Tony Stark usually managed to ignore the tragic circumstances surrounding December 16th by hiding in his workshop and drinking himself into oblivion. However, after learning that the car accident had been a meticulous cover up for a more heinous act, no amount of alcohol could numb his pain. The truth was consistent with the night terrors that plagued him on a daily basis – matching the recurring themes of death and destruction.
Captain America's bestie had actually murdered his parents (under the brainwashed influence of Hydra). Using the BARF system, he watched the scene play out on a loop, sometimes wishing he had accompanied them in the car and also perished under the Winter Soldier's unyielding grip.
Tony shook his head as he removed the glasses once again and the holographic images disintegrated. No matter how many times he replayed the scene of him and Cap watching the footage – standing behind his past self and watching it along with them – he can't stem the renewed sense of betrayal and grief long enough to change his violent reaction toward Steve. He just watches – and waits for Steve's determined expression to convert into something more sympathetic, but it doesn't and it hurts as bad as it did the first time.
He had planned out one scenario prior to slipping on the glasses, altering the memory so that he doesn't throw the first punch...
In it, he controls his emotions and does what is necessary to get Barnes to safety...
He simply allows them to walk away.
However, he can't bring himself to bring those possibilities to the forefront of his mind. Because he had wanted to make Steve hurt... to wipe away his controlled expression into a contortion of pain or grief. He wanted to kill Barnes so that Captain Righteous knew how it felt to watch someone he loved get murdered.
He had also wanted Barnes to feel the helplessness his mom undoubtedly felt as he squeezed the life out of her eyes.
Or so he had thought...
But even in the heat of the moment, Tony had held back. He didn't use the full force of his thrusters, and he didn't hit any vital areas – so, despite his murderous rage, his conscience took over, not allowing him to lose complete control.
Once the rage simmered down into a flickering flame, grief and Cap's impenetrable shield sent him into a boneless heap in the Siberian snow, awaiting rescue that Friday had hopefully sent for once the fight had escalated and his vitals had flared.
Something murderous had flashed across Steve's face as he had aimed his shield toward Tony's head, but the engineer's defensive stance and fearful eyes had switched his trajectory toward his chest.
Was it because he had merely wanted to incapacitate him so they could get away?
But to Tony, it had felt like the ultimate act of betrayal. For a moment, Obadiah's smirking face hovered above him, his hand swinging down and tearing the arc reactor from his chest.
As he watched his ex-friend abandon him and walk away with his parents' murderer, the same emptiness from that day enveloped him – the ache in his chest amplifying in remembered pain.
He closed his eyes as soon as he saw the shield laying half-haphazardly in the snow – his blood staining the once pristine surface.
Sorrow threatened to choke him as he realized that in his effort to keep the team together, he had instead broken it beyond repair, weakening them against the threats that haunted his nightmares.
Tony knew something was coming – he just didn't know what or when – and that terrified him.
On the first anniversary of his parents' death since he found out the truth, Tony was surprisingly sober. He had realized after a few failed attempts to get black out drunk after the confrontation in Siberia that alcohol only worsened his PTSD and panic attacks, so he stuck to copious amounts of caffeine in whatever form he could find – which also exacerbated his symptoms but not as badly. (Tony has hypothesized that a consistent state of anxiousness may just be his default setting.)
The importance of a legal stimulant, such as energy drinks or coffee, boiled down to one simple equation:
Little to no sleep + 200 to 600mg of caffeine daily = productivity (which is all that really mattered. It's easier to ignore the anxiety if he kept himself busy.)
He was just pouring himself yet another cup of coffee – when the elevator slid opened and revealed a smiling Peter Parker.
Tony jumped and hot coffee sloshed over the rim onto the floor. He spun around, barely catching himself on a table as he slid backwards. He had forgotten the kid had an appointment for upgrades today.
Peter frowned. “Are you okay, Mr. Stark?”
Tony tensed, pain spiking up his left arm and radiating toward his healing sternum. He struggled to maintain an air of nonchalance. “I'm peachy, kid. Why do you ask?”
“Just... you seem off and you're really pale. Are you sick?”
“Well, I'm fine. Just really busy. I'm afraid we're going to have to reschedule, spiderling.
“But – I was hoping...
