The first time it happened, Tony was halfway convinced that it was a bizarre dream.
“Hey kid,” Tony started, leaning back in his chair and throwing a ball up in the air.
“Oh! Mr. Stark!” Peter exclaimed, sounding surprised.
“Uh yup, that’d be me. Were you expecting someone else?” He asked dryly.
“Ah, actually, yes. Can I call you back?” Peter rushed out before promptly hanging up.
Tony stared at the screen in front of him, barely flinching when the ball he’d just thrown came back down to smack him in the shoulder. “Did he just hang up on me?” He questioned disbelievingly, eyebrows sky high and pointing an accusing finger at the screen.
“Yes, sir. Mr. Parker has disconnected the call,” Friday answered.
Tony rolled his eyes and sent the ceiling a withering glare. “Thanks for your wonderful input,” he muttered.
When Peter called back several hours later, Tony waited for it to go to voicemail. There, now he was busy. Little shit.
He took some satisfaction out of knowing that he would at least have a rambling, stupidly apologetic message waiting for him to soothe his bruised ego. Petty? Tony Stark? Never.
After forcing himself to continue working on his current nanotech project for another hour, he finally let himself listen to Peter’s message.
“Friday, play the kid’s voicemail.”
“Hey Mr. Stark, just calling back to see if you still needed anything. Uh, guess I’ll talk to you later!” Peter’s voice came through sounding awfully cheery.
The screwdriver fell out of Tony’s limp hand as a weight settled on his chest.
What the hell was all this about? Where was the Peter Parker who jumped at every chance to talk to him? Who worshipped him as his own personal superhero/science god? Who was annoyingly apologetic about every imagined slight?
“Friday, replay the message,” he barked. Was the kid in distress? Drunk? Impaired in some other way?
After many replays and overanalyses, Tony had to admit that Peter was fine, he just suddenly seemed to...not care.
Well, surely Peter just had other things going on in his life right now. He was in college now, it was to be expected, Tony reasoned with himself as he rubbed his hand absently against his chest.
It wasn’t a one-time thing. It was hit or miss whether he’d be able to reach Peter by phone at any given moment.
But Peter always returned any calls he missed and made sure to check in regularly on his own, which eased the sting.
Then, six months later, Peter missed his monthly trip down to work with Tony in the lab. For a trip with his friends. Which was great, of course! Peter had friends his own age and was doing normal college things. These were all good things. Tony kept reminding himself of this fact as he sat down with some takeout at the table in the penthouse that Friday evening.
His leg bounced up and down manically as he stared down at his food. Pull yourself together, he snarled mentally. It’s not like this was different from any other day. Meetings all day, dinner by himself (if he remembered to eat), then working in the lab until he was about to collapse from exhaustion. Just another Friday.
An hour later, he hadn’t moved from the table but neither had he eaten anything. As the light waned outside, that gnawing anguish that had been simmering in his gut was rising to engulf him.
God, he was pathetic. All this because some kid would rather hang out with his friends having fun instead of working with a middle-aged man?
A drink sounded good right about now.
But no, he’d quit drinking a year ago. He’d gotten rid of every hidden bottle of alcohol (with Rhodey’s aggressive help) and implanted a chip in his arm that was directly connected to Friday, who would shut down all access to his facilities and contact Rhodey or Pepper if his BAC got above 0.06.
He was Tony Stark, for fuck’s sake. If he wanted company, he’d damn well have it. Therefore, he obviously didn’t need it or he wouldn’t be alone. That made sense right?
So what if Peter was the only one who was still able to maintain that level of respect and admiration even after getting to know the real Tony Stark? He may not have seen him at his worst, but he’d seen enough to send most people turning tail in disgust. But Peter still thought he was kind, that he always tried to do the right thing, even if he was a bit misguided at times. He acknowledged that Tony had flaws, big ones, but he just respected him even more for managing to overcome them (most of the time).
Or he used to.
Tony settled his bouncing leg again as he glanced at the clock. It was barely 8:00PM. He shot out of his chair and grabbed a hoody and sunglasses before stalking out the door.
An hour later Tony was staring down at a paper bag with several handles of liquor on his kitchen counter. A glass tumbler sat next to it, ice cubes shifting as they melted.
He picked up the bag and walked to the trash can at the end of the counter. He stared down into the empty bin then at his white-knuckled grip on the bag.
Tony wasn’t a quitter. Well, except for quitting the alcohol in the first place. He wasn’t about to quit on quitting. He released his grip, hearing the full bottles jolt to the bottom of the bin.
He made his way to the fridge and got a glass of water, downing it like a shot.
His gaze pulled to the trash can but he forced it away, heading towards his lab. Nothing a few hours of mindless work won’t cure.
