Tony ran his fingers through Peter’s sweaty hair with a breath that was a half-laugh and a half-sigh. “You’re not dying.”
“No. No. I am.” Peter faked a dramatic wheeze, tightening his hold on his mentor’s shirt and scrunching his face up in discomfort. “See? Dying.”
“You have the flu, Pete. Not the plague.”
“How do you know?”
Despite his insistence that Peter was fine, Tony couldn’t stop himself from pressing the back of his hand against the teenager’s forehead. Definitely warm with fever, but not alarmingly hot. Not dying hot. Just… uncomfortable hot. They could deal with uncomfortable hot. “Because I had F.R.I.D.A.Y. scan you. Twice.”
“That’s a little much.”
Now was probably a bad time to mention that Rhodey had spent a ridiculous amount of time convincing him not to call Bruce away from his research in California the moment he realized Peter was sick.
He was so preoccupied with that thought (and, yes, maybe just a tiny bit of concern for the snotty kid in his lap) that his next words rolled out before he could really process them. “Oh, so sorry I care about you. I’ll just leave you suffering in your empty apartment next time.”
Peter blinked up at him with false innocence. “You care about me?”
Damn it. “Mention it again and I’ll kill you.”
The kid smiled, all drowsy and content. “Sure you will.”
Peter coughed, and then his face was screwed up again. This time, however, Tony could tell that the discomfort was very real. “I hate being sick.”
Tony handed him a tissue to spit the mucus into, and took a brief moment to be surprised by how un-grossed out he was over the whole situation. “I know, buddy. I’m sorry.” He pulled the throw blanket up to the kid’s chin and smoothed a curl away from his forehead. “You need anything? Water? Chicken soup? More DayQuil?”
Peter giggled, and then ended up paying for it with another coughing fit. “You’re going to make me OD on DayQuil.”
“Bruce said we can give you double the dose every two hours.”
“But it tastes awful.”
“Well boohoo for you. Don’t be a brat.” Tony checked his watch. “You’re due for another dose in about an hour.”
“But I just took one an hour ago!”
“Well, that is how two hours work, bud. See, first comes one hour, then comes another, and that makes two.”
“You’re the worst.”
Tony just hummed in response.
“Are you sure I’m not dying?”
“I feel like I’m dying.”
He swallowed hard. The hand that was buried in the kid’s curls tensed unconsciously. “Please stop talking about dying, Peter.”
“Oh.” The teenager pushed his cheek into his mentor’s thigh with an apologetic smile. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine, kiddo. Just, uh, maybe we can keep the death jokes to a minimum, okay? Too much of a good thing, and all that jazz.”
“Right. Yeah. ‘Course.” Peter sighed, eyes fluttering shut. “I really don’t feel so great, Mister Stark.”
The kid’s voice was so pitiful that it made Tony’s entire body ache in sympathy. He let his voice drop to a soft murmur. “I bet. Why don’t you try for some shut eye? It’ll give me a chance to keep perfecting my pillow skills.”
He could tell by the way Peter’s mouth curled into a lazy smile that he heard the unspoken I’m going to stay right here behind the words. “M’kay.”
The kid’s breath had just evened out into sleep when the elevator dinged its arrival and Steve wandered in. He opened his mouth to speak, but Tony cut him off with a jerk of his hand across his throat and a meaningful nod towards the kid curled up in his lap. Steve smothered a fond smile in the palm of his hand, blatantly ignoring the warning look Tony shot him.
Steve dropped onto the recliner across from them, still doing a piss poor job of hiding his amusement. Tony had a feeling that he wasn’t even trying.
He okay? The soldier mouthed, pointing obviously at Peter.
Sick, Tony sent back, frowning to emphasize the statement.
It looked like Steve was going to reply, but an alarm blared through the Compound before he could form the words, piercing the domestic calm of the scene. The soldier lunged to his feet at the same moment Tony lunged for Peter. On another day, in another time, Steve might have teased him for his “mother instincts.”
As it was, there wasn’t any room for jokes in their itinerary.
Peter jolted awake with a whimper, shoving his hands over his ears. Tony shushed him lightly, tugging him out of his lap and fixing the kid’s face against his neck so it was easier to shield him. Peter let out another whine, hands scrabbling at his head, and Tony winced in sympathy. The siren was painfully loud even to his non-enhanced hearing. He couldn’t imagine how it felt to the poor kid.
He grabbed Peter’s wrists in a futile attempt to stop the teenager from hurting himself. After all, it wasn’t like he had a chance of overpowering him if it came down to it. Still, it was worth a shot.
“F.R.I.D.A.Y.! Turn that down!”
Nothing. The alarm kept blaring. Peter curled desperately around Tony, burying his face in the older man’s collarbone with a choked off sob.
He cupped the back of the kid’s head and tried to rub soothing circles in his curls. “F.R.I.D.A.Y.? You there?”
Steve positioned himself between Tony and Peter and the elevator, dropping his weight into a fight stance. He had to shout to be heard. “Someone must have shut her down and triggered the alarm.”
