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To The Core

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The first time Tony sees the kid, he almost wishes he hadn't.

He's sitting opposite Justin Hammer in a seedy, back-alley nightclub; the kind of place that one might expect to see in a black and white mob film. Hammer raises his glass - something fizzy and sweet and probably illegal - and pushes a document over to Tony’s side of the table. They were supposed to be discussing some business venture, Tony forgets what, but naturally Hammer had chosen a fucking strip joint to meet in.

They're in plain clothes, because God knows the press would go crazy with a scoop like this should they be recognised: playboy billionaire philanthropist really living up to his title. Tony has a baseball cap pulled down firmly over his eyes and the hood of his jumper thrown over it. Hammer, thankfully for Tony and much to the man’s chagrin, isn't well known enough to cause a such a big scandal. Besides, he's probably been coming here for a while anyway.

Now Tony thinks about it, this is exactly the kind of place he would expect Hammer to frequent. The lights are dim and orange, the tables round and spread out evenly in front of the large stage taking up the majority of the room. There's music playing, something slow and seductive, and Hammer gave up trying to talk business long ago.

Hammer raises his hand and clicks his fingers to summon a waiter - a gesture that has Tony cringing; did he really used to act like that? How embarrassing - but his eyes remain focused on the figure swaying gently on the stage. She's young, which isn't really surprising considering the questionable nature of the club, and she's wearing barely any clothes. Her hair is long and blonde, tumbling down her back in gentle waves, and she sort of reminds Tony of Pepper. He has to look away.

Which is how his eyes come to land on the boy making his way towards them. The club is quite busy at this time of night and the crowds are difficult to navigate but the kid is making it look easy, darting between groups and manoeuvring his way under the arms of middle aged men to reach their table.

He's wearing skin-tight black jeans, a shiny black waistcoat and a skinny tie that hangs around his neck loosely. The waistcoat is unbuttoned and Tony can't help but follow the line of the tie down his chest. He tears his eyes away when the boy comes to a stop next to their table; his mouth feels dry.

“What can I get you, sir?” He asks brightly, and his eyes dance. He really is young, Tony thinks, to be working in a place like this and to have kept this childlike excitement. Maybe it's all an act, good for business or whatever, but Tony knows that look and he doubts it.

“Another drink for my friend and I. The same as before.” Hammer waves a hand carelessly with a simple arrogance that has Tony gritting his teeth. He glances at the boy, but he just smiles widely and nods. If someone had dismissed Tony in that way he wouldn't have tolerated it, but this kid just accepts it and still flashes them a smile a few grades above polite.

Tony can tell the exact moment Hammer acknowledges the boy because his eyes actually light up. It's disgusting and Tony can't say anything for fear of drawing too much attention to himself.

“Wait a minute,” Hammer orders, his eyes trailing down the tie, pausing on the boy’s toned stomach before flicking back up to his face. Its all too familiar— Tony swallows. “Will you be dancing later?”

It's a casual inquiry but whilst Tony can sense the heat behind the words, the boy doesn't seem to notice. Maybe he’s just used to it by now, Tony’s brain helpfully suggests, because he never loses that wide, genuine smile. His eyes are still bright and honest and when he shakes his head a lock of hair falls into his eyes. When he lifts his arm to push it out of his eyes his waistcoat is tugged to the side; Tony’s eyes automatically flit to the boy’s nipple - now exposed - and he knows Hammer is doing the same thing.

“No sir,” he chirps happily. “I'm afraid I don't dance, but Boy’s Night is Tuesday and Thursday so you're more than welcome to come along for those.”

Hammer sighs melodramatically.

“Such a shame. I would have liked to see you on that stage.”

The boy seems unsure what to say to this. In the end he settles on: “I’ll get you those drinks now, sir.” Tony pointedly doesn't watch as he walks away from their table, but Hammer doesn't seem to notice. He's too busy watching the boy walk away.

“One more drink, and I should be going.” Tony says, voice clipped and straining. He despises this place and he despises Justin Hammer.

“Of course,” Hammer obliges ‘graciously’. “Miss Potts would be very upset if you missed curfew, after all.”

It’s a challenge, Tony realises. Hammer is challenging to stay; he ignored the dig and shoots the man opposite him a positively poisonous smile.

