Disclaimer: I do not own Marvel or any of its characters used in this story. What is written here is for entertainment purposes only. I do not make any profits from it.
The rest of the week saw the Stark family making visits to the company headquarters. Tony worked nonstop, testing prototypes of the various uses of the Arc Reactor technology and moving from one idea to another.
For Philip, he created a soccer ball that could be recalled and for Maria, he made a miniature portable piano to cheer her up when she began having tantrums about the fact that she couldn't play using her right hand until her bones healed.
Pepper didn't like the idea of him spoiling their children. She had argued, saying, "Maria needs to learn how to deal with holdups or else she'll get used to having her way with a cryfest."
"She's three, Pep!" Tony said.
"It starts at a young age."
"Can I at least spoil her this once because I don't remember spoiling her at all."
"Just this one time," she relented.
They also went to see Philip play in one of his kiddie soccer games. Tony initially found it amusing seeing toddlers run around in their little legs, but when one of the kids stole the ball from his son, he had leapt to his feet calling for the coach to intervene.
"Sit down!" Pepper hissed at him.
"Did you see that? That's a thief in the making." He reluctantly sat back down.
"You're overreacting. It's friendly competition."
"For now! Next thing you know the kid steals Philip's girl."
Pepper gave him a look that Tony was beginning to learn meant, 'Seriously?'
"I like that boy, daddy. He's funny," Maria said from beside him.
"I feel so betrayed by my own family."
The married couple also dressed up to go on a romantic night that involved Pepper in a flowy number and them eating at a fancy restaurant.
While they were both preparing to go, Tony had walked over to where she sat by her vanity and held up a ring.
"Why don't I wear mine?"
"Wear what?" Her attention remained focused on the mirror before her as she finished putting on her makeup.
"My wedding ring. I wasn't wearing it when I woke up in the hospital. Do I not wear it?"
She put the makeup brush down and turned to him. "You weren't wearing it because you were working. You don't wear it when you work for practical reasons. You don't want it getting lost somewhere in the car engine or accidentally blown up."
"Hmm. Your Tony's pretty smart," he said, sliding it on his finger and testing it out. It didn't feel weird wearing a ring. He thought he would feel different, feel chained down or suffocated. But it felt… pleasant. He was about to tell Pepper to put on her own rings back when he saw her take out a necklace from her jewelry box and clasp it around her neck. It made him stop and think about where he'd seen it before.
She caught him staring. "You gave it to me. It's made from the sh—"
"—shrapnel in my heart, I remember." He brought a hand to survey it, admiring the effect the rubies had on her dress. His eyes trailed up to her face and he swept away the strands of her hair on her shoulders, his hand moving to rest on the back of her neck.
"Don't start anything you might not finish," she told him, eyes twinkling. "Our reservation is at 8."
"I have no problem being late for it. Do you?"
"Well, I didn't dress up like this just so you can remove it in less than a minute."
Tony nodded curtly. "Right. Show off the dress, eat dinner, and then I'll remove them the minute we get home."
He wound up removing them in the car ride after dinner.
On Sunday, the entire family planned for date night.
"How about I cook for a change?" Tony asked them all during lunch.
Pepper choked on her pasta while his kids groaned "No."
"Okay. I know I don't cook but I think I can learn how." He was a bit offended that they had no trust in him at all.
Philip shook his head quickly, his eyes almost bulging from the sockets. "You burned the kitchen last time."
Tony sighed. "Take out then?"
"Yeah! KFC!" cried Maria who had abandoned using a fork and ate her pasta with her left hand.
"That's not very date night-ish, sweetie," said Pepper, having cleared her throat with a drink of water. "I'll cook."
"That leaves dessert. Chocolate coated strawberries, anyone?" Tony looked at each of them.
"Mom's allergic to strawberries," said Philip.
Pepper nodded sheepishly and Tony mentally berated himself for not knowing.
"I knew there was a connection between you and strawberries. How about ice cream?"
They all agreed on ice cream.
