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A real hero

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Peter Parker nestles his way into his life and world before Tony Stark has any idea.

He’s there amidst the well-worn Converse left trailing on the laboratory floor, the beakers of web fluid hissing on the counter. The half-eaten sandwiches left on the plate, the papers of maths homework scattered messily over the coffee table. It’s the strangest thing, because Tony’s not really good with kids. He’s not really good with any people at all, but that’s neither here nor there.

Usually, the kid will come over to the Compound to train properly and get his powers under control, after Tony had spotted him in Queens one night. In a fucking onesie, of all things. But that doesn’t make throwing a suit at him and dragging him to Germany right. The thought of it still makes the guilt stem in his stomach, boil up until it threatens to tilt itself through his throat.

It’s the guilt that made Tony propose the idea of training the kid properly. Isn’t that a bitch? He still has a long way to go before he does anything out of the goodness of his heart and not from the desire to make the demons in his head quiet.

At first, Tony had just wanted to keep the kid at arm’s length. Peter’s a smart kid, but Tony’s a toxic thing and it’s better, he’d reasoned, if he kept his distance. Less likely to infect the kid. Tony would stand on the sidelines while he watched Peter in his training sessions, toss him a green shake, if he could breathe long enough to do it.  

But it hadn’t taken him long to move from his chair to the mat, from correcting Peter’s form to showing him how to manage his strength properly. He’d had the experience with Rogers and the others, after all.

And Peter excels at training.

Sometimes, when he can make it, Rhodey takes over, but mostly it’s just Tony and the kid, as Tony shows him how to fight and use his strength responsibly. It took time, mostly for Tony to break through Peter’s defences and encourage the kid not to hold back on him. He’s gone toe-to-toe with two supersoldiers, after all, and come out relatively alright. A little spider-kid isn’t really much, compared to that.

But this spider-kid isn’t so bad, really. He’s better than the other superheroes Tony’s met, that’s for sure, and when Peter split his first sandbag, Tony crowed in triumph, Peter flushing with pride all the way.

Right now, as Tony avoids Peter’s lunge, he watches the kid move into the attack and hit at his legs to trip him up. Something like warm, surprised pleasure blooms across his chest as Tony is promptly delivered to the mat, his face pressed into foam hard. For a moment, the world blinds him and his chest feels tight, the wind kicked out of him.

Peter lets out a gasp that echoes around the whole training room in the Compound. The training room that was built for supersoldiers and spies, outfitted with everything they could ever dream of and never bothered to use. As Tony tastes the bitterness in his mouth, he’s vaguely startled to realise that the bitterness is fading fast, replaced by quiet pride in the kid.

“Mr Stark?” Peter is calling to him, sounding panicked. “Mr Stark, are you okay?” His breaths grow harried. “Shit, I killed Iron Man—,”

Tony snorts into the mat, unable to help himself. Terrorists and supersoldiers couldn’t do it, he wants to argue, something hollow and empty clawing in his chest. Obie was the only one who got even remotely close. He’s struck with the urge to start laughing, the bittersweet feeling brimming thickly in his throat, as Peter goes into a meltdown.

“It’s fine, kid,” Tony tells him laughingly, groaning as he moves. “You did great.”

Peter looks sceptical. “You’re alright?”

“Better than ever,” he lies, smooth as silk. “Help me up.”

Usually, he wouldn’t accept Peter’s hand, but the kid looks shaken, still staring at him as though he wants to make sure that Tony’s not going to keel over. Tony lets the kid pull him to his feet, something thick in his chest, and makes a point of marking out his accomplishments in mastering the tricky move. Peter glows at the praise, almost giddy as he practically bounces off the walls.

“You did better than Steve. Took him three weeks to learn what you just pulled off in three days, Pete,” Tony says, and it’s easy for him to say the name of the man who did what Obie could not, who tore his heart out of his chest and left him to bleed.

Or so he thinks. There’s something thick filling his throat and his eyes are burning as Tony clears his throat. His chest is aching the old phantom ache again, but Tony resists the urge to knock his fingers against it, knowing that the arc reactor’s gone forever now. He swallows hard and gives a short grin to the kid, who thankfully doesn’t seem to have noticed.

“Really?” Peter is saying excitedly. “Mr Stark, that was so awesome! I mean, not making you fall, obviously, but—Cap?” His voice is high with awe and Tony feels briefly like he’s been hit in the throat. “We’ve got to show Mr Rhodes—,”

“I am not doing another live demonstration, kid,” Tony tells him, as Peter’s face falls. “Rhodey’s got enough material on me to fill a book. Several books.”

He pulls a face at the thought, briefly remembers the way Rhodey had found him roaring and tearing up Rogers’ room, and Tony’s cheeks grow hot. It had been humiliating, but it had been Rhodey. His best friend had helped him up quietly, moved him past Barton’s room which was holding itself together by a thread, and Romanoff’s, which Tony had decorated with one of his repulsors, the bricks still smoking, and they’d sunk to the ground helplessly in the hallway when Rhodey’s legs started hurting, somewhere near the lab and Bruce’s unused room.

Friday’s voice pokes in the mess of his memories, rattling around the room. “It’s alright, Peter,” she says, and for a moment, Tony stills. Has he programmed his AI to read minds? “I have recorded Boss’ fall and sent copies to Colonel Rhodes.”

The smug little shit.

Tony points at Friday’s camera. “Traitor,” he accuses, as Peter’s grin widens. “Alright, we’re done for the day. We should celebrate! You eat yet, kid?” he asks as they move from the training room, clapping a hand around Peter’s shoulders to direct them out into the long, emptied halls. He already knows the answer, so Tony continues easily. “What are you hungry for?”

“I don’t mind, Mr Stark,” Peter tells him politely.

The respect this kid gives him is always a little startling, if amusing. Happy had poked fun at him a lot for it and Tony sometimes teases the kid, but Peter is always unfailingly polite. It never really dawned on him until he had to start spending time with the kid, but Peter’s not such a bad kid.

Under all those pop culture references is a kid who is highly intelligent and intuitive and just—good. It baffles him, but the kid’s just good. Genuinely polite and nice, which had even thrown Happy, who likes to grumble about shitty teenagers on his good days. Peter even holds the door open for him as they move, continuing to talk and gesture happily about his latest accomplishment. Tony barely throws a look back, calling to Friday to shut the training room down.

“Burgers it is,” Tony says, shrugging. “Friday, get on it.”

“Will do,” Friday says promptly.

Peter’s quick to thank them both for it, even his AI. “Thanks, Mr Stark.”

“You’re welcome, Peter,” his AI says, even injecting some warmth into her voice for him.

Friday’s taken a shine to Peter, too, he’s found as he spends more time at the once-empty Compound. She and Karen both adore the kid, which Tony doesn’t really mind because, you know, kids are the future. Even so, Tony’s ready to joke that Friday never speaks to him so kindly, but Peter’s still flushing with quiet embarrassment, so he changes the subject to focus on the kid.

The red sinking sunlight of the sunset casts itself glowingly across the large windows of the Compound, the skies aglow with soft yellows and oranges. Windows all flung open because they always work up a sweat training together, the fresh smell of the grass spikes the air, a delicate, cool wind breezing past them gently. Tony and Peter move through the empty Compound, which had once been so quiet it made Tony want to scream.

Now, it reverberates with Peter’s excited chatter as Tony catches up to the kid, a small smile at the edge of his lips.

As they walk, Peter continues to fill the air with easy conversation, excitedly demonstrating new techniques that his friend, Ned, has been reading up on. Tony actually listens to him, answering his questions with effortlessness, as they move into the empty kitchen. For a moment, his reflection flashes back at him, sparking amidst the gleaming surfaces and Tony can see the Avengers lounging around the kitchen like they used to on lazy Sundays.

His heart aches something awful, brows furrowing together, as Tony swallows hard.

“Mr Stark?” Peter is asking. “Are you alright?”

The mirage disappears swiftly, leaving the empty kitchen behind. Tony blinks at Peter who is taking the takeout from DUM-e’s claws, unwrapping the burgers for them as he thanks the bot who chirps at him, pleased. The kid is looking at him worriedly, brows furrowed together, but Tony forces an easy grin.

“Peachy keen, kid,” he says, stepping into the kitchen and accepting his own burger.

“Are you sure?” Peter prompts. “Because, no offence, Mr Stark, but you look like my old History teacher just before he fainted in class and we all got out of our history quiz.”

“Are you calling me old, kid?” Tony says, but he can’t tamp down the grin.

Peter’s grin pokes at the edge of his lips.

“Well, you’re not really on the right side of forty…”

Tony thinks of Howard for a brief moment, remembers sharply the way his father used to cuff him around the ears, if he’d so much as slip on a please. It takes everything in him not to flinch even now, but Tony realises slowly, that Peter is now comfortable enough to joke with him properly. It’s not a new realisation, because it’s been months and he still can’t get the kid to stop calling him Mr Stark, but it still delivers a pleasant jolt all the same.

“What is that school teaching you? Where are your manners?” Tony teases him, as they eat.

For a moment, Peter blinks, clearly wary if Tony is actually serious or not. But when Tony smiles at him, he seems to relax, if a little uncertainly. It doesn’t take long for Peter to start talking again, because the kid’s a bit of a chatterbox, he’s found. He’s rummaging through his backpack, eating and talking all at once, and Tony can’t find it in his cold, black heart to tell the kid to slow down because of how excited Peter looks.

“I like taking videos,” Peter is telling him brightly, and Tony remembers the cheap camera the kid had been clutching onto in Germany. “Me and Ned document our—uh, super important stuff.”

He narrows his eyes, steals one of Peter’s chips as the kid lets out a playful protest.

“What kind of stuff, kid?” Tony asks, unable to resist the urge to tease. “You’re not making porn behind my back, are you?”

Peter is taking a swig of water at that moment, and at Tony’s words, he promptly chokes. He’s spluttering, the droplets of water gleaming in the dusky sunlight and for a moment, Tony’s gaze catches on the water, his breathing speeding up. His heart begins to race briefly, remembering the way it had once closed up when his face had been pushed into—Tony pulls himself back at the sound of Peter’s affronted protests.

“No! Mr Stark, that—that’s not—we don’t—,”

The kid’s protests are so funny that Tony lets himself smirk, the edge of his mouth crooked. Peter’s eyes are wide, and he looks briefly panicked, so Tony takes pity on him, amused.

“Relax, I’m kidding,” Tony says. “You like taking pictures?”

Peter nods, the startled shock slipping out of the light of his eyes to be replaced by his eagerness. “Videos, mostly,” he clarifies over a mouthful of burger. “I, uh, get really great shots when I’m out as Spider-Man.”

“Can I see?”

The kid looks like he might spontaneously combust.

“You want to—you—sure, Mr Stark!” Peter says eagerly, as the edges of Tony’s lips quirk a little in amusement. He’s all wide eyes and hero worship, Tony thinks, his amusement dying slowly, as Peter fumbles in his backpack to show him the pictures on his camera. “I mean, I still like physics and chemistry, but this is—it’s more like a hobby—I mean, it’s probably really bad and I should focus more on—,”

“No, kid, these are cool,” Tony says easily and honestly. He’s swiping through them and they’re an array of vivid, bright shots, the way a kid might see the world. The way he had seen the world once. Soft and filled with light, instead of the heavy burden that lies on his shoulders now. “You shouldn’t give up on them. Who told you that?”

Peter ducks his head, but Tony can see the kid is swelling at the praise. The hero worship sometimes gets to him a little, cloys in his throat, but Peter’s toned it back a whole lot since the whole Germany fiasco. Tony can deal with it usually, but he’s never felt the burden Iron Man has wrought on him so much as when Peter looks up at him like he’s the superhero nobody thought he could be.

Iron Man is Tony’s salvation and hero. Nobody around him, not Pepper, not Rhodey, not the shitfaces at SHIELD (thanks Fury and Romanoff), not Cap had ever thought he was worthy of wielding the suit.

“Nobody told me,” Peter says. “But I don’t want to—I don’t feel like I should waste time on it when there’s more important stuff to do, you know, Mr Stark?”

He furrows his brows at that, unable to believe that the kid in front of him is actually real. What was he, at Peter’s age? Tony thinks briefly, fleetingly, of his old playboy days, of downing alcohol like water, of bright lights and pounding music and the careless recklessness that came with his pathetic desperation to be seen, to be loved.

And here is Peter Parker, willing to put aside his own hopes and dreams to make sure that someone else can secure theirs.

It’s so selfless and kind that it threatens to blow him over. And what had he done? He vaguely remembers making a bet to crash his Dad’s favourite car and throwing a party that would last a week. Tony swallows hard, thinks of waking up with bloodshot eyes to hear Obadiah’s ringtone, the words that came along with them, Tony, it’s your parents, I’m sorry—

“Mr Stark?” Peter’s blinking at him.

Tony inhales sharply. “You shouldn’t worry about that,” he says, something in his throat. “You want to take pictures, kid? Go crazy. Nobody’s going to blame you for having a hobby.”

Peter looks ready to protest and Tony wonders if the hero worship might win out. If the kid might want to please Iron Man so much, he’ll refuse to protest against Tony Stark. To his pleasant surprise, it doesn’t.

“But—,” Peter begins, before shaking his head. His voice is a heavy confession as he puts down his burger, the wrapper crinkling softly. “I feel guilty.”

“I play the piano,” Tony says before he can stop himself.

His head jerking up, Peter’s eyes widen in surprise, and Tony looks away quickly, his cheeks growing warm. There was something in Peter’s face that reminded him so sharply, so painfully, of the face he used to see in the mirror when he’d desperately beg Howard to see his latest creation and Tony—shit, why did he say that? He hasn’t touched a piano, since—

“Really?”

Well, he’s made his bed.

Unlike some people—Rogers—, he’s willing to lie in it. Tony swallows, hard, before he speaks, thinking briefly of his mother’s old piano. He hasn’t seen the old thing in years, he thinks to himself, something catching his heart. The last time he’d seen a piano was in BARF and the thought of BARF reminds him horribly of Barnes, of Siberia, of Rogers.

But Peter is looking at him expectantly and Tony pulls himself away from the climbing panic before it can overwhelm him completely. He focuses on the kid’s face, a little wary of the sheer trust Peter has in him. 

“Yeah,” Tony says, looking back at Peter. “You think I should stop playing the piano because Iron Man doesn’t?”

Yes, he thinks viciously towards himself. He already has, hasn’t he? In the midst of his increasing, heart-clenching anxiety and the panic that permeates most of his days, Tony cannot justify wasting time when another invasion could be here, at any moment. Something’s going to happen, he can tell. Something big is coming and he’s so unprepared it’s a joke.

The kid will be fine, Tony knows. He’s already got several protocols and procedures in place to protect Peter and his aunt when the threat shows itself. Same for Pepper, Rhodey, Happy. Even the Avengers have their own newly refurbished weapons because they are idiots, but they’re idiots who know that the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. Tony has his doubts that Steve might choose Bucky Barnes over the world again, but at this rate, he’s too tired to care.

Besides, when he made the suit, Tony knew that he was agreeing to an invisible contract the world brought to him. He is Earth’s superhero, her defender, first, Tony Stark second.

But Peter’s shaking his head.

“No,” he says. “Of course not.”

“There you go, then, kid,” Tony says, feigning at his usual bravado, and Peter’s soft, appreciative smile is almost enough to stop the frantic beating of his heart.

.

.

May Parker comes to give him dessert when he drops Peter off.

Tony’s already wary when she calls it dessert, as Peter stifles a laugh at the look on his stunned face but he’s already at the front door and May’s a stubborn woman. She’s practically pulling him inside, not wanting him to hang on the doorway even as Peter tries to convince his aunt that Mr Stark would really probably like to leave, grinning at him. Tony want to second that motion, but May’s waving away her nephew’s worries.

“This will only take a second,” May promises, before she’s pushing a container of cake into Tony’s hands.

She brushes Peter’s hair affectionately as he greets her easily, moving inside, and Tony feels his throat stick, watching them with something stuck and aching in his chest. They’re a sweet, good family, with inside jokes and May’s weird cake, Tony thinks to himself. He has no place here.

May flashes sharp eyes at him meaningfully, as Peter ducks into the kitchen, and her voice grows quiet in a way that twists Tony’s stomach nervously. Has he done something wrong? He casts his mind back frantically, not wanting May Parker’s wrath.  

The guilt writhes in him thickly, at her sweet obliviousness. She has no idea what he’s taking her kid to do and if it wasn’t for Peter’s begging, Tony would have confessed the truth ages ago. But he’s also a coward. He wants to see how much sweetness May can give before it all inevitably falls apart.

“Is everything okay?” Tony asks.

May’s smile is soft as she nods. “Of course,” she says. Her voice grows quiet when she speaks, though Tony’s got the faintest feeling that Peter might just be listening in. “I just wanted to ask about Steve Rogers.” Tony stiffens immediately but May continues on. “The news is convinced they’re going to come back, and the Avengers are going to reunite, but I want you to know, Tony, while I trust you, I do not trust fugitives. I don’t want my kid anywhere near them.”

For a moment, Tony is stunned.

Someone is trusting him over Steve Rogers? Someone is trusting him, at all? He wonders if May has got the memo. Tony Stark is a deviant, the devil incarnate. Steve Rogers is the good guy; Tony’s the guy who wants desperately to be good but can’t quite manage it. Even Pepper had confessed, giggling and drunk, that given the chance, she’d climb Captain America like a tree.

Tony stares blankly at May, who is looking at him seriously, her brows furrowed in concern. She’d entrust him with Peter’s care, but not Steve?

It’s then that Tony remembers exactly what she’s asking of him, his chest aching the phantom ache once more. The Avengers aren’t returning, but when he thinks about it, Tony doesn’t really like the idea of not having the kid around.

Peter’s not so bad, once he gets past the initial, slightly annoying shock of Iron Man hero worship. But he’s doing well. Only ten minutes of stuttering this time, Tony knows. Friday timed him. The kid’s easy to talk to and he’s smart, especially when he proposes his own ideas and listens to Tony’s training attentively.

It hadn’t taken Tony long to convince the kid that it was better to be on the defence than the offence, especially with his enhanced strength. He’d been pleasantly surprised, though wary, when Peter himself had argued against it, asking why he should leave a potential attacker up to the chance that they might do something instead of listening to his gut and going forward. Tony had heard Steve Rogers in his voice then and he’d hit his head painfully when he’d snapped it up in alarm.

Because it’s not up to you to decide what’s best for other people, Tony remembers saying. When they make a choice, you can react. But you can’t make that choice for them.

Peter had looked thoughtful after that and Tony remembers holding his breath.

I never thought of it like that, Mr Stark, the kid had said, before nodding and Tony still vividly remembers that night, still blindingly remembers how he’d stared at Peter, utterly stunned. The thought that Peter would just accept his argument and concede defeat, accept that he’d been wrong, but most of all, that Tony was right. Peter’s good at challenging Tony now, arguing with him when the situation calls for it, but the kid trusts him.

It’s terrifying.

