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Before, After, and Beyond

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The thing was.

The thing was, Peter always rolled his eyes and brushed it off whenever Ned or MJ or May would joke that Mr. Stark kind of acted like a dad around him.

That was the thing.

But that was before.

Before Peter could feel himself dying on a foreign planet far, far away from everything he knew, and and his instinct was to turn to Mr. Stark, the name Dad on the tip of his tongue but not quite escaping.

Before Mr. Stark lunged forward to catch Peter before he could hit the ground, stumbling himself because there was a stab wound in his side but somehow Peter mattered more.

Before Mr. Stark held Peter close with a hand in his hair because he knew it made Peter relax, and promised him that he was ok, even though Peter knew he was lying because his voice was shaking and he sounded like maybe he was crying.

Before Peter opened his eyes and suddenly Mr. Stark wasn't holding him anymore, and somehow it had been five years and Dr. Strange was opening a portal and ushering Peter through it, and there was a crazy fight and Peter nearly forgot all about dying until suddenly Mr. Stark was there, and Peter was babbling, because what else was he going to do, and Mr. Stark was tugging him into the biggest, best hug Peter had ever had, and kissing Peter's face and then holding him some more like he was trying to reassure himself that he was real, and Peter was kind of melting, even though by all accounts it should have been horribly uncomfortable because Mr. Stark was in an Iron Man suit and Peter's suit allowed for free movement and flexibility but it was still metal, but it wasn't uncomfortable, it was the best hug of Peter's life, and then it was over, but the battle wasn't, so they lost sight of each other again.

Before Mr. Stark raised a gauntlet of his own invention, and destroyed Thanos and his entire army with a single snap.

Before Peter was sure that he'd lost another dad.

Before Dr. Strange and Helen Cho teamed up to save Mr. Stark's life, working tirelessly for hours straight. Nearly a full day, during which nobody slept, no matter how bone-achingly tired they all were. Peter cried until there were no tears left in his body, and then he cried some more, until he was sick one and a half times and a nurse threatened to put him on an IV if he didn't calm down.

Before he got put on an IV anyway, because Miss Potts – sorry, Mrs. Stark, now, he missed the wedding – ratted him out about his metabolism and refusal to eat in between her third and fourth phone calls.

Before Mrs. Stark got a fourth phone call, which turned out to be Happy, and any possibility that maybe those dad jokes hadn't been so jokey shriveled up into a lumpy nugget of cold, hard truth and lodged itself in Peter's throat.

Because Mr. Stark had a kid. A little girl named Morgan, who wanted to know where her mommy and daddy were, and Mr. Stark didn't need Peter anymore.

So what was Peter even doing, sticking around? Pun not intended, and not even something he could bring himself to find funny, right now.

But then Dr. Cho came into the recovery room that the nurse had confined Peter to when she hooked him up to an IV, where Mrs. Stark was being the nicest possible person on Earth and sitting with him even though she'd probably rather be with her daughter, or doing something else to keep herself busy so she didn't have to think about the fact that her husband had been in surgery for over twenty hours.

“Tony is stable,” Dr. Cho announced, her voice gentle, and incredibly tired. Mrs. Stark stood up immediately upon hearing her words, eyes wide with relief. “There was nothing we could do to save his arm, but he'll recover. We're setting him up next door, feel free to go in. It's hard to say how long he'll be asleep, but I'm sure he'd appreciate the company all the same.”

Mrs. Stark crossed the room and drew the weary doctor into a tight hug. “Thank you so much,” she breathed. “Thank you for saving him.”

“He saved everyone,” Dr. Cho said softly. “It's the least we could do. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go take a coma. Sorry, nap.

Mrs. Stark laughed softly and waved her off, and Peter expected her to follow her through the door to go see Mr. Stark without a second thought, but to his surprise, she stood still for a moment, her hands clutched over her heart, like she was taking a moment to say a silent thanks to whatever higher power might have allowed such a miracle to happen, and then she turned to look at Peter in the bed, smiling through her tears.

