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as long as you're here at the end of the day (the meaning behind ‘father’)

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i.

Peter can’t remember what his father looks like.

Sometimes, he thinks of brown hair, green eyes. He sees a smile that leaves a dimple in the left cheek beneath a line of speckled freckles set in tan skin. There are no photos of his father when he was his father, only of him and Ben when they’re young and the young man in the photos don’t correspond to what’s in his head, what’s lingering on the edges of his repressed memories of childhood. It had been easier to picture them when he was younger but Peter isn’t young anymore, doesn’t need a teddy bear to hold at night when he can’t sleep because the dark is making shadows into monsters.

He has pills for that now and when it’s too hard to sleep, he takes more than the recommend amount and doesn’t tell Aunt May because he’d rather go a few nights without sleep to make it appear the bottle is lasting as long as it shoulder rather than spend an entire month without getting any rest. Aunt May trusts him enough that he can keep the orange bottle in his drawer instead of the bathroom where she can keep an eye on him and count the pills that are gone quicker than she can blink. He doesn’t need to give her another reason to worry, doesn’t want her to think it’s all just teenage angst because sometimes it’s more than that, it’s more than growing up into being a teenager and being sixteen because a few nights ago he broke three ribs and lay on the ground staring up at the sky in the middle of an alleyway.

Somewhere beneath Aunt May’s bed there’s a box filled with the old things Peter used to have, things his parents gave him that are gathering dust and is labelled PETE’S THINGS in old maker, the ink long since soaked into the brown cardboard it was written on. At the bottom, there’s a pair of gloves he had been wearing when his parents dropped him off at Ben and May’s doorstep. He thinks they’re blue, or maybe they’re red. He can’t remember because he had been five and didn’t understand what it meant to go away – were they going on a holiday? They went to Spain once during the Summer and that was a holiday and they said to people they were going away back then. Time didn’t make sense until he was seven and realised they weren’t gone to Spain and they weren’t coming back.

Peter wonders if he’s a bad child for not remembering his parents’ faces but then thinks if he’s anyone’s child; legally, Ben and May are his guardians and he’s in their custody and that’s what he said to people instead of ‘This is my mom and dad.

Only it’s guardian, singular.

He can remember Ben that bit better, face fresh in his mind. He thinks, once, he called Ben ‘Dad’ but Ben softly told him he wasn’t his dad and Peter gave a shrug and corrected himself without much care, without much thought as to why he wasn’t allowed call Ben ‘Dad’. Dads were supposed to look after their children and play with them and sneak them ice cream like Ben would sometimes do, so he didn’t get the concept of blood parents and why Ben wasn’t Dad. But he never did call Ben Dad after that anymore. Guardian was such a long and hard word to say so he just said, ‘This is my Ben’.

Once, when they were younger, he asked Ned if he had a Ben but Ned told him he only had a Dad.

Peter didn’t have a Dad because he couldn’t piece together fragmented memories that were warped by a child’s mind and time into something that wasn’t true. No one used to ask him why he didn’t have a Dad because they would take one look at him and shake their heads, thinking he didn’t understand what it meant to be an orphan.

Peter asked May what an orphan was and she told him it was a person whose parents were gone away and he had asked if it meant that he was an orphan. May had said yes. Peter paused and thought and asked if it meant Julie Krieger was an orphan because her parents went away for a while to France on a trip and she kept crying in class that day because they weren’t at home. May had said no, and the concept of being an orphan hurt Peter’s brain because it made no sense.

Flash would tease him, bully him, push him into lockers and ask if his parents were coming to the Parent-Teacher meeting. Peter would say no because his Aunt May and Uncle Ben were going and Flash would push him again and Peter’s shoulder would be bruised with splashes of indigo and violet for a week after being slammed into the locker.

When Ben had died, Flash didn’t look his way for a month and Peter could feel himself screaming on the inside because everyone was walking on eggshells around him because he couldn’t get the blood off his hands, his clothes, beneath his finger nails, caught in his curls, and May would cry herself to sleep at night and awake with bloodshot eyes and everyone kept asking him if he was okay, are you okay, Peter? Do you want to go home, Peter? Do you want me to call your guardian, Peter?

Guardian, guardian, guardian, because Peter had no parents, had no Ben and May was working so many jobs but she tried so, so, so hard for him and he could never give her the same back and Ben was dead and so were his parents and he couldn’t even remember them.

It felt as if his world was getting tighter and tighter and everyone was trying to push the sky down on to of him and he could feel the rubble on his shoulders, breaking bones and dust in his throat, eyes, ears and mouth but no one was coming to help him, the rank water running through his curls and the mask of his pathetic suit lay forgotten in the puddle, sinking into the mud and dirt water staining the vibrant red.