“I—,” Tony begins, realising faintly that May is still waiting on an answer. The words stick in his mouth, the guilt and brief threads of panic threatening to overwhelm him. “They’re not coming back, for one, May. I haven’t—heard anything about that, so it’s probably just gossip, for now. And—if they did come back, I swear to you I wouldn’t ever let Peter anywhere near them. He’d be safe, I promise.”

“I know he’s safe with you,” May murmurs thoughtfully, and the sheer magnitude of the blind, careless trust she has in him almost overwhelms him completely. She lifts her head to give him another smile, the ease and comfort filtering through her features as Tony realises she’s relieved. “Thank you, anyway, Tony. For—for all you’ve done for him, I’m really grateful.”

“He’s—he’s a good kid,” Tony gets out, the guilt strangling him, wanting nothing more than to run away.

Good doesn’t even begin to cut it. Peter’s a great kid. Clever and willing to learn. The hero worship Tony could do without, but he’s willing to overlook that in the face of Peter’s earnest kindness. It’s a rare thing, in his trade, to meet someone who’s genuinely polite and warm, and Tony knows that May’s raising a great kid in her care.

May’s smile turns softer, a touch affectionate. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, he is.”

.

.

When Mr Stark leaves, Peter manages to wheedle his way out of eating May’s cake.

He’s had years of practice at avoiding her bad baking, so it’s not too difficult. It’s because she’s so tired that she won’t push her baking on him, Peter knows. May ruffles a hand through his hair fondly as he moves to his room to finish the rest of his homework.

“I got homework, Aunt May,” he tells her, shooting her an easy grin, grateful as she blinks at him sleepily.

“Don’t stay up too late, okay, Peter?” she tells him, barely stifling a yawn.

His lips quirk a little as he nods at her, fondness and affection blooming in his chest.

“I won’t,” Peter promises before he ducks back into the quiet of his room.

Before he can stop himself, Peter collapses on his bed heavily, the springs creaking under his weight. He’s exhausted, his entire frame sagging from the effort and exertion he’s pushed himself towards today, but it’s a hard, pleased kind of determination. He grins to himself, kind of proud in a way.

Mr Stark told him that it took Steve Rogers—Captain America!—three weeks to learn what he managed in three days. It could be a lie, but Mr Stark doesn’t lie to him. Mr Stark doesn’t seem to lie very much at all, when he thinks about it. He’s only seen the man lie to May and that’s because Peter begged. Peter rubs a hand over his face tiredly, thoughtful.

Mr Stark is, for lack of a better word, weird.

Whenever he’d watch Tony Stark on TV, Peter would be spellbound, excited and brimming with excitement, jumping on the sofas to see the smooth, suave businessman who built marvels with his fingers in the same way Peter dreamed of doing. But Tony Stark on TV is different from Mr Stark in real life. Mr Stark is quieter, and he makes really weird jokes to pretend like he’s not uncomfortable and Peter lets him make the jokes because he knows what that’s like.

He never thought Mr Stark would be so human now. It’s like May sometimes said about never meeting your heroes, because you’d put them on a pedestal, and they could disappoint you. He knows she worries incessantly about him, but Mr Stark is even better than Peter could have ever imagined.

One time he even showed Peter the mechanics of the arc reactor. Ned had almost cried.

Peter pulls himself up, rubbing the back of his neck. He actually wasn’t lying. He’s got a lot of homework to catch up on and he’d promised Aunt May that he’d start focusing on school better. For a moment, the thought of telling her passes his mind, but Peter shakes his head.

He can’t do that to her. Aunt May deserves better, he thinks to himself.

And Spider-Man is everything to him. Who would he be without him?

As Peter pulls the worksheets and books towards him, holding back a yawn, he reaches for the spider light Mr Stark gave him. It floods the room in soft, reassuring red, and Peter can’t keep the wide-eyed grin from his face as he looks around. It’s always a pleasant shock to the senses whenever he switches it on, the red soft and sweet against his enhanced senses and the humming sound of the whirring light is soft enough that he can almost fall asleep to it.

So, he does.

.

.

He’s hammering out the dents in the armour when the doors to the workshop slide open to reveal his fiancé.

Tony grins at her in greeting, offering her the Iron Man gauntlet to shake, but Pepper looks mad. Uh oh, he thinks suddenly, his gut clenching. What’s he done now?

“We were supposed,” Pepper says, exasperated, as she walks inside, barely casting the gauntlet a second look, “to have dinner, Tony.”

Shit. As Pepper fumbles with the papers in the case she’s holding, Tony drops the gauntlet apologetically. He’d genuinely forgotten, in the face of Peter’s new accomplishments in training and May’s words. The metal clatters against the desk and Pepper barely flinches, but Tony does.

"Pep, look, I'm sorry—,"

"Just—not today, Tony,” Pepper says, running a hand through her hair, looking impatient. She lets out a taut breath, frustrated when she pulls out the papers and they fly to the floor. When Tony reaches forward to help her, Pepper makes a noise of protest that makes him stay back. “I have had the day from Hell today and it’s—it’s been—I was looking forward to just having some time with you and then, I come home and what do I hear from your AI? You’re making these—the suits again?”

In her distress, Pepper’s fingers loosen on the papers and this time, Tony doesn’t hold back from helping her pick them up. The guilt writhes through him, but he can’t stop making the suits, he knows this. And it’s not for lack of trying. Tony has tried. He’s locked up the workshop, filtered Friday with protocol after protocol, forced himself to go through those parties and charities instead of tinkering away like he burns to.

But he can’t seem to help himself.

Tony wakes, writhing and screaming too many times for him to count. Dreams of the stars consuming him whole, the cry of the Chitauri haunting his ears, instead of the usual clawing heat of Afghanistan. Sometimes he still thinks he’s there, wrapped amidst the black of the galaxy, the heavy weight of the bomb on his back, and his breaths stop in his chest.

Other times, he dreams he’s back in Siberia and Steve’s hit him too many times. Tony hates that the supersoldier had seen the breathless, vulnerable plea in his eyes, had decided to stay the shield instead of burying it deep into his chest. It makes him sick that Steve saw him so vulnerable and desperate for death, that he thought, at the end of his life, he’d, at the very least, have his pride but Steve’s sympathetic face had clawed that from him, too.

“Pepper,” he says, something tangled and pleading in his voice. Tony needs her to understand, because he can’t lose her too. He’s lost too many people at this point. “I—I need them. I need the suits. You know that.”

Pepper stares at him. “I need you, Tony,” she tells him tightly. “I don’t want Iron Man.”

But I am Iron Man, Tony thinks of saying. He doesn’t dare.

“Pepper—,”

“You’re never here, Tony,” she tells him, her voice keening in distress. “I’m completely swamped—I’m out here, just trying to keep your company afloat, trying to do the job you told me to do, and I have no idea what to do! I—I was your personal assistant, Tony—I never wrote the contracts, I just gave them to you to sign—and—and now, they’re telling me to do all of these things, and it’s just so much on my plate—and whenever I ask to see you, you’re busy or you’re downtown somewhere or—,”

Tony reaches out to her, but Pepper jerks herself out of his space.

“Pepper, I’m sorry—,”

“No, Tony,” she says, shaking her head. “Not—not today. I can’t—I can’t handle you today.” She lifts her head to stare at him. “Do you know—do you know why I left the first time, Tony? What you promised me?”

“Break,” Tony corrects, his heart pounding loud in his chest. His stomach is sinking something low, panic threatening to claw at his breaths. “We—it wasn’t—it was a break.”

Pepper’s face shifts, and it looks like she’s holding herself back from rolling her eyes, as she takes a deep breath. “Because you always do this,” she says, ignoring him. “You promise me that it’s the last time and then the moment I turn my back, you’re running back to the suits. It’s like I can’t look away for a single moment, because the moment I do, you’re just—you’re doing something else, Tony—,”

“I’m not—I’m not like a kid, Pepper,” Tony tells her. “I can be trusted to be by myself.”

The sceptical look she gives him is withering and it hurts more than Obie pulling the heart from his chest.

“No, you can’t, Tony,” Pepper says. She’s even more exasperated as she continues, finally giving up on shuffling the papers before she just puts them down on his table. “Because I turn my back and you’ve bought the Tower again, so we’re moving. You—you’re going to India or—or you’re going downtown, again. You’re forgetting dinner, you’re trying to fix BARF, you’re doing a few thousand things that you’re not supposed to be doing. You don’t even know your own social security number, Tony.”

“I’m a genius, Pep. Of course, I know my social security number,” Tony tells her, trying to joke. “I was just—I was trying to flirt. I’m not completely incapable, Pep. Come on. It’s just one dinner. I’m sorry—,”

“It’s not just one dinner, Tony,” Pepper snaps at him, before she closes her eyes and gives another deep sigh. “I don’t like what you’re making me become, Tony. I’m—I’m—just tired.” She waves a hand towards the papers on the table. “You can look these over for tomorrow’s meeting. I’m just—I don’t understand this contract, so I wash my hands of it, Tony. I was hoping that you would show me, but—,”

“Pepper, I will, I promise,” Tony tries to say. “Come on—,”

Pepper shakes her head at him. “You can sleep down here tonight, with your suits, Tony,” she tells him icily.

Chapter Text

He’s sore and exhausted from tossing and turning on the couch that when he finally shows up to the meeting he looks like shit.

It’s not any different to how he used to turn up to meetings, though, so Tony snaps the sunglasses back on his face and pretends that he hasn’t seen the disapproving look Pepper throws him as he seats himself at the table. Even so, it brings a curl to his gut in that way it usually does whenever he’s disappointed her. And he disappoints her a lot.

“Are you lost, Mr Stark?” one of the board members drawl, but Tony is barely fazed.

“I sent a memo last night,” he says. “I’ll be taking more of a stronger position behind the CEO. Sort of like a PA.”

At the mention of that, a few of them stiffen a little and though they don’t look at Pepper, Tony can feel the heat of their gazes. He tries to tamp down his confusion, giving them an easy smile he doesn’t feel. One of them clears their throat and nods. Tony knew he always liked her. Now if he could just remember their names, he thinks to himself and reaches for the folders on the table.

“Then let’s begin going over the quarterly reports,” she says. “Ms Potts, you have the copies?”

“Yes,” Pepper says, but she’s got a strangely stiff expression on her face that Tony recognises.

He sees it every time she looks at the suits. Like she doesn’t understand it or can’t compartmentalise it in her mind. Tony doesn’t miss the sceptical looks thrown towards Pepper and something fierce rises in his chest. Pepper had been right. They don’t believe in her ability as CEO, Tony thinks and he wants nothing more than to defend her.

But as the meeting goes on, Tony realises they’re right.

Pepper has next to no idea on what is going on.

As they talk figures and facts, Tony keeping up with ease, he keeps an eye on Pepper who’s wearing her usual frayed expression. Though for once, he’s not being subjected to it, he thinks. She’s taking notes, which is a bit weird because nobody takes notes in these meetings, but when the CFO asks her a question, a blank look filters briefly over Pepper’s face before she clears her throat quickly.

“I…” she begins hesitantly, before Tony cuts in smoothly.

When they’re finished, Tony hangs back. Some of the board members give him lukewarm looks when they shake his hand and he can practically hear their unimpressed thoughts towards Pepper. Tony’s stomach clenches uncomfortably as he moves towards her place at the head of the table. He’ll be late for the next meeting, but Pepper’s putting her head in her hands and his fiancé takes precedence.

“Pepper?” he begins, his voice quiet.

“Not—not now, Tony—,”

“Hey, honey—,”

“I said, not now!” Pepper snaps up at him. When she sees his face, she lets out a taut breath, before running a hand over her face. “God, Tony, just—I don’t think I can do this. I’ve tried and—I was your PA. You weren’t mine. I don’t know why you gave me this job. I don’t have any idea what’s happening and just—,”

“I thought you did great,” he lies weakly.

She throws him another one of her patented withering looks and it makes his gut curl. “Don’t lie to me, Tony.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you—,”

“You’ve done it before,” she snaps, and that cuts deep. Pepper rises from the table first, furrowing her brows, looking exasperated.

Tony’s face creases at the disappointed look on her face, his heart aching. “I’m sorry—,”

“Just stop it, Tony,” Pepper mutters, rubbing her temples tiredly. “I know you’re not, so just stop it.”

He stares at her, startled. “How could you think that?”

Pepper lifts her head up to eye him. “How could I not?” she says in that tone that she usually takes right before she starts screaming, and it pierces his heart like a blade. “You’re always ignoring me. All you do is play with those—those stupid, metal suits. You ask me why we can’t have kids and it’s because you will never put me, put us first—,”

She’s right, he thinks and his stomach sinks. If it comes to a choice between Pepper or the world, Tony would pick the world every day. His happiness or the ability to breathe through the days without wanting to down so much liquor that it would drown him completely? Because Tony had never been able to breathe more than when he shut down the weapons division of Stark Industries. He just hates that she makes it a choice. Why can’t he have both?

“I’ll try harder, Pepper, I promise,” Tony says, his heart in his throat. He wants her, but he needs to breathe, too. “I’ll—,”

She just gives him another exasperated, disbelieving look, one that pains because it’s the look he’s used to. The Pepper look, where she just doesn’t believe a word he says, where she’s continually disappointed in him. Why would she believe him? Tony’s not had the best track record for kept promises; he’s just lucky that she’s stuck around for so long.

“You’re late for the next meeting.”

.

.

He’s tinkering away in the Compound lab, a restless, thoughtless thing.

The bots are in the Tower so it’s relatively quieter than it should be in the lab. Tony would blast his music but for some reason, it just seems to remind him how alone he really is so he fixes the suits and pulls out plans about space for as long as he can until the time falls away. Tony spent most of the day cleaning up after Pepper, which had been eye-opening because he hadn’t realised just how bad a job she’d been doing as CEO. The board members had almost cried to see him back, but Tony won’t tell her that. She doesn’t deserve that. After all he’s put her through, the poor woman deserves a sainthood just for putting up with someone like him.

When the sun begins to set, Tony lingers longer than he wants to, his breaths hitching as his gaze catches on some drawing Steve must have left behind. He can’t think how the cleaners missed it, but Tony takes a step forward.

The torn piece is somewhere in the latches of the door, so Tony almost tears it even more trying to get it out, but he’s damaged enough of the Avengers already. The paper creases heavily in his callused fingers, crackling a little in the emptiness around him. When he pulls it out, it’s a drawing of the Avengers Tower, complete with the Avengers, Tony realises, and his stomach twists. From some old New Year’s party in the years past.

He can see Romanoff and Barton behind the bar, Thor and Bruce are talking near the window. Rogers is on the couch and Tony scans the piece restlessly to find himself, something thick in his throat. He’s there, the life of the party, in the middle of the page, surrounded by people, but half drawn. The pencilled scrawl of his sunglasses perched on his hair and the easy grin he has on stretches his drawn face until he’s something he can barely recognise. Tony stares at it, until the shadow at the edge of the door shifts.

“Friday could have shot you,” Tony says, his voice low.

Romanoff has her hands up when she moves slowly into the light, her gaze fixed on him. “I know,” she says, her voice calm as ever.

“She still can.”

“I know, Tony.”

“What are you doing here, Romanoff?” Tony says tiredly. He’d be angry, but that takes too much effort, especially when he knows Pepper is still mad at him. Seems like all he can do is make people mad at him. “Thought you fucked off to Wakanda with the others.”

She doesn’t let surprise filter her features, but Tony knows that she is. The thing that Natasha Romanoff had always hated about him most was how well he could read her. She couldn’t read him for shit, but for Tony, Natasha was always an open book. He’d always wondered why she couldn’t see through him because she used the same coping mechanisms he did, too.

Now, Tony knows better.

She just didn’t give a shit. Didn’t care enough to even try.

Something about that sinks deep and bitter in his mouth. Tony tries to summon the anger to deal with that, but he’s too exhausted. It’s been too long, and he’s used to people barely bothering themselves over him. Steve hadn’t bothered to finish the job and every day Tony has to wake up, he hates the man his father loved so deeply just that bit more for it.

“I was going to,” Romanoff offers, “but I changed my mind. New York in the winter, you know?”

She gives that half-smile she was always known for. Tony hates it on her face, hates that, after all this time, she still doesn’t know him. It brings the anger brimming to the surface easily as Tony gives her a hard look until the smile fades away. Romanoff’s face grows impassive and still when she realises he’s not playing around. Did she really think that a joke would be enough to bridge the gaping chasm between them?

“No,” Tony says. “You and your shitty jokes can fuck right off, Romanoff.”

He’s moving away when Romanoff’s voice lingers.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” she says, and he stills. “I was—I was just trying to keep us together.”

“What the fuck did you think I was doing, throwing a party?” he snarls fiercely, crumpling the paper in his fist.

That’s all they thought he was good for, Tony knows. His parties and his weapons. Ain’t no party like a Stark party, after all. Romanoff’s gaze turns to the drawing, her eyes lingering on it sadly. Is that true emotion, Tony wonders, or is she just that good? He opens his mouth to ask, a jagged bitterness carving his heart, knowing that it will cut deeper than anything she could deliver him.

“That was one of my favourites,” Romanoff tells him before he can say anything, her voice sad. “I wanted to see the finished product.”

“Now you never will,” Tony says nastily, dropping it in the bin.

“You can’t let your ego stop us from—,”

“Oh, we’re back to the same old shit, are we?” He’s pissed. “Me and my fucking ego! Jesus, I thought you were paid to be smart. How long are you going to go back to that one? Aren’t you bored?”

Natasha frowns at him, looking irritated. “Tony,” she says as Tony makes a show of listening, raising his brows so sceptically Howard himself would have to be impressed. Then again, dear old Dad never gave a shit either way, did he? “You can work with me to fix this, I know you can—,”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Tony says promptly. “I don’t want to fix this, Natalie—Natalia—whatever the fuck you call yourself these days.” He watches her flinch with a vicious kind of pleasure that ripples through him. Good. “The Avengers are done and for once, I’m stepping away first. I’m too busy to get down on my knees and beg you to come back, so you can all go fuck yourselves.”

There’s a small lingering silence that emanates between them carefully, so long that Tony thinks Natasha has gone. It’s her flickering shadow cast against the marble countertops that remind him she’s still here. Her face is saddened and thoughtful, but Tony knows better. The Red Room carved that face out, primped and preened her until she came out perfect and flawless, and he’s always been adept at seeing through bullshit. He speaks so much of it, after all.

When she speaks, her voice is soft and hoarse.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” Natasha says.

Tony is made of bitterness.

“It’s too late now,” he bites out and instead of waiting for the Black Widow to go away, Tony leaves first.

.

.

The days in the week pass hollowly, filled with meetings to fix various parts of Stark Industries and a rising, brimming tension that rattles around in his chest, threatening to overwhelm him completely.

Tony feels like he’s rattling around in a daze, teeming with anxiety and clawing panic that he only barely manages to bite back. Pepper thinks he’s getting better, but he’s just getting better at hiding how worse he’s getting. He would hide it all away even for the slightest slip of a smile that she gives him, he knows, but Tony is dying, he can feel it.