“She’s not a woman you want to get on the wrong side of.”

***

When their drinks come, Peter looks marginally more frazzled than he did before. His hair is messy, as though someone has been raking their fingers through it - bad thoughts, Tony, bad thoughts - and he breathes a sigh of relief as soon as the drinks are out of his hands. He’s tired, Tony realises, if the constant glances at the clock are anything to go by. It's almost midnight and this kid doesn't look old enough to be up past ten.

He's obviously not twenty-one, but then what did he expect of a club like this? Hiring underage barmen doesn't seem like something that would phase the manager. Still, to get a job in a place like this he must be at least eighteen. Surely.

Hammer leers at him and Tony blinks furiously, fishing into his pocket and pulling out a twenty dollar note. For the first time that evening, the kid looks unsure. He's clearly used to people being stingy with their money, and to have someone offering such an excessive tip - nothing for Tony, probably a lot for the kid - might seem a little suspect. Still, he reaches out tentatively and takes the money.

“Thank you, sir.” He says, managing to sound sincere and suspicious at the same time. Tony keeps his eyes fixed on the table, and he only knows the kid has left when Hammer starts to speak.

“Shame to see talent like that wasted.” Hammer sighs wistfully. Tony picks up his drink and swallows it down.

“Excuse me,” he declares, slamming the empty glass onto the table and creating a wet circle stain on the legal document in front of Hammer. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

The crowds don't part for him, but he's dressed in baggy jeans and a hoodie that hasn't been washed in three weeks so he isn't that surprised. He tries to swallow down the lump that rises in his throat at the thought of him acting like this; he knows it’s important to live up to the media’s impression of him but sometimes he wishes he could live in anonymity, where nobody knows him and he doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else.

Then again, he wouldn’t even know what that was like.

The bathrooms are definitely not what he was expecting— they look so out of place in this club that it’s almost laughable. For everything the club is - grimy, seedy, probably illegal - the toilets are the opposite. It looks like every surface has been scrubbed within an inch of its life, until its dazzlingly bright.

Tony takes a deep breath and pulls his hood back, finally alone. The music is barely audible now, just a dull humming noise thumping in the back of his head, and assesses himself in the squeaky clean mirror. He looks awful: there are dark circles under his eyes, his hair is greasy and limp and he desperately needs a shave.

He turns the tap and splashes cold water into his face, refreshingly cool against his hot skin. The alcohol must be ridiculously strong, he thinks, because there is no way he would be getting tipsy off three or four drinks otherwise. Unless they were spiked with something, but that isn’t an option Tony wants to think about right now.

He had almost forgotten how much he hates spending time with Justin Hammer. Trying to have a conversation with him that doesn’t involve sex or alcohol is an uphill struggle and it really takes the life out of Tony. He feels like if he closed his eyes now, he could just fall asleep where he stands.

The door bursts open and Tony startles, forgetting he no longer has his hood up and is therefore perfectly recognisable. It isn’t like the baseball cap really hides much anyway.

It’s the kid from earlier, who served them drinks, and his front is completely covered in liquid as though someone had emptied their drink on him. Tony tries very, very hard not to watch as rivulets of the drink roll down his stomach.

At the very least the kid looks surprised to see him there, which means he hadn’t recognised him earlier. Tony hopes that maybe this boy will be just another clueless teenager and won’t know who he is at all, but what with Tony’s face being plastered all over the news almost every other day, he doubts that.

“Oh my God!” The kid exclaims, his eyes wide. “You’re Tony Stark!”

So much for that idea, Tony thinks.

“So it would seem,” Tony replies dryly, because he isn’t going to act scared. He’s already busted; he may as well be breezy about it. “And who might you be?”

“I - I’m Peter. I’m Peter Parker.” He repeats, more surely the second time. His eyes are still wide and wondering and Tony feels sick at how attractive he finds that.

Tony is about to speak when the kid continues, mouth running a mile a minute so that Tony can’t really understand the words coming out of it. It would help if he wasn’t so focused on the kid’s lips.

“Don’t worry though, sir! I won’t, you know… tell anyone. I mean unless you don’t mind, that is! Because my friend Ned would freak out if he knew and oh man I’m kind of freaking out myself a little but I swear I won’t say anything if you don’t want me to!”

