know how heart-to-hearts make me sweat. And secondly, I totally predicted that Morgan would be a genius, and the stats seem to agree. Smiling at five weeks, grabbing at 11? I have a sense. Like Peter’s… tingle.”
The lack of a whining retort from Peter, now a small spot in the distance, confirms that he’s out of earshot. May, however, titters lazily. “’Tony tingle’ actually sounds even better.”
“I’m sure the kid will be thrilled you two get matching tingles,” Pepper adds.
Tony’s eyes widen. “Now that’s starting to sound weird.”
For a handful of seconds, the three of them sit back in their loungers, content to fuss quietly over Morgan and watch Peter’s rapid circular progress through the lake.
“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” May comments mildly. “I know you’re not supposed to say that about your kids, but he is.”
Tony considers the rippling of water around the kid as he pulls his legs up briefly with a motion reminiscent of a mermaid to produce a glittering spray, the broad sweep his hands make as he clears his face of water, the twitching flick of his head that dispels drips from the ends of his hair, the playfulness of the twist he makes as he dives back under as if it’s the most enjoyable thing he’s ever done.
Yeah, pretty damn amazing. But it’s not as if I didn’t already know that.
He recalls the play of synthetic blue light over Peter’s wan face as he clenched his teeth against yet another futile dressing change, the shuffle of bare feet as he limped determinedly around the Milano’s many halls, the precious smiles he handed freely to Tony despite the horror of their situation, the wiry hands seeking an anchor in his shirt or shoulders juxtaposed by the bright eyes of a fighter.
Tony would like to think that his sense for greatness – his Tony Tingle, whatever – is the reason why he came banging down the kid’s door in the first place. In reality, however, he’s pretty sure he just lucked out with Peter.
“Amazing doesn’t even cut it,” Tony replies around a mouthful of emotional constipation. Come on, brain, let me dote.
May and Pepper simply nod at this, as if acknowledging that there’s a part of Peter that will remain between him and Tony.
“How’d you do it, May?” he continues, turning to the aunt-and-baby duo. “Raise such a brilliant kid?”
She smiles in a clash of amusement and wistfulness. “Trust me, he did it himself. I think if he didn’t have such strong morals, my style of parenting would’ve let him fall into bad places. I feel like most of the time I just stood by and watched him run circles around me.”
“Well, looks like that worked,” Pepper huffs lightly. “Let’s hope he spends enough time around Morgan that it rubs off.”
May laughs. “Oh, he’d love to. He’s smitten with her – honestly, I’m surprised he hasn’t come out of the water yet to hold her again.”
“He loves everything,” Tony cuts in. “It’s like the world is made of cotton candy for him.”
“That’s part of what’s so great about him. Somehow, even after everything… he’s still like that.” May gestures to where Peter’s surfaced with a joyous shout in an explosion of foaming droplets.
Depositing Morgan back in Pepper’s waiting arms, May changes track with a sigh. “The worst thing is seeing him come to terms with the fact that it isn’t always like that. It really works him up sometimes. But he’s a mirror with that sort of stuff. I suppose I’ve got that to thank, because he tries to be so close to the vest with it. You can tell when he’s really happy.”
Right on cue, the kid himself emerges like a dart from the water, still in his t-shirt and shorts which he’d divebombed into the lake wearing, flexing his hands against the cold and trailing water which he flicks in Tony’s direction.
The spray is surprisingly refreshing, but he humours Peter all the same, flapping his hands in front of his face. “No – c’mon, Pete!”
The kid’s face lights up in a laugh. It’s glorious to be the cause of that splitting open of light.
Before he can do any more damage, May swamps him from behind with a towel, sweeping it across his sopping clothes and hair while he squirms, chuckling. The scuffle lasts no longer than a few seconds before May wraps him in a hug, arms crossed across Peter’s chest and securing the towel in place, and Peter lets his head flop sideways to rest against May’s with a lazy grin painting his face.
Looks pretty happy to me. The kid’s grin is annoyingly infectious; even by scrubbing at his mouth with his hand, Tony can’t remove it.
Damn kid’s gonna ruin my reputation.
Kinda already has.
Tony’s waiting for him with sandwiches in hand the minute he joins them on the loungers. Peter catches his eye for half a second as he extends the meticulously made thing to him, but Peter's not the only one that’s braved a little therapy time. Instead of creating an obligation for him to eat, Tony sets the plate on the table nearest the kid and croons, “Thought you might like them more with the crusts cut off, Petey.”
Peter drops his head into his hands, the tension immediately forgotten and replaced with a smile of mingling embarrassment and amusement. “Oh my God, I’m seventeen.”