His heart claws out in his chest, a restless, harried thing, and when it’s time for Peter to come over again, Tony’s blindingly grateful to get away. The Compound is quiet as ever when he walks in, almost stumbling in his impatience, but Tony can finally breathe again, properly when he steps into his workshop. He’s been finalising plans to contact Thor properly, though the Asgardian’s usual connection didn’t seem to be working very well.

Thor had promised them that Heimdall would always see them, would know when they were in trouble. Either Thor’s out of orbit or he doesn’t think Tony’s worth picking up for.

The thought of it makes Tony pick up a hammer in his shaking fingers and he swings the heavy thing into the suit to knock out the dents Steve left. Shadows flicker once more and Tony turns so fast he grows dizzy, but he’s tensed all over and his fists are clenched. His breaths are fraught before Tony realises there’s nobody there.

It’s not even Romanoff, just some stray leaves against the window. She’d gotten the message, but the toxic, empty thing in Tony quietly wishes she hadn’t.

When he lifts his head, he sees his anxiety-ridden face reflected back in the glass and for a blinding moment, Tony sees his father staring back at him, remembers a glass of bourbon forced into his fingers, the liquor spilling on the floor. Pain blooms across his hands suddenly and Tony realises faintly that he’s put his fist in the glass, Friday’s soft voice echoing towards him.

“Boss, you have sustained an injury to your hand,” she says. “Might I suggest first aid?”

He’d drunk maybe a third of the glass until his mother came in, Tony remembers, ignoring Friday. She’d almost knocked the glass from his hands in her cold fury and instructed Jarvis to take him away upstairs. Tony had heard the muffled arguing throughout the night, his hands pressed over his ears, and when his mother came to him in the morning, she’d given him a song and a promise that if Howard ever did anything like that again, he was to tell her, and she would take them both away.

Tony sometimes wishes he’d told his mother to take them both away.

Instead, he’d remembered the dull burn of the bourbon down his throat, yearned for the empty ache of it. When his mother hugged him, Tony remembered that Stark men were made of iron and tried not to cry.

“Boss, Peter is here,” Friday says, and this is the thing that brings him sharply out of his foggy memories.

Tony fumbles, stemming the blood flow with a dirty rag, hissing low under his breath when the pain stings. His already fraying anxieties tamp up even more and his stomach clenches uncomfortably, something tangled and distraught rising up in him.

“Hi, Mr Stark,” Peter is saying, patting DUM-e’s armour. He doesn’t seem to notice the clawing tension in Tony’s face, to his relief, as the kid puts his bag down to greet the bots and Friday politely. “Before I forget, Aunt May says to tell you that she’s inviting you and Ms Potts for dinner next Saturday.”

For a moment, Tony’s alarm overrides his initial anxiety and Peter snickers at his stricken look. He remembers the walnut date loaf all too well, Tony thinks to himself.

“Kid—,” Tony begins, mildly panicked.

“Aunt May’s cooking is better than her baking, I promise, Mr Stark,” Peter clarifies, looking amused as he rummages through his bag. When Tony looks sceptical still, the kid explains. “Aunt May can’t bake to save her life, but she can cook. When—when she and Uncle Ben took me in, they said that they’d mostly been living off takeout and going out all the time.”

Interest ripples through him and Tony latches onto the distraction like a starving thing. He lifts his head, listening intently.

Peter continues, his face purposely turned away, “Me being there meant they had to sort of—you know, make themselves cook properly.” He clears his throat and Tony looks away when Peter lifts his head, knowing the kid probably doesn’t want him to see his tears. “We learned to cook together. May liked to cook, but we found out that Uncle Ben was great at baking. They used to let me in the kitchen sometimes to help.”

Tony watches the kid. “My mom used to do that for me, too,” he says, half wonderingly, cast in rose-tinted nostalgia. He straightens, not meaning to say that when Peter turns his head questioningly. “Uh, we used to cook together, too.”

His voice is muffled as he continues, filling the quiet air with the ease that Peter often brings. Even the bots prefer him, Tony knows, watching the way U and DUM-e light up at his conversation. Funny, Tony thinks to himself. He thought he’d feel jealous, like he sometimes does when Rhodey or Pepper or even Natasha had managed to spark the bots’ attentions, but he’s not.

The clouds are orange-tinted, the sun sinking slowly against the skies and casting a brilliant red over the glass windows. Tony tells Friday to open them, his chest suddenly feeling hot as his heart starts pounding harder. He’s teaching Peter how to put pressure on open wounds without dangerously exerting his enhanced strength when it happens.

His minds turn into a flurry of thoughts, his breaths growing hard and fierce, his heart beating faster. He’s hot all over, a flush crawling around his cheeks, and Tony struggles to breathe, gasping as his eyes brim with unshed tears.

“Mr Stark?”

It’s all my fault, he thinks blindingly. Whatever I do goes wrong. These hands of mine are soaked in engine oil and blood.

“No, no, please,” Tony is breathing hard, shaking his head as he stumbles to the ground, his panic overwhelming him.

Everything is crashing hotly around him, the world itself crumbling to pieces. The stars will take pieces of him apart and Tony will die, his heart will finally stop as it was always meant to and the world is going to suffer, the universe is crashing apart and—

Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it, who do you think he gets that from?

Me, Tony thinks. I am the monster. I need the proof that I have a heart, I need to desperately snatch up whatever love I can because I am so undeserving of it.

“Mr Stark? Listen to the sound of my voice.”

In the midst of his blinding confusion, Tony can feel a lightness and he struggles to breathe.

“Come on, Mr Stark. Focus with me,” Peter’s saying, his voice a forced calm. “Please, come on, Mr Stark—,”

“No, no,” Tony mumbles. He’s so tired. He doesn’t want to be alive.

“Don’t say that, please—listen to me,” Peter says. “Mr Stark?”

“Pete?” He’s shaking all over.

“Can you tell me what you see, please?”

Tony focuses, feeling like his heart’s going to tear itself out of his chest. He breathes hotly, but actually listens to the kid, grasping onto him with a desperation and an urgency that shames him, but he can’t help at the same time.

“Carpet. Table. Coffee. You,” Tony forces out, registering Peter’s presence vaguely. He grounds out the next few words until he can see Peter again. The kid is kneeling beside him, but hasn’t touched him, staring at him. Seeing him shaken and quieter than he’s ever been brings a fresh wave of shame over Tony as he runs a hand over his face tiredly and realises that he’s sunk to the ground, his legs spread out helplessly. “Sorry you had to see that, kid—,”

“Don’t say that, Mr Stark,” Peter says automatically, polite as ever.

His heart is in his mouth, his anxieties hitching. “You, uh, you gonna leave?”

At least he’s lucky the suit didn’t come to attack Peter, Tony thinks and when he remembers Pepper’s disappointed face, his stomach clenches in guilt. But Peter is spluttering beside him, his eyes wide.

“I’m not going to leave, Mr Stark,” Peter says, looking startled as though he’s surprised Tony even asked. “You just had a panic attack! Why—how could you think I would leave you?”

Pepper did, Tony thinks. But he doesn’t blame her in the slightest. What else could she have done, when the dangerous Iron Man attacked her in her sleep?

“Uncle Ben used to have panic attacks too,” Peter tells him almost conversationally, in a too-casual way that makes Tony realise that the kid’s trying to distract him. A burst of gratitude floods in his chest, startling and quiet, for Peter. “We used to play cards together to calm him down. He said it reminded him of his mom. Apparently, she was a great poker player.”

As Peter calms him down from the crippling panic attack and helps him remember how to breathe again, Tony realises just how much he’s begun to care for Peter. Nobody else has bothered to stay like this for him, and maybe the kid just does it because he loves Iron Man or whatever, but Tony will take what he can get, the starving, terrible thing that he is.

He leans his head back against the wall, exhaustion sinking through him, feeling deflated.

His eyes are burning, so Tony reaches a hand to rub at his face tiredly, cheeks flushing with humiliation at being seen so weak by the kid. What’s worse, he thinks to himself dryly, Steve seeing him vulnerable or Peter? And then Tony wonders if it even matters. It all has the same end result; he still wants to die. All the time. Anything to get it all to stop.

Tony won’t ever tell anyone how sometimes when he’d pull up his shirt and check to see the veins protruding from the palladium poisoning, he’d breathe a sigh of relief amidst the blinding fear and panic. It would all be over soon. In those old days where things were so different. It seems like a dream now.

“Stop laughing about that, Mr Stark, please,” Peter says, and Tony realises deliriously that he’s spoken out loud. “You’re scaring me.”

Another reason why he’s so toxic and pathetic for this poor kid. Despite all of his flaws, Tony knows that Steve should have taken care of Peter. He would have done better than him. Has always done better. Everyone says that, after all.

“Sorry, kid. Just a—just a joke,” Tony says, his voice too hoarse.

“No,” Peter says. “No, I don’t think it was.”

Panic blinds him for a moment and when Peter looks like he’s about to say more, Tony pulls himself up properly, his breaths still fraught. His mouth is dry when he speaks and he’s still breathing hard, but Tony forces himself to focus.

“So what do you want, kid? A car?” he asks. Peter will never have to want for anything again, not if he has anything to say about it. “College tuition’s all paid for, but maybe you want—,”

Peter’s eyes go wide, and he pulls back a little, looking startled. “What?”

“You just brought Tony Stark back from a panic attack,” Tony says, trying to sound easy and smooth as ever. His voice comes out in a stutter that he manages to cover quickly, his heart still hammering in his chest painfully. The awfulness of it all and the fear is starting to slowly sink in, but Tony forces a smile on his face. “You think that type of shit goes unrewarded?”

“I don’t—I don’t want anything,” Peter tells him, shaking his head.

He stares at the kid, hard, watching the way his brows furrow in quiet confusion. It won’t take long for Peter to connect the dots and figure out Tony’s deflecting, but he realises that Peter’s telling the truth. His stomach slowly unclenches at that. Peter really doesn’t want anything from him. That’s new.

So, what can he give the kid, then? Because the gratefulness that is threatening to overwhelm Tony is massive. He’s never been brought back from a panic attack so nicely before and Peter Parker deserves everything for it. If he asked Tony to empty all of his bank accounts right now, Tony would do it happily. But that’s not what makes Peter happy, Tony knows. The kid’s different from the people he’s usually around. Tony has to make more of an effort.

He thinks hard.

“Then—then change of plans for today,” Tony says, swallowing the uncertainty down. He doesn’t usually like deviating from the plan, but he’ll do it for Peter. “Whatever you want to do, kid. I’m game.”

“Huh?” The kid blinks at him, before realisation sinks in.

“One-time-only offer lasts for three, two—,”

“Wait, wait!” Peter’s starting to grin, his eyes bright. “I have an idea!” He looks hopeful when he says, “I want to go on a mission with you, Mr Stark.”

Tony’s stomach sinks. “Kid,” he says. “You know I can’t do that.”

“But Secretary Ross is off the Accords panel! Nick Fury took over!” Peter protests, and this is the most Tony’s seen the kid so animated, he thinks to himself faintly. Peter doesn’t usually argue with him. He’s not sure if he likes it. “And you promised that Spider-Man would have immunity!”

“In Queens, you pyjama-clad vigilante,” Tony says. He doesn’t like the feeling of letting the kid down, something uncomfortable in his stomach. “The deal was that you’re allowed to swing around in Queens and do your thing, but you leave the big stuff to me.”

“To the Avengers,” Peter corrects bitterly. “But they’re not here, Mr Stark. So, why can’t I—,”

“You’re too young, kid!” Tony snaps at him harshly. “You don’t know what you’re asking for!”

“That’s not fair,” Peter protests. He’s pulling back, still on the ground as he glares at Tony, but the kid’s just proving his point here. He’s about as menacing as a puppy. “You didn’t seem to think of me as a kid when you took me to Germany!”

And that hits deep. Peter looks as though he might regret his words, but he doesn’t take them back, the late sunlight dripping gold over his youthful face as the night sky grows darker. The guilt strangles him then, but when Tony feels guilty, he gets defensive. He can feel the irritation prickle on his skin as he lifts his head and narrows his gaze sharply.

“Germany was a mistake, pipsqueak.”

He sees the hurt fill Peter’s eyes, the way the ever-present light seems to dim a little at the brutality of his words. It’s not even the worst thing he could say, Tony knows, and his mind flits with a dizzying array of insults, all severely honed and crafted to pierce worse than the sharpest blade.

This is it, Tony thinks to himself, something horrible digging into his stomach. This is the moment he finally pushes away the one person who never asked anything of him.

But instead, Peter takes several breaths and leans back to glower at him hard. “You’re Tony Stark,” he says. “You don’t make mistakes.”

The sheer faith the kid has in him takes his breath away. Tony stares at Peter, who is getting up to pour him a glass of water. He’s still dumbfounded when Peter pushes the cold glass into his shaking fingers and Tony drinks, his throat parched and screaming for relief.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about Tony Stark if you think I don’t make mistakes, kid,” Tony mutters gruffly.

“No offence, Mr Stark,” Peter says, putting the empty cup on the coffee table and patting DUM-e’s head when the bot gives a soft whine, “but you’re kind of terrible at being nicer to yourself.”

What has he ever done to earn anyone’s kindness? The people around him stay despite him. Tony doesn’t deserve Pepper or Rhodey or Happy. He didn’t deserve Steve or Natasha or the Avengers either. They may have been shitty to him personally, but he knows that they were still the good guys. Besides, he’s always deserved it.

Tony snorts, opening his mouth to answer. But the kid’s still talking.

“But that’s alright,” Peter tells him, and his smile is small but hopeful. “It’s never too late to learn.”

.

.

He goes back home the long way, itching to swing through the city but holding back for now.

Peter’s deep in thought as he moves through the streets, his head low as his music hums through his ears quietly. He’s never seen Mr Stark go through a panic attack before and he’s never seen one that bad, either. Uncle Ben used to have them, from his time in the army, and he remembers waking up in the night to hear Aunt May murmuring soft comforts as the sounds of harsh and ragged breathing, so much like Mr Stark’s, filled the air.

A couple of times, Peter would get scared enough to look and Uncle Ben would always smile at him, pull him close. Sometimes they used to sing together until Uncle Ben’s heartbeat slowed to normal.

To see Mr Stark go through something like that had thrown him.

Peter’s enhanced senses had caught the pacing of his heartbeats, the rapid flurry of his breaths, and he had realised it before Mr Stark had seen it for himself. It makes sense, after all, he thinks. Afghanistan may have been years ago, but stuff like that stays with you. Peter knows that no matter how many years pass, he’ll never forget Uncle Ben gasping for breath on the cold shop floor.

And when Mr Stark had offered him anything, anything at all, Peter knew exactly what he’d go for.

How could he not want to be an Avenger, just like his hero, Iron Man? Spider-Man is everything to him and Peter knows that if it’s a choice, he’d immediately go straight for Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s everything Peter can never be. Heck, the hero is the reason Tony Stark even brought him to Germany in the first place. What has Peter Parker got to offer, in comparison?

He purses his lips, tapping out the rhythm of his music absently as he crosses the street. It’s completely dark by now, the black night drenching the city around him, and the cars honk past as Peter moves.

It’s going to take time to become an Avenger, Peter had known this, but he’d thought that Mr Stark would have been more open to the idea. Especially given Germany. But Germany had been a mistake.

Does that mean Peter was a mistake?

Peter’s stomach clenches at the very thought, something deep and uncomfortable writhing in him. He picks up the pace, moving fast to get home so as to keep his thoughts from taking him over, and when he gets back home, night has fallen completely. Aunt May’s clearing away the table when he steps in and she drops a kiss on his hair in greeting as Peter drops his bag and helps her.

“Hey, Pete. Did you eat?” Aunt May is asking, as Peter nods mechanically, trying to summon a smile. He doesn’t seem to do a good job because she eyes him carefully, and adds, concerned, “You made it back pretty late, hon. Next time, take my car, okay? You’re old enough and I could do with the extra exercise, too.”

She gives a soft laugh that Peter returns with a small smile.

“Thanks, Aunt May,” he says, genuinely surprised. Peter pulls at the edge of his shirt, fidgeting slightly, the words in his mouth.

“What did Mr Stark say? Can he make this weekend?”

“Oh, yeah,” Peter says, reaching to rub the back of his neck. “Yeah, I think so.” He watches Aunt May put away the dishes, hesitant. “Hey, Aunt May. Can I ask you something?”

She shifts a little, turning her head. “Of course.”

“You know, um, Uncle Ben.” There’s a lump in Peter’s throat and he swallows hard, his chest tight. “When he had his panic attacks, what was it like?”

Aunt May turns from the sink to look at him, eyeing him carefully. There’s a small, confused furrow in her forehead and her voice is soft when she speaks. “What brought this on, Pete?”

Peter remembers the way Mr Stark had stopped breathing on the workshop floor, the way his eyes had blown open with a panic and fear that was so powerful it terrified him. He had heard Mr Stark’s heartbeats escalating to a brilliant staccato, had barely been able to breathe himself, to help.

“Mr Stark gets panic attacks, too,” he tells Aunt May.

“Oh,” his aunt says softly. Her face twists in sympathy as she reaches for Peter’s fingers, clasping them comfortingly and Peter lets out a small breath, grateful when she doesn’t push him about it. “Well, it can’t have been easy for him, these past years. I guess…” she drifts off, looking thoughtful before clearing her throat and focusing on Peter. “What do you remember about Ben’s panic attacks?”

“I remember…” Peter hesitates, something in his throat. He remembers dark nights with Ben’s hoarse, ragged breathing filling the air around them, May’s soft comforting words, the fear that came with the realisation that someone you love is in pain. “That he couldn’t—he couldn’t breathe sometimes. And he looked so scared.” He swallows, remembering Mr Stark crumpling to his knees and gasping, the terrified expression on his face cutting him to his core. “Like Mr Stark.”

Aunt May’s smile is a beautiful, small curve. “And do you remember what I used to do for Ben?”

“You helped him breathe again,” Peter says.

“I grounded him, using his coping mechanisms his therapist told me to use,” she tells him gently. “I was there for him. Scary situations like that, all we can do, for the people we love, is to just be there.” Aunt May’s gaze lingers on him, in that way she sometimes looks at him, when she’s worried but trying to hide it. “If it ever gets too much for you, Pete, I’m sure Mr Stark won’t mind at all if you have to step away for a bit.”

Peter furrows his brows. That sounds selfish, he thinks to himself. What right does he have, prioritising himself when Mr Stark is in such pain?

“Really?” he asks, his voice sceptical.

“Ben never did,” Aunt May says, ever patient. She ruffles his hair comfortingly. “It’s okay to know that you’ve taken on too much to handle and to just step away. Sometimes it’s hard to see the people you care for in pain and it’s tough on us, too, honey. That’s okay.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, that you should support and help people, but you’ve got to understand that you’re not a professional. I certainly wasn’t,” Aunt May says. “I kept worrying I was doing something wrong, but Ben’s therapist told me that my mental health mattered, too. And Ben himself told me that he loved me too much to make me unhappy and he understood when it got too much for me, too.” She gives a small smile and when she speaks, her voice is light and far too casual. “I’m sure Mr Stark will know that, too.”

