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Tony Stark Finds Himself a Family (That Doesn't Suck)

Chapter Text

Peter comes back to consciousness slowly. His thoughts are thick and sticky, like his brain is a bowl full of pudding. He’s aware he’s somewhere comfortable and warm. Out of the cold, sharp rain and if his eyelids can be trusted it’s no longer dark beyond them. Now to just ease them open...

“Fuuuuuuck,” he groans.

“Language,” says a voice somewhere above him.

Peter forces open an eye. Just his right one, because his left one is stuck shut. Swollen shut? Hopefully not gone. He doesn’t know because his entire head is pudding and pain.

“Mmmmnot– where?” Peter asks.

Eloquent.

“Avengers tower,” says the voice.

That gets Peter’s attention. He struggles a little. Tries to make sure his mask is still in place.

“Don’t hurt yourself, kid. Or– don’t hurt yourself any more than you’re hurt. I had to cut off your mask to make sure you hadn’t brained yourself.”

Peter’s hand stops in mid-air.

Shiiiiiiit.

“Yeah…” the man says says. "I know who you are, Parker. But I’m not going to tell anyone. I probably should, considering you’re like six, but I’m not going to subject you to one of Cap’s lectures. I’m nice like that.“

It’s Tony Stark speaking. Oh, god, it’s Tony Stark. Now that Peter knows where he is the rest of his mental functions start to catch up. There’d been a bad guy. A concussion canon. The vibrations had done something weird to his web and he’d swung into a building way too fast. He’d been twenty stories up. It was a miracle he’d survived the fall.

Peter’s breath starts to come more quickly as the weight of all this begins to sink in.

“Hey– are you okay? J, is the kid dying or is this a panic attack?” Tony asks.

“His vitals are within normal limits for his age, sir," a disembodied voice replies.

“Which is six. Right? We’ve established he’s practically a fetus?”

“Peter Benjamin Parker is sixteen years old and three months. A fetus is generally–”

“Spare me the birds and the bees,” Tony says to the voice in the ceiling. "I know how babies are made.“

Why is there a voice in the ceiling? Wait. Did he say that out loud?

"You did,” Tony says.

Peter tries to push himself up again and Tony leans over him and nudges him right back down.

“Stay where you are. You’re going to hurt something.”

“Ceiling voice says I’m fine,” Peter reminds in a pained whisper. Trying to sit up was a mistake.

“Ceiling voice has a name. That’s JARVIS. Show some respect.”

“Sorry, Mr. Jarvis,” Peter groans.

“Better,” Tony says. "So look. I think we need to have a talk.“

"Are you going to tell my Aunt what I do?”

“I’m not going to tell anyone what you do,” Tony says. "But you’re going to stop doing it in your pajamas. You wanna be a superhero, I’m the last person who's got a right to stop you. We’re going to upgrade your gear, though. Together. Consider yourself hired.“

"Hired for what?”

“You’re my new intern. Congratulations. The hours are terrible, the pay’s fair, and you get a whole new Spider-suit out of the deal.”

“You’re going to pay me?” Peter asks. He’s starting to realize this might be a dream.

“Unpaid interns depress me,” Tony says. "Is that a yes?“

Peter doesn’t really need to think about it. "Yes.”

“Good. You start tomorrow. I’ve got an uber coming for you in twenty minutes. I don’t know where you hide your civilian clothes so I had Jarvis order whatever he thought would fit from the souvenir shop across the street. Get dressed. Get home. Be back tomorrow at ten AM. Understand? And no spider powers between now and then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“See you tomorrow, Parker.”

“Wait– does this make me an Avenger now?” Peter asks.

Tony sighs. "Since I’m not Clint “if you walk out that door you're an Avenger” Barton, the answer to that is no. But if we need you– I guess the better answer is ‘we’ll see’.“

Peter can’t help but smile at that. An internship. A superhero gig. A new suit. ~Money~.

For a day that involved a pretty massive blow to the head, things ended up just peachy.

Chapter Text

This goddamn kid is going to be the death of him.

“Drink,” Tony growls.

He holds out a glass of liquid painkiller that he and Bruce have developed to pack quite a punch. Now that Peter’s out of danger and awake, Tony figures it’s safe enough to give him something to numb his pain.

Peter complies but makes a face. "Tastes bad.“

“Tastes bad,” Tony repeats. "You almost died. Do you understand that? You almost died. So I’m sorry if the painkillers taste bad. You’re lucky I didn’t take you to the emergency room, your cover be damned.“

Peter looks confused, and then as the memories settle into place a lot more apologetic.

“I thought I could make the swing.”

“Yeah, well. You couldn’t. Jarvis says you’re gonna be okay, but you aren’t going anywhere tonight. I already called your aunt and told her I’d asked you to stay the night for a time-crunched science experiment. I feel like a pervert, having a 16 year old sleep over, by the way. I hope you know that’s what you’ve reduced me to here. I’m one leaked video away from To Catch a Predator.”

Tony would never, ever, everrrrrrrr make a move on a child but the appearance of something sketchy was all it would take to plaster his face all over TMZ.

“I’m sorry,” Peter mumbles.

He sounds as young as he is and he’s looking at Tony with worried eyes. It breaks through Tony’s anger.

“There’s time for sorry later,” Tony sighs. “Just get some sleep, kid.”

“Are you gonna stay?”

Tony sits the painkiller cup on the nearest counter and then takes a seat next to the guest bed where he’d put Peter.

“Yeah. I’m gonna stay.”

Peter doesn’t respond. Just closes his eyes with a sleepy sort of wince, and fades into dreamless oblivion.

Tony can’t help but feel jealous. He’d really like to forget all about this evening, too, but he’s the adult here. He’s got a long night ahead.

*

Tony drifts off to sleep in the chair, but the slightest move or gasp or sigh or groan on Peter’s part wakes him right back up. Tony keeps adjusting Peter's blanket to keep him warm. Keeps brushing sticky, sweaty hair away from Peter’s forehead and out of his eyes. Keeps whispering to Jarvis for another check of vitals.

Tony wonders if this is what it feels like to be a parent. If so, it sucks.

*

“You know why I never had kids?” Tony asks.

Peter’s been awake for an hour. He’s showered and he’s eaten the oatmeal Tony gave him, and now he’s back in bed because a shower and oatmeal had worn Peter right the fuck out.

“Never got married?” Peter guesses.

“Cute,” Tony says, rolling his eyes. "No. Never had kids because I knew I’d be a shit dad. And now here I am. Proving it.“

"Wait, what?” Peter asks. He has the nerve to look genuinely shocked and offended. "You’d be a great dad. Awesome.“

"I’ve been an authority figure in your life for two months and you’ve nearly died three times.”

“I was doing that before I met you,” Peter reminds him. "And I probably wouldn’t have survived last night if you hadn’t put the alarm in the suit.“

The alarm. Right. Tony’d nearly had a heart attack when it went off mid-dinner. He had a monitor on Peter’s vitals and if they ever went nuts, he got an alert to his phone. Tony’s pretty sure he’s never gotten in the suit that fast before, and that’s really saying something.

"I let a kid go swinging around Manhattan like some kind of super hero. If something happens to you it’ll be on me.”

“Taking all the responsibility on yourself makes you sound exactly like every good parent ever. I really think you’re underselling yourself here,” Peter protests.

“This is a lecture,” Tony tries again. "I’m lecturing you. This isn’t about my parenting skills now.“

"You brought it up,” Peter points out. "I’m just trying to let you take the lead.“

"Thanks for that,” Tony says sarcastically. "Seriously, Peter. I’m worried. I know you do the best you can but you need to do better. You need– I don’t know. You need a display in your eye piece, maybe. Something to judge your distances.“

"Like Jarvis in your suit?”

Tony nods. "And maybe some kind of airbags. Something that will soften a bad fall. We need to work on this. We need to do better.“

"You’ll help me?” Peter asks. "Cause it kind of sounded like you were done with me. With the… not wanting to be a dad.“

Gah. Not the best time for a flashback of Howard saying nearly those exact words. That he was done with Tony. That he had never wanted to be a father to some snarky know-it-all kid.

"I’m not done with you,” Tony says, putting in a concerted effort to make his voice gentle. "My worried comes out angry.“

"What’s your angry look like?” Peter asks.

Tony shrugs. "I hope you never see it. But the next super villain who knocks you out of the sky just might.“

"I really am sorry,” Peter says. "I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass.“

"S'probably karma,” Tony says. "You should nap. I’ve got some work to do.“

Tony reaches for his StarkPad.

"You’ll stay while I sleep?”

Tony nods. "No worries, Spiderbrat. I’m not going anywhere.“

Because he isn’t. Whatever this is, Tony’s in it for the long haul.

Damn.

Chapter Text

“Dr. Stark?” Peter calls into the dark garage. “Tony?”

It's still so super weird to call him by his first name. Tony’d given him permission a few dozen times but first-naming his mentor always comes out making Peter sound younger than he already is.

“Ummm. Jarvis, is Tony in here?” Peter asks, as the lights go from very dim to bearably low.

“I’m here,” Tony says from the other end of the garage. "And not in the mood for company, kid.“

Peter turns around to walk out, then hesitates. There'ss something wrong with Tony’s voice. He doesn’t even need his spider senses to know that.

“Hey, I’m gonna walk over and find you,” Peter calls out. "Just– to make sure you’re okay and everything.“

He expects an objection but instead he's met with silence.

When he finds Tony, Tony's on the ground with his back resting against a shiny orange car, and his forehead resting against his knees. Tony doesn’t look up when Peter approaches. His breathing is all wrong. Hitchy. Rapid. His pulse is, too.

"Are you sick?” Peter asks.

“Go away.”

“I don’t think I should,” Peter says carefully.

“What part of go away was unclear, Parker?” Tony snaps. “Was it the go or the away? I can see how that might be confusing to a toddler.”

Peter forces himself not to run at that tone. He’s been through this with Aunt May. He’s seen what adult grief looks like up close. And even if this isn’t grief, if it's something more difficult or complicated, Tony shouldn’t have to go through it alone.

Peter sits down on the ground next to him.

“You’re the actual worst,” Tony says, sort of laughing as he says it. The laugh doesn’t make him sound any less upset and the words sting more than Peter wants to admit.

“I don’t want you to be alone,” Peter says softly.

The sentiment hangs awkwardly in the air. Peter carefully puts a hand on Tony’s arm.

Tony tenses, and then the anger he’s been directing at Peter seems to slip out of him.

“I don’t want to take this out on you,” Tony says in a careful, quiet voice. "This is grown up shit, and you aren’t a grown up.“

"But I’m not a kid either,” Peter says.

Tony huffs as if that's absolutely ridiculous.

“Fine,” Tony says. "You can stay. Just– don’t ask questions. Talk. About school. Science. Something.“

Peter remembers walking in on Colonel Rhodes and Tony talking in hushed tones a few times before. Sometimes Tony would be sitting on the couch, looking tired, and the Colonel would be talking about his work in the military and Peter had always known that wasn’t one of Tony’s big interests anymore. He hadn’t understood why Colonel Rhodes had bothered. But now that scene makes more sense.

And he can do this.

"What do you know about spiders?” Peter asks.

“I know I don’t like them,” Tony says.

Now it's Peter’s turn to laugh. "Okay. But did you know that a non-normative distribution of parental traits in anthropic situations is characteristic of a number of arachnid species exhibiting parthenogenesis and until recently that hadn’t been observed. But now it has been observed at Ohio State in one of their spider labs. Isn’t that cool?“

Tony turns his head to look at Peter. "That’s gibberish right? You’re speaking gibberish? Please tell me this is not how you talk on dates.”

“I don’t go on dates. And now you know how I feel when you start talking about proton decay in string theory. It’s just–”

“Child’s play,” Tony interrupts. "That’s what you were going to say, right? String theory is child’s play. I refuse to accept that you’re making something this easy into something difficult. Seriously. Do you have a notebook or something? Some crayons? I will draw this out with stick figures.”

And just like that, Tony is back. His heart is still thumping hard (Peter can hear it), and his hands are a little shaky, but whatever lifeline Peter has thrown him, Tony has taken it.

“It’s important to me that you understand,” Tony says, “or else we’re not going to be able to hang out any more. I’m going to have to revoke the genius card I gave you.“

"You gave me a post-it note that said IOU a Coke,” Peter says, as he reaches into his backpack to pull out a notebook and pen. “And when I asked you for a Coke you told me soda is bad for me and will stunt my growth.”

Tony snatches the paper out of his hands as soon as it's in reach.

“Right. Genius card. Keep up.”

They sit there on the floor of the garage for another hour, and Tony’s breathing evens out entirely. Eventually Tony's hungry and they go up to the penthouse so Tony can order food and Peter can work on his homework. It's nice. Comfortable. Quiet.

Peter never finds out why Tony is upset. He does find out that once string theory is reduced to pictures of stick men and a lot of arrows and squiggles and swear words, it isn’t all that hard to put together.

If only the rest of life could be as easy as science.

Chapter Text

“Yo, intern,” Tony calls, walking into the lab with his eyes glued to the StarkTab in his hands. "One small thing and don’t get me wrong here, because you’ve been doing good work. It’s just, I thought we had discussed, and agreed and acknowled that today was the day you would stop by Coffeelicious on your way here from school and buy me a Caramel Waffle Frappuccino but seeing as how I am not holding a Caramel Waffle Frappuccino, you’re skimping on your duties and you need to go fix that. Nowish.“

Tony’s not being an ass. Peter had readily agreed to this plan. Tony distinctly remembers handing Peter a 20 on his way out to pay for the drink last Friday and telling him to keep the change.

But no CWF so WTF?

Tony’s ready to launch into another series of questions when he realizes Peter hasn’t turned around to acknowledge him yet. Which probably means headphones, which are against the rules in the lab (for people who aren’t Bruce and Tony) and he’s just about to remind Peter of that when he hears the kid sniffle.

Sniffle like a Disney princess. Sleeping Beauty levels of despair in that sniff.

Shit.

“Okay, Briar-Rose. The Frappuccino is not a big deal. Not going on your employee review or anything. Bring it tomorrow and we’ll forget this ever happened.”

“It’s not that,” Peter says. He sniffs again, and rubs the hem of his sleeve against his face, before turning to look at Tony. "Sorry. I can go get it now. It’s fine. I’m fine.“

It’s not fine. Tony can see the darkening bruise around Peter's eye from where he’s standing.

"Who gave you that?” Tony demands.

It’s one thing when Spider-Man comes around banged up after a night fighting crime. It is something else entirely to see Peter Parker sporting that kind of shiner half an hour after school let out.

“Who do I need to call?” Tony continues. “Because if this is the Sinister Six again, I am done playing nice. They get one warning then I’m putting them in the ground.”

"No– no one!” Peter sputters. "Just– it was just a stupid thing at school.“

"A kid did this?” Tony asks.

Peter nods. He’s sitting in a rolling chair, and Tony moves to lean against the lab table a few feet away so he can get a better look.

“Did you defend yourself?” Tony asks.

Peter shakes his head. "I can’t. I might hurt somebody.“

He sounds incredibly mournful. Like the thought of hurting some douchebag bully is way worse than the actual bruise on Peter’s actual face. Peter looks away from Tony to stare down at his hands. His shoulders slump in defeat.

It’s really damn depressing.

"Okay,” Tony says. And then he swallows, because this doesn’t exactly come natural to him, but he can handle this. It's been six months and Peter's still alive, which is better than Tony's ever done with a plant. "Okay. You’re probably right. So. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

It takes Tony’s brain an extra second or two to supply an appropriate course of action that doesn’t involve brass knuckles or showing up at this bully's house in his Iron Man suit and scaring some sense into him.

“Self-defense lessons,” Tony finally says.

Peter looks up from his hands. "I’m not going to fight back.“ He’s adamant this time. "I'll just take the hits. I heal fast."

"You’re not taking the hits," Tony argues back. "That's not an option. This kid hits you again, I'm calling your Aunt May."

It's the first time Tony's ever threatened to do that, but for once this has nothing to do with being a super hero and everything to do with being a typical 16 year old boy.

"Please don't," Peter whispers.

"Look. When I was a kid, I got picked on a lot. I was little. I was mouthy. I was way smarter than everyone else in 6th grade. And for the longest time there wasn’t jackshit I could do about it. I'd come home with a black eye at least once a week and you know what my dad would do? Tell me to be a man. I was seven.”

Tony's never told anyone that story before. Peter's eyes grow wide like saucers.

“Scandalous, I know. Doesn’t matter. Because when I was eight, I ended up at some big event with a black eye and it got noticed by the press and that was finally when my dad decided I needed self-defense lessons."

Peter looks equal parts interested and horrified.

"A lot of self-defense is just about getting away,” Tony says. "Ducking at the right time. Letting someone else's momentum do the work for you. Basically, what we’re going for here, is that the guy throwing the punch beats them-self up. That sound okay to you?“

Peter considers it and then nods. His tears have dried but his face is still streaky.

"I can teach you,” Tony adds.

He wishes Natasha was still around because Tony know she would have been better at this than him, but he and Happy will have to do.

“But here’s the promise you have to make me. When it comes to bad guys, you will still kick ass.”

It must not be the promise Peter’s expecting, because he cracks a tiny smile.

“I’m serious,” Tony continues. “I’m going to make you repeat it back to me. Tell me. Tell me that when it comes to bad guys, you will still kick ass. No trying to duck, dodge and dive. All ass kicking.”

Peter nods.

“Seriously? I just specified you need to verbalize this. Say it. Promise me.”

“I promise… when it comes to bad guys… I’ll still kick,” Peter actually whispers the word ass, and Tony can’t help his own eye roll.

“Louder.”

“I’ll still kick ass,” Peter concedes.

“For the back of the class,” Tony insists.

“I will still kick ass!” Peter finally shouts.

“Then we’re done here,” Tony says. "Get your coat. We’re going out for something cold."

"But there’s frappuccinos downstairs,” Peter says.

“Right. And there are also people who recognize us downstairs. Get your coat. We’ll go out the back way and put some distance between us and tower. I know a place. Great coffee. Great milkshakes. And if you ask nicely, they may combine the two.”

Peter hops up and grabs his jacket off a nearby table. His load looks considerably lightened.

“Thanks. For. I don’t know, just being around, I guess,” Peter says.

Tony feels a pang of something at that. Understands now, maybe more than ever, exactly what he’s getting into here. Is he a mentor? Maybe. Is he a father figure? God, that’s depressing. But is he going to be okay with whatever this is?

Yeah.

That’s a given.

Chapter Text

“It’s not a big deal,” Peter says quickly. "If you can’t come, I mean. It’s not like… prestigious. I probably won’t even win.“

Tony reads over the invitation Peter had handed him a second time. It’s for an end of year academics ceremony at Peter’s High School and they’re handing out all kinds of awards. Peter’s been nominated for two of the top ones, which is a big deal for a freshman apparently.

"It’s not that I don’t want to come,” Tony says carefully.

He doesn’t get out any more words than that before Peter winces and deflates.

“It’s fine. Really,” Peter says, in a tentative way that gives Tony inevitable flashbacks to his relationship with his own father. The hurt there. The feelings of inadequacy.

Peter reaches for the invitation to take it back and Tony pulls it closer, so Peter can’t grab it away.

“I can’t go anywhere without it ending up in the newspaper,” Tony continues on. "Which doesn’t bother me. I just want to make sure that’s all right with your Aunt May before I agree to go. If I’m sitting next to her, people will think we’re on a date. Photographers will follow her around and pry into her private life. It’ll pass in a week or two, but I'm not going to do that to her without her permission. If she’s fine with the media circus, I’ll go.“

Life in the spotlight is complicated in a way Peter doesn’t understand yet, and Tony struggles with how to explain it to him. It doesn't help that Tony never got much of an explanation either past "don't embarrass the family" and "remember the stockholders are watching."

Tony doesn’t want to do that to Peter. Especially not while Peter's keeping such a big secret of his own.

"I’ll talk to her!" Peter offers with an eager smile. His mood has rebounded already. He’s so optimistic. So genuinely full of hope.

Tony wants to give him the chance to remain that way as long as possible.

“I’ll talk to her,” Tony says. The more responsibility he takes the less will fall on Peter. "I do want to go to the ceremony. You know that, right?“

That’s way more reassurance than Howard had ever given Tony.

Peter nods.

"And I’m proud of you," Tony adds. "Even if you don’t win, I know you’re the smartest kid there. The only one smart enough to keep up in a lab with me and Bruce. So you’ve got that going for you.”

Peter’s eyes go wide. There's some doubt there, though, too, and Peter's smile fades slightly. Like the voice in his head is reminding him not to get his hopes up. Tony has that voice, too, so he gets it.

“It’ll be boring,” Peter reminds him after a beat.

"You trying to talk me out of it already?"

"No!" Peter says. "I just-- I don't want you to be bored."

Tony can plainly see how much Peter wants him there but also how worried the kid is that Tony will be unhappy. It’s so surreal to have someone care like that. Tony’s one great consolation in never having a kid was that he wouldn’t hold anything as fragile as a teenage genius’s self-worth in his hands. And now here they are.

“It’ll be fine,” Tony reassures him. "Can’t be worse than sitting through a congressional hearing and I’ve done that a few times. Now go on. You’re going to be late for school. Too many tardies and you’ll be honored at the Truancy Awards instead.“

"You’re really going to call Aunt May?” Peter asks.

He’s bouncing as he swings on his backpack. Cheerful and nervous and a bundle of energy.

Tony laughs. "I said I would. Get out of here, before I call for security.“

"Would I get to see the security office on the fifth floor?” Peter asks in awe. “Would they put me in a cell?”

“God, I’m giving you ideas. Shoo!”

Tony picks up a stun whistle he’s been fiddling with in the lab and points it toward Peter who knows exactly what it does and also that Tony has no intention of using it. Peter laughs and fakes the websling motion as if he’s going to steal it, and then dashes off.

Tony’s still smiling as Jarvis dials May’s number. This is not at all the life that was meant for him, but it’s the life he’s got, and well– as far as vaguely adopted teenagers go– he could do worse.

Epilogue:

It takes some behind the scenes wrangling but Tony and May are able to get seats in the back of the room, and very few people spot them. That's good. Peter knows he's there, and that's what's important. The last thing he wants is to disrupt the ceremony as Peter receives not one, but both school science awards.

Their table has a stack of those bright blue “My Kid Is An Honor Roll Student” bumper stickers that are meant to be taken home by the parents and on his way out he grabs one for a laugh.

And okay– so he slaps it on the back of the QuinJet. Nothing weird about that. Definitely no reason for Rhodey to pull out his phone to snapchat it to Pepper and then cackle with glee.

Tony’s proud. Rhodey can suck it.

Chapter Text

Tony’s got a lot on his mind as he walks into his lab. Mother’s Day is always bittersweet, and even with all his conflicted thoughts about Howard, Father’s Day stings too. So he’s got a plan: Spend the day buried in work with the music loud enough to drown out his thoughts.

“Jarvis, play my Bleeding Ears playlist and hold all my calls. If anyone–”

Tony cuts himself off as he notices he isn’t alone in the room. Peter’s there, standing by Tony’s desk, with a look on his face that says he’s been caught doing something wrong. He’s got his hands behind his back, like a six year old who’s been caught with a cookie jar.

“Really, Parker? Breaking and entering?” Tony asks.

“Jarvis let me in,” Peter insists, in a tone of voice that does nothing for the appearance of wrongdoing.

“What are you stealing?” Tony asks.

He’s not even mad. It’s not like he never snuck into Howard’s lab to nick a tool or two. He’d always returned them. Or well– he always intended to return them. Same diff.

“What? Oh. No! Not stealing,” Peter says, shaking his head urgently. "I wouldn’t ever. Really, that’s not– it’s stupid. I can go. I’m sorry, I didn’t even mean for you to see me. I only wanted to come in to– well– something– and then leave– before you got back.“

Peter is such a ball of nerves, Tony can’t help but feel some genuine concern. Like there’s something bigger at play here. Something wrong.

“Okayyyyyy,” Tony says. "Want to try that again? With… I dunno, maybe some nouns this time? Or better yet, a mix of nouns and verbs and adjectives that form complete and comprehensible sentences. That would be good.“

Peter’s expression falters. He brings his hands out from behind his back and he’s holding a sloppily wrapped box. It takes Tony a few seconds to realize it’s a gift.

“You broke into my lab to leave me a present?”

Peter winces and shrugs and his cheeks are slightly pink. "Everyone was talking about Father’s Day all week and I just– I mean I don’t think of you like that. Like my dad. That’d be weird of me, right?" Peter sounds miserable. Like the expectation of Tony's rejection or mocking is imminent. "I’ve just had an idea about something to give you for a while now and the dates worked out. I finished it yesterday. Anyway, it’s stupid. Really stupid. And lame. And you won’t want it. So I left it in here earlier and then I decided you wouldn’t want it so I came back to grab it and then– that’s when you walked in and found me. I can go now. I'm sorry I bothered you.”

Oh. Ohhhhhhhh. Father’s Day.

This is the sort of awkward that Tony doesn’t know what to do with. This is the sort of situation where people like Clint and Rhodey shine and people like Tony say the wrong thing and break a kid forever.

And Peter is so fucking breakable it hurts.

Maybe that’s why Tony’s able to take a breath and pull his shit together like the appropriate adult role model he knows is in him somewhere. Or maybe it’s because earlier that morning he’d already given some thought to the one and only time he’d ever gifted Howard with something he’d made. He still remembers how much Howard’s half-hearted thanks and then abrupt dismissal had made him feel. Like he was inches tall. Absolutely worthless.

And despite lacking every single instinct for parental adequacy, Tony knows exactly what to do.

“Give it to me,” Tony says.

He holds out his hand and uses a stern voice that he knows won’t allow for an argument. Peter walks to him, looking for all the world like Tony’s about to give him detention.

Peter whispers a small ‘I’m sorry’ as Tony takes the package, almost too soft for Tony to hear.

Tony unwraps the gift with some care to not rip it and then hands the blue and red patterned paper back to Peter. He slides his thumbnail under the tape and pops open the box. There’s a tiny device in side, but Tony’s got no clue what he's looking at. He pulls it out carefully and turns it over in his hand.

“It’s for your suit,” Peter says. "I thought– I mean if I’m not around and you need to stick somebody to something… I sorted out the synthetic webbing. This is only good for one shot and then you’d need another cartridge. Really. You don’t have to use it. I don’t know why I–“

“Peter, stop talking,” Tony says.

Peter stops and looks down at the ground. His posture is pulled in and small and ashamed. How had Howard ever looked at Tony in that exact same position and felt anything other than an urge to protect him.

“This is fantastic,” Tony says emphatically. "Incredible. We’re going to go to my shop and figure out how to attach it to the suit right now. If you’ve got the time, that is.“

Peter looks up in amazement. "Really?”

Tony hasn’t let Peter near the suit yet. He’s definitely never hinted that Peter might be able to work on one along side him. But Tony’s going to treat this gift with the sort of appreciation and respect it deserves.

“Absolutely.”

Tony wraps an arm around Peter’s shoulders and gives him a tug toward the door. He doesn’t touch Peter often because he can’t help but worry it’s a little creepy. He’s not this kid’s dad. He’s not this kid’s uncle. He’s not meant to be this kid’s anyone.

But somehow he is.

“Can’t believe you were going to steal this back,” Tony says. "Do you have any idea how rare it is that someone can give me something I can’t buy for myself?“

“Ummm… like never?” Peter asks.

“Like never,” Tony agrees.

Tony removes his arm once Peter’s moving in the right direction. He’s glad Peter’s rambling on with the conversation, because it gives Tony time to privately enjoy the warmth of the gesture. It isn’t the gift. The gift is… well, it might take some tweaking for it to work the way Peter intends. But what Peter’s given Tony (unknowingly) is way more valuable and a hell of a lot harder to put into words.

Friendship? Family? Closure?

Whatever it is, it isn’t something that can be wrapped up in a box. It isn’t something expected or deserved. It’s a happy Father’s Day. And there’s no putting a price on that.

Chapter Text

Tony’s not trying to eavesdrop, it’s just impossible to miss the conversation going on around the corner, when he’s standing right there on the other side trying to figure out which removable panel he’s hidden his freeze-dried blueberries behind.

“No.” Happy’s voice is as firm as Tony’s has ever heard it. "Absolutely not.“

“Please, Happy?” Peter asks, in what Tony thinks of as Pete’s Sunday School voice. "What about that time I, you know… fought the Vulture and rescued all of Dr. Stark’s projects, and saved the day? You owe me.“

Happy makes a choking sound, like he is supremely unimpressed. "You already cashed in that IOU when you wanted me to drive you and Ned to the Cookie Dough cafe down by NYU.”

“Yeah, but that shouldn’t count because you really liked that place!” Peter objects. "That wasn’t like a chore or anything. You’ve already been back three times!“

“Everything with you is a chore,” Happy grumps.

“Happppppppyyyyy,” Peter groans. "I neeeeed heeeeelp.“

It doesn’t sound like Parker is in any trouble. This is the sort of I need help that’s 8 parts whining and 2 parts bullshit.

Tony decides to intervene, mostly out of curiosity and also because the blueberries are nowhere to be found and Happy needs to be busy buying more blueberries.

“Go buy me blueberries,” Tony says, as he steps around the corner. "I’ll deal with the kid.“

Happy looks instantly smug and Peter suddenly looks a lot less sure as Happy turns on his heel and disappears down the hall.

“No, you don’t have to do that, Dr. Stark. It’s– I know you’re busy,” Peter says. "It’s not really that important.“

Tony knows a lie when he hears one. Peter’s lying his ass off.

“Yeah, I am busy,” Tony agrees. "Which is why you should use this time wisely and fess up fast. What’s the help?“

"I can’t go on the Academic Decathlon’s trip to Europe unless a parent or guardian is at the information meeting and Aunt May’s gonna be in Chicago that day and I know if I tell her about it, she’ll skip going to Chicago because she always wants to make things work for me, but it’s been forever since she did anything for herself so I feel bad and Happy is… you know… kind of a guardian. If he says yes, Aunt May can sign a form and he can go to the Parent’s Meeting in her place.”

Tony pulls out his phone. "When’s the meeting?“

"Next Tuesday,” Peter says slowly.

“Tuesday is 24 hours long. I’m going to need you to be more specific.”

“It’s from 3 to 4 in the school library.”

Tony taps on his phone a few times and then pockets it. "I’ll be there.“

"You don’t have somewhere more important to be?” Peter asks in surprise.

Tony shrugs. "Congressman Heath is an asshole. He and his house committee can deal.“

Peter’s eyes grow comically wide. "Okay. But if you can’t go… It’s not like Europe is that big a deal. I mean, I’ve been there, right? At least for a day.”

Tony’s got years of practice keeping his emotions off his face but he can’t quite keep the momentary pain of that memory from causing a falter in his smile.

“We’ll get you back there,” Tony says simply. "Pepper will call Aunt May. If she’ll sign the form, I’ll go.“

And that’s that.

*

Tony didn’t go to Midtown for High School, so he’s never been inside. Jarvis has the blueprints so it’ll be a cinch to find the library. Still, Tony’s not expecting to be greeted by a picture of Howard first damn thing. Good old dad.

And even if it would probably give Freud a field day, there’s no one around, so Tony can’t help but address him.

"You see this?” Tony asks quietly. "I’m here for a Parent’s Meeting. I may be nobody’s idea of a father figure but Parker needs me, and I give enough damns to get my ass over here and into a seat."

The portrait says nothing of course. Just stares at Tony, unseeing and uncaring. So basically a perfect imitation of Howard.

"I will never. be. you.”

It doesn’t matter that Tony’s talking only to himself. It still feels good to turn his back on the portrait and walk away. Like somehow, in some way, this is an argument with Howard that Tony has won.

Peter’s waiting for him in the library along with a group of students and parents. Peter’s face lights up like it’s Christmas morning when he sees Tony and he jumps to his feet to rush to his side.

“Surprised?” Tony asks Peter.

“No. I knew you’d come,” Peter says, bouncing on his toes. "I mean– I was kind of wondering if it’d really be you or just like a live model decoy or something, but I knew if you said you’d be here, you’d make it happen. You weren’t going to leave me hanging. You'd never do that."

