“Tony, it's my day off,” Pepper said as she came into the penthouse.
She was dressed down in faded jeans and a form-fitting top, the kind of clothes she only wore when her intention was to lounge around the house and make the most of her too-infrequent days off. That she'd actually left her apartment in her comfortable clothes spoke volumes. Tony supposed he should be grateful that their relationship was still solid enough even after the break-up for her to do that.
“I'm touched that you chose to spend it here with us,” Tony said, looking up from the motor he was fiddling with and smiling sweetly.
“I just bet you are,” Pepper replied. “I'm here because I got a call from American Express at seven this morning. Something about large online purchases of children's accessories.”
“Well, if you don't want people to question your purchases, Pepper –”
“Not mine,” Pepper interrupted. “Yours.”
“Wait... why did my credit card company call you?” Tony asked. He set his screwdriver down and looked at Pepper questioningly.
“They've always called me,” Pepper replied. “Because I am a responsible grown up. Now please tell me you didn't do something stupid.”
“I have done many things in my life,” Tony said defensively. “Some of them were bad ideas, and others merely unwise, but I've never done anything stupid.” At Pepper's look, Tony shook his head. “Yeah, I could barely keep a straight face at that. The thing is, this time, I have done nothing wrong.”
“So you don't have a secret love-child stashed away,” Pepper said suspiciously. That was probably why they weren't together anymore – she knew Tony far too well and had spent too much time cleaning up his shit.
“No,” Tony promised. “I can honestly say that I do not have a secret love-child.”
At that moment, because the universe was a horrible bitch goddess which hated Tony beyond reason, Pepper's attention was pulled toward the other side of the room, and to the small boy standing there. He was yawning and rubbing his eyes as he wandered over to them, still half-asleep.
“I'd like to take this moment to point out that he is not a love-child.”
“That's Peter,” Pepper said. “Why do you have Peter?”
“Hey champ,” Tony said as Peter got closer. “Why don't you sit up here and Pepper and I will be right back, okay?”
Peter continued to rub at his eyes and nodded, crawling up onto the barstool and reaching for the motor Tony had been messing around with. After a quick glance to make sure Peter couldn't actually get into any trouble with it, Tony led Pepper over to the window, where they could talk with some semblance of privacy.
“Tony, what the hell is going on?” Pepper asked. “Where's Richard and Mary?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Tony replied. He looked over her shoulder to where Peter was sitting hunched over at the counter, doing something with the screwdriver. Tony began to rethink having left the kid alone with his latest make-work project. “They dropped him off two days ago, said it was for his safety, and disappeared.”
“Do you have people looking for them?” Pepper demanded.
“They made me promise not to,” Tony said. At Pepper's expectant look, he added, “The best people money can buy haven't been able to track them down yet.”
Tony didn't even feel guilty for having called the private investigators. The way he figured it, Richard and Mary had probably expected him to have dialled before they even left the elevator. That Tony waited a whole thirty minutes was a sign of restraint he likely wouldn't be showing again for quite some time. As it was, only his ties to Richard Parker – ties forged over twenty long years of friendships and fuck-ups – were able to make him keep his promise for that long at all.
“Are they planning on coming back?”
Ah, the million-dollar question. Leave it to Pepper to actually ask it out loud, as though Tony himself hadn't been thinking about it incessantly since the minute he looked down at the top of Peter's head and declared the two of them in it together.
“I have no idea,” he replied.
Knowing Pepper the way he did, and knowing she was no doubt about to go off on a tear about parental responsibility, Tony headed her off at the pass. He didn't know a lot about kids – tried to avoid them when they weren't with their parents and/or guardians when at all possible – but he was pretty sure that sort of freak-out was best saved for a time when the kid wasn't in earshot.
“They were terrified, Pepper. They had to be – they left him with me.”
And that was the crux of it, really. How frightened did a person have to be to want their son as close to the Avengers as possible? Although, Tony didn't actually think he was that bad a choice. Sure, so he had a carefully-crafted reputation as a playboy jackass who drank too much and had an ego the size of the state. He was Tony Stark – he could do anything he put his mind to. And besides, it wasn't like Peter was a stranger. Tony saw him all the time, during holidays, at birthday parties, barbecues, and one memorable afternoon where Richard was out of town and Mary threw her back out. True, Tony had only been called because everyone else in her address book was unavailable, but that was beside the point. Tony had managed.
“Have you made arrangements for him?” Pepper pressed, the seriousness of her tone breaking into Tony's thoughts. She grabbed hold of Tony's arm, her fingers tightening around his elbow in an effort to force him to see things from her point of view.
Tony wanted to tell her that there was nothing she could worry about that he hadn't already agonized over sometime between putting Peter to bed last night, and watching the sun come up this morning.
“What, you mean foster care?” he asked, the flat tone of his voice clearly expressing his opinion of that particular plan.
“Doesn't he have an aunt and uncle? I remember relatives, Tony. Relatives who are better equipped for this. Relatives who understand things like PTA meetings and quality time, not to mention the fact that Scotch isn't a food group.”
Tony scowled at her insinuation. The worst thing was, she wasn't even trying to hurt his feelings - she was actually concerned about Peter's welfare. That made it hard to be angry with her, when he himself was only thinking about the same thing.
“There's health things,” he replied. “They aren't suitable guardians for a child Peter's age.”
His gaze was drawn across the room to where Peter still sat at the kitchen counter, tinkering with the motor Tony had left there. Peter handled it as though he knew exactly what it was, as if he saw how the pieces fit together for a purpose. Tony was reminded of the Erector Set he'd had when he was Peter's age, and how much more satisfying it would have been to learn on something real.
“Not suitable?” Pepper asked. “Tony, are you listening to yourself?”
“I'll have you know, I'm a perfect choice,” Tony argued. His patience was growing thin, and there was only so much criticism he could take from people who actually mattered.
“Really? And why, pray tell, is that? And keep in mind that I have years of cleaning up after you under my belt, Tony. I can smell b.s. at 50 paces.”
“I understand abandonment issues, Pep.” It was said simply, honestly. Tony wasn't even trying to win the argument, he was just stating the facts. He understood what it was like to have the most important people in your world pull away from you, and his father hadn't even dumped him in someone's living room.
“I won't do that to him.” The 'Now, or ever' was left unsaid, but was still clearly implied.
Pepper just stared at him for a moment, knowing how hard it was for him to actually make that admission, before pulling him into a hug. Not for the first time, Tony wished they were still together, even if he knew they worked better as friends. It might be nice to be able to confide in someone who was firmly in his corner. Tony could talk a good game, but even he wasn't delusional.
Tony turned back to Peter, finding the boy hanging over the back of the chair as he stared at Tony and Pepper. His eyes were sharp, like he knew they were talking about him.
“Are you?” Tony asked, glad to take a break, no matter how temporary, from the uncomfortable task of defending his ability to keep a small child alive and healthy. “Well, why don't we give Pepper some sad eyes and maybe she'll make us her famous banana pancakes.”
“I like banana,” Peter said with a small smile.
“I know you do, buddy,” Tony replied. He wanted to raise a fist in the air in triumph, but managed to curtail the desire. “On the count of three, okay? 1, 2....” They both turned their sad eyes on Pepper and waited for her to fall into their trap.
“One order of banana pancakes coming up,” Pepper said with a smile. Tony laughed as Peter shimmied in his chair, and smiled a toothy grin. “But you have to set the table, Mr. Parker. Tony can help you reach the cupboard.”
“Fair trade,” Tony said. “C'mon, Pete. Let's get started.” He put Peter on his shoulder and made his way to where the plates were kept.