Tony Stark could see a storm brewing as he got out of the car in front of the Stark Industries’ offices in Los Angeles. Clouds were towering over the sea, slowly rolling their way towards the shore. The air smelled like rain and lightning, the first tendrils of a stormy breeze tugging at Tony’s suit and hair.
”Are you nervous?” Obie asked, coming around the car with his briefcase in hand.
”Should I be?”
Obie smiled sharply and tugged his suit jacket in place. He struck quite the figure with his broad shoulders and earnest expression, a figure of authority. Together, they were an unstoppable force. Tony could always count on him when it came to decisions regarding the company … and sometimes, like today, trusted him to advise him in private issues as well. Opening the door for the both of them and letting Tony pass before following, Obie walked next to him through the small entrance hall towards the meeting rooms tucked away at the side of the building. ”Let me handle the conversation,” he said. ”I know how to deal with this.”
”Do this often then?” Tony asked, taking his sunglasses off and folding them into the breast pocket of his suit jacket before buttoning it. ”Dealing with women I got pregnant?”
Obie chuckled. ”I deal with women who claim you got them pregnant.”
”This one’s telling the truth, though.”
”She’s still only after one thing and that’s money,” Obie replied. ”You own one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world. She wouldn’t be here if you were just a plumber.” They stopped in front of one of the larger meeting rooms and Obie caught his eyes one last time. ”Let me handle it.”
With that, he opened the door and they entered. She was sitting at the polished table, bathed in the sunlight streaming through the panorama windows behind her, a cup of coffee in front of her and her handbag on the table off to the side. Through the windows, Tony could see the storm clouds rolling closer just over her shoulders, the sun’s fight for dominance a losing battle. She looked collected and calm, though her hands were fidgeting slightly. Her name, Tony knew, was Mary.
The last time Tony had seen her was roughly a year ago when they’d met at a charity event Tony had only reluctantly agreed to attend. She’d worn a stunning red dress that had complimented her slim figure, her chestnut-brown hair pulled into a complicated braid and her green eyes sparkling with intelligence and wit. He remembered her better than most of his other flings because she had been interesting to talk to and because she hadn’t seemed to care that Tony was rich. She was a smart and capable scientist and Tony had enjoyed her company for the few days they’d been together.
He didn’t know how it had happened, whether it had been an accident or whether they’d been too tipsy to be careful one night, but Mary had got in touch with him a few weeks ago via his office, claiming that he was the father of her baby. Mary wasn’t the first to claim this and she certainly wouldn’t be the last, but the mandatory paternity test had been positive and that had never happened before. Obie had taken over immediately, inviting Mary over to talk.
She looked just as beautiful as she had back then, even wearing jeans and a casual t-shirt, her dark hair tied back into a simple ponytail. She looked at Tony as they entered, her pretty face pulling into a frown when she noticed Obie. They shook hands, but Mary’s eyes returned to Tony quickly. ”I was hoping we could have a private conversation.”
”I’m sure you did, Miss Fitzpatrick,” Obie said before Tony could grasp for an answer. He sat in one of the chairs on the opposite side of table, smiling at Mary sharply. ”But this isn’t just a conversation affecting Tony. This is a conversation about a possible heir to Tony’s company and fortune, and that makes it my business as well.”
Tony sat next to him, folding his hands on the table.
”I’m not interested in Tony’s company or fortune,” Mary replied.
”I’m sure you aren’t.”
”Don’t placate me. What is this?” Mary asked, her eyes fixating on Tony. ”This … set-up? Meeting in a conference room, sitting across from each other as if we’re about to strike a business deal?”
”Aren’t we?” Obie asked.
She glared at him. ”Tony,” she said then, looking at him firmly, ”aren’t you going to speak to me?”
Tony met her eyes, but he didn’t answer, trusting Obie to lead the conversation.
Obie cleared his throat and opened his briefcase. ”Miss Fitzpatrick, Tony is willing to pay child support.” He pushed the contract over the table towards her. ”You will find that this is a very handsome offer.”
”I didn’t come here for child support,” Mary said. ”I came here to talk to the father of my baby.”
”There will be no further contact between Tony and the child. This contract contains a form signed by Tony which confirms he is giving up his parental rights as well as a confidentiality agreement which asks for your discretion in regards to the fatherhood of the baby.”
Mary stared at him with wide eyes for a moment, uncomprehending, and then turned back to Tony. ”Do you have an opinion in this matter or do you let this man speak for you?”
Tony cleared his throat. ”I’m owning up to the consequences of my actions, Mary. Take the offer, it’s good.”
”Consequences,” she said, going through her handbag before slapping several pictures onto the table. ”This is the consequence,” she said. ”Your son.” She scoffed. ”God knows, Tony, that I’m not an idiot. I know you don’t want to build a family. I’m not looking for marriage. I’ve been dating someone for half a year now who is willing to be a father to your kid. I just thought …” She shook her head, her angry words faltering. She brushed her fingers over the pictures before withdrawing. ”I just thought you might want to at least know him.”
Tony stared at the pictures, at the chubby face of a baby with a shock of dark hair on his head and large brown eyes. He looked happy and innocent, so unlike everything Tony was.
”We’re moving to New York,” Mary said, softening her tone. ”I know you have offices there. Maybe you could … just sometimes.”
Tony tried to imagine it, tried to imagine making this baby a part of his life, as small as it would be … it didn’t feel right. He didn’t like to be weighed down by responsibilities he couldn’t shirk and at some point in time, the media might find out and then, the kid’s life would be nothing but a circus. Besides, Tony would be a bad influence and there was a better, cleaner solution. ”What’s the name of the guy you’re dating?” he asked.
Tony nodded and put his sunglasses on. ”Take the money, set up an adoption, tell the kid that Richard’s his dad. It’s the best you can do for him.” He got up and looked at Obie. ”I guess you don’t need me anymore?”
”I can handle the signature with Miss Fitzpatrick,” Obie answered. ”You go on.”
Tony turned towards the door but Mary’s clipped voice stopped him. ”Tony.” He turned back around to her. She was standing, her arms crossed, her face thunderous. ”You will regret this.”
”I doubt it.”
She swallowed. Tony was too far away to see whether there were tears in her eyes but he wouldn’t be surprised if there were. He averted his eyes quickly, tucking his hands into the pockets of his trousers. Mary scoffed. ”You sad man,” she said. ”You sad, sad man. I feel sorry for you.”
Tony didn’t answer. He turned and walked away. When Obie found him later in his office, he poured Tony a drink and set the contract down on the desk. ”She didn’t take the money. But she signed the confidentiality agreement.”
Tony leaned back in his chair, gulping the drink down.
”It’s a win, Tony,” Obie said, filling his glass back up and pouring himself one, holding it out to toast.
”It’s a win,” Tony repeated, clinking their glasses together.
He didn’t tell Obie that he felt just that little bit sad. It was probably normal and it would surely cease over time.
Tony pushed a twenty dollar bill into the tip jar on the top of the bar and grabbed the glass of scotch, turning away to face the mingling crowd again. The ballroom of the Four Seasons was brightly lit, the gentle music played by the small band in the corner floating through the air, not quite tuned out by the laughter and the chatting. A lot of people had come tonight. The sounds they made were reverberating through his half-drunken haze painfully and he felt slightly disoriented.
Tony wasn’t even sure anymore who the host was or why they were here. He just knew that Pepper had made him accept the invitation when they had still been a couple and she’d been adamant that they should turn up together. Mainly because their break-up wasn’t public knowledge yet. They had agreed to wait a bit before announcing it. As if it would make it easier to see the end of their relationship splattered all over the tabloids after they had had a chance to come to terms with it themselves. Pepper’s blue eyes looked down at Tony’s glass in judgement. ”Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
”No,” Tony answered.
He moved forward, swaying a little, and Pepper quickly linked her arm with his, steadying him. ”I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here tonight,” she said softly.
”You insisted I had to come.”
”Well, I was wrong.”
He looked at her in fake surprise. ”I don’t hear that often enough.”
Pepper grit her teeth and looked away, her long blonde hair swaying gently with the motion. ”Be an adult about this, would you?” They smiled at the mayor as he passed and Pepper was drawn into a short conversation about the upcoming elections which Tony completely ignored, only paying attention again when Pepper nudged him gently as she said, ”Stark Industries believes in the generations to come, which is why we are going to initiate a fund for STEM schools all over the country, right, Tony?”
”Yeah,” he said, not really interested. ”Definitely.”
”I’d be more careful,” the mayor replied with a teasing smile. ”One day, one of those high schoolers will turn out to be smarter than you.”
Tony laughed politely along to the joke and shrugged. ”Somebody will have to take over the company, right?”
His kid would be old enough to be in high school by now.
The thought of his son came unbidden, as always, and he suppressed it as quickly as he could. Pepper leaned in close. ”You okay?”
Tony noticed that the mayor and his wife had moved on. ”Yeah. Absolutely.” But he wasn’t. Not really. He actually felt a little sick. ”Maybe I did have one too much. I’m going to the restroom.”
He left without waiting for an answer, making his way out of the ballroom. He felt that he could breathe a little easier. There were too many people in the closest restroom next to the venue, so Tony headed through the hotel lobby and to the restroom tucked away next to the reception. It was empty, its chrome appliances, marble floors and gold accents shining in the bright lights. He felt his nausea increase. Turning on the water, he cupped it in his hands to splash it on his face. He felt better immediately.
Using one of the provided towels, he patted his face dry and fixed his tie and collar, then he leaned on the sink with his hands, lowering his head to breathe deeply for a minute. That was when his eyes registered movement in the mirror, something shifting directly behind him, and instinct kicked in. He whirled around, tapping his watch and pulling the repulsor over his hand to point it right at whoever had the audacity to sneak up on him … and found himself face to face with a scared-looking teenager. His brown hair was short and wet, slightly messy as if he’d run his hands through it a lot and his eyes were a dark contrast against his pale skin.
”Jesus, fuck!” Tony gasped in relief, lowering his hand so as not to fire by accident. ”What the hell? How long have you been standing there?”
”Just … just a minute,” the kid answered, his fingers twisting around the straps of his yellow backpack. He was huddled into a thin rain jacket which was dripping water onto the floor, his jeans and shoes damp. Tony remembered rain pattering the roof of the car on their way here.
“This is a weapon,” Tony snapped at him, his heart calming down only reluctantly. He pointed at the repulsor before he retracted it with a snap of his fingers, the parts merging back to form the watch around his wrist again. ”I could have killed you.”
Tony leaned back against the sink.
”I-I’m Peter?” the kid said, his voice shaky with nerves.
Tony frowned. ”Are you asking me or telling me?”
”Oh … I …” Peter folded his hands in front of himself, his fingers wringing nervously. ”Sorry.”
”Did you need something?” Tony asked.
Peter stared at him, wide-eyed. ”I … I need … I’m …” He closed his eyes.
Tony reigned himself in. The kid was probably nothing more than an Iron Man fan who’d spotted him in the lobby and Tony had certain standards when it came to fans. Especially the young ones. ”Listen, I’m sorry. It’s just … I’m actually busy,” Tony said. “So, let’s just take a picture and I’ll sign something of yours, okay?”
”You’re my dad.”
”Um …” Peter went through the pockets of his wet jacket and jeans and then held out a slightly crumpled print-out. A picture. ”This … this is my mom,” he said. ”Mary.” He swallowed. ”This was … I-I think it was taken the … the year you met. You must … must recognize her.”
Tony looked at the picture. Mary Fitzpatrick smiled back at him, stunning even though the colors of the picture were bleeding together a bit, slightly damp. He raised his eyes back to look at Peter again. Mary Fitzpatrick’s kid.
He had dark hair and brown eyes, like Tony’s. His jawline was slightly familiar, reminding Tony of himself at that age, and his face was just beginning to show signs of maturity, baby fat giving way to handsome features. ”You’re my dad,” Peter repeated, still holding out the picture.
‘This is bad,’ Tony thought, ‘really bad.’ He swallowed against a new bout of nausea, his heart racing in his chest. ”No,” he said. “I’m your biological father. Nothing more.”
He didn’t take the picture. Peter lowered his hand, frowning at him.
”You shouldn’t have come,” Tony continued. ”This,” he said, motioning between them, ”is a really bad idea.”
Peter looked at him. ”I …,” he said, his shoulders lifting.
”I’m sure it’s past your curfew,” Tony added. ”You shouldn’t be hanging out with old men in hotel bathrooms at this time of night or … ever.” He winced. ”Go home.” He tried to walk past him but Peter blocked the door and Tony didn’t dare touch him. As if not being in direct contact would make all this just an alcohol-induced dream.
Peter stared at him pleadingly. ”Mr. Stark, I just-just need, like, two minutes. Please.”
”No,” Tony said. ”Bad idea. Bad timing.”
”Listen, kid,” Tony spat, his panic and the alcohol in his blood taking over, ”just turning up at an event like this is not cool.”
”Twitter said you’d be here and I didn’t know how else to find you-”
”I’ve got a huge-ass tower in Manhattan.”
”Security wouldn’t let me in.”
”They were doing their job, then.”
”I had to see you!”
”No, you didn’t!” Tony snapped. “You didn’t have to see me for the past sixteen years-”
”I’m fourteen,” Peter whispered.
”Fourteen,” Tony repeated. ”So what is it that you need now that you didn’t need the last few years?”
”I-I need …” Peter swallowed and ducked his head. His fingers twisted into the straps of his ratty backpack. Tony noticed that his clothes looked like they had been washed too often, the material of the jeans thin and ripped in some places, his sneakers past the stage of being comfortably worn in. ”I need money,” Peter said. ”I-I don’t … I don’t know who else to ask.”
Somehow, the words hurt, striking something in Tony’s chest that made him go cold. ‘Of course,’ he thought. Money is all anybody ever wanted from him. ”So you thought you’d come to me?” Tony huffed a breath. ”And what are your expectations of how this should go?”
Peter stared at him, puzzled. ”I … I-I thought-”
”You thought what? I’d drive to the next ATM with you? Just like that?”
Peter ducked his head.
”You know, I offered your mother money. A lot of money. She turned it down,” Tony said. “Does she think sending her kid after all those years would help her get it after all?” He scoffed. “How do I even know it’s really you?”
”Why would I lie?”
”You’re the one asking for money, kid, you tell me.”
Peter ducked his head before raising a hand and passing it over his eyes quickly. ”I just …” He looked at him again, tears shining in his eyes, tracking down his cheeks. ”Please, you have to help me.”
Tony took a deep breath and ducked his head, his arms crossing out of their own volition and his body sinking back to lean against the counter. He squeezed his eyes shut against the headache that was quickly developing. ”I signed away my parental rights fourteen years ago. I don’t have to do anything.” He turned towards the sinks. ”And tears aren’t going to work on me, kid.”
He heard a hiccup of breath, almost like a sob, then the sound of sneakers scuffing against marble and the click of the door. He turned around quickly. Peter was gone.
As if he had never been there in the first place.
Guilt slammed into his chest and he cursed, opening the door to go after him. There weren’t many people in the lobby at this time of night, but Tony wasn’t able to spot the kid. He jogged towards the revolving doors leading outside and looked up and down the crowded street, trying to catch a glimpse of Peter, regret forming like lead in his stomach when he couldn’t. He hadn’t meant for his words to cause the kid to run.
He turned towards Happy, who was frowning at him questioningly. He must have seen him leave and followed him outside … he’d been in the lobby when Peter had left the restroom. ”Have you seen the kid?”
”The kid,” Tony replied. ”This high, brown hair, black rain jacket-”
”Yellow backpack?” Happy asked.
Tony’s eyes widened. ”Yes! Where did he go?”
”I don’t know. I saw him, like, an hour ago when I went to get my wallet from the car. He was lurking around the parking lot. He seemed a bit young so I told him to go home. Did he approach you?”
”Yes,” Tony said. Fatigue settled on his shoulders and he shivered in the cold night air.
”Who was he?”
Tony shook his head. ”Nobody,” he said and, noticing Happy’s frown, added, ”A fan.” He looked around once more, though he knew that Peter was long gone. ”Just a fan.”
Avengers Tower was quiet these days. Following the Ultron fiasco, the Avengers had moved to the Avengers Facility in Upstate New York, which had taken up operation just a few months before Ultron had happened and was now slowly growing into a training facility for the Department of Damage Control as well as the headquarters for the Avengers themselves. Avengers Tower had remained behind in New York … its upper floors mostly empty and devoid of life. Tony still slept here, sometimes, whenever he had Stark Industries business to attend to in the city, but lately, he’d started considering to sell the Tower. It would mean moving a large part of Stark Industries, which was currently occupying floors one to eighty-five, but Tony was sure they’d be able to figure something out.
In moments like this, he was tempted even more to just leave New York behind for good. This late at night, the standard light setting of the penthouse in the ninety-second floor was only very dim, just bright enough to see, and the gentle lights did wonders for Tony’s headache, so he kept them like that as he stood at the large panorama windows and looked down at New York. The only sound was the soft clinking of ice cubes in his drink whenever his hand shifted.
He felt like a ghost, a silent observer, invisible and lonely.
“You don’t want to be saddled with a child, Tony,” Obie had said all those years ago. ”You told me yourself that you don’t want children.”
Tony sipped on his drink. He hadn’t, at that time. Later on, he’d thought about it more often; the possibility of fathering a child that he could raise better than Howard had raised him. But he’d always been too afraid to fail, too afraid to cause the kind of damage which had been caused within himself. In the end, he’d convinced himself that he’d made the responsible choice by not becoming a father.
The events in the hotel tonight had shown him he’d been right. It had taken Tony five minutes to crush Peter, to push him away, to drive him to tears. He’d been standing there, half-drunk, annoyed and overwhelmed with the situation … just like Howard had been whenever they were around each other. It was better for Peter not to know him, he decided, gulping the rest of the scotch down.
He refilled his drink at the bar and took the bottle with him to settle on the bench in front of the piano. His hands reached out, unsure after such a long time of not having played, and touched the keys carefully. The large, open-space living area had the perfect acoustic for a piano, but the instrument hadn’t been played in a long time and sounded slightly off. He didn’t mind. Nobody was listening any way.
He played listlessly, getting used to the movements again, and then, three glasses later, got up to open the bench and get the box with sheet music from within. He fell back onto the seat and rifled through the sheets until he’d finally found the composition of his mother he’d been looking for. He smiled and put it on the stand, his fingers clumsily finding the first few keys.
Tony felt he didn’t play it very well, didn’t manage to make the melody sound as hopeful and happy as it was meant to be, but it still made him smile. He went through the box again once he was finished, looking for another piece of hers to play, then another and a fourth one … when his fingers brushed over a stack of three sheets at the bottom and froze.
It was the last piece she had written. She used to tell Tony that she was writing it for him. She had died before she could finish it. Tony had rarely ever played it and had never ventured further than the end of the first page.
He shook his head, suddenly not in the mood anymore, and gathered the sheets to put them back when he accidentally knocked the box off the piano. It landed on the floor with a clatter, pages of sheet music escaping. He sighed and bent down to put them back, freezing when he noticed the envelope which had fallen out of the box alongside the sheet music. He swallowed before reaching for it tentatively. It had slid away, almost out of reach. Tony nearly fell off the bench when he tried to pick it up and caught himself on the keyboard, a sudden, mismatched tone ringing through the penthouse when several keys were pressed down clumsily. Tony cursed softly and managed to snatch the envelope off the floor. His fingers slowly opened it and he slid his hand inside to pull out a picture. It still looked as good as new, the ink had been protected by the dark inside the bench all these years.
It was the picture of a baby, dark hair and dark eyes, looking at the camera.
He’d had too much to drink to reign himself in. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” he said, though her name came out slightly slurred.
”Find Peter Fitzpatrick, resident in New York or the surrounding area.”
”I have thirteen matches, boss.”
”Fourteen years old.”
”No matches, boss.”
”Are you sure?”
She seemed to think about this, because one moment later, she came back saying, “One possible match found. The name on the birth certificate is Fitzpatrick, but was changed later.” The television flickered to life and showed him a picture of the kid he’d seen tonight. It looked like it had been taken for a passport, the smile on the boy’s face slightly forced as he sat ramrod straight, his dark eyes not looking directly at the camera.
“That’s him,” Tony said.
”Peter Benjamin Parker, né Fitzpatrick, resident in Queens,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. introduced.
”Parker?” Tony asked and then closed his eyes in realization. ”She got married.” He wondered whether she’d married the man she’d told him about all those years ago, then realized that it was probably none of his business.
“Do you want more information?” F.R.I.D.A.Y. asked.
Tony hesitated. Did he?