If there was one thing that Tony knew about himself, it was that he always fucked up, no matter how good his intentions.
It wasn’t long before he found himself digging the liquor out of the trash can, uncapping the scotch and taking a long drag straight from the bottle. He watched disinterestedly as blood trickled down his forearm from where the BAC chip used to be, before he’d gouged it out.
The sad thing was, desperately digging through the trash for alcohol? Not the lowest point in his life. Not by far. But it’s been a long time since he’d been here.
Tony was sitting on the couch when his phone chirped with the alarm he’d set to remind him to leave the lab at a somewhat decent hour on Peter weekends. But Peter wasn’t here so what the hell did he need it for? He fumbled with it, trying to shut it off, unsuccessfully.
With a roar, he threw the phone as hard as he could at the wall.
He watched the shattered pieces fall to the ground as he took another drink.
“Tony, I’ve been calling you for hours - where the hell have - oh. God,” Rhodey gaped as he came into the penthouse, catching sight of Tony slumped on the couch.
“Ah, yeah, bit of an incident last night,” Tony muttered, motioning towards the broken remains of his StarkPhone.
“And I suppose you disabled alerts from Friday?” he asked dryly, face hard.
Tony scoffed. “She was being annoying. ‘Do I need to call someone, sir?’ ‘You should probably stop drinking, sir’,” he mocked.
“She was right,” Rhodey said flatly.
“I know that. That’s why it was annoying,” Tony responded, with a self-deprecating grin. He lifted a bottle of - whiskey? Maybe? - to his mouth, but Rhodey snatched it out of his hand before he could take a proper swig, causing him to slosh it down his front. “Hey!”
“You need a shower anyway, Tony. You’re disgusting,” Rhodey said, pulling him up off the couch and shoving him towards his room.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony grumbled as he shuffled off to shower.
When Tony returned to the living room, feeling slightly more human if not still a little drunk, he found that Rhodey had already cleared away all the alcohol and was sitting at the counter. Waiting.
“Ugh. Can we just...not?” Tony groaned.
“Nope, that’s not an option.”
“So I fell off the wagon. Not like it’s the first time this has happened,” Tony muttered as he fell heavily into the seat next to Rhodey.
“But why? You were doing so well, Tony. What happened?” Rhodey implored.
Tony shrugged, looking away to stare at the clock.
“Bullshit,” Rhodey snapped.
“I don’t wanna talk about it!” Tony burst.
“Yeah, well I don’t give a damn. Either you talk to me or you talk to someone else. Do you need to be under surveillance again?”
“I’m not a fucking child - I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Well you could have fooled me!”
The two sat glaring harshly at each other for several long moments before Rhodey dropped his head in his hands with a sigh.
“Tones, I’m worried about you, man,” he said softly, rubbing his eyes. “I thought we were past this; I thought things were better.”
Tony deflated. “They were,” he insisted.
“Until they weren’t anymore,” Rhodey finished for him.
Tony shrugged again.
“I just -“ Tony started, but he was cut off by a call through the penthouse. “Mr. Stark?”
Tony’s heart leapt in his chest. He scrambled to his feet. “Kid?”
Peter rounded the corner, a smile lighting up his face when he saw them. “Hey! I’m sorry I missed this weekend, Mr. Stark. I thought I’d swing by real quick on our way home though.”
Tony’s head was spinning. He felt like he could breathe a bit better now. “You’re already heading back? It’s just Saturday afternoon.”
“Mr. Stark, it’s Sunday! Have you been that busy?” He laughed.
Peter’s smile started to fade as he took in the tense silence and the odd look on Tony’s face. “Oh. Was I interrupting something?” he asked hesitantly.
“No!” Tony practically shouted.
Rhodey had started saying, “Actually…” but stopped abruptly to stare at Tony.
Peter’s eyes darted uncomfortably between the two men. “Um, I’m sorry. For coming unannounced. I’ll just...head out now,” he said, pointing awkwardly at the door.
“No, no, it’s fine. Please, stay - you know you’re welcome anytime you want. Anytime,” Tony rambled, somewhat breathless. He was getting odd stares from both sides now.
Darting a look at Rhodey, who was still sitting stiffly and silently, Peter rubbed at the back of his head. “Ah, actually, I’ve got my, uh, friend waiting for me so I should probably get going anyway. I just wanted to say hi.”
“Your friend, huh? This the one that’s been taking you away from me?” Tony asked, tone forcibly light.
Peter flushed. “Mr. Stark…” he trailed off, looking guilty and uncomfortable.
“Why don’t you bring him up, Pete? We can all have lunch!” Tony said.
Peter opened his mouth to protest again but closed it. “O-okay,” he murmured, turning around and heading back for the door.
