There’s a message on the fridge.
Well, more than one actually. The words juice and salad have been spelt out neatly. Underneath them are messy but still legible collections of plastic letters spelling out mommy, daddy and morgan. Something that looks like the name Gerald sits at the bottom of the door, somewhere where only small fingers can reach.
Pippa swallows, clutching the bottle of soda to her chest with such an intense grip she feels the glass creak under her fingers.
In the days before Thanos, in the pocket of time between the defeat of the Vulture and her journey into space, Pippa used to leave notes. She’d noticed the collection of colourful magnetic letters sticking to the side of the fridge in the tower one morning as she ate breakfast with Tony, shoved into the very edges of the unit as though they weren’t meant to be seen.
Pippa didn’t need to ask to know that they were yet another remnant of a time gone by, a melancholy trace of the people who used to occupy the huge space of Tony’s home with him. She’d wondered why he hadn’t simply thrown them away, but figured it was probably for the same reason that a pair of ballet pumps were still hanging up by the training room door.
Pippa had left in a hurry one morning after staying over, late and at risk of getting a detention. As she had hastily gulped down almost an entire carton of orange juice in the kitchen, her eyes had landed on the letters again. With only the merest amount of thought given, she had grabbed a few of the dusty pieces and shifted them to the front of the fridge, spelling out see u tmrw mr stark and hurried out to where Happy was waiting for her.
The next day, she’d stepped into the elevator and had instantly remembered, feeling a wobbly sort of anxiousness. What if Mister Stark was mad? What if she’d upset him by using something that he clearly didn’t want to be reminded of?
She’d been practically vibrating in her shoes as the elevator door had opened out onto the penthouse floor. A quick sweep of the room had shown no sign of anybody else, but also that the magnetic letters were still stuck on the fridge, exactly as she left them.
Pippa had studied them for a while, chewing her lip thoughtfully. With a hesitant finger, she slid the letters around, swiping a few more from the side of the fridge.
hello mr stark!
She made a crude looking smiley face out of two full stops and the letter J before heading to the lab, knowing that was where Tony would be.
A week later, on a drizzly Sunday morning, Pippa had been sleepily groping for the cereal in one of the top cupboards when her eyes had fallen onto the fridge door, lured in by the new arrangement of letters.
A warm burst of joy had quickly pierced through her surprise and Pippa had laughed, feeling the sort of happiness she’d been chasing since Ben had passed away. With a second or two of consideration, she shuffled the letters once again before getting back to her breakfast.
What started from that day was a silly sort of exchange, a tentative sort of tradition that they never spoke of but never stopped. Little greetings or farewells were always responded to in kind; suggestions for movies or dinners were almost always accepted without question and all reminders were gratefully received, especially by Tony who would regularly take one look at the fridge door and dash back out of the room, swearing under his breath as he went.
Pippa would get creative sometimes and twist the letters around so that if one were to make enough effort, they would read as some sort of equation. Eventually, Tony had purchased another set of letters so that they had more to work with, covering almost the entirety of the fridge door in a messy but pleasant kind of colourful chaos.
It had been their thing. A little joke between the two of them that made Pippa happier than seemed logical. Judging from the soft smile that always appeared on Tony’s face whenever she managed to catch him looking at the fridge, it made him happy too.
Their private joke.
Except now, it isn’t theirs anymore.
A sudden, vicious urge to swipe all the letters onto the floor blitzes through Pippa and she turns her back to the fridge, vision blurring with tears.
It feels like she’s done nothing but cry since she came back.
She cried when she saw Tony on the battlefield and he’d swept her up into a hug, kissing her cheek and whispering her name as though he couldn’t believe she was real.
She cried when she’d fallen to her knees beside Tony after he’d used the gauntlet, clutching desperately at his chest as he gazed blankly at her, face scorched and his right arm a ruined mess of metal and muscle.
She cried in the hospital waiting room when May had burst in and hugged her so tight that Pippa thought her ribs would break.
And she’s cried many more times after that.
The loud sound of laughter breaks through her thoughts and she gives her eyes a cursory wipe before heading back outside to where the others are. The garden of Tony’s cabin is covered in long lines of colourful bunting and fairy lights that are switched on despite the sun still shining through the trees. The decoration looks haphazard and messy and so last minute, much like everything else in her life.
Keeping her head down, Pippa walks past a long line of backs and takes a seat at the furthest end of the table, staring down at the empty plate in front of her.
Taking a deep breath, she risks a look down the table.
Everyone is crowded together, crammed in around the picnic table like too many sardines in too few tins. Makeshift benches and overturned crates serve as extra surfaces upon which to sit and rest the seemingly endless plates of food that just keep on coming.
Beside Pippa is a jabbering Quill and opposite is a quiet but smiling Mantis. May is somewhere further along, no doubt sitting with Happy. Pippa can’t see either of them from her position.
She can see Tony though.
It’s hard to miss him really. He’s dead in the middle on the opposite side of the table and his voice seems to carry over everybody else’s, even though he isn’t being particularly loud. It’s been two weeks since the defeat of Thanos and he still looks terrible: one arm missing and the right side of his face streaked with darkness and silvery burns.
But he’s smiling, laughing, looking somehow younger than Pippa’s ever seen him despite the streaks of grey in his hair and the lines by his eyes that hadn’t been there before.
On his lap sits Morgan, chatting excitedly between mouthfuls of cucumber sticks and pieces of bread. Pepper leans into Tony’s left side, their shoulders brushing together as she whispers something in his ear that makes the smile on his face grow even larger.
They look so happy. Tony looks so happy. It’s not a new kind of happiness either, one that’s recently been discovered in the wake of their victory. It’s a lightness that’s obviously been allowed to bloom for a while, evident in the warmth in Tony’s eyes and the way he holds his daughter so naturally.
The second she had clapped eyes on the little girl in the hospital, Pippa had known exactly who she was. There was no mistaking those dark, flint-sharp eyes for anything but Tony’s. Their first encounter occurred after Pippa had been called into Tony’s room by a tired but smiling Rhodey.