Peter schools his expression quickly. He can practically smell the worry off Aunt May, knowing that she’s worried he might take on too much to handle. It’s been a problem, before. She and Uncle Ben had always worried after him, with the way he opens his heart so wildly to the people around him. From experience, Aunt May knows that just telling him not to do something only spurs him on. He remembers overhearing Aunt May with one of his teachers who had said he put the weight of the world on his shoulders.

And Peter gets that, he does. But when he’s got powers and the ability to do something, to help, it’s hard not to. And he wants to help Mr Stark, who deserves it most.

“But he couldn’t breathe, May,” Peter tells her. “And I—I don’t know if I even helped. He looked… really bad.”

Aunt May’s face creases in concern. She cares for Mr Stark, too. He’s unfailingly polite to her and she’s got the same wild, open heart Peter has. “He’s always so—happy,” she says, her voice faint with worry, and Peter’s stomach clenches. That’s true, he wants to say, but the man he saw today looked like he’d never known happiness. Her gaze turns to Peter. “I know you, honey. You’re going to get this in your head and try to save Mr Stark, too. But it’s okay, because he’s a grown adult and he can take care of himself.”

She doesn’t understand, Peter thinks, distressed. He opens his mouth to protest. “But—,”

“I wasn’t done,” she says, her lips quirking. “Pete. Do you remember what Ben always said?”

“With great power comes—,”

“No, wait, that was his line. What was mine?” May says.

Peter’s lips quirk in amusement, but when he speaks, his voice is soft and low. “Always be kind.”

May’s eyes are gentle as she nods, reaching to pat his shoulder comfortingly. “Being kind may sound ordinary and boring, but it has the potential to save someone’s world,” she tells him softly, but her gaze is intense. “Sometimes, all we need is a little kindness in our lives and even the hardest of hearts can melt.”

Mr Stark’s a bit of a hard heart, Peter knows, but he’s not silly to think that all he needs is a bit of kindness, despite May’s nice words. It’s not like Mr Stark is lacking for people who care about him. There are the Avengers, his fiancé, the millions of fans, after all. What is Peter, compared to them?

Aunt May’s eyes are filled with concern. “Are you going to be okay, Pete?”

“Yeah,” Peter says, and it doesn’t feel like a lie. “Thanks, Aunt May. I’m going to go to bed.”

“Okay,” May says, but the concern doesn’t seem to clear. “Goodnight, hon.”

“Night!”

Peter ducks into his room gratefully, something in his chest as he reaches to rummage through his bag for his suit. He hadn’t planned on getting out tonight, but he keeps seeing Mr Stark’s panicked face and though Aunt May’s words had calmed him somewhat, Peter still feels restless. He pulls the mask over his face, before swinging out of the window and flitting easily through the dark city.

Queens is alive with bright, fluorescent lights of neon yellows and reds cascading around him. The cool wind breezes past him as faint music pulsates in the air around him, and as he swings through the skies, Peter feels free.

It doesn’t take him very long to get to where he wants to be, lifting himself into the air to the large skyscraper. Peter loves being in the air, could get high off the sheer exhilaration of skidding to a stop amidst the dark night on the quiet rooftop. Peter’s breaths hitch as he pulls the mask up and he ducks under the railing to sit on the edge of the building, staring over at the skies, something sticking in his throat.

He can breathe properly when he’s out here, in a way that he can’t when he’s at school or at home. Maybe it’s something in the air, Peter thinks. But he rather thinks it’s all the pent-up energy the spider bite gave him, filling him with a reckless vigour that thrums through him.

Peter tilts himself forward, pushing himself up over his head so that he’s standing on his hands on the rooftop. He lets out a delighted whoop, the wind pushing past his face as he flirts with danger, addicted to the thrill that pulsates through his veins. The spider bite set him free in a way, lets him run wild. Usually, he’d release all the energy at the Compound, but today hadn’t gone the way he’d thought.

At the reminder of Mr Stark, Peter’s smile drops.

Irritation flickers through him. He’s worthy as an Avenger, he knows this. Peter’s Spider-Man, for God’s sake. He’s saved lives and he’s done just as much as Iron Man. Why won’t Tony bring him on board? It’s not like there aren’t any open spaces, what with the Civil War taking apart the whole Avengers roster. Peter burns with curiosity, to know exactly what happened but Mr Stark doesn’t speak about it and Peter’s too awkward to ask.

He huffs a little, balancing himself precariously over the edge.

For a moment, Peter’s gaze catches on the dark city skyline, wondering what it would feel like to fall like Iron Man. He takes his fingers away from the edge, one at a time, until his index finger is the last thing keeping him tied to the world and then—

A sharp cry pierces through the air.

The wind tilts him, his concentration shifting, and Peter lets out a helpless yelp as he promptly falls through the air. He reacts fast, leaning on his instincts as he twists his body in mid-air, throwing out a web to steady himself quickly. With another hand, Peter rubs his eyes fiercely before pulling the mask back down. He shoots another web, lifting himself into the air as he moves fast towards the sound, listening intently.

When he gets to the ground, the city lights gleaming over the empty street, Peter has to take a moment to actually look at what’s happening. There’s an old lady with a dog and a large trolley that’s fallen over, groceries sliding out of the plastic bags, but that’s not what catches Peter’s attention. It’s the man the old lady is currently beating up.

“Get away from me, you big oaf!” the old lady is shouting, using her handbag to hit at the man as her dog bites and snaps at his heels. “That will teach you to take my plums!”

Peter’s struck with the sudden urge to burst into laughter at the sight, but he reaches forward to shoot his web shooters at the man, pinning him to the wall. The lady turns her head to thank him for the better target and continues hitting him.

“Ma’am, ma’am,” Peter calls. He’s not entirely sure what to do here, as he raises his web shooters uncertainly. “Uh, you’re going to get charged for assault if you—,”

“I’ll claim self-defence, dear,” the woman says as she hits the man once more and seems finished. “Thank you. You’re the spider thing around Queens these days. My granddaughters love you.” She sighs. “I forget your name, child, I’m sorry. Truth be told, I can’t keep up. There are so many of you these days.”

“That’s alright, ma’am,” Peter says. “I’m Spider-Man.”

The lady looks at him, her gaze steadier than anything he’s ever seen, and up above, the beginnings of a storm exhales. Beside her, the dog is whining and yapping at her heels, but she looks down at the animal briefly and the dog quiets. She reaches to clasp Peter’s proffered hand with a small smile of her own, a cross between some amusement and surprise.

“Kate,” she says. Her gaze turns to the man still wrapped onto the wall. “You didn’t have to do that for me, child.”

Peter blinks. “It was no trouble,” he says.

Kate is still watching him before something seems to cross her features and she clears her throat. “Well, then,” she says, “do you mind helping me out with these?”

Together, they pick up her groceries and Peter is just finishing putting the plums back into her trolley, steadying it for her when the dog nudges his legs. It’s a large beast of a thing, its eyes glowing, but Peter’s always loved animals. He looks into the face of the large dog and smiles, reaches out a hand to pet it affectionately.

“You shouldn’t pet strange animals,” Kate tells him. “Never know when they might bite.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says politely and pulls back.

“But she seems to like you well enough,” Kate continues as the dog whines on the leash, sniffling a little. Her eyes fix on him briefly, somewhat curious. “That’s funny. She doesn’t usually take to strangers.”

He’s kind of chuffed about that, Peter thinks as he preens a little. “What’s her name?”

“Etna,” the lady tells him. “Her name is Etna.”

It’s a bit of a strange name, but Peter thinks it suits the dog. “She’s beautiful, ma’am,” Peter says. “Will you be okay getting home?”

“I’ll be fine. Thank you,” Kate says. “Most folk wouldn’t care about an old biddy like me. Nobody is kind these days.” She gives him a small smile and reaches to grasp his fingers once more, the storms up above crackling up a fight, yellow lightning gleaming across the skies.

“My uh—someone I know says that it’s not that people aren’t kind,” Peter says. “It’s that people aren’t given a chance.”

The woman stares at him, smiling a little. “The spider give you wisdom, too?” she says before she fumbles into her bag for something. “Here, have a toffee.”

“Uh, thanks ma’am.”

Peter watches Kate leave, reaching a hand to wave. He’s practically exhausted by the time he gets home but Peter’s spirits lift at the sight of the toffee as he drops it on his desk. He fumbles for the night light Mr Stark gave him and promptly conks out.

Chapter Text

He’s in an irritable mood the next day, angry at every little thing for no reason.

Tony’s restless and fidgety, filled with energy yet exhausted at the same time. He snaps at everyone, isolates himself in his office, pulling at his tie until it looks too much like a noose. The kid’s stricken face from last night keeps clinging to his mind, his anxiety at an all-time high as it constantly goes over his disastrous panic attack.

Of all the times, Tony thinks, frustration climbing, he had to have a panic attack, it had to be in front of the kid. And he was doing so well.

And now Peter, who takes every burden as his own, who holds the world on his shoulders stronger than Atlas ever could, is going to worry. The kid shouldn’t have had to deal with him—Steve never would have let this happen. Tony’s breaths start to grow heavier as he collapses into his chair, head in his hands. Here he is, putting more of his shitty baggage on the poor kid, as though Germany and lying to his aunt wasn’t enough.

How much more of a shit can he be?

When he lifts his head, he sees Pepper behind the door and something in him sighs a little, half relief, half crushing mental preparation. Tony clears his throat, scrambling to get a hold of himself, as he straightens his back quickly, despite the exhaustion that threatens to pull him back down. She’s a beautiful person and he doesn’t deserve his fiancé, a sentiment everyone around him constantly reaffirms, yet the sight of her fills him with growing dread.

He’s been shitty today, Tony knows, and Pepper won’t let him forget it.

Something in that makes him want to slump down to his knees all over again, so tired he hates himself for standing. Before, Tony had thought that Pepper refusing to take his bullshit was a good thing. He’s a terrible person and he says or does stupid shit, like having panic attacks in front of self-sacrificing, stupidly brave kids, or ruining every single thing that had ever been good for him. He needs to be checked or yelled at, like Pepper does or Steve used to, sometimes, when he goes too far and doesn’t know it.

But Peter’s words linger in his mind.

The kid had told him to be nicer to himself, as though he deserved that. As though he could ever. Not since Yinsen, anyway.

His gaze turns to the boxed arc reactor Pepper had made for him. She’d fixed it up after Obadiah died, though Tony hadn’t really wanted her to, insisting that he needed it. A reminder of what she alone could see in him, when the rest of the world could not.

Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.

Yinsen had seen his heart first, Tony thinks. He’s not really sure what Pepper wants to say, in all honesty, something strange in his gut. But the box just reminds him of how shit of a person he really is that he needs to continuously prove himself worthy. That he just can’t do it, can’t be the superhero the Avengers would have ever accepted. Tony had been relegated to a consultant and though it’s been years, the bite of that still stings.

Tony stares at the box hopelessly as Pepper enters, her heels clicking angrily on the floor. He can tell how mad she is by the click of her heels, at this point, and he wonders what it says about them that he hasn’t seen her happy with him for the longest time.

“Tony, what the hell is going on?” Pepper’s voice is sharp.

The words come to his mouth as he lifts his head to explain the anxiety, the panic, the fear, but the sight of her angry, disappointed face crushes him completely. Tony’s tried explaining it all to her before, all of New York and the PTSD and the trauma, even Afghanistan. But she didn’t seem to understand and when she kept pulling him to bed, Tony had still felt that uneasy, anxious buzz under his skin, unabated and uncomforted.

She’s continuing, staring at him as though he’s a stranger, and Tony realises she’s holding a newspaper. “Apparently you’ve been terrorising the R&D department and your poor assistant is in tears.”

I can’t breathe, he wants to say, something tight and aching in his chest. Everything I touch, I ruin. I will ruin you, too. Run away, please. Please.

“May Parker asked us to dinner,” he says instead, and something inside him crumples at the exasperated, frustrated look Pepper gives him. “This weekend.”

For a moment, Tony wishes she could read him as easily as he can read her. He wishes that for once Pepper could be on his side and support him through the shit his mind puts him through every single damn day.

If the Avengers couldn’t, then surely his fiancé would bother? Would see through the cracks? He’s not that good at hiding things, especially in front of Pepper. But everyone seems convinced that he’s some silly child playing at superhero and that he isn’t to be trusted, Pepper included. It frustrates him, that they insist on infantilising him, as though he’s not a grown man and capable of making decisions by himself.

And even though his decisions are shit and he’s a terrible fucking person, Tony knows that shutting down the weapons division was the best decision he ever made.

“I can’t make it,” Pepper is saying, shaking her head. Her voice is particularly bitter and poisonous when she continues. “I have to fix the mess Christine Everhart’s been writing about us.”

She puts the newspaper down on the desk as Tony’s gaze drops. It’s his face, as usual, and for a blinding moment, he thinks of burning the paper to ash before he forces himself to get a grip on himself. It’s a relatively nicer article than he’s used to, Tony thinks as he skims the piece, but Christine’s implications that Stark Industries is going downhill with its latest CEO is dangerous. Kind of mean, Tony thinks. Bit funny in that classic Everhart fashion. But not untrue.

“Not even just the evening?” Tony asks.

Pepper frowns at him. “You did see what she’s been writing about me, Tony?” she says, looking annoyed. Her voice is a bitter mutter, as she crosses her arms. “Do I have to do a spread on her, too?”

“Pep, come on,” Tony says. “A little bit of bad press never hurt anyone. Look at me.”

Her lips quirk at him but the frown fades away slowly as Tony lets out a breath, relieved that he’s finally managed to say something right for once. Pepper’s brows furrow a little when her gaze drifts to the boxed arc reactor, as she scans the place thoughtfully. There’s something strange about the way she picks it up and Tony wants nothing more than to shatter it apart.

“You’re right,” she mutters, before clearing her throat. “Right. You need to apologise to your assistant and go to your next meeting, Tony.”

“In a bit,” Tony says, the headache between his temples not abating. He reaches to rub his head, hating the way Pepper’s expression of disappointment creases her face.

“Not in a bit, Tony. Right now.”

“I don’t want to do it now—,”

“What are you, a child?” Pepper rolls her eyes, and damn, that cuts deep. “Come on, Tony. You made a promise and you said you’d at least try, for me. I’m doing my best here, but you can’t do the same for me?” She stares at him, before Pepper puts the boxed arc reactor down and when she speaks again, her voice is shaky with unshed tears. “Sometimes I think you think of nobody else but yourself. That you’re killing this relationship yourself.”

You’re killing me, she means to say, he thinks and Tony’s stomach drops. And this is what he does, isn’t it? He takes something utterly beautiful and he ruins it. He ruins everything. Tony watches helplessly as Pepper stares at him with tears in her eyes, her face creased in distress.

“Pepper—,”

“Do you even listen to me, Tony?” she asks. Yes, he wants to say desperately. Always. “You only ever hear yourself and what you want. You want kids, you want to sit up here in your office and pout like a child. I never even make an appearance in that genius brain of yours—,”

“That’s not true,” he tells her yearningly.

Pepper lets out a taut, shaky breath. "You know it is," she says. Her voice turns sharper and strict as she looks at him, frustrated. She’s always so frustrated with him, Tony thinks. “Look, Tony—,”

This isn’t working out, he thinks she’ll say and Tony panics. “Pepper—,”

“I know you’re capable of so much more than this,” she tells him, something soft and desperate in her gaze. “You’ve always been able to pull yourself together, no matter what happens. So, you’re going to pull yourself together now, okay?”

“I—,”

“Tony.”

A small silence pervades between them, something tight in Tony’s chest. He’s not really sure he likes this, he thinks to himself, before he clears his throat. This is exactly like their usual banter and Pepper’s even smiling at him, but something feels different. He’s on the edge, nerves fraying and anxiety brimming over his mess of a brain, and he feels like if he makes one wrong move, he’ll fall apart.

Tony swallows hard as he eyes Pepper. “I used to be your boss,” he says, as Pepper’s eyes narrow.

She does not look amused anymore, brows pulled together, and when she speaks, her voice is toeing the edge of dangerously strict. The tone she uses whenever he does something stupid, Tony thinks. “Are you pulling rank on me?”

“No, I’m—I’m trying to figure something out,” he says, not even sure of what he’s saying. “You used to be different. Nicer.”

The words taste strangely familiar in his mouth and for a moment, Tony thinks of sinking to the floor with Peter Parker trying to reassure him. Guilt dredges up in him, a horrible, thick thing churning in his stomach.

“That was when I was still under your payroll. You paid me to be nice to you.” Pepper gives a smile that Tony doesn’t return, looking more relaxed. She even looks amused, as though she’s surprised it took him this long to figure it out. “Keep up.”

Tony stills as Pepper leaves. He knew that. It was a lesson he’d learned from his father; Howard had reminded him harshly that it was only the Stark name people cared for and he’d be wise to remember it. But he figured that she’d still be nice because she’s a good person.

As Pepper leaves, not without a strict warning that she’d better see him in the upcoming meeting, the anxiety returns full force, something taut in his stomach. Tony reaches a hand to rub over his face tiredly. He hates that everyone seems to have forgotten about Afghanistan.

He certainly hasn’t.

And the only one who’s ever proved different is the one person he’s done the exact same thing to. Peter didn’t deserve his vitriol, Tony thinks, as he rubs a hand over his face. But for once, Tony had been right. Peter is literally a child, no matter how enhanced he is.

Tony has messed up his life long enough.

.

.

Christine Everhart is fucking hilarious.

Clint rifles through the newspaper, snickering as Pepper Potts storms past him, not noticing him in the waiting room. He’s got his signature cap on, pulled down, the newspaper lifted up to hide most of his features, but damn, Tony needs to up the security. If he could get in past Tony’s security guard, who doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing, then anyone could.

His gaze turns to Ms Potts, who has a face like thunder, and Clint purses his lips. He’s not really allowed to comment on the woman, especially now, but he’s never really liked her. She had this way of making Nat feel like shit because of that undercover mission Fury had her do. That woman holds a grudge like nothing else.

He can read people like Pepper like a book.

Nat’s not the only spy around here, after all. Ms Potts likes the job of CEO, Clint knows, especially the pristine power it gives her, no matter how inadequate Christine claims she’s proven at the position. But he has a sneaking suspicion that she likes how Tony sees her even more. Tony’s elevated Ms Potts to such a high pedestal that she believes it herself. Clint can see it, in the way she walks, the way she talks to people.

Her refusal to take the bullshit Tony usually spewed was why he hired her in the first place, Clint knows. He remembers Tony telling him drunkenly about how Pepper’s never been one to shy away from the truth, especially when it comes to Tony, and in his business, that’s something rare. Clint can see that she’s fallen a little bit in love with the way Tony desperately tries to be worthy of her; he remembers how he used to act with Laura. Laura had confessed it a strangely addictive feeling, the feel of someone wanting so desperately to be enough. How anxious he would be whenever he was with her, because how could someone as perfect and flawless as Laura ever want to be with someone like him?