”Boss, do you want more information on Peter Benjamin Parker?” F.R.I.D.A.Y. repeated patiently.
Tony looked at his glass. Why did it matter to him now? Because he’d seen him? Or because he was lonely and drunk? One thing was for sure, he was still unfit to be a father. He’d successfully chased the kid away tonight. He thought about the papers in the envelope; the contract in which he’d signed away his parental rights. ”No,” he said. ”Close file.”
He gulped down another glass. ”FRI?”
”Should I ever ask again, block the information for 24 hours and then ask for reconfirmation before opening that file.”
Tony closed his eyes. It was better this way.
Chapter by JolinarJackson
I know I said weekly updates and here I am, three days after the first chapter. I'm impatient. :)
So, bi-weekly updates it is.
The Sokovia Accords happened and a bomb in Geneva and a fight at a German airport; the end of the Avengers as Tony knew them. His team had lost.
Steve and Barnes had taken the Quinjet to fly God knows where, while Tony and Rhodey had gotten their asses kicked by Sam and a guy as tall as a small skyscraper. Prince T’Challa had almost managed to get to the jet before Steve, but Natasha had turned on Tony unexpectedly and stopped him. Vision had been too busy keeping Wanda under control to help. And that had been it.
As soon as the jet had cleared the hangar, the rest of Steve’s team had dispersed. With Vision recovering from Wanda’s latest attack and Rhodey and Tony fighting off the giant, Prince T’Challa had been up alone against Clint, Sam and Natasha. He’d been knocked out cold long enough for Clint and Sam to leave. The giant was the last to go, vanishing into thin air, as if he’d never been there. Natasha had remained behind, facing Tony’s anger head-on.
“Why?!” Tony asked her.
Her pretty face didn’t even twitch, her green eyes as impassive as ever. ”It was the right thing to do.”
”I thought you were of my opinion.”
”In regards to the Accords, yes.” She looked around at the wreckage the fight had caused and crossed her arms. ”But Steve wouldn’t go up against us like this without a valid reason. Maybe Barnes is innocent. I want to give him the chance to prove it.”
Tony scoffed and turned away from her, asking F.R.I.D.A.Y. to locate the Quinjet. The transponders were turned off, though. Steve knew the tech well enough to take the jet off the radar. When Tony turned back to face Natasha, she was gone as well and it was just him, Vision, Prince T’Challa and Rhodey … defeated.
Over the next two months, Secretary Ross was breathing down Tony’s neck, convinced he knew where Steve’s team was hiding. Tony didn’t. He just knew that the Avengers were in the past.
Getting up in the morning was hard, he drank more than he should, he was aware of Rhodey’s watchful eyes on him at all times. He didn’t care. He felt like his life’s work had been taken from him. It hurt. And then, Steve and his team came back.
They just turned up one morning, almost casually, as if they were returning from a long mission. Barnes wasn’t with them, but Natasha was … and a guy named Helmut Zemo. He was proof that Tony – that everyone – had been wrong blaming Barnes for the bomb in Geneva. Zemo showed himself very willing to confess, but only if Tony and Steve were the ones listening, so they swallowed their respective prides and postponed the inevitable confrontation to comply.
It went … alright, Tony thought.
At first, they were awkward around each other, but they’d been working together as a team long enough to be able to adjust and before long, they were one united front against Zemo as if nothing had ever happened between them. Tony knew that they still had a lot to discuss, most of all the Sokovia Accords and Steve and the others leaving them behind. However, right then in that room, with Zemo sitting opposite them and telling them everything he’d done to frame Barnes for the bombing, it didn’t feel like an impossible task anymore to come to an understanding.
To reform the Avengers.
There was hope that things could go back to normal … until Zemo looked Tony straight in the eye at the end of the interrogation and said, ”I never thought you’d be able to forgive the Captain. You’re a bigger man than I gave your credit for.”
”Well,” Tony answered bitterly, ”what’s a little mutiny between friends?”
One corner of Zemo’s lips tugged up into a smirk, his dark eyes narrowing. ”I wouldn’t be able to forgive my family’s death that easily.”
Tony froze. ”What?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Steve had stiffened, his hands clenching to fists against the table.
”Your parents,” Zemo explained, tilting his head. A look of mock confusion crossed his face. “The Winter Soldier’s involvement in their deaths, the fact that Captain America here knew about it … for years possibly.” He pulled a sad face and looked at Steve. ”Did you never tell him that your friend killed the Starks?”
Tony glanced at Steve who had a guarded, hard look on his face, his blue eyes holding Zemo’s gaze steadily. He didn’t move to turn towards Tony, didn’t even blink. That’s how Tony knew Zemo was telling the truth.
His heart skipped a beat and he felt his lungs constrict, his fingers curling into fists. He barely noticed two guards entering and leading Zemo away. There was a roar in his ears, nausea crawling up his throat, the interrogation room seemed to shrink around them, squeezing the air out of it. His parents had died in an accident caused by his father’s drinking. Tony had come to terms with that truth a very long time ago, had mourned his mother, had not even looked at the coffin of his father during the funeral, full of loathing. All these years, his mother’s violent death had been his father’s fault. And now … now …
”Tony.” Steve’s voice was unbearably gentle.
He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. ”Did you know that all my life, I blamed my father for my mother’s death?” He pinned Steve with a dark look. ”’Course you knew. Because I told you. I told you that I hated him for it. More than I did for anything else he did.”
Steve swallowed and ducked his head. ”It wasn’t him, Tony.”
He closed his eyes again, unable to look at Steve and know … all this time, he’d been lied to. It hurt worse than the betrayal at the airport, worse than Steve picking Barnes over their team. Worse than the Avengers breaking apart at the seams.
”It wasn’t him,” Steve repeated. ”He was brainwashed, he didn’t know what he was doing.”
”It’s not about him!” Tony snapped, his palm slapping against the table. ”It’s about you! It’s about you lying to me.” He shook his head. ”If you had told me-”
”It wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Steve said. ”I get that you’re angry. You’ve got every right to be but me telling you wouldn’t have changed anything about your relationship to your father.”
”You just don’t get it,” Tony said tiredly, getting up and walking a few steps, turning to face a corner. ”It’s not about my father. It’s not about your toy soldier. It’s about you.” He turned to look at Steve, who had risen from his seat as well and was approaching him almost cautiously. “You lied to me.”
”With the best intentions.” Tony pushed Steve back and he saw Steve’s shoulders tense, his hands coming up a bit as if he was about to fall into a fighting stance, his jaw clenching … and then he stopped, relaxing his stance. “I’m sorry, Tony.”
It didn’t help. It only made Tony angrier. ”Fuck your intentions. I trusted you.”
With that, he turned away and left the room.
Tony didn’t stay at the Compound. He knew that Steve would want to find him and talk, and even though he could theoretically lock himself into his workshop and ignore him, he didn’t want to make himself a prisoner in his own facility. So he left.
The penthouse in Avengers Tower was alright for a while. Tony spent several hours working on his newest suit in peace and he made quite a bit of headway … but then he went to get himself a snack in the kitchen and stopped dead at the sight of the piano. The pain and feeling of betrayal rushed back and overwhelmed him, wrapping around him in a chokehold.
His mother hadn’t died in a car accident caused by his father’s reckless behavior, she had been killed. Murdered. In cold blood.
Before Tony knew it, he had made his way over to the bar and poured himself a drink. His eyes caught the piano and he turned his back on it, unable to even look in its general direction. He downed a second glass.
His father wasn’t the reason his mother had died. He’d been killed as well. Murdered as well.
It wasn’t that Tony didn’t think on some crazy, deeply buried and better ignored level that Howard Stark deserved it, the bastard, for what he put Tony through, for the person he turned Tony into … but knowing how he’d died … it still hurt. It still felt wrong and unjust.
His phone rang when he poured his fifth drink and he sighed in annoyance when he saw Rhodey’s smiling face on the display. He picked up nonetheless. ”Don’t tell me,” he said instead of a greeting, ”you talked to Steve.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end and then Rhodey answered, ”Don’t tell me: you’re drinking.”
Tony closed his eyes and slumped against the bar. The disappointment in Rhodey’s voice sobered him a bit, just enough to recognize that he’d fallen into the same old, toxic pattern again. The one he’d tried to get out of, he’d worked so hard to overcome. He downed the drink and poured his sixth.
”Should I come over?”
Tony chuckled bitterly. ”You say that like it’s a ten-minute drive.”
”It is … in my suit.”
Tony knew that Rhodey would have made the effort even without the suit, would have taken the two-hour drive in stride for him. There weren’t many people as close to Tony as Rhodey, not many he felt he could be vulnerable around, at least a little bit. A tear ran down Tony’s cheek and he wiped it away angrily.
"I’m so sorry, Tony,” Rhodey said. ”I wish you would have found out another way.” There was a pause. ”Steve feels guilty, you know? He doesn’t like that he hurt you.”
Tony scoffed. ”He should have told me earlier then.”
”It’s not an easy thing to tell a friend. He did the wrong thing, but he did have good intentions.”
Tony didn’t answer, wiping at his cheeks.
”Let me come over.”
”I don’t want company.”
”Then don’t drink,” Rhodey replied earnestly. ”That’s the deal. I won’t come over. I won’t nag and hover. But you have to promise that you stop drinking right now. And that you will call me tomorrow.”
Tony sighed, admitting defeat. ”Fine,” he said, holding up the full glass in his hand. ”This is the last one.” He gulped it down and hung up the phone, turning his head to stare out the window.
The sun was setting, casting orange and reddish hues over the city ninety floors below him. He felt restless, fidgety. He needed to do something but he didn’t feel like working on his suit and he certainly wouldn’t go back to the Compound, where most of his current projects were waiting. Not with Steve there, waiting, apologetic, fucking sorry. His fingers tapped against the bar’s top. He knew what he needed. His new suit wasn’t ready for flight yet, but he had two or three other suits here which were.
”F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” he said, ”dispatch a suit for me.”
It didn’t take long for Mark 51 to rush from the armory towards him, wrapping its comforting weight around him, cocooning him in a warm, dark shell of iron and wires. Then the HUD lit up, displaying every piece of information about his surroundings that he could possibly want; temperature (69°F), humidity (38%), nearby heat signatures (0; he was alone, alone, alone).
”Where are we going, boss?” F.R.I.D.A.Y. asked, her gentle voice stirring him from his dark thoughts.
”Anywhere,” Tony answered and the balcony door opened as he approached it. ”I just wanna take a flight.”
”Should I program a random pleasure flight route?”
It had been a long time since Tony had flown slowly enough to really take in the details of whatever he passed. The city was breathtaking, the setting sun reflected in windows and bathing the streets in a warm light. The HUD zoomed in automatically on people waving at him, children pointing at him excitedly. The route F.R.I.D.A.Y. had programmed for him took him over Manhattan and North Bergen all the way down to Staten Island and over Brooklyn and Hempstead to reach the very edge of Long Island, looping around Gardiners Island to head back, passing over Smithtown Bay. The sun had vanished by the time he reached Queens.
He was passing over Corona when he saw him. Movement on one of the roofs caught the HUD’s interest and Tony turned his head towards the direction he was pointed, slowing his flight as he saw a slim figure doing flips on what appeared to be a thin rope spanning a small alley between two buildings.
The HUD zoomed in. It took Tony only a moment to recognize him, even though he had never seen him in person before. The sleeveless hoodie, sneakers and the socks pulled up to his knees were bright red, contrasting with the light blue of his long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants. He was wearing a red ski mask and a pair of goggles which gave his costume a slightly ridiculous look.
Spider-Man was a recent addition to the gallery of neighborhood vigilantes with enhanced powers roaming New York these days. F.R.I.D.A.Y. had found the first videos of him on YouTube roughly seven months ago and going by all the research Tony had done, Spider-Man couldn’t have been around much longer than that. Tony had been intrigued from the first minute. Spider-Man was able to climb walls and shoot webs out of devices clasped around his wrists, which he used for transport by swinging around on them or to immobilize whoever he was after.
There wasn’t a lot Tony knew about his set of enhancements. He knew that Spider-Man had a crazy amount of body control. He twisted and flipped while swinging through the streets on his webs, his balance and reflexes were impeccable. He was strong enough to stop a driving car with just his hands without even pausing to take a breath. There was also a video showing Spider-Man running through a park while chasing a mugger and he could run as fast as Steve, if not faster.
Tony was fascinated enough that he’d even started to build a suit for him, a secret project he hadn’t told anybody about yet. It had started out as a distraction when he’d first started having trouble integrating nanotechnology into his own newest suit. However, building Spider-Man’s suit had quickly developed into a new obsession and the first prototype was now stashed away in the Tower. The next step would be to fit it with Spider-Man present, but Tony had not been able to find out yet who Spider-Man was, a circumstance which was not helped by the fact that Spider-Man’s appearances were extremely unpredictable and he was hard to track down. Until now.
Tony watched Spider-Man finish his balancing act with a graceful flip onto one of the rooftops and then started to approach slowly. It didn’t take long for Spider-Man to notice him. His masked face turned towards Tony … and then he took off.
”Hey!” Tony called and flew after him, taking a moment to watch Spider-Man jump off the roof without hesitation, catching himself by shooting a web at another house and swing around the corner. Tony followed him and stopped dead when he didn’t see him. He ignored the people on the street below calling for his attention, asking instead, ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., where is he?”
He looked around the busy street, brightly lit by the headlights of cars, streetlamps and shop windows, but nobody in a red-and-blue suit was to be seen.
”There is a heat signature moving along the façade of the library, boss. Across the street.”
The HUD zoomed in on it and he watched Spider-Man effortlessly crawl along the brick wall of the building and around yet another corner. He followed him quickly and found himself in a deserted, dark alley surrounded by the library’s brick wall on one side and the grey concrete of a Walmart on the other. No Spider-Man in sight. Tony decided to try his luck. ”You’re not in trouble,” he said loudly. “I just want to talk.”
There was no answer, just the sound of Tony’s repulsors whining as they kept him in the air steadily.
”Above you, boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. said and Tony looked up.
Spider-Man had his back against the wall, his hands and feet placed flat against the brick keeping him in place, 50 feet above ground. Tony pushed upwards gently, until he was able to look at Spider-Man’s masked face, and opened his mouth to speak. However, Spider-Man’s hand suddenly moved and Tony felt something slam against his chest, then multiple somethings and a moment later, he was stuck to the concrete at his back, spider webs encasing his chest.
”Don’t come any closer,” Spider-Man said, his hand raised threateningly, his middle and ring fingers resting against a trigger mechanism nestled into his palm. The red, fingerless gloves he was wearing were dirty, as were some parts of his suit.
”Alright,” Tony answered, not making an effort to break free of the webs pinning him to the wall. For a moment, they looked at each other – Tony stuck to the wall on one side of the alley and Spider-Man stuck to the other – then Tony opened his helmet, showing his face. ”Hey, there,” he said.
Spider-Man tilted his head, the dim lights reaching them from the busy street next to them reflecting in his goggles. ”What do you want?”
”Wow,” Tony answered. ”I don’t even get a ‘hello’?”
Spider-Man stared at him, then he turned to climb up the wall.
”Hey, hey, stop,” Tony said. ”Stop.”
Spider-Man halted, turning back to look at him.
Tony smiled. ”Look, we got off the wrong foot. I … I really just want to talk.”
Spider-Man relaxed a little, angling himself more towards him, willing to listen.
”I …” Tony smiled. ”I really wanted to talk to you for a while now.”
”Yeah, of course.” Tony raised one hand, activating the laser. “May I?” he asked nodding at the webs around his chest.
Spider-Man hesitated. ”I’ll wait on the roof.” With that, he swiftly climbed up the wall, out of Tony’s sight.
Tony sighed and closed his eyes. ”Please be there,” he muttered while he used the laser to cut the webs away. It was surprisingly difficult, the webs not melting immediately, but finally, he was free. He joined Spider-Man on the roof, finding the vigilante waiting for him a few steps away from the edge. Tony made sure to keep his distance as he landed. ”Impressive climb. So this …” He waved his hand at Spider-Man. “… clinging to the wall thing, is it … part of the enhancement or …”
”Yeah,” Spider-Man said. Nothing more. He had his arms crossed in front of him and he looked tense, not trusting Tony entirely yet.
Tony noticed that Spider-Man was a bit shorter than him and his slim physique and high voice only increased the impression that he was … small, in a way. Tony wondered how old he was. ”I know the webs aren’t part of your enhancement. I looked at some footage and was able to see that you’re wearing devices to shoot them.”
”Straight-forward naming, I like that.” Tony couldn’t see Spider-Man’s face but he thought he had elicited a smile. ”So you built those shooters out of …”
”Things I find.”
”Thrift stores, salvation army?”
”The garbage, actually.”
Tony raised his eyebrows in surprise. ”You’re a dumpster diver.” He wrinkled his nose. ”That where you got this horrendous onesie?”
”It’s not a onesie.”
Tony smiled and took one step closer, happy to see that Spider-Man didn’t flinch away. ”You know what I think is really cool, though? The webs. I looked at some videos, did some simulations … the tensile strength is off the charts. Did you manufacture them?”
”Are you into science?”
Spider-Man hesitated. ”Something like that.” A low beep sounded and Spider-Man jerked, startled. ”Sorry,” he muttered, unzipping the pocket of his hoodie and getting a phone out. He turned away from Tony.
That was when Tony noticed that the suit was ripped, a tear along his flank, just above the hip, not overly frayed, as if a blade had sliced through it. The fabric was darker around the edges of the tear … as if blood had seeped into it. When Spider-Man turned back towards him, the phone tucked safely in his pocket again, Tony asked, ”Rough night?”
Spider-Man looked down at the tear. ”Oh, no, that’s old. Happened yesterday. A mugger came at somebody with a knife and I got in the way. It’s okay now.”
”I heal quick, but it's not, like, instantaneous.”
Tony nodded. ”So,” he said, “to make a long story short. I’ve had my eyes on you for a while, so did the Avengers.”
”We’re interested in you.”
Spider-Man stared at him. ”Inte-interested? Really?”
”Yeah. So how about you come around the Tower and we have a real conversation?”
”A real conversation?”
”Face to face,” Tony answered.
Spider-Man took a step back. ”I don’t think so.”
”Your identity would be safe. Just me and you. I just … I can’t just recruit you anonymously, we need to know who you are.”
Spider-Man just looked at him for a what seemed like an eternity, then his shoulders slumped and he turned away. ”Then you can’t recruit me.”
Tony stared at him. ”Seriously? You’re aware that this is a unique opportunity-”
”I’m aware, but I can’t.” Spider-Man turned to face him again, his stance defeated. ”I’m sorry.”
Tony swallowed. ”Listen, I’ll give you a bit of time to think about it, how does that sound?”
It was silent for a long moment again, then Spider-Man said, ”Gotta go.” He started to walk away, but then he stopped and turned back around. ”Don’t follow me.”
With that, he was gone.
“F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” Tony said as soon as he entered his workshop in the Tower once he got back from his flight.
”Welcome home, boss,” she answered cheerily. Music started to filter through the loudspeakers, Tony’s AC/DC playlist picking up where he’d last left off.
He crossed the room, walking past workbenches on which Iron Man suit parts rested and a set of arrows he’d been working on for Clint. Two workbenches at the very back were dedicated to the Spider-Man suit and F.R.I.D.A.Y. adjusted the lights above them as Tony approached, making them brighter. Tony settled into a chair at one of the workbenches. ”Give me ‘Project Wallcrawler’.”
The see-through screens came alive, displaying the schematics he’d been working on last. The image showed a full-body suit, tight-fitting to allow for enough flexibility to perform acrobatic and gravity-defying moves. The bright red coloring of the mask and the chest was replaced by a rich blue along the flanks and legs, just to be replaced again by red hugging the calves all the way down to the toes. The built-in web-shooters around the wrists and the belt containing replacement cartridges for the web-fluid were black, as was the emblem of a spider in the center of the chest and some accents Tony had added around the upper arms, elbows and calves. “Now, that,” Tony said, “is a suit.”
He zoomed in on the wrists and named the devices integrated into the suit there ‘web-shooters’. He pushed his chair back and turned it, settling at the workbench behind him. The Spider-Man suit was spread out on the surface, looking baggy and limp without someone wearing it. The white eye lenses stared at the ceiling lifelessly. ”Hello, buddy,” Tony said. ”Let’s see if he still turns me down once he sees you.”
Tony kept his promise to Rhodey and called him the next morning. He kept the conversation short and turned down Rhodey’s offer to talk to Steve as well, hanging up to continue working on the Spider-Man suit. He finished the last calibrations in the late afternoon and started the upload of the AI before summoning a suit for himself and leaving the Tower.