''He’s asking for you, Spidey.''
Pippa had followed him to the room and frozen like a statue in the doorway. The sight of Tony propped up in bed with a small child curled into his chest had floored her, knocked the air out of her lungs in a strangled gasp and had her grasping the door frame for support.
Rhodey had frowned in concern and Tony’s head had jerked up instantly, both of their gazes locking her in the moment, a moment that she found she so desperately wanted to get away from. All at once, the stark reality of the world came crashing down on her, personified in the presence of the girl in Tony’s arms.
Things had changed.
The world hadn’t stopped turning.
She had been gone…gone a long time.
Dead for a long time.
Long enough for Tony to build a new life, to recover from the horrors of what happened to them all on Titan…
To move on.
''Hey, kiddo!'' Tony’s voice had cut through the fuzzy busyness of her thoughts and the next thing she knew, she was being steered into a chair by his bedside and one of her hands was being held in his remaining one.
''You okay?'' He nodded towards her head. ''You wanna lower the shields?''
Pippa hadn’t even looked in a mirror since she and rest of the Avengers had flooded the hospital. While aliens with colourful skin and talking raccoons were hardly worth batting an eyelid at anymore, Pippa had lurked in the shadows, unable to retract her mask without revealing her identity to the entire working staff of the hospital.
A quick thinking Happy had shucked his jacket and given it to Pippa, even pulling her arms through the sleeves and buttoning it up in a way that had her frowning at the display of tenderness. It was only when she’d seen a look pass between him and May, a look that she’d seen May give Ben a thousand times before, that she realised what had changed.
Then Rhodey had called for her and there she was, sitting by Tony’s bed in Happy’s suit jacket and fighting the urge to scream.
With the jacket safely hiding the majority of the suit, Pippa had let her mask retract and watched as Tony’s eyes flicked across every inch of her face, thoughtful and intense. It was different to how he’d looked at her on the battlefield and Pippa squirmed under his scrutiny, trying hard not to stare at the girl in his arms.
Then the girl looked at her, and Pippa recognised those eyes, noticed the ring on Tony’s hand and the full weight of reality had crashed down on Pippa all over again, leaving her breathless and floundering in the flood of it all.
Five years. She’d been dead for five years.
And in that time, Tony had married Pepper and had a child.
A real daughter.
Not a mentee who had clearly overestimated her role in his life; not an enhanced teenager who had misjudged her own importance; not some more or less orphan who had lost way too many parental figures in her life -
Not a girl who loved him as a father even when he wasn’t anything remotely close.
A real little girl, his flesh and blood, a perfect mixture of Tony and Pepper.
Pippa wasn’t one to believe that blood was the sole factor in determining family; after all, May was only her aunt by marriage. But somehow this felt different, more irrevocable, more meaningful and real in a way that she and Tony never could be.
It’s a notion that has dogged every step she’s taken since she left the hospital.
Boisterous cheering snaps Pippa out of her thoughts and she finds herself looking down at her plate. It’s still empty and nobody has noticed that she hasn’t touched a single piece of food.
Nobody’s noticed anything about her really.
May’s loud, bright laughter meets Pippa's ears and she jolts in her seat at the sound. It’s one she hasn’t heard in a long while, even before she turned to dust. Ben’s death, along with Pippa’s transition into the role of Spider-Girl, had meant there had been less reasons for laughter in the Parker household, especially for May. Even before May had known about Pippa’s secret alter ego, she had known something was up and it had made her worry. It made her worry a lot.
Pippa wonders how peaceful her aunt’s life has been for the last five years. Not having to worry about her niece running around the streets of Queens facing down criminals in dark alleys; not having to worry about whether her niece is coming home because it’s already a given that she’s not.
May’s laugh rings out again over the chatter and Pippa squirms in her seat, earning a look from Quill as she bumps him with her shoulder.
(''- you okay? Hey, hey kid! You okay? It’s Quill, remember me? C’mon, up! We gotta go. Time to kill that purple asshole.'')
Pippa wobbles her head a little and forces a smile onto her face. ''Y-yeah, fine. Just tired.''
Quill grins at her. ''Can’t say the same myself. Those beds at the hotel are nothing short of a miracle.''
Right. The hotel.
With the compound utterly decimated, the majority of the ragtag group of superheroes found themselves with no place to go or, in the case of Quill and his crew, rather reluctant to leave. Pepper, composed and strong in the face of anything and everything, quickly resolved the situation by booking out enough rooms in the Four Seasons for those who wanted them for as long as they needed them.
Nobody wanted to leave the hospital but eventually everybody, with the exception of Rhodey, allowed themselves to be shepherded off with promises of being contacted as soon as anything changed.
Pippa went home with May.
Except they don’t go home.
At least, not to Pippa’s home.
No, it was May and Happy’s home.
A spacious and modern apartment with a pretty view in a nice area of the city. It was twice the size of the old apartment.
It had one bedroom.
May had bustled about as soon as they got in, grabbing sheets and pillows from a cupboard and drowning the sleek, expensive looking couch in them. Pippa had returned her aunt’s guilty smile with a placating one of her own, all the while wanting to sink to the floor and cry.
She doesn’t have a room. She has no clothes, no belongings. Everything was gone, either sold or put into storage after…well, after she had died.
She didn’t even have her own bed.
''I would have asked if you could stay at Tony’s place until we figure…'' May had paused, sharing an awkward look with Happy, ''this all out, but they don’t have that much room and, well,'' she smiles wetly at Pippa and smooths a hand through her curls, ''what with his recovery and everything, I didn’t think it was appropriate. Plus, I wanted you close by,'' she adds with a wiggle of her nose.
Pippa wonders if that’s really the reason. Is it just because May wants her there, or because Tony doesn’t want her at the cabin?
Either option doesn’t make her feel good. In fact, Pippa isn’t sure if she even knows how to feel good anymore.
She contacts Ned and MJ, her almost delirious relief at hearing their voices rapidly turning into an unfair kind of bitterness when she realises that they can’t be there for her right now. They’ve come home to find their lives waiting for them, their empty spaces waiting to be refilled by only them, not buried or covered over like they never existed.