"Let's do it the night I get back from New York this Wednesday." To Pepper Tony added, "We should invite your mom. I can have Stark Personnel pick her up from her house and drive her to the hangar. I'll meet her there after the appointment and we'll fly back together." He was rewarded with a radiant smile on Pepper's face.
On Wednesday morning of the following week, he flew to New York to meet with John. When Tony arrived at the hospital, the secretary directed him to wait in the doctor's office since the latter was still consulting with the Chief of Neurosurgery, a Dr. Strange.
Tony sat on the chair facing the desk and looked to the wall to read the various certificates and diplomas.
A moment later, he heard the door open and turned to see the familiar Asian man enter.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Tony." John let the door swing back closed with a click.
Tony waved his hand. "It's no problem. The missus is just being her paranoid self. I heard you talked with a neuro guy."
John walked over to his own seat and sat. "Yes. I showed him your previous scans and he says there is no tumor or a virus of any kind. So, Pepper can rest easy. But if she still insists, we can have a newer scan done today."
"What do you think?" asked Tony.
"I agree with Dr. Strange." The doctor pulled open one of his drawers and took out a ring. "You didn't lose your memories because of a virus or some form of tumor. That's ridiculous and actually kind of insulting." He slipped it on his right index finger. "It was because of me."
Tony saw the ring glow and then something hard hit him on his head.
He woke up with a splitting headache.
How many times is this going to happen to me? Tony thought bitterly.
He attempted to bring a hand up to massage his temples but found that they were bound. He looked down and saw that his ankles were in the same state.
He was lying on the floor of a basement and surrounding him were artifacts in glass cases. There was also a scimitar across from him, a painting of Genghis Khan riding into battle rested against a brown chest, and a rolled up flag was beside it.
He struggled to sit up and then wiggled himself over to the scimitar, planning to use it to cut himself loose when the door opened and the lights were switched on.
His physician walked down the stairs. "Oh, good. You're finally awake."
"John, help me out of here!" Tony whispered to him.
John's eyes glinted and he said, "Why would I help you when I want to do the exact opposite." He walked over to where the scimitar was and moved it away. "I am the Mandarin, Stark. And the Mandarin does not set his enemies free."
Tony stopped moving and stared, too struck with disbelief. "You're not the Mandarin. I killed him. I remember."
John lifted his shirt to show the healed scar on his lower right rib. "You missed." He brought his shirt back down and picked up the chest, opening it. "I really didn't want to kill you, Stark. I had opted for a cleaner approach, make you forget your memories so that you would stay away on your own." He took out a flat box inside and lifted the cover to reveal a row of rings. "But when you called and said you were remembering things, it didn't leave me with much of a choice." One by one he put the rings on. "Each one of these has the power to level cities, create dreams and nightmares, bury civilizations." He raised a gold ring into the light. "I used this on you. I call it the Liar. It doesn't have the power to take away memories but it can manipulate the mind and cloud it. I don't know why some of your memories were able to escape the Liar." He slipped it around his left ring finger and after putting on another one on his pinky, all of his fingers had a ring on. "But I'm still new with all of them, still learning how to master each one." He pointed to his right index finger. "This is Influence. It can produce beams of concussive force. This is what I will use to kill you." He put the small box back into the chest and closed it.
"I remember what you said in the mountain. I ruined your legacy when I escaped Afghanistan, didn't I? That's why you despise me. But why didn't you just kill me in the first place? Why bother playing with my mind?" asked Tony, trying to keep the man talking while he worked on the ropes around his wrists.
"Oh, Stark," John chuckled. "Because I wanted to take away your legacy, the Iron Man. Losing it is much more painful than death; I would know. Seeing you helpless and not remember who you are and what made you, asking for my help—I brought you down to your knees and you didn't even realize it." He towered over Tony, the Influence glowing.
"Pepper's going to find out. She knows I went to see you and she's probably wondering why I'm not home yet. She's going to be pissed you made me miss date night," Tony spat. "You haven't seen Pepper mad." He was mad too. The Mandarin made Tony late to his first date night. That's not going to stay unpunished.
"Maybe when this is all over, I will take your children too and raise them up in the ranks of the Ten Rings."