“Yeah.” Tony’s heart was pounding painfully in his chest, and every pulse from the alarm sent a round of pain flooding through his skull. Without F.R.I.D.A.Y., they were sitting ducks. They were locked out from the security systems, Tony couldn’t access the armor, and, most importantly, he couldn’t shut off this damn alarm. “Where’s the rest of the team?”
“Last I checked, they were all in the training room. I was supposed to come up and ask if you wanted to join us.” Steve’s gaze darted down to Peter. “Didn’t realize you had the kid over.”
“I wasn’t supposed to. His Aunt’s out of town and he got sick at school.”
Steve nodded. Tony could see the conflict raging behind his eyes. “You can’t get the suit without F.R.I.D.A.Y., can you?”
He suddenly understood the soldier’s internal battle. Steve needed to round up the team and address the threat, but he didn’t want to leave Tony and Peter unprotected. “No, but I’ve got this.” He let go of Peter just long enough to drag his watch gauntlet over his hand. The repulser whirred and whined as it charged. “Go. I’ve got him. If you get a chance to shut this damn alarm off, do it.”
There was a brief moment where Steve wavered, shifting his weight between the foot closest to the door and the foot closest to Tony. Then, he let out a rush of breath and nodded, short and jerky. “Stay safe.”
I have to. If I’m not safe, then Peter isn’t, either.
And that’s unacceptable.
As soon as Steve disappeared down the stairwell, Tony forced himself to take a deep breath. He had to stay calm, collected, concise. Peter’s safety rested on his ability to be Iron Man, suit be damned.
First things first: comfort the kid.
“Bud?” Peter let out a slightly louder sob at the sound of his voice. “Talk to me, kid. How’re we doing?”
Second things second: get the kid out of here.
“Alright, Pete, I hear you.” He used his knee to maneuver the kid’s legs off his lap and pushed his feet to the floor. “Going up.”
Peter staunchly refused to adjust his position, face buried in Tony’s neck and hands fisted in the back of his shirt, so he just stood and hauled the kid to his unsteady feet in front of him.
The overloaded teenager whined at the sudden movement, knees buckling. Tony hastily took over all of his weight.
“Shh, shh, shh,” he raked his eyes around the room, absently comforting the kid while letting his mind turn and whirl through different escape routes, “easy, Pete.”
He started tugging the kid towards his bedroom. When Tony had built the Compound, he’d placed a series of escape tunnels crisscrossing beneath the facility. They had never been on the blueprints, and only a handful of people even knew they existed outside of the Avengers. Hopefully, he could use them to get Peter somewhere safe.
He’d deal with everything else later.
“Okay, buddy. We’re going. Everything should quiet down soon, okay?” The tunnels were meant to muffle the sounds of bombs. Hopefully, they’d cut off the sirens too. “You’re doing great.”
He stumbled into the bedroom and made a beeline for the closet. He kicked the door open with a careless foot, too focused on the sobbing teenager weighing him down to care about the perfectly stained wood. He entered his code and the secret compartment popped open.
And, now came the difficult part. The tunnels had been designed so that every aspect would work, even without power. They had their own arc reactor powering the lights, but Tony had decided to forgo elevators and have each descent fitted with stairs.
Which was fine, most of the time. It was just a massive pain in the ass if you happened to be carrying an inconsolable spider-kid.
It was pretty obvious that there was no way Peter we going to be managing the stairs on his own. So, Tony just scooped the kid into his arms, bridal-style, and went for the first step.
It was a long, slow, agonizing descent. The only saving grace was that the sirens dulled about halfway down, and Peter’s crying eased. What wasn’t great was that the full-body sobs were replaced by the shivers of a high fever. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, Tony was genuinely wondering if he was going to get burned by the heat coming off of the limp teenager.
As soon as he reached the tunnels, he realized that he had to take a break. He’d carried Peter before, usually from wherever he ended up passing out in the lab and up to his bedroom, but never for this long. His back and arms were screaming, and he knew he was in serious danger of dropping him if he didn’t give his body a reprieve.
In the end, he just pressed his back against the wall and slid down until he was sitting on the ground with the kid cradled in his lap. It may not have been the most dignified move he’d ever done, but it was easier than anything else he could think of doing.
Peter huffed tiredly against his shoulder. Tony brushed his hand over his forehead, wincing when his hand came away drenched in still-warm sweat.
“Hey there, kiddo.” The teenager shifted a little in acknowledgement, but otherwise stayed still. “How’re we doing?”
“I-I know, buddy, but you’re really hot.”
He felt helpless. There was a reason he kept the kid doped up on DayQuil and, occasionally, super-drugs when he was sick. His immune system had a nasty habit of overreacting to even simple infections or viruses. It went haywire, spiking his temperature to insane levels and baking his body from the inside out.
But now he couldn’t give the kid anything, because he didn't have it.
He should've thought to grab the meds before he’d left. He would’ve, if it hadn’t been for that damn alarm.
As it was, all he could do was pull the kid closer and drop his face against the crown of his head, letting out an exhausted breath and squeezing his eyes shut against the curls. “It’s okay, Pete. I’ve got you.”