He spent three hours circling Queens before he found him.
Spider-Man was sitting on the edge of a roof in Elmhurst with a sandwich, his legs dangling over the edge and the red ski mask rolled up to his nose. When Tony landed next to him, Spider-Man froze and stared at him, but he didn’t run away this time, instead pulling the mask down to cover his whole face. ”How did you find me?”
”Hello to you, too,” Tony answered and stepped out of his suit. He shivered a bit in the cold evening air and wished he’d remembered to don a sweater instead of just the t-shirt and ripped jeans he’d worn for the workshop. ”And I’ve been looking for you. I’m a man with a lot of time on my hands these days.”
Spider-Man just looked at him through those unnerving, nerdy goggles of his, not offering an answer.
”Not that I’m stalking you or anything,” Tony hurried to assure him. ”I’m just generally interested in you.”
”I’m sure that’s what stalkers say.” Spider-Man wrapped the rest of his sandwich into a plastic bag and set it down next to him on the roof. ”Why?”
”Why what?” Tony asked.
”Why are you generally interested in me?”
Tony heaved a breath and tried to ignore that they were five stories up as he sat next to Spider-Man. He only spared the busy street below them a quick glance, one of his hands digging into the gravel spread over the roof as if it would keep him from falling. ”I told you. We’re recruiting.”
Spider-Man’s hands folded, resting on his legs. His fingers were wrapped around each other tight enough to turn white. Spider-Man was tense, maybe even nervous. ”And I told you that I can’t take off my mask.”
”Fine,” Tony said, ”you don’t have to. We’ll work our way up to that. For now, let’s just say that I see potential in you.”
”Yeah. Your suit is horrendous but you developed that webbing and those shooters and that alone is the work of someone with a lot of smarts. And I like investing in smart people.”
Spider-Man turned his head in Tony’s direction, but his mask made it impossible to gauge his reaction. ”Investing?”
Tony dug his cellphone out of the back pocket of his jeans and activated the holograph, pulling up an image of the Spider-Man suit to let it hover between them.
Spider-Man looked it for a long moment, his fingers tightening their death grip around each other. ”Is that-”
”Yeah,” Tony said, using his fingers to enlarge the picture. ”Have a look.”
Hesitantly, the fingers of Spider-Man’s right hand reached out and touched the holograph. Tony watched him learn the navigation by himself, saw him zoom in and out of the picture experimentally before settling on a view of the whole suit and withdrawing his hand.
”What do you say?”
Spider-Man seemed to curl up into himself, his eyes on the holograph. ”It’s so cool, Mr. Stark.”
Tony was surprised for a moment, the words so different from the way Spider-Man had been talking to him up until now. Softer, somehow more vulnerable and approachable. He wondered whether he was breaking through some defenses and kept pushing gently. ”It could be yours.”
Spider-Man didn’t answer, instead turning to look down at the cars and people below them. Tony really started to hate that ski mask for keeping him from seeing Spider-Man’s face. It was slightly unnerving not to have at least an inkling what the other man was thinking. He cleared his throat when Spider-Man remained persistently silent. ”Why are you doing this?” he asked, the question having popped into his head several times since he’d learned about Spider-Man’s existence. ”What’s your MO, why are you jumping around Queens in a onesie?”
Spider-Man lowered his head to look at his hands, his fingers twisting, tugging on the frayed seams of his fingerless gloves. ”Because … I’ve been …” He heaved a sigh and looked at Tony. “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t … and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” He shrugged. “I’m in a position to help. If you can do that … you should. Always. It might not mean a lot to you, but to another person, it can mean the world.”
Tony didn’t need to see Spider-Man’s face to know that he was sincere. ”So you wanna look after the little guy.”
”Yeah, just looking after … the little guy.” Spider-Man released a breath. ”That’s what it is.”
Tony nodded in understanding. ”Well, I’m offering you the suit and I’m offering you the opportunity to make even more of a difference.” He got up from his perch and brushed off his jeans. ”But I won’t chase after you anymore. If you want that chance, you’ll have to come to the Tower. With the mask, if that helps you. Then we can see where this leads us.”
Spider-Man looked up at him but he didn’t move from his position.
Tony stepped into his suit, feeling it close around him. ”I’ll give you until tomorrow midnight to think about it.” With that, he started the repulsors. “Ball’s in your court.” He gave a nod in Spider-Man’s direction, pushed off the roof and left.
“Do I actually have to tell you that I don’t want to do this?” Tony asked, his grip around the phone tightening with frustration.
Rhodey sighed heavily on the other end of the line, his voice patient when he answered, ”I know, but listen, you don’t have much of a choice here. Ross is out for blood and I thought one thing we could all compromise on is that the Avengers should continue to exist. You and Steve need to work out your issues.”
Tony slumped back against the kitchen island, rubbing his forehead tiredly.
”It’s time to come back,” Rhodey added. ”It’s time to come home, Tony.”
”Boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s voice gently interrupted. ”Sorry for the disturbance, but you have a guest waiting on the balcony.”
Surprised, Tony turned towards the panorama windows leading out onto the big balcony attached to the penthouse of Avengers Tower and froze when he saw Spider-Man standing there in the light of the setting sun, awkwardly waving at him. He raised a hand to wave back automatically, his face breaking out into a smile. ”Rhodey, I gotta go.”
”Just tell me you’ll come back to the Compound for the meeting tomorrow.”
”Text me the details.” He hung up and hurried across the room to pull open the balcony door. ”You know,” he said as Spider-Man stepped closer cautiously, ”I have a perfectly good elevator.”
”I didn’t want to come through the lobby,” Spider-Man replied.
Tony raised an eyebrow. ”So you decided to climb ninety floors?”
Spider-Man tucked his hands into the pockets of his sleeveless hoodie. He was wearing a faded, yellow backpack which straps were pulled so tight around his shoulders that it looked almost painful, probably so it wouldn’t shift around too much while he swung through the streets. The addition of the backpack made his whole outfit look even more low-budget. ”I only climbed fifty. I was able to swing over from one of the surrounding buildings.”
”Right,” Tony said, cracking a smile. ”I hope you didn’t leave fingerprints all over the windows.”
Spider-Man’s shoulders shifted and his head ducked a little. Tony wasn’t sure whether he was amused or embarrassed.
Clearing his throat, he decided to move on. “So, you’re here.”
Spider-Man nodded. ”I’m here.”
Tony stepped to the side to make room for Spider-Man to enter. ”Come in then.”
Spider-Man didn’t move. ”Are there cameras in there?”
”There are cameras out here,” Tony answered with raised eyebrows. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., turn off surveillance.”
Tony gestured for Spider-Man to come in. ”It’s not like the cameras would be able to look underneath that mask, you know.”
Spider-Man entered hesitantly, his face lifted upwards to look at the ceiling. ”Was that … is this a smart home?”
”It’s a very smart home.” Tony smiled. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., say hello.”
”Good evening, Spider-Man,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. obeyed immediately.
Spider-Man stared at the ceiling. ”Uh … hi?”
”Her name’s F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” Tony supplied.
”Hi, F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” Spider-Man said. He looked around the big open-plan area holding the bar and the piano as well as a small cluster of couches and armchairs in front of the TV. His hesitant steps led him towards the corner in which the kitchen was located and he turned in slow circles, clearly in awe as his eyes followed the stairs leading up to the lab and Tony’s workshop. ”This place is huge.” He turned back and walked towards the piano.
”It’s alright,” Tony replied with a shrug, tucking his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
Spider-Man brushed his fingers over the piano as he passed it, lingering for a moment.
”Do you play?” Tony asked curiously.
Spider-Man glanced at him over his shoulder. ”A bit.”
The fingers brushing over the piano curled inwards and Spider-Man’s hand was tucked back into his pocket as his body took on a tense stance. ”I’d prefer not to talk about private stuff.”
Tony raised his eyebrows, mildly offended. He bit down on the sarcastic comment forming in response to Spider-Man’s words and instead said, ”Right. Strictly business, then. Come on, I’ll show you the suit.” He lead Spider-Man up the stairs to the workshop, heading straight for the workbench at the back where the suit was spread out. Noticing, that Spider-Man wasn’t following him anymore, he turned and found him lingering by the door.
His hands were clenched around the straps of his backpack and he was looking at the whiteboards mounted on the wall near the door.
”Something wrong?” Tony asked.
Spider-Man turned his head towards him. ”I … just … are you working with nanotechnology?”
”Yes. I’m struggling with the application I intend for it, though.”
Spider-Man looked back at the whiteboard. ”You want to use it to enhance your suit?”
There was genuine curiosity in his voice and Tony decided to indulge him a little. ”Yes.” He crossed his arms.
”To make it more durable?” Spider-Man looked at him. ”Like shear-thickening fluid or magnetorheological fluid?”
Tony smiled. ”If it were only that,” he said, ”I wouldn’t have a problem. What I plan goes more in the direction of nanoweapons.” He sighed. ”But the arc reactor keeps overloading the particles as they form the weapons. I’m trying to find a way to regulate the power while keeping the particles in motion. And then there’s the danger of absorption.”
Spider-Man turned away from the whiteboards. ”Because you’re wearing it on your skin.”
”Exactly. If I get struck too hard, particles could break off and enter my body.”
”If you create a suit using nanotechnology, you could revolutionize the research in that field.” Spider-Man faced the bookshelf crammed into the corner. ”That’s amazing, Mr. Stark.” He picked a book from the shelf.
Tony could see from his position that it was his father’s old notebook. He allowed Spider-Man to leaf through it, noticing the way he lingered here or there to read closer. As if he understood what he was seeing. His interest was piqued even more. ”Would you be interested in working with me on the suit?”
”If you sign up for the Avengers, we could do that. Revolutionize the field together.”
Spider-Man ducked his head and put the notebook down on the workbench between the bookshelf and the door. ”Thank you for the offer, Mr. Stark, but I can’t.”
Tony nodded slowly. ”Well, let’s see if I can’t change your mind about that. Come over here.”
Spider-Man wrapped his fingers around the straps of his backpack again as he approached, stopping next to Tony to look down at the suit curiously.
”I know it looks baggy,” Tony said, ”but it fits a lot of sizes, actually. Step into the legs, get your arms into the sleeves and put on the mask and it will tighten to fit you with the push of this.” He pointed at the black spider emblem in the center of the chest. He watched as Spider-Man reached out and touched the suit, carefully stroking the material. ”You want to give it a try?”
Spider-Man’s fingers curled again but he didn’t tuck his hand into his pocket this time. ”Yeah.”
”Okay, there’s a bathroom right there,” Tony said, pointing at a door in the corner. ”Just … you shouldn’t wear anything but underwear in there. You’ll like the AI I programmed into it. You can name her if you want.”
Spider-Man looked up at him. ”There’s an AI in the suit?”
”Is there a tracker in it?”
Tony hesitated. ”I … yeah. I didn’t think…”
Spider-Man shook his head and his shoulders tensed, fingers curling towards his palms. ”It needs to go. The AI as well. And any kind of camera or voice recording.”
Tony crossed his arms, but he didn’t answer. He watched Spider-Man as he stood before him, becoming more tense the longer Tony didn’t answer.
“I …” He cleared his throat. ”I don’t mean to disrespect your work, Mr. Stark, but … that’s the deal.”
”Deal?” Tony asked, his eyebrows raised. ”Kid, no offense but there’s no deal to make here.”
Spider-Man faltered visibly, but he kept his determined stance, his hands shifting to pull on the straps of his backpack. ”The suit’s rigged with ways to find out my identity-”
”Which I won’t do,” Tony interrupted him.
Spider-Man took a step back. He looked at the suit, then back at Tony. ”I …” He trailed off.
Tony tilted his head, waiting.
Spider-Man’s spine straightened. ”I won’t take the suit, then.” He turned to walk away.
Tony let him get to the door before he said, ”Wait.” Spider-Man stopped but he didn’t turn back. ”Look,” Tony continued, ”you will have to get to terms with the fact that you might want to place a little bit of trust in me. I’m placing a lot of trust in you by giving you this suit.”
”Why are you?” Now, Spider-Man turned back around to him. “There are others out there who don’t hide their identities. Who have amazing powers. You created a suit before you even spoke a word to me. Why would you trust me that much?” He paused and when he spoke again, his voice sounded different; softer and more tentative. ”Why would you care?”
”You’re right,” Tony answered, stepping closer to Spider-Man slowly. ”There are others out there whose identities would be easily discovered. Who have interesting powers. But …” He took Spider-Man’s arm slowly, turning it so that he could look at the web-shooters strapped to his wrist. ”I want you because of this.”
”The mind that designed them.” He shrugged. ”I’ve got enhanced people coming out of my ears at this point but enhanced minds … not so much.” He looked at the web-shooter. ”You built this out of scraps.” The ‘Just like I did my first suit’ went unsaid. Instead, he asked, ”Why can’t I know who you are?”
”Because nobody can.” Spider-Man pulled his hand from Tony’s grasp. ”It’s safer.”
Tony nodded slowly. ”Fine,” he said and returned to the workbench opposite the one with Spider-Man’s suit. He used the computer to pull up the suit’s systems, watching Spider-Man approach and stop next to him. ”I can’t uninstall the AI.”
Spider-Man’s eyes seemed to be fixed on the screen curiously and Tony wondered how much of the coding he understood.
”But I can deactivate it … and the tracker.” He shrugged. ”However, by doing this, the more interesting features of the suit will also be locked. You cannot use them without the AI.”
Spider-Man glanced at him. ”Will the web-shooters work?”
”That’s all I need.”
Tony sighed. ”Right.” He let Spider-Man watch as he went through the coding and blocked the AI, finally stepping aside to allow Spider-Man access to the keyboard. ”You’re going to enter a password now. Reactivating the AI will be impossible without it, so it’s in your hands to do so.”
He turned his back on the screens and closed his eyes, hearing Spider-Man typing in the password once and then repeating it for the system to confirm. ”Wait, you’re calling it the Training Wheels Protocol?”
Tony turned back around. ”Yeah, because the suit is stripped down to its bare essentials now.”
”But why ‘training wheels’?”
”Because I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that you’re under twenty-five.”
Spider-Man ducked his head.
”Am I right?”
”See? Practically a baby.” Tony hit ‘Enter’ and they watched the confirmation of the deactivation pop up on the screen. ”There you go,” Tony said, “Training Wheels Protocol activated.” He gathered the suit from the workbench carefully and handed it over. ”Try it on.”
He waited with his arms crossed while Spider-Man got changed, tapping his foot against the floor. ”I’m blocked from getting readings from the suit, so I want to see you here on a regular basis for maintenance and upgrades,” he said loudly after about a minute.
”Fine.” Spider-Man’s voice sounded muffled through the closed bathroom door.
”The suit has a communication system installed. I’ll leave a message whenever I’m free.”
”What if I’m not free?”
Tony smirked. ”Not an option.”
”I’ve got a life, you know? A civilian life.”
”Okay, how about this? I’ll leave a message whenever I’m free and you have twelve hours to come over or suggest an alternative.”
It was quiet for a long moment.
”Kid?” Tony called out, frowning. ”Did you faint?”
”Did you have a hero moment in front of the mirror?”
The door opened … and Spider-Man came out.
Tony straightened, his eyes wide. ”Damn.”
No computer simulation had prepared him for the real thing. The suit sat perfectly. It became clear now that, while he was short and lithe, Spider-Man was actually very fit, the suit clinging to his athletic frame like a second skin. The red and blue looked vibrant in the workshop’s bright lights, as if the suit had come to life, now that it was finally worn. The white eye lenses adjusted automatically when Spider-Man focused on objects within the room, narrowing and widening at will. It gave his masked face a much more lively expression than the ski mask and goggles had.
”How is it?” Tony asked.
Spider-Man flexed his fingers, shifting his shoulders. ”Uh … good.”
Spider-Man nodded. ”It’s … it’s fantastic, Mr. Stark. It’s … it’s great.” His voice was very quiet, reserved. It was a change to before and Tony wondered yet again what he was thinking.
”Okay.” Tony smiled. ”So, the web-shooters should register as empty.”
”The cartridges you need are on the belt and two are already in the shooters. I don’t have the formula for your webs so all you need to do is fill them up. The cartridges are reusable so don’t throw them out.”
Spider-Man gave another short nod and then pointed at the bathroom awkwardly. ”I’m just gonna-”
While Spider-Man got changed back into his old costume, Tony left the workshop to go downstairs, fiddling with his phone and somehow dreading the moment Spider-Man would leave. It was strange, he barely knew the kid and yet … he was interested in him. He seemed to be extremely smart and capable. Tony wanted to get to know him better, test his limits … he was pulled from his thoughts by Spider-Man clearing his throat behind him. He was back in his old costume and had his backpack on, ready to leave. ”I … have to go now.”
Tony nodded. ”Work?”
Spider-Man shrugged. ”Not really, no, more like …” He released a breath as if he was steeling himself. ”Family dinner.”
Tony raised his eyebrows at the reveal, the tiny tidbit of private information. Did Spider-Man have kids or just a wife or husband? Or did he still live at home? ”Oh?”
Spider-Man nodded. ”Yeah, that’s a … that’s a thing … for them. Us.” He shook his head. ”Whatever.”
”Okay, I’ll be in touch.”
Spider-Man nodded. ”Right.” He looked at him, his shoulders pulled up. ”Bye, Mr. Stark.”
With that, Spider-Man stepped out onto the balcony and had climbed over the railing just a few seconds later to vanish from sight. Tony sighed and returned to the workshop slowly. The workbench which had up until now held the Spider-Man suit looked strangely empty without it. The light in the bathroom was still on. Tony pushed the door open fully and reached for the light switch when he noticed something on the edge of the sink. He frowned and stepped closer, picking it up in disbelief. ”What the …”
The longest Spider-Man had been in this bathroom was about six minutes. Six minutes to change out of one suit and into the other. Six minutes apparently had also been enough time for him to find the zipper on the inside of the suit and lay the wiring bare, going straight for his prize. Tony stared at the tracker in his palm and smiled.
“I worry about you,” Rhodey said, his dark eyes looking at Tony carefully. ”I don’t think it’s good for you at the moment to be on your own.”
The sun was shining through the big windows of the common area on the first floor of the Avengers HQ, bathing the seating area and big dining table in a warm light and spilling into the corner that housed the kitchen. Rhodey was perched on one of the stools at the kitchen island, his hands wrapped around a mug of steaming coffee and an empty plate next to him. He’d been having breakfast and reading the news on his cellphone, but had switched his full attention to Tony when he’d arrived ten minutes ago. Tony rolled his eyes at his best friend and took a sip of his coffee. ”I’m fine.”
”Are you?” Rhodey frowned at him.
Tony forced a smile. ”Yes. I have a new project I’m working on. I’m fine.” He knew that keeping Spider-Man from the others wouldn’t work in the long run, but he could try and make it work at least for a little while. At least until he’d managed to gain more of Spider-Man’s trust.
Rhodey looked as if he wanted to dig deeper, but he was prevented from saying more by Steve entering the room. He stopped when he saw Tony, his shoulders tensing as he carefully said, ”Hey, Tony.”
Tony didn’t answer, instead turning away to refill his mug. He heard Rhodey clear his throat. ”Well, I’ve got training.”
Tony whirled back around to him, alarmed, but Rhodey was already out the door, leaving Tony and Steve alone. Approaching slowly, Steve tucked his hands into the pockets of his trousers. He looked tired, dark shadows resting under his eyes and his blue shirt wrinkled. ”Tony, I …” He hesitated.
Tony raised his eyebrows at him.
”I’m really sorry,” Steve said. ”I should have told you.”
”Why didn’t you?”
Tony nodded. ”If you could, for once.”
Steve’s face twisted, his expression turning sorrowful. ”Have you always been honest with me, Tony?”
Tony’s initial reaction was a scoff, but then he halted, having to admit that he hadn’t been. He wasn’t even entirely honest with Rhodey or Pepper sometimes and those two knew him better than anybody else. ”Fair.” He stepped closer, catching Steve’s eyes and narrowing his own. ”But this mattered to me. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Steve’s shoulders slumped in defeat. ”I thought it would never come up. I wanted to spare you the pain. I didn’t … I didn’t think-”
”That’s right, you didn’t think.”
”Boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s voice interrupted them. ”Secretary Ross has arrived. He is awaiting you in the conference room of Building C.”
”We’ll be right there,” Tony said. He knew Ross would probably be put out about not having been allowed entrance to the building in which the Avengers lived, but given the circumstances, he’d thought it safer to have the meeting at a more neutral location. One in which none of the Avengers currently wanted for treason were bound to walk in on them. He set the mug into the sink. ”Let’s just … get through this.”