The thought of the toddlers living in the darkness of their own Afghan caves without any Ho Yinsen to keep them company built a shuddering blind rage inside him and Tony stretched out his legs, swiping John's own and knocking him down.
A beam from Influence missed Tony and hit the wall.
With his hands still tied, Tony threw a blow at John's side using his elbow. Tony brought his knees up to his chest and extended them, kicking hard and aiming for John's stomach. Right when his feet touched John, a force threw Tony back and he remained suspended in the middle of the room, unable to move.
John slowly stood up, his right hand raised and the ring on his middle finger glowing. "I admire your will to fight unceasingly. But Influence will see to it that that will disappears." The Influence glowed once more and it blasted Tony against the concrete wall, keeping him pinned against it in a wave of concussive energy.
Tony screamed as he struggled to raise his arms and exert all strength he had to move his head. He felt the ring hammer harder into his brain; blood trickled down his nostrils and he tasted bile that had risen to his throat.
If this is how he'll go, the only thing he could think about was that Pepper will be furious he missed date night and even more furious that he died.
The back wall of the basement suddenly gave in and part of the ceiling came crumbling down. It distracted John, making him scramble to get out of the way of the falling concrete.
The hammering from the ring stopped and Tony slid down to the ground. His ears rang, his head throbbed, and his breaths came in small gasps of air.
"Tony's injured!" came the familiar voice of James Rhodes.
Tony looked up and saw the Avengers, with Steve at the lead and calling out orders. "Vision, Scarlet Witch, clear the house. Bruce, Widow, you're on Medical Assistance with Tony. Thor, War Machine, and I are on the Mandarin."
Wanda and a purple being, who must be the Vision, flew to what remained of the second story of the house while Steve, Thor, and Rhodey surrounded John. Widow and Bruce, who was in his human form and carrying a medical kit, ran to Tony's side.
"You couldn't see me for medical advice?" asked Bruce when he reached the billionaire's side, opening the kit and taking out an injection.
"Pepper," Tony coughed out, "wanted… M.D." The pain made him want to throw up.
The scientist stuck the needle in a small bottle and once it had absorbed the solution, he inserted it in Tony's arm.
Immediately, Tony felt his lungs breathe easier and the nausea subside. He grasped at Natasha's shoulder. "How did you… find me?"
"I ignored you when you told me not to search for the Mandarin and the Ten Rings. Bruce and Thor never found a body in Chile which made me suspect the Mandarin was still alive. One of the blood traces recovered at the scene was from your doctor."
"We called you and Pepper said you weren't there," Bruce continued, helping Tony up to his feet. "When she told us you were with John, we rushed over, and found you using the Avengers tracker in your blood."
They started to walk out through the blasted wall but John appeared, blocking their way. Tony looked back and saw that Thor, Steve, and Rhodey were each battling their own copy of the doctor. The Mandarin had made a multiple images of himself and they didn't know which one was real.
"You will fight for me," said the villain to Bruce and Natasha. He raised his left hand and the Liar in his finger glowed a bright yellow and so did the two Avengers' eyes. Bruce stepped away from them, his skin turning green and his body enlarging to the size of the Hulk. He roared and charged toward the direction of Steve.
Tony faced Natasha who smirked at him and then dragged him back inside the room. He struggled to get away from her grip but the Black Widow was stronger than she looked.
Tony didn't know why he said it, but he called out to Rhodey and shouted, "Give me a suit!"
The War Machine turned to him, hit the Mandarin copy with a repulsor ray, and then flew vertically out of the house. He came back with a red and silver briefcase and used it to knock Natasha aside. While the spy was still disoriented, Rhodey grabbed Tony's hand and placed it palm down against the flat surface of the briefcase. Then, the pilot stepped back as the case opened and began to build a suit of armor from Tony's hand down to his body.
Within seconds, he was fully encased in the Iron Man suit but Tony realized he had no idea how to operate it. The Heads-Up display loaded and Friday, knowing him too well, talked him into the weapons, flight, and communications systems.