“He's going to be ok,” she whispered. She let out a quiet, disbelieving laugh, then took the few quick steps to Peter's bedside, cupping his face in her hands and, to his great surprise, planting a kiss on top of his curly head. “He'll be alright.”

Peter had no claim to Mr. Stark, not like she did, not like Morgan did, but the sheer amount of pure relief that flooded through him almost made him feel like he could, just for a little while, just for now. He had cried himself dry hours ago, but apparently he'd been on the IV long enough to restock a little, because the tears started to spill over tenfold as he realized that Mr. Stark wasn't gone forever. He felt horribly guilty as Mrs. Stark sat down on the edge of the bed beside him and pulled him into her arms, cradling him and soothing him as he cried harder than ever, because she had far more right to cry than he did, but he was grateful for the comfort, at the same time, and melted into it.

After a few minutes, Peter sniffed a couple times, willing himself to chill out and get a grip, seriously, Parker, and withdrew from her comforting maternal embrace. He gave her an awkward, shaky smile. “You should... go be with him,” he mumbled, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand. “And... and Morgan. I'm ok.” He wasn't. But he wasn't family, either, he didn't need to take up anymore of their family time.

Mrs. Stark didn't seem terribly convinced, frowning at him. “Are you sure, hon?”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm... I'll probably just sleep a little, now that... y'know.”

Mrs. Stark pursed her lips, clearly not buying it, probably because she was married to the king of BS and could smell it from a mile away, but she was also probably anxious to see aforementioned king of BS, so she stood up, smoothed her hand over Peter's hair once in parting, and left the room.

Peter was allowed to leave the MedBay long before Mr. Stark showed any signs of waking up. His instinct was to go next door and see Mr. Stark, just to see with his own eyes that he really, truly was alive, but Happy had stopped into his room to see him about an hour before they let him go, and after being cried over and nearly coddled back to death for a few minutes (boy, that had been shocking, Peter didn't think Happy even knew how to cry, let alone over Peter out of anything other than annoyance), he informed Peter than he had come to the Compound to bring Morgan to her parents, and that immediately made any thoughts Peter had of going to visit his mentor come to a screeching halt. It was obviously family time, right now. He'd go later. Maybe.

Instead, he wandered the halls of the Compound for an hour, before FRIDAY finally overrode his request to take the elevator down to the lobby so he could go outside, taking him up to the private penthouse instead and refusing to budge when he whined about it, simply stating that his exhaustion levels were nearing critical and if he didn't get some rest soon she would tell Mrs. Stark on him, which, tattletale, much?

“I thought it had been five years, what's with the helicopter mode?” Peter grumbled, shuffling into the familiar penthouse with his hands in the pockets of the hoodie he had been wearing when he got on the bus to go to MOMA.

He wasn't really expecting an answer, but that was kind of the thing about Ais. They took everything non-rhetorically. “When Karen came back online, so did all the old protocols relating to the Baby Monitor.”

“Oh my god.” Peter huffed, toeing petulantly at the carpet at the news that Mr. Stark hadn't deactivated the Baby Monitor stuff, even though it had been five years since they'd been needed. Then again, it also sent a weird, warm, fuzzy feeling through the middle of his chest, at the realization that Mr. Stark had kept those embarrassing old protocols active despite the fact that it was highly unlikely that Peter would ever be around to put them in use again. Mr. Stark had kept something of Peter's... why? Not because it was useful. Because... he missed Peter.

It was the only logical conclusion, but somehow it seemed so, so illogical. Because Mr. Stark had moved on. Mr. Stark had Morgan. Mr. Stark didn't need Peter anymore. Yeah, Mr. Stark had hugged Peter like he was afraid Peter was going to disappear again if he let go, but that could have just been adrenaline. Maybe. Probably.

Peter?” FRIDAY said, startling Peter out of his thoughts. “You really should get some rest.”

“Uh... right.” Peter looked around, then headed for the hallway where the bedrooms were. He stopped after a few steps. “Oh... my room's probably not... my room anymore, huh? They probably converted it for Morgan, right? So I guess I'll sleep... on the couch, or...” His chest tightened. He really had been replaced. And nobody deserved that spot more than Mr. Stark's real, biological child, but it still hurt.