Suck it Howard.

"Not an LMD,” Tony assures Peter as they take two empty seats. "The real deal."

They aren’t alone for more than a second before a kid, about Peter’s age, moves to stand right in front of Tony. He's wearing the sort of namebrand clothes that give Tony a good idea of who he's dealing with, and the kid doesn't even glance at Peter. Not a great first impression.

“If the Stark Internship is serious about SI’s future, I could blow Peter out of the water any day,” the young man says.

“Yeah, except at manners,” a young woman, two seats over retorts, without looking up from her book. "And academics.“

"OH MY GOD IT’S TONY STARK!” a third boy shouts from the door, but this one Tony recognizes.

“Ned, right?” Tony asks.

“TONY STARK KNOWS MY NAME!” he enthuses to the woman to his right, who by the resemblance is definitely Ned’s mom.

“I’m going to say it’s a hard pass on your offer,” Tony says to the first, rude kid. "Though you might want to try HammerTech. You’d fit right in. You,“ Tony says, pointing to the girl in the chair with the book. "You I like. If you’re ever interested in an internship at SI, let Peter know. He can get you the application.”

The girl gave a small smirk and a nod, and Tony nods in return.

Ned’s about to speak up when a teacher walks in. The meeting begins.

About 20 minutes in, Tony makes a mental note to upgrade this library and especially these chairs. His ass and both his legs are asleep. At the 50 minute mark, Tony’s ready to offer to pay every student’s way if they can stop talking about bake sales. At the hour mark, they’re finally finished.

He’s still going to upgrade the library and he’s definitely going to have SI sponsor the trip, but that’s all work for later. He’s not here to show off. He’s here for Peter, and Peter is still smiling from ear to ear, like Tony's given him the moon.

“School’s out?” Tony asks.

Peter nods.

“You want to go get some cookie dough?” Tony follows up. "I brought the Masertai."

"Yes!“

"Ned, you coming?” Tony asks.

And that seals the deal. Tony might not be Parent of the Year. Hell, he’s not even a parent. But for two teenage boys on a warm afternoon in September, Tony’s as good as it gets.

Chapter Text

Tony’s not sure how May Parker ends up on his calendar, though he suspects Jarvis has something to do with it. One minute it looks like he’s free to mess around in the lab until noon, and the next his schedule pings to tell him May will be arriving in his office in less than 5 minutes.

Tony glares up at the ceiling, checks out his reflection in the glossy paint of his newest suit creation, rubs an oil smudge off his cheek and then heads up the stairs.

He claims one of the chairs in the sitting area rather than heading for his desk. Whatever this is about, Tony would prefer to keep it casual.

May arrives and greets him with a grateful smile. Which is new. And odd.

“Dr. Stark. Thank you so much for agreeing to see me,” May says. “I was surprised your assistant could get me in so quickly.”

“My assistant?”

“Mr. Jarvis?”

“Right,” Tony says. “He’s always happy to help.” And a giant pain in the ass. “Please, have a seat.”

May takes the chair across from Tony.

“It’s about Peter,” she starts.

“Is there a problem?” Tony asks. He doesn’t figure May would take time off for work if it wasn’t some kind of big deal.

“Not… exactly,” May said. “You know how much Peter looks up to you…” She trails off.

Oh.

He gets it, he does. He and May are nearly the same age. They’re both from New York. Even taking all his recent fuck-ups out of the picture, she’s still got decades of Tony Stark tabloid headlines to overlook.

“And you’d rather I keep my distance?” Tony says. “I understand.”

What surprises him the most is how much that stings. How much he wants May to understand that he’s trying here. That for Peter he sat through a PTA meeting and he’d sit through a dozen more. That Tony has already decided to do whatever it takes to get the kid through high school and out the other side in one piece despite all of Peter's spider-efforts to the contrary.

“No, I don’t think you do understand,” May says quickly. “I’ll be the first to admit, I was skeptical when you showed up at our apartment. Then when things were rough at the beginning of his internship I had some concerns. But after you fired him and then decided to give him another chance, Peter has changed for the better. His grades are up. He’s talking about college again. He laughs more. He’s less stuck in his head. I haven’t seen him like this since– since a while ago. It's good. For the first time in a long time, things are good.”

The tightness in Tony’s chest eases. And then something much less awful replaces it. Something warm and comforting. He has not screwed this up. This isn’t an end.

“I’m happy things are working out,” Tony says. Which is by far the understatement of the week.

“So here’s the thing,” May says. And there’s apology in her voice as she plows on. “Peter’s friend Ned’s mom called me and told me Ned got caught looking at porn at school. And if Ned’s getting into trouble I’m sure Peter’s right there with him.”

“I don’t think–” Tony stumbles because wooooooow did that one come out of far left field.

“Porn has it’s place,” May says. “I’m not delusional. They’re 16 years old; they’re going to sneak peeks where they can. That’s where you come in.”

Tony can’t remember the last time he was rendered near speechless. Or well– speech happens, but it comes out more of a cough.

“I come in?”

“Peter doesn’t have a father figure at home. I don’t really let him meet the men I date, because I’m not looking for anything long-term there and Peter gets attached. I’m hoping that you’ll talk to him.” May looks at Tony expectantly. “About sex.”

“Sex,” Tony repeats. He’s never heard himself say the word out-loud with so much dread.

“Respectful, consensual sex,” May clarifies. “If I bring it up myself Peter's up and out of the room before I can finish a sentence. He’d listen to you. Your opinion means the world to him.”

Tony nods as all that sinks in. If he can save Peter from one tenth of the of the mess that was Tony's early sexual history, he really has no choice.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Right. Respectful, consensual sex. I’ll make sure he gets the message.”

“He knows the basics. I’ve given him the birds and the bees talk,” May says. “But whether he’s into birds, bees or both has never come up.”

Tony gets why Peter runs out of the room for this. He really does.

“Thank you for trusting me with this, May.”

Despite facing what Tony imagines is going to be the single most awkward evening of his life, he means it.

“Thank you for looking out for him,” May says. “I feel better knowing I'm not the only adult he's got."

*

“Why are you being so nice to me?” Peter asks.

They’re in the mansion, walking down the hall, and Tony hasn't told Peter where they're going or why.

“I’m always nice to you,” Tony says.

“Last week you told me if you heard me crack my gum one more time you were gonna buy Wrigley and burn the factory to the ground.”

“You were blowing bubbles in my lab,” Tony protests. “While I was elbow deep in an FTL corup-acid tube. You’re lucky I didn’t have Happy come in and remove you.”

“You can’t threaten me with Happy anymore,” Peter says, bouncing on the edges of his toes as they stop so Tony can let them into the Media Room. “He likes me.”

“Did he say that?” Tony asks.

“No. But he did buy me a hotdog the other day before he picked me up, so like from Happy, that’s got to be practically friendship right?”

The kid has a point.

“Fine. Happy likes you. I’m being nice to you. Maybe it’s your birthday. Did you ever think of that?”

“My birthday’s in May,” Peter says, laughing as he shakes his head. He halts when he sees the giant screen and the theater seating. “Are we going to watch a movie? Is this the next Star Wars?”

“No. No, this is way less fun.”

Even with Tony’s warning, Peter is smiling as he flops into one of the seats and props his feet up on the back of the chair ahead of him.

“Like a kid’s movie?”

“It’s not a movie, Peter,” Tony says. “Your Aunt May came by. She wanted us to talk.”

“Talk…” Peter’s smart. He gets it quick. Quicker than Tony did the other day.

Peter shakes his head emphatically. “You really don’t need to bother. It’s not like… a relevant concern for me right now.”

“This isn’t any more fun for me than it is for you,” Tony points out, as he takes a seat two down from Peter. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. And I told her I’d make sure you got the information. I didn’t say anything about you and me hashing it out.”

“That is where I come in,” Jarvis says from above. The big screen ahead of them flicks on and Tony gets his first glimpse of the outline Jarvis has prepared.

“Kill me now,” Peter grumbles, ducking down several inches in his seat.

“Hey, look at it this way. Now when the time comes you’ll be the best informed kid in school,” Tony points out.

“Actually, sir,” Jarvis says, “Given your attendance in the audience I prepared several additional slides I think you may find helpful to review as well. If you’ll look at section B, subsections D through H.”

Oh god. Oh god.

“Oh god,” Peter whispers from beside Tony, before burying his face in his hands.

“I say we just use your phone and ask Siri,” Tony whispers.

The lights dim ominously. The door behind them slides shut.

“If you’ll both turn your attention to the screen, I am ready to begin.”

*

One very informative hour goes by and it’s over. Jarvis brings up the lights, the door swishes open and Jarvis wishes them goodnight before he goes silent.

“Okay,” Peter says. “That wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be.”

Tony agrees. “The soundtrack wasn’t half bad.”

“I liked the part with the ninjas. But I think it’s gonna be a day or two before I can look at a banana the same way.”

Tony laughs. “You and me both. Though if it makes you feel any better I’m pretty sure that’s one of the screens that was directed toward me.”

Peter scrunches up his nose. “Have you ever heard of TMI?”

Tony gives him a light shove as they walk out the door. “I invented TMI, rugrat. You still hungry?”

Peter nods. “Always.”

“I’ll order pizza. You go do your homework. Oh, and Peter?”

“What?”

“I talked to the principal at your school. Offered to do some security patches on the network. Next time Ned gets caught helping you out, tell him to say he’s working on Physics. Physics. Not porn. If they look at his user history, it’ll check out.”

“Physics. Got it. You’re the actual best. Texting him now!”

Peter’s smile is full of gratitude and his fingers fly over his phone screen as he takes off down the hall.

“Order us some pizza, J?” Tony asks.

“Already have, sir.”

Tony takes a step and then pauses. “Jarvis?”

“Yes?”

“Save a copy of your talk to Harley’s file. Next time he decides to hitchhike to New York, make sure he sees it. If I’m gonna look out for one kid, might as well look after the other.”

“Saved and noted.”

If Tony thinks he catches a hint of pride in Jarvis’s voice he is probably imagining it.

(He isn’t.)

Chapter Text

Peter had liked Avengers Tower but he likes Tony's mansion on 5th Avenue even better. Tony isn’t there very often, but he keeps the place so he has somewhere to stay when he's in the city, and he never really seems to mind that Peter lets himself in to do his homework, or fiddle around with his webbing in the lab, or wander the halls of the mostly abandoned mansion looking for doors he hasn’t opened yet.

By far, Peter’s favorite place is the garage. Which is unfortunate, since the garage is the one place Happy told Peter was off-limits.

Tony hadn’t said that though. And it is Tony’s house. And sometimes Happy just says things without clearing them upward so it’s very possible that Peter does have permission and Happy just doesn’t know it. At least that's what Peter tells himself when he breaks the rule at least three times a week.

Anyway… Tony keeps about two dozen cars in the garage at any given time and while Peter would never ever ever try to borrow one, he loves to look.

As long as Happy doesn’t notice.

Which is why Peter decides to visit at 2 in the afternoon on a Saturday when he knows that Tony and Happy are traveling abroad. He figures he’ll swing by the garage, do his homework on the floor next to his favorite car (it's orange and Italian and awesome) and then be out the door and patrolling by 6. It will be a perfect day, he won’t touch anything and no one will be the wiser.

Except when he walks into the garage and tosses his backpack to the side, it skids straight into a kid maybe a year or so younger than him, who’s sketching on some blueprint papers. The boy’s got a mop of messy brown hair and he’s leaning against a duffel bag that’s practically as big as he is. He’s taken up a spot near the car Peter likes the best and he's snacking on some Cheez-Its like he's not in major trouble for breaking and entering.

He also has the nerve to look offended that Peter disturbed his work.

“Who let you in here?” Peter asks.

“I let myself in,” the kid says. "I know the mechanic.“

Peter pauses. He knows Tony does most of the maintenance on these cars himself, but it does make sense that Tony wouldn’t do all the upkeep on his own. Where would he find the time?

“No one's really allowed to be in the garage,” Peter warns.

The boy narrows his eyes and crosses his arms. "Then why are you here?“

Okay. Fair point. "I won’t tell if you don’t?”

“Deal.”

“I’m Peter, by the way.”

“I’m Harley. It’s nice to meet you.”

Harley turns out to be a lot of fun. He loves cars and he knows almost everything about them. Without so much as popping the hood, Harley can explain all about the horse power and the gears and the brakes. He knows where every car in the garage was produced and how many were in production and what year they were designed and who designed them. Where Peter’s more of a biology guy, Harley is clearly 100% engineer.

If it weren’t for the fact that Peter’s got a big secret to keep, he’d love to pick Harley’s brain about the release mechanism on his webbing. Harley talks about mechanical things the way Tony talks about the Iron Man suits and Doctor Banner talks about water filtration systems.

Like science is life.

“Are those blueprints?” Peter asks.

Harley’s got several giant rolled-up papers sticking out of his duffel bag. The two of them have made their way back to their favorite car and both taken seats on the ground.

“Yup.”

“For an engineering class?” Peter asks.

“Nah,” Harley says. "They don’t have engineering classes at my high school. I just do this for fun.“

“Can I see?”

Harley shrugs and pulls out the first of his blueprints. He unrolls it and sticks out a leg to pin one corner to the floor as he uses a hand to stretch out the other.

Peter moves around to get a better look and Harley sits back to let him.

“A motorcycle?” Peter asks. “A flying motorcycle?”

“Kind of,” Harley says. "And before you ask– me designing motorcycles has nothing to do with my name.“

“I didn’t think it did,” Peter assures him.

He looks a little more closely at the schematics. The motorcycle is armed to the teeth– like ride it into a war-zone and blast open the sky sort of armed. Like shoot down a freaking helicarrier type armed. Like could give Iron Man a run for his money type armed. Peter feels a chill run down his spine.

And possibly more troubling than all the weapons is that the center part of the bike looks a lot like the center of an Iron Man suit. “Holy crap, is that an arc reactor?”

Harley nods. "It’s the same technology. I’m only working from memory and internet pictures so I know it isn’t exactly right. It will work though. I’m sure it will work.”

“The arc reactor is patented technology and these weapons are…” Peter looks for the gentlest way to put it. “Not what Stark Industries does anymore. Does Dr. Stark know you’re working on this?”

“Why do you call him that?” Harley asks. "Dr. Stark.“

“I feel weird calling him Tony. It’s like calling one of my teachers by their first name. I don’t know. Why, what do you call him?”

“The mechanic,” Harley says simply.

And that… that… makes everything clear and everything complicated.

"Are you related to him?" Peter asks.

"Nope."

“Does he know you’re here?” Peter asks.

Harley stops looking at his blueprint and glances up at Peter. "No.“

"Does anyone know you’re here?”

“No.”

“You want to come spend the night with me at my Aunt May’s?”

“Sure.”

Peter doesn’t tell Aunt May that Harley’s a run away, or anything like that. Just explains that they know each other through the Stark Internship and that’s enough to keep Aunt May from asking any more than the basic questions over dinner. Once dinner is over, they close themselves up in Peter’s room and Peter locks the door.

“How do you know Tony?” Peter asks.

“He’s Tony now?” Harley stalls. He looks mostly unconcerned but Peter can tell Harley’s a little bit nervous. He’s fidgeting with his sleeves which is a move Peter recognizes from his own anxious energy.

“You don’t like it when I call him Dr. Stark,” Peter says simply. “Why won’t you answer the question?”

“Because– it’s complicated,” Harley says. “And I don’t think he wants me talking about it.”

“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want you homeless either.”

“I’m not homeless. I have a home. I just don’t live there right now. No one does.”

Peter bites at his bottom lip. He’s in over his head. “You want me to call him?”

“You have his number?”

Peter nods. “It’s only for emergencies, but yeah… I do.”

“Call him,” Harley agrees. “Put it on speaker.”

Peter is so relieved to dial the number he almost forgets how a real human person uses a phone. It doesn’t help that Tony answers on the first ring.

“Is this my evening Churro report? Cause I thought those went to Happy.”

“Hello!” Peter says, over-brightly to cut Tony off before he can say anything incriminating. He adjusts his tone and tries again. “Ummm. Hello. I have someone here who wants to talk to you.”

“You’ve got what? If I’m your one call from the police station–”

“You’re not! We're home-- I mean, I'm home-- wait--”

Rather than struggle to get out any more words, Peter flings the phone to Harley, who catches it clumsily and then holds it out in front of him. His hands are shaking slightly.

“Ummm… this is Harley. Harley Keener.”

“I recognize your voice, Harley-Harley Keener,” Tony says. “And you know what? We aren’t doing this over the phone. You’re with Peter and Aunt May?”

Harley looks at Peter and Peter shakes his head yes. It’s actually kind of nice to know that for all Harley’s cool, he is just as hopelessly awestruck around Tony as Peter is.

“Yeah. I am.”

“Stay put. I’ll see you soon.”

The line goes dead. Harley hands the phone back to Peter and Peter sits it on his desk.

“Maybe I should go,” Harley says. “He sounded mad.”

“Oh, that’s definitely not mad,” Peter assures him. “Mad is way worse. That was just Tony being Tony.”

“When you kept calling him Dr. Stark I didn’t think you really knew him, but you do, huh?”

Peter nods. “Better than a lot of people, probably. Whatever’s going on with you– he’ll help. I know he will.”

“Okay,” Harley says. “Okay, yeah. Do you think your aunt would let us have dessert if I stay? I saw some Oreos on the counter.”

“Aunt May always lets me have dessert. I’ll go grab a plate.”

There’s a knock on the apartment door at 11 PM. Aunt May gets to it first and after she peeks through the peephole she turns to give Peter a look.

“Tony,” she says, as she opens the door and greets their guest with a smile. “Peter didn’t mention you’d be stopping by.”

Now Peter gets the same look from Tony. “I told them I’d be coming by tonight to collect the prodigal intern.” He turns his attention to Harley and Peter, who both happen to be looking anywhere but at Tony. “Did neither of you think to tell Aunt May?”

“I– forgot,” Peter says.

“It was the time zones,” Harley says solemnly. “I must have gotten them wrong. I didn’t think you’d be back until the morning. I’m sorry, Dr. Stark.”

“Sorry, Aunt May,” Peter adds.

“Trouble,” Tony mumbles under his breath.

“Pardon?” Aunt May asks.

“Nothing,” Tony says. “It’s nice to see the interns getting along is all. Even if HR isn’t expecting Harley in the city this week and someone’s going to have a fit if his permission slips aren’t signed.”

“I was excited to start in the program,” Harley lies, all wide-eyed and innocent. “I’m sorry. I stopped by SI and that’s where I ran into Peter and since I got here early I wasn’t sure where to go.”

Peter can tell Tony isn’t buying it for a second. Probably because all three of them are very aware the Stark Internship is mostly made up anyway.

“Thanks for looking out for him, May,” Tony says.

“He’s still welcome to spend the night,” May offers.

“I need to call his mom and get this sorted out,” Tony says. “Harley do you have a bag?”

Harley nods. “I’ll get it.”

“If you’re sure,” May says. “I think I’ll get to bed then. It was good seeing you again Tony.”

She gives Tony a real smile and Peter’s relieved because it means May isn’t annoyed and he hasn’t screwed anything up. She disappears and closes her bedroom door while Harley’s busy in Peter’s room stuffing everything back in his bag.

“I didn’t know what else to do when I found him,” Peter says quietly.

“He didn’t see you in uniform?” Tony does the web-slinging motion and Peter shakes his head.

“No. He’s got no clue.”

“Good. Keep it that way.”

“Hey Tony?” Peter asks in a lower voice. “I’m not trying to tattle or anything but I think– I think maybe you should ask Harley about some of the science projects he’s got in his blueprints. I’m worried he might hurt himself.”

“Look at you,” Tony says. “Acting like an adult. Being all responsible.”

Peter looks back toward his bedroom. “I just want to help.”

“You did good,” Tony says. He gives Peter a pat on the back as Harley returns to the living room. When he looks at Harley he shakes his head. "You, on the other hand, are a menace. What I did I tell you about sneaking up to New York without--"

"I couldn't call you," Harley interrupts. "Mom went to Florida and she needed a phone cause hers broke so I--" Harley cuts off his own words, looking frustrated and worried.

"Let's talk about it in the car," Tony says gently.

Peter doesn't miss how Tony sounds a lot more careful once he's got a few seconds of explanation. Or how Tony ruffles Harley's hair as Harley walks past.

Once it's clear Tony's not angry, Harley picks up his chatter again, to ask Tony if they can stop for pizza on the way home and all Tony can do is give Peter a half wave before they’re out the front door. It closes, and Peter takes the first step over to lock it, when it opens back up and Harley pops his head back through.

“Thanks for… everything. Today’s been good.”

Harley’s smile is unburdened and genuine and Peter returns it.

“It was fun,” Peter agrees. “I hope we can do it again sometime.”

Harley glances over his shoulder, no doubt at Tony and whatever Tony says or gestures, it makes Harley’s smile brighten by double.

“Me too. Maybe I’ll even see you again soon.”

“Trouble,” Tony says again, this time loud enough for both of them to hear.

Harley grins, shuts the door, and Peter’s left with a whole lot of questions and a nagging hope that Tony allows Harley to stick around long enough to answer them.

Chapter Text

Peter’s just stuffed his last (huge) bite of breakfast burrito into his mouth when Ned calls.

“Oh my god, were you there last night? Did you see Captain America? Did you get any pictures? Oh my god oh my god oh my god!”

Peter chokes. "What– wait– Captain America? Where?“

“You didn’t know?” Ned sounds disappointed.

“I was busy with my own stuff,” Peter points out glumly.

Peter’s never come totally clean with Ned about how none of the Avengers except Tony have any clue who he is. And well– about half of them have a very real reason not to be Spider-Man’s biggest fans. Which– that’s definitely not the reason Captain America is in town. He’s not looking for revenge. He couldn’t be. That’d be… bad. He could have been in New York on a random Friday night for pizza, for all Peter knows.

“I’ve got to go,” Peter says quickly.

“Get pictures!” Ned shouts into the phone. "I want to see Cap’s new beard!“

---

10:42 AM
Peter Parker: Captain America is in town????
Seen 10:42 AM

11:30 AM
Happy Hogan: Be out front in 5. We're going to the facility up north.
Seen 11:30 AM
---

Tony looks beat. He’s in a suit– a real suit, not an Iron Man suit– and it looks like it’s meant for fancy business meetings except the tie is loose, and Tony’s button up shirt is kind of rumpled and wrinkly. He’s got dark circles under his eyes that even colored sunglasses can’t hide.

Tony glances up when Peter walks in the room and it’s a lot like the way Peter would find Aunt May looking at him, a few months after Uncle Ben died. It isn’t sorrow or grief exactly. It’s unplaceable. Indecipherable. Grown up. Peter didn’t know what to do back then when May would look like this and he doesn’t know what to do for Tony either. He could never quite tell if Aunt May wanted him to come comfort her or if she was just hoping he’d go far, far away.

“If this is a bad time I can come back,” Peter says quietly.

Tony shakes his head and gestures to the chair across from him. "Sit. And Happy? I’ll text when Peter’s ready to go home.“

Happy nods and leaves without any sort of protest or smart ass comment. Now Peter knows there’s something really wrong.

Peter takes the seat and looks at Tony with concern. The whole drive upstate all Peter’d thought about was how having Captain America back was going to affect him. How badly things would go for him if Cap had a vendetta against Spider-Man. Or even more pathetic, what if Cap just doesn’t like Spider-Man?

Now all those thoughts seems petty and Peter finds himself asking the only question that feels like it matters.

"Are you okay?”

---

The kid is so innocent. A million things Tony’s done wrong and this is one thing he’s done right.

“M'always okay,” Tony replies. He’s going for noncomittal but even to his own ears it simply sounds evasive. He tries again. “It was a long night.”

“You guys were friends, weren’t you? Before all this.”

Tony shrugs. "I thought so.“

"I can’t even imagine what I’d do without Ned,” Peter says. "He asks a lot of weird questions but he's always been my best friend.“

Rhodey is Tony’s best friend. Steve wasn’t that. But Steve was something. Something important in a way Tony’s not sure he understands. And here’s the thing, this kid’s not his therapist. Peter doesn’t need to deal with Tony’s baggage. Tony takes a deep, slow breath to pull this shit show together.

Peter beats him to the punch. "Do you have ice cream somewhere?”

Tony knows the answer to this. "Yeah. Somewhere.“

"And peanut butter?” Peter asks.

“Probably,” Tony says.

“And a blender?”

“For smoothies. You jonesing for a milkshake?”

The distraction is a lifeline. Tony’s more than happy to jump on it.

“Not a milkshake,” Peter says. "Better.“

Better is subjective. Tony leads Peter to one of the stocked staff kitchens then watches from against the counter as Peter raids the cabinets and the fridge and the freezer for anything that’s not claimed. Peter ends up shoveling chocolate ice cream, peanut butter, some half and half, and chocolate syrup into the biggest blender in the kitchen. He lets it go on high for an awkwardly long time, and then stops.

Peter makes a huge mess as he scoops the gloopy icecream into two large cups, uses a spoon to slop out the rest and then digs one particularly stubborn lump out with his fingers.

"I’ll take this one,” Peter says, indicating the one he’d just manhandled.

Tony reaches out a hand against the counter so Peter can slide him the less icky glass.

“Not yet! It’s missing the secret ingredient,” Peter insists. He reaches for a sleeve of saltine crackers.

“That’s– that’s not supposed to go in there,” Tony argues.

“Trust me,” Peter says, with an encouraging smile. "Seriously. You’re going to be glad you let me be in charge of this part.“

"I’ve eaten dinner on the Eiffel Tower. There’s a restaurant there, and I’ve eaten at it more than once. I know what food is, and what food isn’t.”

“Hashtag humble brag,” Peter mumbles under his breath.

“Did you just sass-tag me?” Tony asks, in false affront.

(Let’s be real, Tony’s favorites are always going to be the people who give him hell so Peter’s teasing is the best thing to happen to him all day.)

“Fine,” Tony concedes, under Peter’s glare. "Put the crackers in, Rachael Ray. Let’s see what you can do.“

Peter crumbles a few crackers on top of each cup (again with his bare hand. God children are gross) and then slides one down to Tony.

"We’re going to need spoons,” Peter says.

“And we’re going to need to take these up to the roof. I don’t need anybody seeing us together and thinking today’s Take Your Brat To Work Day.”

Peter rolls his eyes, but doesn’t argue as he follows after Tony. They end up on the far edge of the roof, where they can sit in the shade cast by a control tower.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Tony says, after his first bite. "This is good."

"Told you,” Peter insists.

Then that’s it for a while. They sit in mostly silence (it’s impossible to eat this particular type of milkshake quietly) and when Tony’s as chill as he’s going to get he brings up the whole reason Peter’s in the building in the first place.

“I don’t know why Steve was in the city. We don’t talk. Not anymore.”

“It’s so weird to hear you call him Steve,” Peter muses. "Like he’s some regular person.“

"Regular. Fallible. Just like the rest of us. Which is why you need to stay out of his way.”

“Because he might blame me?” Peter asks.

The question takes Tony by surprise. It takes him a few seconds to put together where that question even comes from. "For what happened at the airport? No. Absolutely not. That’s not Steve.“

"You said you don’t talk to him anymore. What if he’s changed?”

Tony laughs. Not because it’s funny but because that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? The sum of all their problems, wrapped up in one small question.

“The beard was a surprise. In the ways that count, he’s unwavering. Frankly, it’s frustrating as fuck.”

Peter’s mouth quirks up at the swear. "Do you miss him?“

Tony’s not given it much thought. Except for the 1,000 times a day when that’s all he can think about.

"As much as it’s possible to miss the biggest pain in the ass on the planet.”

“I read one time that the people who can hurt you the worst are the ones you care about the most.”

“That sounds made up, but okay,” Tony says. "Doesn’t matter. What matters is that you turn on your spider ears and spider listen. I need you to not get involved with whatever it is that brought him to town until I know why he’s there. Promise me.“

"I promise.”

“This isn’t one of those bullshit promises is it?” Tony asks. "Where you promise and then do what you want anyway?“

Peter shakes his head and it’s entirely unconvincing. Tony sighs.

"I want to trust you, I really do,” Tony says.

“You can,” Peter insists. "I promise. You can.“

Tony nods. "You know the phrase ‘A man is only as good as his word?”

Peter glances down. "I said I was sorry about the ferry. I know I messed up. I–“

"Look at me, Parker,” Tony insists.

Tony waits until Peter’s eyes lift. "I try to be a good man, I really do. I don’t wake up thinking today’s the day I’m gonna set the world on fire, or bring down a building, or compromise everything to save stubborn sons of bitches who won’t save themselves, but there have been days when I did all that shit and more.“

Peter makes to object and Tony silences him with a wave of his hand.

"I look at you, and I see what I could have been if I’d had a little more guidance and a lot less baggage. So when I ask for your word and you give it, I’m asking you to live up to what I know you’ve got in you. ”

“I will,” Peter says emphatically. “I won’t go looking for Captain America until you say it’s safe and okay.” This time Tony believes him.

“Good,” Tony says. "I’m going to hold you to that.“

Peter nods again. The roof goes quiet and Tony’s brain fights against the silence but it’s Peter who talks first.

"I don’t think you’re bad,” Peter says after a few long beats. "I mean, I’d be dead if you weren’t around. So that’s pretty cool of you.“

Tony can’t deny the truth there. Peter was Spider-Man months before Tony intervened, and he'd taken at least one fall far enough to kill him. How many more months would he have lasted on his own? Tony doesn’t like to think about it.

"Enough serious talk,” Tony says. There’s going to be plenty of serious talk later. "I’ll text Happy and tell him you’re ready to go.“

"But you’ll have him call me when you know what’s going on with Captain America, right?”

“No,” Tony says. "I’ll call you myself.“

"Thank you! That's awesome! I mean I like to talk to Happy but I like it more when I get to talk to you."

God what did Tony do to deserve that kind of trust?

Peter practically skips his way off the roof, and Tony stays behind. Once Peter has disappeared, Tony reaches up into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulls out a small, plain burner phone. He makes the call before he can change his mind.

"We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Peter and Harley are friends.

It’s weird how it happens.

For a couple of weeks after first meeting Harley, it’s radio silence. Then one afternoon Peter gets a text from an unknown number that reads:

Unknown: The mechanic sent me a new phone and a greyhound gold pass. Want to hang out next weekend?

Peter: Yeah, sure. I can probably stay all weekend unless you want some time alone.

Harley: I’m always alone. Company’s better. I’ll bring some of my projects. You can tell me how many patent laws I’m breaking!

Peter: I’m pretty sure the weapons on that motorcycle break more than just patent laws. Some state laws, too. And federal ones. Maybe some international ones.

Harley: I know an old guy with good lawyers. I’ll be fine.

Peter laughs out loud. The weekend is gonna be fun.

*

It is. It so is. Tony looks a little bit concerned at first when Peter shows up with his overnight bag on Friday at 5 PM sharp. But he doesn’t say that Peter can’t stay. Peter was sort of counting on that.

“You two brats have plans?” he asks, as Harley runs up behind Tony and ends up sliding into him since his socks are slippery on the marble floor.

“Oopmpgh,” Tony protests. “No killing your host. I haven’t survived terrorists, assholes and aliens to get my neck broken by Menace One and Menace Two.”

“Which one of us is One?” Harley asks.

Tony pauses. Frowns and then shakes his head. “Nope. Feels like a trap.”

“I’m One,” Harley says. “You met me first.”

“I’m fine with being Two?” Peter says. “Why do you think everything is a trap?”

They both look at Tony with matching innocent expressions.

“JARVIS. Who let these kids in here?”

“The security feed indicates that it was you, sir,” JARVIS replies easily.

“Menace Three,” Tony protests toward the ceiling. “Fine. Outnumber me in my own home. I see how it is.”

How it is is awesome.

Tony’s got work to do in the lab and he doesn’t put up any fight at all when Peter and Harley follow in after him. He’s not working on anything too interesting so they mostly ignore him while Harley pulls some of his inventions out of his duffel bag to show Peter.