It didn't take long for Tony to understand; he was a genius after all. He sidestepped Natasha's punch and grabbed her wrists, preventing her from injuring him with the small disks she had in her hands. But using her legs, the Black Widow kicked him down and threw the disks at him, causing the suit to power off.
It was an EMP.
While Tony waited for the suit to reboot, Natasha fired blow after blow at him with the gauntlets around her wrists. Vision appeared from what remained of the ceiling and dragged the spy off of Tony. Wanda was with him and she sent a series of red smoke at the Black Widow. The latter calmed and her eyes cleared, losing the hold the Liar ring had on her. She nodded her thanks at the Scarlet Witch.
The suit came back on and Tony said, "We have to separate him from the rings. It's his source of power."
Without another word, Vision and Natasha left his side to deal with John.
"Wanda, can you stop this guy from conjuring up illusions?" asked Steve through the comms.
They all turned to see a dozen Mandarins levitating flaming debris and firing electrical charges at Steve, Natasha, and Vision while Thor took care of an enraged Hulk who had the former wrapped in his enormous hand, trying to squeeze the life out of the Asgardian.
"That's beyond what I can do," said Wanda. "But I have something else." Suddenly the green giant dropped Thor to the ground and blinked a few times. The yellow in his eyes fading and turning green. "I set up mental blocks to prevent any of us from being mind controlled."
"The ring on his left ring finger! It can create illusions. Take that out first," said Tony, who fired missiles at the Johns in the room. Vision did the same, flying to the middle of the chaos and sending rays of energy at the copies of the Mandarin Tony didn't hit. Every one disappeared except for the man blocking the exit.
"A temporary setback," growled John. One of the rings glowed furiously and the remaining cement walls and ceiling crumbled down.
Before it could bury them all, Iron Man, War Machine, and Hulk smashed away the falling debris while the Scarlet Witch stretched out a hand and using her powers raised the Mandarin's left hand and lifted the Liar off his finger. She brought it over to herself and pocketed it.
"One down, nine more to go," said Rhodey. The big gun on his back began shooting at the Mandarin but the bullets didn't make contact as a ring froze them in mid-air.
All of them were unexpectedly drowned in darkness and only Rhodey and Tony, with the night vision in their suits, could see through it.
"Tony, hit him in the chest. I'm gonna go and grab a ring," directed the colonel.
And that's what they did.
Light came back into the room and Rhodey opened his armored palm to reveal he managed to take away two rings. He passed it to Steve who slipped it in the small pocket of his uniform.
"Ten or seven rings, it can still cause as much damage," snarled John. He raised his hands and the basement ground was lifted from its foundations.
Hulk roared and charged towards the enemy that tricked his mind, pushing both of them out and landing into the isolated field where the house was located. The basement floor came back down after them.
The Mandarin deflected Hulk's punches with his remaining rings causing the raging giant to clap his hands together. The force of the shock wave made the field of electromagnetic energy protecting the Asian man waver and then disappear. Hulk grabbed him and threw him back to what was left of the house.
Wanda stepped in, immobilizing John using her powers and then with her mind, one by one stripped him of his rings, dropping all of them to her open palm.
Thor marched forward and with a hold on John's neck, hoisted him up.
"You are not worthy of the rings you wear," Thor said through grit teeth. He raised his hammer to deliver the final blow.
John leered. "If you kill me, there will be no one to restore Stark's mind using the ring. I am the only one who knows how."
Thor turned to Captain America, awaiting his orders. Their leader motioned at his teammate to lower his weapon. They didn't need to kill the man.
"You forget," stated Steve, "We have a Scarlet Witch."
The Mandarin's face fell as Wanda picked out the Liar from her pocket and put it on the proper finger. She had seen the doctor's mind and knew how it worked.
The ring glowed and the first thing Tony remembered was the sound of Maria's cries as a newborn baby.
Dr. John Coo AKA The Mandarin was taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody and the rings locked in the Omega Vault. Suspected Ten Rings members such as Maria's piano teacher and Philip's soccer coach were also investigated on. However, information on the bases of the Ten Rings was deeply hidden in the doctor's mind that even Wanda could not reach it.