Pippa knows they mean well with their genuine but undeniably distracted promises to see her soon, but they do nothing to make her feel better, because she’s jealous and angry in a twisted way that makes her almost hate her friends for having something that she doesn’t, for having all that they had before.
And here she is, on the outskirts of the oddest of family units, watching them celebrate Tony’s homecoming, seemingly so far away from the world she had left behind.
The sun may be shining but Pippa feels nothing of the heat and the happiness surrounding her. Instead, she feels as though she’s trapped in the darkest days of December, cold and bitter and desperate for warmth.
She thinks of days at the tower; the weekend when she’d been sick with flu and Tony had cheered her up by bringing her ice cream and saying silly things like 'a little something to pep up my Pip,' making a joke about the similarities between her and Pepper’s names.
She thinks of the crisp autumnal sunsets that she and Tony would watch from atop skyscrapers and the pictures that would inevitable appear in the papers the following day, showing their silhouettes sitting closely together against a picturesque backdrop.
She thinks of their ridiculous late-night laughing fits over what would happen if they turned the fridge into a transformer or if they took Dum-E for a walk through the city.
It all feels like a distant dream, a childish form of make-believe that she got way too invested in. The man sitting along the table is so familiar and yet so different from the one she remembers, like he’s reinvented himself in the way he would reinvent his suits.
Iron Man’s gone now though, and so it seems is the Tony Stark that Pippa used to know.
She ends up feigning a headache and sneaks off to lie down in the backseat of Happy’s car, pulling May’s discarded jacket over her face and fighting tears until she drifts off. She thinks she feels a familiar brush of a hand against her hair and then the next thing she knows, May is shaking her awake and leading her into the apartment.
Pippa lasts three more days after that before she snaps. Packing the new clothes May had hastily rushed out to buy her the day after they returned home, she changes into her suit and approaches May in the kitchen after she gets home from work.
The excuse she gives is lame and transparent as hell, but she pushes on with it.
''It’s all sorted, um, 'cause Mister Stark got me a room at the h-hotel too,'' Pippa stammers, nearly balking at how quickly the lie tumbles from her mouth.
May cocks her head to the side questioningly. ''He did?''
''Y-yeah! He figured that, you know, I’d wanna sleep in a real bed. Not that this isn’t great,'' she says hastily when she sees the guilt on May’s face, ''but…well…''
''I get it, baby,'' May smiles sadly, moving a hand to cup Pippa’s cheek. The action makes Pippa’s eyes sting and she glances down, unable to look at May’s face anymore. ''I just…you’re okay, aren’t you? I know this must be hard for you, but then I guess it’s been hard for all of us.''
A sharp pinch of resentment catches Pippa somewhere low in her gut and she pulls away from May as discreetly as possible, muttering something about being tired and wanting to get some sleep. She grabs the small bag by her feet, giving it a weird sort of shake as she marvels at how light it is. She’s managed to pack all that she owns into one overnight bag and it barely weighs anything.
May seems to notice this. ''We’ll go shopping soon, huh? Have a girls day, just you and me?''
Pippa fights the urge to scream that she doesn’t want to go shopping. She wants her own bedroom, her old bedroom, and not to sleep on the couch like she’s nothing but a guest come to stay for the weekend.
Something must change on her face because something also changes in May’s stance. Pippa can read the desperation on every limb of May’s body, and somewhere in the back of her head she knows that her aunt isn’t to blame, that it’s not her fault, but it’s not enough to quiet the discontent screaming inside of her.
''I-it’s okay, I’ll, um…''
Pippa feels the tears coming then and her lip wobbles; she sees the shift in May’s expression, the concern and dismay and, without another word, grabs the bag and jogs to the window, ignoring May’s pleas to stop as she throws it open and swings out into the afternoon sunshine, the mask of her suit coming up to cover her face just before the glare can hit her eyes.
It doesn’t take her long to reach the hotel. Repeated phone calls from May and two from Tony are swiftly sent to voicemail and she feels a pang of guilt in her chest when she mutes Karen to avoid hearing either of their names.
It’s easy to spot the floors on which the Avengers are staying. A number of balconies near the top of the hotel are dotted with some familiar faces and she does her best to avoid them, landing on the side of the building where they can’t see her. Holding the straps of her bag between her teeth, Pippa scales the wall and hops up onto an empty balcony.
Praying for anyone other than Captain Rogers, she taps on the glass of the French doors. She instantly picks up the sound of footsteps and steps back as the left door opens slowly, revealing the wary and almost angry face of Wanda. Her expression immediately softens as she recognises the person standing in front of her, but confusion still pulls heavily at her brow.
''Pippa?'' she asks. ''What are you doing here?''
''Can I…um…'' Pippa shuffles nervously under Wanda’s gaze, ''stay with you?''
''Why would you want to do that?'' Wanda asks slowly.
''Please,'' Pippa says, hating the desperate urgency in her voice, ''please, I just…need somewhere.''
Wanda looks at her for another moment and Pippa briefly panics that she’s having her mind read without realising.
Then Wanda pushes the door open further and waves her inside.
They don’t talk much, but Wanda is kind enough to not ask too many questions and offer her the spare bed in the room. Pippa thanks her and immediately buries herself in the luxurious sheets, curling up against the plush pillows.
She knows her lies have been fully rumbled when her phone starts to blow up with even more calls and messages that evening. Quill and three others come banging on the door, asking Wanda if she knows where Pippa is. Pippa is a little surprised by how worried they sound but brushes the thought away as she huddles under the blankets.
Wanda glances over at Pippa before she gives a firm ''she’s with me,'' as a response which leaves no room for questions being asked.
''Don’t tell Mister Stark,'' Pippa mutters when the others disappear.
Wanda doesn’t reply.
Pippa listens to the sound of her phone vibrating for another hour before she finally drifts into a restless sleep.
She awakes to the sound of whispered arguing. Not just Wanda, but Clint and Tony too. The light seeping in through the curtains tells her that it’s early and that it’s raining heavily.