He just let himself sit for a few minutes, giving his aching muscles the chance to recover and his pulse some time to return to something vaguely in the realm of normal. Peter was quiet and still for the most part. Everyone once in a while, an inhale would catch on snot and he’d end up jackknifing into a coughing fit. Otherwise, he was limp and lifeless.
Which Tony really, really hated.
“Mister Stark?” Peter’s voice was raspy, and the sudden sound jolted the billionaire’s attention back onto the kid. “I-I feel really bad.”
He let out a little laugh, because no shit, kid, and was about to murmur a soft yet snarky reply, when he froze.
He froze, because there was a distant scuffling, bang, and then footsteps.
Lots of footsteps. As in, too many footsteps to be the Avengers coming to give them the all clear.
Tony sat very, very still, and considered his options.
There… weren’t many.
He didn’t have any comms, so he couldn’t alert the team or call for backup. Peter was so out of it that he couldn’t even stand, let alone fight. Tony didn’t even need to check his forehead to know that his fever was higher than anything a medical professional would deem safe.
Why could this kid never catch a break?
The footsteps were getting closer. Tony knew that his first priority had to be getting Peter somewhere safe. He looked to his left, and saw a door just a few meters away.
A supply closet.
The tunnels were equipped with food and other emergency supplies. Usually, they would also be fully integrated into F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s database, but that was obviously useless as of now.
But the supply closets would be a very good hiding place for a certain spider-kid.
“Okay, Peter, I’m gonna stand up again.” The kid whimpered, and Tony shushed him. “Shh, bud. You’ve gotta be really quiet. Understand?”
He hummed, and Tony really hoped he’d actually comprehended the request and wasn’t just reacting to the sound of his voice.
How he managed to get the door of the supply closet open without dropping Peter was a mystery he would never solve. All he knew was that he did it, and then rushed to settle the kid in the darkest corner.
As soon as he had Peter propped up in a vaguely upright position, Tony cupped his cheek tapped until two bleary eyes focused on his face.
“Hey, kiddo. I have a challenge for you.”
He took a deep breath. “I need you to stay really quiet and really still, alright? As still and as quiet as you can.”
“Good boy.” He jumped to his feet. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
He closed the closet door before Peter could respond, and sent a blasphemous prayer up to any deity that might be listening that he hadn’t just lied through his teeth.
The footsteps were getting closer and closer, and he realized all at once that he had absolutely no plan at all. The only thing he’d been able to think about was keeping Peter safe, keeping Peter hidden, keeping Peter alive.
Caught up in all that, he hadn’t even considered his own escape plan.
He laid himself flat against the wall and silently re-engaged his watch gauntlet, pulling the nanotech over his hand and charging up the repulser. He focused his attention on keeping every breath steady, quiet, deep. This was hardly the first time he’d seen combat, and it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d been outnumbered.
He was Tony goddamn Stark, and he didn’t take any ambush lying down. Especially when there was a delirious kid waiting on him to fix the issue.
The footsteps seemed right upon him now. He counted. With each number, he levelled his breaths and squeezed his fists.
The steps were echoing. It made it hard to gauge the soldiers’ exact locations, but Tony also knew that it would work in his advantage, too.
He hoped Peter stayed put. He hoped his fever didn’t rise while he was away. He hoped that he lived long enough to check on him again.
The gauntlet was warm against his palm. If he focused, he could just barely make out the barely-audible hum of the repulser.
They were right there. He could hear the voices. Somehow, he convinced himself that he could smell their sweat.
A quick inventory of the situation told him that there were about ten soldiers, give or take a couple. The first three hit the ground before the others could even begin to react. The fourth took him three seconds. The fifth about four.
Then the fight blurred.
Five against one weren’t great odds on the best day, but they were even worse when the five were armed with guns and the one was working with rusty hand-to-hand combat skills and a single repulser made of prototype nanotech.
Those odds got even worse when a well-aimed hit with a pair of iron knuckles crushed said nanotech.
At that point, he was sure he was going to lose. He’d managed to take down one of the five soldiers, a well-aimed kick to the groin followed by a knee to the face, but it wasn’t enough to give him an edge, especially without the full-strength of his repulser.
It wasn’t enough.
He knew he should’ve been worried about himself, but all he could think about as one of the soldier’s pinned his wrist against the wall was Peter.
Would the soldiers find him? If they didn’t, would anybody? Once F.R.I.D.A.Y. came online, she’d certainly detect his heat signature, but what if that was too late? His fever was so high.
He was so absorbed in the thoughts that when the kid popped up over one of the soldier’s shoulders, he thought he was hallucinating him.
That was, until one of the men was screaming in agony as his arm was wrenched behind his back by someone that definitely wasn’t Tony.
Oh, god. That really was Peter. Peter, who was supposed to be hidden away. Peter, who hadn’t even been able to stand just a few minutes ago. Peter, who was small and vulnerable and-
And, uh, and kicking ass.
He’d seen the kid fight before. Hell, he’d helped with his training. He knew he was a formidable opponent, knew he wasn’t a helpless kid even if his protective instincts tried to convince him otherwise sometimes.