“This is what I’m working on now,” Harley says. “Kind of like a dog whistle. You push the top and aim and it sends out a really focused whistle that’ll knock someone out. Or well-- that’s what it’s supposed to do? I haven’t tested it on a person yet. Just dishes. It breaks them, though, so I think I’m onto something.”

“Why’s it pink?” Peter asks.

“S’for my sister when I’m finished,” Harley says. “Want to help me test it?”

“Yes!” Peter says immediately.

“Not on yourselves!” Tony chimes in. So he was listening. “And give credit where credit is due. That’s based on my cricket.”

“And the cricket was based on like a hundred weapons throughout history,” Harley shrugs. “If you want to talk about patents, Peter’s your guy. Leave me out of it.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “Are you never going to let me live that down?”

“I dunno. It was pretty funny,” Harley says with a grin. “Maybe in like, ten years?”

Peter groans. “Come on. Let’s go find something to break.”

“JARVIS? Babysit that mess for me?” Tony asks.

“I would be delighted, sir.”

*

JARVIS is the best babysitter ever.

He uses the light panels on the wall to lead them to some kind of basement shooting range Peter didn’t even know was there, and then makes suggestions on what’s nearby in the house for them to try and break with sound waves. He also insists on safety goggles, but whatever. No one’s perfect.

They shatter glass and fiddle with the settings and wiring until they’re both starving (so for about an hour) and then they wander up to the kitchen to see what Tony’s got. It’s not much. Especially if they avoid the booze, and they really probably should.

“Would you like me to order you pizza?” JARVIS asks.

“Nooooo,” Harley says. “I had that last time. I want pizza rolls. And brownies. And Cheetos. Anddddd red bull.”

“And Funions and Skittles and Coke,” Peter adds.

“I am placing the order now. It will be delivered shortly,” JARVIS announces.

Peter and Harley just look at each other in astonishment. “I did not think that would work,” Harley says. “JARVIS? Can you have them deliver a PS4, too?”

“I could,” JARVIS says. “But I won’t.”

Peter laughs. “Shut down.”

“I wasn’t trying,” Harley says. “I didn’t really want one. I just like to know what’s possible. Test the limits. Might come in handy some day.”

“Which one of you two wants the PS4?” Tony asks, walking into the kitchen unannounced. “Good information for me to have when Christmas comes around.”

“Me!” Peter and Harley reply in unison, and then they both start to laugh.

“That’ll make it easy,” Tony says. “So what did you order us for dinner?”

Harley rattles off the list. Tony looks appalled. “Do I even want to know why we’re having pizza in roll form? They cut it in triangles for a reason.”

“You’ve never had pizza rolls?” Harley asks.

Tony shakes his head. “Like stromboli?”

“Your life is so sad,” Harley announces.

“I take it this would be a bad time to tell you I’ve never had Funions either,” Tony says.

Peter pretends to gasp. “No!”

“I can’t believe you lived for like 60 years on this earth without us,” Harley says.

Tony’s glare is the best thing about the night.

*

Friday and Saturday pass by in a blur. Peter doesn’t think about running off to fight crime even once. Which makes him feel kind of guilty by Sunday morning, but not so guilty that he leaves the house. Harley’s only sticking around until three or four and then he has to go home, and Peter can make up for lost time then.

Tony says goodbye much earlier.

“Got a brunch in Washington. JARVIS is in charge. And I better not come home to a fridge full of Toaster Strudels or whatever it is you two think works as breakfast.”

They are absolutely eating Toaster Strudels. And jokes on Tony because they already bought four different flavors and apart from a bottle of vodka that’s the only thing in the freezer.

It’s almost two, and they’re sitting on the floor of the garage near their favorite car when JARVIS speaks.

“Gentlemen, we have an unexpected guest. Captain Rogers has scaled the back wall and let himself into the garden. I’ve alerted Sir and he’s directed me to allow him to remain there. Sir will be home in under fifteen minutes.”

And that’s it. No directions to stay put. No ‘Don’t go talking to the ex-Avenger out back.’ Nothing. It’s practically like permission.

Peter stands up.

He and Tony have already had this discussion. After that day that Cap had turned up in New York and Peter’d gone upstate, Tony had told Peter a day or two later that if Steve came back around there was no harm in making contact. Of course that would have been under the guise of Spiderman. Here, or at least with Harley here, Peter was going to have to do this as Peter Parker.

“You go ahead,” Harley says. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Peter does think that’s a little weird but he’s not going to push. And he doesn’t want to risk missing the opportunity to at least see Captain America in person when they aren’t actively fighting each other. So he dashes up the stairs, races down the hall, runs through the kitchen, and then out into the back yard.

Peter almost mows Steve down. He just barely stops himself in time from crashing right into him.

“Sorry! Crap, I’m sorry,” Peter says, staring straight up at Steve. He seems an awful lot bigger than Peter remembers. “Hi.”

“Hello,” Steve says, not bothering to hide his surprise that anyone other than Tony might be around to greet him. “Is-- Tony around?”

Peter knows to pull this off he’s got to hide two things: his spider-shaped secret and the slight grudge against Steve Rogers he can’t seem to shake.

“Dr. Stark’s in Washington,” Peter says, defaulting to the unfamiliar use of Tony’s name. “JARVIS told him you’re here and he’s already on his way. I’m Parker. Peter. Peter Parker, in that order,” Peter says, doing a thing with his fingers to sort of show how those should have been reversed. “Peter’s first. I’m an intern. A Stark Industries intern. I was using the lab.”

Steve looks like he’s struggling not to laugh. “It’s nice to meet you, Peter. Parker. I’m Steve Rogers.”

He says it so warmly that it’s almost like he thinks there’s a chance Peter won’t know. Steve holds out his hand and Peter’s polite so he shakes it. Steve’s hand, like his shoulders and everything else about him, is massive. Peter’s not intimidated by the size of him. He’s really not. This is just so weird. So. Weird.

“I know who you are,” Peter assures him. Then feeling like maybe that sounds a little too much like they’ve met before, he adds “They show us all your health videos at school even though my gym teacher says you might be a war criminal... so… you know… you’re recognizable. Not that I think you’re a war criminal. Obviously. Not. Or you wouldn’t be here looking for Iron Man?”

Peter’s totally not making the coolest first impression ever but he has yet to blurt out his secret identity so he’s calling this conversation a win.

“I can see why Tony lets you use his lab,” Steve says simply.

“Really?” Peter asks. “What is it specifically that makes you think--”

“You should go,” Harley says from behind Peter.

Peter turns because there’s something really off in his tone.

Harley is standing in the door, aiming a mystery weapon at Steve, and looking very, very ready to fire it. That is such a terrible idea for so many reasons. Peter automatically takes a step to his left to put himself directly between Steve and Harley.

“Harley.” Peter tries to sound reasonable even though he’s totally freaking out because what kind of a death-ray murder-canon has Harley built? “I think we should wait for Tony. Jarvis wouldn’t have said he could stay if--”

“He shouldn’t be here.” Harley argues. He’s glaring at Steve like he’d set him on fire with his brain if he could. “Go away! I already called the police.”

“We both know that’s not true,” Steve says. His voice is calm. Maybe even sympathetic.

Harley does something to the weapon and it whirs to life. “Move, Peter.”

“You know I won’t,” Peter says. “Just like I know you won’t use that thing.”

“I’m not here to cause any trouble,” Steve says firmly. He puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder and steps around him, apparently unwilling to allow Peter to use himself as a human shield. “Tony said I could come by if anything came up.”

“My dad wouldn’t say that,” Harley insists. “He wouldn’t invite you.”

Oh god. For a split second Peter worries Harley’s really snapped, but no-- Harley’s got that look on his face that says he’s ready to bullshit his way through any obstacle. And being Tony Stark’s son is definitely one way to do it. This is so not good. It is so not good.

“Your dad…” Steve says slowly.

“Is Tony Stark,” Harley lies. “He doesn’t talk about me. To anyone. Especially not to traitors.”

“Harley, go inside,” Peter pleads.

“He isn’t good at protecting himself!” Harley shouts. “That’s why it’s our job to protect him. Or at least it’s mine.”

Steve looks intensely confused and then something like recognition dawns on his face.

“Are you Spider-Man?” he asks.

Peter’s mouth drops open and he’s about to choke out a stammered denial when he realizes a beat later that Steve’s asking Harley.

“Yes,” Harley agrees emphatically. “I’m Spider-Man. So leave. Now. You know what I can do.”

It’s too late anyway. Too late because there’s a red and gold dot on the horizon that’s heading straight for them. Fast.

Harley lowers his weapon when Tony’s a few hundred yards away but his scowl stays firmly in place. Peter moves to stand next to him because Harley’s a friend and whatever this is-- it doesn’t change that.

Iron Man lands hard in the grass and his faceplate flips up. Tony doesn’t step out of the suit right away, and that makes Peter stand up a little straighter. If Tony doesn’t feel comfortable without the extra protection, maybe things aren’t friendly between him and Steve. Or maybe Tony was in a hurry to get back and he’s only in his boxers.

It’s really hard to tell.

“Cap!” Tony greets cheerfully. “Looks like you’ve met the welcome wagon already.” His smile’s a little tight and that’s the only thing that gives away that Tony senses the tension in the air.

“Your son asked me to leave,” Steve says.

Tony’s head snaps to look at Peter and Harley.

“Also you have a son?” Steve asks. There’s some fond exasperation in his voice. And some wonder. Heaps of confusion.

“Looks like,” Tony agrees.

“That you let fight with you as Spider-Man,” Steve says a little less fondly.

Tony squints at Peter. Then at Harley. He settles on Harley.

Apparently,” Tony drawls. His eyes say something else entirely. Namely, ‘what the fuck?’

“We’re gonna go inside,” Peter says. “I left an experiment running.”

“I turned it off,” Harley says immediately. He’s not going anywhere. That much is obvious.

“Seriously?” Peter asks.

“Yes, seriously,” Harley says. “Lab safety is important. It’s the first thing dad taught me.”

“I need a drink,” Tony sighs.

“Think I could use one, too,” Steve agrees.

“Go get your dad a beer?” Tony asks. “And one for our guest.”

Harley’s feet are planted. “Why is he here?”

Tony sighs. “Peter, can you show Steve the kitchen? Harley and I need to talk.”

“Sure. Yeah. It’s this way,” Peter says.

He thought seeing the anger on Harley’s face was awful but seeing what could be real, genuine hurt there is way worse. Like Tony allowing Steve into the house is the ultimate betrayal.

Steve follows behind Peter, but he doesn’t speak until the door’s closed behind them.

“I got it wrong, didn’t I?” Steve asks, as Peter opens the fridge.

“Huh?”

“About Spider-Man. It’s not Harley. It’s you.”

Peter turns around to face him. “That sounds unlikely.”

“When he aimed that weapon you stepped in front of me,” Steve says. “Didn’t have to think about it. And you weren’t going to move.”

“He wouldn’t have really used it,” Peter says.

“I thought he might,” Steve says. “He’s protective of Tony. I know a little something about how that works.”

“We’re both protective of Tony,” Peter says. “In our own way.”

“Shoulda known by your accent,” Steve says. “You threw me off with the stuttering and stumbling around for words when you introduced yourself.”

“Right!” Peter says brightly. “Because that was an act. I’m an excellent actor.”

Steve smiles. “You must be. And don’t worry, Peter. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Thanks,” Peter says.

He hands Steve a beer he chose at random. He has no idea if it’s any good or not.

“Why are you here?” Peter asks.

Steve considers the question. “I’ve got a friend who needs Tony’s help.”

“Do you think he’ll help you?”

Steve looks down at the can in his hand. “I don’t know. I thought maybe yes. At least I’d hoped he’d consider it. But if Harley has a say I’m thinking no.”

“Harley’s not a bad person,” Peter defends. “He’s complicated.”

“Aren’t we all,” Steve says. He takes a long drink of the beer. “Can’t get drunk. Don’t know why I bother.”

“I’ve got Coke,” Peter says. “Skittles. Funions.”

He’s not going to offer any of Harley’s food. That seems wrong somehow. The door slides open before Steve can answer.

Tony’s out of the Iron Man suit and wearing a business suit. He’s holding Harley’s weapon in one hand and his other hand rests on Harley’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry I threatened you with my potato gun,” Harley says. “It only leaves bruises. It wouldn’t have really hurt you, even if I’d cranked it up to ten.”

“You were trying to protect your dad,” Steve says. Neither Harley or Tony correct him. “Believe it or not, I’m glad Tony’s got you two watching his back,” Steve continues.

Peter reaches out the second beer toward Tony and Tony hands the potato gun back to Harley.

“Why don’t you two take this down to the lab and then come back up. I’ll order us some lunch. Tell you some embarrassing stories about Steve while we eat.”

Harley looks a lot like he doesn’t want to leave Tony alone without protection but he does walk out of the room. Peter follows after him. They walk in silence all the way to the lab.

“Are you mad at me?” Harley finally asks.

“No,” Peter says immediately. “I figured you’d be mad at me for not being mad enough at Steve.”

“We have really weird lives,” Harley says.

“We totally do,” Peter agrees. “Was Tony upset?”

“No. Not at all. Just told me I had to apologize for aiming a weapon and also told me not to aim weapons at people in general unless I intend to use them.”

“Did you?” Peter asks. “Intend to shoot Captain America? With a potato?”

He tries to keep a straight face but he can’t manage it. The ridiculousness of all of it-- the whole afternoon-- hits him at once. He starts to laugh.

“Can you even imagine?” Harley asks. He’s giggling too. “They’d just turn to mash. Mashed potatoes.”

“Tater tots,” Peter agrees.

“Potato pancakes,” Harley cackles.

It takes them both a minute to calm down.

“So Spider-Man, huh?” Peter asks, once they’ve caught their breath and they’re moving toward the door.

“You hadn’t already figured it out?” Harley asks. “I mean-- you’ve never seen me and him in the same room, right? Coulda been the truth.”

“Sounds valid,” Peter agrees, then gives Harley a bump as they walk. “I guess if I ever see Spider-Man using a potato gun I’ll know for sure.”

They walk up the stairs in silence but Harley stops them before they reach the kitchen.

“I’m sorry I yelled.”

“I’m not,” Peter says. “You weren’t wrong. Tony’s not always great at protecting himself. I mean-- he did build an Iron Man suit out of scrap metal in a desert cave and blast his way out, so he kind of is. But just... he kind of isn’t. I get what you mean.”

Harley nods. He still looks a little upset.

“But that’s okay. He’s got us now,” Peter insists.

“And me as well,” JARVIS chimes in quietly from above them.

“And Happy and Colonel Rhodes,” Peter adds. “Pepper too.”

“The Tony Stark Defense Squad,” Harley says. And with that idea solidified his frown disappears and he cracks a smile.

“I have some ideas,” JARVIS says.

“I do too,” Harley agree.

“Me three,” Peter says with a smile. “We’ve got this, right?”

Harley nods. “Yeah. I mean-- between the six of us, how could we not?”

Chapter Text

Even now that they talk more often, it's unusual for Tony to contact Peter while he's out on patrol.

"Get to the house," Tony's voice pipes through the suit. He sounds weirdly calm in that way he gets when he’s trying not to sound upset but he is totally very upset.

"What?" Peter asks in alarm.

"Sorry, Peter," Karen responds. "Dr. Stark did not allow me to warn you he was patching through and he did not stay on the line."

"Am I in trouble?"

"I don't know. I hope not."

"Thanks, Karen," Peter sighs.

He wracks his brain for something-- anything-- he might have done to piss Tony off.

He's been sticking to his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man gig. He hasn't gone looking for trouble. His grades are good. He still sends Happy updates every couple of days. He can't come up with one single reason why Tony might be mad at him as he swings toward the mansion.

Then, to add to his confusion, when he finally gets inside JARVIS tells him they won't be alone.

"Welcome, Peter. Sir and Harley are in the lab."

"Ummm-- Harley can't see me like this,” Peter says. “Are there extra clothes around here somewhere?"

There's a pause. JARVIS never pauses. Oh God, something is really wrong.

"If you are comfortable with Harley learning your identity, you can make your way to the lab now. If not, there are clothes in Sir’s closet. You may borrow what you need."

Great. Web his way all the way back to Queens to get his own clothes, do something ultra awkward like wear Tony's clothes, or spill his secret. Wonderful options.

At least Peter's already given some thought to what’s behind door number three and he's been ready to tell Harley for weeks… So. Secret-spilling it is. He tugs off his mask and walks toward the lab.

"JARVIS, is everything okay?” he asks as he walks. “You're being weird. And Tony was weird. And why is Harley here?"

It's a Monday night. Harley's got school the next day, just like Peter. Nothing makes sense.

"My protocols limit the information I can share about conversations Sir considers private. I’m afraid you will have to ask him for yourself."

Whatever this is, if JARVIS has to be cagey about it, it's not good news. Unless it’s like a surprise party. Except it’s not Peter’s birthday. So no. Not a surprise party.

He stops at the door and takes a deep breath. There's a definite chance Harley's gonna be pissed when he sees Peter's been lying to him for a couple of months now about the Spider-Man thing. Peter decides to give himself a couple of seconds to come up with something to soften the blow of deception.

JARVIS (the traitor) opens the door without any prompting at all. So whatever Peter was gonna prepare to say is lost. And what he does say is

"Hi. Harley. Heeeey." There are accidental finger guns. It’s so embarrassing.

Tony facepalms.

Harley looks him over.

"Oh," Harley says. "Yeah, that figures. Can you come in and make Tony stop fussing at me?"

And that's it. Anti-climactic probably, but also a relief. Or it's a relief until Peter notices Harley's wearing a sling and the tightness around Tony’s eyes, which is a sure sign he’s upset.

"Why are you fussing?" Peter asks.

"M'not fussing," Tony says. "Who even uses the word fuss anyway? Old ladies. Not teenagers."

"You want me to tell Peter you're spazzing? Does that make it better?" Harley asks. "You want to be a spazz?"

Tony eyes him and then sighs. "I want you to take it easy."

"I'm fine," Harley says. "You didn't have to call for reinforcements."

"You keep trying to get up and science. No science tonight. You want to work on a hypothesis, that hypothesis better be 'how much better will I feel in the morning if I keep my ass planted on this sofa until it's time to sleep?' Capiche?"

Harley narrows his eyes. "If I have to."

"You have to. I care. If you don’t like it, feel free to keep making that face until it freezes that way," Tony says. "You stay here," he directs to Peter. "I have some calls to make. So many calls. Calls until heads roll. Make sure Harley rests."

For all his crankiness, when Tony walks past Harley he ruffles his hair affectionately, and it’s not anger on his face. It’s concern. Worry, even. Tony’s doing that thing where he sounds pissed to hide that he’s afraid. Now that Peter’s had a few minutes to observe, it’s obvious.

Peter walks over and plops down on the lab couch next to Harley as Tony walks out of the room.

"Tony's freaked out over nothing," Harley complains. "I wouldn't have called him until I was out of the sling if I knew he’d be this upset."

"What happened?" Peter asks. He's expecting it to be a lab accident. Or-- maybe something with some garage-built motorcycle. A weapon malfunction. It's so much worse.

"My aunt's boyfriend pushed me and I fell off the porch," Harley says simply. "Now I can't live there anymore."

Peter knows Harley's mom is in Florida and that’s why he's been staying with his aunt for the last couple of months. He wishes he’s gotten more of the story. He hadn’t wanted to press. Now it seems like it might be important.

"Is your sister still there?" Peter asks.

"She’s been living with her Sunday School teacher for almost a month now. She seems really happy.”

“Good. I’m glad,” Peter says. Because he doesn’t know what else to say.

“It's not that big of a deal,” Harley says. “My aunt got stuck with me and it didn't work out. I’m not going to cry about it."

"I'm sorry. That sucks,” Peter says. “I could call Aunt May. See if you can stay with us."

"I want to live here," Harley says. "I didn't ask Tony if I could move in before because I didn't want to be a pain but now I don’t have anywhere else to go and here’s the only place that makes sense. JARVIS agrees, don't you JARVIS?"

"I do agree that you and Sir would likely both benefit from such an arrangement. I cannot give you an exact percentage for anticipated increase in happiness because emotional variables and familial attachments are difficult to quantify. However, I’m working on it."

"You're doing your best," Harley consoles. "And it might not even happen. Tony hasn't said yes yet."

"It's a yes," Peter says. "I mean, I’m sure it'll be complicated, but if you need a place to stay and you asked about here, there’s no way he's going to say no."

Harley smiles at that. A tired smile. He shifts a little on the couch to lean against Peter and he winces as he moves.

"Did they give you pain medicine for your arm?" Peter asks.

"Yeah," Harley says. "But I haven't seen it since the hospital. My aunt took it."

"Was she hurt too?" Peter asks.

Harley turns his head to look at him like he's said something really dumb. "No."

Then Peter gets it. Harley's aunt stole his pain medication. Peter has never been more grateful for his Aunt May.

"I’m sorry," Peter sighs.

"You keep saying that," Harley says. "And you shouldn't. I needed a way out. I didn’t plan for this to happen but it did and I’m not broken up about it."

Harley can say he’s not unhappy all he wants, but Peter can feel the misery coming off him in waves.

“I’m glad you called Tony,” Peter says. “He’ll know what to do.”

"Figured he’s kind of used to collecting strays already,” Harley says with a smirk. “I knew about you. I knew about Spider-Man. Just hadn’t quite put together you were one and the same. Don’t know how I missed it.”

"Well... I'd say it should have been obvious since you'd never seen me and Spider-Man in the room at the same time but..." Peter gestures down to his suit. "Now you have."

Harley smiles. "That's so cool. You've got to let me design you some gear. I have a whole sketchbook full of ideas for Iron Man. I bet some of them would be useful for you, too."

"That'd be awesome. Actually-- I've been having trouble with the release mechanism on my web shooters when the temperature drops at night. Think if I showed you the problem you could help me brainstorm a fix?"

"I have never wanted to do anything more in my entire life," Harley says seriously.

Peter pops one of the cartridges out of his suit and hands it to Harley.

“Tell me where I’m going wrong?”

Harley digs a Swiss Army Knife out of his jeans and flicks it open to a screwdriver attachment.

“Piece of cake.”

*

In the end, Tony says yes, just like Peter predicted.

Tony becomes Harley's temporary legal guardian and either through money or influence (Peter doesn't ask), Tony gets Harley accepted to Midtown High like a day later under the made-up story that Harley is Tony’s godson, staying for at least the rest of the school year.

By the next morning there are more than a dozen photographers waiting across the street from the school, a few police to keep them from getting too close, and tons of students and faculty waiting casually on the steps.

Tony drops Harley off himself. Peter and Ned are waiting at the curb to meet him.

"Are you nervous?" Peter asks, once Tony’s pulled the car away. "It's okay if you are."

Flash bulbs go off behind them. It is so weird to think all these people are there for Harley. As far as Peter can tell, Harley’s not fazed a bit.

"I'm not nervous," Harley says easily. “I’m right where I want to be. What’s there to be nervous about?”

“New school. New people. Tons of photographers,” Ned rattles off.

"Or if people aren't nice to you--" Peter starts.

"Guys. Take a deep breath," Harley says. “It’s gonna be fine.”

Peter nods but he's still anxious. This isn't Tennessee. Everything isn’t necessarily going to be fine.

And as if fate wants to prove him right, Flash finds them before they make it halfway up the stairs. The crowd of students gathering around them grows by the second.

"Hey new kid-- what’s your name?" Flash asks.

“Harley.”

“I’m Flash. Figured I’d warn you now that unless you want to sink your reputation on the first day, you’re already making the wrong sort of friends."

Flash goes so far as to point at Peter and then Ned. A few people nod in agreement. Peter winces. This is really not how he’d hoped this would go. He’s about to speak up but Harley beats him to it.

"Okay Draco Malfoy,” Harley says, as he rolls his eyes. “You wanna warn me to stay away from mudbloods, too, while you're at it?"

Flash's face goes dark. "I'm not Draco Malfoy."

"You pretty much quoted him at me word for word. Now get out of my way. I think I can tell the wrong sort for myself, thanks."

"What a surprise that Tony Stark's godson is rude," Flash laughs theatrically.

“Is Tony the Sirius Black in this story?” Harley asks. “I’m trying to get what you’re going for here, but I feel like maybe it’s been a while since you’ve read the books.”

Several people laugh. Pulling in Harry Potter references is definitely one way to win over the crowd. Flash looks around at his friends in irritation.

“I thought you could use some help fitting in. I can see that I was wrong.” Flash takes a step forward into Harley’s space menacingly. “Go ahead and make friends with losers. Have fun with that.”

"Pretty sure it’s gonna work out fine, Splash," Harley says.

"It's Flash," Flash snaps.

"Is it?" Harley asks.

He sidesteps around Flash like he means absolutely nothing and continues on into the building. Ned and Peter follow after him in stunned awe.

"That was amazing!" Ned enthuses.

"Where did you learn to do that?" Peter asks.

Harley shrugs. “I spent years getting bullied and learning how to deal with it. It’s going to take more than some asshole in a sweater vest to intimidate me.”

"And there’s always the Dog Whistle,” Peter points out.

"I left it with my sister," Harley says simply. "I wouldn't have used it either way. I don't really care if people are mean to me. That's their problem, not mine. But if Flash wants to put down my friends, that is my problem and I'm not going to let it happen. I don't care if somehow that makes me a social pariah."

It does not.

By the end of the day, Peter learns something new about high school from watching Harley thrive: the path to popularity is paved by all the fucks you do not give.

*

"Where's Harley?" Tony asks.

"In his room doing homework," Peter says. "It's his new obsession. He likes it. He's doing extra homework. He wanted to try my homework so he could get some extra practice."

"You know why, don't you?" Tony asks.

He's making sandwiches. Laying out bread and then layering on meat and cheese and what Peter suspects is arugula. Like making sandwiches is just something Tony does now.

"Because he’s a little behind and Harley can't handle not being the smartest kid in every single class?" Peter guesses.

Tony laughs. "I was going to say because he’s in a hurry to catch up, but your explanation seems more precise. Do you think school is going okay?"

"He's like the most popular kid there," Peter says. "Harley's fine."

"Ohhhhh... is that a problem? Him being popular?"

"It's fine," Peter says. "People are a lot nicer to me now. Especially when he’s around."

"How does that make you feel?"

Peter turns in his chair to eye Tony with suspicion. "Are you reading a book on parenting?"

"No,” Tony says immediately. “Maybe. Why?"

"Because every time Aunt May reads a new book on parenting, the way she talks to me about school changes. And everything she says is a question. And it's a lot about my feelings."

"Fine. Yes. I read a book. It was... I dunno... JARVIS picked it. I have a lot of college degrees and weirdly not a one of them is in parenting," Tony says. He stares at the bread for a few seconds before he looks up. "You were good practice but you're like a starter-kid. Easy. I mean, sure you fell out of the sky a couple of times and you almost tore apart a ferry and you disobeyed me and lied about it... but all I had to do was look at you wrong and you broke like a twig."

"I did not!" Peter objects.

Tony raises an eyebrow and Peter crosses his arms.

"I did not," Peter repeats.

"Fine. It involved some yelling. I took the suit. Still-- you're a good kid and you've had good people raising you. If I fuck something up, it isn’t going to fuck you up. May has it covered."

"Harley's a good kid, too," Peter insists.

"Don't I know it," Tony says. "But he's got very valid trust issues and a protective streak a mile wide and he's scary smart and I know-- maybe better than anyone-- what a fine line there is between being a hero and... not."

"You're worried Harley's gonna end up a super-villain," Peter says quietly.

"That sounds a little dramatic but yeah... I'm worried Harley's gonna take protecting the people he loves a step too far one day. I’ve seen it happen. It wasn’t pretty.”

Tony looks down at the table and he looks sad. So much sadder than he ought to look if this is just about Harley.

"I've thought about it, too," Peter says.

Tony looks up. "Really?"

"It's why I asked you to talk to him about his blueprints I didn't know him then. I know him a lot better now. And Harley is going to be fine. He's got me. He's got JARVIS. He’s got Ned. And most of all, he's got you. And I know you don't think you're good at the whole dad thing, but you are. Really."

Tony freezes. "You don't have to say that."

"Since when do I say things I don't have to?" Peter asks. "Aunt May's great. Just... sometimes there's stuff she doesn't understand. And you usually do. Things have been better this year than they’ve been for a long time, and it's not just cause I got bit by a spider."

"Right. I made you that suit. Gave you a paid internship. Money fixes--"

"You are really bad at letting someone say nice things to you," Peter interrupts him. "Let me. Please?"

Tony picks up the mustard and looks at Peter grudgingly. "Talk."

"I will, but you’ve got to listen," Peter replies. "I used to think of you like you were some weird family friend. And then maybe more of an older cousin. But... I'd be lying if I said that lately I don't think of you more like a dad and I'm safer and happier because of it. It's the same for Harley. You don't need to try anything extra. Parenting books are fine, just don’t change too much."

Tony looks speechless. He opens his mouth and then just snaps it shut.

"You're enough, okay?” Peter says earnestly. “For both of us.”

"You are such a pain," Tony complains, waving the mustard bottle accusingly in Peter’s direction. "I'm emotionally compromised right now and you're the one who did this to me, Menace Two."

"M’not Menace Two," Peter says quietly. "Not really. I don't mind letting Harley have Menace One, but if it's really about who you met first, that would be me."

"What?" Tony asks. "When?"

"Stark Expo in 2010. Remember when all those Hammer Drones went crazy? I'd gotten separated from my parents in the crowd. They couldn't find me cause I was one of like 500 kids dressed up as Iron Man. One of the Hammer Bots took aim at me and you landed right behind me and you shot it. You said--"

"Nice work, kid," Tony says, cutting Peter off. "Jesus, Peter. That was you?"

"The expo was in Queens. I was obsessed with science. It can't be that much of a surprise," Peter says.

Tony leans against the counter. This time the quiet lasts a long time.

"I'm fine. I'm better than fine. I'm a superhero," Peter says. “And I wouldn’t be, without you. I wouldn’t be much of anything without you.”

“That’s not true,” Tony says.

“You’re right,” Peter agrees. “I’d be a little plaque on the Stark Expo grounds. A name and a date.”

For a second, Tony looks shocked and then he seems to realize this is Peter giving him an emotional out. Spilling Personal Secrets Hour is over.

“Give me a little credit,” Tony insists. “You’d probably at least merit a bench. I might have even sprung for a water fountain.”

“Like a drinking fountain or like a fountain fountain?” Peter asks.

“Why are you buying Peter a water fountain?” Harley asks, walking into the kitchen.

He reaches for a sandwich and Tony smacks his hand away.

“They aren’t done yet,” Tony says. “And Peter’s being a brat. Nobody’s getting a water fountain. Go wash your hands, both of you. We’re eating at the table.”

“The real table?” Peter asks.

Usually when he’s over for dinner they eat standing up in the lab, or leaning against the kitchen counters. This is new.

“I read somewhere sitting down for dinner is important,” Tony says vaguely. “We’re going to give it a try.”

“Yeah, okay,” Harley agrees quickly. “Like family dinner or something?”

Tony nods. “Yeah, that’s the jist of it.”

“I’ll set the table,” Peter offers.

Harley smiles. “I’ll get the drinks.”

They wash their hands, then race around to see who can get their task done first. They laugh and chat and Peter knows that Tony’s watching them. He can see the small, mysterious smile on his face.

Or maybe it's not so mysterious.

Maybe Harley isn’t the only one who's found himself a home.

Chapter Text

Tony knows heading into the conversation, that Harley and Peter are going to put up a fight. Turns out, he’s right. (No surprise there.) As frustrating as it is to be questioned at every turn, they care about him. Tony is both vaguely annoyed and deeply touched.

“We’re going to be talking about Avenger business tonight, and you’re not Avengers,” Tony says for what feels like the dozenth time.

“Neither are they,” Harley counters. “And you don’t even know exactly who’s coming! Why would Captain TraitorPants be vague about it unless he’s hiding something?”

“Don’t steal my shtick. I’m the one with the fun names. You’re the one who ought to be neck deep in Physics homework.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Harley shrugs.

Tony rubs at his forehead. “Peter, a little help?”