When those memories came back, he took more of the pills in his bed stand to get him to sleep, tongue numb, eyes heavy, and Aunt May knocking on his door because he slept through his alarm.

He doesn’t have nightmares, not like normal people; he has memories torn from the back of his mind and amplified and ringing in his ears and it hurts because he can’t take pills to make them go away. He works, he studies, he does his rounds around the city and eats his dinner and laughs with May and, sometimes, he cries in the shower or ends up coughing up blood, or maybe vomiting, but by the time he gets to bed it all fades away.

Wash, rinse, repeat for the next day.

Peter can’t remember his father, can’t remember a time when his father ever ruffled his hair or gave him a hug; Ben had been younger than his Dad and played the part of an uncle better than a father and, at times, it still felt like he was only staying the weekend and his parents were going to pick him up Sunday evening but then he would wake up on Wednesday in that same old bed, in those same old Harry Potter sheets.

He thinks, maybe, Tony Stark is different.

Peter does not fully understand Mr. Stark, doesn’t understand his spontaneity, his sharp smile and sharper words, how he wears sneakers with suits or why he keeps Peter around. Weren’t all those months of radio silence his choice? Why change his tune now? It made Peter suspicious, wanting to keep himself closed out, hiding behind the mask of the suit that was given to him because if Mr. Stark really cared, he wouldn’t have blocked him out for months on end.

But it was different now, at least it was to Peter.

And he didn’t want to ruin it, didn’t want to give Mr. Stark any more reason to push him away so it was easier to just play Peter Parker, to just play a different him that he showed for others and a Peter who never cried or picked at the wounds on his arms that were closing up because there was some strange fascination in tearing open old scars that he couldn’t quite fathom. No one seems all that concerned anymore when Peter is littered with cuts and bruises, blues and yellows and purples like a crushed flowerbed on his ribs from all the knocking fists that would bite into his chest, because he’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man is so much stronger than Peter Parker and can heal faster than Peter Parker so whatever he pulls apart during the night is sewn back together the next morning.

The Compound isn’t loud, the clicking of heels and shoes of all those who worked for Mr. Stark echoing in Peter’s ears and getting louder as he made his way down to where Mr. Stark was, buzzing beneath the skin for his weekly visit to the workshop beneath the Compound. It’s the highlight of his week, away from Spider-Man, away from Penis Parker and just be Peter, away from May’s always watching eye, from Ned’s begging to know more about Peter’s escapades as he’s nursing a sore shoulder.

There’s remnants of Ben, of his father, in the few hours he gets to spend with Mr. Stark; how the older man would call him kid, ask him about school, about homework, about being Spider-Man and about being Peter Parker (he didn’t now why Mr. Stark always asked him the latter since being Peter Parker was so boring and uninteresting and he shrugs it off with a nonchalant I’m good because he’s Spider-Man too and Spider-Man doesn’t sometimes cry himself to sleep, if Spider-Man can have everything on the outside healed, he can have everything on the inside healed too.) There are times when Peter and Mr. Stark work on his suit that he feels more at ease, more like himself, or when they work on different things, small things that make no sense but whir to life when he puts in the final wire that ends with Mr. Stark giving him a heartfelt and pride filled clap on the back – not harsh or something that would make him buckle forward even if he wasn’t Spider-Man – that make Peter’s cheeks would hurt so much from smiling.

Once, Tony gave his hair a ruffle, unthinking and almost unaware of how it made Peter still, heart lurching into his throat as good job, Pete rang in his hears and echoed in his lungs, eyes stinging and a lump becoming too large and hard to swallow at the back of his mouth.

And Peter doesn’t want to ruin it, doesn’t want the late Saturday stays at the Compound with Mr. Stark to go away, to have radio silence instead of Mr. Stark replying to his double texting and picking up Peter’s habit of putting noses on his emojis (his favourite was >:^) and it made Peter laugh the first time he saw it). He doesn’t want to ruin how nice Mr. Stark is to him, doesn’t want him to think of Peter as some stupid kid who finds it hard to sleep at night because the darkness was so crushing at times and it felt like he was going to suffocate in it all. He ended up buying a night light without Aunt May knowing and now there was a soft glow of stars bursting across his room, comforting and warm.

So, Peter grabs all those niggling worries and fears, thoughts and feelings and shoves them into that box at the back of his mind like the box beneath Aunt May’s bed because he won’t let himself ruin everything by being Peter Parker.

It’s four in the afternoon, the two of them sitting but not really doing anything and it’s in these moments that Peter is glad that he’s here, that he doesn’t have to always be doing something or have something happening to be in Mr. Stark’s company; Aunt May was working late after one of her co-workers ended up coming down with something during the day and vomited all over the floor of the place so Peter had a choice of going home and spending time there, alone and bored and rereading his homework or he could ask Mr. Stark to stay for a little longer – something he thought of never, ever doing.