Clint’s seen it in himself after all, how could he not recognise it in one of his best friends?

And besides, Ms Potts reminds him of some of his old exes—the ones who hated what he did. Tony’s never said a bad word about their relationship, but everyone, even Steve who buried his head in his sketchbook most days, knew about Pepper wanting Tony to give up Iron Man.

He and Nat’s talked about it a little, the idea of giving up what they did as Avengers to become normal civilians. Clint had tried the stick with Laura, but he had been unable to do it. Picking up a bow and arrow just settled his soul in a way that living like a civilian could never. Nat understood it, too. She had a lot of demons in her head that quieted the minute she saved a person or used her skills to help, defying the Red Room.

Laura had asked him to choose between her and the job. Clint had tried, but in the end, the job let him live and she’d understood that. He could live with himself, after all the shitty things in his life, and he thought he’d found some semblance of love in the Avengers Fury had manipulated together. Sometimes he and Tony would talk and though the man wouldn’t say a word about Afghanistan, Clint knows that Tony’s guilt is something that has to be fought back every single day.

It doesn’t improve his opinion of Pepper Potts that she would demand Tony to give up the one thing that let him live.

“He free now?” Clint asks, jabbing a thumb towards the door as he looks pointedly to the unamused assistant.

She’s very good at her job which makes her a pain in his ass. Refuses to let him in but keeps sniffling into her tissues and blaming it on a cold. In summer. Clint gets to his feet, rubbing his forehead tiredly as he knocks on the door.

She huffs as she gets to her feet quickly, almost tripping on the absurdly high heels she wears. “Mr—,”

“Stark,” Clint lies easily. “I told you I’m related to him.”

“You can’t go in—,”

“Fuck off!” Tony’s voice echoes from behind the door.

“Charming,” Clint calls back.

He watches Tony’s shadow from behind the door as it shifts a little, something taut in his throat. Clint’s quiet when Tony pulls the door open to look at him, rolling his eyes. The assistant swallows hard, but before she can say anything, Tony speaks first, glaring at Clint.

“What the fuck do you want?”

“Better security for your office, for one,” Clint says. He eyes Tony’s flushed cheeks, the bloodshot eyes, the hitched breaths. “Tony—,”

“Fuck,” Tony breathes hard, as he pulls back, going back into the office.

“Mr Stark!” the assistant calls. “Uh, Ms Potts says that you have a—,”

Clint turns his head. “My brother’s in the middle of a panic attack right now. Call back later, blondie.”

“But—,”

Jesus, where’s Nat when you need her? Clint aims a bright smile at the woman, waggles his fingers and promptly shuts the door in her face. He turns to Tony quickly, brows furrowed together as the smile promptly drops in concern. Tony is breathing hard, his pupils blown, fingers scrabbling against the desk for stability. Clint’s got his hands up in an instant, moving slowly, knowing how Tony has the tendency to hit out at the things close to him when he’s in a panic attack.

“Pep—ruining everything, I’m ruining—,” Tony gasps out, his voice ragged with panic.

“It’s alright, I got you, Tony,” Clint says as Tony collapses to his knees helplessly. He sinks to the carpet automatically at the same time, making Tony look up at him. “This is one of the bad days, huh? Breathe, Tony. You’re going to be okay. You haven’t ruined anything. You hear me? Listen to my voice. You’re going to be alright, you just have to breathe, and you’re the best at that shit, you know that.”

Tony’s starting to look a little calmer, but his eyes are filled and Clint’s worriedly keeping back to give him his space. He doesn’t remember Tony being this bad and then he wants to hit himself over the head. Of course, with all the shit that’s been going down, it would get this bad. Clint himself had almost broken Sam’s jaw in a delirious haze, a few days after finally getting out of the Raft.

When he shifts a little, the familiar sound of the repulsors powering up echoes around the office. Clint doesn’t so much as flinch, but his throat is thick, something clenching his stomach. Tony is staring at him without actually seeing him, but the suit is still moving towards him.

“Tony,” Clint says, trying to sound as gentle as he can with the scary Iron Man suit coming straight for his throat. “Tony—,”

“Shit—,” Tony manages to get out, just as he calls out some order to Friday and the suit pulls back just in time. When Tony looks up again, his face creases in guilt just before his features harden.

“It’s alright. You’re alright,” Clint tells him. “It’s not your fault that you had a panic attack. The suit just came to protect you, that’s all.”

“You just missed Romanoff,” Tony says roughly.

Oh, Clint winces. That’s how bad we messed up.

“She got out, too?” he says instead, his voice light. “Was getting a little crowded in those motel rooms.”

“Is that why you’re here?” Tony says, his voice rasping as he pushes himself up to his feet again. “You want your old room back? Too late.”

“I’m here to apologise, Tony,” Clint tells him, and Tony’s mouth slams shut as he stares. “I’m sorry about everything, Tony. I honestly thought I was doing Steve a favour—,”

“That is a shit apology,” Tony interrupts, turning his back on Clint. “Come back never, birdbrain.”

“Tony—,”

Tony’s voice is sharp. “You didn’t give two shits then, you don’t give two shits now!” he says angrily. “All you want is the money and the Compound back. Guess what. You’re never going to get that shit back! You had your chance and you fucking blew it.”

Clint stares at him. “Is that what you really think of us?” he says, something thick in his throat. They spent years together. How many times had Clint brought Tony out of his panic attacks, had Tony defended Clint’s decisions in the field, had Tony and Clint drank beers together in the nights when their nightmares stopped them from sleeping? “You’re my brother, man.”

“You mocked my real brother to my face,” Tony says fiercely, and Clint’s guilt threatens to strangle him at the reminder of Rhodes. “You really thought that I’d ever want you locked away. You always thought the worst of me. You were just waiting for some proof. Well, here you are. Tony Stark, devil incarnate. The selfish fucker who left you all to rot in the Raft—,”

“I never thought that for a second, Tony,” Clint says. “I was angry and stupid, and I thought you just didn’t care for us, that you betrayed us. I never thought to listen to you, to trust you, when I should have, and I’m sorry, Tony.”

Tony stares at him for a moment before he’s reaching for something and the crack of glass shatters across the floor. The words Proof that Tony Stark has a heart gleam up at Clint from the ground and Clint stares at the broken arc reactor, Tony’s fingers shaking.

“Just leave me alone,” Tony mutters, reaching to rub his forehead tiredly. “Leave me alone.”

.

.

He goes through the rest of the day in a mechanical daze, escaping to the Compound again once he’s finished.

Tony is tired to his bones, after talking to Pepper and seeing Clint again. He hadn’t expected an apology from Clint, but then he also hadn’t expected not to forgive the archer either. It’s strange, the unfamiliar feeling of refusing to forgive. Tony can’t stop hating himself for it, can’t stop remembering how he’d had another panic attack in front of Clint, this time. How he’d, for a brief, fleeting moment, been so grateful that Clint was there to help him learn how to breathe again.

It felt wrong to be grateful, especially given what Clint had said about Rhodey. Tony had been so fraught with worry over Pepper than seeing his former friend again had pushed him over the edge. Why couldn’t he just stop wanting? How much more would Steve have to beat it into him to make him understand that the Avengers had never cared for him? And never would?

“Tony?”

The voice rattles in his head, an annoying, vaguely familiar thing as Tony stares up at the ceiling without actually seeing it. He’s supposed to be fixing some defect of the suit, but he’s on the ground for some reason. Tony waits for something to happen. For them to come back and spark his life back up again. But they don’t do anything at all.

There are no heroes left, Tony thinks. He is no hero, that’s for sure. Whatever is coming for them will swallow them whole and Tony will be the one to live, he knows it. It’s always been his punishment, like he’d told Fury before, mistakenly thinking that Fury actually cared. Tony waits for something, anything at all. But the quiet is the loudest thing he’s ever heard.

“Tony!”

Rhodey’s face pokes into his vision as Tony blinks in alarm, pulling himself together quickly. His best friend is staring at him in alarm, touching his arm warily.

“Jesus, you’re freezing,” Rhodey says. “Tony.”

“Hey, platypus,” Tony greets with a big smile that he doesn’t feel. He’s blindingly grateful when Rhodey sees straight through it.

“Cut the shit, Tones. What’s going on, man?” Rhodey says. “I’m hearing all this shit happening and—is it true that Barton was here?”

Tony stares at him as he pulls himself up, feeling slightly dizzy for a moment. His gaze turns to the Iron Man helmet and he reaches for it, cradling it within his fingers. Rhodey’s brows are furrowed in concern and Tony hates himself for doing that to his friend. For making him worry again. It’s like MIT all over again, the two of them running wild together but Rhodey’s age sometimes making an appearance as he tried to take care of a fifteen-year-old kid with enough self-destructive tendencies to power a rocket.

Emotions give him hives, he always claims. But Tony keeps remembering the deeply sad look on Pepper’s face, his stomach sinking, the horrible feeling of saying something wrong. Come on, come on, idiot. What’d you say? What’d you do?

“I want kids,” Tony says, but it tastes strange in his mouth, like even his body knows he doesn’t deserve it. Yinsen, the one person who deserved his family had lost them unfairly. “I want a family.”

“Okay,” Rhodey says, looking slightly confused at the change in topic.

“But—I don’t,” Tony begins, before rubbing his forehead. “Pepper doesn’t.”

Rhodey’s face creases. “Tony—,”

“She thinks I’m going to choose Iron Man over her,” he says, his voice low with shame. “Because I’m Iron Man, I risk any chance of a family, of deserving—,”

“Tony—,”

“And she’s right,” Tony says, his voice hoarse. “She’s right, isn’t she?”

“So, you think you don’t deserve a family because of Iron Man?” Rhodey looks angry. “Bullshit. Bull-fucking-shit. You’re Iron Man, Tones. No use debating about that, you know that.” He hesitates and something in Tony’s stomach clenches. “But… Afghanistan was all of our breaking points. I can get why Pepper would think—I know you changed, Tony, but so did we all.”

Something irrational and irritable brews up in him at that. Rhodey thinks the same, Tony realises, his gut clenching in distress and shame. How shit of a person does he have to be for his own best friend to look at him and know that he doesn’t deserve to breathe either? To live?

He wants to say something shitty. Like how they might have all changed, but none of them were sporting arc reactors instead of hearts in their chests. None of them had seen the stars and the gaping pit of space as it threatened to swallow him whole. Outside, the sky crackles, dry lightning flashing briefly, the summer storm moving swiftly.

With the next lashing of rain, Tony just feels the bitterness fade away. No, he doesn’t want to say anything shitty and push away the only few people willing to stay by his side. He’d rather be alone.

“What are you trying to say, Rhodey?” Tony asks.

Rhodey’s looking at him carefully. “You know I love you, man, but I don’t think it’s just Pepper that’s making you like this,” he says. “What’s wrong, Tony?”

Tony gets to his feet, making straight for the liquor cabinet. “Nothing at all,” he lies through his teeth, but inwardly, he’s screaming at himself to stop. Stop being an asshole, stop being Tony Stark, stop being Howard. Just like Tony Stark not to listen. “So you can check ‘looking after Tony and making sure he hasn’t killed himself’ off your list and go on home.”

“Tony—,”

“I said, you can go on home.”

He ignores Rhodey, something hot and irritable buzzing under his skin as Tony rattles through the cabinet, reaching for the bourbon his father was partial to. Tony begins to pour himself a drink but, as the storm cracks and crashes outside, he changes his mind. Instead, he pulls the bottle out, reaches for the suit, and waves sarcastically to a protesting Rhodey as Iron Man flies out of the Compound.

.

.

It doesn’t take him long to leave Tony, but something drags in his chest as he does so. The guilt brims in his throat, threatens to tilt itself over, as Clint makes his way back to the apartment he’s managed to secure for himself. His gaze turns to the scuffmarks in the door and Clint lets out a breath of relief. He’s missed Nat, he thinks but the shadows that flicker across the floor are too large.

In the space of a single breath, Clint’s moved fast, throwing the small knife from the hidden holster around his thigh. It sails through the air as Clint shifts, but he relaxes immediately when Natasha clears her throat.

Nick Fury reaches to pick up the knife just before it sinks into his throat, eyeing the silvery blade with some derision.

“Getting sloppy, Barton?” he says.

“Ever heard of knocking?” Clint throws back, rolling his eyes. He nods towards Natasha, the small furrow between her eyes beginning to relax but only a smidge to let him know that something’s wrong. “Hey, Nat. Been a long time. You here to finish the fight?”

Natasha’s eyes flicker with some pain, but she knows, as well as he does, how much the question has to be asked.

“Fight was already finished,” she says.

“I let you win—,”

“You were soft—,”

“Children,” Nick says, arching an eyebrow. “You want to bicker later? We’ve got actual shit to do.”

Clint’s gaze flickers briefly towards Natasha as she raises her eyebrows a little towards him. She’s wary of Nick, he realises. That’s new. But then everything had fallen apart, and he had been nowhere to be seen, so perhaps a little caution is sensible.

“What’s wrong?” Clint asks.

Nick’s gaze turns solemn. “It’s about Stark.”

.

.

The storm screams above him, rain lashing around him as Tony pulls down the helmet.

He drinks heavily, kicking at the stones on the cliff’s edge lazily, something wild and reckless brimming under his skin as it wars with the sluggishness that threatens to pull him down in his exhaustion. The sound of water crashing against the rocks fills the air, golden lightning cracking across the skies. Tony almost slips on the pooled water on the ground, his fingers grasping in thin air around him as he breathes hard, breathes in the cold, bristling air.

He’s never seen a storm like this.

There’s something in the biting air around him as Tony sits on the ground, wondering if he dares to sit on the cliff’s edge. One strong wind, not unlike the gales blowing about him, will knock him straight off. Maybe that’s what he deserves, Tony thinks as he takes a long swig. What the people around him certainly deserve is respite from his bullshit.

His mind’s an array of thoughts and the anxiety prickles on his skin. Tony lifts his head to stare up at the dark night skies, where the grey clouds push across the canvas, gold nestled them. He’s just as much of a mess, he thinks dryly, and his gaze turns back to the cliff’s edge once more, something strange and yearning in him. He really has never seen a storm like this. 

“Boss, Colonel Rhodes is calling,” Friday says, her voice crackling, as Tony drops his head to look down at his chest.

Don’t waste it, Yinsen had told him. Don’t waste your life.

He wonders how Yinsen would look at him now.

Something bitter lingers in his mouth as he pushes himself to his feet, ignoring Friday. It doesn’t take long to stand on the edge of the cliff, his heart filled with something he can’t quite put down. Standing on the edge of the cliff, Tony stares out at the raging green-blue seas, wanting to fall, wanting someone to push him, wanting something.

“What do you want, Tony Stark?” something whispers at him, gleaming and uncomfortably hot in the cool air. “What are you looking for?”

His heart starts racing in fear as Tony brings up his repulsors protectively over his chest in the same instant as he stumbles. He can’t quite catch his balance on the cliff’s edge, the pebbles and dirt pushed up under the metal boot before the wind starts screaming in his ears. Friday’s voice is a soft blur in the distance as the world turns bright and brilliant.

Tony falls.

Chapter Text

When he wakes, he wakes to the taste of sand in his mouth.

Tony splutters seawater, gasping in panic as he wakes, choking. He’s still in the Iron Man armour, one metal hand raking across the white sands as the sun glows over him. There is nothing but empty beach all around him, dawnlight soaking the place in soft yellows and pinks, as Tony coughs up more seawater, his chest burning in protest.

Where the fuck is he?

He lifts a hand, pulling back the metal plates and shakes the excess seawater, to tap at the suit, to make sure it works. It had been a long and hard process to make the armour waterproof, but Tony had managed it, as he manages everything. He gets to his feet, sighing when he sees the numerous phone calls and messages he’s missed from Rhodey, Pepper, Happy. Tony reaches a hand to rub at his forehead tiredly.

He’d been a shit to Rhodey, he thinks bitterly.

“Fri?” Tony mutters. “Book Rhodey tickets to the next game. Give him my box seat in the Rose Bowl Stadium.”

“Yes, boss,” Friday says promptly. There’s only a moment before she replies. “Colonel Rhodes has refused them, boss.”

Tony gives a heavier sigh. “He would,” he says. “Into the air, Fri. Keep trying until he takes them. This time, tell him—tell him I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t wait to hear Rhodey’s reply, jetting into the air as Tony makes it back to the Tower, rebuking himself all the while. Exhaustion pulls at him so much that he literally drops on the launchpad, Friday the only thing holding him back together. His eyes close of his own accord and he starts to doze until Friday calls him.

“Boss,” Friday says. “Boss.”

“Whaa…” Tony lifts his head, realising his face is smushed into the ground. “Ugh. Why do I feel like shit, Friday?”

“Scanning now,” Friday says as she scans him. Tony stumbles to get to his feet, collapsing into the sofa heavily. “It is unlikely you will develop an illness as your vitals are steady, but you should rest, boss.”

Tony closes his eyes in an instant and when he dreams, he dreams of voices and the stars gleaming all around him.

.

.

Nick Fury drums his fingers pointedly on the table, watching Tony snuffle in his sleep.

His fingers rifle through the file he’s managed to scrounge together in the limited time he’s had as he clears his throat. To Tony’s credit, it doesn’t take long for the man to wake and to put the repulsor to his throat, but Nick’s still a little disappointed in Tony. Clint was right, he thinks to himself. Tony’s security has gone to shit.

“What the actual fuck,” Tony barks out, his voice slurred.

He thinks better of pushing the repulsor out of the way, like he did to Clint’s knife. Tony’s reasonable enough not to shoot him in the face, but Nick knows that the man has his limits. Breaking and entering into his living room was never going to make Tony look upon him with a nice eye but Nick’s kind of desperate. He’s talked to Natasha and Clint, knowing the limits they’d go to.

But they’d put their foot down when it came to Tony.

Natasha had insisted that Tony didn’t want to see them, and they were to respect his wishes. Clint had agreed, and that was when Nick had realised just how good he was. Putting the Avengers together had been the last-minute, desperate plan during New York, but Nick had decided to continue the group by putting Steve as leader. He’d seen the almost reverent way the team reacted to Steve and though Tony was more likely to argue with the Cap’s decisions, Nick knew enough that the team should, on paper, work well together.

He’s had shit blow up in his face before.

But not like this.

“Long time, Tony,” Nick says flippantly, and he offers a small smile at the man. “How are you feeling?”

“Fucking fuck off, fucker.”

.

.

“Hi, Tony,” Nick says, with an ease that Tony can barely believe.

“Get the fuck out, Fury,” Tony snaps angrily, stiffening. He doesn’t put down the repulsor, his fingers tensing. “Romanoff didn’t work on me, what makes you think you will?”

“Because you’re a smart man, Tony,” Nick tells him, his voice low. “And you know that I need you.”

And there’s something in the way the man speaks that sinks low.