“Nope,” Peter says, shaking his head emphatically. “I’m staying out of it. You want to kick us out for a night, you need to convince us you’ll be safe. That’s how this team works.”

“I’m not--” Tony pauses. “I’m not kicking you out, even for a night. Obviously. Not ever. I’m just asking you politely to temporarily relocate to May’s for the evening since none of this is your business.”

“You’re our business,” Harley says. His arms are crossed and his eyes are narrowed. He’s not going to budge.

Peter looks no more willing to compromise than Harley.

Tony wouldn’t trade them for the world. That still doesn’t mean they aren’t a pain in the ass.

“JARVIS?” Harley asks. “Can you run the odds please? Both for Tony staying here alone with the unknown ex-Avengers, and for us sticking around as backup? I don’t need the math. Just which scenario is safer for him?”

“There is a greater chance for Sirs’ safety if you and Peter are present,” JARVIS replies a beat later.

“See?” Harley demands.

“J, run that again,” Tony suggests. “This time for if Harley and Peter are safer here or at May’s?”

“There is a greater chance for Harley and Peter’s safety if they are at May Parker’s apartment,” JARVIS answers. He doesn’t pretend to sound happy about it.

Peter rolls his eyes. “JARVIS? Can you run the numbers one last time for what would happen if I web them both to this wall and go to the meeting by myself? Like compared to the other scenarios how does that turn out?”

“Out of all scenarios presented, that results in the greatest increase in safety for all three of you,” JARVIS responds.

Peter fakes a websling motion at Harley and Tony. “Pew! Pew!” he mimics.

“Menaces,” Tony grumbles.

“The Tony Stark Defense Squad,” Harley corrects.

“That’s not a thing is it?” Tony asks. He can see the answer written all over their faces. “Oh god it’s a thing. I’m the adult here. I’m adulting. You are the kids. It’s not your job to protect me.”

“But we’re family,” Harley insists. “Is it really so wrong we want to look out for you?”

“If something goes wrong and we aren’t here, we’re never going to forgive ourselves,” Peter says.

“Please don’t make us leave,” Harley adds. He sounds genuinely distressed. There’s nothing fake about his pleading expression.

Tony holds up a hand to block his view of Harley’s face. Even after all this time, he still has no clue what he’s done to deserve this level of devotion from either of them. (The kids have low standards, obviously.) Doesn’t matter. They’ve won. And it’s not like there’s any imminent danger anyway. No real harm in letting them stay.

“You’ve been working on the Dog Whistle 2.0?” Tony asks.

“Super Soldier Edition,” Harley nods.

“Do. Not. Use. It.” Tony says. “Keep it with you, but so help me Harley you’re gonna be grounded for a month if you turn that thing on without a reason. And no, Steve Rogers looking at me sideways is not a good reason.”

Despite the warning, Harley’s expression brightens. Peter looks relieved, too.

“And you. Wear your web shooters just in case,” Tony adds, in his direction.

Peter nods. “I was kind of thinking... would you mind if I tell the team?” he asks. “That I’m Spider Man?”

“That’s always up to you,” Tony says.

It’s a whole lot easier to say that now that the revisions to the Superhuman Registration Act that Tony’s pushed through mean Peter won’t need to sign until he’s 18. It buys them some time. Doesn’t complicate matters further with the Avengers just yet.

“I want them to know who I am,” Peter says.

“Then there’s your answer,” Tony agrees. “And just for the record, Steve’s not dropping by to cause trouble. Believe it or not, he does like me, most days.”

Peter and Harley both look awkwardly around the lab, anywhere but at Tony’s face.

“JARVIS, tell them,” Tony says.

“I am afraid I don’t understand the question, Sir,” JARVIS evades.

Traitor.

“Fine. To all of it,” Tony declares. “They’ll be here at 6 and we’re having Chinese for dinner. Tell JARVIS what you want him to order for you and be on your best behavior tonight. I mean it.”

Tony leaves before they can respond. He makes it all the way to his bedroom before he leans against the wall and takes in a slow, deep breath. The Tony Stark Defense Squad.

He doesn’t know whether he should laugh or cry.

*

Two hours pass and Tony’s working alone in the lab while the boys finish up their homework at the kitchen table.

“Sir?” JARVIS interrupts. “A small stealth craft has landed in the backyard. I believe your company has arrived.”

“Bring it up on the monitor, J.”

The main display lights up to show him Steve, Natasha, Sam and Barnes walking down a ramp onto the lawn. Exactly who Tony suspected Steve would bring. Doesn’t mean he’s thrilled to see the Winter Soldier in his family home. He’ll deal with it though. He’s read the files. Knows what HYDRA did to Bucky Barnes. Has had time to come to grips with--

A loud whoooosh of white foam startles Tony from his thoughts.

Dum-E is spraying the video display with fire suppressant foam. He is aiming very specifically for Steve.

“Not you too,” Tony groans.

Dum-E chirps once, low and clipped, his camera tracking Steve up on the monitor.

“Hey!” Tony said, snapping his fingers to get Dum-E’s attention.

The bot swivels around and lets out several more beeps and chirps in defensive explanation.

“Don’t think I don’t know that your brother put you up to that. If Harley jumps off a bridge are you going to jump off a bridge, too?”

The next few cheerful chirps can only mean one thing: Geronimoooooo!

“We’re going to talk about this later,” Tony warns. “And this mess better be cleaned up by the time I get back. Get to work, Cinderella. Chop chop.”

Dum-E’s outburst means Tony gets to the kitchen a few beats behind the Avengers. He can hear voices as he approaches the kitchen from the side hall. It keeps him out of view and gives him a chance to listen in.

“Hey Peter,” Steve says in greeting. “Harley. Tony said he was expecting us?”

“JARVIS will let him know you’re here,” Peter says helpfully, before adding. “Oh woah-- he didn’t say who was coming except for you. That’s the Winter Soldier. Wow. Here. In the kitchen. And Black Widow and Falcon. Hello! Hi.”

“Smooth,” Harley whispers.

“You can call me Sam,” Sam greets.

“And I’m Natasha.”

“People usually call me Bucky,” Barnes adds softly. He sounds apologetic about it. Shy, even.

Tony doesn’t miss how the guy can’t even own his own name.

“We’ve met before, actually,” Peter says. “Except I was Spider Man at the time, and sort of chasing you two through an airport? It’s cool you didn’t recognize me. I get that a lot, what with the mask and all.”

“You’re a kid?” Sam asks. “Stark brought a kid to Germany.” Sam’s clearly not impressed.

And that is Tony’s cue to enter. He’s not going to leave Peter to handle the fall-out of Tony’s decisions on his own.

“Yes, I brought a kid,” Tony says, as he walks into the kitchen. “A very capable kid, who was admittedly not great at following instructions like ‘stay out of the fight’ at the time. But we’ve worked through that. Won’t happen again.”

“There was a thing. With a boat,” Peter explains. “It’s not important.”

“I coulda hurt you,” Barnes says in quiet horror.

“That’s not a fight you want to lose,” Sam says.

“I definitely wasn’t losing,” Peter tries to explain.

“Do you have any idea what I can do if I’m really lookin’ to stop someone? You could have died--” Barnes cuts himself off. He looks shaken. Really, shaken.

“Don’t feel bad,” Peter insists. “You didn’t know! I was shooting webs at you at the time and everything was moving fast. It would’ve been weird if you just let that happen.”

“Plus, it’s not like there’s any supervillains our age for Peter to go after,” Harley points out. “He’s always going to be fighting adults.”

“Not that you’re supervillains,” Peter adds quickly.

Harley looks right at Steve. “Except a little bit you are.”

Peter kicks Harley under the table. “Except a whole lot they’re not.”

Harley kicks him right back. “They’re international fugitives. They’re not exactly Boy Scouts.”

“So that makes you who, then?” Natasha directs toward Harley. “Interpol?”

“I’m Harley,” he replies matter-of-factly. “Tony’s son.”

And there it is. All eyes go to Tony. Tony just shrugs. “With my reputation it can’t come as that much of a surprise.”

“Seriously,” Harley says. “It’s not like he could be expected to follow up with every single waitress he met in 2002. Nine months is a long time to keep a number programmed into your phone.”

“And in my defense, a lot of them were named Amanda,” Tony bullshits. “It was hard to keep track.”

It’s all nonsense. But it’s their nonsense, and Harley’s mischievous grin is worth everything. Tony loves having a partner in crime. Two partners in crime really, though Peter looks muy unimpressed.

“Can we please not talk about your sex life?” Peter groans. “Because it’s totally TMI and if JARVIS starts up the Birds and the Bees talk again, I am out of here. It’s been months and I still feel weird every time I pick up a banana.”

There’s a horrified pause and then everyone, including Barnes, starts to groan and laugh. The tension in the room breaks. Tony takes advantage of the momentary pause in hostility to get people eating. Food always helps.

“So now that we’re through with introductions, feel free to serve yourselves,” Tony says, pointing to the table.

Dinner’s already there, steaming in containers, sitting out along with plates and napkins and chopsticks.

“You got any beer?” Sam asks. “Cause if this is how tonight is gonna go-- imma need it.”

“God, yes,” Tony says. “Good idea. Who wants in?”

Sam and Barnes raise their hands.

“I prefer soda with Chinese food,” Steve shrugs.

“Have any vodka?” Natasha asks.

“Top shelf,” Tony says. “Literally. I put it up high so the rugrats won’t get curious.”

“You know I can climb walls and hang from the ceiling, right?” Peter asks.

“And that I know how to use a chair as a stool,” Harley deadpans.

“Like JARVIS would let either of you get away with that,” Tony says. “Big Brother sees all.”

“JARVIS isn’t a tattle,” Peter objects.

“And alcohol is gross,” Harley declares.

“It absolutely is,” Tony agrees, as he uses the bottle opener on the fridge to pry off the cap of his cold, delicious beer.

He opens one for Sam, too, then reaches back in for Steve’s can of Coke. Natasha climbs gracefully onto the counter to pull down her booze, and Barnes walks closer, telegraphing every single movement until he’s close enough for Tony to hand him a beer of his own. Barnes opens it with a flick of his metal thumb.

“That is sooooo cool,” Harley coos. Thus far he hasn’t seemed at all interested in making friends but apparently his engineering curiosity wins out over his vague dislike for the team because he adds a second later “Bucky, will you sit by me?”

“Not a great idea,” Tony warns automatically.

Barnes flinches.

“Why?” Harley asks, sounding terribly offended. “I want to get a look at his arm. It’s like a piece of art. You can’t tell me you don’t want a better look at it, too.”

“I don’t,” Tony disagrees. He’d gotten much too close a look at the previous arm already, though Harley doesn’t (and can’t ever) know that. “And even if I did, I have better manners than to ask before dinner.”

Steve snorts in amusement and then tries to cover it with a cough.

“Yeah, yeah. The peanut gallery can shut up any time now,” Tony shoots back with a grudging smile.

He hadn’t known a reunion would be like this. Hadn’t expected things to feel so... normal, in between the awkward silence.

Barnes doesn’t move from his spot next to the fridge, even as the other Avengers step toward the table to dish out their food.

When Harley doesn’t appear to be getting what he wants, he dials his mop-haired, doe-eyed, orphan routine up to eleven and aims it at Barnes full force.

“Is it okay with you?” Barnes asks Tony in a low voice.

So that’s the hold up. He’s worried Tony won’t allow it. Everything in his voice says he’s sure he’s going to be turned down. Possibly kicked out of the house for asking.

“Harley’s not allowed to touch your arm without your permission,” Tony says simply. “So go right ahead if you aren’t worried he’ll take it apart while you aren’t looking.”

“I know how to look with my eyes and not with my hands,” Harley offers happily. “I won’t poke at you, I promise.”

Barnes walks over and takes the empty seat.

The dinner topics ebb and flow from there, and for the most part it’s a relaxed meal. Tony can hear Harley asking Barnes endless questions about his arm, while Peter grills Sam and Steve about Wakanda. Tony speaks mostly to Natasha, and their conversation is polite, though not as chummy as it once was.

And speaking of chummy, Harley and Barnes make fast friends. It’s good in a way to see Barnes-- Bucky-- coming out of his shell a little, and also it’s complicated. If Harley knew the full story surrounding Siberia there’s no chance this would be happening. The only reason Harley gives Bucky a pass now is because for whatever reason, he’s decided almost all the blame rests squarely on Steve.

Near the end of dinner, Peter asks something more specific about the location of the others and Steve sighs.

“Sorry, Peter, but there are some Avengers secrets that aren’t mine to tell,” Steve says.

“If it’s Avengers business, Mr. Rogers, it doesn’t seem like any of it should be yours to tell,” Harley pipes in. “You aren’t an Avenger. Not anymore.”

“It’s Captain Rogers,” Bucky corrects gently. As if somehow Harley’s words might have been a genuine oversight and not deliberate as hell.

“Yeah, but that was like... an honorary commision right?” Harley asks. “Kind of like Captain Crunch or Colonel Sanders?”

Bucky cackles before Tony has a chance to remind Harley that good manners exist for a reason.

Steve shoots Bucky the dirtiest of looks.

“At least he’s just aiming words at you this time,” Sam offers, “and not the world’s deadliest potato gun.”

“I should never have told any of you about that,” Steve groans. “It looked real.”

“Kid’s just givin’ Stevie what’s been comin’ to him since 1935,” Bucky says. He looks down at Harley like Harley’s the best thing since sliced bread. “Steve was the mouthiest 15 year old you ever met. Makes you seem like a saint.”

“I wasn’t that bad,” Steve protests

“How old were you the last time your ma washed your mouth out with soap for sayin’ something rotten?” Bucky asks.

“Buck--”

“How old?” Bucky demands.

“Sixteen,” Steve grumbles.

“Seriously? What did you say?” Peter asks in delight.

Even Harley gives Steve an almost interested glance.

“Isn’t worth repeating,” Steve says smartly.

The look he shoots Bucky a second later screams I will kick your ass if you rat me out on this. It does him absolutely no good.

“Steve got caught passin’ a note in chapel, and when Sister Maura tried to take it from him he told her to mind her own damn business.”

“You scoundrel!” Sam laughs.

“Oh no. That’s not even the bad part. She got hold of it anyway and he called her a...” Bucky halts, looks a little confused like he’s struggling to find a memory. The silences drags on. “Ummm... sorry...”

“I called her a nosey old bitch,” Steve mumbles.

Bucky’s smile brightens wickedly. “Oh I know. Hadn’t forgot. Just wanted to make you say it outloud.”

“Asshole,” Steve complains.

That gets more snickers from the table and Harley raises his first toward Bucky for a fist bump. Bucky seems to know what’s expected, even if the angle means it’s going to be with his metal hand and he taps against Harley’s fingers so lightly it’s like he’s terrified he’s going to shatter him like glass. Peter leans over to do the same. Bucky is equally careful with him.

“Let’s take ten,” Steve says. “I’m not leading a meeting with the memory of soap in my mouth.”

“Can I see that killer potato gun of yours?” Sam asks Harley. “I need to know if it’s as realistic as Steve says or if he got cornered by a nerf pistol.”

“I’d like to see it, too,” Bucky ventures.

“Dad said I had to leave it in the lab,” Harley says glumly.

“Because I didn’t want you threatening anyone with it in the house,” Tony reminds him. “But if you want to take it out in the backyard with Big Bird and the Winter Babysitter, have at it. They know what they’re getting into.”

Harley beams, pushes away from the table and takes off down the hall like he expects Tony to change his mind any second.

“Anyone else wondering how come Stark gets the fun team and we’re stuck with Sam?” Bucky complains.

“Man, feel free to jump ship if you think they’d have you,” Sam shoots back.

“How about a trade?” Natasha asks. “We’ll take Peter.”

“How about not a chance,” Tony says. And then realizing how that might sound to Bucky (See? Progress. The menaces have helped him learn so much about the weight of words) he adds, “No offense, Buckster. Peter’s not going anywhere, but if you’re looking for fun, we play video games and eat junk food on Saturday nights. You’re welcome to stop by.”

Tony almost means it. He tries not to notice the look of gratitude Steve’s aiming in his direction.

Peter fills Bucky in on everything that Saturday nights entail until Harley gets back with his murder-ready Potato Cannon clutched tightly to his chest.

“Don’t shoot your eye out,” Tony warns him. “And listen to the adults. I mean it.”

“Yes, dad,” Harley singsongs, as he bounces out the door.

Bucky and Sam look almost as enthusiastic as they follow him outside.

“A Stark making weapons again,” Natasha quips. “If I didn’t believe he was your son before, you can consider me convinced. This I’ve got to see.”

She follows them out, and Tony expects Peter to go, too, but he doesn’t. Instead he pulls the door shut and turns to Steve.

“I’m really glad you came back again,” he says. “Thanks for not telling any of them about the Spider Man thing. I wasn’t sure if you’d really keep it a secret.”

“I told you I would,” Steve says gently. He seems a lot more relaxed now that it’s just the three of them. “And it’s good seeing you again, too. You been staying out of trouble?”

Peter smiles. “As much as that’s possible when I spend most of my time with Harley and Tony.”

“I can see how that might be tough,” Steve agrees.

“Hey now,” Tony says. “If anyone--”

They’re interrupted as Harley flings open the door, practically vibrating with excitement. “Peter! Bucky’s going to throw a potato and see if his metal arm can create as many newtons as my gun but I need some help with the force transducer if we’re going to get any decent measurements.”

“We’ve got four force meters sitting out there,” Peter says. “Pick one.”

“Yeah, except the transducers are all mounted under the bearings in the ones we’ve got set up because they’re calibrated to measure your web slingers. That may be great for web tension measurements but it’s going to be lousy for potatoes,” Harley argues. He grabs Peter by the arm and starts to tug. “Come onnnnnn.”

“Just use meter number three,” Peter protests. “Those force transducers can be oriented in rotation so that their measuring axis is aligned with the weight and speed if you tilt it to vertical...”

Peter’s voice fades as he allows himself to be pulled along outside.

“Don’t forget to write it down!” Tony yells in their general direction as he walks over to yank the door shut.

“I can’t believe you’ve got kids,” Steve says, shaking his head. “And that your kids sound just like you.”

“They’re a lot better adjusted than I was at their age. The math and science, I could do. The being a kid part? Not so much.”

“You’re good with them,” Steve says. “Incredible, really.”

Tony’s not sure what to say to the praise. There was a time when Steve’s approval meant everything. Now it feels like that time is long past. The silence lingers on. Eventually Steve sighs. Runs a hand through his hair.

“We’re going to sign the Accords,” Steve says. “All of us. With your revisions. That’s why we asked to talk.”

“I figured,” Tony admits. “And I’m glad. It’ll be easier for us to share the sandbox once we’re all legally in the sandbox.”

“It’s going to mean you and me talking more often. Coordinating. Are you okay with that?”

“Professionally, yes,” Tony agrees. “I can work with you fine.”

“But you don’t like me,” Steve says. He sounds gutted in a way Tony doesn’t expect.

“Hey, give me some credit for hiding it better than Harley does,” Tony says, trying to play it off. “I haven’t threatened to shoot you even once.”

It’s meant to be a joke, but it falls a little flat.

“I think I’d take being shot over being compared to Captain Crunch,” Steve admits. “That stung.”

Tony can’t hold back a smile. “Harley’s something else. Every time he says shit like that I think about all the times my dad told me he hoped I’d have a kid just like me someday. How then I’d understand.”

“Do you?” Steve asks.

“Not even a little,” Tony says. “My whole life I blamed myself for-- for all of it, really. Dad’s yelling. His drinking. His distance. It never occurred to me that not an ounce of it was ever my fault. I look at Harley and Peter and they are so impressionable. Every word I say is gospel. And if I abused that-- if I hurt them. Berated them. Ignored them… that would all be on me.”

“They’re lucky to have you.”

“I’m lucky to have them,” Tony says simply. And then he shuts himself up before he overshares anything else. It’s unfair how easy it is to talk to Steve, even now.

There’s a massive thud from outside and then wild cheering. Tony can’t guess if it’s a cannon shot or Barnes letting loose the world’s deadliest potato fastball.

“I really fucked this up, didn’t I?” Steve asks.

“Do you mean the Avengers or our friendship? You’re going to need to be more specific.”

“I was a bad friend to you. I didn’t listen when I should have listened. I didn’t trust you when I should have trusted you. And then once Bucky was involved-- you were right-- I lost perspective. I don’t have excuses. I had my reasons, and I’ve had plenty of time to realize where they went wrong. Mostly. I couldn't let them do that to Bucky, but--” Steve stops. When he speaks again his voice is softer. Conciliatory. “I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t change anything, but you deserve to hear it. I know we can’t go back. I don’t know how we move forward from here. But what I do know is that I miss you. Not just as a teammate, but as a friend. One of my best friends.”

God, that makes Tony ache. He has no doubt Steve’s sincere. And who, really, is Tony punishing if he pushes Steve away without giving him a chance? Because it feels an awful lot like after this apology, Tony’s going to be the one left with regrets if he doesn’t give forgiveness a try.

“I miss you, too,” Tony says quietly. “And I’d like to try and patch things up. Or at least give it a shot. So where does that leave us?”

Steve smiles, a little weary. “With hope?”

“Well,” Tony sighs. “I’ve done more with less.” There’s another bang outside. This time it rattles the windows and for now Tony is done with feelings and fresh air would be a welcome relief. “You want to go watch some potatoes explode?”

Steve seems equally relieved to let the conversation go. “I really do,” he admits. “Even if I end up covered in root vegetable by the end of the night.”

“Harley wouldn’t really shoot you,” Tony says. Then after a moment adds, “Not unless he thought me or Peter were in danger.”

“Of course he wouldn’t,” Steve says, sounding totally sure. “Harley’s a good kid, I know that. I’m talking about Bucky. Or Sam. Possibly Natasha. You have your brats, I have mine.”

Tony laughs. “Yeah, I guess you do. Welcome to the club.”

Steve smiles. “Honestly? No place I’d rather be.”

Chapter Text

"Why are you moping?" Tony asks Peter. "I thought you'd be glad to have a day or two as an only child."

Harley’s in Tennessee visiting his sister for her birthday. He’s been gone two days and he’ll be gone two more.

Peter looks up from his book, and gives Tony a small smile. "It's quiet around here."

"It is, isn't it?" Tony asks. "But seriously, Pete, what’s up? You aren't exactly Silent Sally when you’re here on your own. Something’s wrong."

Peter looks back down. Tony can see him mulling things over in his head.

"Someone was kind of a jerk to me yesterday,” he says, after a few seconds pause. “Then a bunch of people kept bringing it up today. I dunno. It's just... high school stuff."

"And they waited till Harley was gone to bother you?"

Peter nods. "No one wants to mess with him. I have a target on my back or something."

"So what is it," Tony says. "What's the jab?"

Peter bites at his bottom lip. Looks torn. "I just-- it's personal."

"You don't have to tell me," Tony says. "You can if you want to, but I get it. Some things you need to handle on your own--"

"There's a club at school," Peter blurts out. "A pride club. Like gay pride. I'm not in it, but they're electing officers and someone put up campaign posters everywhere with my name on them to make it look like I’m running for vice-president. And they wrote my name with a heart, and Ned's name under it, on all of them. And I don’t like Ned like that at all it’s just--"

Peter shakes his head mournfully.

Oh. Birds, Bees, or Both. Aunt May had nailed it.

"I'm bi," Peter whispers. "But I haven't told anybody. So whoever did it, did it to embarrass me. Put it out there like it's a bad thing."

"It's not a bad thing, Peter," Tony says. "It's a shitty thing for someone to out you, or even to pretend to out you. But being bi-- that's not something you need to feel bad about. The people who love you are still going to love you just as much, and the people who don't love you can fuck right off."

Peter cracks a tiny smile at the swear. "Can I ask you something? Something personal?"

"Anything," Tony says. He already knows what’s coming. Or at least he can guess.

"Sometimes you say things that make me think you might be... bi... but I googled. You've only ever been on dates with women. At least dates that show up in pictures and just... I know it's not fair to ask. I mean, it's not my business..."

"I'm bi," Tony says easily. "And you're right. I'm only ever seen out in public with women. It's-- complicated. There are investors and the company stocks. People's jobs depend on my ability to keep the scandals to a minimum."

Peter's trying his damndest to look calm and kind and supportive, but the wounded look in his eyes cuts Tony like a knife to the heart. He didn't know he could feel such instant, horrible remorse until that explanation was half way out of his mouth.

"When you're older you'll understand," Tony tries again and OH GOD that made it so much worse.

Peter nods sweetly and Tony wants to crawl in a hole and die.

"I'm sorry, that's bullshit," Tony says quickly. "That's such bullshit and you know what? I've heard it so often I didn't even realize it anymore until I said it outloud. It's-- that's-- it's not true. I'm lying. To myself. Just repeating the things my dad and Obie said, to keep me in line. I'm sorry. You deserve better than that. You deserve better from me."

Peter shakes his head urgently. "No. No, don't-- I mean, you're right. I'm just some nobody and you've always been in the spotlight. It's not the same. You could make people lose money. You could lose a lot of money."

Tony winces. “I’m a mess. You know that,” he says quietly. “So here’s the deal. It's a secret that's not a secret. Plenty of people know. There are non-disclosure agreements and my lawyers are scary and Pepper is even scarier and it's all because when I first went to MIT, I did go on a date with a guy. And there are pictures. Hard to find, but I have them. The originals. In a lock box. Dad had a private investigator follow me around campus, to make sure I didn’t embarrass the family. I wasn’t two weeks into freedom when I met a guy who was really nice to me, and an early admission, just like me. We went out for ice cream, then a day later I got out of class and my dad was in front of my dorm in a town car waiting.”

Tony’s not gonna fill in those particulars. There are some burdens that are not going to be Peter’s to bear.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Tony hedges. “Suffice to say, not a risk I was going to take again. And sometimes the things that happen to you when you’re 14... they’re a little more formative than you realize until it’s too late.”

Peter’s hurt softens into something sympathetic. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” he says softly.

“Me, too,” Tony says. “The sad truth is, at the time, I had no one to protect me. I hadn’t even met Rhodey yet, and I was too ashamed to ever tell Mr. Jarvis. But it’s not going to be like that for you. I will always have your back. Now, do you know who put up those posters?”

Peter nods.

“Is it that obnoxious Flash kid who gave you a black eye last year?”

Peter nods again. “He didn’t even bother to disguise his handwriting. He knew I wouldn’t fight back.”

Tony tries and fails to put a lid on his anger. He can’t exactly go repulsor blast a kid, he just can’t. So what do grown ups do?

“Do you want me to talk to his parents?”

“Nooooooooo,” Peter groans.

“Are you going to let Harley take care of it?”

“I doubt I’ll be able to stop him.”

“There’s a third option,” Tony says. “Don’t know how practical it is, but have you considered joining the club? Running for office? You’d make one hell of a vice-president.”

Peter pauses. “You really think so?”

“Hell yes,” Tony says. “You’re incredible at anything you put your mind to. And we’ve got this big house. If every once in a while you wanted to have meetings here, you could. I bet JARVIS would love to order snacks for a crowd.”

“I have already downloaded the club roster and their known food allergies,” JARVIS chimes in.

Peter laughs. “Did you break into the school servers for that?”

“He’s already in the school servers to begin with,” Tony points out. “Since I need to make sure Ned doesn’t ever have to use the porn excuse again.”

“As Sir says, breaking and entering was not necessary. To borrow a human phrase, I sneaked a peek.”

“I’ll think about it,” Peter agrees. “Thank you. For. Whatever.” Peter waves his hand sort of wildly to indicate all that had transpired in the last five minutes.

“I’m always going to care what’s going on with you,” Tony says. “Soooo. Anybody in particular you want to talk about? Any girls or guys catching your eye?”

“Only if you want to talk about your thing for Captain America first,” Peter says with an innocent shrug.

Tony laughs, real and amused. Of course nothing’s getting by Peter. And on multiple occasions, Tony’s all but confessed his thoughts on Steve, so it’s not a shock that Peter’s caught on.

“Can you even imagine?" Tony asks.

"What the world would think or what Harley would think?" Peter asks.

"I think I'd rather be crucified live on Fox News than have to have that sit down conversation with Har,” Tony admits.

“But before Harley?” Peter asks.

“Right about the start of when it was looking like Steve might feel the same, that’s when Barnes showed up. And-- well, you know the rest."

"So you don't like him like that anymore?"

"I don't know," Tony says. "For a while I thought maybe Steve and I had a chance. Now that I’ve got company around all the time it's easier to let go. I'm pretty damn happy with my life as it is."

"I’m not sure he deserves you,” Peter says after a few seconds pause. “I mean maybe he does-- but maybe he doesn’t. Just because he's Captain America doesn't mean he's boyfriend material.”

“Either way I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed,” Tony sighs.

"You make it sound like the ship sailed, suffered, then sank," Peter points out.

Tony laughs. "More like hit an iceberg.”

Peter makes a face. “Titanic jokes? Really?”

“JARVIS thinks I’m funny.”

“A barrel of laughs, as always, Sir.”

"I can't help with what the whole country thinks,” Peter says. “But if it's ever Harley in the way-- he'll come around. I promise."

"I know," Tony concedes. "Anyway, aren't we supposed to be talking about you? What's it going to take to fix your problem? A parents meeting? You know your Aunt May would walk in there with or without me."

"I think I’m going to join the club," Peter says. "Run for vice-president. Make things easier for the next person who wants to join."

Tony’s not sure he’s ever been more proud in his life. Every time Peter or Harley do something so far beyond the good that Tony ever thought possible, it’s such a privilege to sit back and watch it happen.

"You do realize I'm going to find a way to send the entire club to some all inclusive teen conference in Bora Bora, right?” Tony asks. “Even if I have to ask JARVIS to set the whole summit up under some new Stark Foundation. I don't care how, I don't care when, but Flash is going to regret messing with my kid. If it means he misses out on the world’s best school trip, I’ll take my revenge where I can get it."

Peter's smile could brighten up the planet and it takes Tony a couple of seconds to realize just what he’d said. Yes, Peter is his kid. There's absolutely no use denying it or pretending otherwise.

"Yeah, yeah," Tony says instead. "You worked your way in. Now I'm stuck with you."

"And I'm stuck with you," Peter teases. "And we're both stuck with Harley."

That makes Tony laugh. "There's no getting rid of him once he's got his claws in you."

"For what it’s worth,” Peter says, “I think Steve’s still into you. He looks at you like I used to look at Liz. Always when you’re not looking.”

Tony smiles. “Good to know. So what now? Dinner?”

“Nope,” Peter says. “We’ve got campaign posters to make. I’ll call Ned. I bet his mom will let him stay over. JARVIS? Will you be my campaign manager?”

“I would be honored,” JARVIS says.

Tony expects his part to play will be the bank roll, but Peter has other ideas.

“Your handwriting is better than mine,” Peter tells Tony. “Think you could write out my signs?”

Tony flashes back momentarily to age 14. Remembers his dad’s face contorted in anger. The slurs he shouted. The threats he made. And another painful memory loses its sting.

“I’d like to see you try and stop me.”

*

Peter wins the election by a landslide. Aunt May invites Tony, Harley, Ned, and Happy to dinner at the apartment to celebrate, and afterwards they take a big limo to the Cookie Dough Cafe for dessert.

Tony was right: The people who loved Peter still love him and the people who don’t?

They're the ones missing out.

Chapter Text

--- MONDAY / 10:00 PM / On a bus from Memphis to NYC ---

It isn’t always easy being Harley. People think it is, but it isn’t.

As much as he acts like it doesn’t bother him that:

-his mom is perpetually in and out of rehab
-his sister lives 600 miles away
-his aunt chose her abusive asshole boyfriend over him
-the man who’d gone off for lotto tickets was not his biological father and his mom doesn’t know who his bio dad is

It all totally bothers him.

Which is why Harley keeps busy doodling in the margins of his notebook. So far he’s sketched an arc reactor-powered version of BB-8, written several variations on his name:

Harley Keener.
Harley Andrew Keener.
Harley Andrew Stark.
Harley. Just Harley.

And come up with half a dozen embarrassingly tourist-type places he wants to visit over Spring Break.

Only two more hours to go and then he’ll be home.