The kid - Peter - blinks and sucks in a huge breath, and Tony copies his actions. The important thing is that he won’t tell anyone, Tony thinks, not that he is so obviously such a big fan. Absolutely not, and Tony would be a monster to exploit Peter’s starstruck behaviour.

“Peter,” Tony drawls. “I would very much appreciate it if you didn’t tell anybody about this. Thank you.”

Peter releases a rush of air and laughs breathlessly, his tongue sticking out just slightly from between his teeth. He shakes his head emphatically and his hair bounces.

“Problem?” Tony chooses to change the subject and points towards Peter’s waistcoat, stained a darker colour where the liquid had been absorbed. Peter flushes and looks down at himself as though he is only now remembering why he came in here in the first place.

“Oh!” He exclaims. “Oh yeah— um, let me just… um.” He trails off, ducking into the nearest cubicle and pulling off a handful of toilet roll to dab at himself with. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Some drunk asshole— uh, I mean irritating and intoxicated person at the bar thought it would be funny to chuck his drink at me and you know usually I can deal with that sort of thing because it’s, like, just a part of the job but today I’m just so done with dickheads like - I mean idiots, sorry - like him so I figured I’d just tidy myself up a bit and… you don’t care about any of this. Of course you don’t, I’m so sorry Mr Stark, sir.”

Peter trails off, laughing nervously and pointedly looking at his shoes.

Jesus, this kid talks a lot, Tony thinks, unable to tear his gaze away from Peter’s mouth.

Tony really doesn’t have any clue how to respond to that in a way that doesn’t involve shoving Peter against the bathroom door, dropping to his knees and licking the alcohol off his chest. Never let anyone say that Tony Stark doesn’t live up to the playboy part of his title.

Instead, he smiles vaguely and waves his hand in dismissal.

“Love to stay, kid,” he tells Peter in a voice that makes it obvious he doesn’t mean it. “But I have to go. Remember what we talked about Peter, you won’t tell anyone, will you?”

Peter shakes his head in awe, speechless, and Tony takes that as all the clearance he needs to leave.

He nods in acknowledgment and pats the kid’s shoulder as he passes him, tugging his hood down over his head once again before pushing through the crowds to get to the exit. He doesn’t even stop to tell Hammer he’s leaving, and there is an inconspicuous, AI driven car waiting for him in the street.

Tony resolves never to go back to that club, like, ever.

***

The second time he sees the kid, he definitely wishes he hadn’t.

It’s roughly three weeks later and Tony has just gotten out of a meeting - his latest Top Secret project is drawing controversy; the public seem to think they have a right to know what he’s working on even before his marketing team knows - and he’s heading towards the elevator. He is in desperate need of a coffee and the coffee machine in his private office is beckoning him.

And then he sees Peter.

He’s dressed differently, of course, in baggy jeans and a loose fitting t-shirt. A hoodie is hanging off his shoulders and he has a backpack on— Tony stutters to a stop, his eyes sliding back over the backpack and then assessing the crowd around the boy. The shock comes like a bucket of ice cold water poured over his head: the kid is on a fucking school trip.

“Peter, c’mon!” Tony hears, and seconds later there is another boy grabbing hold of Peter’s arm and attempting to drag him away from one of the display cases that has taken his interest. Peter shrugs him off, his eyes never leaving the display, and mumbles something. The other kid sighs and rolls his eyes melodramatically.

“Fine, but if you get detention for ditching the group don’t say I didn’t warn you!” He jokes before turning and hurrying to catch up with the rest of Peter’s class. They round the corner and are out of view, but Peter doesn’t even seem to notice.

Tony is striding over there before he can stop himself, the urge to talk to the boy strangely overwhelming. He is ashamed to admit that it’s somewhat of a thrill: knowing Peter is a fan, knowing he has created whatever it is that Peter is so engrossed in looking at, knowing that Peter would look at Tony the same way he is looking at the display now. Impressed, excited and a little intimidated.

He stops just behind Peter, peering over his shoulder to see what the kid is looking at. It’s one of his earlier ideas, one that had gone unfinished. He had been trying to recreate spider webs with enforced strength - the same way that coating something in Kevlar would make it far stronger - thinking that he could help emergency services with the creation. Then came the arc reactor and everything else had been pushed to the side.