Tony wonders at being offended that Nick Fury is on his property two seconds and already bringing out the big guns, working on his psychological need for affection, but then Fury already did that, didn’t he? Nick Fury and his love for the Avengers. He knew that keeping Tony Stark on a string would be the best way to use the best of his capabilities; Fury was always a smart man. And yet, ultimately, the Avengers grew bigger than his own vision and destroyed themselves.

Or, as Tony knows, he destroyed them.

“Of course you do,” Tony mutters, rubbing his forehead. “Shop’s closed, Nick. I’m not doing anything more for you.”

Nick’s voice is softer than Tony thought it could ever become. “I never asked you to do anything for me,” he says. “It was always the Avengers. A vision you once shared and saw, too.”

But you never deemed me worthy enough to join, Tony wants to rebuff, but he knows the truth of it. Nick had been right to refuse him entry into the Avengers. What would have happened, if he had been more than a consultant? He’d tried to consult them, tried to help, and the Civil War happened. How much more damage could he, the poisonous, toxic thing that he is, have inflicted?

It’s then Nick’s old words come back to him. Just an old man who cares very much about you, Nick had once told him. How stupid Tony was to actually believe him. His tech, sure. His money, obviously. Iron Man was the beginning of his meeting Nick. But Tony Stark?

Tony stares at the man tiredly. “You here to gloat, Fury? I did what you’ve all been warning me about, after all,” he says. “I killed the Avengers.”

Nick looks at him calmly. “Stop exaggerating,” he says. “You know that’s my job.”

“No,” Tony says, shaking his head, “your job is to manipulate people and wear long cloaks, Blade. What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for Nat,” Nick admits. “But I’m here for you too.”

“Never heard of her.”

“You’ve always been a joker,” Nick says. “How are you doing, Tony?”

Tony eyes him. “You get paid extra to pretend like you give a shit?”

“I do care for you, Tony.” Nick looks at him seriously, the same painted affection on his features.

“Don’t give me that shit,” Tony snaps. “I may have been stupid,” desperate, his mind nastily corrects, “to believe you once, but not again.”

“Howard—,”

“Isn’t me,” Tony says shortly, the words tasting bitter in his mouth.

Nick just looks at him but doesn’t refute his statement and something in Tony crumbles even more. “I’ve been an asshole, Tony,” he says slowly, watching him carefully. “I should have spoken to the rest of them for you, convinced them to believe in you—,”

“Wouldn’t have worked,” Tony says, flashing him a dark smile. “I’m the devil incarnate, haven’t you heard?”

A small silence lingers between them.

“No, you’re not, Tony,” Nick says. “Besides, you’re nothing compared to the real devil that’s coming our way.”

Tony blinks at him. “You finally picked up.”

How long had he been pleading everyone around him to believe him? A threat was out there, and he’d seen it with his own eyes, had thrown up contingency after contingency. He had constantly talked about it— “Remember New York?”  he’d say, wanting to talk about the fucking pit of outer space or maybe the armada bigger than the entire planet waiting to swallow them whole, and then he’d see the way they’d exchange looks with each other, the slow impatience building. “Yeah, yeah, we all remember New York, Tony. Where you saved us all.”

No, he didn’t do shit. He didn’t save anything.

“There’s a lot of aliens out there that know now that Earth is a threat. They’re all dangerous figures,” Nick tells him, his voice agreeable. “What have you got up against them?”

Tony throws Nick a sceptical look. “Well, I did think of assembling a team. See if they could be something more. One that could fight the battles normal people couldn’t.”

Nick gives a dry laugh. “Funny,” he says, but he’s shuffling the papers. He places one down. “Some of SHIELD’s old files from when your dad ran the place. I figured you might find it interesting.” Tony tries not to look and fails, ignoring Nick’s face. “There’s a guy they talk about. Thanos. Apparently, he’s the big guns. But…”

“What now?”

“Last night something happened.”

“I don’t need to know about your sex life—,”

“The stars burned out,” Nick says as Tony blinks. “All of them. Went out like a light.”

Tony stares at him. “I don’t have a lightswitch on me, Fury—,”

“Last night’s storm was something no weatherman could predict,” Nick continues. “And the world’s weirder than you know, but even I haven’t seen something like this. We had the worst storm last night, but now everyone’s saying that we’re gearing up for one of the worst droughts in decades. You must’ve seen it, right?”

The way Nick is looking at him raises some anxiety prickling on his skin. Tony has a feeling that Nick knows exactly how he spent last night.

“Stop being a cryptic little shit, Fury,” Tony says.

“Your dad and Peggy Carter put it best in this file,” Nick says, tapping at it. “But long story short? The gods are coming, and we’ve got reason to believe that they’re making Earth their battleground. This Thanos? Apparently he’s out there, looking for something—,”

“Stones,” Tony says immediately before blinking. He frowns as Nick’s head turns sharply. “How did I—,”

Nick looks at him carefully. “Where were you last night, Tony?”

“In bed. And some shit is private, Fury—,”

“You were underwater for over ten hours, Tony,” Nick says. “No human could survive that. The storm hit you. Or the cliff you were at.”

“You didn’t think to fish me out?” Tony rolls his eyes. “What, were you waiting to see if I was of use before you decided to help me out?”

Nick’s mouth is tense. “I …advocated strongly to bring you out, but I was,” he begins, swallowing hard, “very vocally shut down.”

“Who?”

“The Secretary of State is a very vocal figure. But he’s not all-powerful,” Nick says. “Who do you think fished you out on that beach?”

“What, you want me to thank you? You left me choking on seaweed.”

Nick shakes his head. “That’s all we know, Tony,” he says. “Thanos is out there and he’s looking for these stones. We’ve reason to believe some of them might be on Earth which means—,”

“His first stop is here,” Tony mutters, fear rippling through him as he rifles through the papers. “What’s this map?”

“Supposed to lead to one of the stones,” Nick says. “I was hoping you could help us decipher it.”

“You hoped wrong.”

“No, I didn’t,” Nick says. “And one last thing.”

“What now?”

Nick rifles through the pages to pull out a few photos. Tony’s heart almost stops. “You didn’t make any pit stops last night, did you?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so,” Nick says, as Tony examines the photos of the strange lettering carved out into the pieces of bark on trees, the walls, the bricks, the earths. “These have started popping up all over. We’ve got our best translators on this shit. Nobody knows what language this is.”

“Because it’s alien,” Tony says, lifting his head. “Isn’t it?”

Nick looks at him. “I’m asking for your help, Tony.”

“I’m not promising anything,” Tony snaps.

“I know.”

“But I’ll take a look.”

Nick nods gratefully. “Thank you, Tony,” he says. “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I do care—,”

“Save it for someone who gives a shit.”

.

.

He feeds the chirping birds at the windows distractedly.

Tony reads over the files Nick gave him with a critical eye, his brows furrowed together. He’s doing a million things at once, fixing up the dents in the suit, working on BARF, scanning carefully over the several contracts Pepper’s sent him, trying to appease the rather aggravated stockholders by convincing them that Pepper’s doing a great job as CEO, and perfecting his files on Thanos at the same time.

Nick’s worried about Thanos, that’s for sure, Tony realises, but his fingers drift to the Avengers folder that the ex-SHIELD director probably left on purpose. If he touches it, he knows that Nick will be smug, thinking that Tony can’t turn his back on the Avengers even still, and yet, Tony can’t leave it untouched.

When he sees Steve’s face first, Tony can’t stop himself from flinching back briefly, his hands reaching to protect the gleaming arc reactor secured safely in his chest. Captain America’s perfect face gleams and flickers on the screen and for a moment, Tony allows himself to feel the rippling red of the betrayal he’d felt when Steve had confessed in Siberia.

Sometimes my teammates don’t tell me things, Steve had said and then he’d decided he’d return the favour.

“Tony.”

His head turns from the screen where Tony realises faintly that he’s been scanning through the Avengers files, something in his heart aching. Pepper is standing in the doorway, her gaze turning to the screen, with something like pity in her features. The sight of her sympathy makes something rise in Tony’s chest, reminding him sharply of the arc reactor.

“You’re home early,” Tony says, summoning a cheerful smile to his face, his chest lightening.

His gaze turns and Tony stares at the dust swirling in the air, his gaze lingering quizzically. It looks almost like a trail, he thinks to himself, but that's silly. Even so, he's getting up, something in his throat.

"Tony?" Pepper calls, a distant echo, but his head snaps back and the dust is just there, nothing but dust.

Tony clears his throat quickly, pulling himself back. “Did you want me to look over the new contracts, Pep?”

“Why are you looking at them, Tony?” Pepper asks as she steps inside, turning her head towards him.

He hasn’t told her the truth of Siberia. Hasn’t told a single person. The secret stays buried within him, locked in the arc reactor Steve almost shattered apart with his father’s shield.

The guilt lingers thick and cloying in his throat, but it’s not the first time he’s kept a secret from Pepper. Tony’s not stupid enough to think it’ll be the last. It’s not that he doesn’t want to tell Pepper, not even that he won’t eventually tell Pepper though mostly this happens when she discovers the truth and gets mad at him enough for him to finally confess. It’s just that Tony doesn’t want to worry her. She’s already stressed with trying to shuffle the duties of being CEO and Tony knows what that’s like, having been forced into the position in his early twenties.

What kind of an ass would he be if he just added to those burdens?

“Fury came to me,” Tony tells her, and though he’s ready, he still feels something curling in his stomach when Pepper closes her eyes briefly to take a deep breath. “Pepper—,”

“Why did you even let him in, Tony?” Pepper asks. “You promised you would leave that part of your life behind—,”

“I know,” Tony says. “I know.”

He makes a lot of promises. Whether he keeps them, that’s a whole other bag of cats.

Pepper stares at him before her gaze turns to the suits he’s been clearly tinkering at. “I can’t stand by and watch you continue to destroy your life like this, Tony,” she tells him, her voice cracking in anguish. “I thought you were getting better—,”

“I’m not destroying anything,” Tony tells her desperately. “For the first time, Pepper, I’m living. Can’t you see that?”

Tony had never felt more like he could breathe than after Afghanistan. The first moment he’d shut down the weapons division, he could see the world properly. All of his mistakes as Iron Man had helped to shape him as a better person and he sometimes, in his lightest, sweetest moments, thought that maybe he wasn’t such a terrible person, after all.

Iron Man had done that for him. Yinsen had done that.

Why couldn’t she see that?

Pepper gives another deep sigh. “All I see is you falling back into your old habits, Tony,” she says. “And still, you ask me why we can’t have children.”

“Pepper—,”

“You’re the same, Tony,” she tells him sadly. “You’re still just as irresponsible and immature and reckless as ever.”

It’s like he’s been hit across the face. Tony stares at her, his voice almost disappearing in his throat before he speaks. His voice is hoarse and taut when he speaks again.

“You—you can’t believe that,” he tells her, almost breathless in his plea. “After everything, Pepper, you can’t—,”

“I believe that you will try,” Pepper says. “But in the end, you’ll fall back. Like you are now. Because you can’t help yourself and then, I’m left to pick up the pieces after you, like always, Tony. The kid in Queens takes up so much of your time and when the time comes, you’ll drop him, too.”

He stares at Pepper and something in his gut curls. How horrible of a person does he have to be that Pepper believes he’ll drop Peter in the snap of a finger?

“You don’t—you don’t believe me,” Tony says. “You don’t think I could do it.”

Of course he can’t, Tony knows. He won’t ever let go of Iron Man, but Pepper’s words ring in his ears. Is Iron Man really bad for him? Does he deserve the metal salvation?

Pepper gives him a pained smile that’s not really a smile. “It’s not that I don’t think you can’t do it, Tony,” she tells him tiredly, her fingers grasping the new contracts tightly. “It’s that you have a habit, you have to admit, of just picking things up and dropping them whenever you want. You’re led by your own whims and desires and we have to be the ones to pick up after you.”

It hits Tony like a punch to the gut. She thinks Peter’s just a project? That he’ll just discard the kid like he’s rubbish?

“I wouldn’t do that to Peter,” he says, his voice hoarse. “How could you think I would do that to him?”

“You wouldn’t mean to do it,” Pepper says. “But you hurt people unintentionally, Tony. You know that. You do it to me all the time.”

His throat is dry. “I’m sorry—,”

“I know you are, Tony,” Pepper tells him, but there’s something resigned in her eyes that Tony doesn’t like. She only shakes her head as she turns her back on him, leaving Tony with a pit in his stomach the size of the gaping moon.

.

.

Peter wakes gasping hotly, a strange ringing in his ears.

He blinks, frowning at the blur of gleaming stars across his vision before the world around him clears to show his bedroom. The smell of summer rain still lingers hotly in the air, but the heat is clinging to him, his shirt sticking to his back as Peter pushes the sheets away from him, confusion brimming through him. Why is it so hot?

His head is aching, too, feeling a little stuffy like he’s beginning to have a cold and Peter grimaces as he gets up. It takes him a little longer to get ready for the day, and the cloying heat makes it even harder to get excited to go to the Compound again. Aunt May’s out at work as Peter makes himself some breakfast, his gaze distractedly turning to focus on the way the sunlight limns the dust in the air in soft rose-gold.

As he makes his way to the blissfully air-conditioned Compound, Peter contemplates swinging just so he can avoid the heat, but thinks better. He has a secret identity for a reason, he thinks to himself, as he calls a greeting to Friday.

“Hello, Peter. Boss is in the workshop, today,” Friday says.

“Thanks, Fri,” Peter says, aiming a grin towards her as he walks. “Hey, Mr Stark!”

Mr Stark’s grinning at him, his expression softening when Peter walks in, grateful for the blast of air conditioning. The man still looks tired, dark circles under his eyes, but he’s lifted his head from the gauntlets he’s fixing, fingers rummaging through some files. Peter’s gaze catches on the papers curiously before he can make himself stop, spotting photos of strange lettering. His stomach flips at the sight strangely, but he doesn’t quite know why.

He focuses instead on Mr Stark’s brief grin. He doesn’t do it very often, so Peter’s kind of glad to see him smiling.

“Mr Parker,” Mr Stark is saying. “You know what this is?”

“The gauntlet,” Peter says, trying not to sound dreamy. “What are you doing to it?”

It’s when Tony shifts a little, talking him through the repulsors’ schematics, and Peter notices some cracked ornament stuffed haphazardly on the table that his attention shifts.

PROOF THAT TONY STARK HAS A HEART.

Peter furrows his brows.

That’s a terrible thing to say to someone, especially Tony Stark, he thinks. Mr Stark got the biggest heart he’s ever seen. Who else would have helped fix the Accords or shut down the weapons division of Stark Industries or made Iron Man to save people? Mr Stark was the one to find him at Ben’s grave, was the one who helped him. He even ate May’s walnut date loaf!

“Kid, you listening?” Tony is saying. “Because I’m trying to fix—,”

“What’s this?” Peter asks, touching the cracked glass in confusion. Emotions clatter briefly over Tony’s face, so fast that he can’t pick them up, but Peter recognises the crushing sadness. A defensiveness rises in his chest and he says, his voice a forced cheerfulness, “You don’t need proof that you have a heart, Mr Stark.”

Mr Stark taps the gleaming arc reactor in his chest, a strange, repetitive motion, and gives that smile that’s not really a smile. “I don’t have the best reputation, kid,” he says. “Reminders like that are necessary.”

Ouch, Peter thinks.

“No, they’re not,” he insists firmly. “They’re cruel, because all it does is remind you that you have a bad reputation and that you’ll never get to put it behind you. If you have a heart and you care about people, you don’t need to prove it to anyone—and you’re the last person in the world who needs to prove themselves, Mr Stark.”

The look on Mr Stark’s face is so bowled over and startled that Peter can’t stop himself from pulling out his camera. He snaps a picture, the flash lighting the world around them brightly, as Mr Stark protests.

“Kid,” he says. “I charge for that shit.” Peter’s jaw drops for a small moment before Mr Stark is chuckling. “It’s too easy.”

“So, it’s okay if I take pictures here?” Peter asks, barely able to hold back his excitement.

Mr Stark’s gaze turns to the camera and for a moment, Peter thinks of how famous the man in front of him is. How many times has he likely been thrust into the flashing lights of cameras and the like? Peter had only seen a few press conferences on TV and Aunt May used to comment on how the press seemed like hungry vultures. He can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to be in the spotlight like that, no matter how suave and smooth Mr Stark is.

“I mean, it’s fine if you don’t want me to—,” he amends nervously, but Mr Stark is shaking his head.

“Nah, it’s fine, kid,” Mr Stark says easily, to his relief. “Just make sure to get my good side.”

“Who says I’m taking pictures of you?” Peter jokes. “I brought this just for DUM-e.”

“You would choose that heathen over me?”

“Bold of you to assume there was ever a choice to be made.”

Mr Stark’s laughter echoes softly, filled with some genuine surprise as Peter grins. It’s not his usual booming laughter Peter’s seen on TV, but it feels more real. He puts the camera down on the table. Peter’s gaze turns back to the Iron Man suit, as he pulls his own spider suit out of his bag. Mr Stark is still fiddling with the gauntlet, looking ready to ask Peter about something, but Peter's got a question of his own.

“Mr Stark?”

“Yeah?” Mr Stark doesn’t bother looking up, his brows furrowed in focus on the gauntlet.

“What’s it like to fly?”

Peter loves his suit, loves swinging around Queens, but it can’t be the same as flying in the actual Iron Man suit. Mr Stark’s face looks a little startled, but it can’t be the first time he’s gotten this question asked of him, Peter thinks to himself. He watches, eager to know, as the man lays down the gauntlet on the table thoughtfully, turning his head.

“It’s freedom,” Mr Stark says eventually, but his voice is a little strained and Peter can hear his heartbeat picking up. “Just like you in your suit, kid.”

Something’s wrong, he realises. Has he said something wrong? Mr Stark sounds like he might be starting to panic again, Peter thinks to himself, and he remembers Aunt May’s words.

“Mine’s different,” Peter tells him, trying to sound conversational. “You’re a real hero. I just swing. You literally fly, Mr Stark.” Mr Stark’s eyes are too bright, but the man doesn’t say anything for some time. Peter fills the silence quickly, wanting to change the subject. “So, what’s wrong with the gauntlet?”

“Spider-Man’s a pretty good hero, too,” Mr Stark says quietly, as warmth swells through Peter’s chest in delight. “Trying to fix the repulsors,” Mr Stark tells him, sounding grateful to have to change the subject and he picks up the gauntlet again, as Peter moves closer, interested. “See there? Water got in through the cracks and now the whole thing’s bust.”

Peter examines it carefully, frowning at the sparks fraying from the repulsor. There’s something in them that makes his vision go a little dizzy, so he blinks, putting it back down on the desk again. “It looks really weird, Mr Stark,” he says. “How’d you get water in it?”

“What do you mean, weird?”

He pokes at the red sparks. “You don’t see that? The sparks?”

Mr Stark’s gaze furrows towards him before turning to the gauntlet. He hits it a few times, looking confused. “No.” Mr Stark is now looking at him. “You’re sweating.”

“It’s really hot today,” Peter says, but he realises there’s a thin sheen of sweat lining his forehead. “And you’re sweating, too.”