Luckily, he didn’t have to because just as Peter was reassuring Aunt May that he would be fine, Mr. Stark picked up on his seemingly distressed tone and got in on the conversation, Peter’s cheeks burning bright red and becoming blotchy as Mr. Stark spoke enthusiastically about spending more time with Peter to his aunt, that Aunt May didn’t have to worry because no way would he let Peter spend time alone that evening. Maybe Mr. Stark pitied him, or felt bad, but all the same it just meant Peter got to spend more time with him and Peter didn’t really mind much the reason behind it.

Peter was rechecking the maths homework that he had forgotten to take out of his bag that he brought with him, making sure that he had it all done and everything worked out while Mr. Stark held one of Peter’s notebooks in his hand, checking over the early formulas of Peter’s idea for Spider-Man’s web fluid, leaning against the counter that Peter was sitting at, a low whistle leaving him.

“For someone with only access to high school lab equipment, I have to say your formula for the web is amazing,” Mr. Stark complimented and pride swelled in Peter’s chest, a heat rushing from beneath his collar at Mr. Stark’s words as he closed his maths copy. Mr. Stark flicked through the page, eyes taking in the scribbling Peter had done on the edges of the page, nodding as if in agreement. “Of course, we can always better it and make it more durable.”

“I think I’ll leave the web making for strictly here anymore,” Peter said, suppressing a wince at a not too old memory of some time ago during the last time he attempted at trying to make more during school.

Mr. Stark dropped the notebook and looked at Peter, an eyebrow raised but doing little to hide the amused gleam in his eyes. “And may I ask why?”

“Well, I may, just may, have made a wrong decision,” Peter began, words becoming rushed and spilling out of his mouth almost nonsensically to the point he doubted Mr. Stark could even understand what he was saying, turning redder in the face as he spoke and revealed it all to Mr. Stark. “And caused a small, controlled explosion in the classroom before.”

A choked bout of laughter left Mr. Stark, notebook being left down onto the counter top but then that amusement in his eyes faded to something like shock and concern. “You caused an explosion in your classroom?”

“A small and controlled one!” Peter exclaimed, trying to defend himself but his voice sounded too whiny, high pitched to his ears that he couldn’t help but wince at the sound of it, dropping his head and bringing his voice down to a gentle murmur, curls of falling down along his forehead. “And it wasn’t really my fault.”

He glanced at Mr. Stark who adopted a rather disapproving stance then, arms over his chest and cocking an eyebrow, much like what Aunt May used to do when Peter would arrive late home and try to explain himself to her through stutters and mumbles. “And how is that?”

“This jerk named Flash gave me the wrong tube when I asked him to hand me something because we were partnered together,” Peter explained, voice once more picking up speed as he spoke while Mr. Stark’s eyes narrowed at Peter’s word choice. A gloomy look rained down on Peter’s features as he sat straighter, a deep breath pooling in his lungs before he gave a huff, the air catching on a curl that was caught in his eyelashes and blowing it out of the way as his face pinched together in distaste at the memory he was recounting. “I’ve tried to tell my teacher that pairing me and Flash up isn’t going to make us friends but he told me that high school is the most important time of our life which is weird since it’s only a couple years in comparison to the rest of our life – ”

Peter was settling himself into a full blown rant, voice becoming louder and sharper, annoyed and harsh on the ears due to the bitterness that was eroding away at his insides traced in his tone and no one seemed more surprised as Mr. Stark as he unwrapped his arms from around his chest, finding Peter’s shoulder and spinning him, the chair turning him so that his knees were no longer pressed up against the counter and he was faced towards the older man, the latter having a deeply concerned look on his face.

“Hey, whoa, kid – breathe,” Mr. Stark said and it wasn’t only until his words that Peter realised the tightness in his lungs, how they burned like flames and that whatever he had been dragging in through his nose was shallow and unsteady. The warmth of Mr. Stark’s hands seeped in through Peter’s hoodie and seemed to ground him, stopping him from being swept away as Peter complied, easing the ache in his chest as the realisation of what he said hit him, of how unwound he became and all that he had been trying to keep hidden was pressing against the box in the back of his mind, the string he used to keep himself together become loose and threatening to be pulled free. Mr. Stark eyed Peter, watching him with worry and he squeezed his shoulder gently, dipping his head to catch Peter’s gaze and making the younger boy him look at him. “You alright?”

“Sorry. I’m fine,” Peter spluttered quickly, giving a cough and wishing he could reel the words back in, to hide the worried and anxious tone of his voice and he tried to turn himself back into the counter to finish his work, wanting nothing more to go back to numbers because numbers were easy, numbers made sense. “Just a bit tired.”