Peter has a notebook out and is sketching Tony’s model, jotting down notes that Tony has not written. It almost looks like he’s adding his own notes, and before he can stop himself his curiosity gets the better of him.

“Shouldn’t you be keeping up with your class?” Tony teases.

Peter spins around in a panic, dropping his notebook in his fluster, and letting out an embarrassing squeak when he sees who had spoken to him. He gapes at Tony, who delights in watching a pink flush creep up the boy’s neck and into his cheeks. He’s undeniably attractive, with broad shoulders and defined muscles, but a face that has retained some of its childlike innocence. It’s an interesting combination and it is one hundred percent working for Tony.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to— I mean I can, if you want me to… sorry Mr Stark!” Peter blurts out, as quickly as he spoke last time they met.

Tony suppresses a laugh and, instead of replying, bends down to retrieve the book Peter had dropped. Before he hands it back he scans it, his eyes catching on some of Peter’s messy scrawls. Some of the kid’s ideas are ones that he himself had considered when designing it and others are different, things he had never even thought to try.

He raises an eyebrow and looks at Peter over the top of the book.

“I’m so sorry, Mr Stark, those are nothing. Your design is perfect, just… ignore what I wrote.” The kid never shuts up, talking like he thinks Tony is going to get angry with him. He reaches a hand out to take his book but Tony takes a step back, snatching it away before Peter can grab it.

He holds out a finger in front of the kid, a half smirk forming.

“Ah, ah. Not so fast, kid. You mind if I look at these? Thanks.” He finishes his sentence before Peter has time to react, skimming over things he has written and biting his lip as he considers the practicality of his ideas. It looks… good. Smart, well thought out. The only thing Tony can fault is Peter’s atrocious handwriting.

“Seriously, Mr Stark, it’s nothing!” Peter professes.

“Shut it, kid.” Tony shakes his head. “First rule of business: don’t put yourself down. If you start discrediting your own ideas then how do you expect other people to take them seriously?”

Peter’s mouth closes with an audible snap and he nods eagerly, fingers twitching like he wishes he could write this down. His eyes dart to Tony’s hand curled around the edges of his notebook but he remains, thankfully, silent as he lets Tony think. Finally, Tony raises his head.

He knows he shouldn’t, knows the well thought out ideas written down in the book he is holding isn’t really why he’s doing this, but once again Tony is speaking before he can think it through.

“You mind coming with me, kid?” He asks, enjoying the way Peter’s eyes sparkle at the offer. “I’d love to talk more about these, but I’d kill for a coffee. What do you say?”

Of course, Peter says yes. Tony hadn’t expected any different.

***

Peter’s reactions can only be described as cute. Tony leads him away from the visitors floor and towards the elevator, scanning his badge and waiting for the doors to open. Peter is stuck staring, seemingly unable to get his feet to move, so Tony places a hand on his back - in between his shoulder blades - and gently pushes him forward. He stumbles a little and his fingers curl around the polished handrail inside the lift.

His blinks when Tony presses the button for the top floor, where his private office is located, and his breath catches in his throat. He sees the kid glance at him and bite his lip, and he knows that look well, but he looks forward resolutely. Better not to acknowledge it…

Then why did you invite him to your office in the first place?’ A nasty voice in the back of Tony’s head hisses. He ignores it.

The elevator reaches the top floor and the doors slide open gracefully, revealing Tony’s office and connecting lab. Risking a look at Peter, Tony sees the kid is struggling to keep his excitement in check. He is bouncing on the balls of his feet, and he looks ready to explore every inch of the room. Tony doesn’t blame him; the tech he has stashed away in his lab is more advanced than anything most people would ever dream of owning.

“This is… so cool, Mr Stark!” Peter exclaims, laughing breathlessly. Tony smiles in spite of himself.

“Follow me, kid.” Tony orders, leading the way to his lab and resisting the urge to grab Peter by his arm and tug him in. He seems to want to stop at every station just to examine the technology there. Tony has half a dozen desks with unfinished experiments scattered on them but he manages to find an empty space. Peter looks at Tony before placing his notebook on the table uncertainly.