But this… this was something else. This a shutter-blur of strike, feign, duck, strike. His form was tight, movements precise. Tony could barely even recognize the same kid that had been half-conscious and whimpering about the cold barely half an hour ago.
And as soon as it began, the fight ended. The last body hit the ground with a rustle of clothes and the slick scrape of skin on tile.
He stared at Peter, who was hunched over his stomach with a wince. He met Tony’s gaze with glassy eyes, wavering dangerously on his feet.
“Peter!” He snapped, adrenaline making his voice harsh and spurring him back into reality. “What the hell did I tell you, huh? Stay hidden. Did you listen to a word of that?”
“‘M… ‘m sorry. I-”
“You could’ve been killed!” If he hadn’t been so blinded by fear, he might have seen the way the kid was clutching his stomach, or noticed the sudden pallor of his face. As it was, every single one of the warning signs slipped right past his guard. “For fuck’s sake, Peter! You scared the absolute shit out of-”
“M-Mis’er St-St’rk?” Peter’s gaze flickered down to his hands and then leapt back up to his mentor’s face. “ ‘M… ‘M really sorry but… I-I think you’re gonna have t’ catch me.”
Tony didn’t think, he just did. Peter’s legs gave out, and he lunged to grab him like it was a carefully choreographed move. They went down together, with Tony softening the kid’s descent and rushing to pull him into his lap.
Suddenly, nothing else mattered.
“What’s wrong, Pete?” His hands instantly moved to his forehead. It was hot, but not as hot as before. It didn’t make sense. None of it made any sense. “Buddy?”
Weakly, the kid gripped Tony’s wrists and pulled them away from his face. At first, Tony was baffled as to why he was pushing him away. Then, Peter pushed his palms against his lower abdomen and Tony understood what he was trying to convey in a moment of white-hot terror.
Because his hands were suddenly drenched in something warm and sticky. And when he glanced down, he realized it was blood.
“Fuck.” He scrambled the tear at the kid’s clothes and get a better look at the deep wound in his lower abdomen. “Fuck, Peter. How did you-”
“Knife.” A pained smile curled across Peter’s face. ‘S… ‘S no fair.”
“One of those bastards stabbed you?”
“T’be fair, I took his gun.”
“Shut up. Jesus. Just stay with me, alright?” He tore the kid’s sweatshirt over his chest, then slid it out from under his back and used the ruined garment as a makeshift bandage. “You’re gonna be just fine.”
Peter just hummed in response, glassy eyes half-lidded. In all honesty, he was already starting to look like the walking dead.
How the hell had this kid just taken down four Hydra operatives on his own?
Well, he’d managed to take down four Hydra operatives and sustain a severe abdominal stab wounds in the process, so maybe Tony shouldn’t be all that impressed.
(Just for the record: he still was, even if he wasn’t ready to admit that quite yet. Or ever. He wasn’t sure he’d be ready to admit that ever.)
“F.R.I.D.A.Y.?” He called out, too preoccupied with the pain dripping over Peter’s face to remember the specifics of their situation. “I need an exit. I needed an exist yesterday. Fuck.”
He didn’t get an answer.
It looked like he was on his own.
Well, he thought, I’m not Tony Stark for nothing, right?
It better be enough.
It has to be enough.
He found the emergency exit hatch approximately 47 minutes into hauling Peter’s feverish body farther and farther down the tunnel.
The feeling of sunlight on his face would’ve been a lot better if it hadn’t been accompanied by the alarmed shouts of yet another regiment of Hydra soldiers.
As it turned out, hauling a half-conscious teenager through the woods while being chased by Hydra operatives was just as hard as it sounded.
Especially when said teenager decided that unconsciousness seemed a lot more appealing than anything else.
The kid’s sudden deadweight nearly dragged the billionaire to the ground. He staggered back to his feet and propped him up against a tree, ignoring the way every muscle in his body begged for a reprieve.
“Come on, Peter.” He cupped his face and shot a hasty look over one of his shoulders. “You gotta wake up for me, kiddo. We gotta keep moving and I need you to help me out.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but he wasn’t sure he could carry him if the kid didn’t stay at least a little with it.
At least, he couldn’t carry him fast enough.
Peter blinked slowly. Tony got the impression that even when his eyes were open, he wasn’t really seeing him. “‘M tired.”
“I know, buddy.” He tried not to look at the bloodied sweatshirt that he’d hastily bound around the kid’s stomach. He tried not to think about how every drop of blood screamed of his failure. “But they’re still after us, so we have to hide. I need you to stay with me a little longer, okay?”
“Yes, you can. You have to. Please, Peter. Please.” He hated every second of begging the kid to do something that he knew would hurt, but he didn’t have a choice. Peter had to keep moving. If he didn’t, they died. “Just try, alright? Just try.”
And Peter, bless him, forced his head up and gave him a tight-lipped nod.
“Good boy.” He kept stumbling forward through the trees, relieved by the tiny ways in which Peter made efforts to support his own weight. “C’mon, kid.” Just a little longer, just a little farther. Come on, Peter. Come on. “Just move your feet. That’s it. You’re doing great.”