Your room hasn't been touched since you last used it,” FRIDAY corrected.

Peter paused, halfway into the motion of sitting down on the couch. “But-”

Boss was rather adamant about leaving your room alone. Statistically speaking, your bed is much more comfortable than the couch, no matter how high quality the couch may be. I would advise you sleep in it.”

Peter stood up straight, getting more confused by the minute, and headed to his room. He opened the door and peeked inside, expecting it to at least have been cleaned or something, since he wasn't exactly the tidiest teenager on the planet, but no. Everything was... as he'd last left it. There was half-completed chemistry homework on his desk, LEGOs scattered across the floor, clothes hanging in the closet and halfway out of open drawers, his bed unmade because he'd forgotten to do that the last time he stayed over, and Mr. Stark had called him at school later and teased him about it, but not fixed it for him, instead adding it to a list of chores that Peter would have to do before he could come down and play in the lab next time he visited.

That felt like three days ago, for Peter. He couldn't wrap his head around five years.

Peter must have crawled into that unmade bed and fallen asleep at some point, because suddenly he was waking up to the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, a warning that something was about to happen. He squinted one eye open, only to let out a yell of surprise and jerk backwards, nearly tumbling out of bed when his gaze was met by a pair of big brown eyes inches from his face.

“What the-” he started, cutting himself off from saying anything rude when he realized that the eyes belonged to a tiny little girl no more than four years old. “Who are-?” He stopped himself yet again when he realized the obvious answer to his own question. “Morgan?”

The little girl beamed at him. “Hi!”

Peter blinked down at her, trying to catch his soul and stuff it back into his body after she had scared it out of him with that wake-up call. Finally, he managed, “Hi.”

“Mommy said you were here,” Morgan said, climbing up onto Peter's bed and settling in as though she had never heard of the concept of personal space. “She's downstairs with Daddy.” She paused, tilting her head, then frowned and whispered, “Daddy got hurt.”

Peter's throat went dry. “I- I know,” he mumbled. “I'm sorry.”

“But he woke up this morning, and he gave me a big hug and lotsa kisses, even though he's only got one arm for hugs now,” Morgan continued. “But he kept looking for something that wasn't there, and the machine went beep-beep-beep-beep real fast, and that's when Mommy said you were sleeping in 'cause that's what teenagers do, and I haven't seen you yet, so I came to wake you up, and now I'm here, and you're awake.”

Peter's brow furrowed in confusion. “Why'd you wanna come see me?”

Morgan just giggled in response, like he'd made the funniest joke ever. She lifted herself up onto her knees so that she could reach his neck to hug him, then climbed over him and hopped off the bed. “Let's go!” she commanded, tugging on his hand.

“Wha- where are we going?” Peter asked, baffled, as she dragged him out of bed with a surprisingly strong grip. He was still in his pajamas for god's sake, where was she expecting him to go dressed in one of the hoodies he'd pilfered from Mr. Stark and never given back, and a pair of Star Wars flannel PJs?

It took him a grand total of thirty seconds to realize she was dragging him back down to the MedBay. “Oh, wait, no, no no, I don't-” he began to protest, trying to tug his hand out of hers without using his super strength against her.

“Daddy's waiting for us!” Morgan chirped, and apparently that was that until they were standing in front of Mr. Stark's recovery room door and she finally released his hand. She pushed the door open and skipped right inside, leaving Peter standing alone in the hall staring at the door with wide eyes, afraid to go in but afraid to walk away, either. He heard muffled voices from inside the recovery room, first Morgan's high, sweet voice, announcing that she had returned, and that she had done what had been asked of her, then Mrs. Stark's voice complimenting her on a job well done, then high-pitched giggles from Morgan as a slightly groggy, male voice chimed in, groaning slightly as Mr. Stark presumably leaned down to help Morgan climb into the bed with him, and then joining his wife in telling their daughter what a fantastic job she had done.

“Now, wait a minute, if you did such a good job, then where is Mr. Sleepyhead, huh?” Mr. Stark teased after a couple minutes.