“I see, we’re flashing it around now, aren’t we?” Tony leans back on his lounger with raised eyebrows. “Only been seventeen for 23 days.”
A pair of eyes peeks from behind the kid’s splayed fingers. “How do you even remember that?”
“Because I’m your biggest fan,” Tony insists, clasping his hands together in petulance which prompts an eye roll from Peter.
“That can’t be true if you don’t know that I’m not a little kid anymore!”
Prising apart the kid’s fingers and planting a sandwich inside, May taps him on the nose fondly. “Oh, but we all want you to stay one.”
“There’s not a lot I can do about it.” Taking a bite out of the sandwich without checking to ascertain what May had given him was actually food, Peter throws his spare hand in the air.
“I mean, I could always dig the time machine back out, try the trick we did on Scott…”
“I will strangle you,” May cuts in murderously.
“Okay, okay, I won’t! Don’t you trust me with keeping him safe after I managed it for six months?”
Flipping instantly to a smile, May replies with a hint of something more meaningful behind her words. “Yeah, I do trust you.”
“Are you not gonna swim at all, Tony?” Peter interjects, sandwich halfway to his mouth.
“Are you kidding? It’s freezing in there. Nuh uh.”
“I heard that cold water is good for the heart… seems like we both need a little of that.”
“Parker, don’t you dare—”
He’ll later regret the overly dramatic way he yells, “Peter! Put me down!” as the kid slings him effortlessly over one shoulder and sprints for the water. Within seconds, the mock-fury has dissolved into hapless laughter between them both. There’s a fractal of time wherein he witnesses Peter suspended between the platform and the lake before—
“Fu- dgesicles, it is freezing in here!”
Peter simply throws his head back and giggles, looking all too pleased with himself, and Tony can’t help but mirror the glee written across his dripping face.
As he’s making the rounds that evening, Tony can’t resist stopping by Peter’s door and mentally ticking off the parental milestone.
He cracks a lopsided smile, leaning against the doorframe as he addresses the kid, who’s currently reading a frighteningly thick hardback and ensconced in goose feather pillow. “Hiya, kid. Just dropping in on you and Morgan before I head to sleep.”
Tucking in a bookmark without taking his eyes off Tony, Peter huffs out a laugh, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Aw, you’re a real dad now, aren’t you?”
There’s something about the shine of his eyes, caught in the gentle glow of the orb-shaped lamp on his bedside table, that suggests to Tony that the kid’s happy he’s there.
Raising his hands sarcastically, he quirks an eyebrow. “I know, you’re seventeen. But I think even seventeen-year-olds just wanna be tucked into bed sometimes.”
Peter responds only with a bashful chuckle that instantly confirms Tony’s words.
“How are you holding up?” Tony ventures once he’s perched against Peter’s side on the mattress. He’s been asking the kid this since the very first time they met after the dual Snaps and is used to a faintly encouraging answer of not terrible or alright or even pretty good, I think. Of course, there are the visits or the calls when it’s bad instead, the nights when he wakes Peter from nightmares in this very bed or sits with him while he runs his mouth or holds him to keep him from falling apart – or, even more torturous, the sobs and gasps over the phone that he can’t hug away.
But today, Peter briefly shuts his eyes and replies: “Actually? Really… really great.”
“Great,” Tony repeats a little dumbly.
“Yeah. I mean, after the… the cardioversion? On my heart, it’s not fluttering weirdly anymore, so breathing is way less stressful.” He cuts off with a short laugh, aware of how his words might sound. Tony prompts him to continue by brushing strands of hair from the kid’s forehead. “I haven’t started hiding food again – not yet, anyway.” He swallows briefly but pushes on hesitantly. “And it’s nice, not worrying about people finding the stash all the time. Feels… free.”
“Is the scar going anywhere?” Tony asks softly.
In response, Peter pushes aside his comforter and lifts his pyjama shirt to let Tony see. Any semblance of awkwardness around exposing the bare flesh there disappeared during their time on the Milano. It sends his heart plunging to the floor when he catches sight of the still-present scar across his lean lower abdomen, ragged and angry, and he bows his head to hide the tension in his jaw, but Peter studies the puckered area with a strange expression of content.
“Not really,” he says. “But it’s okay.”
“How is it okay?” Tony replies with unintended bite. He can’t quite help his anger, split open by the mark that will never leave his kid’s skin, the mark that Thanos branded him with, that was meant for him.
“Because – this is kinda hard to explain – it’s… proof.”