”Can we talk after?” Steve asked.
”I was thinking about driving back to New York after,” Tony answered. ”I’ve got a project to check up on.”
Steve deflated. ”Tony-”
”Listen,” Tony interrupted him. ”I accept your apology.” He stared at Steve, swallowing his sadness. “I just can’t be around you, yet.”
With that, he turned and walked away, leaving Steve to follow in his wake.
Tony and Steve had prepared for the meeting via email, Steve sending Tony a list of things he wanted to change in the Accords before signing them and Tony sending him the points back he agreed with. Which were most of them, really.
Tony had never really thought that Steve was in the wrong about the Accords. He knew that he’d tried to force something on the Avengers without consulting them first had been a wrong move. He hadn’t been able to turn back once he’d agreed, though, and Steve had made everything worse by going after Barnes.
Now, they were sitting next to each other at the polished conference table in the light of the morning sun shining through the windows behind them, presenting a united front as they made their points. It felt good, for once, to be standing on the same side again, though Tony wouldn’t say it out loud at this point. Secretary Ross had already been waiting for them by the time they’d arrived. However, contrary to what Tony had expected, Ross hadn’t come in person. Instead, he was attending as a holographic projection from his office in Washington.
“Not acceptable,” he said once Tony and Steve had presented their list. The holographic projection of him flickered as he started pacing on the opposite side of the table. He gestured at Steve emphatically. ”What do you expect us to do? Agree to all your points and just swipe treason under the rug? With the current political climate, we cannot possibly do that.” He put his hands on his hips and glared at Tony, who was sitting right next to Steve. ”How can I possibly uphold the Sokovia Accords in front of the United Nations and in the world’s eyes, if we don’t follow through on them?”
”We are following through on them,” Tony said. He gave the printed Accords on the table in front of him a pat. ”All Avengers who haven’t signed the Accords are currently not active.”
Ross scoffed and looked off to the side, as if he wasn’t alone on his side of the transmission. Tony had expected as much from the start. That was one of the reasons he’d brought Steve along. Ross turned his attention back to them, his blue eyes narrowed in anger. ”They protected a terrorist.”
Tony shook his head. ”It was proven that Barnes was not responsible for the bomb in Geneva. Therefore, all Rogers and the others did is considered a case of civil disobedience, not treason.”
Ross crossed his arms. ”Civil disobedience that caused millions of dollars of damages and endangered the lives of innocent people, two of which died in the chaos.”
Steve ducked his head, his fingers tightening their hold on each other where he had folded them on the table. Tony nodded, unable to deny this. ”We have a budget for the damages.”
”Do you also have a budget for the people who got hurt or traumatized?” Ross asked.
”We made sure to get them in touch with therapists and we are paying hospital bills.”
”How very thoughtful of you. Are you also paying for the funerals of those who died?”
Tony wiped a hand down his face and leaned back in his chair. ”I’m not defending their actions,” he said. ”I just don’t think that prison is the right answer here, especially if said prison is the Raft.” He raised his eyebrows. ”Or are we sending soldiers and police officers who take part in raids or attacks to jail as well whenever a civilian is hurt or traumatized through their actions?”
Ross looked at him for a long moment, his face turning sour as he seemed to realize that Tony had a point. He stroked his mustache for a moment, thoughtful. When he spoke again, he sounded more amiable. ”What do you suggest?”
Steve cleared his throat and leaned forward. ”We’ll work on the Accords with you. Make them into something that all of us can live with. Then we’ll sign.”
”In return, we offer more transparency,” Tony added, ”we offer regular reports on our spendings and ongoing missions to a small group of people. We offer regular debriefings about closed missions to the United Nations.”
Ross halted, seeming to mull this over. His eyes again looked off to the side briefly before he asked, ”Tell me again what exactly it is that you want amended. Just the points regarding missions.”
Steve spoke up, ”Freedom of choice in regards to missions. We’re the ones deciding whether we go and when we go. We are not going to be the United Nations’ attack dog.”
Tony continued, ”If the United Nations decide that we acted in a way that was wrong, we also offer disciplinary actions.” A smile was starting to tug at the corners of Ross’s lips, so he quickly added, “Not the Raft. I’m talking about temporary benching. Should there be reason to believe that an Avenger has gone against the core values of our team, we are also open to exclusions from the team.”
Ross seemed to think about that. ”I’ll have to talk about this with some people. You might have to sweeten the deal to start negotiations.”
”I’m sure you can think of something,” Tony replied.
Ross smirked. ”I’m sure I can.” With that, the transmission ended, his holograph flickering out.
Tony cleared his throat. ”He’ll want a suit. He’s been sniffing around the tech since I first developed it.”
”Will you give him one?” Steve asked softly.
Tony scoffed. ”No way. I’ll think of something.” For a moment, they were silent, caught up in their own thoughts. Finally, Tony said, ”That went better than I thought.”
”Yeah,” Steve said slowly. “Kinda makes you wonder.”
”About why we didn’t try to negotiate terms from the start instead of just signing our rights away.”
Tony huffed a bitter laugh and got up, straightening his suit jacket. ”And here I thought we were starting to get along.”
”Tony,” Steve said, getting up as well to step closer, ”I’m not blaming you. I should have pushed more.”
Tony shook his head, heaving a sigh. ”I have to leave if I want to beat rush hour.” He headed for the door but Steve’s voice stopped him as his hand touched the handle.
Tony turned back around to him.
Steve was standing there, his arms crossed. He looked sad. “For doing this. The meeting …” He hesitated. ”It was really good.”
”Yeah. It was.”
”Will we be okay? The Avengers, I mean.”
Tony ducked his head. ”The team,” he said, ”yeah, I think so. Eventually.”
”What about us?”
Tony sighed deeply, feeling his shoulders slump. ”I don’t know. Maybe.”
”Not yet.” Tony shook his head. ”But … later.”
Steve looked at him sadly. ”I wouldn’t have picked him over you if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”
”I know,” Tony answered. ”That’s the problem.”
Tony hadn’t meant to drink. That was all he knew by that point. He stared at the brightly-lit ceiling of the penthouse, the cold floor digging into his shoulder blades and the sting of glass shards in his hand. He didn’t remember what had happened that caused him to be lying on the floor. He was pretty sure it had something to do with Steve, being alone, and having way too much vodka at his disposal.
He felt stupid. He seemed to fall for the same trick every single time this happened. He had a few glasses and he was handling them well and ‘one more couldn’t hurt, could it?’ In the end, the last one always did hurt. Tony wasn’t oblivious. He was aware that he had a problem. His father had not been the best example in managing alcohol, though, and somehow … it didn’t matter anyway. There was nobody there to reign him in, with Pepper gone and the other Avengers in the Compound.
Nobody was there to care.
That wasn’t quite right; there was nobody there Tony allowed to care. Because he vaguely remembered talking to Rhodey a while ago and telling him that he was just fine. And he was. He had to be.
Resigning himself to a killer headache when he eventually woke up, Tony closed his eyes and let the alcohol pull him under.
Tony woke in his bed in the penthouse. It was warm and almost dark, the glittering lights of the city stretched out around Avengers Tower not quite reaching this high up, but the bedroom door was cracked open and the light from the hallway crept in.
The pain in his head registered first. The pain in his hand came next. He groaned and raised his aching hand, staring at the bandage wrapped around it. He settled it on his forehead, closing his eyes against a bout of nausea.
The mattress by his hip dipped a little as somebody sat down and a hand touched his shoulder.
”Rhodey?” he murmured.
”Uh … no.”
He squinted into the dimness and could make out a small figure on the edge of his bed, white eye lenses looking right back at him. He had tugged up his mask to sit on the bridge of his nose, leaving his jaw, mouth and nose exposed. His lips were pulled downwards into a frown. Tony swallowed against his nausea. ”Spidey.”
”What’s going on?”
”I think you fell and hit your head.” Strong hands reached for him, helping him to shift into a slightly elevated position. Spider-Man switched on the small lamp on his bedside table and handed Tony a glass of water.
Tony accepted it, still confused. ”Why are you here?”
”You sent a message. We have an agreement, so I came. I … didn’t expect to …” He trailed off and turned his head away.
Tony sighed deeply and a flush of embarrassment hit him out of nowhere as he realized that Spider-Man had found him passed out drunk in the living room. ”Christ,” he muttered, taking a sip of water. His stomach swooped uncomfortably. “Did you carry me to bed?”
Spider-Man hesitated before he shrugged. ”Yeah, kinda.” He cleared his throat. “I saw you lying on the floor from the balcony. F.R.I.D.A.Y. let me in.”
“Fuck,” Tony said, putting his head in his hand.
”You broke one of the bottles,” Spider-Man said, gesturing at Tony’s hand vaguely. ”I …” He folded his hands in his lap, fiddling with his fingers nervously. “I cleaned it up.”
”You didn’t have to do this.”
”I couldn’t just leave you on the floor.”
”At least you learned a lesson about drinking.”
Spider-Man just looked at him, his lips not even hinting at a smile. Tony ducked his head, setting the glass down on the bedside table. Spider-Man’s voice was tentative and soft when he asked, “Does this … happen a lot?”
”It happens,” Tony answered.
A bitter laugh forced its way out of Tony’s throat. ”Weren’t you the one who didn’t want to talk about private stuff?”
Spider-Man looked away. ”Right.” He got up. ”I’m gonna go then.”
”Yeah,” Tony said, feeling his shame turn into annoyance. ”You do that.” He watched Spider-Man grab his backpack from the floor by the dresser. ”I don’t need to talk,” he felt obliged to add. ”I’ve got it under control. I don’t need saving.”
Spider-Man halted at the door and turned to look at him. ”I never said I wanted to save you,” he replied and pulled the mask down. With that, he left.
”Fuck,” Tony muttered, closing his eyes, embarrassment overruling his anger. Out of all the people that could have found him … even Steve would have been better. But it had to be the one person who hadn’t known his flaws yet. The one person he hadn’t disappointed … until now. He sank back against the pillows. ”Fuck.”
Tony released an annoyed breath when F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s simulation blared another failure back at him. The suit crumpled dramatically on the screen and the simulated heartbeat of the person within flatlined.
”Sorry, boss. It seems as if the energy flow from the reactor to the particles is still not quite right.”
Staring at the failed simulation, Tony chewed on the pen he was holding. ”My approach is wrong.”
”No reason to be smug.” He sighed and turned his head towards the whiteboards where he had blueprints and technical drawings spread out right next to scribbled formulas. “Right, back to the drawing board.” He heaved himself out of his seat and went over to the bookshelf crammed into the corner near the door.
”Boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. said, ”Spider-Man is in the news.”
The TV hanging next to the whiteboards came to life and Tony saw a young woman and a middle-aged man sitting in a news studio, a monitor between them showing an apartment building on fire as the woman said, “… the fire spread extremely quickly, trapping several tenants in the building. Spider-Man arrived on-site just in time, it seems.”
Tony saw two firefighters run into the building while onlookers were watching the situation unfold in horror. The footage was taken from the sidelines, jittery and grainy, probably filmed with a cellphone camera, and Tony could hear several people talking over each other, one woman crying about her husband being still inside.
Then the camera focused on Spider-Man flinging himself into the building through one of the windows.
The footage cut to a picture of Spider-Man leading several people out the front door, carrying a little boy in his arms. The picture froze when Spider-Man handed the boy over to a firefighter and got ready to leave the scene.
”That was quite a remarkable appearance,” the man said. “Not just because Spider-Man saved eight lives today, but also because he changed his look.”
The woman nodded enthusiastically, smiling at their audience. ”And his new suit is quite an upgrade.”
“Mute,” Tony said and turned away from the screen to rifle through the books in the shelf. He paused, frowning in confusion, and went through the books again. ”FRI, did I take my father’s notes back to the Compound?”
”Private items are not inventoried, boss.”
He huffed a breath. ”I need to check on something in his original concept for the arc reactor. Did I digitize it by any chance?”
”I’m afraid not.”
”Fuck.” He closed his eyes, trying to remember. ”It must be here.” He couldn’t remember having taken it to the Compound … he definitely remembered Spider-Man leafing through it when he’d first picked up the suit and he’d put the book … Tony turned to the nearby workbench, going through books, papers and mugs strewn on it to find the notebook.
It wasn’t there.
He started to remove the books from the shelf, thinking that maybe he’d tucked it back where it belonged and it might have slipped towards the back somehow … and came up empty.
He stared at the bare shelf.
Had he taken it to the Compound after all?
”Boss, Spider-Man is here,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. interrupted his thoughts.
Tony raised his eyebrows in surprise. ”What? Seriously?” After last night, he hadn’t really expected for Spider-Man to show up anytime soon. He quickly started to cram the books back into the shelf messily. ”Let him in. Send him up.”
He was picking up the last few books from the floor when Spider-Man appeared in the door. He froze upon seeing Tony by the shelf, the eyes of his mask widening slightly. Two books lost their precarious position and tumbled to the floor.
Tony gave them a slightly embarrassed glance and cleared his throat. ”Didn’t think I’d see you again this quickly,” he said, stepping away from the shelf in the hopes of diverting Spider-Man’s attention elsewhere.
Spider-Man was carrying his backpack, the straps tight around his shoulders. He held himself a little tense and one of his arms was curled around his chest protectively.
”Are you hurt?” Tony asked.
”What are you doing?” Spider-Man asked instead of answering.
Tony frowned, glancing back at the shelf. ”Oh … just looking for something. A notebook. I can’t find it.” He shrugged. ”It’s probably in the Compound.”
An uneasy silence stretched between them until Tony huffed an awkward laugh. “About yesterday …”
Spider-Man looked away from him. “Don’t worry about it.”
”No, I … have to apologize. I’m not … that anymore.” He sighed. ”I try not to be.”
Spider-Man pushed his mask up to rest on the bridge of his nose. ”I wasn’t sure I should come back.”
”But … here you are.”
”Yeah.” He looked around. ”Here I am. I … guess I wanted to make sure you’re … okay.”
Tony cleared his throat. ”I am.” He crossed his arms. “I saw the news about the fire. You did a good job there.”
Spider-Man ducked his head and Tony could see his cheeks flushing in embarrassment. ”Thanks.”
”Are you hurt?” Tony asked again.
Spider-Man shrugged. ”I heal fast.”
”That’s a yes.”
”I heal fast,” Spider-Man repeated, firmer this time.
Tony nodded slowly, accepting the indirect rejection of help. ”Fine.” He gave a quick smile. ”Hey, I was going to have dinner. You hungry?”
Spider-Man hesitated, thinking long enough about the offer that Tony thought he would turn him down, but then he said, ”Yeah. I am.”
”Right,” Tony said. ”I’ll order pizza then.” He left the workshop, already calling up the number of his favorite pizza place on the phone. “You coming?” he asked loudly, looking back over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Spider-Man answered, leaving the workshop. His backpack was slung over only one shoulder now. ”I’m coming.”
They ate silently for the first half of the meal, sitting across from each other at the kitchen island. Tony watched Spider-Man carefully as he dug into the pizza, cracking an amused smile at how famished he seemed. ”Long day?” he asked.
”Patrol makes me hungry,” Spider-Man answered, ”and I didn’t have lunch.”
Tony nodded in understanding, taking a few bites out of his pizza in silence before he asked, ”So what exactly is your skill set?”
Spider-Man paused. ”You know my skill set.”
”I know you can climb walls and are freakishly strong. That can’t be all of it.”
Spider-Man swallowed the bite in his mouth and cleared his throat, answering hesitantly, ”Well, I’ve got … enhanced senses. I-I heal fast. I think I’ve got an enhanced metabolism.”
”You think?” Tony asked, one eyebrow raised.
”I’ve got no way to prove it. But … I get hungry a lot. And … I burn through medication really fast.”
”How would you know that?”
Spider-Man picked the salami off his last slice of pizza. ”I broke my clavicle during patrol a few months back. I tried taking something for the pain but …” He shrugged. ”It didn’t really work.” He shoved the last bite into his mouth and closed the pizza carton, taking a deep, satisfied breath.
Tony smirked in amusement. ”Done?”
”Yeah.” Spider-Man fished his backpack from the floor and rifled through it, a battered phone and a few crumpled pieces of paper tumbling onto the counter along with two pens and a wallet. ”How much was the pizza?” Spider-Man asked, grabbing the wallet and shoving the rest back into the bag.
Tony raised his eyebrows. ”Please, it’s on me.”
”No, I can’t accept that.” He pushed a ten dollar bill towards Tony.
”Kid,” Tony said with a huff of laughter, ”I won’t starve because I paid for dinner.”
Spider-Man stared at him, his fingers still on the bill.
”It’s okay,” Tony said. ”You need it more than I do.”
Spider-Man’s fingers clenched around the bill and he turned his head away.
”I’m sorry,” Tony said. “It’s just obvious.”
Spider-Man’s jaw clenched. ”You know nothing about me, Mr. Stark.” He tucked the money back into his wallet.
Tony nodded. ”True. Sorry … again.” He started to clean up, throwing the pizza cartons out and setting their glasses down in the sink.
”Can I use the restroom?”
”Sure.” Tony pointed vaguely towards the hallway, seeing Spider-Man leave the kitchen with his backpack slung over one shoulder out of the corner his eyes. Tony expected him to leave once he would return and made for the balcony already, lingering by the piano. The box with his mother’s compositions was still on the piano and he opened it slowly, seeing her last, unfinished composition on top. Before he quite knew he was doing it, his fingers hesitantly struck the keys to morph the notes together shakily. He stopped, taking a deep breath. Then he sat down, setting the sheet music on the stand and starting the piece anew with more confidence, his fingers dancing over the keys until the melody swelled and he reached the end of the first of three pages … where he trailed off slowly at the sight of a second set of notes starting to accompany the first.
Written for a second pianist to join the first.
One of the reasons he had never played beyond the first pages was because the piece hadn’t been written for just one person, it was a four-hand piece. Playing it alone wouldn’t do it justice. Tony took a few deep breaths and moved to put the sheets back into the box.
”That … that was beautiful.”
He turned, seeing Spider-Man off to the side with his backpack over one shoulder. So he really was prepared to leave. Tony was tempted to tell him to stay. Now, that their initial hesitation around each other was starting to wear off, it was surprisingly easy to be around Spider-Man. He smiled softly, his eyes returning to the sheets of paper. ”My mother wrote it.”
He nodded, his smile saddening. ”It’s really … I can’t do it justice, it’s a four-hand piece. She never finished it, I …” He shrugged.
When Spider-Man spoke next, he sounded much closer. ”Did she … did she compose a lot?”
Tony looked up at him as he stopped next to the piano. ”A bit. Yeah.” He nodded at the box containing the compositions. ”She composed seven pieces.”
Spider-Man settled on the edge of the bench, looking at the notes. The fingers of his right hand hit the first few keys hesitantly. Tony needed a moment to realize that he was playing the second set of notes. He found himself tempted to stop him, to put the sheets back into the box as quickly as possible … but the melody got to him despite Spider-Man’s obvious lack of practice, the harmony swelling from tentative to happy … and Tony couldn’t help it; he joined in, playing the other part, just as slowly, trying to match the staggering rhythm.
”You need both hands,” he said softly as they approached a more complicated part and Spider-Man huffed a laugh before dropping his backpack and letting his other hand join, their fingers making their way through the piece slowly, but surely, hitting the wrong keys every now and again but reaching the abrupt end of the composition nevertheless.
The music echoed slightly in the large penthouse, trailing off into nothingness.
Spider-Man softly said, ”She was really good.”
”She was the best.” The sudden ring of Tony’s phone interrupted the moment and Tony sighed as he saw Ross’s name on the display. ”I have to take this.”
Tony got up and went towards the back to pick it up but he turned around half-way there. ”You’ll wait?”
Spider-Man nodded again, a smile curling his lips. ”Sure.”
Tony smiled and left, picking up as he walked up the stairs to his workshop. ”Secretary Ross, tell me you’ve got good news.”
”Stark,” Ross answered. ”What I can tell you right now is that we are not … adverse to letting Rogers and his people off the hook this time.”
Tony released a breath of relief. ”That’s good news.”
”We’re also willing to consider the review of the Sokovia Accords, incorporating your suggestions.”
Tony closed his eyes, slumping against the wall once he’d reached the workshop and closed the door. He could already guess where this was going but let Ross take the lead.
”Of course,” Ross continued, ”this much … lenience and collaboration will come at a price.”
"Of course it does.” He had expected as much and straightened, steeling himself for turning down Ross’s demand for an Iron Man suit.
"Spider-Man,” Ross said.
Tony froze, his heart skipping a beat. ”What?”
