Peace is the flame that creates the light in darkness.
The figure stands hunched over himself, shrouded in darkness yet keenly aware of the surroundings he cannot see. He knows that he rests upon a ruin of brick and mortar, an ugly blemish on the face of green prosperity, just another reminder of his painful circumstance. The old, hidden ache flares at the knowledge that her beauty was unseen, here, simply a grotesque imitation of the pale, hidden weakness in this world.
He has not seen her face for many years, so long that he has trouble remembering the way she used to gaze upon him. He has only his memory to turn to now, a basely convoluted and troublesome maze of truth and desire.
He has heard her voice since, has begged her in vain to describe to him the shape of her nose and the curve of her eyes, but it was beauty in a dimension beyond the reach of words. He has tasted her lips since, has felt the hitching sobs and cool fall of tears she shed before she left.
He has since been aware of the absence of her scent on wakeful mornings, bringing him back to that first day he opened his white eyes to the dark world and knew she was not beside him. He remembers that morning with the clarity of a sheltered bat, that morning when he burnt his new home to the ground, to a heap of brick and mortar, that morning when he reveled in the fact that the flames ceased to hurt his eyes as he gazed upon them.
"Vengeance," the figure spits, cloaked in shadow, "is but a ring of flame. It is doomed to consume itself and all who stand within until nothing is left but the charred farce of victory." The figure holds out one blackened wrist and flames leap forward from the ground to reach like abandoned, ghostly tendrils towards his deceitful fingers.
The things he remembers about this place only serve as a reminder for what he has missed. He cannot see, has been blind for many years, and has spent his painful exile living a shadow of life.
He does not know where she went, if anywhere, because he could not watch her go.
"Vengeance," he continues, oddly aware of his choice, "is an illusion that burns deep into our eyes until we are incapable of seeing anything but fire, anything but the desire for a destructive peace as tranquil as the steady, monotonous ticking of a time bomb…"
Beneath him, he feels a presence rise from the flames, possess him and multiply, surround him in power, support and vision. The light casts off the figure's milky eyes, illuminating the blind, peacefully clouded surface.
"It is a good thing," he says now, louder, for he is no longer alone, "that I cannot see the temptation my course will bring. My accursed loss of vision has become a blessing."
He draws a deliberate X in the ruins with one clawed finger, completing the ritual as if sealing the chasm of thought with a simple stitch.
"I will have my revenge on the pair of men who destroyed me," the figure purrs, feeling now the bodies that coalesce around him, becoming more tangible on this planet with every second that passes, awaiting command and purpose. "If revenge is a ring of flame, I shall bring it full circle. I will burn them where flame will catch. The one they love will be claimed for ash as mine was claimed."
Rain rolls in above the figure, his only indication that the darkness shrouding him has truly come to match that within. He laughs, then, even though the hollow sound means little. His newfound companions have no ears to hear it.
"I should think," he concludes, "the beauty is that once I have set the spark of knowledge, this Peter Parker will do my task for me. They cannot hide the truth of his parents' death forever, and they are no longer strong enough to stop him from seeking retribution."
Laughter echoes through the darkness. "Peter Parker will come to me, and when he does, he will die. And they will live with that forever."
"Peter Benjamin Parker!" Steve hollered, setting the last of the cutlery down on the table. "I've called you down three times in the last ten minutes! Make me say it once more and you're losing that combustible plasma thing for good. And no, I don't care how many hours you spent making it!"
It was sometimes easy to forget how large the Avengers Tower was, Steve thought. When you squirreled yourself away at the very top, it was as if the entire rest of the world was beneath you. Tony, he remembered, had been so kind once as to point out that the world, or at least most of New York, was literally beneath them. It did take some getting used to.
Twelve minutes later, when even the aforementioned Tony had emerged from his lab (apparently picking up the scent of lasagna from three floors up) and still Peter had yet to make an appearance, Steve began to get frustrated.
"Taking away his plasma lamp won't really make a difference, you know," Tony pointed out absently. "He'll just make a new one."
Steve glared. Two minutes saw him up one floor and banging on his adoptive son's door in the subtly intimidating way one could only manage who had at least eighty pounds of muscle behind them to back up the beckon.