After finding out that Mary Potts had flown to Malibu alone, Tony flew back to the mansion at super sonic speed as soon as he was given the all clear by his teammates.
Word from Friday is that his family had gone on date night without him and went to bed; they were all asleep.
Tony decided to go see his children first. It would give himself time to gather his thoughts about the entire thing before waking Pepper and talking to her.
He slowly opened the bedroom door of his kids' room. Maria was sprawled on her stomach, her pillow on the floor. Philip was lying on his back, the blanket tangled around his feet. Tony positioned the fallen pillow behind his daughter's head and drew the blanket up to cover his son's small frame.
Philip stirred and turned to his side. One eye fluttered open and he saw Tony kneeling by his bedside.
"Dad?" said Philip. "I knew you'd come back," he mumbled before drifting back to sleep.
Tony didn't know what his son meant by 'come back.' Did it mean he knew Tony would come back from New York or Tony, his actual dad in the year 2016 and not the amnesiac one, would eventually return with all his memories intact? Tony found that he liked the latter theory more and he drew to his full height and sat himself down on the chair in their room, finding comfort in the fact that his children were safe, his children were alive, and he could remember them.
He could remember that he called Philip "Agent" after Phil Coulson, he could remember every waking moment arguing with the nurse over visiting hours in the NICU of the hospital, and he could even remember Mary's recipe for chocolate chip cookies (not that he would ever attempt to make them for Pepper again). But with those good memories, also came the bad ones. He could still see the look on Pepper's face when he called her Ginger and said he couldn't remember anyone. He could feel the tension and discomfort that was present in the car when he interacted with his children on the way to the facility; Philip was painfully aware of his lack of memories and distanced himself from Tony.
Tony closed his eyes and shook his head, hoping it would shake the memory away. But it only served to give him another image and it was of the woman he picked up at the club. Most of all, he couldn't believe that he forgot the very people he can't live without and his stomach twisted in fury at himself.
His eyes flew open. His skin crawled and he wallowed in self-hatred for a while.
Pepper found him there. She had poked her head in the doorframe (she probably woke up and Friday informed her of where he was), and leaned against it. "Why didn't you wake me?" she whispered, breathing a sigh of relief.
Tony didn't turn to face her. He rested his elbows on his thighs and continued to look at his children. "I didn't know what to say. So, I came here, hoping I'd get some perspective."
"Do you know what to say to me now?"
He turned his gaze toward her and then he got up and walked out of the room. He went straight to their bedroom; ignoring the absence of the things Pepper moved to the guest room from when she stayed there. She followed him, closing the door behind her. She joined him at the foot of the bed where he sat, brooding.
"Where were you?" Her tone was gentle; she didn't want to worsen his mood. "You never met with my mom at the hangar. And you didn't answer your phone. The kids fell asleep waiting for you. Where did you go?"
Pepper was concerned. Of course, she was. She always was. Tony remembered every mission now and knew by heart his wife's worried expressions; he can't believe he ever forgot the myriad of faces she wore around him.
She placed a hand on his chin and brought his face to look at her. She gasped, seeing the visible scratches and wounds on his face. "What happened to you?"
Tony didn't want to tell her where he's been the entire day. He didn't want her to know that it was something Avengers or Iron Man related because she'd get the wrong idea. She would think he got out of retirement again. She probably thought that when 1998 Tony said "I quit" things were going to be different, but he still ended up donning the suit, arresting some bad guys, and making her hair go gray with stress.
"Did you get into a fight with someone?" Realization dawned on her as she said it. "You went back in, didn't you? That's why Bruce and Natasha called to know where you were."
"That's not what happened," sighed Tony.
Pepper wordlessly got up and walked to their bathroom. She came back out with the first aid kit and sat on the foot of the bed. Tony let her dab at his wounds with alcohol. He knew the drill. She would patch him up while he would tell her what happened. She would comment and then fuss loudly over his injuries and then they'd have great you're-still-alive sex. But this time he knew there wouldn't be any of that. No comments, no overdramatic fussing, and definitely no sex.