“I think he doesn't know how to open doors,” Morgan whispered loudly, causing Mr. Stark to let out a snort of laughter that turned into a kind of scary-sounding cough that freaked Peter out a little, but fortunately didn't last long.

“Is that right?” Mr. Stark asked, the grin evident in his voice, before he raised his speaking volume a little and called, “Hey, kid? You out there?”

Peter's throat went dry. There was no more hiding, he supposed, no more avoiding going inside. He poked his head through the gap Morgan left when she didn't close the door all the way, wringing his hands nervously out of Mr. Stark's line of sight.

Mr. Stark looked... kind of terrible. Well, he looked a hell of a lot better than he probably would have if he didn't have Helen Cho and Stephen Strange as his main doctors, with her cradle and his magic stuff at their disposal to heal him up faster than regular methods, but the damage done to his body was extraterrestrial, for lack of a better word, so even their better-than-average techniques couldn't fix everything. There were scars crawling up the right side of his face and neck, probably below the neckline of his hospital gown, too, all the way down to where his right arm ended in a stump just below his shoulder (kind of like Bethany Hamilton, Peter couldn't help thinking).

When Peter entered the room (or at least, his head did), Mr. Stark's face relaxed into a relieved, easy smile, the look on his face suggesting he hadn't been entirely sure Peter was actually there until he saw him for himself.

“Hey, kid,” Mr. Stark greeted, and his voice was as warm and welcoming as the hug had been yesterday – or rather, two days ago. It was a bit of a strange contrast, for Peter, who was used to Mr. Stark's more brusque, playfully aloof brand of affection... his pre-Morgan brand, Peter supposed, which was just another reminder that he had no real claim to that affection.

Peter opened his mouth to reply, but nothing more than a soft croak escaped. He swallowed thickly. That lumpy nugget of emotion had lodged itself in his throat again, making it difficult to form words.

“What, you just gonna stand there hovering like a human balloon?” Mr. Stark teased. He shifted Morgan in his lap so that she was cuddled up against his right side, and beckoned Peter into the room with his left arm. “Get in here, you're like a ghost that's afraid to say 'boo', you look terrified, we don't bite.”

The teasing, ridiculous as it was, relaxed Peter a little, and he inched further into the room, closing the door behind him. He scanned the room for a seat, and sat down gingerly on the edge of one of the uncomfortable visitor's chairs arranged against the wall. Mr. Stark looked remarkably unimpressed with his choice, lifting his arm up again.

“Really? I gotta ask for a hug? A little insulted, not gonna lie.” Peter looked up at him, startled by the request, but Mr. Stark just waved his arm pointedly. “Either you get up or I'm coming over there and pissing off a lot of medical professionals and Pepper, your choice, kid.”

That got Peter to scramble to his feet, unwilling to let Mr. Stark hurt himself just for the sake of a damn hug. He approached the bed at a much slower pace, but Mr. Stark seemed satisfied that he was at least not clear across the room, anymore. He surprised Peter by seizing his sleeve and yanking him down to his level when Peter was close enough for him to reach, trapping Peter in a one-armed embrace that had Peter squeaking in alarm and wiggling a little, trying to escape.

“Nope, no, uh-uh, you're not going anywhere, underoos,” Mr. Stark said firmly, tightening his grip and holding on until Peter gave up and relaxed, arms slowly coming up to return the hug with some hesitation. “I'm the invalid, here, I get to decide when I've had enough hugs.”

Normally Peter would have rolled his eyes, because Mr. Stark was being completely ridiculous, but... this was really nice. And he had no idea when he'd be able to have this again. And Mr. Stark had just almost died. And apparently Peter had died, for five whole years. So, Peter let himself indulge, just for a little while, snuggling into Mr. Stark's chest, being careful not to bump against anything that he'd heard Dr. Cho say was injured the day before. After a minute he felt Mr. Stark's hand leave his back and move up to play with his hair, and he melted into the touch.

“Well, don't you look smug, over there, covered in children,” he heard Mrs. Stark tease quietly from somewhere behind him.