Tony had regrettably left his lasagna behind to amble up the stairs after his husband, having being subjected to a particularly vicious glare for wanting to start his meal without Peter. "You know," He pointed out, then, just before hearing the telltale sound of the lock slide open on the other side of the door, "He probably just can't hear you. If you'd asked JARVIS to let him know –"
"I do not need JARVIS," Steve muttered in a hiss, as if uttering a curse.
"What is it?" Peter asked through a crack in the door, diffusing the tension, unruly brown hair tousled and one eyebrow raised. An offensive pop song was blasting in the room behind him, and Steve was pretty sure he'd need to have a conversation with Peter later about those lyrics.
For now, he simply said, "Dinner is ready."
Despite everything, Steve found comfort in regular displays of domesticity. Family meals were important to him, especially since Peter had a tendency not to eat enough. Birthdays, and holidays, too, and - Peter really needed to brush his hair. And was he still in the same shirt he was wearing the day before? When was the last time he showered?
Peter nodded congenially, catching Steve's attention, and was about to back up into his room again when Steve stuck a foot in the door, taking his turn to raise an eyebrow. "I've called you four times, Peter," he told the kid, pinning him under a steely gaze. People just didn't gaze like they used to, in the old days. Peter squirmed a little, evidently uncomfortable.
"Gee Ste- dad. Sorry? I mean, but I didn't hear anything. If you'd asked JARVIS to let me know -"
Steve could practically feel the smugness radiating from Tony at that remark.
"You have two minutes," Steve told Peter, determined not to let himself pout, and was about to head back downstairs, when -
"Hold on just one second. Is that - is that Greenday?" Tony had his head cocked to the side, focusing on the new music that had just begun playing from Peter's room, a strange, disparaging glint in his eyes.
Peter paused, suddenly wary. "Um - it might be?" he answered slowly, edging behind him for the volume control button, feeling cautious for no overtly identifiable reason. "Just think, it could be... One Direction."
"One Direction?" Tony repeated blankly.
"One Direction is a modern boy band made up of Liam Payne, a music technology student at City of Wolverhampton College; Louis Tomlinson, a student at Hall Cross School; Niall Horan -"
"Thank you, JARVIS," Tony barked, face blank. "And Peter? Forget the two minutes. I want you downstairs now."
The dark-haired man spun on one heel, leaving Steve and Peter to exchange bemused glances before Steve shrugged and loped after Tony. At least, the blonde man thought, Tony had forgotten about the point he was trying to make concerning Steve's apprehension towards JARVIS. Steve just couldn't bring himself to rely on technology the way his husband and son could.
It took Peter thirty seconds to follow them downstairs, and it was to some lament or another of Tony's ("Pop-punk! He likes pop-punk, Steve! How have we been raising him?") that he entered. Tony quickly shut up about it as soon as Peter came noticeably within earshot, thankfully.
"So. Steve, Tony," Peter began, before Tony had the chance to lay into him about his taste in music. "I -"
"Why do you insist on calling me Steve?"
"Oh," Peter said. "Sorry? It is your name."
In a very quiet voice, Steve suggested, "You could call me dad." Even Tony put down his fork for a moment to pay attention. The matter of Peter's real parents never came up much, and he'd never made a big deal of it, but Tony and Steve knew it must bother him. It bothered them, a little, sometimes. It was only natural.
Peter, completely oblivious to the turmoil of the moment, shoveled another bite of pasta into his mouth and said, rationally, "Well, I can't call you both dad."
Steve stabbed his meal. "I'll settle for father, then."
Peter sighed, exasperated. "Fine," he said, shooting them both a glare and a small smirk. "Dad, Tony. I have news."
"I've been waiting for you to say that," Steve burst out, inexplicably beaming, his tension in the past few moments forgotten.
Peter paused, looking at him with a little confused tilt to his head. "You knew I've been looking into the biotechnological properties of the elemental compounds of copper? I didn’t think I’d mentioned it before."
Tony sat up, interested. "Copper?"
Steve paused, dumbstruck, and for some inexplicable reason, he blushed. Tony, completely oblivious, narrowed in on Peter. "When were you going to tell me this? Have you made a breakthrough? I thought there was a problem with the compositional effects of carbon when synthesized -"
"Tony." Steve's voice was firm.
The man paused, looking back at him. "What?"
"Not at the dinner table, please."