“Proof that it all happened. I mean, it’s maybe not the best thing to be reminded of… everything that happened… but it’s there because we won. We both made it out alive and it’s over now. Sometimes, I think if I didn’t have the scar, it would kind of slip through my fingers. And it sort of… justifies not being okay sometimes. Because I know that something did happen - he did do – stuff – to me – and—"
Peter breaks off with a click of his jaw which has tightened like a vice, like his hands fisted in the comforter. When he inhales, it’s with practiced control: in through the nose, out through the mouth.
“Sorry,” he breathes. “Sometimes I don’t realise what I’m saying, and then I remember, and it’s… hard.”
Tony can only imagine what’s flashing through Peter’s mind right now.
A cruel, choking metal hand at his throat. A rain of blows assaulting, trapping him. The wicked gleam of a shard of Stark tech as it struck through his stomach. Ghostly silence as, one by one, every single one of their friends drifted away into dust. The cries of anguish while Tony crouched uselessly by his bedside, armed with poetry instead of pain relief. Day in, day out, the burning agony at the stab site which he fought past. The confinement on the Milano, slowly slipping into hopelessness and starvation. Discovering that his hero couldn’t save him this time; that his fight had been in vain. Knife-sharp ribs emerging from under skin as death approached around the corner. The shivering, sweating heat of fever. Emptiness as his heart failed in his chest. The weeks of hazy panic in hospital. Six months of tragedy as he tried to adjust to the loss of half the universe.
Tony’s a furnace of rage and it’s all directed at a dead man. But he knows rage is not what Peter needs right now. Instead, he takes a deep breath himself and scoops the kid up into an embrace, hooking his chin over a warm shoulder. “I know,” he whispers, hand rubbing soothingly up and down the kid’s back. “But it’s okay now. I got you, yeah?”
Peter melts into him. “Yeah.” The sigh he emits is high-pitched, as if Tony’s touch has released it from the prison of his ribcage.
“But you’re feeling great?” As much as he wants to believe the kid’s words, Tony can’t reconcile them with the Peter in his arms who is making a visible effort to contain himself.
A self-deprecating laugh escapes Peter, whose head is bowed as he presses his face to the spot on Tony’s collarbone he occupied when he was younger. “I mean – I know, I’m kind of having a- a moment right now. But I’m good. I promise.”
“Don’t tell me the guilt complex is making a strange re-appearance,” Tony says, feigning lightness but unable to hide the concerned crease in his browline.
“My nightmares are better,” Peter blurts.
Tony pauses, shifting back a little to study Peter’s earnest countenance. “Better as in a little better or better better?”
“I haven’t had one since the last time I saw you.”
Tony fights against a grin, gripping the kid’s elbows to look him dead in the eye. He’s not quite ready to believe it.
“No. You’re kidding. This is some kind of awful joke.”
“Not kidding.” The smile that emerges on Peter’s face is almost shy.
“Kid, you amaze me,” Tony murmurs as he draws him into his chest, intending to squeeze the life out of him but getting a taste of his own medicine as Peter squeezes back with superhuman force and forces an inelegant grunt from Tony.
“Oh, sorry,” Peter winces with a touch of a laugh, loosening his grip incrementally.
Tony doesn’t care. “That is great.”
“It’s not huge.”
“No, it is.”
“And I’m a lot less… scared all the time. No more... trouble breathing... since last month.” Peter tacks on the statement casually, avoiding the words which Tony knows only freak him out. Anxiety. Panic attacks.
“Jesus, kid,” Tony replies, rocking Peter back and forth slightly and turning towards his ear to continue. “You’re gonna give me the best heart attack ever while I try to process all this good stuff you’re throwing at me.”
Peter shakes lightly in his grip in a hushed giggle.
“You’re doing so good, Underoos,” continues Tony, shaking his head a little in elated disbelief.
The way Peter whispers “Thanks, Tony,” contains a sort of reverence that the man surely doesn’t deserve. “You helped me out a lot.”
“It’s nothing. I’ll do it all over again if you need.”
“I don’t think I will. I think—” Peter raises his head to look at Tony, eyes shining with the brilliance of stars. “I think I’m getting better. And… you are too, right?”
The realisation of what his honest answer will be is like a thunderbolt from the heavens, igniting Tony’s heart.
He smiles. “Yeah. I really am. We’re okay.”
Yes, there will still be the nights when Peter wakes in the throes of horror and patches a call through to Tony with shaking fingers. Yes, there will be the impromptu texts and even visits on bad days when the memory of Peter a step from death gnaws at his mind until the only thing that will negate the dread is spending the day with the kid. Yes, there have been losses: Natasha, Steve, the brave army members who sacrificed their lives for the universe, for the return of that brilliant gleam in Peter’s eye. But they won.
I won, Tony realises as he runs a hand through Peter’s curls and casts his thoughts to Pepper and Morgan, safe and asleep the floor above.
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.