He knew they needed to stop. Peter needed medical attention yesterday, and the kid wouldn’t be able to keep moving for much longer no matter how much Tony begged him. So, when he stumbled across the cave, he staggered inside.
It wasn’t ideal. If the Hydra agents found them, they wouldn’t have an escape route. On the other hand, Tony knew that he couldn't outrun them while carrying Peter anyway.
And he wasn’t about to leave him behind.
He laid Peter out in a hidden corner of the cave and tugged the sweatshirt away from his stomach. The tear in the kid’s t-shirt was easy to widen, and Tony winced as he revealed the bloody wound underneath the material.
It was wide, deep, and, much more alarmingly, still bleeding like a bitch.
If he didn’t do something to staunch that bleeding, and soon, it wouldn’t matter if Hydra or the other Avengers found them first. Peter wouldn’t last that long.
The only problem was, he didn’t have anything to clean, stitch, or bandage the wound with. All he had was the gauntlet, which was mangled and damaged and was only really good for…
He’d installed a series of emergency protocols into the gauntlet, one of which was a cauterization feature. He’d almost decided against adding it, because the entire concept of melting a wound shut seemed too brutal, but he also knew that nothing in his life was predictable.
He’d never thought he’d be contemplating using it on Peter.
Tony engaged the setting with shaky fingers before crawling up to the teenager’s face and cupping it gently. The kid’s eyelids fluttered open as he turned his cheek into the billionaire’s touch.
A touch that had never hurt him before. A touch that Tony had always been careful to keep tender and kind. A touch that was supposed to protect the kid, not harm him.
Tony felt like he was going to throw up.
“Okay, kid. Focus up. I need you to listen really closely, alright?”
A shaky breath. He could do this. He could do this. He had to do this. “I’ve gotta close up that wound or you’re gonna bleed out, and all I’ve got is the gauntlet. I’m gonna have to cauterize it. Do you understand what that means?”
The kid, bless him, blinked up at Tony with those trusting doe eyes, as if the man hadn’t just said that he was going to practically torture him. “Gonna hurt?”
“Yeah, buddy. It’s gonna hurt like a bitch. But you’re gonna have to stay quiet for me, okay?”
The billionaire choked on a breath. “Yeah, kiddo. For me. Think you can do that?”
“Okay. That’s good. That’s really good.” He tore off the hem of his shirt and folded it into a neat square. “Bite down on this.”
As soon as the fabric was clenched between Peter’s teeth, Tony lunged away from his face. He couldn’t stand looking into his eyes for even a single extra second. Not when they were so full of trust and love and everything else that Tony didn’t deserve.
Everything else that Tony would never deserve again. Not after this. Never after this.
He hovered his hand over the kid’s abdomen and took a deep breath, steadying himself through sheer force of will. “Alright, Pete. You ready?”
The teenager gave a shaky nod, and Tony engaged the gauntlet. It whined as it heated, a small beep indicating that the ideal temperature had been reached.
He bit his tongue and shoved the metal against the wound.
At first, Tony could tell the kid was trying desperately to stay quiet. His jaw clenched down around the scrap of fabric and he sucked a strangled, agonizing breath through his nose. The first noise the kid made was a pitiful sob. Then, Tony twisted the gauntlet to check if the wound was closing and Peter screamed.
Tony’s other hand shot out to muffle the noise before he could even process the action. He felt disgust rise in his throat as he clamped his bloodied hand over the kid’s mouth, but he didn’t let go.
“Shh, Peter.” He would never admit to anyone that the reassurances came out as sobs. “C’mon buddy. Just pass out. Please, kid.”
He doesn’t know whether Peter heard his pleas or if, for once in their lives, the pair had the tiniest glimmer of hours-too-late-luck, but the kid’s consciousness fled on a gasp of air. His body gave one last, fruitless jerk, and then his back thudded to the ground with a dull thud.
“Okay. Okay. It’s okay.” He pulled the gauntlet away from the kid’s abdomen and fumbled with the mangled metal until it dropped to the dirt. He staggered to his feet and kicked the device to the other side of the cave, revulsion filling his mouth when the metal glinted red with blood.
He didn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, but it must’ve been a while, because the vomit that raced up his throat was 90% bile.
“Fuck. Fuck.” He wiped his mouth, bit his knuckles as he tried to center himself. “Pull it together, Stark. Pull it together.”
He crawled back to Peter’s side, not trusting his legs to support him if he tried to stand. The kid was still out cold, face slack and legs splayed out awkwardly on the damp dirt. The one solace Tony could take from the whole situation was that he didn’t look like he was in pain.
Not anymore, at least.
“Hey, buddy.” He brushed his fingertips over Peter’s temple, frightened to put any force behind the touch. “Hard part’s over. Now we just wait for the Avengers to swoop in and save the day.” He tenderly pulled the kid into his lap, cradled his head in the crook of his elbow. “Everything’s gonna be okay now.”
Everything was most certainly not okay. Although, in Tony’s defense, he hadn’t even anticipated the flavors of not okay that creeped up on them in the days following that promise.
The first night was by far the most stressful.