“Not today, Pete. I just can't – not today,” Tony whispered, hanging his head. He gripped his left hand with his right to still the trembling.
When he looked up, the kid was right there in front of him – his brown eyes sympathetic and worried. How had he never noticed how similar they were to his own?
Suddenly, all he can see is himself watching his parents' walk out of his life for the last time – wanting to wrap his mom in an embrace but not wanting to look weak in front of Howard. He should have just done it. He should've also told the man he loved him even if he didn't feel the same.
“Mr. Stark?” Peter asked uncertainly, using his thumbs to wipe the tears streaming down his mentor's face.
Tony gasped, jerking back to the present and pushing the teen away from him. He quickly turned away, going back to his workstation and pulling up a random project. His heavy breathing echoed loudly in the stillness of the work shop.
Impatiently, he ran a hand over his face to erase any remaining traces of grief. “Mr. Parker, I apologize, but you'll have to come by another time. SI is breathing down my neck for their new and improved security system. Friday'll contact you tomorrow to reschedule.”
It's so silent for a while that Tony thought Peter had simply did as he was told. He should've known that wasn't the case.
“It happened today, didn't it?” Peter asked simply. “With Hydra and your parents?”
“You know?” Tony asked flatly. “How do you--?”
“I went to visit you in the hospital. You were sleeping and well... you had a very intense nightmare about Hydra and Barnes and...” Peter cleared his throat. “...what he did.”
Tony shoulders slumped, and he swayed dangerously, falling into a conveniently placed chair behind him. He hung his head and closed his eyes. When he opened them and turned to the side, the teen was there – perched on the cluttered surface of his steel worktable. Peter's thumb swept over his pulse point – subtly checking his heart rate. The engineer avoided Parker's empathetic gaze.
Anxiety pooled in his stomach, and he swallowed against the urge to vomit. He didn't deserve Peter. He was just too good and had been through so much – he didn't need the added weight of Tony's jaded past and mental issues.
“Whatever you're thinking right now is not true, Tony.” The engineer clenched his shaking hands into fists and kneaded his closed eyes.
“Mr. Stark? Can you look at me, please?”
Tony automatically obeyed him – it was the least he could do. His vision swam, and he struggled to focus through the blurriness and muffled roaring in his ears. He wheezed as panic wrapped an iron fist around his damaged heart. He couldn't breathe.
“Kid, I can't--”
“Yes, you can – just follow my lead,” Peter replied softly. A slightly shaky hand guided the engineer's trembling fingers to his own chest. He kept a steadying palm against the older man's hand.
“Focus on my heart beat. Inhale and count five beats.” He smiled weakly as Tony followed suit. “Okay, hold for seven beats.” Tony's wide eyes softened as he watched Peter struggle to hold back tears. “Good, now exhale for nine beats.”
The teen's free hand gently rubbed his mentor's bad shoulder. “Keep going.”
After ten cycles, the engineer slumped forward, resting his sweaty forehead against the teen's shoulder. He cupped Peter's neck and wrapped his other arm around his back, running a finger along his spine.
“Today's my birthday,” Peter mumbled against his neck. Tony inhaled in shock – guilt swirling in his gut. “I'm not saying that to make you feel bad. I just-- I want you to know that you didn't just lose a mother and father on December 16th. You also gained a son.” The teen wrapped his arms around the older man's back – desperately clinging to the man's t-shirt.
Tears pricked at Tony's eyes, and he pressed a kiss to the teen's brow. “I love you, kid.”
“Ditto,” Peter replied, his voice wavering slightly.
Tony rolled his eyes. “You just had to make it weird. I knew it was a mistake to let you watch 'Ghost.'”
“C'mon, it's a classic.”
“I'm going to pretend you didn't call a movie released in the 90s a 'classic.' God, you make me feel old.”
“Well...” Peter began, pulling back to look pointedly at the gray streaks adorning the engineer's normally dark brown hair.
“You're a brat,” Tony groused playfully, ruffling the kid's curls.
Joy unlike anything he had ever felt before enveloped the genius, and he grinned like an idiot. Suddenly, December 16th wasn't just a date associated with grief and loss – on the same day, a decade or so later, the universe had brought him a life-saving gift in the form of Peter Parker.
And for that, Tony will be forever grateful.