Tony slumped. "Peter started it," he muttered. "Besides which, you were the one who was excited to hear -"
"Yes," Steve mumbled. "Well, never mind. I thought he was going to say something else."
Peter quirked an eyebrow. "What did you think I was going to say?"
Tony imitated Peter's expression, complete with the elbows on the table. "Yes. What did you think he was going to say?"
"I said never mind. We'll talk about this later."
"I don't see why -" Peter put in.
"Later," Steve interrupted firmly, with a weighted glance at Tony. "Me, in private, with your father. Unless," he added, catching Peter's expression, "you want me to have you washing the dishes tonight?"
Peter immediately dropped the subject, striking up a conversation with Tony about his day at school. Somehow, this led into a discussion of Peter's last chemistry test (on which he had received a perfect score, naturally), and from there, it wasn't much of a leap for them to edge into a conversation about copper, again.
Steve just shook his head. The lasagna was a little cold.
It wasn't until later that night, when Tony and Steve were lying next to each other in bed, fingers brushing together, when Steve decided to bring the topic up again.
"About the discussion we were having at dinner…"
Tony sat up. "You want to talk about the copper?"
Steve frowned. "No. No, I don't want to talk about the copper. The… other thing."
"Ah," Tony said, obviously completely baffled. "The other thing. Of course."
Steve let him stew for a few more moments, but just before Tony reached to shut off his bedside lamp Steve asked, "Do you think Peter is like us, Tony?"
His partner paused. "In what way?"
"Well… the thing we don't… talk about. You know."
And there it was, Tony thought. That for all of their routine, pretense, and structure, their family would never be the same as another, because they had a history behind them that didn't really have a place in this world.
Steve, known to the public as Captain America, was the solitary product of a military initiative of which knowledge had been all but lost. It had brought him enhanced speed, strength and capability, all of which had only served as an outlet for him to demonstrate his most remarkable traits: The pure values of bravery, honor and sacrifice he always held close to his heart.
For Tony's part, there was Iron Man. Tony was a genius, a brilliant mind who had created his own abilities with the iron suit that enabled him to fly and fight with a proficiency greatly surpassing that of a normal human.
"I'd really rather not talk about that right now, Steve." It still gave Tony headaches.
"Please, Tony. I just want to know what you think."
The dark-haired man sighed. "I guess -"
"Sir," JARVIS interrupted suddenly. Steve just about leapt through the roof at the disembodied voice, but Tony took it in stride, waving a hand to quiet the machine, having just caught an almost inaudible creeeak floating through the open crack of their bedroom door.
"On it, JARVIS," Tony muttered, throwing off the bed sheets. Beside him, Steve pulled on a pair of pants, baffled.
Tony threw open the door; Steve itching to push his way in front of him, because without the suit, Tony could use a bodyguard, but -
"Peter?" Steve cried, just as Tony flicked on the hallway light.
"Shit," said Peter, freezing.
"Don't swear," Steve admonished, just as Tony asked, "Are you sneaking out?"
Peter paused sheepishly. "There really isn't any right answer to that question, is there?"
"You'd better think of one," said Tony, sounding surprisingly deadly for the fact that he was leaning against the door frame in little more than a pair of boxers.
"Then, no," said Peter. "I'm not sneaking out." When both his parents shot him identical disbelieving stares, the teen added, "I'm… sneaking in?" At their reaction to that confession, Peter visibly backed up against the opposite wall of the entryway, throwing his hands up in defense. "Wait - no! That was not what it sounded like, I -"
Tony strode across to him in two steps and yanked down the collar of his t-shirt. The blue and red webbed spandex was glaringly obvious underneath.
"This isn't what it looks like," Peter protested quickly.
"Oh?" Steve put in. "Because it looks like you were out as Spider-Man again, pitting yourself against dangerous villains in some misguided attempt at glory, swinging around at completely dangerous heights on some little goo-thread that you made in your bedroom -"
"At least he didn't get it off EBay," Tony pointed out. "Or worse, from OsCorp."
Peter ignored the statement and said, "Tony flies around all the time way higher than I do, dad, and you never -"
"If you're about to say I never get angry with him for it, you're wrong. And besides which, you're less than half his age, Peter, and you've had this thing going for a month, whereas Iron Man -"
"Whereas Iron Man and Captain America had that one big break eleven years ago when they saved New York from a bunch of mutant aliens, or a nuclear bomb, or whatever the hell else, and that gives them the right to control every single aspect of my life?" Peter vented.