Every crack, shuffle, or howl of wind made Tony clutch Peter tighter to his chest, listening closely for the telltale sounds of boots against leaves or subdued voices. The kid was mostly out of it, only coming to every once in a while to whimper incoherently until Tony shushed him back to sleep.
It dawned on him sometime past midnight that he couldn’t risking giving away their location by leaving the cave, but he had no way of knowing if it was safe enough to get Peter back to the Compound (and to the medical attention he so obviously needed) without at least a preliminary scouting mission.
Besides those concerns, the cave was dark, damp, and drafty. The wind caught in the mouth and howled violently in his ears, obscuring any sounds of enemy approach and just generally deafening him. Water dripped down the walls and, since the cave sloped down the deeper you went, streamed back and gathered in small puddles.
Over all, Tony wasn’t really having the time of his life.
The only thing that wasn’t an issue was warmth. The night was a little chilly, but Peter’s fever generated enough heat for the both of them.
He wasn’t sure how grateful he could be for that small comfort, considering the circumstances. God, it felt like Peter was frying in his arms.
At some point, he must’ve dozed off, because he awoke to the heat of sunlight on his face. It took a few minutes to get his bearings, shifting in discomfort as he took stock of his sweat-soaked shirt. Peter’s fever must have spiked even higher in the night.
Despite the worry, though, there was a bizarre peacefulness to the atmosphere. For a minute, he closed his eyes and let the morning air fill his lungs and enjoyed the feeling of the sunshine warming his aching joints.
Then he realized that sunlight meant they were visible, and that that was not a good thing.
The angle of the sun was casting most of their hiding place in bright light, but there was still a small shady area behind a nearby outcropping of stone. He’d have to shift them there, although the thought of rousing Peter enough to do it made his stomach clench.
Well, he had to check on him anyway. With a fever that high, there was the obvious concern of brain damage, and just because he’d managed to stop the external bleeding from the stab wound didn’t fix whatever internal damage there was. Abdominal wounds were notoriously tricky to treat at the best of times, and working with zero medical supplies while on the run from Hydra soldiers in the middle of a forest was almost certainly not the best of times.
“Hey, Pete.” He set his palm against the kid’s forehead as he shook him gently. Definitely cooler than before. That was good. That was really good. “C’mon, bud. You need to wake up.”
He got a moan, and then an almost imperceptible shift.
“That’s it. You’re almost there.”
“Hey there, kid. How’re you feeling?”
He rubbed his shoulder soothingly. “Sorry, squirt.”
It took him a second to remember that he’d woken the kid up.
“Yeah, bud, I do.” He pointed to the shady spot. “We need to move over there. Think you can help an old man out?”
Peter turned his head and stared at the distance of a few feet like it was miles of open sea. “Why?”
“We’ll be better hidden there.”
The poor kid had just woken up and he already sounded exhausted. “C’mon, I’ll do most of the work. You just do what you can, alright?”
He got a weary nod in response, and he couldn’t help but think that this kid was a fucking trooper. “M’kay.”
It took him a solid five minutes to half-carry, half-drag Peter to their new spot. He’d had to ignore a few yelps of pain when he’d twisted the kid the wrong way, but he was pretty sure the sounds were ingrained in his memory for life now.
After that, there wasn’t much else to do but sit and wait and hope that Hydra soldiers really hated caves.
That last bit became his mantra as he ran his fingers through Peter’s hair, soothing him back to sleep.
Please hate caves. Please hate caves. Please, please, please hate caves.
On the morning of the second day, Peter’s fever came back, and it came back with a vengeance.
They’d made it through the night relatively peacefully. No Hydra scouts, no crazy wind, no whimpers and whines. Peter had slept peacefully, face tucked into the crook of Tony’s neck and fingers tangled in his blood-stained shirt.
Then Tony had left him to drink some of the water pooling in an indent just a few feet away. He swore he’d only been gone a few minutes, but by the time he got back, Peter was sweat-soaked and burning up all over again.
It only got worse from there.
He seemed even more distressed than before, no matter how much Tony tried to comfort him. At one point, the kid’s eyes flickered open just halfway, pupils unfocused and gaze glazed, but he’d jumped at the chance to get his attention all the same.
“Hey, buddy.” He tilted Peter’s face until his eyes were pointed in his general direction. “You’re alright. I’m right here.”
Peter just whined, tears sliding down his temples as he kicked his legs weakly against the cave’s dirt floor.
“Shh, shh. None of that. Just rest.” The kid stared right through him. “C’mon, kiddo. Work with me here.”
A weak hand slapped against his chest. “No. G’way. Don’… Don’…”
“Pete, shh.” He forced himself not to panic. “Do you know who I am, bud?”
It was obvious that Peter wasn’t processing a single word that came out of his mouth. His just kept on begging disjointedly until exhaustion or fever or god-knows-what dragged him back under again.
Sometime in the evening, Tony tore a piece of cloth from Peter’s shirt, wet it on the cave’s walls, used it to wipe down the kid’s face, desperately hoping that it might do something to lower his dangerously climbing fever, but Peter only got worse.
That night, Tony had been pretty goddamn sure the kid was gonna give up on breathing in his arms.