''She didn’t want me to tell you – ''
''Didn’t stop you from contacting Clint though, did it? Huh? What are we up to, staging another coup?''
There’s a sad sigh. ''C’mon, man, back off,'' Clint murmurs gently but with a warning lilt to his voice, ''you know that’s not fair.''
''Look,'' Tony says harshly, ''as adorable as this pseudo father daughter thing is – ''
''You really wanna go making those kinda jabs right now?'' Clint asks. ''I don’t know what the hell is going on but clearly, you’re not in a state to deal with it rationally, and she’s not even awake yet so – ''
There’s a clapping sound, like a hand hitting someone’s shoulder firmly.
''Take it from a guy who has a teenage daughter. Let her come to you. No amount of pushing is gonna help you right now.''
Pippa tunes out then, burying her head back under the covers. Nothing is gonna help right now. Not a damn thing.
She turns her phone off.
Two days later, Pippa walks into the first salon that she sees and asks for a haircut. The stylist, clearly sensing something, hands her a stack of magazines and leaves her to peruse them for ten minutes, nodding in approval when Pippa shows her a picture of a woman with wavy hair cut into a choppy bob. Pippa watches as her long tresses drop to the floor with precise snips, feeling the tension lift out of her shoulders with each fallen lock.
The stylist smiles kindly at her when she’s finished, telling her that she looks wonderful. Pippa leaves with a sense of satisfaction for having finally had a say in something in her life.
Her delicately good mood instantly shatters when she steps into her hotel room to find Tony waiting for her. She gapes at the sight of the red and gold metallic arm sticking out from his right shirt sleeve. He seems equally stunned by the change in her appearance, head cocking to the side with eyes narrowed in thought before he catches what she’s staring at.
''You like it?'' Tony asks, flexing the arm with a grin that looks way too shark-like. ''Finished it last week. Would have done it sooner but Morgan insisted on helping which just led to a ridiculous amount of time playing with colour schemes – ''
Pippa looks away at the mention of Morgan. The bitter sting of jealousy strikes her somewhere in the rib area, turning her skin hot and making her fingertips prickle. Tony notices her reaction and stops talking, cocking his head again as he studies her from the chair he’s sitting on.
''You changed your hair,'' he says softly.
Pippa’s fingers immediately lift to trail through the bangs hanging over her forehead. ''Yeah.''
Tony smiles, more real this time. ''Suits you. Very punk rock.''
He waggles his eyebrows teasingly, something that would have had her instantly laughing before. Now she just looks away again, her hand dropping to clutch her left arm self-consciously, forming a very small barrier between them that she knows won’t hold for a second if he starts pushing.
Which of course he does.
Tony peers at her closely for a minute before he sighs.
''Look, sweetheart – ''
He stops as Pippa physically flinches at the pet name.
''My name is Pippa.''
He’s hardly ever called her Pippa. It’s always been some type of nickname. Pip and kid were the standards, along with the frequent use of Underoos and kiddo. But the rarer, softer moments between them had given way for sweetheart, honey and even a baby during a night of whispered assurances when Pippa had been injured badly on patrol. She remembers the gentle lilt of Tony’s voice, his fingers weaving through her sweaty hair as she trembled on the gurney, grounded by the softness of his words as he promised her everything was going to be alright.
And he had been right.
Except now, he wasn’t.
Nothing was alright.
As evidenced in the flare of hurt in Tony’s eyes as he takes in what she’s just said.
''Right,'' he says with a sniff, squaring his shoulders a little. ''You gonna tell me what all of this,'' he waves a hand in her direction, ''is about? ‘Cause quite frankly, Pippa, I’m at a complete loss.''
Though she asked for it, the use of her full name still makes her insides squirm with some incomprehensible feeling of loss. She clenches her hands into fists and looks down at the floor.
''Nothing’s going on.''
''Oh, yeah?'' Tony scoffs, frustration becoming clear in the bite of his tone. ''That why you’re walking around looking like you’re about to tear shreds out of someone?''
Pippa scowls but doesn’t say anything.
''Or why I’ve had your aunt calling me in tears, saying that you won’t talk to her? That she doesn’t know what to do because you won’t come home or answer your phone?''
Pippa digs her nails into her palms, gritting her teeth as they pierce her skin.
''Or why you won’t talk to me? Why you won’t even – damn it, kid, look at me!''
The sharp bark has her reacting on instinct, head shooting up obediently, like she’s still that naïve fifteen-year-old girl desperately trying to get her hero to take her seriously. Whatever expression is on her face wipes the frustrated glare off Tony’s immediately, smoothing his furrowed brow and colouring his eyes with concern.
''Talk to me,'' he says, all gentle and careful, like it’s so easy for him to be like that now.
Which it is, Pippa thinks as she looks at him. He’s had nearly five years of being a father to soften all the edges, to temper his sharpness and pave the way for a new level of kindness, one that she’d never been enough to bring out.
''I can’t help you if you don’t tell me. I mean, Jesus, kid, I had to find out where you were from Quill,'' he exclaims, eyes growing darker as he steps closer. ''Peter Quill, that plucky jackass from space. Imagine me having to find out from him.''
''He’s not a jackass,'' Pippa says weakly, unable to think of anything else to say.
Tony pauses, now standing only mere inches away from her. ''Time to stop hiding, kid.''
''I told you,'' she says through her teeth, ''my name is – ''
''Kid!'' Tony cuts her off. ''Underoos, kiddo, sweetheart, that’s what I call you. Why would I stop now?''
''Because you don’t need me anymore!''
Tony goes completely still. His expression is a frozen mask of something raw and aghast but Pippa can’t stop now, not when she can feel everything bubbling over the edges, spilling out of her like blood from a gaping wound.
''I mean whatever little fantasy I was helping you play out before, that’s done now, right?'' Pippa snarls, feeling anything but angry despite the venom in her words. ''You’ve got a real kid now, a real daughter,'' her voice cracks harshly as she sucks in a trembling breath. ''There’s no room for me.''