 

--- TUESDAY / 5:00 AM / Harley’s room in Tony’s house ---

Harley usually only gets lost in his thoughts when there’s nothing else to quiet his brain, like when he lays down to sleep at night or if he wakes up before his alarm. There in the dark of his giant bed, in his huge room, in the beautiful mansion where he lives now-- he can’t help but Think.

Sometimes about his family. Sometimes about Tony. Mostly about what would happen if one of the times that Tony’s off super-fighting, he doesn’t come home. This morning he thinks about Peter, who might be even less likely to come back than Tony someday. About tall buildings and the tensile strength of web and what the noise might be like if Peter missed and--

Harley sits straight up in bed.

His pulse is racing. His chest feels tight and he gasps to fill his lungs with more air.

Peter’s safe. That won’t ever happen. It can’t ever happen.

Just breathe. Really. Just breathe.

“JARVIS? Can you turn on the light?”

“Of course, Harley,” JARVIS says soothingly.

The lamp next to his bed begins to glow. Harley rubs his palms against his eyes, trying to force the morbid thoughts out of his head.

“Would you like to hear the forecast for today before you choose your clothes?” JARVIS asks.

“Sure,” Harley says. “And... ummm... whatever else. Just keep talking, please?”

“I would be happy to keep you company,” JARVIS says. “You’ll want to take your jacket with you when you leave for school. The low today will be a brisk...”

JARVIS’s voice is the distraction Harley needs and their conversation keeps him occupied as he takes his shower and towels off his hair. He gets dressed in the clothes JARVIS recommends for the weather and by the time he leaves his room, he feels a lot better. The knot in his stomach is gone. Peter is going to be fine.

Harley heads for the kitchen, shoves a couple blueberry waffles into the toaster, pours himself some orange juice and starts a pot of coffee for Tony.

He’s just got to keep himself busy. Keep himself focused. Tony and Peter need protecting, and Harley can do that.

Sure, Tony is Iron Man and Peter is Spider-Man, and they’re great at fighting aliens and winged-weirdos and Captain America. They are objectively awful at protecting themselves (see: Captain America) and so that’s Harley’s job. That’s where he can find some purpose.

He smiles when Tony joins him in the kitchen. It’s always hilarious to watch him stumble toward the coffee pot like a zombie lurching for brains. They never talk much at breakfast but Tony always, always manages to pull himself together enough to say goodbye.

“You all set?” Tony asks, as Harley walks his dirty plate over to the dishwasher.

“All set,” Harley confirms.

“You need anything? Ride? Lunch money?”

Harley pauses. It’s still a novelty to have someone in his life who cares that he’ll go hungry. Tony’s the first person who ever has.

“I like to take the subway and JARVIS is in charge of my lunch money,” Harley reminds him.

“Fine. Space Laser?” Tony suggests.

“Absolutely yes, but they don’t allow weapons at school, so you’ll have to save it for later.”

“Too bad,” Tony sighs dramatically. “That was a one-time offer and you missed out. No Space Laser for you.”

Harley rolls his eyes. “Whatever. I’ll make my own Space Laser and it will kick your Space Laser’s ass.”

Tony tries to look offended but fails spectacularly. He’s inevitably delighted by sass. “Big talk from the one person in this room who doesn’t have a doctorate.”

Harley tosses his wadded-up paper towel at him. “I’d have it sooner if you’d let me apply to MIT after next year.”

“Nope,” Tony says. “Absolutely not. You’re getting the complete high school experience. The whole shebang. Homecoming. Phys Ed. Tardy slips. Speaking of which, better get a move on, Keener. Public transit waits for no one.”

“Are you going to be around tonight?” Harley asks.

“I’ll be home by dinner. Call me if you run into any trouble.”

“I don’t run into trouble,” Harley says. “Trouble runs into me.”

Tony laughs. “Don’t I know it. It’s good to have you back, by the way. JARVIS isn’t nearly as entertaining at breakfast.”

“I do apologize, Sir. I get my sense of humor from my maker,” JARVIS responds primly.

Harley leaves the house laughing. He doesn’t realize until later that Tony’s comment about trouble most definitely meant he knew something then that Harley did not.

 

--- TUESDAY / 7:45 AM / Midtown School of Science and Technology --

Harley and Peter had texted like crazy the first two days Harley had been in Tennessee and then the texts just stopped. Harley really hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, since Peter wasn’t the most diligent texter he knew (that would be JARVIS) and silence wasn’t all that unusual. Harley only realizes something weird is going on when he gets to school at 7:45 on the dot, and there’s only Ned there to greet him.

“Hey. Where’s Peter?” Harley asks.

Ned opens his mouth, pauses like he knows he’s probably not supposed to say whatever’s about to come out, and then word vomits everything.

“Oh man-- it’s bananas,” Ned begins. “The election for the Pride Club was last Friday and on Wednesday Flash put up a ton of signs that looked like Peter made them that announced Peter was running for Vice-President of the club even though you know obviously he wasn’t, because he’s not even in the club. But they all also said that I was his boyfriend, which again-- not true-- I am strictly into the ladies-- and Peter got really upset and kind of embarrassed but then he decided--” Ned takes in a gulp of air, “to embrace his inner gay and just go with it. So he and Dr. Stark made a bunch of signs and then me and Peter put them up on Thursday and then on Friday he won and that’s where he is now. Inside. He had to be at school at 7:30 today so they could get his picture taken for the QUILTBAG blog.”

Harley’s brain takes a few seconds to filter that into the three most important points.

Peter is apparently gay?
Flash bullied him.
Peter didn’t text Harley to explain.

Whatever. It’s fine. It’s not like Peter has to tell Harley everything.

Phones are a thing, though. For a reason.

A thing friends use to text other friends when they have big news. Or when they need help.

Or whatever. Maybe they aren’t actually friends? Maybe Peter only ever hangs out with Harley because it’s convenient or because Peter’s bored or because he wants to impress ‘Dr. Stark.’

Harley starts to walk up the steps. He needs time to process. He’s angry in a dozen different directions.

“No wait!” Ned calls after him. “Peter wanted to tell you all this himself,” Ned says urgently. “And there he is. Don’t go. It’ll be my fault.”

Harley looks up and yes, there’s Peter. Peter’s face lights up when he spots Harley and he rushes down toward him two steps at a time.

“Harley!” Peter greets brightly.

“Hey,” Harley greets in return. He knows he sounds upset. He’s not great at hiding it.

His feelings are a little hurt. They shouldn’t be. It’s not his business or anything. Feelings are stupid and they don’t have to make sense.

Of course Peter notices right away. Harley continues walking up the steps and Peter practically jumps in front of him and grabs Harley by the arm to tug him to a stop.

“Awww. Look! Parker’s bee-eff-eff is back!” Flash calls down toward them.

Peter tenses and Harley rolls his eyes and flips Flash off without responding any further. He’ll deal with Flash later. For now, he just wants to stop feeling shitty and rejected inside. That’d be cool.

“You told him?” Harley hears Peter whisper to Ned from behind him. “I said to wait.”

“I tried!” Ned hisses back. “He’s really easy to talk to!”

Harley tries to ignore them. Tries to pull his arm away from Peter and keep walking up the stairs.

“I should have called you!” Peter says immediately. “I wanted to, and I kept kind of half-writing texts but I wanted to tell you face to face, and then I thought I could do it last night, but then your bus was late and Aunt May wanted to help me pick out what to wear for pictures this morning. Then she wanted to talk and I couldn’t escape until late and then I texted JARVIS and he said you were already home and asleep. I’m sorry you had to hear about what happened from Ned. He wasn’t supposed to say anything until I got down here!” Peter blurts it all out in one go, and he sounds miserable. “Are you mad? Or-- or weirded out? About...”

Peter trails off and it takes Harley a few seconds to put together what Peter’s getting at. He turns around to face him.

“You mean cause you’re gay?” Harley asks.

“Bi,” Peter clarifies quietly. “If that helps.”

“It doesn’t make a difference,” Harley says.

Peter’s face falls and Harley realizes how that must have sounded. His feelings are still hurt but he’s not deliberately trying to be hurtful. Seeing Peter look so wounded breaks through Harley’s irritation.

“It doesn’t make a difference because you’re my best friend either way, dork,” Harley says, giving Peter a small, genuine smile. He reaches out and gives Peter’s shoulder a shove. “Nothing’s changed at all. I’m happy for you. You’ve got too many secrets already.”

Peter looks hugely relieved. “I really am sorry I didn’t tell you when it happened. I was kiiiind of worried you’d come back early to punch Flash in the face and I didn’t want you to feel like you needed to do that or worry about me. I wanted you to be able to focus on your sister. I know how much you miss her.”

All very valid reasons. And really, Harley’s over it. It’s impossible to stay mad at Peter.

It is extremely easy to stay mad at Flash. Harley won’t let this slide. He can’t.

“I’m not going to punch him in the face,” Harley protests. “Probably. But thanks. For caring about the time I spend with my sister.”

The bell rings at ten-till and they have to split up. At lunch Peter and Ned fill him in on all the smaller details. They show him pictures of the election signs (both Flash’s fakes and the real ones Tony and Peter made) and Peter mentions the quiet teasing that came from other classmates as well. It’s literally got to be one of the worst Coming Out stories Harley can imagine and he hates that it happened to Peter.

He’s really tempted to go home and grab the Dog Whistle 2.0, consequences be damned. He can’t. Harley knows that would cause more trouble than Flash is worth. He’s got to be patient. (Patience doesn’t keep him from giving Flash small, ominous smiles every time he sees him. It feels really good when he catches Flash going out of his way to avoid him in the hall when the last bell rings.)

 

--- TUESDAY / 4:19 PM / Football Field ---

What patience does do is give Harley time to plot. He decides to stick around school for a while and sit on the bleachers so he can watch Flash practice Lacrosse and (not-so) subtly intimidate him. He’s only there for a few minutes when he’s joined by MJ. It’s kind of a surprise, since as far as Harley can tell she’s one of the few people in school who has never seemed at all interested in getting to know him.

“Whatever you’re planning, you need to plan better,” MJ announces.

Harley turns to look at her. “You’re a psychic now?”

“I’m observant. Flash was a jerk to Peter and you think you have to do something about it. I’m here to tell you, whatever that is, you’re going to get yourself in more trouble than he’s worth.”

“I already thought of that,” Harley says. “And I can handle trouble.”

“No. You can’t. Have you even bothered to read the Student Handbook?”

“Ummm. No?” Harley asks. “Have you?”

The look she gives him says she absolutely has.

“Then what am I missing, Hermione?”

“Your whole first year here you’re on probation. You could get kicked out for things that would only get Flash detention. Like fighting.”

“I’m not going to fight him,” Harley says.

“Then like bullying him,” MJ says.

Okay. Bullying had crossed Harley’s mind. It’d be nice to give him a taste of his own medicine.

“I’m not going to get myself kicked out,” Harley says simply.

“Until you do,” MJ says. “I’m not saying you can’t stand up for Peter. But you’ve got to be smart about it. Anything drastic isn’t smart.”

“Then what would you suggest?” Harley asks.

“I suggest you start by taking the thing that matters to him the most,” MJ says firmly.

“You want me to steal his car?” Harley asks in surprise. “That would definitely get me expelled.”

MJ rolls her eyes and points back toward the field expectantly. Flash, as always, is surrounded by his squad.

“His popularity,” Harley says, once he realizes what MJ’s getting at.

“Exactly. You’re the one person in the school who might be able to do it. Social currency is directly linked to actual currency and whether you’ve got Tony Stark’s money or not, people think you do.”

“I feel like you’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Harley says.

“More than you, apparently,” MJ replies. She slaps the handbook against his thigh. “Read this. Then fix it right.”

“Fiiiiiine,” Harley grumbles.

“Tomorrow morning,” MJ says. “Meet me on the front steps at 7:45. I’ll distract Peter. You do the rest.”

Harley relents. “See you there.”

 

--- TUESDAY / 9:50 PM / Harley’s Bedroom ---

Plan | Pro | Con

Punch him | He deserves it | Expelled from school
Hatch centipedes in his locker | Satisfying | Innocent centipedes will die
Dog Whistle 2.0 | Human test subject, finally | Expelled from school FOREVER
Tiny Rainbow Robot Spider to bite him | Poetic justice | Bullying and expelled
Have JARVIS steal his car | Hard to trace | Should not drag JARVIS down with me
Read Student Handbook | MJ thinks it will help? | BORING

 

--- WEDNESDAY / 7:40 AM / The Front Steps of Midtown High ---

Harley’s almost late because the stupid paparazzi are waiting for him outside the mansion. Apparently his aunt sold a story, “My Troubled Nephew’s Wild Life with Tony Stark,” to The Daily Dish and now every newspaper in New York is haunting his steps. It’s bullshit he’ll deal with later. He has bigger fish to fry. It takes him a couple blocks out of his way but he loses the crowd before he gets to the subway, which means there’s no one to bother him when he hops off at the stop nearest his school.

As soon as he reaches Peter and Ned at the bottom of the steps, MJ joins them.

“We good?” she asks him.

Harley nods.

MJ nods in return, before taking Peter and Ned by their elbows and dragging them in the opposite direction, with some random lie about Quiz Team drama.

Subtle.

Flash is easy to find. He’s where he always is: holding court on the upper steps. Harley climbs the stairs until he’s level with him. Flash smirks and crosses his arms, doing his best to look unimpressed and unafraid.

“Looks like you’re lost, Keener. Your loser friends went that way.” He points at the backs of Peter, Ned and MJ.

“I only see one loser out here, and I’m looking at him,” Harley counters.

That gets a soft ohhhhh from the crowd. It’s annoying how much his classmates enjoy any kind of drama. Several phones come out, no doubt people hoping to record a fight.

Flash laughs, like Harley’s the one being an idiot. “How’s that?”

“Because you tried to bully Peter with those Pride Club election signs and that was a really bad idea. One, it’s rude, and two: there are literally a hundred things you could tease Peter about but you went and picked one of the five reasons that can get you expelled.” Harley holds up the Student Handbook. “Gender, Religion, Sexuality, Race, and Disability. It’s all right here.”

“How would I have even known he was gay?” Flash asks. There’s an edge of creeping panic in his voice that wasn’t there before. “It’s not like we talk.”

“Why make those signs then?” Harley asks. “Either you didn’t know, and you made them to make a joke out of the PRIDE Club. Or you did know, and you made the signs to bully Peter. Either way, you messed up big.”

Flash looks equal parts guilty and pissed.

“You can’t prove anything,” he snaps.

“But the security cameras in the hallway can. The principal can request the recorded video feed at any time, and Stark Industries is the company that hosts the data storage. It’s safe to say they’ll cooperate. Peter’s everyone’s favorite intern.”

A hush falls over the crowd and several of Flash’s friends glance nervously at each other. They must have been in on it, too. Flash is way too much of a coward to have acted alone.

“God, fine,” Flash complains. “What do you want, Keener? Money? An apology?”

Harley remembers what MJ said. Social currency is directly linked to actual currency. He needs to act the part.

“Like I need money?” Harley scoffs, as if that’s a total impossibility when in reality he’s got like 4 dollars and pack of gum in his pocket. “No. What I need is for you to Back. Off. Don’t bully Peter. Don’t bully his friends. And for that matter, stop bullying your own friends. I doubt any of them would have helped you with those signs if you hadn’t pushed them into it.”

He looks toward the students who are standing closest to Flash and they all take several small steps away as if to say it wasn’t me.

“That’s it?” Flash asks doubtfully, as he watches his ‘friends’ abandon him with an oddly confused look on his face. “No real revenge?”

“I don’t need to hurt other people to feel good about myself,” Harley declares. “I’ll leave that to you.”

Then Harley walks up the stairs and he doesn’t look back.

What’s incredible is that MJ was so right. From the second the bell rings and students fill the halls, it’s almost as if Harley can see the sycophantic admiration that has been aimed at Flash all year shift right to himself. It’s so gross.

By lunch, plenty of tables are ready to make room for him, while Flash’s friend crowd has thinned considerably. Flash’s former pals have formed a new circle around Harry Osborn (who’s a decent enough guy as far as Harley knows) and are chatting excitedly. Flash has officially been dethroned.

Harley takes his usual seat next to Peter, and Peter turns to smile at him brightly. Like Harley’s the best thing to happen to his day.

“Thanks for dealing with Flash,” Peter says. “I hear you were incredible.”

“I’m not going to let that asshat bully you and get away with it,” Harley says. “Ever.”

“You did good,” MJ declares.

“I can’t believe you turned the Student Handbook against him!” Ned enthuses. “That was so epically cool! Chaotic good for the win! Cameron Hayes got it on video and sent it to the entire Academic Decathlon team. I’ve been watching it on loop between classes.”

“It wasn’t just me. I had some help,” Harley admits. “MJ set me straight on a few things. Before her, Plan A was mostly to catch him alone and break his face.”

“Yes. Listen to MJ,” MJ says. “That’s the moral of the story.”

Harley laughs. Peter does too.

The only person in the cafeteria who doesn’t look happier is Flash, who is staring down discontentedly at a small bag of barbecue-flavored Fritos in his hands.

See, forgive and forget might work for some people, but it doesn’t work for Harley. So for the rest of the year, he and JARVIS are making sure no matter what extra snack Flash tries to buy from the vending machine in the lunchroom, it will always deliver him something he didn’t select. Nothing bad. Nothing he could be allergic to. Nothing he won’t eat. Just... not what he wants.

You don’t mess with Harley’s best friend and get away with it. You just don’t.

 

--- THURSDAY / 3:45 PM / Near the train stop ---

The paparazzi are waiting for Harley as he leaves school. He knows he could call Happy for a ride, or Tony, or probably even Peter’s Aunt May if it came down to it. But he’s spent all day figuring out a way to throw the reporters off their game and with JARVIS’s help, he thinks he’s got one. All it takes are a few minor modifications to his Bluetooth-enabled headphones and he’s ready.

When they corner him, Harley stops and greets them with a smile.

“I’ve got enough time for about ten questions. If you ask me about my aunt, I’m walking away. All I’ll talk about is what my life is really like, here in New York. I don’t have any comment on what’s going on in Tennessee.”

He’s not sure it’ll work, but everyone seems surprised they’re getting any answers at all and so apparently they’re willing go along with it. They start shouting their questions all at once and he can’t really make out any of the words.

“Wait!” he yells over the noise. “Have you seriously never done this before? When I point at you, you get one question. You. Go first.”

He points at a tall woman in the front row.

“What’s it like living with Tony Stark?” she asks.

“Like living with any other responsible adult. Except with more robots.”

Harley points at someone else.

“Do you get an allowance and if so, how much?” a young reporter asks.

“That’s two questions but I’m gonna let it slide because I’m pretty sure I’ve watched you get hit in the face with a roadsign on YouTube before. Yes, I do get an allowance. Colonel Rhodes was insistent that I get enough for fun, but not enough for trouble, whatever that means.”

He points at a man near the back.

“Is Tony Stark really the heartless person that people say he is?”

Harley can’t help his instant scowl. “I know sometimes teachers say there’s no such thing as a stupid question– but that was totally a stupid question. Heartless people don’t take in foster kids or save the planet on the regular. Next.”

He chooses someone off to the side.

“Does he make you do chores?”

“Tony doesn’t make me do anything. We both do chores because we don’t have a butler and neither of us wants to live in a mess.”

“What do you think of the ex-Avengers?” the next person asks.

“I don’t think about them at all.”

“Have you met them?”

“In passing,” Harley evades.

“What did you think of Captain Rogers?”

“He looks a lot bigger on TV.”

That gets a laugh from the crowd.

“How often have you run into Mr. Stark’s conquests?” a blonde woman asks when Harley chooses her.

“It’s Dr. Stark. He has three PhDs,” Harley reminds her. “And I don’t think you’re supposed to use the word “conquest” anymore. If that’s how you describe people, you’re the one who’s being problematic, not him.”

She looks irritated when he points to someone else.

“Why have you been separated from your sister?”

“I’m not talking about my sister.”

A man Harley recognizes as J Jonah Jameson elbows his way to the front line and shouts a question without being chosen. “What do you think of that menace Spider-Man?”

Harley only responds because this is a question he wants to answer. “I think anybody who’s trying that hard to make the world a better place is worth rooting for. He’s one of my top three favorite superheroes, for sure.”

“Do you know his identity?” Jameson asks, with a frantic gleam in his eyes.

“Nope. Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s one of life’s great mysteries. Honestly though, I think it’s more disappointing that you aren’t asking me about my own super powers.”

That gets a laugh from the crowd.

“No really! I’m psychic,” Harley insists. “I’m still practicing, but I’m definitely coming along. Why else do you think Tony would invite me to live with him in New York? I’m basically a nobody. There must be something special about me, right?”

The gathered crowd murmurs. They’re totally buying it.

“Can you prove it?” a woman near the front asks.

Harley’s smile lights up. He absolutely can. Or well-- with an assist from JARVIS he can.

“Can I try my powers out on you?” he asks her.

“Go ahead,” she says.

“Your name is Maliah and you’re... 25 years old. You went to college at Mount Holyoke, you have a boyfriend named Jordan, you just got back from a trip to Spain and...” Harley pauses as JARVIS feeds the last of his information into his ear piece. “You’re way too good a writer for this celebrity reporting gig. National Geographic's travel blog is hiring, and they wouldn’t make you chase around C-list teenagers. You should apply there.”

Maliah smiles and nods. “That’s right. You nailed it!”

“She’s a plant,” the man next to her growls. He’s a middle-aged white guy, who Harley can’t help but thinks looks like life has chewed up and spit out.

“I’m a reporter,” Maliah retorts. “Just like you, Marvin.”

“Are you a plant, sir?” Harley asks him.

“Of course not. If you were really psychic, you’d know I wouldn’t cooperate with any Stark bullshit,” the man mocks.

“Well then, Mr. Deel,” Harley says with a smile, “You started out your career writing newsletters for an animal shelter, left it to write copy for a shady healthcare website that went under in 2008 and after that the wolves of time ate all your dreams.” (That last bit is a guess, and not from JARVIS, but Harley’s good at feeling people out and this one is easy to see.) “You hate my dad, and you also hate Starbucks and Target and anywhere you think is corporate even though you totally sold out--”

JARVIS and the journalists catch Harley’s error at the same time.

“Harley,” JARVIS speaks into his ear. “You just referenced Sir by--”

Dad. Damn it.

It’s habit, and Harley’s not going to back track, despite all the sudden shouting. His sight goes blinky from the sudden burst of a dozen flashbulbs. The crowd of reporters and photographers pushes in on him all shouting and trying to get his attention.

This was a bad idea.

Harley tries to walk away but the mob shifts around him. They’re all shouting about Tony and about whether they are really related. Someone demands to know what Harley’s been hiding. They all want to sniff out an exclusive. A hand grabs his arm. He pulls away until he realizes it’s Maliah and she’s trying to make a way for him through the crowd.

Harley’s not panicking but he doesn’t love what’s going on. Nothing he or Maliah do get him any space. His foot gets stepped on and then there’s a lot of shifting in the crowd as someone bulldozes right through them.

It’s Happy. Harley’s never been so happy to see him.

“JARVIS thought you might need a lift,” Happy says, and he doesn’t even gloat about it.

Happy takes Harley by the arm and helps him get to the car. Maliah doesn’t try to join them, just gives Harley a wave once he’s safely in the front passenger’s seat with the door closed and his seatbelt on. Happy takes off, missing JJ Jameson by inches.

“Want to talk about it?” Happy asks, after they’ve gone about a block.

“Nope,” Harley grumbles.

“Good times then,” Happy says. “There’s snacks in the dash. I keep them for Peter but all you brats eat Funyuns.”

“M’not a brat,” Harley complains. But he does eat the Funyuns.

Tony’s waiting for him when he gets home.

“Are you mad?” Harley asks as he tugs the door closed behind him.

“Why would I be mad?” Tony asks. “It was hilarious right up til the end when they got out of hand. The bit where you were a psychic? Classic. Was that JARVIS or Peter on the other end of your earpiece?”

“JARVIS,” Harley admits. “Are you really not mad? You told me not to talk to the paparazzi.”

“I told you don’t feed the word-trolls,” Tony says. “But you’re a teenager. You know what I was doing when I was your age? Actually don’t answer that,” Tony amends. “The thing is-- I was trained to talk to the press my whole life and if you do any googling-- again, not a good idea-- what you’ll see of me at 15 is a lot of flipping off the camera, smoking cigarettes, wearing shiny pants and generally being a nuisance. You handled those questions like a pro. Better than I ever could.”

“I called you my dad,” Harley groans.

“I’ve been called worse,” Tony says. “And I’ll handle it. What’s going to be harder for me to handle is your little psychic schtick. Your principal already called. Wants to have a conversation. Make sure you aren’t cheating.”

“Cheating?”

“Reading answers out of your teachers’ minds.”

Harley winces.

“Yeah, you did not think that one through.”

“It was supposed to be a joke,” Harley says. “Trolling the trolls.”

“I give you 10 out of 10 for creativity. Half that for forethought. Think you can give the world a better explanation than legit psychic before Professor Xavier sends over your Hogwarts Letter?”

Harley nods.

Tony gestures toward his office. “I’ve got some calls to make. You okay?”

“I’m okay,” Harley confirms.

“It’s not easy to deal with the kind of scrutiny you’re under. You did great. I mean it. That part where you called Christine Everhart problematic? Best thing that’s happened to my week.”

Harley’s smile is less tense. “Really?”

“If I didn’t know for a fact I never slept with your mom, I’d have questions. Apple,” Tony says, pointing at Harley. “Tree,” he says, pointing at himself.

Harley smiles, feeling much, much better. Tony gives him a half hug as he walks past and then shuts himself away in his office, no doubt sorting out Harley’s mess.

“JARVIS, can you text Peter?” Harley asks the empty room. “Ask him if he can stop by.”

Apart from Tony, there’s really no one else who’ll understand. No one else that Harley knows is always on his side.

“Peter is already on his way. He should be here within the next three minutes.”

“Thanks, J.”

Peter is mother-hen-level worried about Harley, and also incredibly willing to help Harley sort out his press disaster. He calls Aunt May to ask for permission to spend the night, then they order pizza and brainstorm. They work out the details as they sit on the floor of the garage, eating dinner next to their favorite orange car, and by the time Harley’s finished he feels about a thousand times more himself.

“JARVIS, can you get that nice reporter on the phone for me? Maliah? I have something I need to confess,” Harley says, once they’re finished with their food.

Maliah’s totally gracious about Harley’s prank and thanks him twice for that tip about the Nat Geo job. Harley does lie and say it was Peter googling for him in his earpiece, but that’s just being practical. No one outside Tony’s inner (or ex) circle knows about JARVIS, and Harley wants to keep it that way.

The article Maliah puts up online a couple hours later is awesome. It’s honest but not invasive. It clears up Harley’s prank and makes him sound way cooler than he is. It touches on Tennessee and discredits his aunt’s lies without giving too much away.

In short, it’s perfect. Nothing’s ruined.

Tony comes to check on them not long after. As soon as he walks in, he puts his hand to his forehead dramatically, like the giant nerd he is.

“My mind-reading skills tell me both of you are in serious need of late-night milkshakes.”

Tony really might be psychic. Who knew?

 

--- FRIDAY / 7:45 AM / The road in front of Midtown High ---

The crowd around the school steps has doubled. The police are there to keep reporters and photographers off school property and to clear a way for Harley to get from the car to the steps, but Harley doesn’t take off his seatbelt.

“I can drive around back,” Tony offers. “I know a guy with the password to the gate.”

“Is that guy JARVIS?” Peter asks from the backseat.

“Could be,” Tony says.

“It’s okay,” Harley says. “I can get out here.”

There’s a rapid tapping against Harley’s window that startles him. He turns, and it ends up being Ned, who had somehow talked his way past the law barrier. MJ peers around from behind Ned as Harley rolls the window down about halfway.

“We told them we’re your friends!” Ned says cheerfully.

“Ned said that,” MJ counters. “I told them I’m your Feminist Studies tutor and that I barely even like you.” She’s smirking, so Harley mostly figures she’s kidding. “So are you getting out or not? Because we’re gonna be late if you don’t get your ass in gear.”

“Give him a second,” Peter says.

“I don’t need a second,” Harley says. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Peter scoots across the seat to hop out first. Camera flashes start going off like fireworks as all the photographers scramble to get a shot.

“Happy’s gonna pick you up, so if you want to invite your little Scooby gang over to watch movies tonight or whatever, let him know. He can drive something big enough to hold the four of you, plus Ned’s enthusiasm.”

“Are you gonna be around?”

“I’m flying out to California for a board meeting but I should be back before lights out. Need any lunch money?”

“JARVIS takes care of it,” Harley reminds him. “But thanks.”

“Never a problem.”

Harley climbs out and shuts the door. Peter, MJ and Ned surround him as Tony drives away, and the press starts shouting. This time around, Harley barely notices them.

It isn’t always easy being Harley Keener. But it isn’t always hard, either.

Chapter Text

Peter spends almost every weekend at the mansion now. It works out great all around.

It gives Aunt May a chance to date and hang out with friends and spend her weekends binge-watching Gray’s Anatomy guilt-free.

It gives Harley some company, since Tony’s started scheduling almost all his business trips for Friday/Saturdays so he’s home during the school week.

Ned is in actual heaven every time he comes to hang out (which is often).

And Peter can come and go as he pleases to do his spider-patrols without feeling like he has to sneak around or lie to Aunt May.

Basically, everybody’s happy. Life runs smoothly for almost six weeks after Harley gets back from Tennessee. It’s almost weird how normal Peter’s New Normal feels. And it’s one of those comfortably normal nights, when Peter is spending the night with Harley while Tony is out of town that trouble comes knocking.

Literally.

“Harley. Peter,” JARVIS says, interrupting the episode of Mythbusters they’re watching from where they’re camped out on the floor of the garage. “Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes have entered the backyard and are approaching the kitchen door. I have attempted to alert Sir but he is not responding. Do you want me to allow them to enter?”

Peter looks at Harley and he can tell Harley is torn. Harley still has no charitable thoughts for Steve Rogers, but he’s a big fan of Bucky.

“It’s your house,” Peter says diplomatically.

He would let them inside. He won’t push Harley to do that, though. Home is supposed to be a safe place. Peter’s already got one and Harley deserves one of his own.

“Upon closer evaluation they appear to be injured,” JARVIS adds. “Sergeant Barnes may be in considerable medical distress.”

“Let them in,” Harley says immediately.

They both take off running up the stairs.

Steve and Bucky are already in the kitchen when they arrive. Steve’s got his arm around Bucky and he’s supporting most of his weight. They’re dirty and covered in blood. They’re in uniform, too. So a mission gone wrong.

“Is Tony home?” Steve asks. “Sorry-- to barge in. We were close. Didn’t have anywhere else safe to go on short notice.”

“He’s not home,” Harley says..

“JARVIS tried to call him but he’s not responding,” Peter adds. He wasn’t all that worried about Tony not answering his comm before but he’s more worried now that something is definitely up in New York. “Any chance you were followed? I can suit up.”

“They’re dead,” Bucky offers. His voice is shaky, like he’s in a lot of pain. “Not before hittin’ me with some kind of bullet I’ve never seen before. We can’t pry it out and I think it’s-- messin’ with my nervous system. I can take a lot of damage but this is somethin’ else entirely. I need to get to Wakanda.”

“I do not think a trip to Wakanda would be wise in your current state,” JARVIS says somberly. “You exhibit signs of shock, Sergeant Barnes. Rapid pulse. Rapid breath. Enlarged pupils.”

“I need this outta my arm,” Bucky pleads.

“I thought Tony could help,” Steve says numbly. “I’ve never seen anything he can’t fix.”

“I can do it,” Harley says. “Especially if you’ve got the schematic of the arm for me to work from.”

“JARVIS, can you try and contact Princess Shuri of Wakanda?” Steve asks. “Her contact information is in my phone. She designed Bucky’s arm.”

“Accessing now,” JARVIS says. “The number returned is in Do Not Disturb Mode. It is 3:30 AM in Wakanda. Should I attempt a workaround?”

“Yes-- or try King T’Challa. He’s in my phone, too.”

“I will do my best,” JARVIS assures them.