“You sure there, kid?” Mr. Stark asked gently, making Peter face him again but keeping space between the two, as if he was afraid that Peter might dissolve into a fit of shallow breathing and sobbing, eyes taking in the younger boy’s appearance and seeming even more concerned at what he say. “Your hands are shaking. You’re looking a little pale too. Your forehead’s burning up.”

Stark pushed pass the curtain of curls on Peter’s forehead and pressed his hand against the skin, his palm feeling too cold for Peter and Peter pulled away, cursing himself for getting so emotional, for letting Mr. Stark see this part of him.

“I’m fine, Mr. Stark,” Peter croaked but he barely believed, doubted Mr. Stark believed them either with how he was staring at him. He was a mess and he was trying to push it all inside but it was spilling out into the open and he felt too vulnerable, too weak. He wasn’t Spider-Man, he was just pathetic Peter Parker and no amount of spider bites or super strength or Stark tech would ever change that. Whatever mask he put on, it was still his face beneath it. “Really.”

Mr. Stark didn’t believe Peter’s fragile and feeble words, of course he didn’t. And it annoyed Peter because everything worked so much better when he wasn’t being himself and when Mr. Stark wasn’t looking at Peter like he was about to fall apart at any moment, taking his hand away from Peter’s shoulder and once more adopting that disapproving stance, arms over his chest and mulling over his thoughts that Peter wished to know so that he could be one step ahead of the older man. “I should get F.R.I.D.A.Y to do a scan just in case.”

“No, really, Mr. Stark, I’m fine.”

“So, how come Karen’s been telling me that you spent three hours lying in an alleyway sleeping three weeks ago?”

That stunned Peter into silence for a moment.

Peter’s doe brown eyes stared into Mr. Stark’s, blinking and mouth parted in shock as the older man stared on, unamused and seemingly stern, like before Aunt May used to know about Spider-Man and would quiz him endlessly about the bruises and scrapes that would accumulate on his body. He didn’t know what to say, to lie with, and half thought maybe to deny it but knew better because Peter just knew it was Karen that told Mr. Stark, who else could it have been? And he felt angry at the A.I for ratting on him, for stopping Peter deal with this quietly, to deal with it alone.

“You… you know about that?” Peter gulped, quietly as he dropped his head, ignoring the pounding of his heart in his chest, the sweat on his palms and how there was a buzzing beneath his skin but it wasn’t the same as before, a nervous and all consuming jitteriness that was threatening to explode in his veins. He heard a sigh, not a fed up one that he worried might have happened and he peaked at Mr. Stark through his eyelashes, catching a glimpse of the worried and tired expression that crossed his face.

“I’m always up to date with you, kid. I didn’t get the notification until I woke up and I was half ready to haul ass down there until she said that you were fine but just suffering from exhaustion,” Mr. Stark revealed to Peter’s surprise, leaning against the counter and dipping his head once more to catch Peter’s ducked eyes, a small, reassuring smile on his lips as he tried to pick Peter apart, trying to see what it was that he was hiding. “Care to tell me what’s up?”

Peter shook his head, curls bouncing as he did so and wrung his hands together atop of his knees, voice a low murmur. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Keeping it in won’t do much good,” Mr. Stark stated, his voice too soft, too gentle, as if Peter were some fragile thing that might break apart at anything distressing. Peter’s hands tightened around each other, nails biting into the backs of his knuckles and pressing half-moons into the bone yellow skin there. The skin around his nails is peeling, red from how he would pick at it but it didn’t matter because this time tomorrow, it would all be gone. “You know you can talk to me about it, kid, or your Aunt who loves you very much and is kind of worried about you.”

“No!” Peter exclaimed, eyes wild and wide and Mr. Stark was taken aback by the outburst, Peter’s voice hoarse and desperate and his breathing caught in his throat, trying to claw its way down but remained lodged in place. Peter cleared his throat and tried to at least put on an appearance of being calm. “No, Aunt May, she can’t… she wouldn’t understand.”

“And why wouldn’t she understand?” Mr. Stark asked him, eyebrows furrowing together at Peter’s words, staring at him and making Peter fidget in his seat, perspiring and hands clammy, feeling as if there was not enough air in the world to breathe, the tangle of knots and twine in his mind becoming more of a mess as he tried to fight through his thoughts, tried to pull an end to untangle the mess but it was so hard and couldn’t fathom his feelings into words, couldn’t articulate what was rushing through his veins and how he didn’t sleep without a night light anymore. Peter was only sixteen but he felt so old, so worn down and his bones creaked, rusty and over used and his mind wasn’t big enough for the thoughts that pushed against the pockets of his skull at night. “Believe it or not, everyone was a teenager at some point.”