Mr. Stark's chest rumbled with soft laughter under Peter's ear. “Works better than the drugs, I think,” he muttered, sounding happier than Peter thought he'd ever heard him. “Feel great.”

“I can imagine.” Peter felt someone lean over him slightly, and then Mrs. Stark's voice was much closer. “Hey, little miss, you want to come help Mommy make lunch?”

Morgan's head popped up immediately, bobbling in agreement. “Pancakes!” she cheered.

“Honey, we had pancakes for breakfast,” Mrs. Stark laughed, lifting Morgan off the bed.

Petey didn't have pancakes.”

“So that means we all need to have them again?”


The door opened and closed, and then Mrs. Stark and Morgan were gone, all without Peter lifting his head once.

The room was quiet for a while, aside from the steady sound of Mr. Stark's heart monitor beeping. Then Mr. Stark heaved a long, soft sigh, and leaned down to press a kiss to the top of Peter's head. “God, I missed you, kid.” Finally, Peter lifted his head, although Mr. Stark's arm around him didn't allow him to go very far, so that he could see his mentor's face. Mr. Stark offered him a small, kind of sad smile, hand still in Peter's hair, fingers gently working through the knots left by his spectacular bedhead.

“You did?” Peter said softly, before he could stop himself. Was he really looking a gift horse in the mouth, right now? He was getting unrestrained attention and affection from the person he craved it from the most, and he was questioning it? Shut up, Parker.

“I did,” Mr. Stark echoed, tracing the top of Peter's cheek with his thumb. The rough calluses against Peter's skin were unfamiliar, but not unwelcome, and he leaned into the gentle hand. “You've gotta know that, don't you?”

Peter hesitated, thinking about Morgan, but he also thought about his room in the penthouse, untouched, unchanged, even though he hadn't been there to live in it. “I... yeah, I know,” he whispered, his throat growing tight with emotion as it started to dawn on him that maybe he'd jumped to conclusions, a little bit. “'m sorry, Mr. Stark. Sorry, Tony.” To his embarrassment, tears welled up and blurred his vision, and he moved to duck his head back down so he could hide his face from his mentor's sight, but Tony just swiped that callused thumb under his eyes to catch the falling tears and then guided Peter close to himself again, so that Peter's face was tucked into his neck like a small child. Peter wondered vaguely if this was how Tony held his daughter, and that made him cry a little harder.

Tony hushed Peter softly, holding him tight, his hand rubbing soothing circles in Peter's back, and this was absolutely how he held Morgan, it had to be, this was how parents comforted their kids, this was how May and Ben comforted Peter when he was small.

“I gotcha, bud, it's ok,” Tony crooned, pushing his nose into Peter's hair because he didn't have a second hand anymore. “Don't be sorry, kid, don't cry, it's all ok, now, alright? We're ok. I got you, baby.”

Tony's heart jumped under Peter's ear slightly, which made Peter think he hadn't meant to call him that, but he didn't correct himself or BS his way through an excuse as to why he did, like the pain meds made me do it, or something, which made Peter think maybe Tony wanted to call him that, which made Peter cry even harder, fisting his hand in Tony's hospital gown and curling as close to his mentor as possible.

Tony let Peter cry as long as he needed to, and when the leaking eyes and runny nose turned into puffy, dry eyes and an occasional sniffle, he joked softly, “I had kind of always imagined a tearful reunion, but I was expecting myself to cry a little more than you.” He was crying, Peter realized, his voice thick with emotion, but not as hard as Peter.

Peter sniffled, pushing himself to sit up a little, scrubbing at his face, red from crying and a little embarrassment. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“What did we just say? No sorries, everything's ok,” Tony insisted, smiling at Peter reassuringly. “You're ok, yeah?”

Peter nodded. “Yeah. 'm ok. I'm... I'm good, I...” He finally met Tony's eyes, and offered him a small, hesitant smile in return, hoping he wasn't just imagining the love in his mentor's eyes. “I'm good.”

“Good,” Tony said firmly, studying Peter's face and seeming satisfied that he wasn't lying through his teeth. “I need my kids to be ok.”

Peter's heart soared.