“Bucky can come to the lab,” Harley says. “Peter help him.”

The implication is clear. Bucky is welcome. Steve is on his own.

Peter looks at Steve and it’s obvious it’d take the Hulkbuster suit to pry him away from Bucky’s side, and honestly Peter doesn’t blame him.

“Harley-- if you’re doing this, they’ve both got to be in the lab,” Peter points out. “Think if it was me and you.”

Harley’s looks annoyed but also like he knows there really is no other choice.

“Fine. But don’t touch anything,” Harley says to Steve. “I still don’t trust you around my dad’s stuff.”

“Fair enough,” Steve says.

Steve supports Bucky as they walk to the lab and it’s obvious Bucky’s getting worse by the minute. His steps are more like staggers. His face contorts with the effort to stay quiet in his agony. Peter knows that’s what he’s doing because he does that, too.

“Help him to the bench,” Harley directs. He doesn’t look panicked. Concerned, yeah, but he’s also got his Determined Face on, and it makes Peter feel like this really is doable, because there isn’t much Harley can’t do when he’s damned sure he’s going to make it happen.

“Do you trust me to try this without the schematics?” Harley asks Bucky seriously. “Because I mean obviously Tony would be better. JARVIS can keep trying to contact him. But-- if you're in pain, if you trust me-- I can do it. At least I think I can."

Bucky looks Harley in the eyes and nods. "Yeah, I do. I do trust you."

“JARVIS, feed his vital signs to the monitor,” Peter directs, rummaging through the nearest first aid kit for the tech he knows is in there. “His and Steve’s. You should sit, too, Captain.”

If Harley’s on bullet duty then Peter’s gonna have to be medical. That’s just how it works.

He fits a tiny, gentle clamp on the end of one of Bucky’s non-metal fingers and numbers appear on a nearby display. A two second glance is all Peter needs to see to know it’s gonna be a bad night. And that’s not even taking Steve into consideration. There’s a bullet hole leaking blood near his shoulder that looks like it went in through the front and straight out the back. Peter can see blood has soaked through a giant gash just above Steve’s knee, too.

"Are you sure we shouldn’t call someone who knows what they’re doing?” Peter asks, uneasily. “One of MJ’s moms is a doctor. I know she’d help. Or there’s my pediatrician."

That suggestion makes Bucky groan. “God, you’re young. Both of you. Shouldn’t be dealing with this.”

"But we’re who’s home,” Peter shrugs. “What works for you for pain? Anything?”

"Nothing you’re going to have here," Steve says. “And nothing that works for very long.”

"Well that's shitty," Harley grumbles as he climbs up onto the table where Bucky’s arm rests, since he’s too small to sit on the bench next to him and get a good view. He reaches for Bucky and Bucky flinches away.

"Don’t touch me yet,” Bucky orders. “I need to be immobilized first. I get violent sometimes when people start doin' medical things to me. Don’t mean to, but it happens. You got something that can restrain this arm?"

"Probably,” Harley says. “But you won't hurt me," he insists. “I know you won’t.”

“It’s nothin’ personal. It’s PTSD or somethin’,” Bucky mumbles. “Can’t stop myself.”

Peter’s read up a bit on what’s been done to Bucky. Not all of it, but he knows enough to know a hope and a prayer aren’t going to be enough to keep Bucky still through whatever might need done to remove the bullet safely.

"I can do it," Peter says. "Immobilize you, I mean. My webs can do it."

"I’m not scared," Harley insists.

"But you should be, kid," Bucky tells him.

“HYDRA restrained you,” Harley argues. “I’m not HYDRA. If I do something wrong I want you to be able to pull away. I don’t want to be one more person who hurt you.”

"You’re nothin’ like them,” Bucky says. “They never gave a shit what I wanted. You do. Now do it, Peter.”

Peter doesn't hesitate. Aims and shoots, sticking both of Bucky’s hands and wrists to the table.

Harley moves a few inches so that he’ll have more space to work.

“Guess that’s that then,” Harley says. “M’I okay to start?”

Bucky nods.

Harley only works for a few seconds before he stops.

"Dum-E, bring me a light?" Harley asks. He sounds a little less sure now. Like having Bucky pinned there is making him uneasy.

Dum-E rolls toward them, beeping nervously. His claw points suspiciously at Steve the entire time. He doesn't like Steve in the workshop. Peter has often wondered how Poe understands BB8 with only beeps but now he gets it. When you know a robot well enough you just know.

"It's fine, Dum-E," Harley says, as he grabs the light bar from him. "Steve's allowed in here, because I said he's allowed. He's going to hold the light for me. You go get the fire extinguisher in case we need it."

“Is there a chance his arm’s going to catch fire?” Steve asks quietly.

He doesn’t sound worried. He sounds resigned. Like ‘yeah, that’d be the end to this day that I expect.’

“It makes Dum-E feel safe,” is Harley’s terse reply, as he hands Steve the light. “JARVIS, where are we on those schematics? They’d be super helpful to have right about now.”

Even without schematics Harley seems to be figuring some things out. There’s a panel at the top of Bucky’s arm that opens after Harley fiddles with it. It’s a good thing that Bucky's held still by the webbing because it's obviously taking a ton of effort to stay in one place. Every time Harley touches him, the pain seems to get worse. Bucky’s heart-rate spikes and falls, over and over. And there’s something new. Something Peter hadn’t heard before.

“Harley...” Peter says.

“Working on it,” Harley says, without looking up.

“JARVIS?” Peter asks. “Bucky’s heart doesn’t sound right. There’s like a... swish between the beats. It’s not just a quickened pulse. It’s almost like I’m hearing a heart murmur. Are you reading that?”

“I am. The murmur could be a result of temporarily increased blood flow due to his fluctuating temperature,” JARVIS says. “Cooling him down would be ideal.”

“No. Cold,” Bucky protests.

“I do feel it necessary to remind you I am not a licensed medical professional,” JARVIS says. “However I can say with confidence, Sergeant Barnes’s condition is worsening.”

“Is there anything else we can try?” Peter asks.

“According to the Harvard Medical Decision Tree, sedation would be another possible solution,” JARVIS offers.

“It would take stronger drugs than anything Tony’s going to have here,” Steve says. “Unless he keeps a sedative for Dr. Banner?”

“There is no such sedative available in the mansion at this time,” JARVIS says.

Peter closes his eyes for a second. Takes a slow breath. Thinks.

They do have something in the house that might work. An ultrasonic device meant to achieve high directivity by modulating audible sound into high-frequency-ultra-waves and created specifically to affect people like Steve and Bucky (and Peter, though Peter tries not to think about that part.) (Because Harley would never hurt him.)

(Even if Tony would have said the same about Steve once upon a time probably.)

Doesn’t matter now.

"I think I’ve got an idea,” Peter says. “Harley, where's the dog whistle?"

"In my room," Harley says, without really seeming to pay attention to what Peter’s asking. "Wasn't expecting company tonight.”

He’s so focused on the task at hand it takes him a few seconds to get what Peter’s suggesting. When Harley looks up it’s with wonder. “Shit-- right-- ummm... that could work! You’re a genius. Back left side of my desk there’s a box. I’ve got it in with my baseball cards.”

“I’ll be right back,” Peter says.

He races down the hall and manages to get to Harley’s room in under 15 seconds. He spots the box, grabs the Dog Whistle 2.0 Super Soldier Edition, and hustles back to the lab. By the time he gets there Bucky’s looking shark-eyed and murdery and flexing his fingers in a way that’s gonna get him out of the webbing sooner than later. Peter flings one more glob of web at both Bucky’s hands.

“I’m gonna have to do this part alone,” Harley says, pushing up off the table and stepping away. “You’ve got super-hearing too, Peter, and you haven’t been around when I’ve tested my adjustments. You need to be out of the room, just in case my calculations are off. Both of you. Wait in the hall.”

“What is that thing?” Steve asks, eyeing the tiny device Peter hands to Harley.

“It’s a weapon,” Harley says matter-of-factly. “And not the potato kind. I made it to protect Tony in case you ever decide having him around isn’t convenient anymore.”

“My issues with Tony were never a matter of convenience,” Steve argues, sounding so very done with Harley’s attitude.

“Funny how when you suddenly need help it’s like there were no issues at all,” Harley shoots back.

“The dog whistle works with hyper-focused sound waves,” Peter interrupts loudly, because his other option is to stick his fingers in his ears and sing falala until they decide to get along.

“It’s non-lethal, because rules,” Harley adds, “but it’s enough to knock you on your ass.”

“Do it,” Bucky begs. “Knock me out-- please-- hurts too much--”

Peter can’t decypher Steve’s expression. It’s like everything is all too terrible to put together and his Captain America mask slides into place. The heated emotions are gone.

“Will it work to sedate him?” Steve asks evenly.

“JARVIS?” Harley prompts.

“All previous testing confirms that it should,” JARVIS replies. “There is significant risk involved because Sergeant Barnes is--”

“Just do it,” Bucky growls. He yanks up so hard that the table moves and yeah-- even fresh webbing is not gonna hold much longer.

Peter shoves Steve toward the exit. JARVIS whisks the doors shut as soon as they’re clear.

“Jesus Christ,” Steve sighs, letting his head fall back against the wall with a loud thunk.

He sounds exhausted. Like every ounce of put-togetherness inside the lab had been an act for Bucky’s sake and now that Bucky’s not there to see him, he’s ready to crack.

It’s never going to stop being weird seeing Captain America be human.

“Bucky’s going to be okay,” Peter consoles. “I know Harley can be a lot to take, but he’s definitely your best shot.”

Steve nods. “I know I shouldn’t let him get to me. He’s what? 15? But it’s like someone handed Harley a manual on how to get under my skin.”

“You should see him at school,” Peter says. “There was a guy who used to bully me. Not. Anymore. When Harley aims all that energy in the right direction, he’s incredible.”

“I don’t doubt it. You know the part that really gets me?” Steve asks. “Listening to him is like listening to a recording of me at that age. The only difference is I doubt I was half that smart.”

“You think hassling Captain America is smart?” Peter asks.

“Well… he’s got you watching his back,” Steve points out. “And that dog whistle.”

“And a potato cannon,” Peter reminds him, with the tiniest of smiles.

Steve groans. “I am never going to live that down.”

“Would you even want to?” Peter asks. “It’s a pretty epic story, Cap.”

Steve returns Peter’s smile with a tired one of his own. “I can see why the three of you get along so well.”

Peter nods. “We might not be the Avengers but we make a good team.”

“You do,” Steve agrees. “Today…” He pauses like he’s trying to choose his next words carefully. “We needed help and I couldn’t think of anywhere safer than here. Even if we aren’t entirely welcome, I knew Tony would have my back. That he always will.”

The door slides open before Peter has time to respond.

Bucky is unconscious, slumped forward on the table, with his face turned away from them. Harley has stuffed his hoodie under Bucky’s head as a makeshift pillow. That doesn’t do anything to make Harley look like this is a responsibility that should be falling on his shoulders. Without his sweatshirt, he’s left wearing a Rose Hill Middle School Science Fair Winner t-shirt.

He’s already back at his task, working on the inside of Bucky’s very open arm, with a huge pile of tools beside him. The vitals JARVIS is displaying have moved to something nearer normal.

“JARVIS says he’s fine for now,” Harley announces. “Knocking him out did the trick.”

“How long before it wears off?” Steve asks.

“I don’t know,” Harley admits. “There were no super-soldiers around for testing. I wasn’t gonna try it out on Peter.”

“Which Peter very much appreciates,” Peter chimes in.

It’s quiet after that, with only the sound of Harley’s occasional swearing to break the silence. Peter goes and gets a fresh washcloth and a bowl of warm water so Steve can clean up a little. The longer Harley works the more obvious it is that the bullet isn’t budging, and as time passes Bucky’s vitals creep toward the danger zone again. The dog whistle worked, but not for long.

Without warning, Harley whacks the pliers in his hand repeatedly against the bench in frustration. Bang-bang-bang-bang!

“We need Tony,” Harley erupts. “Vibranium is a pain in the ass and I can’t get through it. I’ve tried everything. Without the schematics or a vibranium chisel...” He trails off in disgust. “I don’t think I can do it.”

Peter knows Harley well enough to know how miserable it must make him to admit something like that. He walks over to sit on the table next to him and pries the wrench out of his hands.

“If Tony can figure it out, so can you,” Peter says confidently. “I know you can. What have you tried?”

Everything,” Harley says. “I’m just not as smart as him. I can picture all the ways he’d make it work but nothing is actually working. He would--”

“Fix it. Totally,” Peter agrees. “But it’s not about how he’d do it. It’s about how you’re going to do it. Tony knows what he knows. You know what he knows and what you know. That like-- doubles your chances to get this right. So forget everything in here that’s his. If you were in Tennessee in your garage-- if all you had was what you could get your hands on, how would you get the bullet out? What would you do? What would Harley Keener do?”

Harley looks up at Peter like Peter’s grown a second head, before he closes his eyes to concentrate.

“Vibranium is ridiculously hard,” Harley starts, “So ummmm… it’s going to take something similarly hard. No use bothering to look for wurtzite boron nitride in Rose Hill and lonsdaleite only comes from meteorites so that’s out. Which leaves diamonds. I’d probably go grab my mom’s old wedding ring. She doesn’t wear it anymore and I’m mostly sure it’s real. I’d weld it to my pliers. Ask for forgiveness later. Use the diamond to--”

“Captain Rogers, you have an incoming transmission from Wakanda,” JARVIS announces.

“What did you do to my arm!?” a girl’s voice demands, a second before an orange lab-coat wearing teenager appears on the big monitor across from the bench. She pauses and looks surprised. “You aren’t Tony Stark.”

“He’s not home,” Harley says, “And we don’t know where he is.”

“Princess Shuri,” Steve says. “Bucky got shot with a weapon we didn’t recognize. The bullet lodged in his arm and he started to go into shock. We were already in New York and this was the only place I could think to bring him. He’s--”

“I’ve got the read-outs here, Captain,” Shuri says, cutting him off. She looks directly at Harley. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Not a clue. Totally winging it,” Harley says. “Was about to go find something made of diamond and start chipping away. If you can send me some schematics that would help.”

The blueprints for Bucky’s arm appear on one of the displays next to Harley a few seconds later.

“Not a bad plan. You were heading in the correct direction,” Shuri says. “What’s your name?”

“Harley. And this is Peter.”

Peter gives a little half-wave, as Shuri acknowledges him with a nod.

“Well, Harley, do you have a polycrystalline-diamond drill in that lab of yours? And a magnetronic shield emitter?”

“Right. Magnets. Dum-E, fetch the mag-shield,” Harley calls to him, his entire mood turning around in an instant. “Peter can you get me the drill?”

Without thinking, Peter flicks his wrist toward the drill on the opposite wall and webs it, before flinging it straight back to himself. Dum-E is not quite as fast but he rolls over with the correct tool a few seconds after Peter hands off the drill.

“We are going to talk about who the two of you boys are in a minute,” Shuri declares. “For now, Harley I want you to delaminate the surface around the bullet. Engage the magnet first, then use the axial-thrust force to shear the lower surface laminations. Tilt the magnet-- yes, like that. Careful of the-- right. Careful! Good work…. You may need to use your thumb. Tuck it under and pull, avoiding the wires...”

In any other circumstance Peter would be crowding in to see, because he’s curious and Shuri’s instructions are clear enough that he could follow them easily, but Harley’s the one doing the actual work and he doesn’t need the distraction.

“Got it!” Harley says triumphantly. He pulls his hand away and the bullet is in it.

“Bag that,” Shuri directs. “I want to see it myself as soon as possible, along with Sergeant Barnes. I need to fix the arm damage here in my lab.”

“Told you to call me Bucky,” Bucky mumbles. He hasn’t moved yet but it’s reassuring to know he’s awake.

“And I told you to stay out of trouble,” Shuri teases. “You aren’t finished yet, Harley. You’ve got to put Humpty-Dumpty together again. Look up at the panel you popped open near his shoulder…”

Shuri continues to give Harley instructions as Peter begins to wipe down the tools. Bucky looks a lot better already, and Peter can hear the steady thump thump of a healthy heart.

“I’m gonna go get him something to eat,” Steve says. “It’ll help him recover.”

“Get yourself something, too,” Peter reminds him. “When you come back I can patch up anything on you that hasn’t healed yet. Aunt May says Neosporin is good for the body and the soul.”

Steve smiles, gratitude and relief obvious in his eyes. “Sounds good.”

Peter fishes out what he’ll need from the first aid kit then continues on with the clean up. Harley closes up Bucky’s arm a minute later.

“Harley, you follow instructions well,” Shuri says from the screen.

Peter and Harley look at each other and grin.

“Not usually,” they say in unison.

That makes Shuri cackle. “I will talk to my brother. If he is bringing in Americans why can’t I bring in some of my own? We’ll do science camp. It will be fun!”

“Oh yeah. I can see this goin’ great,” Bucky drawls. “Please let me be there to see T’Challa’s face when you ask him. And Stark’s. And Steve’s. Video calls were made for this kind of thing.”

Peter doesn’t exactly get the joke but he’s flooded with relief anyway, because if Bucky’s well enough to want to punk somebody he’s well enough to live through till morning.

Now if Tony would just check in, everything would be fine.

Chapter Text

“It was good of you to let them stay,” Peter says, about twenty minutes into Operation: De-Blood the Kitchen.

“Good has nothing to do with it,” Harley says. “If Tony’s in trouble and needs back up, Captain Kangaroo is practically bulletproof. You aren’t.”

Peter gasps and he totally does not mean for that gasp to be audible but sometimes Harley’s cold practicality still shocks him.

“God, if you had pearls you’d be clutching them,” Harley says, rolling his eyes. “One of us has to be pragmatic. And since you’re you, it’s got to be me. I’m not saying I want Steve to die-- I’m really not. I’m just saying, of all the people currently in New York who I’d send through an unknown door first-- he’s it.”

“I wasn’t clutching invisible pearls,” Peter protests. “I just don’t think like that. Anyway, why is anyone going through the front door in this scenario when I can drop in from the ceiling Mission Impossible style?”

“Fine. You drop from the ceiling while Steve goes through the door as the distraction.”

There’s a beep from the hallway, and they both look up. It’s Dum-E and he’s carrying a greasy rag with him, like he’s decided to help.

“Dum-Eeeeee,” Harley groans when the bot rolls in. “I already told you-- you’re gonna wheel through the blood and make a bigger mess. Go guard the lab. That’s your job. Tony’s going to be home soon and he’ll be annoyed if you aren’t doing your job.”

Dum-E beeps doubtfully and his camera turns toward the back door.

“You guard the lab,” Peter reminds the bot. “JARVIS guards the house, and we all guard Tony. That’s how it works. Tony’s job is to come back safe and he’s really good at his job.”

Dum-E doesn’t budge.

“We’re all a little worried, but I promise everything is going to be okay,” Peter adds. "Tony will be home soon."

Dum-E considers Peter’s words with a tilt of his hand clamp and then he chirps, sounding as if he’s accepted Peter’s logic. Dum-E wheels off down the hall and Peter sighs. He wishes he was half as confident about all that as he sounded.

Harley’s already back to scrubbing, and Peter knows they both need a distraction while they work or they’re going to lose their minds.

“Want to hear something weird?” Peter asks.

“Always,” Harley agrees immediately.

“I was clicking through some of that SHIELD stuff Black Widow put online and something I read said part of the reason SHIELD was formed in the first place was to try and keep Steve’s blood off the black market. Even way back then it was worth millions.”

Harley looks down at the red-soaked rag in his hands. “Well shit, we’re billionaires. And here I thought we’d be mooching off Tony forever!”

Peter laughs. He doesn’t believe for a second Harley would ever sacrifice national security (or Tony’s security) by letting Super Soldier blood get in the wrong hands.

“Did it say what they were going to do with it?” Harley asks.

“Make more Super Soldiers, I think,” Peter answers. “Though Tony’s dad-- there’s a record of him having a vial too, and he had other plans. He thought it might be a cure-all for everything from colds to cancer. Like a universal remedy.”

“Howard Stark was probably looking for a quick way to clear up his Chlamydia,” Harley says. “I don't know much about the origins of SHIELD but I have read loads about Howard. He was a grade A asshole.”

Peter nods. “I’d believe it. Tony told me a story about him once. It was pretty bad. And it sounded like Howard had practically disowned him by the time he died.”

Harley shrugs, looking suddenly a little amused. “Dads leave. No need to be a-- a--” He pauses. “Nevermind. I hate that word.”

“What word?” Peter asks, because how can he not?

“The P word,” Harley says. “I was quoting Tony. The first time we met. That’s what he told me. ‘Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.” Harley smiles like it’s a fond memory.

“You were ten!” Peter says. He can feel his eyes widen. Harley’s life is just so weird to hear about sometimes.

“His parenting has come a long way since then,” Harley defends.

“If I had pearls I would be clutching them.”

“I thought it was hilarious,” Harley says. “No one had ever talked to me like that before. Tony was the first person who ever made me feel like being abandoned wasn’t a big deal. Like I wasn't missing out on something.”

Harley’s expression goes sad suddenly, and Peter can hear how fast his heart is beating. He’s terrified, even if he’s working overtime not to show it.

“This isn’t like that,” Peter reassures him. “He’s going to be back.”

“I’m not Dum-E,” Harley says. “I know you don’t know that.”

“I know that even if he’s not back right away, it’s different,” Peter disagrees. “Your dad-- he left willingly. Tony never would. And we don’t have any reason to think anything is wrong except that he’s not responding. If it was something worse than that, JARVIS would know.”

“Unfortunately, I am not certain that is accurate,” JARVIS says from above. “I am experiencing some technical difficulties that may be related to Sir’s absence.”

“What if you try to reboot?” Peter suggests. “Fastest way to fix technology is always to turn it off and on.”

“Can you do that on your own?” Harley asks.

“I cannot. I need a command from a Top Level System Administrator.”

“Oh,” Harley says. “Umm--”

“You and Peter are each assigned that role,” JARVIS continues. “Do you want me to reboot?”

Peter and Harley make eye contact in surprise. They’re JARVIS’s top level admins? That’s a lot of power. A lot of responsibility. JARVIS can launch missiles, and Tony’s basically given them the keys.

It’s also the most anyone has trusted Peter ever. With anything.

“I don’t know, JARVIS,” Harley says. “If Tony needs you and you’re down that could make things worse.”

“But if Tony needs him and JARVIS isn’t working right, that could be equally bad,” Peter points out. “We’ve got our phones. Tony could call us if he needs help. He probably would? But this is your house. It’s your decision.”

“Do it, JARVIS,” Harley says. “Reboot. But make it fast.”

“It takes twenty minutes at minimum,” JARVIS says.

“Fine. Just don’t do any updates or anything… nothing that might take up time.”

“Will the lights stay on in the house?” Peter asks. “And the security system?”

“Sir has built in safety redundancies to the system designed specifically for your protection,” JARVIS confirms. “Should I begin?”

“Yeah. Begin,” Harley confirms.

“Starting system reboot. In 3. 2. 1.”

Nothing happens. Except--

“JARVIS?” Peter asks.

There’s no response.

“I hate this,” Harley says. “What do you think the security redundancies are? Something intense?”

“For sure,” Peter agrees. “I bet all the spare Iron Man suits fly up and hover over the block and switch to kill-mode if we’re even a little bit threatened.”

“I bet there are machine guns on the roof,” Harley says. “Or a Death Ray. I guess at least we know we’re safe.”

Peter nods. He has no doubt at all that Tony has this handled.

They go back to cleaning after that. Harley scrubs the cabinets so hard it’s like they personally wronged him.

The longer they wait, the more nerve-wracking it is that Tony’s still radio-silent and JARVIS hasn’t rebooted yet. Twenty minutes pass. Thirty. The kitchen has never been so spotless. When there’s nothing left to clean, they decide to go wash up. Peter finishes in record time and he and Harley meet back up to watch the back door. Harley gets up to put some snacks in bowls. Neither of them eat. Peter’s practically crawling out of his skin when he hears the tell-tale whoosh of Iron Man Armor landing.

He jumps up and practically flings himself out the back door. Tony’s climbing out of the suit, looking sweaty and banged up, but not badly injured.

Peter means to greet him enthusiastically, but between the overwhelming relief and hours of worry he’s having trouble making words work. Weirder still, Harley doesn’t greet Tony at all. Just glares at him from behind Peter, then turns around to walk back into the kitchen without saying a word.

“I can explain,” Tony says, putting his hands up in surrender. “Give me a sec to get inside and bring JARVIS back online and then I’ll tell you all about it. I’m sorry if I scared you.”

“Why didn’t JARVIS know where you were?” Peter finally asks, as he moves aside to let Tony in the house. Maybe for the first time he gets how Aunt May must feel the nights she realizes he’s sneaked out. It’s awful.

“There was magic involved,” Tony sighs. “Stephen Strange is not my favorite person right now. Seriously, give me a second. Just one.”

Harley still isn’t saying anything. He’s sitting at the table with his arms crossed, looking Unimpressed.

“Steve and Bucky are here,” Peter says. That seems important.

“I know. I could hear JARVIS but he couldn’t hear me. He followed the protocol for uninvited guests and sent me the security feed for the house so I was watching in real time. I was just stuck on another plane of existence so I couldn’t get back to the house as fast as I’d have liked. Where are they now?”

“Getting cleaned up,” Peter says. “Harley and I just finished mopping up the blood a few minutes ago. There was a lot.”

“I told them they could sleep in the guest rooms tonight,” Harley adds numbly. “Since that seemed like the polite thing to do and politeness is a thing I like to try every now and then.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony says again as he sits down at the table with a glass of water. He sounds entirely sincere. “I should have been here.”

“Peter was really worried,” Harley accuses.

Peter shoots him a look. He doesn’t deny it, but he also wasn’t the only one.

“You two okay, now? Really?”

“We’re always okay,” Harley says resolutely. “I just didn’t like not knowing where you were.”

Tony tries to nod seriously, but the very smallest of smirks ends up ruining his remorse completely.

“It’s not funny!” Peter protests. “You could have been hurt!”

“Or dead,” Harley adds. He sounds pissed.

That just makes Tony’s smirk turn into a straight-up smile, which he tries (and fails) to hide.

“I know-- I know, I swear,” Tony says, holding his hands up in surrender. “It’s just this feels a lot like getting caught by my parents as I try to sneak in after curfew and it shouldn’t be funny but somewhere up in my brain it is. Totally inappropriate laughter is kind of my thing. Gets me in all kinds of trouble.”

“Like you would even know what it’s like to worry about your kid being out after curfew. I’m never late,” Harley insists. “I’m good like that.”

Now Tony outright laughs. “You’re a hellion and you’re home early because all the best explosions happen here. And Spider-Boy over there is flinging himself off buildings at 2 AM like gravity isn’t a universal constant, so let’s not pretend I’m not well-versed on sleepless nights. We’re all train-wrecks. That’s why we work.”

“That’s valid,” Harley says. Then he smiles grudgingly. It’s obvious he’s fighting easy forgiveness.

“I’ll do better from now on,” Tony says. “And hey-- even though I wasn’t here, I’ve gotta say: I was impressed. You did good work on that arm and rebooting JARVIS was a stroke of genius. Speaking of, J, you back yet?”

“I have returned,” JARVIS says from above. “It’s good to have you home, Sir.”

“Same,” Tony replies.

Peter breathes out all the last of his worries. Now everyone is safe.

There are footsteps from the hall and Steve appears in the doorway. He’s changed into a Stark Industries t-shirt and some sweatpants and Peter watches Harley’s eyes narrow. A shared traumatic evening clearly hasn’t thawed him any toward Captain America.

Tony greets Steve with a tired waves and Harley’s glare deepens.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Steve says. “I heard your voice and I wanted to explain.”

“We’re the ones who fixed everything,” Harley protests. “So if anyone deserves an explanation it’s me and Peter.”

Steve nods. “That’s fair. I didn’t mean to make it sound like I wanted you to leave the room. Though, Harley-- Bucky’s asking for you. So you can stay or you can go; either way the mission report is yours. He knows as much as I do about what happened.”

It only takes Harley a second to decide. “I’m gonna go see Bucky.” He starts gathering snacks from the table into his arms. “JARVIS, initiate TSD mode?”

“Tony Stark Defense mode initiated,” JARVIS agrees.

Harley shoots the ceiling a pleased smile and then walks out of the room. TSD mode is mostly an alert system, but the way Harley asked for it definitely made it sounds way scarier than that.

“Do I even want to ask?” Steve asks, eyeing the corners of the room. “I’m a little worried stepping any closer to Tony is going to get me shot.”

“That would be Sniper Mode,” Peter says seriously, “or is it Terminator mode? I can’t remember which one we turned on before you got in the door.”

Steve’s eyes widen and Peter and Tony both laugh. Steve crosses his arms, attempting to give them a look of stern disapproval. He fails when he can’t stop from smiling.

“No worries, Cap,” Tony says. “Harley can’t initiate any dangerous programming to JARVIS without my okay and I’m not going to throw the kill switch on you.”

“Good to know,” Steve says dryly. “You’re fine? I wasn’t sure what to think when JARVIS couldn’t raise you on the comms.”

“I’m tougher than I look,” Tony says. “How about you? You’re walking around alright for a guy who took a bullet through the shoulder.”

“Peter got me all patched up,” Steve says. “I don’t know what we’d have done if they weren’t home.”

“I couldn’t be prouder,” Tony agrees, with all kinds of sincerity.

Peter’s entire being elevates to a higher realm. Ned is going to shit a (lego) brick when he gets the play-by-play of this night.

Steve’s phone rings and he glances at the screen then winces. “I’ve got to take this,” he says. “Mind if I use the back yard?”

“Use the front room,” Tony says. “You may be feeling better but you should still stay off your feet.” Tony points down the hall. “Last door on the left. New house rule: you bleed on it, you buy it.”

Steve shakes his head at Tony’s antics, then leaves to go take his call.

“How you holding up, Pete?” Tony asks. “I know you’re always fine, but God knows it can’t be easy on you, stuck in the middle of all this. You were a rock star tonight. Really.”

Peter shrugs. “I just monitored vitals and tried to keep everybody alive. Harley did the hard part. He’s the mechanic.”

I’m the mechanic,” Tony corrects. “And as much as Harley’s my mini-me, being Tony Stark is not a career path I’d want for either of you.”

“You know it’s kind of weird that you’re saying that. Steve said the same thing earlier. That Harley’s pretty much his mini-me.”

“See-- that’s something they never taught you in elementary school. Captain America was born a pain in the ass. It would have been good to know ahead of time, right?”

“I don’t think Harley’s a pain in the ass,” Peter disagrees.

Tony raises an eyebrow.

“Fine. He’s not a pain in my ass,” Peter says. “I just think it’s… cool. For Harley. That he’s exactly like both of you. He’s definitely gonna be amazing some day. Not that he isn’t already. He is. Obviously. The very best.”

He doesn’t intend that to sound like sour grapes, but it must.

“And you don’t remind me of me at all?” Tony asks, knowingly.

Peter looks out the window so he doesn’t have to look at Tony. “You never say I do.”

“I never say you don’t,” Tony points out. “Honesty? I can see arguments for similiatries to both me and Steve depending on the day. You don’t follow orders when you don’t agree with them. That could be either of us. You can find a goddamn loophole anywhere, and again-- that one goes both ways. Then there’s that whole thing where you end up so distracted by the future that sometimes you miss the good things that are happening around you in the present. I’m gonna claim that one as firmly a Stark trait. You want me to list more? I could.”

Peter shakes his head. He kind of would like to hear more ways he’s like Tony but it’s obvious that the answer to that question is supposed to be no.

“What’s that?” Tony asks.

“No,” Peter says solemnly.

Tony steps closer and slings an arm around Peter’s shoulder to draw him in for a half hug.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about you, Tony says. “The world doesn’t need more than one Tony Stark and god knows it can’t handle another Steve Rogers.”

“But you’re heroes,” Peter says.