“It isn’t teenager stuff,” Peter muttered, feeling annoyed, feeling inadequate, that what he was feeling wasn’t enough, that what he was feeling was a passing moment, a wave and not an ocean that was going to drown him in a sea of static. He was picking at the skin around his nails now, the sweet sting helping him calm, helping him think, eyebrows knitting together in a tight knot at the centre of his forehead, staring down and not into the eyes of Mr. Stark. He didn’t want to gaze up and see disgust, see revulsion. “It’s… it’s more than that. It’s… it’s inside stuff.”

“Inside stuff,” Mr. Stark repeated, unsure of what it meant and Peter gave a limp nod, guts gripping and fingers picking at the skin on his hands until Mr. Stark reached down, covering his shaking and pale hands with his own, calloused but warm, gently prising his own apart so that he couldn’t do anymore damage. What did it matter? It would be gone by tomorrow. Mr. Stark separated Peter’s twitching hands and held them for a moment, looking at the damage, and Peter burned with shame, burned with the want to cry.

There was a tap on his chin and Peter looked up, not caring of how much of a mess he looked and saw Mr. Stark held that soft smile, trying to comfort Peter as he went and wrapped an arm over the back of the teenager’s shoulders, stepping in close to him. Peter fell into Mr. Stark’s side and found himself starving of comfort such as this, the very same he denied himself before he itched beneath people holding him because it was concrete and rubble on his shoulders and he wouldn’t be able to breathe. But this was different because he could breathe, could find warmth and comfort but was allowed to move, wasn’t trapped and that burn, that need to cry rose once more as Mr. Stark held him to his side, giving his shoulder a soft punch as he was prone to do and gave a breathy laugh. “And, can’t we unbox that inside stuff to be outside stuff to share and talk about with other people?”

Peter, despite how desperately he wanted to, shook his head, a lump in his throat as he instead decided to pull at the cuffs of his hoodie, bringing them over his fingers and messing with the loose threads that sprung free around the hem. Mr. Stark was warm, burning into Peter’s side and it reminded him of when he was younger and Aunt May would hold him when he would fall asleep because he used to cry so much and Uncle Ben was working and she was all he had to keep away the monsters in his closet. “It’s stupid.”

“Hey, no. Pete, listen to me,” Mr. Stark said and the softness, the concern in his voice made Peter want to burst into tears, want to tell him everything, even all the small and unimportant things. Instead, he heaved a deep breath to calm those thoughts and Mr. Stark tightened his hold slightly, a reassuring and comforting squeeze, one that made Peter feel as if all the broken pieces in him were stuck back together. “If it’s bothering you, it isn’t stupid. Just talk to me, I’ll try my best to listen.”

“I… I just… I don’t…” Peter began, voice hoarse and his tongue ran over his dry lips, trying to stall as much as he could to form his unfathomable thoughts into a straight sentence. He didn’t know where to start, where to end, how to push out the tangled mess of his mind out onto the tip of his tongue for his voice to make clear. He stared down at his sweater covered hands, teeth gnashing horrible on his bottom lip as a rope of nervousness wrapped around his throat, a noose. There was so much to say, to tell but he couldn’t find where it all began or where it ended and wished he hadn’t stayed because it was so much easier to ignore the problem and let it fester than face it head on. Mr. Stark waited for Peter, not pushing him and not pulling away from the teenager as he struggled to speak. There was so much, so much piled on top of his mind and he couldn’t pull out one problem without topping the rest and so, he began at the bottom, voice a whisper and rushing, like water over worn rocks. “I don’t remember what my dad looks like.”

That seemed to be the exact thing Mr. Stark was not expecting.

There was a beat of silence and Peter glanced up at Mr. Stark through the corner of his eyes, catching his seemingly confused but accepting look as he gave a nod, pushing Peter to go on.

“Right.”

And Peter had been right in thinking that once he pulled out on problem, the rest would tumble and fall for now, in comparison to before where he could barely find his voice to speak, it all burst forth from him, breaking through the dam he had put in place some time ago and he was bursting at the seams, overflowing with words and the feeling of everything.

“And – and it’s weird because everyone knows what their dad looks like but I can’t remember him,” Peter explained, unable to keep the edge out of his voice as he tried to stop himself from falling victim to tears, to stop himself from falling anymore apart as he tried to hold on to the comfort of Mr. Stark’s arm around him, of being grounded. His hands fidgeted with the material of his sleeves, the tips of his fingers peeking through the cuffs as his voice became even more unsteady, wobbling as he pushed on through, no longer able to keep it all back. His nose was becoming harder to breathe with and his eyes stung, breathing raspy and harsh, shooting through his throat. “I can’t remember what colour eyes he had or if he had brown or black hair. And sometimes I think maybe I never even had parents because I don’t remember them.”