When Pepper finished cleaning him up completely, she rose to return the kit but Tony grabbed her hand, effectively pulling her back down. She shot him a pained look and he quickly let go.
"Let me explain," Tony said.
"Okay. Tell me what was so important that you missed date night—a date night you planned, by the way."
Tony stood up and paced around the room. "I went to see John like I was supposed to. But he…" He stopped by the glass window and looked out. There was no other way to say it, he supposed. He walked back to her. "He kidnapped me."
Pepper turned white. "What?"
"Yeah. Turns out that The Mandarin isn't dead. He's actually hiding in plain sight as my own physician."
"But John... He was so helpful. I... He let the kids stay in his office… Bought them ice cones... How...?"
Tony ensued to tell her of everything that transpired, from the moment he entered John's office to the moment he flew back home. And as Pepper digested what he said, her forehead crinkled in thought and confusion that Tony suspected the wrinkles would be permanent.
"So, you have your memories back?" she finally said, looking at him like she wanted to hug him but at the same time afraid to do so.
"And you didn't make it home in time because he was torturing you," she whispered, her eyes brimming with tears. "It's all my fault."
"What? No!" Tony sat back down, grabbing her hands but she pulled them away, shaking her head. "None of this is your fault! He's been out to get me since the beginning."
"Yes, but I gave him access to your body, your mind, even our children! And I made you go see him because I was worried about a tumor? How stupid is that!"
"You didn't know. We all didn't. If Natasha didn't continue the investigation like I asked, she wouldn't have known that he was still alive and she wouldn't have rounded up the gang to save me." He cupped her cheek, wiping a tear that had escaped with his thumb.
"And then I was upset that you didn't show up for date night! Ridiculous!" She lowered her head, unable to face him. "I'm so sorry, Tony."
Tony sent her a bewildered look, not that she could see it, and brought his hands on both sides of her cheeks, forcing her to look at him. "Please, don't say that. I'm the one who should be sorry! I cheated on you! I forgot you! How could have I forgotten you? Forgotten Maria or Phil! I can't even—I wouldn't blame you if you had taken the kids and walked out on me. You should have. I gave you the worst kind of pain, seeing me live but not really see me. I always tried to protect you from danger, I just never thought I'd have to protect you from myself." He dropped his hands to his lap. "And I'll never forgive myself for that."
Pepper ran the back of her hand across her eyes, wiping the tears away. "You can't be too hard on yourself either; you tried your best to remember. I'm not going to lie and say it wasn't painful seeing you look at me and not remember who I was or see you very uncomfortable with your own children, but after we got past that, good things followed. Like that time we went to the park."
Tony chuckled softly at the memory.
"You had wonderful input on the company's R&D and you spent so much time reconnecting with the family last week." She took his hand, sighing. "You finally have your memories back... We should just forget all of this ever happened."
Tony shook his head and pressed his forehead against Pepper's. "I've done enough forgetting to last me a lifetime. I don't want to forget what I did." He drew his head back, "And you're not going to like what I have to say next."
She frowned and he suspected she already knew what was about to come.
"I can't quit." When she didn't react badly, he continued, "It's not because I don't want to but because I can't; the world won't let me. We saw that when despite the fact that for all intents and purposes I wasn't Iron Man these past weeks, the world managed to find a way to pull me back in. There will always be enemies and aliens and missiles and they will not step back just because I did."
Pepper bit her lip, understanding the ugly truth but not liking it at all.
Tony stood and walked over to her vanity. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to go on every mission and come home in pieces for you to put back together. Look at Clint. He's retired, raising a family, and occasionally consults for us." He took out the wedding and engagement rings Pepper had temporarily ceased wearing and walked back to her. "I'm going to put our family first—before me, before the bad guys, before the world."
"And what if you can't?" she asked as he knelt down and took her left hand. "You're going to die trying to come home to us like you did today aren't you?"
Tony positioned the engagement ring atop the tip of her ring finger. "Remember what I said when I first asked you out?"
Pepper tilted her head, trying to remember. "I think you said that you almost died and how would I feel that I never got the chance to go out with you."