If she felt wretched before, it’s nothing compared to how she feels now as she looks up at Tony. He looks angry, downright furious. The whites of his eyes are too bright and the lines of his face seem more prominent than ever. It reminds her of how he looked after the ferry incident, when he’d stepped out of the Iron Man suit and pulled the rug out from underneath her and left her stumbling helplessly in the aftermath.
And here they are again, except this time, there’s no going back, not when there’s five years standing in between where she is and what she had.
Tony opens his mouth to say something but an ominous crash from somewhere in the distance followed by Wanda bursting into the room stops him. Pippa only has to glance at Wanda's tense face before following her to the open window, shucking her jacket and letting the suit engulf her in one smooth movement. She doesn’t look back at Tony as she leaps out into the air, shooting out a web and swinging after Wanda as Falcon zooms past, leading the way towards a column of smoke billowing out of a skyscraper.
It feels weird – wrong – to be leaving Tony behind, to be going into something with a team of superheroes that doesn’t include Iron Man. Multiple voices burst into life over the comms as the others swoop in, and it’s with a heavy heart that Pippa joins them. She sees Doctor Strange up ahead and can hear the unmistakable crackle of lightning as Thor lands on the scene.
Avengers, just like she is, and yet she feels no sense of belonging, no pull of camaraderie or rush of friendship for those fighting beside her.
Because all she feels is forgotten, replaced, abandoned.
The battle is a bit of a mess. A furious but impressively organised mass of leftover Thanos followers give them a good run for their money. Between long flailing limbs and weapons that fire pulses of energy strong enough to send Pippa spinning through the air when she manages to get too close, it’s a long and arduous fight that leaves them all cursing and complaining profusely.
''Can we finish this up soon?'' Bucky snarls, ducking behind an overturned car as a lamppost hurtles towards him. ''It’s getting real boring.''
''You just wanna get back to smoochin’ with your boyfriend,'' Rocket teases from his vantage point up on a nearby roof.
''For the last time, you little – ''
Pippa doesn’t hear the rest of their grousing because as she loops round to dodge a thrashing arm of one of the bigger creatures, something heavy collides with her and knocks her flying, sending her headfirst into the side of the building. There’s the sickening rush of falling, and then her head bounces off the pavement with a painful smack and blood instantly fills her mouth as her vision spins.
'' – shit we gotta – ''
''Spider-Girl, resp – ''
The noise from the comms pierces her ears like daggers and she moans, unable to move as the wetness from her mouth begins to seep down her chin and onto her neck. The ground vibrates beneath her, jarring her bones and increasing the thudding sensation in the back of her skull, and then multiple hands are on her, poking and patting and turning, making her flail weakly in protest. Her fingers latch onto something and she squeezes as hard as she can as the tunnels in her eyes become narrower and narrower while everything seeps into white noise.
'' – bad, man, really – ''
''SAM! GET OVER HE – ''
''– to call Tony right n – ''
Darkness claims her then and the pain slips away with her consciousness.
Pippa comes to with a strained gasp, eyes flitting around wildly. The tendrils of her dream curl tightly around her, trying to pull her back down into its insidious trap. Her lungs scream for air, making her heave in desperate hitches, hands reaching out for purchase because she feels like she’s falling.
Something touches her and she cries out, begging whatever it is to stay away, lashing out in a weak attempt to defend herself.
Somehow, she makes it to her feet. She knows in the back of her head that the ground beneath her socks isn’t really made of the crumbled remains of a lost civilisation, but the deafening cacophony of blood titan dust death blood titan dust death whirling through her head steals away all rational thought.
Have to move have to run have to get away
She stumbles forwards blindly, staggering into things before fumbling her way out of the door. She’s aware of voices calling her name, of figures on the edge of her vision but she can’t distinguish friend from foe because blood titan dust death blood titan dust death so she runs, clattering down unfamiliar steps and gasping for air that doesn’t feel grainy on her tongue, doesn’t taste like oblivion or regret or sorrow –
Something strong curls around her then and holds tight, keeping her steady even as she fights back.
'' – hey, I got ya, kid, stop struggling – hey, hey! It’s okay!''
The rub of leather on her cheek drags a strangled cry from Pippa’s lungs and she inhales deeply, vision clearing to reveal the maroon hue of Quill’s jacket. His face appears a moment later, green eyes peering at her in concern.
''Hey, short stack, you with me?''
Before she can answer, Quill’s head lifts to look over her at something. ''Look, Tony’s here – oh, whoa, okay – ''
At the mention of Tony, Pippa all but throws herself into Quill, ducking her head under his arm and making herself as small as possible, fingers clenching tightly into his jacket. After a moment, she feels the wind around her whistle as Quill gestures in some silent exchange with Tony, and soon she hears footsteps walking slowly away, leaving just her and Quill in what she finally recognises as the yard of Tony’s cabin.
''H-how did I get here?'' she mumbles.
Quill adjusts his hold on her, sliding down onto the ground so that she can lean against his shoulder. ''You’ve been doing a sleeping beauty act for the last two days, squirt, on account of getting the ever-loving snot knocked out of you. After you got checked over and fixed up by that doctor that has a crush on Thor, your aunt and Tony agreed it would be good for you to recover out here. Strange did some of his mystical mumbo jumbo and brought you over yesterday. Nearly everyone has been hanging out here waiting for you to wake up.''
Pippa frowns before looking around, taking in the stillness of the lake and the hens dozing in their coop. ''So…I was just brought here when I was sleeping? Nobody thought to ask me?''
Quill gives her a look, one that she can’t see as she stares out towards the lake, but she feels his eyes on her all the same. ''That really what this is all about?''
Pippa doesn’t reply. She looks down, realising that someone, most likely May, has dressed her. The shirt and sweatpants are too stiff, too new, the socks on her feet too white. She focuses on digging a toe into the earth to rid them of their newness, to try and make them look like the greyish pairs she had owned before.
''Can I come with you?'' she asks, lifting her gaze back up to look at Quill.
Confusion passes over Quill’s face just for a moment, and then it morphs into a wary reluctance. ''Come with me where?''