"Don’t pretend. I saw the news today, that suit is so obviously your design that even the media knows you’re sponsoring him. The question is why you didn’t report that you made contact.”
Tony scoffed. ”There was nothing to report.”
”Is that so?” Ross asked. ”The accords you signed state that you are obliged to report contact to enhanced people.”
Tony swallowed. ”It was a delicate situation. Spider-Man is extremely private and I didn’t want him to get spooked.”
Ross cleared his throat. ”He’s been on our watch list for quite a while, but we have been unable to pin him down. He is quite unpredictable, sightings of him all over Queens, no discernable pattern. You’re the closest anybody has ever got to catching him.”
Tony frowned. ”I’m not trying to catch him.”
”Well, you should.” Ross paused. ”Spider-Man is a thief, Stark, and wanted for questioning.”
Tony’s heart skipped a beat, his chest tightening painfully. ”What?”
”Pharmaceuticals and money went missing. Happened a few months ago, February I think. There were eyewitnesses who claim that it was him. Or someone with abilities like his. We can only assume that he resold the medication and took the money as a little bonus.”
”You’re lying,” Tony said.
There was a long pause, then Ross answered. ”I’ll send you the file and you can decide for yourself.” He cleared his throat. ”Anyway, handing over that vigilante is going to go a long way towards convincing us that the Avengers are on the right side of the law. I expect your answer within the next 36 hours.”
With that, he hung up, leaving Tony alone. He swallowed and shook his head, dropping his phone onto the workbench next to him to brush his hands through his hair tiredly. Ross was probably bluffing, he thought. Spider-Man hadn’t even been active in February, the first confirmed sightings only emerging in late March. Close enough, but still … he picked up his phone and wanted to go back downstairs, but paused as he recognized the book lying innocently on the surface of the workbench.
His father’s notebook.
”What the hell?” he muttered. ”I must be getting old.” He shook his head and left the workshop, heading downstairs. ”Listen,” he said as he descended the stairs, ”how about we head for the workshop and you answer some questions for me about the functionality of …”
He trailed off as he realized that the balcony door stood wide open, letting cool air slip inside.
Spider-Man was gone.
Name: Unknown, a.k.a Spider-Man
Age: Unknown, suspected 20-25
Location: New York City, mainly Queens / Brooklyn, address unknown
Affiliations: Tony Stark, Avengers
Enhancements: Suspected mutation, enhanced senses, enhanced healing, enhanced strength, enhanced speed
Confirmed sightings: 156 (first confirmed sighting 27th of March 2016)
Status: Wanted for theft / vigilantism
Related projects: Alpha
Tony sighed and scrolled down to the list of reports associated with Spider-Man, finding a gallery of grainy pictures and some YouTube videos as well as TV reports. However, the very first entry he found was a police report by the 112th Precinct on an arrest conducted in Forest Hills in February. The interrogation of the two perps was protocolled in great detail and rather long, but Tony was easily able to find what he was looking for due to some DODC staff member’s diligent work with a highlighter.
The two perps had mugged a pharmacy and taken money as well as prescription medication. Everything had gone according to plan until they had left the pharmacy and were running down the alley they’d decided on as their escape route. They reported that they’d been attacked out of nowhere and that the attacker had worn a blue hoodie pulled so deep in his face that they were unable to make out his features in the dim lights of the alley. But he’d been short and strong, knocking one of them out immediately and ripping the bag with the loot out of the other’s hand when he’d fallen as well, brought down by a kick to his head. He only recalled some sort of symbol or insignia on the hoodie before their attacker had climbed the wall of the building as the police sirens had drawn closer. The perp had lost consciousness soon after.
Tony read the report several times, unsure what to think. At first, Tony thought that Spider-Man – if it had been him – might have taken the loot back to the pharmacy, and he read the entirety of the report to make sure, but it clearly stated that the medication and money hadn’t turned up again. The report also showed some investigation into the hoodie Spider-Man had worn, as the perp had been able to recall a yellow circle surrounding a white one printed on the chest, but the description turned out to be too vague, several trademarks and insignias in New York and the USA seemingly matching the design.
Tony leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Could he have been wrong? He thought he’d always been good at reading people, but every few years, it seemed that somebody slid through the cracks, getting too close for comfort and then turning against him: His father, Obie, Steve … now Spider-Man?
Tony knew that he needed to see him, needed to confront him with the report and its implications. He sent a message to the suit and waited.
He’d waited for the rest of the night and all throughout the next morning when it occurred to him that Spider-Man had enhanced senses. His hearing must be off the charts. He’d probably heard every single word Tony had exchanged with Ross and taken off as a result.
Because what Ross had said was true? Running away wasn’t exactly an action an innocent person resorted to, was it?
Some small, rebel part of Tony couldn’t help but cling to his initial judgement of Spider-Man, though. Maybe there was an explanation for everything. Maybe it hadn’t been Spider-Man but somebody else. After all, the attacker hadn’t used webs.
But he’d climbed a wall. And the description – short, strong, agile – fit.
He spent the last hour until the deadline for Spider-Man to either respond or come to him nursing a glass of scotch and staring out the window by the balcony door. Waiting for Spider-Man to climb over the balcony rail and give him some stupid excuse why he’d had to leave so abruptly. To tell him it was a misunderstanding.
When Tony arrived at the Compound, everybody was having dinner. Tony saw them as he passed the door to the open-space living area which housed the kitchen, dining table and living room, and decided not to join them. He felt too tired.
The lights in his workshop came to life when he entered and he dropped into an armchair in the corner, checking his phone yet again to see whether Spider-Man had sent an answer to his request to meet or whether he’d turned up at the penthouse in the meantime. But there was no notification. Ross would want an answer soon and Spider-Man, wanted by the DODC (that Tony himself had helped found), was on the loose with a suit Tony had created, untraceable.
There was a knock on the door and he saw Steve stand there, a plate in his hand, looking undecided. ”Hey.”
”Hey,” Tony answered.
”I … brought you dinner.”
”Put it down by the microwave.”
Steve winced and set the plate down, turning to leave.
”Thank you,” Tony added, like an afterthought.
Steve stopped under the doorway. ”You’re welcome.”
He started to walk away but Tony said, “Steve.”
Pausing, Steve turned back around to face him, his eyebrows raised questioningly.
”I want this to work, you know that, right?”
Steve crossed his arms. ”I want this to work, too.”
They looked at each other for a long moment, neither of them sure what to say next.
”So, what are we going to do about that?” Steve asked finally.
”I don’t know,” Tony answered with a shrug. ”I really don’t.”
Steve ducked his head. He took a breath, as if to say something but they were interrupted by the door opening and Rhodey entering. ”Tony,” he said, looking relieved to see him even as his gaze betrayed that he was studying him for anything amiss. Tony heaved a sigh and decided to change the subject; away from Rhodey’s concern, away from the awkwardness between him and Steve. ”Ross was in touch about the Accords.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. ”What does he want?”
Tony hesitated, not quite ready to reveal his relationship to Spider-Man to anyone. Not until he’d talked to him again, at least. Made sure that Ross’s words were just that … words.
Rhodey noticed his hesitation and cleared his throat. ”A suit?”
‘If only,’ Tony thought. ”No, something a bit more complicated.”
Steve swallowed, shifting his stand nervously. ”But something you can give him?”
Tony ducked his head, his shoulders hunching as he leaned forward to put his elbows on his knees, burying his head in his hands. ”I’m not sure,” he answered before looking up at Steve again, whose eyes were solemn.
He shook his head. ”Tony, those renegotiations shouldn’t have a price tag.”
Tony cleared his throat. ”Ross is asking me to hand in a guy.”
Rhodey frowned in confusion. ”A guy?”
“One of us?” Steve asked.
Tony shook his head. ”A vigilante. He suspects that he’s been on the wrong side of the law. He wants him brought in for questioning.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed, a frown digging into his forehead. ”Questioning?”
”Yes.” He rubbed his forehead. “Though I think it’s more than that.”
”Who is the vigilante?”
Tony took a deep breath. ”He’s just a kid. College kid, I guess.”
Rhodey nodded slowly. ”Okay, so what does Ross have on him?”
”A bag of missing pharmaceuticals and money. Eyewitnesses claiming it was somebody who is a bit too similar for comfort.”
”What’s your vigilante saying?”
”I haven’t seen him since Ross told me. He doesn’t answer my calls either.”
Steve frowned and stepped closer. ”You’ve got his number? His name?”
Tony shook his head. ”Just a connection to his suit. The suit I made for him.”
Rhodey’s eyes widened. ”And you can’t track it?”
Tony gave a deep sigh and squeezed his eyes shut, unable to look Rhodey or Steve in the eyes as he explained, ”He removed the tracking device.”
”Jesus, Tony,” Rhodey sighed. ”And you let him?”
”I wanted to gain his trust.”
Steve stared at him. ”Why?”
”He’s smart,” Tony said. ”He’s frighteningly smart.” He looked at Rhodey. ”And he’s got talent, real talent. And I’m not even referring to his enhancements here. He’s …” He drew a breath. ”He’s Avengers material.”
Rhodey shook his head. ”You were in New York to recruit? In the middle of all this? And then you gave him a suit. And now he’s not answering your calls.”
Tony nodded, his shoulders slumping. ”Yes.”
Rhodey turned away. ”Do I have to tell you how reckless that was?”
”No,” Tony answered. ”You don’t. I get that. I didn’t plan on this, Rhodey. Yes, I had my eye on him for a while now but I met him by coincidence.”
”Who is he?” Steve asked, his blue eyes narrowed.
Tony sighed. ”Spider-Man.”
”Spider-Man?” Steve asked, confused.
Rhodey cleared his throat and turned to face them again, his hands on his hips. ”He’s a neighborhood vigilante. Keeps to himself in Queens and the outskirts of Brooklyn.” He looked at Tony. ”Usually.”
”Something doesn’t feel right about this,” Steve said. ”Why would Ross care about one petty theft, even if Spider-Man committed it. Or … has he been brought into connection with any other crimes since then?”
”No,” Tony answered.
Rhodey nodded. ”Steve’s right. Something’s fishy.”
“I have a guess at what it is,” Tony answered. He grabbed his phone and connected to the Compound’s system, calling up the DODC file on Spider-Man before transferring the image on the big screen hanging at one of the walls with a flick of his wrist. ”Any of you ever heard of Project Alpha before?” He got up to walk towards the screen while Rhodey and Steve shook their heads. Tony pointed at the screen. ”’Cause this says he’s connected to it.”
”Have you tried looking up information on it?” Rhodey asked.
Tony gave him an incredulous look. ”No, Rhodey,” he answered sarcastically. ”Hadn’t occurred to me.”
Rhodey rolled his eyes.
”I couldn’t find anything on it,” Tony said. ”Nothing but the fact that part of the money I put into the DODC’s R&D goes right into Project Alpha’s budget. I’m paying for it … and I’ve got no idea what it’s about.”
The alarm came later in the evening, just when Tony decided to go to bed. His watch started to vibrate against his wrist and the screens in the workshop started to flash, white letters on red ground issuing the warning 16C Altitude Alarm.
”F.R.I.D.A.Y.?” Tony asked, already tapping his watch to summon a suit.
”Spider-Man’s suit is issuing an altitude alarm, boss.”
The Iron Man suit molded around Tony’s body.
”2600 feet,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. said. ”2700, 2900, 3000 feet. Emergency tracking unlocked.”
The HUD in Tony’s helmet displayed a map of New York, the emergency tracking mechanism Tony had embedded in the Spider-Man suit coming to life and zooming in to show Queens, then College Point, navigation appearing: ETA - 4 minutes, 3 seconds. He didn’t hesitate to leave.
While he was flying, F.R.I.D.A.Y. continued to give him updates. ”3100 feet, boss. He’s above Malba, approaching Whitestone Bridge.”
”Activate visual,” Tony said as he passed Poughkeepsie. He checked the ETA and saw that there were another 3 minutes left for him to reach the target. ”Max power to thrusters.”
”Visual in Spider-Man’s suit is deactivated.”
”God damnit, kid,” Tony hissed.
”Boss, he’s falling,” F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s voice said, unnervingly calm for such a shocking message.
Tony felt his chest clench. ”What?!”
”He’s losing altitude at a rapid speed. 1500 feet, 1400, 1300-”
”Stop the countdown! What’s wrong with his parachute?!”
”Malfunction detected.” The Hudson River broadened beneath him, leading the way towards Manhattan. He flew over Tappan Zee Bridge when F.R.I.D.A.Y. said, ”He hit water, boss.”
”Keep tracking.” He passed over Mt. Vernon and Baychester before he finally saw Whitestone Bridge.
”He’s been underwater for 30 seconds, boss.”
Tony dove into the East River, right where the HUD told him Spider-Man was located. The water was murky. Without the help of the suit’s infrared system, Tony wouldn’t have been able to find him, but his suit didn’t let him down and he was able to locate Spider-Man sinking downwards. He grabbed his leg, pulling him in close. Spider-Man was caught in the ropes of the parachute, struggling weakly, probably running out of air. Tony used his lasers to cut the ropes and fabric, pulling Spider-Man up and out of the water. He heard him heave a breath as they broached the surface, gasping and coughing, hanging limply in Tony’s hold as he headed for the shore.
But he was alive.
And if F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s superficial scan was to be believed, he was okay.
Tony found a small, secluded park near the shoreline and set Spider-Man down before he proceeded to land himself, trying to calm down his thundering heartbeat. He opened the suit and stepped out, breathing in the clear night air.
Spider-Man had pushed his mask up onto the bridge of his nose, taking deep ragged breaths as he sat on the ground. ”Thanks,” he gasped.
”What the hell?” Tony answered.
”There’s an explanation.”
”Just let me catch my breath.” He heaved a few deep breaths before clearing his throat and looking up at him. ”There are guys in Queens selling alien weapons.”
Tony crossed his arms.
”I got in their way tonight.”
”And it went sideways?”
”It wouldn’t have,” Spider-Man hurried to assure him. His voice started to break the longer he spoke, pitching high as he still gasped for breath. ”I almost had them. But then this guy showed up out of nowhere, with wings … and he … he just like swooped down like a monster and he picked me up and he-he … he took me up a thousand feet and just dropped me.” He paused, shivers wrecking his thin frame as he looked up at Tony, the lenses of his eyes narrowing. ”How’d you find me? I removed the tracker.”
”There’s an emergency tracking system in the suit,” Tony answered, ”which responds to life-threatening situations, such as altitudes over three thousand feet.”
”Three thousand?” Spider-Man echoed, sounding shocked.
Tony glared at him. ”What were you thinking?”
Spider-Man stared at him, obviously taken aback. ”I just told you. There’s guys in Queens selling alien weapons-”
”Led by a winged monster?”
Spider-Man swallowed. ”You don’t believe me.”
”That is what you literally just told me,” Tony replied. Spider-Man shivered, the suit sopping wet. Tony felt a little sorry for him. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., activate the heater.”
Steam rose from Spider-Man’s suit as the heater started to work its magic and within seconds, he relaxed, letting out a relieved sigh. ”You put a heater in my suit?”
”I put everything in your suit.”
Spider-Man got up, shaking out his hands. ”We gotta go after these guys, Mr. Stark. They’re bad news.”
”Are they now?” Tony asked with a scoff.
Spider-Man sniffed and flexed his fingers, apparently not picking up on how angry Tony was. ”They steal alien weapons. No idea where they got them from and I think they resell them-”
”I sent you a message over 24 hours ago,” Tony interrupted him.
Spider-Man paused, placing his hands on his hips. He nodded. ”I know. Sorry, I was really busy.”
”Busy, huh?” Tony asked. ”Doing what exactly?”
Spider-Man looked at him, his shoulders squaring and his jaw setting tensely. ”What’s wrong?”
”What’s wrong?” Tony echoed, stepping closer, not missing the way Spider-Man took a few steps back slowly, wary. ”I found out that you’ve been keeping things from me and I need an explanation.”
Spider-Man’s fingers made quick work of pulling the mask into place, hiding what little Tony had been able to see of his features.
Somehow, this only served to confirm Tony’s worst suspicions. ”I’m sticking my neck out for you,” he said. ”You go on about how you want to help the little guy-”
”But you’re a thief yourself.”
Spider-Man froze. ”What?”
”Yes,” Tony said, stepping close enough to touch but he kept his hands down, clenched to fists at his sides. ”I know.”
Spider-Man stared at him, then he ducked his head. ”Mr. Stark, please …”
”I trusted you.”
”I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
”You didn’t mean to?” Tony asked. ”How do you not mean to steal and then do it after all?”
”It was just … there. I just … I just wanted to have a look and then … I wanted to ask you but I thought you wouldn’t agree and it was only for one night.”
Tony frowned at him, confused. ”What do you-”
”And I returned it. I’ll return the other stuff, too. And it’s not like I went looking for the papers, I just went through the sheet music because I liked it so much and … I didn’t know what was in the envelope. I thought it was just another composition.”
A cold dread settled in Tony’s stomach, his heart skipping a beat, as he realized that Spider-Man was definitely not talking about the pharmacy theft. He was talking about something much, much worse.
”And there they were … and the pictures as well and … I just … I just wanted-”
”What,” Tony asked, ”are you talking about?”
Spider-Man halted, the lenses of his eyes looking at Tony. ”What,” his voice sounded faint, breathless … caught, ”are you talking about?”
It took only one motion of Tony’s hand, instinctual and quick, and the suit snapped shut around him, his repulsor pointing straight at Spider-Man’s chest. Spider-Man had stumbled back as the suit had surged forward, one of his hands raised and turned palm up, his middle and ring fingers resting on the trigger for the web-shooters.
”What did you take?” Tony snapped. ”From my penthouse?!”
Spider-Man stared at him, frozen.
”Answer me!” Tony yelled.
”Your father’s notebook.” Spider-Man’s voice shook. ”And the photographs from the box and the papers concerning …”
”Papers which are none of your concern,” Tony said as he faltered. He stepped closer threateningly and Spider-Man stumbled backward. “What else?”
Spider-Man stared at him. “I … took pictures with my phone. Of … of the whiteboards and some schematics-“
”You sneaky little bastard, what is your game?”
“What are you doing with information on my suit? What could a dumpster diver like you possibly want with …” He paused, a horrible thought occurring to him. ”What is Project Alpha?”
”What are you talking about?”
”Did you work for Secretary Ross to get information on my suit?”
Spider-Man stared at him. ”No. I don’t work for anybody.”
”Why does he want you behind bars, then?”
”Why would he want me behind bars if I work for him?”
Tony shook his head. ”Maybe you found somebody who would pay better for the information than he intended to.”
”Listen,” Spider-Man snapped, ”I don’t work for anybody. I didn’t steal information on your suit for anyone. You have to believe me.”
”But you did steal information on my suit,” Tony said. ”You did steal pharmaceuticals and money a few months ago, didn’t you?”
”You don’t understand.”
”Yeah. Story of my life,” Tony answered. ”You know I get that you took intel on the suit, maybe even the meds and the money. I just don’t get why you would steal … what could you possibly do with information on … on him?” His chest felt tight all of a sudden. He slumped, his hand falling from its defensive stance.
“I didn’t intend to.” He heaved a breath. ”I didn’t mean to do it. I wasn’t looking for it. It’s just … I-”
”Thought you could sell it?” Tony asked. ”Because I’ve got bad news for you, kid. It’ll flare up and it’ll bring in a bit of money for you, maybe, but in the end, it’ll fizzle out quickly, because I did everything right.”
”You abandoned him!”
”I wasn’t ready! I would have been poison for that child. You found me passed out in my penthouse, you should know.”
Spider-Man stared at him, his fingers flexing, his hand lowering a bit.
”It’s not that I don’t think about him, it’s not that I don’t regret it,” Tony said, ”but it was better that way. It was better for him not to be associated with Tony Stark, with Iron Man, with the Avengers.”
”You think he’d care about all that? All he wanted … maybe all he wanted was for his father to acknowledge his existence.”
Tony swallowed, a bitter smile curling his lips. ”How do you know he even knows about me? I told his mother to tell him that somebody else was his father. Anybody else would have been better than me. Easier.”
Spider-Man shook his head. ”For you or him?”
Tony scoffed, nodding slowly, then he straightened his shoulders. ”You know what? It’s not working out,” he said slowly, hoping that his voice didn’t come out as defeated as he felt. ”I’m gonna need the suit back.”
Spider-Man’s hand raised again, his fingers resting on the trigger of the web-shooter.
”And I have to arrest you,” Tony continued.
”I told you I’d give you your things back.”
”Just … just go down on your knees and fold your hands behind your head. If you come peacefully-”
”I’m sorry,” Spider-Man whispered.