"The fact that we are your parents gives us the right to control every single aspect of your life," Tony supplied helpfully.
Steve glared. "We do not control your life," he argued, ignoring Peter's eye roll, "But you are expressly disobeying our orders. For your own secrecy and protection, you do not have permission to leave the house as Spider-Man without consulting us first, and it certainly looks like -"
"I was actually going to say it looked like he was sneaking out to see a girl," Tony commented.
Steve's anger visibly evaporated. His eyebrows hiked up to his hairline and he asked Peter, delighted, "Were you?"
"What?" said Peter, turning red. "No! Of course not, I -"
Steve slumped. "So you were out as Spider-Man," he deduced, his anger returning.
Peter bit his lip, caught. "I was… out to see… a boy?" he tried belatedly.
Tony pinched his nose. Steve closed his eyes. "Don't lie to us, Peter."
Peter made a small, frustrated noise under his breath and slumped. "Fine. I… took the car out for a spin."
"You what?" Tony and Steve yelped in unison, immediately launching into simultaneous rants about illegal activity and speed constraints and bad radio music and fourteen million dollars, and -
Peter raised an eyebrow. "Just kidding. I was actually just out as Spider-Man. Aren't you relieved?"
For some reason inexplicable to Peter, neither seemed to be.
Steve's glare was thunderous. But just before he had the chance to bellow, 'Absolutely not!' Tony said quietly and firmly, "You're grounded."
The dark-haired man was met with two identical, open-mouthed stares. Tony rarely dealt out punishment for Peter's misdeeds. He preferred simply to back up whatever Steve envisioned and maybe contribute a bit of yelling as well.
"No access to the labs for two weeks," Tony continued, "and you're in your room by eight every night. No leaving the top two floors unless it's with one of us, or for school. And you are not allowed on the roof. Or the balcony. Are you getting this, JARVIS?"
"Yes, sir," the AI replied to Tony. "Initiating applicable lockdown procedures now."
"Plus," Tony said, for good measure, "I want your combustible plasma lamp."
Peter gaped, open-mouthed. "You can't do this!"
Tony gave him a hard stare. "Actually, Peter, I can, because not only has JARVIS already been pre-programmed for this, but I'm also you're father."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "Why didn't you ever tell me JARVIS could do that?" he asked, apparently reassessing all his previous knowledge of the AI.
Peter was not impressed. "Actually, Tony," he said furiously. "And Steve. Neither of you is a father to me. My father is dead. And you're doing a crap job of pretending you can make up for that."
Before either could say another word, Peter turned on his heel and stormed upstairs in a fury, nearly taking his bedroom door off its hinges as he slammed it behind him.
"Well," Tony said bluntly. "That went well."
Steve was speechless. "What…"
Tony just leveled a stare at him. "He's sixteen, Steve. Don't let it get to you. You wanted to know what I thought of that thing we don't talk about? Well, there it is. I hate it, Steve. I hate the life we're giving him, I hate that he feels like he needs to live up to who we are. I hate the fact that he's so young, but he puts himself in danger without a second thought, and I hate that I just can't understand why. He doesn't owe us, or anybody, anything, and I hate -"
"Whoa," Steve said suddenly, apparently distracted from his previous anguish. "That wasn't…" It seemed that for the third time that night, Steve was going red for no apparent reason. "That wasn't actually what I was talking about."
Tony paused, silent for just a moment, then said, "Well, in that case, forget I said any of that. It's bad for the reputation to show so much sentimentality."
Steve sighed. "Tony…"
"Okay! Okay. Sorry. The angst still stands. I'm still interested, though… what exactly did you want my opinion on?"
Steve shrugged sheepishly. "I meant… the other thing we don't talk about."
At Tony's blank stare, Steve made a gesture that he most definitely would not have done in front of Peter.
"You're asking me if I think he's gay?" Tony exclaimed.
Steve winced, still uncomfortable with the word, but didn't deny it.
Tony just laughed. "You know, Steve, you've been bedding a man for over a decade and you still refuse to say the word? I mean, I know you grew up with an entirely different outlook on homosexuality, but you must realize that if I were anyone else, I'd most certainly take offense to your closeted attitude."
Steve frowned a little, but a shine of contentment still painted his features. "I don't love anyone else, Tony."