“Okay, talk me through this.” Tony suggests, pulling up a stool for Peter. He stays standing himself, if only because it allows him to study Peter’s profile as he hunches over his work. Suddenly the kid flushes and bites his lip self consciously.

“I’m— really, Mr Stark, these are nothing. Your designs… I could never compare to those!”

Tony rolls his eyes and scoffs, but he sees where the kid is coming from. If he has idolised Tony ever since the arc reactor hit the big time - ten years ago, the kid would have been ten, Jesus - then to be in this situation now would be surreal. To be in this situation and be asked to improve your idol’s designs… Peter doesn’t want to offend him.

“C’mon, Peter.” Tony sighs exasperatedly, enjoying how the kid seems to light up at the use of his first name. “Please?”

Peter bites his lip and shoots one more reproachful look at the elevator before hunching over the paper and beginning to scribble. His writing is illegible, messy and tilting down the page, and Tony tries not to let himself get distracted by the hair that flicks up at the nape of his neck.

Half an hour passes and Peter doesn’t even look up from his notebook. He has dropped the pen a few times, shaken out his right hand and continued writing with his left, but these are the only occasions that the boy actually moves. Tony’s gaze catches on Peter’s finger - long and slender and wrapped around his pen - and the knowledge that Peter is on a school trip right now is the only thing that stops him from placing his hand over Peter’s, from turning the boy around and backing him up against the work station.

“Mr Stark?” Peter asks, turning in his seat so suddenly that Tony almost stumbles back a few paces.

“Yeah— sorry, yes?” Tony glances down at where the boy is holding out the notebook and takes it quickly, careful not to brush against Peter’s fingers. This time, given more time to properly assess Peter’s ideas and think about the practicality of the calculations, Tony can see that the kid is really onto something. He must have been working on this far longer than however long he spent in front of the exhibit downstairs.

“These are good, kid.” Tony offers as feedback. “Really good… really accurate. When did you start working on these?”

Peter blushes and Tony swallows - bad thoughts bad thoughts bad thoughts - before laughing nervously and looking down at the floor.

“A few months now— you can find all this stuff online if you do some digging… if you know where to look.”

Tony takes half a step closer and only then does he realise their position: Peter is perched on the edge of his stool, his legs dangling and spread apart. Tony is stood practically in between them, close enough to feel Peter’s body heat.

“And you know where to look?” He replies, a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth and oh God is he flirting? He should not be flirting.

Peter flushes a furious red colour and stutters hopelessly - adorably - with his eyes downcast. He looks up softly from under his eyelashes and Tony is honestly scared about what is going to happen next… when his intercom starts to buzz. Manically.

He takes a step away quickly and Peter hops off the stool and stands with his arms hanging by his sides. He looks awkward and confused and absolutely delicious.

“Tony!” Pepper’s voice cries out clearly. She sounds more stressed than Tony has heard her sound in a while. “Help. I have a teacher and two very irate teenagers complaining than their friend has gone missing in the building and they are driving me crazy!”

Tony curses. He had meant to let Pepper know that he had borrowed Peter from the group when they reached the lab, but it had completely slipped his mind.

“Shit. Pepper, Pep, relax. The kid’s with me!” Tony looks over his shoulder at Peter, who gulps and grabs his backpack off the floor by his feet.

“Wait, what? You kidnapped a child?”

Tony winces. He did, didn’t he?

“Relax.” He soothes. “I’m bringing him back as we speak.”

The elevator journey down to the ground floor - where the rest of Peter’s classmates are ready to leave - is somewhat awkward. If Peter picked up on the tension back in the lab then he doesn’t say anything about it and Tony is so grateful for that. He feels bad enough as it is, when he is the only person that knows about his twisted thoughts.

There is a dinging sound as they reach the ground floor and Tony reaches out, places a gentle hand on Peter’s shoulder before he can leave.

“Your designs… they’re really good, kid. I’d love to be able to work with them again.”

Peter swallows.

“Yes, yeah definitely. I mean, uh, I would love that.”

Tony grins before ushering the kid out of the door. He doesn’t plan on coming out himself - he doesn’t fancy explaining himself to Peter’s teacher and, gulp, the two irate teenagers Pepper was talking about.

“See you round, kid.” He says and he hopes, for both their sakes, that he doesn’t.