As soon as they heard it close, Rhodey turned to Tony incredulously. “What. The fuck. Was that?”
“What? I was just being nice,” he replied nonchalantly as he sat back down. There was a feeling of elation tingling through his veins.
“Nice? That’s what you thought that was? I’ve never seen Peter more uncomfortable. And that’s saying something!”
“Yeah, because you were being incredibly rude! You kept glaring at him.”
“I was glaring at you, numbnuts. Because I thought you were trying to get out of this very important conversation,” Rhodey clarified. “Although now I’m thinking there’s more to it than that.”
“Oh give it a rest already, would you?” Tony scoffed, standing up again and circling around the island.
“‘This the one that’s taking you away from me’ Tony? Really, did you think that was subtle?” Rhodey asked.
Tony didn’t answer, concentrating hard on grabbing a glass and filling it with water.
“It’s a good thing he has his own life, outside of all this superhero bullshit.”
“I know that; I want him to have that. I do,” Tony insisted.
“I mean, I guess it’s somewhat normal for parents to feel a bit abandoned when their kids start having their own life. But he’s not your kid, Tony.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s definitely not a problem. I’m no one’s father, and quite happy about that fact. At least not that I’m aware of,” Tony said, eyebrows waggling.
Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Okay, then what’s your hang up with Parker?”
Tony was silent for a long moment. Too long, it turned out, because Peter was walking back into the room, friend in tow.
“So, this is my, um, friend, Harry,” Peter introduced, gesturing to the tall, dark-headed kid next to him. “And this is Mr. Stark and Colonel Rhodes,” he finished, indicating the men across the kitchen.
Harry came towards them, hand outstretched and smile wide. “Wow, it’s so great to meet both of you! I’ve heard so much!”
Tony and Rhodey both reached out to shake the boy’s hand. “Well, you know you can only believe half of what you hear, at the most,” Tony said teasingly.
“Of course, of course,” Harry laughed obligingly, nodding.
“So, what were you boys up to this weekend?” Rhodey questioned.
“Oh, well my parents have a place over near Rochester. It’s kind of a long drive, but I’ve been wanting to take Peter and we finally had a free weekend where we weren’t completely swamped. So we….” Harry continued talking, but all Tony heard was static as the boy stepped back to Peter’s side and put a casual hand at the small of his back, like it just belonged there.
Tony aimed to collapse into his chair when his knees started feeling a little wobbly. But he missed, and barely caught himself before falling flat on his ass. “Fuck,” he mumbled, levering himself into his chair properly. It took him almost a full minute to realize that the conversation had stopped and...yep, everyone was staring at him again.
Peter was looking at him with a mixture of concern and secondhand embarrassment. “Are you okay, Mr. Stark?”
“Oh, yeah, just peachy. Just, ah, think it’s been a while since I’ve eaten anything.” Which was true. Since apparently it was Sunday and he drank all of Saturday away.
“Oh, let me make you something to eat,” Peter insisted, rushing around into the kitchen until Rhodey laid a hand on his arm.
“I’ve got it, Peter. Stay out here with your guest. Tony, do you even have any food in this place?” Rhodey called as he rounded the kitchen island.
“Uhhhh,” Tony answered eloquently. He had no idea.
“Good God, Tony,” Rhodey grumbled, going to check the fridge. Tony could see over his shoulder that it was pleasantly full. Ah, right, it was supposed to be a Peter weekend, so he would have had someone stock the kitchen.
“Looks like we’ve got the stuff for a stir fry. That’d be easy, if that sounds good to everyone?” Rhodey announced. After a chorus of affirmations, he started pulling everything he needed out of the fridge and the pantry.
“So, how’s school going?” Tony asked into the still somewhat awkward silence.
Peter perked up as he started telling him all about his classes and the projects he was working on. “And Harry’s been a huge help! He had most of my professors last year so he’s been able to give me a lot of pointers,” Peter gushed, looking up at Harry brightly. Harry grinned back and laid a hand on Peter’s hip.
Tony felt like he’d been stabbed in the gut. So he really had been replaced, in every way. This boy was his new mentor, his new friend, his new crush, which apparently was requited. Was there anything left for Tony? That weight settled back on his chest, compressing his lungs and choking the breath out of him.
When his vision refocused, he noticed Peter was looking at him to contribute something to the conversation. “That...that’s great, kid. I’m glad everything is going so well for you,” Tony said with a small smile. Without me he thought, massaging his chest like that would help.
Rhodey finished up lunch shortly after that and they all sat down at the table to eat. Tony hardly heard any of the conversation, too busy watching Peter watch Harry.
Peter insisted on clearing everyone’s plates when they were finished. He came back with a stiff smile on his face. “Well we should probably be heading out. Harry, would you mind waiting for me downstairs? I’ve got a few things I need to talk to Mr. Stark about.”