”That won’t help your case right now.”
”No, I’m sorry for this,” Spider-Man said and then he attacked. Webbing hit the eyes of Tony’s helmet and he was blind.
He shot his repulsors, hoping to hit the target just by pure luck while F.R.I.D.A.Y. brought the camera view online. The image of the park was displayed for him and he saw Spider-Man run. Kicking off into the air, he followed and overtook him, hovering above him as he pointed his repulsors at him. ”Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
Spider-Man shot two webs, attaching them to the chest of the Iron Man suit, and pulled. Tony fired the repulsors, one missing Spider-Man entirely while the other hit home, knocking Spider-Man off his feet and sending him to slam against a bench.
He got up again immediately, though, and fired two webs again, this time at Tony’s feet. Tony was picked out of the air like it was nothing, his repulsors protesting as he hit the ground and Spider-Man was on him immediately, pinning his wrists and crushing the repulsor of his right hand.
Before he could do the same to the left, Tony activated the chest repulsor, sending Spider-Man flying off him and into the water of the bay. He followed him quickly, grabbing Spider-Man around the neck and lifting him from the water until his feet dangled in the air. ”I’m not joking around, kid.”
Spider-Man grasped Tony’s arm and tightened his hold. Tony saw F.R.I.D.A.Y. flash a warning out of the corner of his eye and then heard metal creak and crumble, sparks flying out of the arm of his suit and burning his skin. He let go of Spider-Man, who fell to his feet gracefully and delivered a kick to Tony’s chest while he was still trying to get the arm of his suit back under control, the metal bent and twisted sharply against his flesh. One punch against his chin knocked him back to land on the shore and then spiderwebs were dispensed, cocooning him quickly and efficiently, before Spider-Man took off running.
”No,” Tony muttered, trying to get up but failing. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., come on!” The outside of his suit heated up, the webs starting to melt, but until they had ripped apart and he was back on his feet, Spider-Man was nowhere to be seen. ”Don’t tell me-”
”He’s gone, boss.”
There was a knock and Tony looked up. Rhodey was standing in the door to Tony’s personal quarters at the Avengers Compound, his arms crossed, his features careful. ”Hey.”
Tony didn’t answer, just reached for the bottle of scotch and poured himself another glass. Then he slumped back against the back of the couch.
”Tony,” Rhodey said, stepping closer slowly.
Tony had only switched one lone bedside lamp on, its gentle glow barely reaching the small seating area on the opposite end of the room. In the dim light, Rhodey looked as tired as Tony felt and he heaved a sigh as he sat on the couch next to Tony and rested a steady hand on his shoulder. Tony really hoped that Rhodey wasn’t able to see his reddened eyes. He hadn’t cried, but he’d been close to tears for a quite a while now and his eyes felt gritty and sore as a consequence.
“Stop that,” Rhodey said gently and took the glass from him, setting it down on coffee table, out of reach.
Tony didn’t protest. “I fucked up,” he said instead.
Rhodey looked at the coffee table. Everything private that Tony had been able to find at the penthouse was scattered on top of the glass table top; Howard Stark’s notebook lay among scattered pictures, some still in their frames, and early blueprints of the arc reactor. In front of Tony sat the box with his mother’s compositions. ”What’s all this stuff doing here?”
Tony rubbed a hand down his face. ”It’s safer here.”
Rhodey reached out and turned one of the pictures to see it properly. Tony’s heart ached when he saw it was the one that his father’s old butler Jarvis had taken of Tony and his parents when they had visited him at MIT. Like all their family pictures, it looked stilted and forced, his father staring rigidly into the camera with a firm hand on Tony’s shoulder while his mother smiled a tense smile. Tony just looked uncomfortable.
”Okay,” Rhodey said.
”I wanted it safe.”
”Why wasn’t it safe at the penthouse?”
Tony reached out, his fingers brushing over his mother’s music. “The penthouse is going to be sold anyway along with the rest of the tower. I thought I should get a head-start on moving.”
There was a pause, heavy and awkward, then Rhodey asked, ”Tony, what happened?”
”I confronted him tonight. Spider-Man. With Ross’s allegations.” He scoffed. ”Turns out, Ross was right. We can’t trust him.”
Rhodey’s eyes widened.
Tony nodded. ”But not in the way we thought. F.R.I.D.A.Y., play the file.” The TV on the wall opposite Tony came to life, showing him recordings from the penthouse’s security feed. He was once again witness to Spider-Man snagging Howard’s notebook off the workbench in the workshop before using his cellphone to take pictures of the whiteboards when Tony left him alone for a few moments the day he’d picked up the suit. Once again saw Spider-Man wandering the penthouse and snapping photos of the few private pictures displayed while Tony was out cold in his bedroom, sleeping off the alcohol. Once again saw Spider-Man leaf through his mother’s compositions while Tony was on the phone to Ross, halting when he reached the bottom of the box, and then quickly rifle through the envelope with the pictures and papers before stuffing it into his backpack while he left.
”Holy …” Rhodey stared.
”Yeah.” The video ended and then started again. Tony turned his head away. ”You know what’s funny? I didn’t even expect it. I … trusted him. With my things. In my penthouse. No questions asked.” He swallowed. ”I was so stupid.”
”I’m sorry, Tony.”
”It pisses me off that Ross was right.”
Rhodey huffed a laugh, then he looked at the TV, watching Spider-Man walk around Tony’s penthouse on a continuous loop. ”I just don’t get it,” he finally said. “What is he getting out of it?”
Tony’s shoulders tensed.
”The pictures are private, yes, but they’re not scandalous.” Rhodey went through the pictures, holding up one which showed the both of them at a MIT party. He winced. ”Except for those hairstyles maybe.”
”I stand by that hairstyle,” Tony replied, but he couldn’t quite find a smile. ”He might be able to get some money off the information he found on the Iron Man suit, though I doubt it would be a lot. I pieced together what he took and it’s really not comprehensive enough to get a full picture.”
”So you’re not worried?”
”Not overly so,” Tony said. ”But … it’s not just about the tech. And it’s not really about the pictures.” He rested his hand on the sheet music.
”What is it about?”
Tony swallowed and ducked his head, his breath catching.
”Tony?” Rhodey asked.
He released a shaky sigh, flexing his fingers, and cursed himself. It should be easier to tell Rhodey, right? They’d been best friends for years … maybe that was the reason it was so hard. He’d known Rhodey since before Peter’s birth. He should have told him back then, but he hadn’t.
”Tony, what’s wrong?”
”I never told you,” Tony said, still staring at the table. ”I never told anyone. Obie knew, but that’s it.”
Rhodey didn’t say anything and Tony appreciated it, gathering his resolve with a deep breath.
”I have a kid.” He swallowed. ”A boy. He’s … fourteen or maybe … fifteen. I … don’t know his exact birthday. But I know he’s got my eyes and my hair and quite possibly my … jaw? Is that something you can inherit?” He looked up at Rhodey and saw him stare at him incredulously, his eyes wide. ”I gave up my parental rights three months after he was born. I never saw him until almost a year ago when he tracked me down and I … I blew it. I never saw him again.”
”Damn,” Rhodey whispered.
”His name is Peter.”
”I’m not gonna lie,” Rhodey said slowly. ”I kind of did wonder whether there was a mini-you running around somewhere but …” He shook his head. ”You never told me.”
”I never told anybody. He was supposed to be out of my life. Better for him, in any case. But …” His hands clenched around the box. ”I kept the copy of the forms in which I gave up my parental rights. And a picture of myself with his mother. A picture of … him.”
”And Spider-Man took them.”
Tony nodded. ”I’m not sure what he’s gonna do. Or whether he is going to do anything at all. I just …” He looked at Rhodey. “I want them back.”
”What are you going to do?”
”About Peter?” Tony asked. ”Nothing. For now. If Spider-Man doesn’t leak the information, nothing will change.”
”And about Spider-Man?”
Tony closed his eyes. ”I’m going to tell Ross that my association with Spider-Man is on the rocks,” he said, ”until we know what his intentions are.”
“I’m sorry?” Ross said, his face thunderous. Tony could feel his anger even though Ross was just connected via holograph. ”Are you telling me that you equipped Spider-Man with a high-tech suit and allowed him to remove the tracker? Then managed to lose his number?”
”I didn’t lose his number. I can contact him any time,” Tony answered, his hands clenching on the top of the meeting room table. ”But he doesn’t reply. And he’s got the freedom to do so.”
Ross brushed a hand down his face. ”Unbelievable.”
”Tony didn’t do anything wrong,” Steve said and Tony looked at him in surprise. ”He looked Spider-Man up before talking to him. There was no indication in any of his activities which suggested that he might be a criminal.”
Rhodey nodded emphatically from his seat on Tony’s other side. ”This was a recruitment. Not an arrest.”
”Well,” Ross answered, ”his DODC file was quite clear on his criminal activities.”
”First of all,” Tony said, ”I didn’t know that there was a DODC file on him.”
Ross scoffed. ”It’s clearly tagged with the keyword ‘Spider-Man’, Stark. I thought you knew your way around the DODC system. You helped to implement it.”
Tony narrowed his eyes angrily. ”It’s marked as confidential. For that reason, it doesn’t turn up in the search results. You should know that confidential files are only displayed if you know their case number. Who doesn’t know their way around the DODC system now?”
Ross glared at him, but they both knew that he had to concede that point, so he relented, ”Fine.”
”Second,” Tony said, ”I don’t get why it was marked as confidential. We’re not talking about a criminal mastermind here. This guy stole a bag of pharmaceuticals and money from a couple of thugs. Petty theft does not warrant this kind of confidentiality.”
Ross crossed his arms, shaking his head. The holograph flickered.
”Which brings me to third,” Tony continued before Ross could answer, ”the file contained a reference to a project I haven’t heard about before: Alpha.”
Ross just looked at him, not answering, his blue eyes steely and determined.
”I found the same tag on Wanda’s file,” Tony continued, ”and some others. All of them sharing one thing in common: They’re enhanced humans.” He let that sink in for a moment. “Strangely enough, I couldn’t find a file on Project Alpha, which either means there isn’t one or it’s confidential. So, what’s Project Alpha about? Where is it located? Who is involved?”
Ross scoffed. ”This doesn’t concern you, Stark.”
Tony nodded. ”You know, I think it’s weird that I’m excluded from this particular file. I mean, I don’t usually do a regular check on the Avengers’ or DODC’s spendings, but I found records clearly stating that part of the money transferred to the DODC from the Avengers is put into Project Alpha’s budget. And yet, I had no clue it even existed.”
Ross scoffed. ”I know you think you own the DODC because you helped to found it, Stark, but you don’t need to be involved in every single thing going on. Alpha is none of your concern.”
”Considering I pay a good sum of money for it,” Tony answered, ”I think it should be from now on.”
”You can’t even keep your own team in line.”
Tony shrugged. ”It’s not my job to keep them in line,” he answered. ”It’s his.” He tilted his head towards Steve.
”Not anymore,” Ross replied with a smirk. “Not as long as we find that he is a traitor.”
”Which you can now reconsider and revoke. I consider Spider-Man no longer an ally of the Avengers, so we don’t have a problem.”
”Yes, we do. Because our deal still stands. You screwed this up, Stark, and now there’s an enhanced human with a technologically advanced suit out there on the streets. What if he decides to swing towards the wrong side of the law? Get Spider-Man or there will be no negotiations about anything.” With that, Ross signed off.
For a moment, they sat in silence, then Rhodey muttered, ”Damn. Can he do that?”
"He’s got enough influence to make sure the others remain on the UN’s most wanted list or to sway the UN into not renegotiating the Accords. I can try and pull people on my side, but that’ll take time.” Tony sighed and sent Steve a reassuring look. “What he can’t do is void the immunity of this Compound.”
Steve crossed his arms. ”Okay, so we’ll stay here,” he answered with a nod. ”Until this is resolved.”
”Or we dig up dirt on Ross, convince the UN he’s getting blood on their hands,” Tony said, ”and I feel like Project Alpha is the key.”
“What about Spider-Man?”
Tony shook his head. “Ross is right about one thing, he is wearing my suit. I can’t have that if I don’t know whether we can trust him.”
“So you want to arrest him?” Steve asked. “Play into Ross’s hands?”
“I want that suit back”, Tony answered. ”I have to get it back. Ross is holding this over my head.”
Steve folded his hands. ”I don’t believe he is our enemy.”
”Well,” Tony answered, getting up to leave. ”He’s certainly not our friend.” He paused in the doorway, turning back to Steve. ”I’ll make sure he’s brought to the Compound when we get him. Arrests made by the Avengers are handled here, not at the Raft. The Accords are backing me up. It’s gonna be fine.”
Tony had retreated to his workshop after, checking up on the algorithm he’d programmed to do a more thorough search in the DODC’s database. However, nothing had popped up. He caught a couple of hours of sleep on the couch in the corner of the workshop and then got up to try and modify the algorithm. He was just about to take a break for a late breakfast when Rhodey burst into the room. ”Tony, turn on the TV.”
”F.R.I.D.A.Y., turn on the TV, Channel 8.”
The TV mounted in the corner came to life immediately, displaying a shaky view from a helicopter which was hovering over the Upper Bay in New York.
”… film crew of Channel 8 is able to witness the events by coincidence,” a female voice was saying. ”By now, one of the participants of the fight could be identified as none other than Spider-Man, who seems to have engaged several men, overwhelmed them and then ran into the lower deck of the ferry. We are currently unclear on what is- oh my God!”
A massive … creature swept out of the lower deck, Spider-Man clinging to one of its wings before he was slammed against a support beam and let go, falling to land on the lower deck.
”Suit,” Tony said. The door leading outside started to open while his latest finalized creation assembled around him.
”Do you need me?” Rhodey asked.
Tony paused on his way to the door as the helmet snapped into place around his skull. ”Yes, to field calls from Ross. I’m sure he knows about this already. Tell him the situation is under control.”
”Is it?” Rhodey asked, his eyebrows raised in doubt.
”Give me ten minutes,” he answered and started the repulsors. The news came up on his HUD as he was leaving the premises. The creature was hovering over the ferry and Tony could see now that it was not a creature at all; it was a man, strapped into two massive mechanical wings. He wore a helmet which covered his whole face, his eyes lit up eerily green. The camera view shook and lost the picture for a moment, then righted itself again as the helicopter steadied.
The woman said, ”I can’t really describe what we are witnessing right now.”
”F.R.I.D.A.Y., mute the news channel.”
The woman’s voice cut off, only the picture remaining.
”All power to the thrusters.”
Tony cursed when he saw that the bird man was holding something that looked like a gun. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., analyze his weapon.”
He fired the gun at Spider-Man, missing as Spider-Man jumped out of the way. He shot a web at the man and caught his foot, trying to pull him down towards the ferry deck.
”What the hell is he doing?” Tony asked. ”He’s at a disadvantage on water.”
”Boss, the initial analysis showed that the gun seems to be of Chitauri origin.”
”Great,” Tony cursed. ”How would …” He trailed off as he remembered his confrontation with Spider-Man. ”I’ll be damned. The kid said something about arms dealers in Queens.”
”You should have listened.”
”Yeah, thanks for the input.”
Spider-Man shot a web at the weapon, ripping it out of the man’s grip. The camera lost view of both Spider-Man and the gun as they vanished underneath the upper deck, but Tony could see flashes of light going off several times, the weapon was out of control.
Then it happened: Several discharges of the gun went right through the ferry’s upper deck and bridge, the camera cut out for a second when a shock wave rippled over the water towards the helicopter.
”That can’t be good,” Tony whispered. The bird man flew away. There was no sign of Spider-Man. Tony had reached the outskirts of New York just when the ferry started to break apart in the middle. ”No, no, no,” Tony said. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., please tell me that Mark 48B is still in the Tower.”
”Deploy.” The ferry came into view. ”Turn off the news,” Tony said and his view out of the HUD was cleared to show him the situation. He shot past the helicopter and slowed his flight, bracing his hands against the side of the ferry just when Mark 48B arrived on the scene; five containers, each holding a dozen mini-repulsors, approached Tony. He’d designed them after Sokovia to act as a crutch in case buildings in which civilians had sought refuge were damaged badly during fights. The mini-repulsors were able to hold structures up long enough for anybody inside to get out safely. Tony reckoned they would also be able to push two halves of a ferry back together. ”Send half of them round.” Tony was positioned by a window and when he looked inside, he saw Spider-Man standing there, staring back at him with wide eyes. Tony took in the faces of several frightened ferry guests crowded in the corners, children clinging to their parents. F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s stats in the lower corner of his HUD confirmed around 300 people on board.
300 people almost killed by the reckless behavior of one person.
Anger flickered through Tony at the thought and he growled, ”Hi, Spider-Man.”
Tony waited for the confirmation through the HUD that all mini-repulsors had been distributed on both sides of the ferry and gave the order to push. Slowly, both halves stabilized, the thrusters keeping up a steady pressure to make sure that the lower part of the ferry would be fused together first so no more water could come in. Once the confirmation flickered across his HUD, Tony gave up his position and flew around the ferry.
”Keep it in position,” he said. He made short work of flying through the lower deck, sealing the broken halves of the ferry back together to make sure it could at least get to the shore without sinking.
He saw Spider-Man following him, swinging after him through the lower deck and up until he was perched on the look-out of the ferry as Tony hovered above. ”Mr. Stark, can I do anything? What do you want me to do?”
Tony looked at him as he finished fusing the ferry back together. ”I think you’ve done enough,” he said scathingly and turned away, flying high and towards the front of the ferry to keep an eye on it while the rescue boats approached.
From his position hovering over the ferry, Tony was already able to see from afar that the St. George Ferry Terminal and the adjacent River Dock Café had been evacuated. There was no police waiting, no ambulances, nothing one would usually expect after an emergency like this. F.R.I.D.A.Y. could only make out a few scattered heat signatures within the buildings, on the roof and on the pier the ferry was headed for. Tony already knew what all of it meant. He wouldn’t have to worry about arresting Spider-Man himself once they reached the shore. The heat signatures were without a doubt DODC agents ready to strike. Their slow way back to safety had given Ross enough time to deploy them and get control of the situation.
Tony’s eyes found Spider-Man, who was perched on the railing of the top deck, looking towards the terminal with narrowed eyes. He looked tense, his hands clenched. Tony wondered whether he could actually feel that trouble was coming.
A minute went by, the coast guard boats starting to fall back to allow room for the ferry to approach the pier, the engines protesting slightly when ordered to reduce speed. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., update.”
”No reason for alarm, boss. The engines are strained but are expected to hold. The ferry is slowing down within the expected parameters. The seal is holding.”
By now, they were close enough that Spider-Man could use a web to swing to the pier. Tony wondered whether he would. He looked even tenser than before and Tony saw him reload his web-shooters. Then he stood and climbed onto the roof of the ferry, walking all the way towards the back. He looked up at Tony, as if daring him to stop him. Tony knew that he was planning to jump before the ferry had properly docked. He also knew that he could stop him, but it seemed pointless. Even if Spider-Man managed to evade the DODC, Tony would still have enough time to catch up to him and take him down himself. Out of sight of the passengers in the ferry and away from the news helicopter still hovering nearby. He held out hope that Ross would have his people do the same.
Spider-Man started to run, crossing the roof in large strides before he jumped off the edge, using the gliders in his suit to get closer to the pier. At the same time, the agents positioned on the pier appeared and pulled their weapons from their holsters. F.R.I.D.A.Y. automatically provided Tony with the information that they were using stun guns which were a legacy from S.H.I.E.L.D., able to take out enhanced humans long enough to get the upper hand. They pointed the guns at Spider-Man and fired once he wasn’t above water anymore.
Some of the charges missed but three or four hit home and Spider-Man jerked, the web he’d shot towards the terminal mid-flight missing its target. He landed on the pier hard, rolling a few feet before coming to lie on his belly, completely still.
The ferry’s passengers rushed towards the railings and windows to see what was going on, some of them getting their phones out. The helicopter was now circling over the pier.
Tony cursed. “Dial Secretary Ross,” he said.
”Dialing,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. answered.
”I’m busy,” Ross said a moment later.
”Is it necessary to make public spectacle out of this?”
The agents fell into a practiced routine, some of them approaching Spider-Man while others remained behind, covering them. Spider-Man didn’t move. Not until one of the agents was within arm’s reach. Then he attacked, kicking the man’s legs from under him. The agent fell, his head connecting with the tarmac, knocking him out. Spider-Man was on his knees in an instant, shooting webs at the guns of two other agents and ripping them out of their hands, flinging them into the water before he turned and blocked the kick of a man behind him.