He stopped, took a deep gulp of air and snapped his mouth shut, waiting for Mr. Stark to slap him on the back and tell him that it’ll be fine and that he needs to ‘man up’ but it never came, he never let go of Peter’s shoulders and, instead, he gave a hum, causing Peter to look up at him, watching the older man gave a nod of understanding. “And it bothers you that you can’t remember them.”

A breath of relief left him as Peter nodded, the knotting in his stomach less sore and biting and his hands paused for a moment, feeling eased by the fact Mr. Stark knew without Peter saying. A thought ran through Peter’s mind as he blinked away the mistiness away in his eyes.

“Do you remember your dad?”

Mr. Stark was stunned by Peter’s question and instantly did Peter regret his words, wanting to reel them back in so that they never fell past his lips; he imagined Mr. Stark getting angry, getting annoyed, snapping at Peter to mind his own business and a lump grew in his throat as he cursed himself, yelled at his idiot self for ever opening his mouth. But Mr. Stark didn’t snap at him, didn’t hiss and pull away but there was a shift in his features, clearing his throat as a thoughtful look passed over his face that seemed akin to being discomfort.

“Well, yeah. I remember everything about my dad, the things I don’t want to remember and the things I do,” Mr. Stark replied to Peter’s surprise, never thinking that Mr. Stark would ever tell him the truth, or even give him a reply but he did. And Peter could pick apart the look on his face, the uneasiness that was etched into his eyes, how his voice became wispy towards the end, tired and exasperated but not towards Peter, maybe more so towards himself.

“Do you ever wish you didn’t remember him?” Peter questioned quietly, giving a sniffle as it became harder to ignore the sting, the pooling tears that were gathering in his eyes as his voice cracked, barely being able to be heard,

“I don’t know, kid. Sometimes, but then sometimes not,” Mr. Stark sighed. “He was my dad, a pretty crap one, but he’s the only one I had.”

“I thought Uncle Ben was my dad once but he would always correct me on it. I never thought anything of it but… I wish he pretended,” Peter whispered and he felt a wetness on his cheeks, no longer being able to breathe through his nose as his voice croaked. He reached up to wipe away at the fallen tear but his breathing was shallow now, the sob buried in the bottom of his chest unfurling and wrapping around his throat, another tear falling just as quickly and another and another, crystal droplets clinging to his lashes as he took a shuddering gulp of air. “I wish he let me say the words just once because I never got to say them before and I would always be just that stupid kid in the corner of the classroom who would be doing homework instead of making Father’s Day card.”

By the end, Peter was naught but a mess of wet, red splattered cheeks trying to hard to keep it together but it didn’t work and he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t take in enough air because his body wasn’t listening to him and a sob left him, sleeves trying to wipe away at the warm tears making tracks down his cheeks, hating himself that bit more because he wasn’t Spider-Man, he wasn’t even Penis Parker, he was nothing more than pathetic Peter Parker and another sob racked his body, a guttural sound that was so much like the ones when he would cry into his pillow because it all hurt, it always did and there was nothing he could do about it.

Then, Mr. Stark pulled away and Peter knew, knew that he had crossed a line by falling apart, by becoming so undone and acting so like himself and he wanted to bring it all back in, to box it away but it just made him sob more, feeling so much like that crying kid Aunt May would try to comfort because his parents were never coming back and Uncle Ben was always working and no one wanted him, no one loved him.

But, suddenly, he was encased in warmth and he was held together, crying muffled and there was a hand in his hair, brushing back the mop of curls and everything still in him, a heart beat pause at the realisation that Mr. Stark was hugging him, a proper one, and Peter felt frozen in place, unused to and uncertain about this show of affection from the older man. It wasn’t like Aunt May’s hugs; she loved to squeeze him as tight as he could, knocking the air from his lungs and making everything disappear around him for the briefest of moments, it was loose yet secure, giving Peter wiggle room if he wanted to break away but he didn’t want to and Peter pushed his face into Mr. Stark’s chest, tears being soaked up as Peter gathered the energy to return the hug, Mr. Stark’s soft hushing sounds soothing as his hand continued to brush down the mess of curls that was Peter’s hair.

“Hey, kid, come here,” Mr. Stark began, bringing space between them and the concern, the deep rooted and soul shaking concern that was set there stunned Peter, sniffling and trying to blink away the tears but pushing them over the edge. Mr. Stark brought a hand up to wipe them away, smearing them across Peter’s cheeks and speaking softly, reassuringly as his hands found themselves on either side of Peter’s face. “Listen to me, Pete, dads… they sometimes aren’t all that. They can be pretty, well, pretty shitty and sometimes they leave without saying. Your parents loved you a lot to have you and it’s just circumstances that made them not be able to care for you.”

Peter shook his head, not trusting himself to speak because he might end up opening his mouth and another sob would spill forth, bringing him back to square one. Mr. Stark brushed Peter’s fringe away from his forehead, the touch so filled with fondness and so much like what Aunt May would do.