“Friday?” Mr Stark’s voice echoes. “Air conditioner’s on, right?”

“Fully operational, boss,” Friday says promptly. “If I might mention that you and Peter are both running a little hot today.”

Mr Stark still looks a little confused, but he shakes his head a little. “Then it’s a good thing we’re focusing on your swinging technique today,” he says as Peter grins in delight. He reaches for a spare arc reactor, puts it in his pocket, and gestures to the door with a small smile. “Lead the way, Mr Parker.”

.

.

He tries to remember how to breathe as Peter darts forward into the training room before him.

It’s hard to remember just why Tony Stark is bad whenever Peter’s around. But just sometimes, when Peter asks questions like those, he remembers it sharply. What was it like to fly? He’d been telling the truth, the quiet answer of freedom tasting sweet in his mouth, but there had been a moment he really didn’t want to. The kid even thinks that he’s a hero. What must it feel like to live so innocently?

Recently, mostly because of Pepper’s sad protests, every time he gets into the suit he adores so much, his guilt overwhelms the feeling of freedom. He remembers the euphoria from fulfilling Yinsen’s last wishes, from the way the demons in the dark of his mind seemed to quiet every time he put on the suit. From making his life worth something. Tony yearns for that feeling once more, and though Pepper will beg him, he knows that one day, he will die in the suit.

If he gets his way, Peter Parker will not.

The kid’s got eyes brighter than the stars and the same eagerness Tony had once felt. He probably loves swinging through Queens, doing his bit. Howard would have hated the innocence in him, and sometimes Tony hates it, too. Hates the way the kid’s brightness will one day eventually dim, the way he sometimes hates the world for that. Peter’s a very eager thing, always tripping over himself, and though it takes time to break through the usual hero worship, Peter’s getting there.

But sooner or later, Peter’s going to see straight through him, through the phony hero act he puts up, and finally leave him, like everyone else. Something in his throat sticks at the thought of that.

Tony’s gaze turns to the windows of the training room, where the smell of the red-orange roses Natasha had insisted on planting spike the air. The place is stifling hot and he remembers Fury speaking about a drought, his brows furrowing together. Fury seems to think they’re gearing up for the gods coming their way and Tony can’t help but feel guilt threaten to strangle him.

A threat is imminent and they’re hopelessly ill-equipped. Their very presence invited a fight and it had all started because of Tony Stark. The man in the can.

“Mr Stark?” Peter’s voice is distant, as Tony turns his head, chest feeling tight. “I forgot to ask—can I take pictures of the gauntlet, too? It’s really cool and Ned’s going to lose his shit—uh, I mean, I’d like to see how it works, you know. The—the repulsors and stuff.”

His amusement flares within his chest briefly as Tony pauses. It’s so strange, because nobody has ever asked him to see the suit. Everyone has always taken it apart for themselves; even Rhodey took pieces of Iron Man. But Peter is the first one to ask.

And there’s something in the almost casual way Peter says it that strikes Tony a little. The kid loves Iron Man, Tony knows this, but he seems to have this way of correlating Tony with Iron Man, like nobody else does. Everyone knows that Tony Stark is not Iron Man, that Iron Man is better. Pepper is the only one who would rather have Tony Stark to Iron Man, but he’s never known someone like Peter, who sees both in him.

Tony pulls the arc reactor out of his pocket before he thinks better. It’s not smart or at all wise and Steve Rogers or Pepper or anyone else would have never done it, would have done something better, but he’s Tony Stark and he’s never made the best decisions even sober. So, he lifts the arc reactor, the cool ice blue sharpening through the hot sunlight, and offers it.

“I’ll do you one better, kid,” he says, faintly amused at the way Peter gapes aloud. “You can have this. Take all the pictures you want.”

“Mr Stark, I couldn’t—this is—,”

“It’s not like it’s the only one I’ve got, Pete,” Tony says. He has no idea why he’s giving the reactor to Peter, but the kid will probably do something better with it than he ever could. “Keep it.”

Peter stares at it reverently, his eyes wide. “Thanks, Mr Stark,” he stammers out. “You didn’t have to—I know that—thank you.”

The kid is too good, he thinks. For all of them. Tony tries to speak.

“Kid, just—make me a promise,” he says and for a blinding moment, he sees Steve Rogers ramming his father’s shield into his chest. “The—the Avengers might come back and—I know that you’re really excited about them, but they’re people, too. Which means they’re dangerous. I just want to make sure you’re going to be safe so you can’t be alone with any of them. Even with me. Alright?”

There’s something in Peter’s face that makes Tony wonder if the kid can hear the frantic pacing of his heartbeats. He’s got enhanced hearing, after all, Tony thinks, and the anxiety only spikes.

“They’re war criminals,” Peter says, and Tony’s completely speechless, again. “We learned about the Accords in school and we debated about them, too. Flash tried to argue that the United Nations was a government.” He gives a shy grin. “I was on your team, Mr Stark, and we won.”

He’d thought the kid had surprised him for the last time but here they are again.

“Not bad, Pete,” he says, slightly intimidated by the way Peter’s eyes light up at the praise. “You ready to let me show you how it’s done, in training today?”

“If you can keep up, old man,” Peter teases back, and the burst of laughter that escapes from Tony’s mouth is genuine and full and real.

Chapter Text

The summer’s heat turns the air around them suffocating, as Clint groans aloud to turn up the air conditioner to full blast again.

“You’re going to break it,” Natasha tells him without looking up, as she turns the page of the file she’s studying carefully.

Clint fiddles with the air conditioner, before he lifts his head to throw her an incredulous look. “How are you not dying in this heat, Nat?”

“I am,” she says. “The air conditioner’s on. I’ve taken a shower. There’s nothing else to be done, so I see no point in moaning about it.”

“So sensible,” Clint teases, something light in his voice that makes the tension in Natasha’s chest ease a little. He huffs a little, before he reaches for the pack of files Nick left them, with some resignation, and the quiet falls around them once more.

Natasha’s fingers trace her pencilled lines about Tony Stark, something in her throat. Mr Stark displays compulsive behaviour, she reads, remembering the rather frustrated scrawl of her old self. She’d known she was too emotional to write about him, but she’d been bitter and angry at him for turning out to be everything she’d always thought of every rich, white man, at Fury for even giving her Tony Stark as a mark in the first place when Clint got to go to Bucharest. Of all the things Natasha had thought would be the end of her, she never thought it was herself.

She’d trusted in her own instincts long enough and Tony Stark had swept in to push all of that away. How could she have fallen for the perfect mask he put up? It was her job to see through all of that.

Prone to self-destructive tendencies. Weren’t they all? She still remembers having to talk Clint back from the ledge, having Clint help her to unlock the handcuffs to her bed constantly. Textbook narcissism. This one burns deep, makes the shame crawl to the edge of her mouth. Whenever he talked to her cover or anyone else around her, he’d had that same mask on his face. Natasha doesn’t think she’s ever seen the real Tony Stark. She wonders if anyone has.

Her gaze skims fleetingly, shamefully through the rest of it. Recruitment assessment for Avenger Initiative: Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended. She’d known just how desperate he was for redemption, had convinced Nick Fury that the best way to keep Tony at their bidding was to leave him on the edge, wanting more from them. Natasha had never felt bad over it, thinking Tony Stark was a reckless, narcissistic flirt who donned a superhero mask to feel better about himself.

“Hey, you okay?” Clint asks.

Natasha’s throat is thick. “I think Nick left this here on purpose,” she says, clearing her throat as she looks up. Clint’s features don’t change at her filled eyes and she feels a rush of affection for her oldest friend. Only friend, something sad in her corrects. “I didn’t think he was a petty man.”

Clint’s gaze draws to the file, before understanding dawns. “You know he was mad that we refused him for the first time,” he mutters.

They’d outright refused to follow Nick’s orders, for the first time in his employ. Natasha doesn’t remember ever refusing Nick. Anything he wanted done, she’d do it in an instant, desperate for redemption, desperate to know that she was a good person now, that she could help instead of destroy. Just like Tony, Natasha thinks as the shame threatens to swallow her whole. How could she condemn him for the same thing she’d broken herself over and over again to achieve?

But she’d simply swapped Ivan Petrovich for Nick Fury, Natasha realises.

“It was my fault,” Natasha says. “I could have talked to Steve, could have stopped him—,”

“But you didn’t,” Clint tells her, his voice soft. “We both misjudged shit, Nat. Now we’re here, trying to make things better, trying to help as much as we can. I don’t think there’s anything more that we can do.”

She nods, grateful for his comforting words. “Do you remember Albania?” Natasha tells him quietly.

Clint’s face turns impassive. “The donuts from that shop near the safe house? Because I think about them all the time,” he says as Natasha’s lips quirk, amused. He looks at her, growing serious. “I know, Nat. You know I thought exactly the same.”

They’d given up, both of them, on any semblance of a normal life, of a happy, content life. Marriage, job, 2.5 kids, a white picket fence. Natasha had known it the moment she’d woken in the Red Room and Clint had tried, but he couldn’t do it with Laura or anyone else. He’d told her all about it in Albania and she’d confessed everything else to him. How New York happened, and the Avengers came together, and Tony Stark opened his heart and home to them all.

And Natasha’s entire idea of a happy life had changed.

She’d never known true happiness in all her life, not through the Red Room, not through SHIELD. Clint’s friendship had been the beginning of something like bringing peace to her darkened soul, but her time in the Tower with the Avengers had been happiness. Natasha remembers waking safely, growing close to everyone in the Tower, genuinely laughing and being content. She thought she never deserved anything like them all, this band of superheroes brought together by Loki’s will and bonded together as a makeshift family by their own selves.

Natasha still remembers the first few nights of staying in the Tower she’d refuse to sleep, terrified that all this would fade away and she would be alone again. If Clint saw her, he’d stay up with her but conk out on her sofa in her room. Most of the time, she’d keep herself and her fears hidden away, but one night, Tony had seen her silhouette outlined in her balcony. 

He’d asked her if she was okay and she had been so close to a panic attack, terrified and breathless all at once. But Tony had been calm and kind, with engine oil smeared across his cheek as he offered to make some tea for them both. She can’t quite remember what they’d talked about, but Natasha remembers the smell of the matcha tea, the quiet coolness of the city air through her hair, the way Tony had seemed so attune to the panic threatening to swallow her whole. She’d slept properly that night, both of them snoring in their chairs on the balcony until Clint and Thor’s argument over which flavour Poptarts were best woke them both up in the morning.

Natasha remembers the feel of comfort and ease just from sitting there with Tony, with all of them in the kitchen. She’s never felt it before. How rare it has been in her long, long life and profession, to find a person she could be comfortable with. And to find a whole group of people, too. She wasn’t just lucky, she was blessed. For once, Natasha had felt as though she could finally put the past behind her and be happy.

How could she think she was the only one to feel this way? Clint himself had confessed to her how he hadn’t thought that he would ever find happiness, too.

She lifts her head, tears in her eyes. “It’s…” she trails away, conflicted.

“Quiet,” Clint says eventually, as Natasha nods. “It’s so quiet now.”

“That’s the word,” she murmurs.

She and Clint are quiet people by nature, though Clint likes to pretend that he’s not. And though Tony rambles when he’s nervous, they’ve all grown to like it, to get used to it. Now, without him around, without any of them, the world seems so much quieter. It rattles Natasha, leaves something prickling uncomfortably under her skin.

“Before, I thought that we were the good guys now,” she says, keeping her gaze fixed on Tony Stark, not recommended, as though it’s some personal punishment for her, the constant shame and guilt and regret. “The ones who planted themselves between the danger and the people. The Avengers.”

“I think we ruined it all,” Clint says, and his voice is heavy. “We were trying to keep us together, that’s all we wanted.”

Natasha nods. “We could argue all we liked, but as long as we were together to do it, I would be happy,” she murmurs. “I never thought this could ever happen.”

“There’s still some hope,” Clint tells her. “There’s no way we got out of the Raft without Tony’s help and they still worked together in Siberia for those Winter Soldiers, didn’t they? They got that guy, Zemo.”

“There’s something off about that,” Natasha says, as she lifts Steve’s statement about Siberia. “Steve’s a good liar, but his mouth twitches when he does it. I’ve told him countless times to remember, but—,”

“I knew it wasn’t just me,” Clint says, but there’s confusion laced in with the faux triumph there. Natasha doesn’t take the attempt at triumph personally. She knows how hard habits are to break, how sharpened their masks are. “You think Steve was lying about Siberia?”

“I think he was omitting a lot of truth,” Natasha says. She pauses, something heavy and ragged in her chest as she continues. “And I think… that he isn’t willing to tell us.”

Clint’s jaw is taut, but she can see the hurt flashing in the light of his eyes. “I thought he trusted us,” he says.

“We don’t know,” Natasha says gently. “We can’t make assumptions. I’ve—I’ve done that long enough now.”

They’re quiet for a moment before Clint breaks the small silence between them. “Whatever it is, we’ve just got to trust that the truth will come out, that we can fix things,” he tells her. “Right now, we’ve got to make sure Tony is safe.”

Natasha nods at him, as she reaches for a few more papers, her brows furrowing towards the markings. She’s been trying to translate them, to no avail; the language is unknown to her. Nick’s been finding several of the same markings carved out into parts and pieces of the world lately. Most of the time, they get their pictures through social media and the like, but Natasha’s been noticing a pattern. These markings are all the same and they’re most frequent in New York.

Where Tony lives.

“Nat…” Clint’s voice breaks the silence once more. “How did Nick get information on Tony and Pepper?”

“What?”

She lifts her head, gaze narrowing on the papers Clint spreads out over the table. Nick has information on how Tony wants children, she realises, something sick and violated churning her stomach uncomfortably. Tony would hate this, Natasha thinks to herself as she reads the transcripts, her eyes wide.

“It even… talks about Pepper,” she says, her eyes wide. “Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, high priority, fiancé. Unlikely to accept Iron Man, can manipulate Tony Stark best. My personal understanding of their relationship is that she refuses to hear anything about Iron Man, despite knowing the kind of man Tony Stark is. Unaware of her own machinations, though fully capable in implementing them to get what she desires. Not a threat, but a potential asset in the Tony Stark / Iron Man Initiative.”

“Someone’s got eyes on them both,” Clint says, but he’s frowning. “It says that she won’t bother listening to Tony. God, they even have their arguments transcribed—what the fuck, Fury?” Clint pulls a face. “They have a lot of arguments.”

Natasha’s gaze narrows as a small breath escapes her lips in realisation. “She refuses to hear anything of his wishes, unless he retires Iron Man, it says—or something like that,” she says. How can anyone be so selfish and cruel? “She’ll dangle happiness over his head at the cost of his ability to live with himself.”

“She had that arc reactor thing made, too. Remember I told you about that?” Clint says.

Natasha peruses through the pages, distressed. “All she does is remind Tony that he needs to constantly prove himself, that he’s not worthy. That he doesn’t deserve her,” she says, distraught. “That’s cruel.”

“Sounds exhausting,” Clint murmurs.

“Sounds like Tony deserves better,” Natasha corrects, her voice soft. She pushes the papers away, unable to stomach the sight of them.

Clint’s gaze turns to her. “How does Fury have all this on Tony?” he says, sounding mad. “It looks like he’s getting as much information so he can manipulate Tony. You were right, Nat. We can’t trust him.”

“We should get a message to Tony,” Natasha mutters. “Make sure he knows that Fury can’t be trusted.”

“He already knows that,” Clint says. “You just miss him, Nat. And you’re worried about him.”

“So are you, Clint,” Natasha points out, as she leans back in her chair. They give soft smiles to each other, tired and distraught.

As Clint rifles the pages together, his fingers stop and Natasha’s head lifts. “Nat…”

“What’s wrong?”

“Some stars didn’t burn out last night,” Clint says, his voice sounding strange. He pushes the papers to the table, spreading them out in some pattern as Natasha recognises the markings. “The ones closest to the Compound. Nat.”

“Something’s at play here,” she says, her gaze narrowed. “There are two markings,” she points out. “Look, Clint. They’re exactly the same, but they grow in frequency around New York. It’s like they’re …mapping something out.”

“Or calling to something,” Clint suggests. “New York’s where—,”

“Tony is.”

They stare at each other, both of them fraught and tense. Clint’s voice is filled with stubborn purpose, his face determined as he speaks. “You want me to call Fury and get backup?”

Natasha shakes her head minutely. “He’s got all this information on Tony and he gave them to us, thinking that we wouldn’t care about it,” she says. “He trusts us, for now, but we can’t trust him.”

“Then what do we do?”

.

.

He rolls his eyes when he sees the text.

It’s untraceable as he’d expected, but Tony barely makes an effort anyway, not even bothering to ask Friday. The less he knows, the better for them, and he’s not such a heartless asshole that he’d want them to be thrown in the Raft again. Besides, he knows that’s what they think of him anyway, remembering the bitter vitriol stemming from Clint’s mouth in the Raft.

The city is abuzz with traffic and people, soft red sunlight sinking against the concrete and the heat lingering thickly around them. Tony walks with ease, the cap tilted over his hair, all worn jeans and wrinkled shirt, remembering one night they’d talked about the popularity the Avengers were garnering so fast. Bruce had been the one who had worried the most so Natasha had offered various tricks to slip away in crowds, though they had all gaped when Tony added the tips his mother had taught him.

They always forgot how hard it was to be a Stark.

The sun is setting slowly, spiking reds and pinks across the skies as a cool, soft breeze billows through the city. Tony walks slowly through the cobbled streets, wanting to prolong his time alone. Lately, he’s been stuck with so much work with Stark Industries and trying to please Pepper has been exhausting and he can hardly sleep anymore, obsessed with the fucking stars and ash, of all things, for some reason. He keeps reading over Fury’s files, discovering the same two markings over and over. It’s not in any language Tony recognises, but there’s something in those markings that he just can’t seem to let go.

He only ever gets to calm down properly at night when nobody has any expectations of him, and, strangely enough, training with Peter Parker, of all people. It’s awful to put such a burden on a kid, but Tony’s always been a selfish devil, and if he was any better, he’d tell May Parker the truth and risk the kid’s disappointment in him. Too bad he’s a fucking shithead.

Tony has to take a lot of corners to get to the meeting place, working up quite a sweat as he moves. He passes some computer store, where the screens are showing Disney movies. The coffee shop is a small building, family-run and nestled away in the heart of the city. Romanoff’s choice, Tony thinks wryly. They’ll be hidden in plain sight.

He watches the surprise flit over Clint’s face with a particular stab of smugness when he sits down at their table. Tony suppresses a smirk, the edge of his lips crooking up, when the archer slowly slides a twenty to a relieved-looking Natasha. She has her back to the computer store, but she looks very stiff and tight in that way Tony knows means that she’s anxious. His cup of coffee is steaming in front of him and Tony drops his gaze towards it carefully. Natasha ordered it just how he liked it, Tony realises.

He doesn’t touch it.

“You came,” Clint says, leaning back in his chair to look up at Tony.