"You're lucky Peter's not here to see this. Should we take it to the bedroom?"
Steve ignored his partner's blasé attitude and fell into a contrite, apologetic stance. "Tony… I'm sorry. It takes time to get used to. I know I've had a lot of time, but… things are very different, now. I can't imagine, when I was Peter's age…" He just shook his head. "I'd always been raised believing I'd marry some pretty girl, and grow up to have a pretty family, and my own pretty kids, and -"
"Are you saying Peter's ugly?"
"No! No, and if you tell him I said that, you're sleeping on the couch for a week. But I am sorry, Tony."
Tony shrugged. "Don't give it another thought. If it really bothered me, I'd have had JARVIS evict you months ago."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "JARVIS can do that, too?"
"No. Of course not," Tony corrected, catching Steve's expression, but he didn't quite meet his eyes. "Anyway," he said, diverting the conversation back into safer waters, "Peter. Gay? Maybe. Why do you ask? It's not as if he's ever brought a guy home."
"He's never brought a girl home, either."
"Technically," Tony said, making his way to the kitchen for a cup of coffee in anticipation of a more lengthy conversation, "He's not allowed to bring anyone home, at risk of blowing his cover."
"About the fact that he's actually the son to Tony Stark, multibillionaire? Or about the fact that he's actually son to Iron Man, savior of New York? Or about the fact that he's actually son to two dads and one of those dads is Steve Rogers, who is actually Captain America, though that isn't public knowledge? Or about the fact that Peter is actually Spider-Man? Or -"
"All of the above," Tony agreed quickly, waving his hands and almost tipping his mug of coffee. "In fact, we probably shouldn't let Peter date at all until he's… at least thirty. JARVIS? You've got an app for that?"
"No!" Steve cut in suddenly. "NO! Absolutely not!"
Tony gave him A Look. "Do you want your son getting some teenage girl pregnant? Or catching an STI? Or -"
"Tony. You're completely missing the point. Don't you realize that we've never actually had to stop him? Don't you… don't you ever worry about Peter, sometimes?"
Tony clicked his tongue. "Are you saying we should actually be keeping a closer eye on this Spider-Man’s nightly exploits?"
"Tony. No. I'm saying I'm worried that Peter doesn't have any friends."
Tony shut up. "What would make you think that?" he asked eventually.
"Well," Steve said. "Maybe the fact that Peter doesn't have any friends."
They fell into a brooding silence. "I didn't have any friends when I was his age. I was too busy developing -"
"Yes, Tony, but you're… you."
Tony placed his coffee mug on the counter carefully. "What does that mean?"
Steve simply grinned. "Look, Tony, I worry about Peter. I worry that he's been in a bad way, since he lost his parents, and I worry that he gets bullied but doesn't want to tell us, and I just… I just wish he had someone that could be there for him."
Tony took a deep breath. "So, what do you propose we do?"
"I think," Steve said, shrugging, "Maybe he just needs a little help. You know, connecting with others. Maybe if we just took him out every once in a while..."
"Are you suggesting that he needs help making friends from a man who's never had friends, plus his 103-year-old partner? While, if you remember, he's busy hating the both of us?"
Steve sighed, and was about to suggest that they could just try when the two men were interrupted by a low scraaaaatch coming from the door leading out to the balcony.
"Peter, you think?"
"No way. He wouldn't dare."
They raced outside together, but found the balcony empty, and a quick check with JARVIS assured them that their son was still closeted away in his bedroom. It wasn't until the next day, in the light of the morning, that they'd notice the strange black X carved into the door, looking almost as though it had been burnt into place, and wonder how it got there.
"You know," said Tony, as they entered the tower again. "There is one advantage to having Peter locked upstairs."
"Oh?" said Steve. "Just one advantage?" But he didn't complain any further as Tony pulled him close, meeting Steve's firm, warm lips with his own and wrapping his arms around the blonde's broad shoulders.
That night, or perhaps it was very early morning, just before the two drifted off to sleep, Steve muttered, "You know, taking away his plasma thing was a little bit harsh."
"Combustible plasma lamp," Tony corrected, "And he'll just build a new one anyway."
Steve carded a hand through Tony's hair, reflecting fondly on their son's behaviour. "I know."
Somewhere far away, laughter echoed through the darkness.