Pippa swallows. ''Space.''
The very word alone sends a shiver down her spine that seeps into her skin, twists around her insides and pulls tight. It’s a quiet but ruthless kind of fear that she knows will follow her for the rest of her life.
But even that isn’t enough to stop the frantic need pulsing inside of her to get away from all of this, to try and find some reprieve from the unbearable weight of loneliness and despair that seems to cling to every part of her soul.
And if space is the answer? Then she’ll take it.
''What are you trying to run away from?''
Quill’s voice is as quiet as she’s ever heard it, hesitant yet somehow warm. She knows immediately that he’s going to try and convince her to change her mind but that doesn’t stop her from being pulled in, latching on to something that might be able to just make her feel the slightest bit better.
''Everything,'' Pippa whispers. ''I don’t…May and Happy and…Mister Stark…'' she chokes on his name as tears immediately fill her eyes. ''I could be a Guardian. I mean, I am an Avenger, sort of, and I don’t take up much room and I’d totally clean up after myself and – ''
Quill laughs at that, regarding her fondly. ''That’s more than the rest of us do, believe me. You really think someone like Drax keeps it clean? Hell no.''
His arm gives her a squeeze. It’s an affectionate gesture, something she imagines a brother doing if she were to ever have one. ''You’re from Earth, you belong down here, webby.''
''You’re from here too,'' Pippa argues.
He smiles sadly at her. There’s a haunted kind of sorrow in his eyes, something old and enduring. ''This planet stopped being my home the day my mom died, kid.''
Pippa bites her lip in contrition. Guilt settles inside of her, adding to the swirl of restless darkness in her stomach and she sighs shakily, digging her fingers into the cool grass by her feet.
''I don’t...May moved when I was gone. I don’t have a room anymore.''
Quill huffs, eyebrows lifting. ''That’s gotta be tough…but,'' he looks back at the cabin, ''maybe you could stay – ''
''No,'' Pippa bites out with a vehement shake of her head, ''no, I can’t.''
Quill narrows his eyes.
''If this is about Stark – ''
''It’s not,'' Pippa replies quickly, heart thudding with shame. ''It’s not about him.''
Quill just stares at her. ''I think it is.''
The tears are back in her eyes again, but this time they’re angry.
''Does it matter? He doesn’t care about me. There’s nothing here for me here anymore and I – I – '' Pippa buries her face in her hands, muffling a ragged scream, ''I can’t look at it anymore, not when I don’t have it.''
Quill’s voice is gentle. ‘’Have what, Pippa?’’
''A family,'' she chokes, digging her fingers into her cheeks as the tears pour out. ''I had M-May and I thought Mister Stark – '' she laughs weakly, ''why would he want me when he’s got his own kid? A daughter that’s really his and I’m just…'' She throws her hands up in the air, as though that action alone will define it all.
She turns to look at Quill, ready to fight her case again, but the look on his face makes her pause. His eyes aren’t on her like they were before. Instead, they’re focused on something behind her.
She doesn’t need to look to know what it is.
Or rather, who it is.
Pippa moves quickly but Quill is faster. As soon as she’s on her feet he has an arm around her, bent round awkwardly to press her into his back. She could fight him off easily, break his arm with a flick of her wrist, but she knows that he has full faith in her not to. So she stands still, face against his jacket and fingers clutching his sleeve.
The footsteps approaching them are determined.
''Easy, man,'' Quill says, back tensing just a fraction as he squares his shoulders, ''she’s not feeling so hot.''
There’s a pause that fills Pippa with dread. It goes on too long, the silence filling up with the twittering of the birds in the tree. They quickly fall silent too, as though sensing the tension.
''You wanna tell me exactly why my kid is out here sobbing on your shoulder, Quill?'' Tony demands.
Something timid and fragile comes to life in the pit of her stomach; a hopeful kind of doubt that yearns for more through the fog of sorrow she’s been stumbling through.
''Because I’m her friend,'' Quill says firmly, ''and in some fucked up saving the universe cosmic bullshit kinda way, I’m yours too.''
Quill steps aside then, exposing Pippa to Tony’s eyes. His hand lands on her back and then the next thing Pippa knows, she’s being propelled towards Tony. He catches her without falter, and his arms curl around her so tightly that she lets out a gasp of shock before wrapping her arms around his waist and huddling into him like a small child, desperate for comfort.
''Whatever the hell this is, man,'' Pippa hears Quill murmur above her head, ''fix it. ''Cause she’s sticky as hell and I’m not so sure I won’t find her clinging to the side of my ship when I take off later.''
Tony freezes in Pippa’s grip and she clenches her eyes shut as she pictures the expression on his face. Quill’s hand passes over her hair briefly and then he’s gone, jogging back towards the cabin and shouting for Rocket as he goes.
It’s just her and Tony.
For the first time in ages, it’s just her and Tony.
As though he knows what she’s thinking, Tony holds her tighter, his metal arm digging almost painfully into the space between her shoulder blades.
''I miss you,'' Pippa finds herself whispering into his chest, punctuating the words with a wet sniff that she can’t quite hold back.
A moment passes before Tony replies ''I miss you too, sweetheart.''
The term of endearment has tears immediately flowing out of her eyes and she gives a stunned, pathetic whimper before she’s overcome with sobs that make every inch of her tremble, that make her wail in wretched, devastated cries that have Tony increasing his hold on her, covering as much of her as he can in a protective grip.
‘’it’s okay, Pip, it’s okay,’’ he says right into her ear, his voice cracking with emotion, ‘’I’ve got you, honey, it’s alright.’’
His arms cradle her tight as she sobs into his chest, unleashing everything that’s been building up within her since she opened her eyes on Titan. Tony mutters words of comfort to her the entire time, gently rocking her back and forth and stroking her hair as he does so.
Eventually, exhaustion overrides everything else. Like he can sense it, Tony leads her to the edge of the dock by the lake and eases her down, taking a seat right beside her. Pippa inhales deep breathes of air that taste like pine and rain.