“Yeah, of course, Peter. It was really nice meeting you guys!” he called as he left.
Peter sat back down at the table as Rhodey got up to walk to the bathroom. “You were drinking again,” he said quietly, looking at Tony with agonized eyes.
“No, I wasn’t,” he immediately rebuked. “I’m just feeling a little under the weather.”
“I saw the bottles in the trash, Mr. Stark.”
Tony looked away. “You never told me you got yourself a boyfriend,” he shot back.
“It’s...new. And, honestly, I didn’t think you cared about stuff like that,” Peter responded, shrugging.
“How could you think I don’t care about anything about you?” Tony asked beseechingly. “I…” he trailed off and covered his mouth when he realized what he’d been about to say. “Shit, sorry, I’m still a little drunk.”
Peter gave him a puzzled look, having a hard time following Tony’s jumps in the ‘conversation.’ “Yeah, about that. Is-is this...my fault? Are you drinking because of me?”
Tony couldn’t stand the cautious, hurt look on Peter’s face. “No, no sweetheart, it’s not your fault.” Tony grabbed his hand across the table. “You know you’re not responsible for me, right?” he implored.
“But you’ve taken such good care of me all these years and I-I wanna return the favor.”
Tony shook his head. “No, kid, I didn’t do anything I’ve done expecting something in return. Even though I’m not making the best case for it now, I’m the adult here, you know,” he said with a crooked grin.
“But I’m an adult now too, Mr. Stark. Why shouldn’t I help you if I can?” Peter insisted.
“You do help me, just by being around.”
“Well, then I’ll come by more often,” Peter responded firmly.
Tony sat back in his chair, letting go of Peter’s hand and taking a drink to buy himself a moment. He wanted that. He wanted it so bad, his bones ached with it. He grit his teeth and took a deep breath before he acted like the adult he claimed he was. “No, Peter. You’ve got school and friends. And a boyfriend now! Look at you! You’re only in college for a few years - take full advantage of it. Keep your priorities straight.”
“But Mr. Stark…” Peter said desperately.
“I’m a big boy, Pete, I can take care of myself. And I’ve got Rhodey, he knows how to handle my sorry ass. I may be a little rough right now, but I’ll be fine. Now go get your boyfriend. You should probably get back on the road before it gets too late,” Tony said as he stood up.
Peter followed his lead as Tony walked him to the door. “I miss you, Mr. Stark,” he whispered before throwing his arms around Tony.
Tony felt his expression crumble as he hesitantly returned the hug. “I miss you, too, kid.” He had to clench his teeth together to stop himself from saying anything else.
Peter finally pulled back with a wobbly smile. “Okay, well, I’ll see you in a couple weeks, right?” he said as he opened the door.
“Yeah, of course. Drive safe, Pete.”
“Always do!” Peter responded with a wave before turning around and leaving.
Rhodey came out of the hallway as Tony laid his hand on the door, leaning heavily against it.
“Jesus, Tony. When did this happen?” Rhodey asked softly.
Tony gave a humorless laugh. “I don’t fucking know. I didn’t realize how much I...needed him until suddenly he didn’t need me anymore.”
“What do you mean, you need him?” Rhodey asked cautiously.
Tony shook his head. “You don’t want to know,” he said lowly.
“Just tell me, man.”
Tony was silent for several minutes before he snapped, “I need him to need me, to idolize me, to want me. I need to be the center of his fucking universe.”
“That’s fucked up,” Rhodey finally said.
Tony snorted. “Don’t I know it. I’m not a good person, everyone knows this.”
“But then why did you send him away? He would have stayed,” Rhodey said.
Tony looked at him incredulously. “Seriously? Why would you encourage this?”
“I’m not. Just trying to figure this shit out. If you’re such an egotistical, selfish bastard, why’d you do that?” Rhody reasoned.
“You really don’t want to know that one,” Tony said, sitting down on the couch with his head in his hands.
Rhodey studied him. “Dammit, Tony. Are you serious? You’re more than twice his age!”
“Oh fuck off, Rhodey. Why do you think I’ve been drinking myself stupid? I didn’t even fully realize it until this weekend. You know I’m an idiot when it comes to...feelings,” he said, spitting out the word like it was a curse. He thought of what he’d almost said to Peter at the table earlier. I love you. Fuck.
“Well,” Rhodey sighed, “you did the right thing.” He sat on the couch next to Tony, clapping him on the shoulder.
“So, now what?” Rhodey ventured after several minutes of heavy silence.
Tony rubbed at his chest as he sat back with a sigh. “I fuck up, pick myself up, and move on. Hope there are enough broken pieces left to put together.”