“Not to everyone,” Tony says, shaking his head. “From the day I was born, people knew I was destined for great things— no one ever doubted that. But greatness isn’t the same as goodness and I was not destined to be good. If it weren’t for a handful of extraordinary people-- Rhodey, Jarvis.... a man named Yinsen, I would have been someone else. Someone neither of us would have liked. So here’s the thing: People like me and Harley need a moral compass sometimes. Your spider-powers make you a hero, but it’s everything else about you that makes you incredible. The world needs that. This family needs that. Not another me or Steve. Earth needs a you.”

Peter frowns. He wants to argue but he’s tired and Tony is being open in a way he’s not usually open and Peter knows if he pushes, Tony’s gonna shut that down. He must do a lousy job of keeping his doubts hidden because Tony waves a hand toward Peter’s face.

“What’s up with the Expression Olympics?” Tony asks.

Peter tries to make himself stop frowning and mostly ends up awkwardly blinking, because how even do you face? “Nothing.”

“You’re a terrible liar. Go ahead. You’ve got thoughts. Share with the class.”

Peter takes a second to figure out what he wants to say.

“Rhodey and Jarvis and… and Yinsen?” Peter asks the name carefully and waits for Tony to nod. “People like that don’t waste time on jerks like Flash or… I dunno… you probably know a lot of jerks who’d be good examples. The thing is, if good people meet you and take an interest in you, it’s because they see something there that’s worth getting to know. Like… Harley. I mean, I get it-- he’s had to be tough in a way I never had to be tough. But I met him and I knew like in a minute: this guy is gonna be one of the best friends I ever make. And not cause I was looking at greatness. I was pretty sure he was a burglar.”

“You make friends with a lot of burglars on your rounds?” Tony asks.

Peter knows Tony well enough by now to know this quick change of subject is inevitable. He’s got to have time to put things together in his head. He’s a mechanic after all.

“It happens,” Peter says. “There was this one time--” He pauses when Steve returns to the room.

“Nat says hello,” Steve greets. He already looks like he’s moving better. “She and Sam are heading this way, so we’ll be out of your hair first thing in the morning.”

Tony shrugs. “No rush. Barnes can take the time he needs.”

“Thank you,” Steve says after a beat. Then they both speak at once.

“I know this is complicated--” (Steve)

“I’m not going to turn someone out--” (Tony)

Then they both stop speaking to let the other go first, but there’s nothing but awkward silence hanging in the air. Steve’s whole expression is one of apology and Tony’s fidgeting like he’s contemplating jumping back in the Iron Man suit and returning home a different day.

“On second thought,” Peter announces, “I’m gonna go sleep. You two are acting like Aunt May when she runs into one of her exes at the bodega and I am way too tired to deal with that tonight.”

Steve groans. Tony facepalms.

“Can you believe this kid?” Tony asks. “Stays in my house, munches on my snacks, then snarks me in my own kitchen?”

“Right in front of your salad!” Peter adds dramatically.

Tony starts to cackle and Steve looks thoroughly confused.

“Not a reference you’re gonna get, Cap,” Tony explains. “Say what you will about teenagers, but they keep things interesting.”

“Yours more than most,” Steve agrees.

“If you even knew that half of it,” Tony agrees, before he turns to Peter. “Go get some sleep, Menace One. “JARVIS is in charge of breakfast delivery so if you want a specific kind of bagel, tell him.”

“I know I said we’d be gone early but that was before I knew about the bagels,” Steve says.

Peter takes that as his cue to back out of the room.

He doesn’t really know what to think of Tony and Steve’s awkward friendship. Tony seems happy enough to have Steve around but his body language is a little off. Sort of... careful. Peter realizes a few seconds too late that Tony was still wearing his weaponized watch and his JARVIS!glasses so he’s connected to the suit. He doesn’t wear them in the house often. Hardly ever really. Had he left them on because he didn’t feel safe?

Peter ducks around a corner and listens to make sure everything’s okay. He’s not going to eavesdrop, he just wants to be sure Tony’s fine before he goes to bed.

“... sorry… shouldn’t have come,” Steve is saying quietly.

“You didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Tony says matter-of-factly. “My door is always open. We don’t have to be friends for that to be true.”

“But it’d be nice,” Steve sighs. “Not that that’s your fault. I get it. It’s on me. Maybe Bucky’s right. Maybe there are some things apologies can’t fix.”

“An apology--”

“Wasn’t enough,” Steve says. “One hundred apologies won’t be enough. But what am I supposed to do? Give up?”

“There’s a first time for everything,” Tony says with a false lightness. “Anyway, I’m not sure you should be taking lessons on a good apology from the guy who still hasn’t managed to throw an “I’m” and a “sorry” into a sentence aimed in my direction.”

“Tony-- he’s sorry,” Steve says urgently. “He’s so sorry he can barely look at you. He would have rather bled out tonight than come here. I’ve never seen-- I’ve never seen anything like how sorry he is. The only reason he hasn’t talked to you about it is that he doesn’t want you to have to relive it. Any of it.”

“Good,” Tony says. “It’s not going to bring them back. It’s not going to undo Siberia. No reason apologies need to happen at all. We can just keep on keeping on. Sounds like a plan.”

“How do you think that’s working out for us?” Steve asks miserably.

“I don’t know, Steven. It’s fuck o’clock in the morning. Ask me after I’ve gotten some sleep. Better yet, ask me in a week, or in a month or in a year. Because right now I don’t know. I don’t know how any of this is supposed to work. But every time I think I’m ready to--”

A quiet chime to Peter’s left startles him.

“Peter,” JARVIS says quietly from a panel in the wall. “I think Sir would appreciate privacy for the remainder of this conversation.”

Peter’s been caught listening and he feels his face warm with guilt.

“I was trying to make sure Tony was safe,” Peter tries to explain. “I thought he seemed kind of nervous in the kitchen.”

“I am watching,” JARVIS assures him. “I will keep him safe.”

“Yeah, but Tony said he didn’t allow Harley to write in anything dangerous into your programming.”

“Harley’s assistance is not required,” JARVIS says. “My primary purpose is the protection of the System Administrators. The parameters are flexible on how that is accomplished. You have no reason for further concern.”

“Okay, thanks JARVIS,” Peter says, as he begins to walk down the hall toward his bedroom. The light panel in the wall moves with him, a visible sign that JARVIS is still keeping him company (or escorting him to bed to make sure he gets there). “Can I ask you one more question?”

“You can ask me as many questions as you like.”

Peter smiles at JARVIS’s infinite patience. “What did Tony mean when he said ‘it’s not going to bring them back. It’s not going to undo Siberia’?”

There’s a pause. The silence goes on for several seconds, then JARVIS says “My protocols limit the information I can share about conversations Sir considers private.”

Peter’s heard that exact same rule a couple of times before. But this time JARVIS has left something off the end.

“Don’t you usually tell me I should ask him myself?” Peter asks.

“Yes,” JARVIS says after another overly long pause. “I usually do.”

“You don’t think I should this time?” Peter asks.

“I have calculated the odds of Sir’s optimal well-being given the subject matter and all the most favorable outcomes result from him broaching the subject on his own, which I do believe he will do. I can not stop you from making the inquiry but I would consider it a personal favor if you did not.”

“I won’t if you don’t want me to,” Peter says. He opens the door to his bedroom and steps inside. “If I shouldn’t ask Tony about what he said, I’m guessing that means I shouldn’t mention it to Harley either?”

“There is a near zero percent chance Harley will react favorably to the conversation if it begins with you.”

“And a one-hundred percent chance he decides to make french fries on Captain America’s face?” Peter guesses as he shuts the door.

“Closer to ninety-eight, but rest assured the other two percent is no less potato-related.”

Peter smiles. “Do I even want to know what’s happening there?”

“Given the location of entry, I doubt it,” JARVIS says.

Peter laughs as he climbs into his bed and although he’s exhausted he does spend a little while going over Steve and Tony’s conversation in his head before he tries to sleep.

He’ll keep his promise to JARVIS; he won’t bring it up to Tony. But he didn’t promise not to do some side-research on his own. Aunt May always says “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

And if there’s anything Peter’s good at, it’s hope.

Chapter Text

“Sir, May Parker is requesting a meeting with you,” JARVIS says, interrupting Tony’s alone time with his first cup of coffee.

It’s early. Harley had left for school ten or fifteen minutes ago, which means Peter must have left May’s place around the same time.

“Sure, put her on the schedule,” Tony agrees.

“It’s a little more immediate than that,” JARVIS says. “Although I do not make a habit of tracking the location of your personal callers, from her tone I thought it prudent to check. She is less than 200 meters away from the front door. Your meeting is imminent.”

“Ya think?” Tony asks, glaring up at the ceiling.

“Unless you wish me to tell her you aren’t available.”

Tony’s in the kitchen, in an old Hulk t-shirt and the Iron Man pajama bottoms Harley got him for his birthday. He can only imagine the bed-head he’s got going on and because the coffee hasn’t fully trickled into his bloodstream, he’s guessing he’s not looking fresh like a daisy.

“You’re still on the phone with her?” Tony asks.

“I am excellent at multitasking. She will approach the door in less than one minute.”

Tony sighs. He could go get changed, run a washcloth across his face and a comb through his hair. He could put on a suit (a business suit, not anything weaponized) and hide behind the Tony Stark persona. Or he could act like a goddamn adult and go answer the door.

“Tell her I’m here,” Tony tells JARVIS. “And that we can meet now.”

There’s a tightness in his chest he tries to ignore. Maybe there’s something wrong with Peter. Maybe it’s something worse. An unannounced visit has never meant anything good for Tony, outside booty calls, and Tony doesn’t believe for a second May Parker has shown up all the way from Queens for a morning romp in the hay.

He opens the door on her first knock. She looks surprised to see him.

“I thought maybe I’d get to meet Mr. Jarvis,” she says in greeting, her expression shifting to a slight frown.

“That would be complicated,” Tony says simply.

He steps aside to let her inside, and he watches her eyes as they take in his tired appearance. She’s far more put together: heels, a pencil skirt, a blouse tucked-in neatly. But there are other details that Tony notices, and understands that she must have gotten ready in a hurry. Her hair is pulled up in a bun but a full strand has escaped her notice. Her eyeliner is slightly uneven. There’s a small run at the bottom of her hose.

After a moment of deliberation she walks in and before he has the door fully closed she turns on him with crossed arms.

“So Peter’s Spider-Man. You didn’t think maybe that’s information his legal guardian should have?”

Tony freezes. He needs to be careful about his words, because this isn’t about him. He can take the heat. He would rather take the heat, than throw Peter under a bus or let him take the fall. He also isn’t going to lie to May. He’d have never betrayed Peter’s secret but the cat is out of the bag and there’s no stuffing it back in again.

“I do,” Tony says quietly. “I do think it’s information you should have. I-- I didn’t sign up for this mentor stuff, so if I’m bad at it, that’s on me. I wasn’t great at being a teenager and I got it wrong--”

“You got it wrong?” May interrupts. “What the fuck, Tony! He’s 16!”

“I’m very aware,” Tony replies.

“Then why?” May demands. “Why did you choose him?”

“I didn’t choose him,” Tony says adamantly. “Some radioactive spider over at Oscorps chose him. I had no clue who he was until I scraped him off the pavement one night. JARVIS, show her.”

A second later, one of the paintings in the entryway fades and a screen appears. The security footage from the night Tony and Peter officially met begins to play. It’s only been a year and a half but god Peter looks young.

“Stay where you are, kid,” Tony watches himself say. “You’re going to hurt something.”

“Ceiling voice says I’m fine,” Peter whispers. Blood trickles out of the corner of his mouth. The side of his face is black and blue.

“Ceiling voice has a name. That’s JARVIS. Show some respect.”

“Sorry, Mr. Jarvis,” Peter groans.

“Better,” the Tony on the screen says, as the real life Tony glances at Aunt May. All the color has drained from her face.

"Are you going to tell my Aunt what I do?” Peter asks.

“I’m not going to tell anyone what you do,” Tony says. "But you’re going to stop doing it in your pajamas. You wanna be a superhero, I’m the last person who's got a right to stop you. We’re--”

“Stop,” May says. “Stop the video.”

The video feed disappears and the holographic art reappears.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Tony says. “I figured I’d watch out for him. Upgrade his suit. Do what I could to keep him alive.”

“You should have made him tell me,” May says. There are tears in her voice but not in her eyes. Like Pepper, May is made of iron. Tony has to shove himself into a gold-titanium alloy suit to feel that strong. “I can’t believe he’s out there doing this,” she continues. “I promised Ben I’d keep him safe.”

“I took the suit away once,” Tony says. “It didn’t stop him. I don’t think Peter’s the type of kid you can stop. If he can help someone, he’ll do it, consequences be damned.”

“It runs in the family,” May says. There’s a pause, like she’s deciding how much she wants to share. “Ben was like that. I used to tease him that he was secretly moon-lighting as an Avenger. Now it’s Peter. God-- I don’t know whether to hug him or ground him.”

“You want a drink?” Tony asks, sensing that this conversation is going to take a while and additional caffeine is necessary. “I need more coffee. Kahlua is optional.”

May considers it. “Coffee’s good,” she decides finally. “Kahlua can wait until after we talk.”

They don’t strike up any conversation as Tony leads her into the kitchen. It’s only once they’re in there that he realizes just how much of Peter is visible in the room.

-Pete’s schedule is handwritten onto the ridiculous ‘Hang In There’ cat calendar Rhodey’d brought over the last time he stopped by.

-A stack of Peter’s comic books sit neatly on the counter.

-The fridge is covered in dozens of increasingly bizarre post-it haikus from the week Harley and Peter got into a poetry war.

If Tony didn’t know better, all the evidence would point to Peter living here, right along with the two rightful occupants.

May takes in the details then sinks into a chair at the kitchen table.

“You were honest with me just now,” she says, while Tony pours coffee into two large mugs. “So I’m going to be honest with you.”

Honesty isn’t a weapon, but Tony would rather have a gun aimed at him than whatever is coming. He’s thought so many times ‘this is it-- this is when I lose him’ and here it is.

“I never wanted kids,” May starts. “When Ben and I got married, we lived those first couple of years childless by choice and we loved every second of it. That’s what I wanted for my life. For the rest of my life.”

Tony doesn’t know what to say. That’s not the conversation opener he was expecting, and it doesn’t really seem like she wants a response. He places her coffee in front of her then nudges over the sugar and cream.

“When the accident happened with Peter’s parents, suddenly I had a grieving husband and a miserable eleven year old and everything changed. Don’t think for one second I don’t love Peter with all my heart-- I do-- and I would never give him up--”

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t love him,” Tony points out, when it looks like she’s lost her words. “Feeding, watering, keeping up with all the lost backpacks-- that’s required. But being here? Giving a damn? That’s a choice.”

May looks at Tony with an expression that might be grateful. She nods and takes a slow breath. “When Ben died-- I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep going. He was the love of my life and the glue that made us a family. Starting again, this time just me and a 14 year old who’d been orphaned three times in three years. I wasn’t sure I could do it.”

People don’t usually trust Tony with these kinds of deep truths until they’ve known him for years (and sometimes not even then.) But the way May talks to him, it’s like she doesn’t doubt for a second that Tony’s got nothing but the best intentions. Like they’re already friends.

“You’ve done an incredible job,” Tony says. “You’re raising an amazing kid.”

“I do the best I can,” May says. “When you came into the picture, I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for Peter to spend too much time with you, but you’ve made a
difference. A good difference. He smiles more now. His grades are beyond perfect. I don’t feel like I did that alone.”

“I think you’re giving me way too much credit.”

“I think it takes a village,” May says. “Don’t think just because I showed up here to yell at you doesn’t mean I don’t understand that.”

“Trust me, I’d take the credit if I could. Being Spider-Man. Helping people. That’s what makes Peter smile. I’m just here to make the gear… buy the snacks.”

“You’re here,” May says. “And that’s a choice.”

Hearing his own words reflected back to him is surreal because he can’t deny the truth in them. Of all Howard’s crimes, and there were many, the neglect was the one that hurt the most. Thank god it’s a generational cycle Tony is not doomed to repeat.

“I’m sorry I didn’t make Peter tell you sooner,” Tony says.

“I also feel I share some fault,” JARVIS adds, from the embedded speakers above them. “I did run multiple decision mapping simulations on the topic, but did not share my work as no simulation provided satisfactory results.”

May jumps, startled by the sudden voice from the ceiling. She looks around, then at Tony. “Is Mr. Jarvis watching on a camera or something?”

“Not exactly,” Tony says. “May, let me introduce you to JARVIS. He’s an AI-- Artificial Intelligence. He runs the house, keeps us all in line, and watches Harley and Peter when I’m out.”

“He also answers your phone,” Aunt May adds.

She looks back up and waves hello at the ceiling and it’s such a dorky Peter thing to do, that Tony smiles.

“And schedules my appointments and helps me fly the Iron Man suits,” Tony explains. “If you’re done with your coffee, I can give you a tour of the rest of the house. Show you some other cool stuff. JARVIS, you want to join us?”

“I would enjoy that, Sir.”

JARVIS uses the light panels in the wall to indicate his presence as Tony walks May around the mansion. She’s suitably impressed by the theater, and the garage, and takes Tony up on his offer of some Stark Industries branded loungewear when they walk past a closet stacked with spare clothes.

“I keep these here in case the old team swings by. They wouldn’t come unless it’s an emergency, and where there’s an emergency there’s usually blood.”

May gives him a look that says she could have done without those details considering the reason for her visit, but she doesn’t turn him down. She finds something in her size, and disappears into the nearest bathroom. When she comes back out to find him, guided by JARVIS’s lights, he’s in the workshop.

“You’re lucky Nat’s about your size,” he says, seeing that she found some stuff to fit. “You’d be swallowed whole in Thor’s sweatshirt.”

“There are worse ways to go,” May points out seriously.

Tony resists the urge to throw a smushed up ball of paper at her.

“So the internship isn’t entirely bullshit, then?” she asks, as she explores the room.

It’s easy to tell which of the work spaces belongs to Peter. His desk is covered in diagrams for the new web fluid canister prototypes that he and Harley have been working on, and he’s got a load of Stark Industries R and D projects, too. There are also newspaper clippings about Spider-Man, and a blue ribbon from a recent science fair.

“The internship is a work in progress,” Tony explains. “It is official with SI, but what I do in R & D is totally off the grid. It doesn’t really matter. When Peter applies to MIT or wherever, I’ll write him one hell of a recommendation letter.”

“And there is the yet-to-be-named R & D Scholarship,” JARVIS adds. “It covers the full cost of a college education, and there is a living stipend. As Peter will be the only eligible applicant in his year, I do believe he’s a shoo in. ”

May looks at Tony, and then up at the light panel that JARVIS’s voice has been speaking through, and then back at Tony again.

“You’re serious?” she asks.

“Peter patrols the city four or five nights a week, and that ought to be worth something,” Tony insists. “The internship isn’t bullshit, and I can’t pay him any more than SI allows, but I can do something else for the future. With your permission, of course. I wouldn’t have offered it without talking to you first.”

The longer May’s silence goes on the more concerned Tony is that he’s fucked this up somehow.

“Before this morning, there was something else I’d been putting off talking to you about,” May admits. “About Peter’s future.” Tony’s face must do something unpleasant because May speaks again quickly. “This one’s nothing bad,” May reassures him. “We got past the bad during the coffee. Did you miss that part?”

May really is where Peter gets a lot of his personality, there’s no denying that. She’s kind for the sake of kindness. She doesn’t like to see other people hurting. She will be a good friend to have.

“Just wasn’t sure what else there was to say,” he clarifies. “But go ahead. What’s up?”

“There’s some paperwork,” she says, holding up a hand to quiet Tony’s groan. “I’ve been thinking-- there’s nothing wrong with me, before you ask--” May takes a deep breath, like her request is going to be a BFD. “I gotta know if something happens to me, that Peter’s going to be okay. I’d like to make you my backup plan. If something happens to me, I want you to look after him and I want to sign something that says you’re the one to do it.”

Holy shit.

“May--” Tony starts, absolutely convinced that there is something very wrong if she’s asking this.

“I just told you everything is fine,” May interrupts. “I’ve been considering it for a couple of months now. The part I was unsure about was you. But now I know, not only about Peter running around as Spider-Man, but about you-- sticking around to protect him. I know you aren’t going anywhere and that’s what he would need. You can take time to think about it. You don’t have to answer right now.”

“I’ll do it,” Tony says immediately. “I’m going to beg you to let me upgrade your apartment security, and check your brakes, and I think maybe you should consider seeing one of the SI doctors because it is very important to me that you stay in the picture, but yes. Absolutely. I never wanted kids either, May, but here we are.”

“Here we are,” May agrees with a smile.

*

Turns out, being two people who never particularly planned on being parents but are currently raising teenagers gives May and Tony loads of things to discuss over lunch.

“Do you understand the whole ‘yeet’ thing?” May asks, her chopsticks paused, holding a small piece of chicken a few inches off her plate.

“Oh god,” Tony groans. “I pretend to, does that count?”

“Urban dictionary?” May guesses.

“Has saved my life,” Tony agrees.

May uses the chopsticks to toss the chicken into her mouth.

“Yeet!” she says victoriously.

Tony spends the next ten minutes trying to do the same.

*

“Peter doesn’t believe I’m cool. Or that I was ever cool,” May declares, as they relocate to the couches in the living room. It’s just after 1, and Tony’s having a great time just chilling with an adult. “And you know what?” she continues. “He doesn’t believe me that you were cool either. We googled one night, that picture of you in the silver pants. He laughed until he fell off the couch.”

“I liked those pants,” Tony insists.

May nods seriously and manages to hold the expression for a few seconds before she bursts into laughter. “God, I thought you were so cool-- but looking at them now? People complain about the 70s, but what were we thinking in the early 90s?”

Tony thinks back to the picture she’s referencing, remembers his pose, leaning against a limo, one hip jutted out to the side, and then he laughs right along with her.

“I’ve got no clue. But in my defense, I was also drunk most of the time. What was your excuse?”

“I didn’t need one,” May says, obviously lying. “I looked great. Flawless. Not one silver pair of pants in my closet.”

“JARVIS-- can you find any picture of May from the late 80s or early 90s? Newspaper clippings? Yearbook photos.”

“Accessing the Queens Public Library Archives now,” JARVIS agrees.

The I’ll-Get-You-Back look May gives Tony when her picture pops up on the vid-screen is totally worth the mortification of the next half hour as JARVIS dives deeper and deeper into the internet for pictures of them.

In they end they agree they were both absolutely ridiculous, and that for the most part, Harley and Peter are much better dressers.

“I want to know something else about Harley,” May brings up. “He’s not Daredevil is he? Because I’ve looked at Daredevil’s butt a couple of times and I don’t want to be doing that going forward if he’s not an adult.”

Tony laughs. “Harley is just Harley. No super powers as far as I can tell, and no running around after dark yet.”

“But you do know Daredevil?” Aunt May asks, a wicked smile taking years off her earlier burdens.

“I know him, yeah,” Tony says. “And as far as I know he’s single.”

“Well then what are you waiting for?” May teases. “Get on the bat-phone and set me up.”

“I just might,” Tony warns her. “He’s sulky though. You really want to go on a date with someone that gloomy? Cause I thought we already decided that the early 90s were a bad look on us.”

“Okay. What about Captain America?”

Tony chokes on his tea.

“Okayyyy,” May says. “That’s complicated?”

“God, it’s so complicated,” Tony agrees. “Also if I didn’t know Peter hadn’t put you up to asking, I’d have totally thought Peter put you up to asking.”

“What’s Peter got to do with it?” May asks. “Oh shit, are they friends?” She sounds extremely impressed. “Or enemies, I guess, with what happened?”

Tony can see May spinning her wheels to try and get a grasp on where that all lands, and he shakes his head.

“It’s not a professional issue with Steve, it’s a personal one. My personal one.”

“Ohhhhh,” May says knowingly. “Maybe we should break out the Kahlua.”

“I like the way you think,” Tony agrees. “But I think we might be running short on time. It’s almost three.”

“You are correct, Sir,” JARVIS chimes in. “As Peter has no scheduled after-school activities for the day, he will likely be leaving for May’s apartment shortly. Harley has Robotics Club and will not be home until dinner.”

“You want a lift back to your place?” Tony asks.

May considers it. “No. I don’t want this conversation to be a bad experience for him: The Day Aunt May Found Out.” She shifts on the sofa, folding her legs under her criss-cross-applesauce style. “Could we talk here? It might make things easier on him if he can hear from both of us at once.”

“That’s fine with me,” Tony agrees. “There’s a lot I could learn from you.”

“Here’s my secret: I do this thing, where I try to think what he’s gonna tell his therapist about me when he’s 30, and I try to do whatever parenting makes me sound the least like an asshole.”

How Tony waited all this time to make friends with May, he doesn’t know? She’s awesome, and he is totally stealing this parenting tactic. Like right now.

“JARVIS, will you let Peter know to come here instead of heading home?” Tony asks.

“And can you tell him that I know about his secret,” May adds. “And that we’re going to talk about it, but that everything’s going to be fine? I don’t want to spring it on him when he walks in the door.”

May’s phone rings less than ten seconds later.

“Peter-- slow down--” May says gently. “We’ll talk about it when you get here.” There a pause. May’s face softens. “I could never hate you. Be careful, okay? Maybe you’re indestructible but that’s not going to stop me from worrying.” Another pause. “See you in a few. Love you.”

“You aren’t still mad?” Tony asks curiously, after she hangs up.

“Oh, I’m mad about the lies,” May says. “And if Peter was a normal kid with normal problems I think he’d be normal-grounded. But he’s not, and I want to let him explain before I figure out the rest. If this is a thing that Peter’s going to do, I want to be a part of it. I want to support him and I want him to know that I’m proud. Thanks for letting me yell earlier. I think that got a lot of it out of my system.”

“I’ve had worse,” Tony says. “This has been good. Today, I mean. Hanging out. It’s been a while since I felt like anyone understood what I’m trying to do here.”

May nods. “So let’s do it again. Not as a date or anything. I’m seeing someone, and I think it sounded like for you, things are complicated.”

“Complicated is one way of looking at it,” Tony agrees.

“Friends then,” May agrees. “And we can text.”

“Speaking of,” Tony says, “If we’re going to be texting about Peter’s alter-ego, I’ve got a more secure phone for you, if you’ll accept it. It’s a Stark 9. Top of the line and totally secure. Plus, it can patch you straight through to his suit if you need him to bring home milk for dinner.”

“I like the sound of that,” May agrees. “I’m happy to do whatever it takes to keep Peter safe.”

(Which May and Tony do for a long, long time.)

*Two weeks later*

May: Peter just texted me to see if I could come to a meeting at his school tomorrow to take a call with the Wakandan embassy. He said you’d be there. Do you know what this is about?

Tony: science and culture camp. just found out. apparently King T’Challa wants to fill us in on the details himself.

May: Haha very funny.

Tony: what’s your passport situation?

May: Wait. Seriously?

Tony: i’m going to chaperone. you should too. could be fun.

May: SERIOUSLY?

JARVIS: I have read good things about the waterfalls.

May:...

May:...

May: YEET.

Chapter Text

They need to pack. They are leaving for Wakanda first thing the next morning and Tony needs to get his shit in his suitcase, same as both the kids. He also needs a couple hours minimum to quietly freak out about spending time with the ex-Avengers in their new home base.

When he walks into the kitchen at 10 pm, instead of finding two fully packed teenagers, he finds Harley at the table with half a dozen college level textbooks open, and at least a hundred post-it notes stuck around every available surface, covered in equations and scientific definitions. Harley’s even got one stuck on his forehead, and all he’s written on it is:

BE SMARTER.

Peter is no better off, seeing as he’s laying on the floor, with a wadded up hoodie held tight against his face, like he’s trying to smother himself.

Yes, teenage drama is going to significantly cut into Tony’s wallowing time.

No doubt, good parenting would likely involve gentle intervention and some open-ended questions. But Good Parenting is easier on sunny afternoons when everything is chill. This kind of disaster calls for the big guns. Tony backs out of the room, pulls out his phone, and texts for reinforcements.

May knocks on the door a half an hour later and she arrives with a bag of bodega sandwiches and a 6 pack of beer. She is now Tony’s favorite person by a thousand. They walk into the kitchen together and she takes in the scene, which hasn’t changed much in thirty minutes.

May laughs out loud. “I thought you were exaggerating,” she admits.

“Never,” Tony says, with a smile of his own.

“Peter Benjamin Parker, get your butt off that floor this instant,” May says, in a playfully stern voice. “I’ve got dinner.”

“Is it smooshed?” his muffled voice replies.

“The smooshed-est,” May confirms.

Peter slowly releases his hold on the hoodie. “I’ve got to tell MJ. About. The thing. She’s gonna find out either way, and what if she hates me? She hates lying, she says it all the time.”

“Let’s go sit outside and talk about it,” May says gently. “You need some fresh air.”

“And dinner,” Peter reminds her.

May takes out a sandwich for Peter and then hands the bag to Tony.

“Peter will be packed by morning. You got this one?” she asks, nodding toward Harley.

Tony nods and she gives him a reassuring pat on the arm as she follows Peter out the back door.

“Harley-- time for dinner and then time to pack. Post-it Craft Time is over.”

Harley doesn’t respond or acknowledge Tony’s words in any way, which is when Tony notices the headphones. He steps closer and taps Harley on the shoulder, which finally gets his attention.

“You look stressed,” Harley says, looking straight up at Tony’s face. “Is this about Steve?” Harley puts the sort of emphasis on Steve’s name that you’d learn from a pack of eleven year old mean-girls, and he's clearly trying to push so that Tony will walk away and let Harley continue to study in peace.

Thankfully, that’s a redirection trick Tony knows all too well, and it doesn’t work.

“No,” Tony protests. “Seriously Harlequin, close the books. Eat. Pack.”

“I feel like this is about Steve,” Harley quips, though he does (finally) do as he’s told and close the book he’s reading.

So okay, Harley’s not wrong. Tony’s stress is a little about Steve but it’s also about Peter’s anxiety regarding MJ and how she’ll react to his secret. And fine, it’s a lot about Steve, but it’s also about watching Harley pore over every physics and engineering textbook he can get his hands on so he can make intelligent conversation with Shuri, who in Tony’s opinion, Harley does not need to impress.

Basically, he loves these kids but they are a big part of what’s rattling his chains.

“You don’t have anything to prove to anyone,” Tony says seriously, as he hands Harley a sandwich and then takes a seat across from him. “You’ve got the kind of mathematical intuition that can’t be learned from any book and seriously-- you’re one of the smartest people I know, which is saying something. Plus, and equally important in this house, you’re a good person. The whole world is yours, kid. Wakanda’s just one chunk of it.”

Harley nods. “I know, I knowwwww….” he whines. “I’m gonna sound like Peter here for a second-- and I’m running mostly on Red Bull and stress at this point so you’re not allowed to hold it against me--”

Tony unwraps his own sandwich and waits out the silence. Finally, Harley mumbles something that Tony doesn’t quite hear.

“Care to repeat that with the volume turned up to oh say… one?” Tony asks. “Two if you’re feeling generous?”

“I want to make you proud!” Harley blurts out, no doubt louder than he intends. Then he immediately frowns and crosses his arms sullenly. “I don’t want Shuri to be so much smarter than me that you wish you were spending all your time working with her and not us.”

“That would never happen,” Tony says emphatically. “I couldn’t be prouder of you and Pete. I mean it. Nothing I’ve ever been a part of has been half as good as whatever this family thing is we’ve got going on here.”

“Not even the Avengers?” Harley asks.

“Not even the Avengers,” Tony confirms. “And they never really wanted me anyway,” he adds. “They wanted the suit.”

“But you are Iron Man,” Harley says. “Suit or not, that doesn’t change.”

Tony shrugs. “It’s not like it matters now.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t,” Harley says, sounding thoroughly annoyed on Tony’s behalf. “I won’t pretend to be sad about it. If you were still running around with them, you wouldn’t have time for us and we’re way better. Five out of the six of them wear spandex costumes. Spandex. They’re like two bad decisions away from running a jazzercise studio.”

Tony laughs. Thinking about the Avengers still hurts sometimes, but Harley’s ridiculous dismissal of them fills Tony with warmth for the family he does have. He ignores the quiet (treacherous) voice that chimes into his thoughts, wondering what it would have been like to have both.