''Sounds like you needed that, huh, kiddo?''
''Y-yeah,'' Pippa snivels, rubbing her nose on her sleeve. ''H-how…'' she swallows, tongue feeling too thick in her mouth, ''how much did you hear?''
Pippa nods once, turning her attention to her hands, watching her fingers knot together as she waits.
''Look at me.''
Pippa chews her lip nervously before doing as he asks. Tony’s eyes are dark, wounded. There’s not a hint of anger or frustration in his scarred face; in fact there’s nothing except a softness that she can’t quite identify.
''C'mon,'' Tony says pleadingly, ''just talk to me, Underoos. I need to understand.'' He reaches out to cup her cheek, touching her with such reverence that her heart skips a beat. ''How can you think I don’t want you, huh? How can you think any of what you said?''
Pippa doesn’t want to tell him, because even though she believes it, somehow the thought of saying it out loud in front of Tony makes it feel more real, makes it hurt all the more.
Yet somehow, something inside her makes her talk.
Perhaps it’s the childish hero worship she still harbours for Tony that makes her do it, or maybe it’s her inability to stop loving him like a father even though he’s not hers to have, or maybe it’s because she still trusts him to fix things like he always has – whatever it is brings everything out of her in a tidal wave of grief and anger and sorrow and guilt.
As she talks, cries and grits her teeth through it all, Tony’s eyes never leave her face. They flicker and swirl as his jaw tightens and his nostrils flare, but they never look away. Pippa's heart hammers a furious drumbeat in her chest and the roil of anxiety in her gut is so intense she feels like she might throw up from it, but she keeps going, purging the darkness until all that’s left in an empty shell and a fresh stream of tears that leave her pressing her hands to her mouth to suppress the sobs at the back of her throat.
Everything aches, raw and bruised and as they sit in silence, the only noise being the birds and the distant chatter of the people in the cabin, Pippa feels the regret rushing to the forefront.
Then Tony sighs.
''For a genius, you’re pretty dumb, you know that?''
Of all the things Pippa expects him to say, this wasn’t one of them.
''God, kid, how can you – '' Tony stops, lips going thin. ''You don’t know what it was like afterwards, Pip…'' He runs a trembling hand through his hair, ''I can’t make you understand what it was like after you were gone. Everything was…'' he barks out a bitter laugh, ''it was hell.''
She nods, blinking furiously, unsure of what to say or do.
''I couldn’t even bring you home,'' he tells her. ''There was nothing left of you. Nothing. Nebula and I made it back, Thanos was killed and then…that was it. Life was just there, waiting for everyone to live it without any way of knowing how.''
He looks so tired, Pippa realises. Even without the lines of age around his eyes and the silvery tint to his hair, there’s a bone-deep kind of fatigue that seems to cover every inch of him.
''I’d have nightmares. That you’d somehow be there, all put back together, all alone, wondering where I was.''
Pippa ducks her gaze.
With the exception of the alone part, that’s exactly what had happened. She’d screamed at Quill, at Doctor Strange, demanded to know where Tony was, yelled his name over and over as she’d scrambled to her feet, desperately searching for any sign of him.
Then the portals had opened and she returned to a world she didn’t recognise anymore.
''You haunted me,'' Tony says with such quiet despair that Pippa feels herself aching for him, wanting to make it better even though it was an old kind of pain that she had no power over.
''Then Pepper and I found out she was pregnant.''
Like water dousing fire, rejection pours over the cautious hope inside of Pippa.
''Hey, it’s not like that,'' Tony insists gently. ''Look, that stuff you said back at the hotel – about this, all of what we had before being a fantasy? You were right.''
He takes her hand before the hurt can overcome her.
''I never thought I’d be a dad. Didn’t think someone like me had any business being a dad.''
His fingers squeeze hers, the callouses on the tips like a soothing balm against her skin.
''You changed all of that, kiddo. You changed everything.''
Pippa’s eyes go wide with surprise. The flame of hope within her spits and fizzles, so unwilling to be put out but too afraid to grow any bigger.
''It took me a while to come around to the idea of Morgan,'' Tony goes on, bouncing their joined hands together in a nervous rhythm. ''But the second she appeared I fell in love with her so easily.'' He fixes Pippa with an unavoidable stare, so full of a familiar warmth that she finds herself squeezing his hand tightly. ''Wanna know why it was so easy?''
Somehow, she knows why, but she nods anyway.
Tony smiles. ''It was so easy because it was something I’d already done before.''
Pippa recognises it now, that look in his eyes.
''Tony,'' Pippa whispers, because suddenly Mister Stark just doesn’t sound right in her head, ''the magnets, the fridge magnets…''
Because that’s what it really all comes down to, isn’t it? The notion of being replaced, of having all that was ever hers taken away and given to someone else or removed all together, removing any trace of her in the world, from the lives of the ones she loves with all her heart.
Tony blinks at her and then a sad kind of understanding comes over him. ''Oh, sweetheart. You really don’t get it, do you?''
He shifts around so that he’s sitting cross legged on the deck beside her. His arms encircle her, the metal one crossing over her collarbone with a comforting weight, and pull her close so that she’s leaning toward him with his face buried in her hair. A part of Pippa zones in on the fact that this is new, that he was never as affectionate as this before and it must have been something that started after Morgan was born, but the rest of her doesn’t care. She leans into Tony’s hold and closes her eyes, listening to the uneven flow of his breaths.
''Those magnets were the only thing I could bear to keep of you. I’ve never been one for nostalgia, kid, but that was one thing I couldn’t let go of. Morgan…she wanted to know her big sister and that was the only part of you I could share with her, along with the odd Spider-Girl story or two at bedtime.''
Pippa’s throat shrinks so tightly that her breath whistles.
''She’s been dying to meet you.''
Pippa’s hearing suddenly locks onto the faint giggling coming from the cabin, sweet and soft and innocent and the sudden burst of warmth that she feels is dizzying.