“Your uncle and your aunt, I know they loved you and your aunt still does. A dad isn’t always someone related to you by blood,” Mr. Stark continued on, adopting a tone Peter couldn’t pick apart, couldn’t understand and he stared at Mr. Stark, trying to understand, each blink a flutter of wet eyelashes that spend more loose, gathering tears scattering down his cheeks. “Family can be whoever you want it to be and it’s okay to be upset about it. It’s okay to want to cry about it.”

“What if I don’t want to be upset about it anymore, but I still keep feeling that way?” Peter sobbed, dry heaving but calming down, finding comfort and ease in Mr. Stark’s touch, in his hold on either side of Peter’s cheeks, reaching out to wash away more of Peter’s fallen tears with a sad smile.

“Maybe it’s your heart trying to tell your mind that it needs more time. Don’t just try to make yourself feel better, kid,” Mr. Stark advised as Peter give another sniffle. “It may suck for a while but take the time you need, not the time you want, and you will wake up and feel less like you did before.”

“Did it work for you?” Peter inquired, shaky as he tried to swallow the lump in his throat and Mr. Stark gave a smile, reaching up ruffle Peter’s hair once more.

“It did.”

“How did you manage to do that?”

“As cheesy as it sounds, I surrounded myself with people who love and care about me. And people that I love and care about, too,” Mr. Stark replied, standing straight and giving the two space once more, but his arm took it’s place around Peter’s shoulder again, the teenager giving a bitter filled scoff at Mr. Stark’s words. “Don’t knock ‘til you’ve tried it, kid.”

“Yeah, and who am I going to get around me?” Peter inquired sullenly, ignoring the droplets that clung to his eyelashes, gathering in puddles beneath his eyes and falling rapidly to replace the ones Mr. Stark had attempted to wipe away, no longer caring enough to brush them aside.

“Your insanely hot aunt for one,” Mr. Stark began and Peter threw him a look through his tear stained lashes, eyes red and cheeks still damp, tracks of wetness turning colder as the warmth faded away. “Your friend, Ted – ”

“Ned,” Peter corrected and Mr. Stark nodded his head.

“That’s the one. Ned, Happy.”

“Happy? You included Happy?” Peter asked in disbelief, voice cracking and breaking.

“You may not see it but he loves you, kid.”

“I doubt it, Mr. Stark,” Peter snorted, bitter and seemingly cold.

“Well, it’s true,” Mr. Stark insisted with a grin, holding up his other hand for Peter to see as he began counting, listing off the people as he went. “That’s one, two, three and four people.”

A puzzled look etched itself onto Peter’s face, the teenager bringing his sleeve covered hand up to his cheeks to wipe away at the tears that had fallen there, sniffling again as he made the list in his head again but found his math didn’t quite up add up to Mr. Stark’s own.

“Four?” Peter asked, confused and unsure as Mr. Stark cast a look down at Peter, eyebrow raised and thinking him joking as he gave a laugh, making that confusion bury itself deeper into Peter’s mind and face, not quite certain what was running through Mr. Stark’s mind as he stared down at Peter with a smile on his lips and crinkles appearing around his eyes, a gleam glinting in the brown of them.

“What, you think I’m not in that group?”

The air rushed free in Peter’s lungs from the blow of Mr. Stark’s words, mouth parting in surprise, confounded and astounded by what he had said. No, that couldn’t be right, how could it be right? How could Mr. Stark ever… ever care for him? All Peter did was mess up, like the ferryboat and he caused so much damage with Toomes and Mr. Stark had been silent for so many months after Germany, that it was only in Peter’s imagination to think Mr. Stark could ever care for him, could ever think more of him than that annoying kid from Queens.

But maybe, just maybe, it could be true.

Maybe it wasn’t in his head and maybe he hadn’t overthought all those times Mr. Stark would praise Peter, would ruffle his hair and give him a pat on the shoulder for accomplishing even the smallest of things that it all made Peter burn with a happiness that had the power of a thousand and one suns. He waited for the laugh, the joke, the teasing that never came and he dug his voice up from its grave at the bottom of his throat.

“You, Mr. Stark?” Peter croaked, still unsure if he had heard right the older man, wanting to shake his head and put his mind right, thinking it was playing tricks on him but Mr. Stark gave a nod of the head, smile turning more mischievous and he reached up to tap Peter’s nose, quite to the latter’s complete and utter astonishment.

“You know that secret Spider-Man fan account you’re always raving on about?”

Peter’s eyes widened in recognition just as the smile on Mr. Stark’s face grew.

“No,” Peter gasped.

“Yes,” Mr. Stark confirmed.

No.”

“Yes.”