“We’re making an arrest, Stark,” Ross said calmly. ”People happen to be around. I can’t stop them from filming it.”
Several agents shot at Spider-Man again, the charges striking his back and he faltered, sagging forwards. Tony had looked at the design of those guns a while back, impressed by them. The I.C.E.R.s carried quite a punch. Tony was surprised Spider-Man was still upright. It said a lot about his stamina.
“We need to prove to the public that we are actually protecting them from enhanced humans. We need to prove we are following through on the Accords. You are with me on this, aren’t you?”
Orders were shouted and two of the agents deemed it safe to grab Spider-Man, but he flung one of them over his shoulder and jumped to his feet to punch the other in the sternum. He pointed his hand towards the roof, trying to escape with a web, but another wave of I.C.E.R. charges hit him, sending him to his knees. Before he could properly recover, one of the agents stepped forward and shot Spider-Man straight in the chest. He fell back, his head hitting the pier. Before he could recover, another agent approached and turned him on his belly, cuffing Spider-Man’s arms behind his back. The cuffs were big and bulky, built to restrain enhanced humans. They had held Barnes and Steve under control, Tony was sure they would also hold Spider-Man.
“Don’t forget, Stark, you agreed to this,” Ross said and hung up.
The agent next to Spider-Man set a foot between his shoulder blades, training his gun on him. But he didn’t have to bother.
It was over.
After Spider-Man had been taken away from the pier, once the ferry had arrived safely and everybody had left it unharmed, Tony sent Mark 48B on its way back to the Tower and flew over the ferry terminal to land on the other side. Some of the DODC agents were still there, as expected, positioned around a black, inconspicuous van. The doors at the back were open. Tony left the Iron Man suit behind, coming to stand in front of the agents guarding the van. ”I want to see him.”
”Sir, I’m not sure-”
”I am,” Tony said.
The agent shifted, undecided. He was young, maybe in his 20s, and had a face which looked far too kind for the weapons strapped to his body. The nametag on his black uniform read G. Dawson. His green eyes held Tony’s gaze for a moment longer and then he nodded. ”I’ll have to go with you, sir.”
Two further agents were stationed inside the van, seated on a narrow bench and holding a tablet computer between them. The space was small since half of the back of the van was designed as a containment cell for enhanced individuals, divided off with an additional wall and secured with a door as well as several cameras sending a video feed to various screens. The two agents looked up at them questioningly as Dawson nodded towards the door leading to the containment unit and said, ”He wants to talk to Spider-Man.”
The agents exchanged a glance, apparently not sure whether that was even allowed. Tony was suddenly grateful that Ross wasn’t here. He would certainly have put a stop to this the moment Tony would have uttered his request. One of the agents cleared his throat. ”We just received orders to leave. Just finishing up the checks for the containment unit.”
”I won’t need more than five minutes,” Tony said. ”I’ll be done before you’re finished with your checks.”
After exchanging one more glance with Dawson, they shrugged. Dawson stepped forward and unlocked the narrow door leading towards the back with his keycard, pushing it open. Tony followed the invitation to step through, Dawson following him inside and closing the door behind him.
It was a tight space with no windows and filled with the low hum of electricity. Spider-Man was sitting in a bulky chair which was screwed to the floor, his hands still encased by the cuffs. However, now they were separated and affixed to the chair’s armrests, keeping him in place. His hands were balled into fists, flexing against the bonds. Other than that, he didn’t move, not even raising his head to acknowledge Tony. But he spoke, sounding tired, ”What do you want?”
”I want my suit back for starters. The stuff you took from my penthouse as well.”
Spider-Man leaned his head back. ”Will you destroy them? The papers?”
Tony swallowed. ”I won’t answer that.”
”Right, you don’t owe me anything.”
”I don’t,” Tony said, getting annoyed. ”It’s the other way around actually, kid. You lied to me about those meds-”
”I didn’t sell them!”
”A bag of high-end pharmaceuticals worth thousands on the black market?” Tony asked incredulously. ”Really? What did you do with them?”
”It doesn’t matter.” Spider-Man shifted, straining against the bonds despite the pain he must be in due to the I.C.E.R.s. ”I didn’t make a profit off them. I wouldn’t do that.”
”Kid, you still stole them. Even taking them from the guys who originally stole them counts as theft.”
”I returned them.”
”Quit lying! There’s no record of that.”
Spider-Man shook his head and turned it away.
Tony brushed his hands through his hair in agitation. ”And today, you almost killed hundreds of people!”
Spider-Man’s attention snapped back towards him, the eyes of the suit wide. ”I didn’t blow up that ferry.”
”Maybe you didn’t intend to,” Tony replied, ”but you can’t tell me that it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t interfered. That gun only blew up because you instigated a fight against that winged guy.”
”Yes!” Spider-Man snapped. ”I did. Those weapons were out there and I tried to tell you about it, but you didn’t listen. None of this would have happened if you had just listened to me!”
”I listened to you way too much.” He stared at Spider-Man. ”Do you know that I was the only one who believed in you? When I was told that you’re a thief, I didn’t buy it. I had to literally see you traipsing through my penthouse and going through my stuff to believe that you’re nothing more than-”
”But I was still right about the weapons and you just-”
”No, this is where you zip it!” Tony shouted, stepping forward angrily.
Dawson made a noise and Tony saw him reach for his gun with one hand. ”Sir.”
Tony stepped back, giving a nod in Dawson’s direction while his hands clenched. He turned his attention back to Spider-Man, taking a breath to calm down. “What if somebody had died today? You were lucky I saw what was going on. You were lucky I had the right tools on hand in the Tower, close enough to help. You were lucky because if the worst case scenario had come true today, you would be on your way to the Raft without a return ticket. That is, if you hadn’t died as well.”
Spider-Man was staring at him with wide eyes, his back pressed against the chair, his hands pulling against the bonds.
Tony gave his words a few more moments to sink in, then he straightened, relaxing his stance. ”But I was there. This means you’ve got a choice here, kid. Cooperating and revealing your identity will go a long way towards having a say about what will happen to you next.”
”You can’t just imprison me. I have rights, I want a lawyer,” Spider-Man answered, his voice cracking. Tony could see him tremble. “You can’t force me to reveal my identity.”
”Christ, kid, take some damn responsibility for your actions,” Tony sighed.
”Oh, like you did fifteen years ago?”
Tony stilled, the words making his stomach drop. He became hyper-aware of Dawson standing off to the side and even though he’d told Rhodey it wouldn’t matter to him if people knew … it actually did. ”Be very careful,” he said slowly, ”what you say next.”
Spider-Man looked at him, his shoulders hitching, but he didn’t speak. In fact, it looked like he was crying. His suspicion was confirmed when a sound escaped that sounded suspiciously like a sob, immediately suppressed by what appeared to be pure stubbornness. Tony still felt guilt stab into his chest and he hesitated, unsure what to do next. Strapped into this chair, on his way to a cell, Spider-Man looked small and fragile. ”Just go,” he said as the silence stretched. ”You told me that tears don’t work on you, so what’s the point in staring?”
Tony swallowed, not sure how to answer. Finally, he nodded slowly and left.
“How did it go?” Rhodey asked once Tony returned to the Compound and walked into his workshop.
Tony shook his head. ”Didn’t you see?” he asked. ”We’ve got him.”
Rhodey nodded, his arms crossed as he leaned back against one of the workbenches. ”So … what happens now?”
”Now?” Tony asked. ”Now we wait until he arrives and get him out of that suit.” He sighed and slumped onto the couch with a groan. ”God, I’m tired.”
”It was a pretty bad day.”
”It was a pretty bad month.” He sighed and leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling. ”At least Ross got what he wanted, so we can start negotiations.” He cleared his throat. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., what’s the ETA of Spider-Man at the Compound?”
”I don’t understand, boss,” she answered.
Tony rolled his eyes. ”The prisoner transport from New York. What’s the ETA?”
”There is no arrival of a prisoner transport registered for today, boss.”
Tony sat up straight and shot an alarmed glance at Rhodey, who shrugged in response. ”What?”
”We had an entry, but it was cancelled ten minutes later.”
”What?!” Tony asked again. ”By whom?”
”Dial him. Now.” Tony waited while the phone rang, pacing up and down nervously.
”Stark, I don’t have time for this,” Ross said.
”Yes, you do,” Tony answered. “Spider-Man is supposed to be transported to the Compound.”
”Did I agree to that?”
Tony frowned. ”I thought that was a given. An arrest performed by an Avenger-”
”He wasn’t arrested by an Avenger, though, was he?”
Tony paused and wiped a hand down his face. ”Where are you taking him?”
”Well, I was going to take him to the Raft.”
”What do you mean, ‘was’?”
”I’ll send you my coordinates, why don’t you have a look yourself?”
The coordinates Ross had sent them led Rhodey and Tony back to New York, to the crossing of 92nd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway. The crossing was taped off by the police, several ambulances and police cars crowded around and police officers trying to keep the curious onlookers at a distance. The van had hit the windows of a garden supply shop, smoke still rising from its hood. The back doors were wide open, the sparking of electricity visible on the inside. When they landed, Tony and Rhodey’s suits opened to let them step onto the street. Tony saw three DODC agents being tended to by EMTs as Ross approached him in quick strides, a sour look on his face.
”What happened?” Rhodey asked.
”Your harmless neighborhood vigilante,” Ross said angrily, fixing Tony with a glare, ”staged a prison break.”
Rhodey stared at the van with wide eyes. ”He got out?”
”Well, he’s not here anymore,” Ross snapped. ”So you bet he did.”
Ignoring Ross’s glare, Tony stepped towards the back of the van, looking inside. The back doors were hanging off their hinges, the reinforced steel bent. The tablet computer the agents had used for their checks before the departure was lying abandoned in a corner, its screen cracked. Three of the screens that were supposed to show the containment unit’s security feed were black, only one still transferring an image. The chair was empty. The door leading towards the containment unit was open.
He heard Rhodey behind him ask, ”Those cuffs were designed for enhanced humans. How could he break them?”
”We’ll definitely look into that,” Ross answered. ”But once he got out of them, he took down the agent assigned to him and used his keycard to get out of the door before engaging the two agents stationed outside the containment unit. When he broke through the back door, the driver lost control over the van.”
Tony looked towards Ross, then at the three DODC agents. The agent who had accompanied Tony into the cell – Dawson – was staring back at him, but ducked his head away once he caught Tony’s eyes. Tony frowned and climbed into the van, heading straight for the containment unit. Looking at the cuffs which lay abandoned on the cell floor, he noticed that they didn’t look as if they’d been broken. Tony picked up one of them and opened the flap containing the keypad and controls. Grateful that he’d decided to help the DODC upgrading the cuffs’ programming a couple of months ago, he entered the administrator password to look at the log. There was no malfunction listed, just the name of the person who had last entered the code to open the cuffs.
”Would you look at that”, Tony murmured and deleted the entry.
He left the van and sent Rhodey a look, nodding towards Ross who was busy giving an agent instructions. Rhodey nodded and Tony quickly strode towards the ambulances, heading straight for Dawson.
The agent looked startled when Tony entered the ambulance he was being taken care off in and the EMT glared at him. ”Sir, you can’t-”
”It’s important that I speak to Agent Dawson right away,” Tony said, nodding at the agent sitting on the stretcher. ”So as long as he’s not bleeding out on the spot, give us a few minutes.”
She looked annoyed but left and Tony closed the doors. He turned to look at Dawson, who was probing the butterfly bandage on his temple carefully. A trail of blood had made its way down his neck, but all in all, he’d gotten away with less injuries than Tony would have expected from a fight with an enhanced human. ”You know that every single piece of technology which we use has a log, right? A log which audits everything that happens to it.”
”Sir?” the agent asked nervously.
”Spider-Man didn’t break out of those cuffs and they didn’t malfunction. You opened them.”
Dawson swallowed, averting his eyes. His hands clenched where they rested on his thighs.
”Ross would have learned about this eventually,” Tony said and settled into the EMT’s seat, “but I deleted the entry.”
Dawson released a breath, clearly relieved.
”Now you owe me,” Tony said.
Dawson’s green eyes flickered up to look at him questioningly. ”Sir?”
”Why?” Tony asked. ”Why did you do it? Why did you let him get out? Why did you let him punch you and your colleagues in the face and cause the van to ruin a perfectly fine display for lawn mowers?”
”You wouldn’t understand, sir.”
”I’m from Queens,” the man said. ”Spidey’s … he’s ours. He’s not a bad guy. He didn’t deserve to be brought to the Raft. Project Alpha … I’ve heard awful things about it, sir.”
Tony narrowed his eyes, leaning closer. “Really? What did you hear?”
Dawson licked his lips, looking off to the side, and then answered, ”Well, sir, it’s just … people talk. Guards at the Raft, sir. Apparently, the prisoners there, the ones with enhancements, they’re … tested.”
Tony frowned. ”Tested? Like experimented on?”
”I’m not sure, sir.” Dawson met his eyes hesitatingly. “But I think so.”
Tony leaned back, his hands clenching.
”You see, it is a prison which doesn’t adhere to the usual regulations. Plus, it specializes in enhanced prisoners so it’s …” He swallowed. ”I can’t confirm any of this, sir, since I’ve never seen it but I’ve got a friend who was stationed there for a month and he says … it can get real awful. They have shock collars and sometimes, they don’t just use them to keep the prisoners in order. They use them … for fun. Spidey doesn’t deserve that.”
”How do you know?”
”That he’s not a bad guy.”
Dawson looked at him as if he was crazy. ”He saves people. He cares for the little guy. Nothing against you, sir, but … he’s out there, patrolling, every day.”
Tony sighed and rubbed his eyes.
”Sir,” the agent said. ”I know … I know that you think Spidey lied about those meds.”
Tony looked at him. ”What do you know about that?”
”Not a lot, sir, but …” He swallowed. ”I have neighbors, the Knight family. They’ve got two kids and one of them’s got cancer. The meds are expensive, the parents are working themselves to the ground to be able to afford them. A few months ago, I was talking to Mrs. Knight. She went to the pharmacy to get the meds but they were closed because they’d been robbed. As it turns out, the meds for her daughter were among those which had been taken and she didn’t have insurance for them, so she was very upset. You know, because she had to buy the meds a second time. I loaned her a bit of money but two days later, she came by and gave the money back, said she didn’t need it after all.”
Tony frowned. ”Why?”
”Because the meds which had been stolen were sitting on her doorstep one morning.”
Tony stared at him, his chest tightening. ”You think Spider-Man did that?”
”If he was the one who took them …”
”He said he returned them.”
Dawson nodded. ”He kind of did.”
”What will happen now, sir? I need this job, I …”
”For now, I won’t tell Ross,” Tony answered. He got a business card out of his pocket. ”In case you run into trouble, give me a call.” He opened the door of the ambulance.
”And what about … what about Alpha, sir?” Dawson asked.
”I’ll take care of Alpha,” Tony answered.
A few days after Spider-Man’s break-out, the first local papers and news stations were starting to ask where the vigilante was. Spider-Man hadn’t made an appearance since he’d run. He also hadn’t answered the messages Tony had sent him to the suit, asking him to come to the penthouse and talk, but Tony hadn’t really expected him to. Still, he couldn’t help but feel his concern grow steadily, weighing heavily on his mind whenever he didn’t focus on something else.
That something else was mostly him and Rhodey following up on Dawson’s story about the pharmaceuticals, visiting all patients who were on the list of prescriptions which had been taken. It took them almost a week to visit all eighty-nine of them. Every affected person or family they talked to confirmed after some prodding that the medication which had been taken from the pharmacy had turned up on their doorstep two days later. A few of them had even kept the little note which had been tucked into the paper bag along with the medication. The handwriting was scraggly, the ink smudged on some of the notes, but they all said the same: Please don’t tell.
One person Rhodey visited, a nun, did not just receive the medication she needed but also the money which had been taken with an additional note: For the orphanage.
On the fifth day after the ferry incident and Spider-Man’s escape – the fifth day without an answer to Tony’s messages, the fifth day without anybody seeing Spider-Man – Tony reached the last person on his list and for the first time, he was unable to find the name on the door bells of the apartment block the address had led him to.
When a young woman carrying a grocery bag stepped up next to him, fiddling with her key and the lock, Tony cleared his throat, ”Sorry, can I ask you something?”
She looked up at him, her eyes widening in recognition. ”Holy shit.”
Tony smiled. ”I get that a lot.”
”You’re Tony Stark … can I take a selfie with you?”
He nodded with a patient smile and she quickly set the bag down and got her phone out.
One picture later, he asked, ”Could you answer a question for me?”
She nodded and Tony looked down at the list. ”I’m looking for the Parker family. Did they move away?”
The woman’s face clouded in sadness. ”You could say that. Mrs. Parker died half a year ago.”
Tony stared at her. ”Oh.”
”Yeah, it was very sad. You know, ‘cause her husband had died just a few months before that and they had their nephew living with them.”
”You don’t happen to know where he is now, do you? The nephew. I just have a few questions.”
”Peter? No idea,” she answered. ”Wherever they take orphans, I guess.” She smiled sadly and went inside.
Tony stood on the doorstep, stunned, his mind repeating the words F.R.I.D.A.Y. had said to him the night Peter had found Tony at the Four Seasons.
”Peter Benjamin Parker, né Fitzpatrick, resident in Queens.”
It couldn’t be. Parker was such a common name … nevertheless, as soon as Tony got back to his car, he took out his cellphone and said, ”F.R.I.D.A.Y., give me information on Peter Parker.”
”I’m sorry, boss, but you will have to wait for 24 hours and make the request again.”
”Give it to me now!”
She didn’t say anything for a long moment, then she answered patiently, ”Your orders, boss.”
Tony slammed his hand against the steering wheel. ”Fuck!” He took a breath, trying to calm down. Then he had an idea. ”F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” he said. ”Give me information on Mary Parker, née Fitzpatrick, registered as Peter Parker’s mother.”
”Information on Mary Parker. Understood. Please stand by.”
He sat in silence as he waited.
Until F.R.I.D.A.Y. finally came back to him and told him everything.
Besides following up on the pharmacy theft, Tony had spent the week packing up the last items he wanted to take to the Compound. As a result, the penthouse was now stripped of everything personal, leaving behind only the most basic of furniture. Even Tony’s workshop was empty now, the whiteboards wiped, the shelves and workbenches bare, the IT-equipment removed and packed into boxes.
Tony could hear the workers downstairs loading the Quinjet that would take everything to the Compound, could hear Happy giving sharp commands every now and again. He’d been left in charge while Tony sat on the floor in the barren workshop, only kept company by the last remaining Iron Man suit, the one that he wanted to use to fly back to the Compound. He felt too jittery to do so, though, the information he’d been given by F.R.I.D.A.Y. running around his head on repeat.
Mary had died in 2007, along with her husband Richard Parker. Their son Peter had been given to relatives, Richard’s brother Ben and his wife May. And from what Tony had learned this afternoon when he’d prodded F.R.I.D.A.Y. for information on them, May and Ben had both died as well. Ben roughly one year ago in a mugging gone wrong and May just a few months later, succumbing to cancer.
She’d died in April. Peter had tried to get the money from Tony in January, probably in a desperate attempt to find a way to pay for the medication his aunt had needed.
And Tony had brushed him off.
And May had died.
And now, Tony had to wait another sixteen hours to be able to ask F.R.I.D.A.Y. where exactly his son was now.
His mind was already going into overdrive, though, creating the worst possible scenarios: awful orphanages, abusive foster parents. He knew it was probably not true but still … he couldn’t help but consider all of it.
“Tears aren’t going to work on me, kid.”
That was what he’d told Peter all those months ago. It must have been a slap in his face. Now Tony understood why he’d run away. It was almost ironic, how Spider-Man quite possibly had helped Peter out in a way his own father hadn’t wanted to. He’d probably given Peter the medication his aunt had needed, given them a bit more time. Like he had all those other people he’d helped.
And what had Tony done?
He’d judged him, quite unfairly.
Up until now, there was nothing in the tabloids about Tony Stark’s secret child, which was surprising. Even though Spider-Man had said that he wouldn’t sell the information, Tony would have thought that he might have changed his mind about that, just to spite him. Spider-Man certainly had enough reason to …
Tony’s thoughts trailed off and his heart skipped a beat when his mind went back to the last thing Spider-Man had said to him.
“You told me that tears don’t work on you, so what’s the point in staring?”
He gasped, connecting dots about Spider-Man and his behavior that made horrible, horrible sense if ... he got up clumsily. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., I need the security feed from the pharmacy theft that was handed over to the police.” He was suddenly glad that he had saved the report on his private server. That way, F.R.I.D.A.Y. was easily able to pull the feed and send it to his phone. The feed started automatically at the point in time the two muggers entered the pharmacy but Tony wasn’t interested in that.