"Okay. You're correct but I also said something else." As he inserted the engagement ring on her finger, he stated, "I said that if I had a girlfriend, she would know my true identity and she'd be a wreck just like how you are now. She'd always be worrying I was going to die and yet be so proud of the man I've become. I also said that while I will constantly leave to keep the world safe, I'll always come back to her."
"You remember that?"
Tony scoffed. "Ohh, I remember everything now."
She raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to drive his point home.
He slowly slid the wedding ring on her finger next and admired it. He didn't like that she had taken them off. He held both of her hands and kissed her knuckles. "I want you to know that everything I do, I do for my family. When I go out there and save a kid from being disintegrated by a robot, or save Manhattan from giant lizards, or fly to Antarctica to rescue penguins—it's all for you, for Maria, and for Philip. And that's what's going to make me fight for my life and fly home so fast in time for dinner. I'll always come home." He rose slightly and gently pressed his lips to hers. "I will die someday but I can assure you that it'll be from natural causes."
Pepper snorted, knowing that there was never any certainty of life with his job. But the idea of him growing old with her and babysitting their grandchildren is something she can hold on to in every mission until someone is able to succeed him as Iron Man.
"That will have to do for now," she told him with a hug. After a minute, she pulled away. "You need to shower."
"Philip, we gotta go!" Tony bellowed from the living room. He and Philip were running late for Maria's piano recital.
Eight weeks after the entire mess with the Mandarin, the young girl had finally gotten her cast out just in time to practice and be part of her class' kiddie showcase. Pepper was already at the auditorium, having driven their daughter there. She also texted him to say that she had saved them seats and that Clint's and Scott's respective children were already in the audience.
"I can't find my shoes!" came the four-year-old's reply.
"Where did you see them last?!"
"I can't remember."
Tony sighed in exasperation. "Friday," he called.
"Under the sofa cushion."
Philip came bounding down the stairs while Tony dug out the shoes.
"Agent, you need to keep a better eye on your uniform." He handed them to his son who put them on, muttering his apology.
They made it to the recital just in time, settling in their seats beside Pepper when the kid who went before Maria just finished her piece. Tony waved at Clint, Scott, and the kids who were good friends with Tony's own. When Maria stepped out and walked towards the piano, Tony put on a pair of glasses and tapped the corner, intent on recording the entire performance.
He had always been the supportive and proud dad ever since Philip was born. It was driven in part by the fact that he didn't want to be like his father who was cold, and also because he wanted to be the best dad in the whole world even though Pepper would remind him that it's not a competition.
"Mary Had a Little Lamb again?" Philip complained when his sister began.
Tony brought a finger to his lips, asking his son to keep quiet. Maria's playing had gotten better. The time spent with her broken arm had forced her to practice with her left hand, and now she was playing the instrument with both of her hands.
From afar, there was no denying that she inherited a lot from Maria Stark. It made Tony wish his parents were both still alive to enjoy the moment with them. He had no doubt that his father, although quite distant to Tony as he grew up, would be a doting grandpa. And as he thought about it, Tony knew he had never dealt with Maria and Howard's death very well. But he had one thing 1998 Tony didn't have—a family to help him whenever the gravest of griefs ever came.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, knocking him out of his reverie. He took it out to read an encrypted message from Maria Hill, contacting the Avengers about an assignment. He looked up to his daughter and then back again to the screen of his phone.
"Busy," he texted back. He knew the meaning of the word wasn't going to be lost on Agent Hill. 'Busy' didn't signify that he was currently working on a new tech and just decided he was too preoccupied to help save the world. It meant that he was doing something important with his family and they took precedence. Plus, the assessment on the crisis or potential crisis also didn't warrant his help; the assembled team could handle it well without him.
Tony felt a hand on his shoulder and he glanced at Pepper who was smiling gratefully. He knew she saw his reply to the text. He kissed her forehead and then watched their daughter play.
He wasn't going to break his promise this time.
A/N: And that ends the whole story. Thank you for sticking through the entire thing and reviewing!