By some miracle, maybe divine intervention or some final grasp at luck, he didn’t.
The third day was the worst.
Peter spent the entire morning vomiting and then, when his stomach ran out of bile to give, dry heaving. Tony had to hold him on his side, and clean his mouth out afterwards to make sure he wouldn’t choke. It was impossible to tell when he was conscious and when he wasn’t, because he spent nearly every minute, waking or not, crying.
Tony had long since given up on getting the kid to recognize him. Even when his eyes were open, there wasn’t even the tiniest spark of Peter to be found.
He was pretty sure that the fever was eating him alive.
He didn’t have to look far to find the cause. He’d taken a half-hearted glance at the sealed stab wound in between one of Peter’s bouts of sickness, only to nearly vomit himself at the sight and smell that greeted him.
The wound was infected, and it was infected badly. But there was nothing he could do except hide in the goddamn cave and wait for someone to rescue them.
He thought about ways to get them out. In fact, that was how he passed most of the time that Peter was either puking his guts out or rambling gibberish with heaving breaths. The only problem was, he actually had no idea where they were. Tracking their steps hadn’t exactly been his priority while hauling Peter through the woods with a pack of Hydra soldiers in tow. Even if he could find a way to carry the kid safely and ensure they wouldn’t be caught in the attempt, he had no idea how to get them back to the Compound.
It was better to stay put. Once F.R.I.D.A.Y. was back online, it wouldn’t take Steve and the others too long to track them. At least in the cave, they had a source of water and shelter from the elements.
Even if Peter was slowly dying in his lap.
The sun set, and Peter seemed to set with it.
He stopped sobbing. Stopped writhing. Stopped opening his eyes. He just laid quietly in his arms, unresponsive and hauntingly still.
Tony couldn’t decide if he was crying from some twisted form of relief or terror.
On the fourth day, Rhodey and Steve arrived.
It wasn’t a moment too soon, either. Four days without food, and with minimal water, had taken their toll on Tony. He was shaky, exhausted, and felt about four seconds way from collapse.
And Peter… well, Peter looked like he perilously close to setting a second foot in his grave.
If Tony was being morbidly honest, he’d just started to reconcile himself with the idea that nobody would find them in time, that both he and Peter would end up dying in the middle of fucking nowhere, when he heard the unmistakable clank of metal boots on stone.
The metal boots of an Iron Man suit on stone.
And there was only one other person in the world who had access to one of those besides him.
“Tones?” More footsteps, and Tony could see the silhouette of the War Machine armor at the mouth of the cave. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., are you sure you found heat signatures in here?”
Oh, god. He found himself crying again, except this time he knew it was from relief and not terror. How could he ever be terrified when Rhodey was right there?
He unconsciously pulled Peter’s deadweight closer to his chest, dropped his forehead against his matted curls.
It’s gonna be okay now, kid. It’s all gonna be okay, and I mean it this time. I really mean it.
“Rhodey!” His shout was cracked and hoarse, but he followed it with an equally painful laugh. “Rhodes! Over here!”
“Tony, shit.” It only took Rhodey a few seconds to rush to his side and fall out of the suit, eyes taking in his and Peter’s conditions with clinical precision. “Hey, man. Glad you aren’t dead.”
He grinned, head dropping back against the wall as he finally, finally relaxed. “Thanks. ‘M pretty happy about it, too.”
They shared a brief glance, so full of emotion that Tony would have to return to the memory to process it later, before getting back to business.
“Report, Tones. You hurt?”
“Not bad.” He nodded down at Peter’s still form even though he seriously doubted Rhodey needed the gesture. “He’s… He’s real bad, though.”
Rhodey ran a hand over Peter’s face and balked, no doubt noting the kid’s temperature. “Fuck. Fuck. F.R.I.D.A.Y., scan him.”
A blue light fell out from the arc reactor powering the suit, which had been hovering just over Rhodey’s shoulder, and roved over Peter’s body.
“My preliminary field scans are not as accurate as a blood test, but Mister Parker appears to be suffering from the beginning stages of septic shock. It appears that the wound in his abdominal cavity pierced his large intestine, allowing bacteria from his digestive tract to begin an infection. His temperature is currently 106.2 degrees. He needs immediate medical attention.”
“Okay, alright.” Rhodey glanced over his shoulder. “Hey, Rogers! Get in here!”
The shout warped in Tony’s ears. He felt his hand slip away from Peter, but he couldn’t seem to find the strength to move it again.
“Tony! Tony, stay with me, y’hear? C’mon, man, hold on.”
It was… It was fine, though. Rhodey was here. Rhodey would take care of Peter, he knew he would. He could surely take a break, right? He’d been out here for so long. So, so long. How long had it been again?
“Tones! Hey, listen to me-”
The last thing he thought before finally passing out was that he’d never listened to Rhodey, so he didn’t understand why the man thought he might start now.
He woke up in a hospital room.
In retrospect, he definitely realized that waking up in a hospital room with no memory of getting there was usually an alarming experience for normal people. For him, though, it felt like just another day at the office.
He wasn’t alone, anyway. Of course he wasn’t.