Not this time.
He rewound, to before the mugging, because if he was right, Peter must have been there that day, just before the robbery had happened.
He hoped he was wrong.
But then … he paused the video, activated the holographic display and zoomed in.
There he was; brown, messy hair, worn shoes, his blue hoodie sweater pulled tight around his body as he talked to the man behind the counter. He was wearing a familiar yellow backpack strapped tight to his back. Tony played the video. There was no audio feed, but Tony could imagine what was being said by the way the man shook his head with a sorrowful expression, as Peter’s shoulders slumped in defeat. As he turned away to leave, Tony saw the emblem on the front of his sweater and paused again. The picture was too grainy to make out what it was, but it looked like two circles, one yellow and one white, just like the thieves had told the police. It had been dark and they hadn’t been able to make it out properly.
A heavy weight settled in Tony’s chest. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., can you identify the symbol?”
”The best match is a school emblem. Midtown School of Science and Technology.” She opened a new holograph showing Tony the emblem, the school’s name on stylized yellow ribbons surrounding the symbol of a white atom in the middle.
”A STEM school,” Tony whispered, the name ringing a bell. ”How smart are you?”
”School records are showing that Peter Parker is one of the top three students in his year.”
”What else do the records state?”
F.R.I.D.A.Y. paused and Tony hoped that she would let it slide that he was technically cheating. Peter’s file might be locked for him, but the school’s files weren’t.
”Due to his excellent performance on the mandatory entry test and his family’s financial situation, Peter entered the school as a recipient of a grant. He is still attending the school, but no longer receiving the grant due to a change in his financial backing. School fees are now paid in full by Dr. Theo Jefferson, who is listed in the school records as Peter’s guardian along with his wife Laura.” She paused.
”Tell me more.”
”Peter’s extracurriculars include academic decathlon, the robotics club and band, though he left robotics and band a few months ago. The Midtown academic decathlon team won the nationals in Washington recently.”
A picture of the team appeared on screen and Tony’s eyes found Peter smiling at the camera along with his teammates and their teacher. ”Save the picture to my phone,” he said and switched back to the video, watching Peter leave the pharmacy as the robbers entered. He closed the video and clapped a hand over his mouth, breathing deeply. He felt like he was going to be sick. ”It was him,” he said softly. ”The whole time, it was … it was Peter.” He closed his eyes.
Loud steps heading up the stairs caused him to jump to attention again, though, as Happy rushed into the workshop, clutching a tablet computer. He took one look at Tony’s pale, wide-eyed face. ”You know already?”
”About what?” Tony asked.
Tony shook his head, feeling strangely numb.
”It started just fine here and the auto-pilot seemed to work perfectly but … it crashed,” Happy said. “On the beach by Coney Island.”
Tony’s heart skipped a beat. ”It crashed?”
Tony got up and waved at the suit to encase him, leaving the penthouse before Happy could say another word. There had been Iron Man technology onboard of the plane. Avengers technology. His first priority was to secure the cargo. He called Happy while he was in the air.
”The tech guys at the Compound are reviewing data as we speak,” Happy said. “I swear, Tony, according to the computer, the plane was on course. It shouldn’t even be near Coney Island. It seems likely that the plane was hijacked.”
”They were after the technology.” It was dark out by now and Tony was able to see the burning wreckage from afar, his HUD zooming in on it as he stopped and hovered in the air to evaluate the situation. Burning parts of the plane were scattered all over the beach, directly in front of Luna Park. Tony felt slightly sick as he considered how many lives could have been lost if the crash had happened just a few hundred meters further inland, where families were roaming the amusement park.
“We have footage from inside the plane now,” Happy said. “We can identify the hijacker.”
Tony’s face darkened as the HUD focused on movement among the wreckage, zooming in automatically. ”I don’t need to see the footage,” he said and ended the call as he recognized the bird man Spider-Man had fought on the ferry.
He was standing on the beach among the flames, his wings sparking electricity, damaged, but spread proudly. He was holding something dangling from one of them and as Tony zoomed in even more, he recognized the red and blue of the original Spider-Man suit. Something heavy landed in his belly, a cold fear sliding down his spine, his breath knocked out of his lungs. Because this wasn’t just Spider-Man who was hanging limply from the bird man’s hold, it was Tony’s kid. Tony’s kid who fell from the bird man’s grasp as he dropped him, his focus pulled elsewhere; Tony’s kid who moved, turned and fired a web at the box with arc reactors the bird man was trying to escape with. Peter was pulled forward as the bird man tried to leave and he dug his heels into the sand, but the web was cut.
Tony saw it all happening, stunned.
Then he jumped into action, because the wings of the bird man were still damaged and sparks were hitting the open box with arc reactors … the threat of an explosion happening by accident was very real and Peter was way too close. Tony was too late, though. The explosion happened while he was still rushing towards the beach and he saw Peter curl up on the sand to protect himself while the bird man vanished in a ball of fire.
And then, just when Tony reached the shore and landed, relieved that Peter was moving, Peter pushed to his feet and ran towards the fire.
”Peter, no!” he screamed, opening his helmet. Peter paused, turning around to look at him for just a second. He wasn’t wearing his mask and blood was running down the side of his face, sand caked to his sweaty skin and in his hair. He met Tony’s eyes … then he ran into the flames. Tony didn’t hesitate to follow him.
He found him struggling with the contraption around bird man’s chest to free him from his wings, his breaths coming in sharp gasps.
The air was thin and hot, scratching in Tony’s eyes and burning his throat. ”Peter.”
”Peter, we have to leave.” He grabbed his arm to pull him up, but Peter shoved him back.
”I won’t leave him!” He grabbed the leather straps holding the wings in place and ripped them, getting the unconscious man onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry before stumbling back the same way he’d come. Tony followed him, making sure he didn’t step too close to the fire, hovering awkwardly while Peter got the bird man a safe distance away from the flames. Then he collapsed, rolling away from the man to catch his breath. He coughed sharply, gasping for air. Tony left the suit and knelt down next to him, trying to pull Peter into a sitting position gently, but Peter shrunk away from him and Tony withdrew his hands. ”What do you want?” Peter asked and he sounded close to tears. He got up slowly, one hand cradling his shoulder.
Tony saw that blood had seeped into the suit there. ”I want to talk.”
”I don’t want to talk to you,” Peter answered. He coughed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve before he continued, “He was after the tech in the plane to build more weapons. I’m sure you can get information on his accomplices from him.” With that, he started to walk away, limping down the beach with his shoulder clutched in one hand.
Tony looked at the bird man. ”Watch him,” he said to the suit and got up to walk after Peter. ”Kid, you’re injured.”
”I can deal with it.”
Tony caught up to him. ”Peter, just listen to me for one minute.”
”No!” Peter yelled, turning to look at him. Tears were tracking down his cheeks. ”I don’t want to listen to you. I used to think you were a hero, but you’re just a sad old drunk who only cares about himself.” He sobbed. ”Who only cared about me the tiniest bit because I’m this.” He slapped his palm against his own chest for emphasis. ”Who gets the military to arrest me because he can’t be bothered to do so himself.” He walked backwards, the waves nipping at his feet. ”Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. Please.” He was swaying. “I can’t do this.”
”Peter,” Tony said sadly. ”Kid.”
Peter’s shoulders slumped, his head ducking and hanging limp … and then, he fell, as if the threads holding him up had been cut. He landed on the wet sand and water soaked into his suit when the waves rolled onto the beach. Tony fell to his knees beside him, his hand reaching out carefully to turn his face towards the light of the flames. His eyes were closed, his skin pale.
”Kid,” Tony said again. His trembling hand cupped Peter’s cheek and slid down to his neck, finding his pulse thrumming steadily.
People were running onto the beach behind them, shouting, and Tony startled. He pulled Peter off the sand quickly, wincing when he noticed he wasn’t all too gentle in doing so, and pulled the hood of his red vest into his face to hide it against his chest.
By the time the first DODC agents appeared on the scene, they only found one Iron Man suit guarding the bird man and witnesses claiming that another suit had emerged from the plane for Mr. Stark to use to take Spider-Man away.
Chapter by JolinarJackson
I'd like to thank you all for your kind reviews and for reading. I really didn't have much faith in this story starting out. :)
And please go and check out the other stories in the IronDad Big Bang Collection. They are great!
Tony was glad that the penthouse was empty when he arrived. Happy had left to deal with the scene of the plane crash and the DODC and all the workers were gone by now as well. That way, he could land on the balcony unwatched and carry Peter inside to lay him down on the couch. He found the first-aid-kit under the kitchen sink and hurried back to Peter’s side to take care of his injuries.
Peter woke with a cut-off shout of pain when Tony pressed a piece of gauze down on the stab wound in his shoulder. The shout turned into a series of coughs, tears of pain mixing with the sand, soot and blood on his face.
”Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Tony said gently. “You’re alright, kid.”
Peter’s fevered gaze found his, confusion in his dark eyes. ”Mr. Stark? What …”
”It’s okay, Peter,” Tony said. ”I’ve got you.”
And Peter fell unconscious again.
Peter stirred again in the early hours of the morning.
Tony leaned forward in the chair he’d pulled up next to the couch and smiled cautiously when Peter opened his eyes. ”Hey there,” he said. ”Don’t freak out.”
Confusion clouded Peter’s eyes for a long moment, then they widened in alarm and his hand flew to touch his cheek, not finding the mask in place.
”It’s fine,” Tony said when Peter tried to sit up and stopped the movement, wincing in pain. He looked at his shoulder, the fingers of his good hand brushing over the tear in the suit and then the gauze Tony had applied. Then his eyes roamed the vicinity, recognizing the penthouse, and finally landed on Tony again. ”You took a beating,” Tony explained, “but you’re going to be fine.”
”Why’m I here?”
”I got you out,” Tony said. ”Too many curious onlookers trying to get a peek at your face.”
Peter sat up slowly, looking around. “The Vulture?”
”You took him down. He’s in custody. He got injured as well, but he’s recovering.”
Peter’s face showed a confused frown before his eyes widened slowly. ”The plane.”
”Yes,” Tony said.
”It crashed.” Peter froze when he looked out the windows at the balcony and noticed the breaking dawn. ”What time is it?”
”Just gone five thirty.”
”Oh no,” Peter said, shaking his head. ”Oh no, no, no, Laura was gonna pick me up from the dance, she must’ve freaked out-”
”Calm down,” Tony said, raising a hand to touch Peter’s shoulder but hesitating before doing so. Peter accepted the touch, probably preoccupied by the thought of his guardian. ”Whatever excuse you need, I’ll help you get it.”
”She’s gonna be so worried. She’s gonna …” Tony was shocked when he saw tears enter Peter’s eyes. ”She’s gonna think …” He closed his eyes and swallowed. When he opened them again, he got up shakily. Tony steadied him when his knees threatened to give out. ”I need to go.”
”You can’t go like this,” Tony said. Peter looked down at the torn suit, the blood staining the red and blue fabric, black spots where the fire had gotten too close. ”You look a mess, kid.”
Peter seemed to realize that as well and slumped.
”You can take a shower in a minute,” Tony said. ”When you can stand on your own. And I had a bag in the car with clean clothes.” He nodded at the gym bag he’d retrieved once he’d been sure that Peter was going to be fine. “I’ll drive you home once you’re cleaned up. And on the way there, we can discuss explanations for … for Laura. Does that sound like a plan?”
Peter didn’t answer. Silence entered. Tony became aware that he was still touching Peter’s arm and withdrew.
They stood across from each other, not speaking, just looking at each other. Tony couldn’t help but really take Peter in now that he was awake. His jawline was a little sharper, his face more mature than it had been during their confrontation in the bathroom, but those were still Tony’s eyes glancing at him nervously, Tony’s hair falling into Peter’s forehead.
Tony’s fists clenched, he felt tears prick at his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
”Why would I?” Peter asked. ”You weren’t interested in me. You were interested in him.” He ducked his head before looking at Tony again. ”You proved that to me.”
Tony swallowed and nodded. ”I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have turned you down that night. I … regret that. I do.” He reached out a hand to touch, but dropped it again, unsure whether his touch was welcome. ”I should have helped you.”
Peter ducked his head and crossed his arms. For a moment, it didn’t seem as if he intended to answer but then he murmured, ”I never wanted to bother you. I never wanted to pressure you into anything. I didn’t want you to … to be my dad or-or openly admit that …” When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes as well. ”But May was dying.” He heaved a breath. ”She died.” He wiped his eyes. ”The only reason I took the suit was because I knew it would help me to help more people. But I couldn’t … I couldn’t ignore … I photographed the pictures of you because I … I wanted to look at them. I took the notebook and photographed the whiteboards because I wanted to see … I wanted to see your work and I wanted to understand his. I photographed the sheet music because she composed it. I didn’t intend to take the paperwork or the pictures. I just … I saw them and I …” He released a breath. ”My mom told me that you’re my dad just before she died. All I had was her and Uncle Ben’s word. Those things, they proved that you were …”
Peter shrugged. ”It was just nice to know for sure. I never wanted to sell all these things. I would never do that.”
”Where does that leave us?” Tony asked.
”I don’t know.” Peter wiped a hand down his face, grimacing when his fingers brushed over the cut in his lip.
Tony nodded slowly and took a breath, forcing himself to say, ”It’s up to you. I … I would like to … get to know you. I …” He swallowed. ”But it’s up to you.”
Peter cleared his throat. ”I’ll take the clothes, but I won’t take a shower”, he said. ”And I don’t need a ride. I’ll tell her I got mugged or something. I’ll call her from a phone booth.”
Tony swallowed his regret, but he nodded. ”Okay.”
He let Peter use the bathroom to get changed. When he got back out, he seemed to have washed his face a bit and his hair was slightly damp as if he’d run wet fingers through it. ”I left the suit,” he said. ”It’s ruined anyway.”
”I’ll drop off yours in the course of the week.”
”You don’t have to. Keep it,” Tony said. ”Keep the documents as well. And the pictures.”
Peter didn’t imply whether he agreed to this or not.
Tony called the elevator for him. As Peter stepped inside, Tony held the door open, digging a business card from his wallet. ”Take it,” he said. ”Let me know in case ...”
Peter reached out and pocketed the card, nodding, as he turned away from him.
”Peter,” Tony said, needing one more question answered, ”are they good to you?”
Peter turned around to him again. ”Yes,” he said. ”Yes, they are.” He smiled slightly as the elevator doors closed.
“You’ll never guess what happened,” Rhodey said when Tony entered the kitchen at the Avengers Compound just a few hours later, heading straight for the coffee machine. He felt exhausted after staying up all night to look after Peter. He was glad that he’d had a suit at his disposal to come to the Compound. He doubted he would have managed the two-hour drive.
”What happened?” he asked dutifully, though he already had an idea that Rhodey was talking about his little side project.
Rhodey smirked at him, raising his mug of coffee as if to toast Tony as he leaned against the kitchen island opposite him. ”It seems as if video footage documenting prisoner abuse at the Raft was leaked to some UN officials.”
”Really?” Tony asked in mock surprise. ”How inconvenient.”
Tony raised his eyebrows, a smirk tugging at his lips. ”Somebody must have had the administrator password to the Stark Industries security system the Raft uses. Those passwords should really be changed on a regular basis.”
Rhodey laughed. ”Ross is now under investigation.”
”I like the sound of that.”
Rhodey held out his mug and Tony obliged, clinking their mugs together in an actual toast just when Steve entered the kitchen. ”Hey,” he said.
”Hi,” Tony answered.
”You already heard?”
”Yeah. Next step is getting you off the watchlist.”
Steve smiled softly, pouring himself a coffee and settling into the chair next to Rhodey.
”Are you okay?” Rhodey asked, becoming serious. ”I heard about the plane.”
”Oh, yeah, fine,” Tony replied, waving his concern away.
”And Spider-Man? I heard he was at the scene.” His question sounded only mildly interested but his eyes spoke volumes.
”Spider-Man is fine. I talked to him this morning.”
Steve sipped his coffee. ”Will you start working together again?”
Tony ducked his head before he shrugged it off, trying not to let Steve see how much the question affected him. ”Maybe.”
Rhodey looked at Tony, his face guarded, though his eyes were sympathetic. Tony forced a smile.
The text message came two weeks later from an unknown number.
A second message arrived a short time later, giving an address in Richmond Hill. Tony drove to Queens the same afternoon, led to a Craftsman house painted a bright yellow directly opposite Forest Park. A beautiful front garden greeted him, a stone path leading up to the house. Tony got out of his car and just stood on the sidewalk for a moment, trying to calm his nerves. Soft piano music filtered outside. The mailbox stated Jefferson / Parker.
When Tony rang the doorbell, he felt his hands shake and he buried them into his coat quickly, offering a smile when a brunette woman opened the door. She seemed to be around Tony’s age and had a friendly face, which showed a smile upon seeing him. ”Mr. Stark,” she said.
”Hi,” he answered, falling into a stutter when he continued, ”I’m … I’m Peter’s …”
She smiled gently. ”I know. No need to be nervous, come in.” She stepped aside to let him enter. ”I’m Laura.”
”Tony.” He looked around the small entrance area. A stairway led upstairs while a door to his right opened into a cozy kitchen with a big, wooden dinner table. The house was furnished tastefully and very neat, family pictures and children’s drawings causing splashes of color against the white walls.
Laura said, ”My husband Theo really wanted to meet you but he was called into work. He should be back for dinner, though, if you’re … interested.”
”Sure,” Tony said, then he paused and shrugged with a helpless smile. ”I’m sorry, I don’t know what the etiquette is in these kinds of situations.”
”I don’t think there is one. Peter’s through here,” she said, gesturing down the hallway. ”I have to admit,” she said as they followed the piano music towards a closed door at the end, ”I was surprised when Peter first mentioned who his father is.”
”I was even more surprised to learn that you knew about him all along.”
Tony winced. ”I … I’m not proud of what happened,” he said. ”I thought … a life away from me would be better for him but … I was wrong.”
”I’m not judging you,” Laura said, stopping in front of the door, ”for your past. But … if you decide now to be a part of Peter’s life, you can’t back out again. When they brought Peter to us, he was unable to connect with us on an emotional level. He was polite, he did as he was told, he went on trips with us and met our adult kids and extended family, but … he didn’t enjoy any of it, if you know what I mean. He was left behind so often that he is afraid to forge new connections. He’s got a friend in school he opens up to, but other than that … there is nobody left from his former life. He’s only now starting to come out of his shell, I would hate for that success to go to waste.”
Tony nodded his understanding. ”I don’t plan on giving up on him.”
She smiled and opened the door and the piano stopped. ”Peter, Tony’s here.”
He leaned into the room and forced a smile through his nervousness. The room was more of a sunroom, a couch and two armchairs crowded in one corner together with a set of low bookshelves and the piano in the other. Peter was sitting on the bench with a pencil between his lips as he looked at Tony. He quickly took the pencil out of his mouth. ”Hey,” he said. He sounded nervous.
”Hey,” Tony answered.
”I’ll leave you to it,” Laura said, giving Peter an encouraging smile before she walked away, leaving the door open.
Tony walked around the piano slowly. ”Laura seems really nice.”
Tony’s eyes were caught by the sheet music on the piano and he raised his eyebrows, recognizing it immediately as the unfinished composition. ”That’s my mom’s.”
Peter ducked his head. ”Yeah, I … copied it from the pictures I took.”
Tony reached out and took the sheets into his hands, leafing through them. ”There are more pages, though,” he said.
Peter cleared his throat, his fingers gripping the pencil nervously. “I’ve been … I’ve been kind of trying to finish it.”
Tony set the sheets down again and leaned against the piano. ”I want to hear it.”
Peter looked at him with wide eyes. ”Really?”
”Yeah, why not?”
“Okay.” Peter put the pencil down and rested his fingers on the keys, but then hesitated and looked at Tony. ”It’s … it’s a piece for four hands, though.”
Tony felt his heart warm, a smile overcoming his face. ”Okay,” he said and shrugged out of his coat, draping it over the end of the piano before settling next to Peter on the bench. ”Let’s start here,” he said, pointing at a part of the piece he still knew and they started to play.
It wasn’t perfect, they stumbled over the melody several times, sometimes played in different speeds, but Tony was still able to hear what Peter had written and it almost brought tears to his eyes as the sad melody turned happier again gradually, ending on a warm, content note.
For a moment, they sat in silence, then Peter said, “It needs tweaking.”
Tony shook his head. ”It’s perfect.” He reached out one hand and rested it on Peter’s shoulder, squeezing gently. ”We just need more practice.”