Doesn’t matter. Packing first, wallowing later.

“Thanks, kiddo. Now finish eating, then packing, then get some sleep,” Tony says.

“Right back at you,” Harley says, then shoots Tony some finger-guns after he shoves the last chunk of the sandwich in his mouth like some kind of jaw-unhinging-snake.

Tony doesn’t get much sleep that night, and the next morning is nothing but chaos as Happy helps load them into the car and drive them to the airport at 4 AM. Thankfully the jet is waiting, and it’s got coffee and bagels and the other morning necessities for life.

May, Rhodey, MJ and Ned show up a few minutes later. Tony’s never been more glad for the existence of caffeine when Ned’s enthusiasm proves not the least bit dampened by the hour known as Asscrack of Dawn.

They’ve been in the air for about an hour when Tony sees Peter nudge MJ over to the side to have the quiet conversation Peter’s been rehearsing (and rehearsing and rehearsing) for days.

“... something we’ve got to talk about,” Tony hears Peter say.

“Okay,” MJ says.

She glances around at the rest of the jet and Tony stifles a smile because everyone is clearly trying way too hard to look casual and like they aren’t listening. It’s not like there’s a ton of privacy to be had in the back, so Tony can still hear most of the conversation as Peter and MJ whisper.

“I just--” Peter starts. “I mean, I don’t even know where to start or if you’re going to believe me and I swear I’m telling--”

“I already know,” MJ says simply.

“No-- It’s something you don’t already know,” Peter counters.

“I know everything, Peter Parker,” MJ says, a little louder. “I thought that’s what everyone likes best about me.”

“I’m Spider-Man!” Peter blurts out.

MJ rolls her eyes. “Right,” she says. “I know.”

“Really, I am,” Peter says more firmly, like he’s trying to persuade her. All attempts at privacy are gone now, and that’s nice, since everyone on the jet is openly watching anyway.

“Peter,” MJ says, just as firmly. “It’s okay. I know.”

Her tone makes it hard for Tony to tell if she’s serious or not, which is really some SHIELD level wizardry there.

“Really?” Peter asks.

“You’re not subtle and neither is Ned. He checked out every single book in the school library about spiders. Twice.”

“He could have been writing an essay about spiders,” Peter points out. “Twice.”

“I asked him straight up why he picked those books and he told me he was just really into spiders,” MJ says. “Two days later, we saw a spider in Phys Ed and he started screaming “DON’T BITE ME! I DON’T WANT THE POWER!” After that I put it all together: The Washington DC trip. Ned’s obsession with spiders. You climbing out of the Bio 4 window twice, when you thought no one was looking. Dr. Stark showing up as the second half of your guardian squad.”

“You were looking?”

“I’m always looking,” MJ says. “Here--”

She pulls out a sketchbook and flips to a page near the back. When she turns it toward Peter, Tony can see, too. It’s a drawing of Spider-Man, without his mask. It is definitely Peter’s face.

MJ knew.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Peter asks incredulously.

MJ shrugs. “People are allowed to have their secrets. I have mine, you have yours.”

Peter’s smile is full of relief. “That’s really nice of you.”

“I keep telling you I’m nice,” MJ says, giving him a light punch in the arm. “Now maybe you’ll believe me.”

Peter looks like a giant weight has been lifted. They rejoin the conversation with everyone else, and by the time they pass around Second Breakfast, the mood inside the jet is all excitement and cheer.

The conversation somehow moves to the Avengers, and for the first time in a long time it doesn’t sting Tony at all. Maybe because within the first ten second, Peter declares

“Aunt May has Thor pajamas!”

May throws a chunk of bagel at her nephew and thunks him squarely between the eyes.

“And they are very comfortable,” May insists.

“Sure, you bought them for the comfort,” Peter says, as he pops the bit of bagel into his mouth.

“And you slept with a stuffed Iron Man toy until you were 12 because it was cool?” May asks, with a quirk of her eyebrows.

“I think the important part of that sentence is that I don’t sleep with one anymore,” Peter reminds her.

“I had that same Iron Man!” Ned chimes in excitedly. “I had two, actually, cause my first one lost an arm.”

MJ always looks a little Too Cool for School which is why it’s a surprise when she pipes in. “I did too,” she says. At the surprised looks she shrugs. “He was from New York. I’m from New York. It was a good fit.”

“Who was your favorite superhero?” Peter asks Harley.

Harley shrugs. “I wasn’t that into super heroes as a kid. They were about as likely to show up in Rose Hill as a T-Rex, and T-Rexes seemed way more badass. I didn’t really care much about superheroes till I met one, and then he was such a total dork I still went with the dinosaurs.”

“Well now you’ve met a bunch of superheroes and zero dinosaurs,” MJ says. “So who’s cooler? Iron Man or Spider Man?”

“I plead the 5th,” Harley refuses.

“Fine, then who would win in a fight? Iron Man or Spider-Man?” Ned asks, sounding super into the idea behind the conversation.

Tony laughs at the question, partly because of the scandalized face that Peter makes and partly because Tony is very sure Harley’s thought this one through, like he thinks everything through.

“Neither,” Harley says. “Wouldn’t happen.”

“You are zero fun,” MJ declares.

“Wouldn’t. Happen,” Harley insists. He says it with enough firmness that no one bothers to follow up, much to Tony’s amusement.

“What about Iron-Man vs. War Machine?” Ned asks.

“Iron-Man,” Harley says. “No offense Rhodey.”

“Full offense taken,” Rhodey laughs, sounding incredibly pleased at the inclusion. “You don’t think I could kick your dad’s ass?”

“Nope,” Harley says.

“I do,” MJ says, giving Rhodey a nod.

“I’d go with Iron Man,” Peter says.

“My vote’s on War Machine,” Ned says. “Extra no offense, Dr. Stark. I just think it’s more fair if we don’t all pick you.”

“That makes you the deciding vote, Aunt May,” Peter says. “Who would win? Iron Man or War Machine.”

She pauses like she’s considering it. “Thor,” she finally declares.

That gets groans all around and Peter puts his hands over his ears in case she decides to elaborate.

“I think what you rugrats forget,” Rhodey insists, “Is that with Tony I know all his weak spots and they don’t have anything to do with that armor.”

“Like what?” Peter asks, clearly delighted.

“There’s too many to count,” Rhodey declares.

Rhodey looks so perfectly mischievous, and so very much like the cool uncle hanging around Tony’s kids, that Tony can’t even drum up a good defense. And that’s before Rhodey flashes the sort of wicked grin in Tony’s direction that Tony hasn’t seen in a couple years.

“Give me a second to think of the best one,” Rhodey adds.

“Like I don’t have equal amounts of blackmail on you,” Tony retorts. “The Cleveland Wombat Research maybe?”

“That’s how you want to play? What you gonna do if I tell them about the Hot Dog Soap Incident?” Rhodey answers back.

“Tell them about you and Squirrel Lightning,” Tony threatens.

“Then I’m gonna tell them about Janet Van Dyne’s Sweet Sixteen,” Rhodey retorts.

“So I can tell them about your Big Night in Cabo,” Tony lists off.

“That was your Big Night in Cabo,” Rhodey says gleefully.

And okay, that does give Tony a second of pause.

“Oh,” Rhodey continues. “Or the robotic lab fire you started at MIT when you--”

There’s total chaos as Tony launches himself over Peter to full-body smother Rhodey into silence, smushing his hand over his best friend’s mouth to keep that particular story out of the ears of the impressionable younglings. Like Harley needs any new ideas on how to blow things up.

Rhodey slides his tongue across Tony’s palm a second later and Tony jerks his hand away.

“You licked me!” Tony complains.

“You know all that stuff about Tony but you don’t know where that hand has been?” Harley asks incredulously.

It’s such perfect timing, all eight of them dissolve into laughter.

“Are me and JARVIS the only actual chaperones on this thing?” May teases.

“Why?” Rhodey asks. “You hoping Thor will show up and show you his hammer?”

May tosses a chunk of bagel at him and misses by a mile, which only makes everyone laugh harder.

“Yeet!” Rhodey declares victoriously, which makes all the teenagers groan.

The playful group banter lasts another few minutes before the kids start talking about some school project or other, and Tony, Rhodey and May make their way to the cockpit for some mimosas and grown up talk.

It’s quieter up front, though they can still hear all the laughter in the back. They chat for about half an hour before May excuses herself to the restroom, and for the first time that morning Tony and Rhodey are alone.

Rhodey leans in so their shoulders are resting together.

“You okay with this?” Rhodey asks. “Really?”

Because Rhodey knows. Even with the laughter, and the smiles, and the happy mood that fills the jet to near bursting, Rhodey knows Tony best, and deep down that means he can tell that in several ways, Tony’s dreading what lies ahead.

“Always,” Tony replies.

“Liar.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“Exactly. Team ‘Fake It Til You Make It’ for the win.”

----

“Mind if we talk to dad a sec, alone?” Harley asks.

They’ve landed, and everyone else has slung their bags over their shoulders to make their way down the jet ramp.

Rhodey laughs. “You know-- you calling him dad sounds way too natural coming out of your mouth. What’s your mom’s name again? Any chance they met 15ish years ago?”

“Amanda,” Harley says, with a matching grin. “And I guess you never know.”

“I guess you don’t,” Rhodey says, as he follows everyone else off the jet. “It’s about time Tony gave me a nephew or two. Call me Uncle Rhodey.”

Harley nods. “Can do.”

When the coast is clear, he turns to the boys. “Okay Mini-Me’s. What’s the trouble?”

“No trouble,” Peter says.

“A little trouble,” Harley corrects. “You know that thing Ben Franklin said? Prepare for trouble, but make it double?”

“I’m not familiar,” Tony says doubtfully.

“To protect the world from devastation?” Peter ventures.

“To unite all peoples within our nation,” Harley says seriously.

“Ben Franklin said that?” Tony asks dubiously.

Harley laughs first, and then Peter joins him. “Ben Franklin… Team Rocket… doesn’t matter.”

“The important things it that we’re being prepared,” Peter says. “Like boy scouts. Look.”

He fishes around in his pocket and pulls out three friendship bracelets. Tony’s fight to keep the fashion horror off his face is a losing battle. It’s easy to tell which one is his. Harley plucks the red and gold bracelet out of Peter’s hand and holds it toward him. It has a blue piece of smoothe metal weaved into the center, and someone took a sharpie to draw in the components of an arc reactor.

“Boy scouts...” Tony says.

“Your lost for words,” Harley says with a bright grin. “That’s pretty much exactly what we were going for.”

“You gotta hold out your wrist,” Peter prompts. “The one without the watch.”

Tony does. He still feels suspicious. He has no doubt this has something to do with the presence of the ex-Avengers, but he is not at all sure where this is going.

“I’m sure you know the technology in Wakanda is like bananas,” Peter says.

“Shuri forwarded us some reading material,” Harley explains.

“And after we looked at it, there was no good way to set up a communicator here they wouldn’t be able to monitor, like immediately,” Peter adds. “So we had to think outside the box, and we’re pretty sure it’s going to work. We knew we had to keep it simple so it’s haptic.”

“Haptic,” Tony repeats. “Guys--”

“No-- seriously, it’ll work,” Harley insists. “Just listen.”

“Everything here is so advanced we thought it made sense to go super old school. You know that old movie star, Hedy Lamarr? The one who was also a scientist? There’s a picture of her at Midtown High.”

“I know the one,” Tony agrees. “Or well, my dad knew her. I’ve never looked too closely at her work.”

“She invented spread spectrum technology,” Peter goes on. “By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception she was able to make an unnoticeable code that prevented classified messages from being intercepted.”

“We riffed off that,” Harley says next, jumping off Peter’s explanation in the same way Tony was always able to ping off Bruce. “We used analog parts. JARVIS can help bounce the signal old-school style. So if you tap your finger against the metal on your bracelet, me and Peter can feel the same taps.”

Peter has slid on his own red and black friendship bracelet and he taps a finger against the metal center. Tony feels a series of light vibrations against the top of his wrist.

H-E-L-L-O T-O-N-Y

“You learned Morse Code?” Tony asks.

Peter shrugs. “It took us like an hour.”

“We’ve got your back, dad,” Harley insists. “So you’ll wear it?”

“On one condition,” Tony says. “The first one of you that RickRolls me with this thing is staying in Wakanda.”

The boys grin. “Deal.”

----

The rest of the gang is already chatting amiably with the royal family, and Steve and Bucky, when Tony, Peter and Harley exit the jet.

They get through the briefest of polite introductions when Ned can no longer contain himself.

“Library!” Ned enthuses, sounding about ready to pop out of his own skin in his excitement. “Library!”

“I’ll translate,” MJ says, putting a hand on Ned’s arm to stop his bouncing. “Wakanda has a library as old as the library of Alexandria, with copies of books even older. We need to go. Right now. We may possibly need to move in there forever.”

Ned nods vehemently.

“It’s good to know that there are young people who still find excitement in the past,” Queen Ramonda says.

Tony doesn’t miss the way Shuri scrunches her nose at her mother. Futurists of a feather...

“That does sound seriously amazing,” Peter agrees, “but that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about seeing Shuri’s lab.”

“Well, I don’t know if you can move into my lab forever,” Shuri says teasingly, “but I was hoping we could ditch the old people and go straight there.”

“Okoye can take Ned and Michelle to the library,” Queen Ramonda says evenly. “And I will join them, along with anyone else who would like to go. Shuri, you can show your other guests to your lab. Old people included, if they want a tour.”

The way the Queen emphasis ‘old people’ makes Tony smile. Shuri’s sass doesn’t come from nowhere.

“I wanna see the library,” Rhodey says immediately, then seems to realize that could leave Tony alone with the ex-Avengers and switches into reverse. “Orrrrrr I could see that another time. A lab sounds good, too.”

“Go,” Tony says, because Rhodey’s eyes had looked almost as bright as Ned and MJ’s and seriously-- no, he doesn’t enjoy the memories that come along with seeing Steve and Bucky here, but he’s also not afraid of them. It’s the feels that are a nuisance, and Stark men are made of iron.

The feels can go fuck themselves.

“May?” the Queen asks.

“I promised Peter I wouldn’t be all up in his space,” May says, “and this library does sound incredible. I’m in.”

“Then follow me,” Ramonda says.

She seems pleased as she leads Ned, MJ, Rhodey and May away toward a large SUV that Okoye climbs into first.

“Dad, you’re coming with us to the lab, right?” Harley asks Tony.

Tony knows why. Even with the bracelets and with every assurance of his safety, the ex-Avengers are too close for Harley’s comfort. Or well, just one ex-Avenger that Harley doesn’t want Tony to end up alone with. Harley had given Bucky a bright smile and a wave. He hadn’t looked at Steve even once.

“If Shuri says it’s okay,” Tony confirms.

“Of course it is okay,” Shuri says. “I read your paper on the development of advanced artificial intelligence algorithms for network-wide metabolic flux analysis with stable isotope tracers-- I have thoughts.”

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” Tony says honestly. “Though between Peter and Harley, they can probably explain my AI research as well as I can at this point. They had weeks of thoughts. Pound on my bedroom door at 3 AM with thoughts, levels of thought.”

“In our defense,” Peter says, “You’re the one who told us 3 AM is when all the best science happens.”

“So it was kind of your fault you were sleeping during prime time,” Harley points out.

Tony shakes his head and looks toward T’Challa. “Teenagers. Would not recommend.”

“You are telling me nothing I do not already know. I will take you to the lab, Stark,” T’Challa says, “Since I must go there anyway to reclaim some equipment my sister saw fit to improve without her king’s permission.”

“I had implied permission, brother!” Shuri insists, with a beaming smile.

“You mean I did not tell you that you could not steal my equipment,” T’Challa counters.

“Exactly!” Shuri says brightly. “Come on Harley and Peter. We have our own ride and they can follow. T’Challa knows the way. What are we waiting for?”

She points to a car-sized hovercraft, painted in neon orange with brightly painted symbols on the side.

“Please say this thing is super fast!” Peter says enthusiastically.

“I’m not allowed to break the sound barrier anymore, but it is so fast!” Shuri confirms.

The teens take off running toward the hovercraft and Tony nearly has to bite his tongue to keep from yelling “seatbelts!”

“I am sorry to say our ride does not look so exciting,” T’Challa says. “It does go fast, though.”

T’Challa’s smile is nearly as mischievous as his sister’s and honestly, Tony does feel a little more at ease now that the introductions are over.

“Mind if we tag along?” Steve asks.

Everything about his slightly apologetic tone makes it sound like a sincere question. Like if Tony says no, they’ll turn around and walk away.

“The more the merrier,” Tony says simply.

He’s done enough business through discomfort that he doesn’t doubt his smile, posture and tone of voice are all perfectly polite. And the ache in his chest that he has to use his Business Armor on Steve is something Tony should probably learn to ignore.

They all walk to the hovercraft, and T’Challa gestures away the guards who follow them. When the four of them are on board, T’Challa takes the controls and the vehicle lifts off the ground. They sail forward, up and into the air, as smoothly as if they weren’t moving at all.

“I want to thank you for agreeing to this visit, Tony,” T’Challa says, as they speed forward over the city. “I have not seen my sister this excited since my father made her the head of the Wakandan Design Group. There are many bright students here who Shuri could make friends with, but they are all several years older. I know she has longed for peers her own age.”

Tony recognizes something in T’Challa’s voice he empathizes with: worry. The kind of very specific worry that accompanies Tony to bed at nights and wakes him up in the morning. The worry that Peter and Harley aren’t happy enough-- that they’re missing out on something-- that being so smart so young has disconnected them in some way. But at least they’ve got each other, and there’s really no getting rid of Ned and MJ now.

T’Challa has the weight of an entire kingdom on his shoulders, but his sister is clearly on his mind.

“She seems great,” Tony says honestly. “And far be it from me to stand in the way of Wakanda Science Camp. I’m not sure who’d have borrowed a jet first-- Shuri or Harley-- but one way or the other they’d have had their meet up.”

“My money’s on Shuri,” Bucky says quietly. “She’s got a coupla jets of her own, there’s no borrowin’ about it.”

“I think I should just be grateful Tony hasn’t handed over the Quinjet keys to Harley yet,” Steve says, speaking up for the first time. “I’m guessing that thing could launch a potato hard enough to sting.”

Tony laughs, because that’s one hell of a mental image, then the others join in.

As the conversation continues, Tony loses track of what’s being said. Once they cruise over a canyon and get their first glimpse of the city proper, he’s done with everything else.

When he was small and Howard told him about Wakanda for the first time, his father had been dismissive. Howard hadn’t known, clearly, what lay beyond the borders. But even as a child Tony had daydreamed about it. About a city so futuristic, it would belong more to Star Trek than Earth. Of levitating trains and flying cars and hovering skateboards (okay, so Back to the Future had been formative) but he’d never pictured it so alive.

He’s literally speechless until the hovercraft begins to slow and descend toward a brightly lit building on the top of a nearby cliff.

“You like it?” T’Challa asks.

“I do,” Tony confirms quietly. He can’t seem to take his eyes off the horizon.

“I am sure we will be at the lab for most of the evening but tomorrow I can arrange for a tour.”

“I’ll do it,” Steve says immediately. “I could do it, I mean,” he hedges. “Take you for a tour. If you’re comfortable with that. If you aren’t… there are lots of tour guides… probably. So not me is fine, too.”

This babble from the man who can put together inspirational speeches mid-battle is something entirely new. Steve’s obvious awkwardness helps Tony feel a little more at ease. This isn’t easy for either of them. Tony misses a lot about their friendship and camaraderie when things were good. It’s painfully obvious Steve feels the same.

There’s a long pause, because Tony thinks about his response before responding to Steve, who is now looking away, like Tony’s silence was a definite no.

“You know what?” Tony says. “Sure. What the hell, take me around tomorrow, Cap. Beats navigating by Google maps.”

Steve’s smile is so full of gratitude it’s like he’s forgotten he’s the one who is offering to do something nice for Tony.

Thankfully they land before the conversation gets any more awkward. Even before Tony’s feet hit the ground, he can hear the deep rumble of thumping bass which means the kids are there and the music is cranked up to 11. Tony’s own workshop is generally blasting tunes so he’s not bothered. Though when Bucky climbs down off the hovercraft, the music quiets immediately. Barnes smiles at the ground, and Tony notices.

“You got magical music muting powers I don’t know about?” Tony asks.

“Shuri’s got the music set to turn down when I show up,” Bucky explains, sounding shy about it. “Loud noises aren’t my thing.”

He says it off-handedly, but Tony’s spent an embarrassing amount of time looking over Barnes’s files. He’s guessing the guy’s got more issues than Time Magazine. And despite having resolved not to spend much time or effort feeling sorry for Bucky, Tony does feel a pang of something because

1) He’s not heartless
and
2) Harley and Peter have definitely changed his perspective on a couple of things.

T’Challa leads them inside, down a steeply curved ramp. Every where Tony looks there’s science. Fourteen-year-old him would have lost his mind.

“Dad!” Harley yells brightly. “Come look at this paramagnetic electron accelerator! It’s so cool!”

Harley’s so giddy, he’s bouncing in place.

“I can’t believe we get to stay here for a whole week!” Peter says, waving up at them as they round the final corner. “I know Aunt May and JARVIS keep talking about the waterfalls but I don’t want to leave this room. Shuri, are there beds here?”

“Of course!” Shury agrees.

“Let’s slow that roll a little,” Tony says, “because while 24/7 science sounds awesome, the two of you passing out from exhaustion face first into a particle accelerator sounds like a reason to come up for air and sleep every now and then.”

“Seriously?” Harley asks. “Cause Uncle Rhodey said you stayed up for 75 hours once at MIT. And you’d have been about our age then, right? It didn’t kill you!”

“And whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Peter agrees whole-heartedly.

“It’s a scientific fact,” Shuri adds.

All three of them are grinning at Tony like the very worst kind of trouble, and Tony sighs.

“And now there’s another menace,” Tony sighs. He glances around though, and well-- god, this is like the world’s coolest Chuck-E Cheese and Science Disneyland all rolled into one. “Give me the nickel tour? You might have me convinced.”

“We’d only just started ours,” Peter says. “Seriously. You aren’t going to believe what Shuri’s got here!”

Peter’s joy is infectious, and it’s impossible not to smile as Tony watches him and Harley get excited over and over again as the tour resumes. There’s lots of technobabble and wonder, and by the end of an hour, Tony’s resolved to make some improvements to his own lab based on just how thrilled they are to be in a room with some seriously hardcore science stuff.

It’s not that Tony’s lab is boring, but it’s definitely practical. He’d never really considered before that what he’s brought in to the mansion lab is all about getting stuff done, and there’s not too much that’s there just for the thrill of discovery anymore. It’s definitely more Stark R and D than Bill Nye the Science Guy, and that’s going to change.

Maybe for Christmas.

Food arrives when the tour officially ends, and Peter, Harley and Shuri spend the whole meal answering Bucky’s earnest questions about some of the things they’d seen. It’s obvious Barnes has spent a lot of time in Shuri’s lab, but not much of that time has been spent doing science.

“It’s time for me to leave you,” T’Challa says, when dinner is finished. “Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes know how to summon a ride.”

“Think I’m gonna head back with you,” Bucky tells T’Challa. “If that’s alright?”

“It is fine with me,” T’Challa affirms. “Shuri-- Bucky and I are leaving,” he says to his sister who is tapping away at a tablet to bring up schematics for Harley and Pete. “No blowing anything up tonight.”

She gives him a wave without looking in his direction and that’s the only acknowledgment that the king gets.

“Thank you,” T’Challa says again to Tony quietly.

“Back at you, your highness,” Tony quips.

Tony and Steve walk Bucky and T’Challa back up the ramp, and when the two men lift off, it leaves Steve and Tony alone.

“Want to see something cool?” Steve asks.

Which is not what Tony is expecting. He assumes that Steve stayed behind so they could have yet another conversation about why things went south and how to fix them, but this is better. Tony’s too tired from his day to want to do much more than enjoy a few more minutes in this monument to science.

“Sure,” Tony agrees.

“It’s about a five minute walk. If you want to tell the boys you’re going.”

“JARVIS, pass along my coordinates to the rugrats?”

“Texting them now, Sir,” JARVIS replies, projecting his voice from Tony’s phone.

Just in case they are still worried, Tony lightly taps S-A-F-E onto the haptic pad of his bracelet as he walks quietly alongside Steve.

G-O-O-D is the reply he feels tapped back to his wrist a moment later.

He and Steve don’t chat as they walk, but the silence isn’t uncomfortable. Likely because Tony can’t pry his eyes away from the cityscape long enough to worry about inconsequential things like words. It’s only when they stop that he realizes that Steve’s leading him toward the mouth of a cave, and from the inside of the cave the view get even more impressive.

From here, he can see both the city, and the night sky-- a sky that shows no sign of light pollution from the streets below.

“There are a couple different layers of shields,” Steve explains. “Shuri could tell you all about them, but up here we’re above the one that blocks out the artificial lights. So you can see... everything.”

Maybe not everything, but definitely the bright, glittering line of the Milky Way, cutting it’s way through the dark night sky. For years now Tony had avoided looking too deeply into space, but up here it doesn’t fill him with that panic from the past.

It’s peaceful. Breathtaking.

Tony takes a seat, there on the ground at the edge of the cave. The city is still visible in a way, but it’s like a blanket has been thrown over it and the only true view can come from looking up.

“Here,” Steve says, as he shrugs out of his jacket. “You’ll hurt your neck like that, but we can lay down and use my jacket as a pillow.”

Tony smirks-- he can’t help it. “Are you trying to get me on my back, Rogers?”

Steve groans. “Not-- that wasn’t--”

“I know,” Tony relents. “I’m teasing you. Lay it out. Let’s star watch.”

Steve seems relieved as he does just that, and then takes the spot next to Tony. It should feel weird, but Tony feels nothing out of the ordinary being out here with Steve. No fear, and no desire. He feels a pleasant sort of warmth at having friendly company, and that’s it.

He has no idea when that happened.

“Do you know what you’re looking at?” Tony asks, when Steve’s settled beside him.

Their shoulders are touching and Steve radiates warmth. It’s nice but it’s not Romance Novel nice. Just-- warm.

“Stars,” Steve laughs. “I know that’s the Milky Way,” he adds, pointing in the correct direction.

“Ten points to Gryffindor,” Tony agrees. “See that dark patch, there? It’s the Coalsack Nebula. And just above it-- that’s a constellation called Crux, or you might have heard it called the southern cross, though originally that was more of a Northern Hemisphere thing. I’ve got no idea what the Wakandans think it represents, but in parts of Australia there's a story about a man who was chased up a tree by a an emu and as a punishment for being a wuss he was turned into a possum. So to the people who knew that story, the crux represents a possum at the top of a tree. That red star up at the top-- that’s the possum.”

Steve turns to look at him in mild surprise. “Seriously-- is there anything you aren’t an expert on?”

Steve must see what unpleasant thing that does to Tony’s expression because he rephrases immediately.

“I didn’t mean that to sound-- like that’s a bad thing,” Steve says. “I’m impressed. Always. At how you can do that.”

“Be a know-it-all?” Tony asks.

“Translate the things you know into something that makes the person listening want to know more,” Steve amends. “I’m taking a couple of college classes online and I never realized what a difference it makes when the person you’re listening to wants to help you learn instead of wants to show off how smart they are.”

“With me it’s probably a mix of both,” Tony says, still a little stung, because being made to feel bad about being smart is a sensitive subject and it has been since he was ohhhh-- about six.

“Nah,” Steve disagrees. “You coulda used all the Greek star names, went into the physics parts of nebulas, rattled off a bunch of math using lightyears until I couldn’t keep up. I bet you know all that stuff, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Tony agrees.

“But you didn’t do that, and you didn’t dumb it down either. Just told me the parts you thought I’d think were interesting. That’s a gift, Tony. I mean it. I wish I’d understood that sooner.”

“Who wouldn’t lead with the story about the emu and the opossum?” Tony asks. Then realizing Steve’s been giving him genuine compliments and putting himself out there he adds, “Good on you, about the classes. I didn’t know furthering your education was on your mind.”

“I always wanted to go to college,” Steve says. “But first I was too poor, then there was a war on, then when I woke up out of the ice it seemed like I had so much catching up to do there wasn’t time for anything else. It’s been nice. I like it, for the most part. Everything’s remote this semester but I’m looking at my options for next year.”

“What school?” Tony asks.

“Kingsborough Community College,” Steve says fondly.

“The one over by Coney Island?” Tony asks.

“That’s the one,” Steve agrees. “I know it’s not MIT or anything...”

“It’s a great school,” Tony says sincerely. “I’ve given a couple lectures there on robotics and SI always keeps a couple internship spots open for their engineering department.”

They’re interrupted from further conversation by a small hovercraft zipping over their heads to land down at Shuri’s lab.

Tony doesn’t need to wonder who has just arrived, because Ned’s cries of delight echo up the path a few seconds later. Judging from the amount of excited laughter that follows, all the teens are now gathered on the roof.

“It’s getting late,” Tony says. “And I want to check in with kids and see if they really are planning on camping out in ScienceLand tonight.”

“I’ll head back with you,” Steve agrees.

The return walk is pleasant. They chat about Steve’s classes and not much else. The teenagers are still outside, playing with several small, neon drones.

MJ and Ned are right in the thick of the science now, and they seem to have caught right up with whatever’s going on.

Harley spots Tony and Steve and jogs over.

“Everything okay, Dad?” Harley asks.

“Yeah, except I’m ready to pass out for the night. Someone’s gonna come pick us up in a minute, I just wanted to check in with you. See where you were going to end up this evening.”

“Here,” Harley says. “There’s a dorm set up on the lowest level, so me, Ned and Peter are taking one room, and MJ and Shuri will take the other. Uncle Rhodey and Aunt May already okayed it. If it’s okay with you.”

Tony isn’t the slightest bit concerned about this group finding any of the usual teenage drugs and rock and roll kind of trouble.

“No orgies or drugs or pacts with the devil,” Tony says, though, because he lives for the horrified face that Harley makes.

“You’re so weird.”

“Big brother is watching,” Tony adds.

“I think JARVIS is having as much fun as we are,” Harley agrees. “But if I need anything, I’ll let him know.”

“Then have a good time,” Tony says. “And like T’Challa said-- don’t blow anything up.”

He pulls Harley in for a hug and Harley doesn’t resist at all. If anything, the hug he gives Tony in return is surprisingly tight. Tony wonders if it’s a Fuck You signal to Steve, but when Harley lets go he looks Tony in the eye and with all the sincerity in the world says

“Thank you for letting us do this. I never dreamed my life could be this good.”

Tony nods, because he doesn’t trust himself to speak when he’s feeling the littlest bit choked up.

Harley rolls his eyes then jogs off to join the others, who all wave and shout their enthusiastic goodnights, as a new hovercraft lands next to Tony and Steve.

Rhodey’s in it, along with one of the King’s guards. Rhodey looks as amped up as the kids.

“Have fun at the library?” Tony asks as he climbs aboard.

“It’s unbelievable, man,” Rhodey says, beaming. “You gotta come with me and May tomorrow. I’m sure supervising the kiddos is loads of fun but they’re safe here. T’Challa’s good people. I trust him.”

Tony nods. He hadn’t been chilling with the kids because he was worried. If he’d been worried he wouldn’t have risked bringing them in the first place. But he still appreciates Rhodey’s instincts. It eases the last of the tension he’s feeling about letting Peter and Harley go their own way.

“Steve offered me a tour tomorrow, but I’m sure I can work in some time for study hall with you.”

“You better take the tour first then,” Rhodey says, “Because once you set foot in that place you aren’t gonna want to leave for a week.”

Maybe, maybe not.

As they lift off and Tony looks back down over the wonder that is Wakanda, all he knows for certain is he’s glad he came, for more reasons than one.

 

TBC in:

Part 2. Peter Meets M’Baku, Gets Royally Trolled, and Helps Tony Build a Bridge... Literally (Purest Fluff)
Part 3. Harley Sciences, Bonds with Bucky, and then Finds Bucky’s Old, Blown-Apart Arm from Siberia and SHTF (Hurt then Comfort)