''I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without you, kid. Be a dad, find a way to carry on,’’ Tony huffs out a laugh and gives her a soft shake. ''Damn it, Pip, I invented time travel because I had to get you back. Sure, the rest of the universe came with it too, but honestly? All I cared about was getting my daughter back.''
Pippa’s lip wobbles as he presses a kiss to her temple.
He said daughter.
''There’s so much room for you, you hear me? I’m a greedy guy, you think I don’t take great delight in surrounding myself with fabulous women who can easily kick my ass and look beautiful whilst doing it?''
Pippa giggles before sniffing, swaying with him as he rocks gently back and forth.
''Pepper deserves a medal for putting up with you for so long.''
Tony’s laugh is deep and loud, reverberating low in his chest.
''There’s my girl,'' he murmurs, reaching out his metal hand to gently grasp her chin and turn her face towards him. ''Been waiting for you to show up.''
''I’m sorry,'' Pippa whispers, tipping forward so that her forehead nudges his. It’s a funny sign of affection but she closes her eyes and smiles when she feels Tony return the pressure. ''I’m sorry.''
''None of that, Underoos.''
''But – ''
''Kiddo, I love you,'' Tony says, so quickly and so sincerely that it was like being struck by lightning, ''so very very much.''
He tilts her back to look into her eyes again, cupping her cheeks and thumbing her fresh tears away.
''And May loves you and Happy loves you, we all love you. And I know things might not feel right at the moment but,'' he grins, a big but so very genuine grin that she knows so well, ''you can trust me when I say I’m gonna help make it right, okay? Things will get better, I promise.''
Pippa nods because yes, it still hurts, all of it hurts so bad but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it looks so warm and inviting and familiar that she just wants to race into it without a second thought.
She wants to say something but an odd bleating sound has her pausing and Tony looking around suspiciously.
''Oh god,'' Tony groans in distress, ''he’s eating the gojis.''
Pippa blinks at him. ''What?''
Tony’s head falls into his hands. ''Gerald.''
The name on the fridge, Pippa thinks.
Tony gestures vaguely and Pippa follows the motion, eyes nearly popping out of her head in surprise.
''Is that a llama?''
''I didn’t see him, um, the other day.''
''That’s because he was sulking,'' Tony explains. ''He and Happy don’t quite see eye to eye so he gets offended whenever Happy comes over.''
''Oh…'' Pippa stares at it – at Gerald – as he munches away, looking so docile and content that she can’t help but smile. ''I always thought you’d be more of a cat person.''
Tony laughs. ''You did, huh?''
Pippa smiles. ''Yeah. Maybe you could get one. A snarky dark haired one with an attitude problem.''
''I’m sure there’s a compliment in there somewhere,'' Tony sniffs, face softening as he continues to look at her.
She reaches for his hand and grips it tightly, breathing out as she watches the red and gold fingers press against her skin.
Pippa remembers dying. She remembers the way her heart thudded in terror and how her body tingled in warning before her skin started to itch and burn, swirling into dust no matter how hard she tried to hold on.
This feels like the opposite of dying. It feels like life is being woven into her as she’s pulled back together, painstakingly slow but steadily and surely, with love and care in every stitch.
And when May comes to find them later on, Pippa falls into her arms and doesn’t let go for a long, long time.
There’s a message on the fridge. Well, more than one. More than there ever were before.
Pippa smiles at the sight, reaching out a hand to brush against the letters that spell out her name. It sits low on the door, right next to the wobbly spelling of morgan. There’s also an iron man and spidergirl crossing together and she rests her palm over the shared R with a soft laugh.
''Piiiiippaaaa,'' a voice calls impatiently from outside. ''Hurry up!''
Pippa grins, looking over her shoulder as Tony walks past with a chuckle.
''You better get out there, Underoos. You know how impatient she gets.''
''Mm,'' Pippa agrees, turning to smirk at him. ''Can’t think where she gets that from.''
Tony points a finger at her. ''That’s sass and I will not tolerate it under my roof.''
Pippa laughs, cheeks aching with a smile as she watches him shake his head with a fond sigh.
It’s her sixth weekend out at the cabin since that day out on the dock. Like with most things, Tony had been right in what he said: things were getting better.
Pippa had been surprised by the appearance of Ned and MJ at the cabin the day after the talk. To say she cried a lot was an understatement, but then they had done the same so she doesn’t feel too embarrassed over it, even if Tony still teases her by offering to buy shares in Kleenex.
The new apartment had been another surprise. In almost no time at all, Pippa found herself standing in her new bedroom, sandwiched between a nervous May and Happy as they waited for her verdict. It wasn’t the same as her old one, and it would take some getting used to, like a lot of things, but it was still enough to have her gripping both May and Happy in a hug bordering on a little on too strong. Tony strolled in way too casually shortly after and she nearly knocked him over with the same enthusiasm, not believing any of his protests for one second.
Then there’s Morgan. Sweet, funny, cheeky little Morgan who just radiates fun and sunshine in the best kind of ways. Despite that initial reluctance at the start, the bond between the two of them had been almost instantaneous. It’s easy enough to like a kid because they think you’re the best of all the superheroes in the world, but it’s even easier to love them when they’re a miniature version of Tony.
''Pippaaaaa! I can hear the spaaaaceshiiiiip!''
Pippa shares a look with Tony as she shouts ''Coming, Morg!'' as loud as she can, making Tony wince.
''I’m starting to think this was a bad idea,'' he says, folding his arms and leaning against the kitchen counter. ''You and Morgan together are bad enough, but with Quill in the mix too?''
''You know you like him really.''
''Well, sure, but only in the most thinly veiled of ways,'' he shrugs before giving her a smile. ''You better hurry before she sends Gerald in after you.''
Pippa rolls her eyes, starts towards the door, and then turns back to rush into the arms that open for her immediately.
Things are still hard sometimes. The skies can still darken and her stomach can still twist in knots and the world can still seem so unfamiliar and so far away from the one that she knew. Some days she still wonders about her place in it.
But here, with her head tucked beneath Tony’s chin and his arms holding her snug as he gently rocks her from side to side in a manner so like a father, Pippa doesn’t doubt that right now, she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.