“Oh my God,” Peter gasped, the remaining wetness on his cheeks drying up and making it feel as if he had never cried, as if the downpour had just been a bad dream. But he felt better, felt more able to think, to breathe, to speak as he gave a sniffle, giving a watery laugh of disbelief at the new revelation. “Tony Stark runs a fan page.”

“I’ve never appreciated the hard work that goes into creating a fan account until now,” Mr. Stark whistled, clicked his tongue and Peter laughed, a genuine laugh, which caused Mr. Stark give a smile, relieved that Peter was more at ease than before. Then, he tightened his hold on Peter and Peter thought maybe to wrap his arms around the older man, to return the hold but he felt unsure, uncertain to initiate a full hug but found himself being quite alright with this half one, with his half hold that gave him space while giving him comfort. “Seriously, kid, you know I love you and I care about you a lot to the point I think that is on par with Aunt May.”

Peter’s cheeks burned, felt like crying again and cursed himself for being such a cry-baby as his voice lodged in his throat, biting his bottom lip to stop the sob that was buried deep in his chest from leaving because he never would have imagine in a thousand years, in a million years, in a billion years, that Tony Stark would ever say those words, would ever hug him and comfort him. It didn’t seem real, didn’t seem plausible but it was, it was real and he was loved. He knew Aunt May loved him, he knew Ned loved him, he doubted Happy tolerated him let alone loved him, but Mr. Stark? In his mind, Peter assumed that he was only a charity case, cared for out of guilt for what happened with Toomes, had spent days fretting and dragging himself down in the trenches of his mind for thinking about it; yet, even as Mr. Stark said it, confirmed it rather than showing it in subtle ways that Peter never picked up on, he still found himself in disbelief. But he had said it, had told Peter in such confidence and naturality that it left Peter stunned, left him wanting to weep.

“Aunt May does worry a lot,” Peter stated, ignoring the wavering in his voice.

“For good reason,” Mr. Stark agreed with a nod, a thin smile curving on his mouth. “Should I tell her about last week when you spent thirty-four minutes lying in a dumpster?”

“No!” Peter exclaimed, standing to his feet and pulling away from Mr. Stark, eyes wide at Mr. Stark’s suggesting, in disbelief at how amused he looked at Peter’s reaction. “I already told her that I had food dropped on me when me and Ned were getting food at Chipotle!”

“Oh, I think my phone is ringing. Hot Aunt May, is that you?” Mr. Stark teased, pulling his phone out and, to Peter’s horror, pulling up May’s contact number and pressing it to his ear, unsure if the older man was joking or not.

“Mr. Stark, no!”

Peter doesn’t really remember his father, can’t remember his voice, his smile, the colour of his eyes or the shade of his hair. He doesn’t know if his father ever called him ‘Pete’ or ‘kid’ or anything of the sort and he doesn’t know what it felt like to have his dad hold him. Uncle Ben was awkward but tried his best, not used to kids being around so long and ten years was such a stretch to an entire weekend and he never knew what to do when Peter would start wailing and crying, sobbing for his mother and father until May would bundle him up into a tight hug and promise him sweet treats and things.

But, he thinks he remembers a walk on a beach when he was four, a larger hand in his and foam staining his ankles as waves washed away the tiny footprints in the sand, making appear as if they were never there. He remembers the movie marathons he and Uncle Ben used to do, he remembers the times Uncle Ben would help him with his science projects, with his homework, pinning his excellent report card to the refrigerator with a Miami Beach magnet. There’s the memory of being loved and it eases his conscience if only a little bit.

It doesn’t sting as much, he thinks. His sides are hurting but from laughter now and the sounds that leave him don’t sound as rusty, as forced and fake and Peter thinks if he weren’t laughing from happiness, he might be crying from it because he feels like he can breathe from beneath the surface of static he was drowning in and there’s so many hands trying to pull him out of it, he just never realised that it was okay to take one of them.

And Peter finds that it doesn’t hurt as much that he can’t remember, or that he never got the affection he wanted from Uncle Ben.

And Peter knows that it’s alright to think that Tony Stark is the same as those in the memories of being loved; the words were never needed but wanted and maybe confirmation was what he craved and now Peter knows he’s not alone in this, that it isn’t pity, isn’t just done out of guilt. The ruffling of hair, the arm around his shoulder and grinning when Peter thinks of something that he didn’t before and even looking at Peter’s homework when Peter has that scrunched up look on his face, crinkles in his nose and eyebrows knotted together because his answer is right but he doesn’t know how he got it; the add up to something so simple that Peter would never have thought about it being true, would never have thought of being worthy of. Peter Parker isn’t all too bad because Peter Parker gets to spend time with Tony Stark and he gets to be away from being Spider-Man and being Penis Parker, allowed to breathe, allowed to laugh.

Allowed to feel love and wanted in all areas of his life that he doesn’t have to hide a part of himself now.