“Hey, Tones.” Rhodey leaned over him, face stern. “You’re a goddamn pain in my ass, y’know that?”
“Yeah,” god, his voice was wrecked, “yeah, I do.”
“Do you?” Underneath all the attitude, Tony could see real fear in his best friend’s eyes. “You telling me you didn’t sleep once that whole goddamn time? Or eat? Shit, man, you were so dehydrated that the paramedics couldn’t even get an IV in you at first.”
He shrugged, trying not to feel guilty. “Had Peter.”
“Yeah, who would’ve died if your body had decided to conk out even a little bit sooner. You get that?”
He winced. That was a low blow. “Yeah, fine. ‘M sorry.” The heartrate monitor picked up as he reprocessed Rhodey’s words. “Peter, shit, is he-”
The man held up a steadying hand. “He’s fine. Well, he’s on his way to being fine. F.R.I.D.A.Y. was right, it was septic shock. His super immune system probably would’ve fought it off if he wasn’t already sick, but his healing factor is the thing that kept him alive. Cho stitched up the hole in his intestine and put him on a shit-ton of hardcore antibiotics. May let Pepper know that he stabilized a couple of hours ago.”
“Has he woken up?”
“Not yet. May and Happy are with him, though, so he won’t be alone when he does.”
He was already pushing his aching body into a sitting position. “I need to see him.”
“No, nope.” The objections were half-hearted at best. “Pepper gave me strict instruction to keep your ass in this bed-”
“Don’t sweat it. She knows no one can control me.” He slid the IV free with practiced hands. This was hardly his first hospital breakout, thank you very much, and tearing them out hurt like a bitch. “What room is he in?”
Rhodey threw up his hands in defeat, dutifully following him towards the door. “He’s right next to you. To the right.”
“Good.” It took him about six steps in the hallway to reach Peter’s room. “Thanks, Rhodes. You’re the best.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m a stellar friend for standing by while you jeopardize your own health. Somebody give me a fucking medal.”
He rolled his eyes at the sarcastic muttering and pushed his way into the kid’s room.
May was sitting on one of the two chairs sat directly at Peter’s bedside. Happy was on the couch in the corner, engrossed in something on his phone. Probably BitLife, if Tony knew him at all.
“Tony.” May didn’t seem even a little surprised to see him. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“Am I?” He crossed the room and swallowed of sigh of relief when he sank into the second chair, right next to May’s. “I had no idea. Rhodey didn’t remind me of that at all. Shame on him.”
He heard rather than saw the man in question throw himself down onto the couch beside Happy. “Can I hit him? I want to hit him.”
Happy snorted. “Wait until he isn’t an invalid anymore. Way more satisfying that way.”
“You two are the worst.” He shot them a quick glare before turning a much softer gaze back onto Peter’s slack face, purposefully ignoring the plethora of wires and tubes snaking through the sheets. “How is he?”
“Better. Much better.” May rubbed the kid’s hand as she talked. “They took him off the ventilator about an hour ago, and his oxygen stats are holding steady. Cho’s not sure when he’ll wake up, but she’s confident that he’ll have a full recovery. They’re just pumping him full of antibiotics and pain meds now, to keep him comfortable.”
“Good, that’s good.” He blinked, mind roving farther back through his admittedly scattered memories. “Wait, shit, Rhodey,” he twisted in his seat, “it was Hydra, right? What the hell happened?”
The man’s jaw was set tightly. “They knocked out F.R.I.D.A.Y., ambushed us. We all got away, but they got the Compound. Took us three days to get it back.”
“How the hell did it take that long? We’ve the Avengers-”
“Exactly. They… came prepared.”
“Of course they did. The bastards.” He clenched a fist, reveling in the way it made every muscle in his arm ache. “They dead?”
“All except a handful. Last I heard, Natasha’s with them.”
“I agree.” Rhodey shared a glance with Happy. “It’s a damn good thing you stayed put. They were scouting for you when we took back the Compound. Can’t believe you kept yourselves hidden for that long.”
“Me neither, frankly.”
“Oh, and Tony,” he twisted back, giving May his full attention as she smiled at him, “thank you. For not leaving him. For doing everything you could.”
He thought back to the smell of Peter’s skin melting under his palm and felt his chest thrum with agony. “I hurt him.”
“You did what you had to do.”
He bit his tongue to cover the guilt. “Did I?”
“Yes.” Her gaze gentled. “Cho told me you cauterized the wound. Is that what this is about?”
And the fact that he nearly died in my arms because I didn’t do enough to protect him, yeah.
“She said that if you hadn’t, he wouldn’t have lasted until Rhodey and Steve got to you two. He would’ve bled out on the first day.” She squeezed his arm. “You did the right thing, even though it was hard. You should never regret doing that.”
He nodded, slow and unsure. “I… I didn’t lie to him. I told him that it’d hurt like hell. Was that… wrong? You’re supposed to lie to kids, right? Tell them what they wanna hear?”
“Being honest is never wrong, Tony. You should always try to tell him the truth.”
He met her eyes. “Always?”
A tiny, knowing smile unfolded across her face. “Well, almost always.”