“Well, you’re not complete idiots, though you do your best,” Tony replies flippantly, ignoring the way the archer rolls his eyes with a snort that seems almost enough to slide them back into the usual banter they used to share together. “And while you never bothered to return the favour, I did actually listen to you guys. If you say something’s wrong, then you’ve got me for an hour where I can claim plausible deniability when Ross comes knocking.”

There’s a quietness that lingers when he’s finished speaking and Tony stares hard at the cup before him, something writhing in his stomach. When they don’t answer, he lifts his head to see the startled expressions on their faces.

Natasha swallows hard. “Tony,” she begins, far too softly for him. “We’re—,”

“I said you have an hour,” Tony says. His voice grows hard as he demands, “What’s wrong?”

Clint lets out a taut breath, but he doesn’t argue. Instead, he lifts his head to exchange a look with Natasha like they used to, and wow, the nostalgia of that spikes his heart painfully. He can’t believe that he’s forgotten how Clint and Natasha had a language together that nobody else had been able to crack, the way Tony would sometimes find them silently sparring in the training rooms, or how Clint would look at Natasha after a mission and know immediately to start brewing her tea.

He knew this wasn’t a good idea, he thinks to himself, trying to tamp down the rising agitation. Only ten minutes and he’s already reminiscing about the good old days like a sentimental idiot.

Howard would throw a fit.

“Fury,” she says.

“What about Fury?” Tony demands. “Where is One-Eye?”

“Sorting out a situation with arms dealers,” Natasha tells him.

“Thought the Wakandan princess was already dealing with Barnes,” Tony says.

Clint snorts and Natasha’s lip twitches, but Tony knows better. They’re trying to appease him, appealing to his ego. They’ll laugh at his jokes, flatter his ego, so that he can do what they want. If he does, he’s a sucker and easily manipulated and pathetic. If he doesn’t, then he’s the asshole they always thought he would be. He just can’t win, can he?

“Fury came to you with the markings and the things we’ve been finding, hasn’t he?” Natasha says, and Tony does not let himself flinch, turning still. “We’ve been scouring through them, too. And we found something… interesting.”

“SHIELD’S finished, Romanoff. You can stop with the corny spy act,” Tony says, waving a dismissive hand.

“But it took us years to learn,” Clint banters back automatically before he can clearly stop himself.

The silence that lingers between them is heavy, as Tony’s stomach clenches. This is not happening, he wants to say, his chest aching. You don’t get to come back. You don’t get to slip back into the family, the domestic life we built up before. You gave that up the minute you decided Steve’s word was better than mine. The minute you made a choice that I never would have asked of you.

Natasha’s eyes are fixed on him, in that way he hates. She always thinks she knows him, but she doesn’t know jack shit. Tony clears his throat impatiently, drums his fingers on the table purposefully to make her gaze turn to the untouched cup. It’s a little petty, but it’s an obvious reminder that though he’s sitting before them right now, he’s not going to be taken for a fool again.

They’ve done that enough times.

“What’d you find, then?” Tony demands, exasperated.

The files in Natasha’s fingers are steady as she presses them to the worn wooden table, careful not to get them damaged. Clint shifts a little, only the slightest tilt of his shoulders from his usual lounging state, in a way that lets Tony know the archer is keeping a sharp eye on the perimeter. Natasha doesn’t need to do that, though, and she lifts her head to meet his gaze steadily.

“A few nights ago, the stars all burned out,” she tells him, as Tony rifles through the familiar pages. He pulls a face at the file she wrote on him, watches her wince at it, something like confusion rippling through him. “All, but a few. The ones nearest to the Compound.”

“I wasn’t anywhere near the Compound, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Tony snaps, tamping down on the flush of humiliation that swarms through him.

He’s ready to grow defensive if they ask him what he was doing, because anything’s better than saying he got drunk and threw himself off a cliff, before his gaze actually focuses on the stars. Only a few have actually gone dark, the rest of them sparkling and twinkling on the page in a strange, long, curved pattern. They look familiar, just like the markings he’s been examining, and they look like a path, he realises, his heart clenching at the realisation. Tony’s willing to bet that if he cross-examined the markings with the stars, they’d fit together to form an actual path.

But to what?

Natasha’s still looking at him carefully. “Whatever you choose to do, Tony,” she says, “we’re behind you.”

“To stick a knife in my back?” Tony mutters dryly.

Clint jokes, trying to make the atmosphere lighter, “Paranoid much?”

Tony thinks of his father’s shield coming down on his chest, of Obadiah’s hands clawing for the arc reactor, of Natalie’s needle piercing his neck painfully. He delivers a dark, unamused glower towards the archer and shifts the file sceptically, ignoring Clint. Whatever they’re doing here, they’re clearly working for Fury, Tony thinks. Fury, whose motives he doesn’t know or understand just yet. Which means that he’s got to watch whatever he says.

“I already know this,” Tony says, putting the files back down on the table. “Saw all these markings already.”

Clint furrows his brows. “Fury only got it a couple of days ago.”

“He must be keeping secrets from you too, then,” Tony tells them, watching their faces shift slightly. “Only a few months out of commission and already, your super spy skills are getting rusty.”

They don’t rise up to the barbed bait, to his disappointment. Tony’s feeling anxious and restless all at once, wanting a fight. Anything to rid the concern from their faces. How dare they act like they actually care?

He taps at the first file that he himself created, based on his work on Ultron, all those years ago. It’s filled with stuff about New York and what he’d seen, what he’d wanted to do with Ultron.

“Besides, it’s not like he can keep the files I gave him a secret from me,” Tony says, as Clint’s gaze drops to the file in question.

Natasha’s brows furrow together. “How did you find this information?” she asks. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Tony snorts. “I tried,” he says, watching their faces crease in confusion. He rolls his eyes at them, though something sad and tired spikes his chest at their genuine bewilderment. They really never listened to him, did they? “Endgame. Me shouting into the voice for years after New York. Rogers saying some stupid shit about fighting together. Ring any bells?”

They’re wincing together, but it’s Clint who speaks. “We were wrong, Tony, okay?” he says, looking distressed. “And we’re sorry for what we did. But—but this—you treating us like shit has never happened before. I don’t know what we did—,”

Natasha hisses, “Clint—,”

“No, let him speak,” Tony says. “Me treating you like shit? Says the guy who came in because of a text, who had no idea what the fuck was even happening, what I was even trying to do. You’ve clearly hated me for the longest time. Here I am now. Do your worst, Barton.” Something dark and wretched in him hopes that unlike Steve, Clint won’t miss.

But the archer just stares at him. “Tony,” he says, his voice hoarse. “I’m sorry. I should have listened to you—,”

“You were all too vocal on the Raft,” Tony says angrily, unable to stop himself. He doesn’t want Clint’s apologies, he doesn’t want Natasha’s pity. They never cared for him at all. All they wanted was what they could siphon out of him and he, like the fucking emotional sucker he was, let himself fall for their machinations hook, line, and sinker. His defensiveness rises. He’s doing this deliberately now, pushing until Clint breaks. “What’d you say, again? I’m going to break your back, or some shit like that? Real low. Rhodey was going to break your face.”

Clint’s guilt writhes on his face and he winces. “I’m sorry for that,” he says.

Tony’s face is still hard. “You’re lucky I held him back,” he says.

It’s kind of the truth. Mostly, Rhodey was going to go after Steve for leaving Tony behind in the bunker, though Tony had lied through his teeth. He’d told everyone that they had fought Winter Soldiers and Zemo, and to save both Steve and Barnes from Ross’ wrath, he’d insisted they flee. But that’s not a story Tony really wants to repeat, even if it’s the biggest lie he’s ever told in his life.

He’s kind of itching to get back to the Compound now, to figure out what these new revelations could mean. But at the same time, Tony half wants to stay. He hates himself for it, but fuck, he’s missed them. All they want from him is his money and his suits and still, he won’t learn his lesson, Tony thinks to himself, frustrated. Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended. They don’t see him as a hero and they’re right.

Natasha’s voice is softer than he deserves, than he wants. “We were just trying to keep everyone together, Tony—,”

“Just stop it,” Tony says. He lifts his head up to glare at her darkly. “You should’ve just let the palladium poisoning do its work, Rushman.”

He sees the instant she flinches at the venom of his words, the startled surprise that flits over Clint’s features. The recognition that they both understand exactly what he means, and Tony wants to literally slam his head down on the wooden coffee table, his anxiety rising hotly. What a fucking idiot, he internally screams at himself. As though he couldn’t give them more to exploit, as though he couldn’t be more pathetic.

But Natasha’s gaze is not filled with pity. She swallows hard and shakes her head. “You know I would never, Tony,” she says.

His irritation rises. “Because I’m a good consultant?” Tony bites out angrily. “An asset?” To use, to abuse. To manipulate, to siphon everything from until you wring me dry.

To his surprise, Natasha’s eyes are filled with tears. Fuck, the Red Room taught her well, he thinks.

“You became my friend, Tony.”

For a small moment, he wavers. There’s something in the inflection of the way she says that, the way Clint’s giving a small nod of agreement that makes him briefly believe her. She’s trying not to cry, he realises, and something like guilt curls in his stomach at that. Is it a trick? Or is she real? But that’s just the spy in her talking. In both of them, fashioned and sharpened by Fury himself. Natalie Rushman, he thinks to himself and Tony breathes hard, as he eyes her.

“Come up with that one all by yourself?” he bites out.

She barely flinches at the barbed taunt. “It took me a while to see it. You’re very good,” Natasha tells him. “But the Red Room taught us to look past even the best marks. You had me so well fooled, Tony—,”

Tony’s voice is a little too thin when he snaps at her. “I’m not one of your marks, Romanoff,” he says tightly. “Stop fucking trying to flatter me. It didn’t work the first few hundred times. You said you learned from the Red Room, but you’ve learned shit all.”

Clint clears his throat. “Nat, we should go—,”

“I’ve learned from you,” Natasha tells him, cutting across Clint, her voice very light. “I was wrong to deny you your rightful place on the Avengers.”

They really won’t stop, will they? Just how desperate is Fury? Tony feels wrong and violated, as though they’ve stripped him open of his emotions, poured him out to sift through what they can best use against him. He’s breathing hard as he gets up angrily.

“I don’t give a flying fuck what you think—,”

“I should have told Fury to place you as leader,” she says in a breath, and it knocks Tony stunned.

.

.

Natasha hears Clint draw a sharp breath beside her, her own heart hammering in her chest.

She hadn’t meant to say that to Tony, hadn’t meant to stay so long to discomfort him at all. They’d planned to simply say what they had to say, assure Tony that they only wanted to protect a fellow Avenger even if it meant betraying Fury, and get out of there before their presence could draw unwanted attention. But she’s distressed, especially in her seating place, her anxiety rising and her guilt threatening to choke her completely.

Tony stares at her, completely stunned. He looks torn, as though he’s wondering if she’s making fun of him, and she hates that she’s contributed to him thinking things like that. Natasha’s gaze flickers to Clint, who gives her a quick, comforting smile.

Clint promises, “Tony, no matter what you think of us, we’ve always got your back.”

“There’s a first,” Tony says.

They both wince at the same time. It’s hard not to get frustrated with Tony, not to feel as though they should be forgiven by now. But Natasha knows that things run deeper than she’d ever known, now.

“It’s not a first,” Natasha says. When she speaks, her voice is quiet. “We’re here right now, disobeying Fury for you, because we were worried for you, Tony. We wanted to make sure that you were okay—,”

“Why the fuck would you give a shit about me?” Tony says roughly. “All you ever fucking did was use me for my money and the suit—,”

Clint’s jaw is taut. “How dare you,” he snaps, so angry that Tony stares at him. “You really think we’re that fucking shallow, Tony? That we moved in because we just wanted your money?” He rifles through the pages of the files until they get to the papers on Pepper and slams it down on the table, opening them up. “We came here because Fury’s having you watched, Tony. No matter what the fuck happened with us, we would never turn our backs on you.”

“You did it before,” Tony mutters, but he’s reaching for the papers, his brows furrowed together in concern. “Who the fuck is watching Pepper?”

“We don’t know yet,” Natasha says. “But we can find out, for you.”

“No,” Tony says, too fast. “I’ll do it myself. Don’t need some scary Russian assassin running around Stark Industries again.”

Clint’s gaze turns to her in sympathy, but Natasha’s jaw is clenched. Sometimes she hates just how well Tony sees her. He sees her, and it terrifies her. The only other person to read her so well is Clint. Not even Fury could see past the smooth, crafted face the Red Room carved for her.

“I am not scary,” Natasha says, her accent stilting her voice slightly. “You are just intimidated. That is not my problem to fix.” She fixes Tony with a sharp stare. “I’m not your scary Russian friend or some flawless goddess you place on a pedestal. I am a real person. I have feelings. I am not stone. Clint sees me and so do you, no matter how well you pretend otherwise.” She looks briefly to Clint, her voice filled with a soft confession. “I wanted Steve to see me, too. But I think I got caught up in what he thought I was, rather than what I actually am. It’s what Pepper does, with you.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

Natasha gestures towards the transcripts, still a little wary. “You continuously treat Pepper as though you’re unworthy of her affections, like she’s perfect. As though you don’t deserve her,” she explains, something flickering in Tony’s expression. “It’s gotten to the point where Pepper believes it, too. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it many a time. Fool a mark into believing they can reach the stars and like Icarus, they will burn.”

Yelena’s words fall out of her mouth like syrup, cloying and too-sweet in her throat. For a brief, blinding moment, Natasha is back in the grasping claws of the Red Room, amongst bronze panelled walls and training classrooms and beds with handcuffs clattering against the railings. She pulls herself back, breathing hard and hot, to Clint’s concern and Tony’s impassive face.

“Nat?” Clint is asking.

But her focus is on Tony, who looks back at her carefully. “Pepper isn’t you,” Tony says stiffly.

“I didn’t say that,” Natasha says.

Clint adds quickly, “We’re just saying that Pepper’s a weakness that Fury can exploit in you, Tony.” He is hesitant as he continues, his voice turning softer. “And—to just remember that—that you matter, too.”

Tony’s face is completely impassive. She cannot read anything in his features, his face completely blank. Even his blankness, which should be a sign of, at the very least, something, brings nothing to mind. Natasha has no idea what Tony is thinking or what he might say in return. It’s frustrating beyond belief, because she’s supposed to know this shit. She trained for this, bled and broke and bent herself a thousand times over for this. Ivan would have rapped her across the knuckles until he broke them if he saw her now.

He doesn’t say anything. Why isn’t he saying anything?

“You have no idea what I’m thinking,” Tony says, his gaze fixing on them both. Natasha turns her head slowly to Clint, who is mirroring her frustrations. He has no idea what Tony is feeling, either, she realises. There’s something like familiar smugness perching at the edge of Tony’s smirk. “I’m the one person you both can’t read. You’re going to have to do what the Red Room and the circus never taught you.” He looks utterly delighted, clearly enjoying their misery. “You’re going to have to ask me, out of a genuine desire to care, about how I’m feeling. You’re going to have to be normal people. For once.”

“You’re being ridiculous—,” she begins.

“Can’t see past that massive ego of yours to even begin, can you?” Tony says and his voice is biting, the delight falling away fast. “To even consider the possibility that you don’t know me at all.”

Fuck, Natasha thinks. He’s right.

“What are you hiding, Tony?” she asks.

“See, I would have told you,” Tony says, shrugging as he pours the hot coffee on the files, turning the papers into soft mush. Neither she nor Clint so much as raise a protest. “But this funny little thing happened less than a month ago and would you look at that? I’m all out of fucks to give to people who only manipulate me.” He shrugs. “If you really want to know what I’m hiding, maybe you should make another psych eval, Rushman. It’s good to be wrong a few times, you know? I mean, I wouldn’t know, but I’ve heard it’s humbling.”

Tony winks at them, as he saunters off, leaving a stunned silence between them. Clint’s gaze drops to the mush on their table as Natasha’s eyes follow Tony’s back protectively. They’ve scoured the place relentlessly, multiple times, but it can’t help to be careful. He may be a shit, but he’s their shit, Natasha thinks.

“Can you believe I’ve actually missed that?” Clint mutters, as Natasha gives a soft snicker.

Her snicker fades to a sigh. “He’s acting like that because he’s worried,” Natasha says, gesturing to what used to the files on their tables. “At least we managed to get something through to him, even if he doesn’t believe that we’re on his side.”

“Baby steps,” Clint says. His gaze focuses on something in the distance and he gives a heavy sigh, but something quirks at his lips. “Suit at four o’clock.”

“Two more at ten,” Natasha banters back.

Clint arches an eyebrow competitively. “I see a sniper.”

“I see three.”

“Show-off.”

“Sore loser.”

“Whoever gets the least has to buy pizza.” Natasha gives a dark grin. “I want pineapple on mine.”

“You monster,” Clint says.

He pokes her, rolling his eyes, but gets up first. Natasha takes her time to move, knowing exactly which way Clint’s going to go. She won’t really make him buy only pineapple pizzas, but it’s fun hearing him list all the reasons why pineapple on pizza makes her a heathen. She plans to get that pizza, she thinks to herself, but she’s going to make sure that Tony is secure first. It won’t do to have Tony brought under questioning about their presence here.

She doesn’t want to put Tony through that, Natasha thinks to herself and wonders at the blank expression on his face at the inadvertent admission of how much she cared for him.

If only he’d believed her, Natasha thinks as she slides through the alleyway, bringing three men to their knees easily. One man cocks a gun and Natasha barely lets his fingers touch the trigger, reaching for the damn thing to crack it back into his head. He slides to the ground heavily unconscious and Natasha examines the gun carefully, her brows furrowed. American government-issued, she realises. Fury’s going to kill them.

Nobody has ever really chosen Natasha, barring Clint, she thinks to herself as she continues her way, realising vaguely that Clint’s gotten two more than her. Well, that won’t do, Natasha thinks as she surges forward, bringing down four people at once. When Steve saw her, the paragon of goodness, she finally thought she’d done it. Put the horrors of the Red Room behind her. But in the moments where Steve was not around or Clint wasn’t there, Natasha could feel the Red Room’s teachings clawing for her desperately. She was always strongly reminded of what she truly was when she was with Tony, who infuriatingly seemed to always see right through the sharp façade she often propped up.

Was it Tony’s ego she was mad at, or her own?

“Is it me?” Natasha mutters to herself, smacking two heads together. She finds herself staring at the guy shaking before her. “Sorry, I wasn’t asking you—here, let me knock you out.”

As she proceeds to knock him unconscious, Natasha thinks about it in a different thread. If it had been a mark or any other mission, she would have recommended putting herself and Tony together as partners. Steve was too indulgent, and Tony challenged everyone around him. She’d thought that Steve’s goodness meant that the people around him wanted to be the best versions of themselves, but it only enables them to become false versions they think would be worthy of Captain America, she realises.

Tony’s continuous prodding and poking was annoying, but it forced her to think on her feet and if there was anything that Ivan and Yelena could both agree on, it was that Natasha Romanoff was a deadly thing when she ran on instinct. She kind of hated that Tony had figured a part of her out that she hadn’t, first. Natasha had unremitting faith in her own abilities, but perhaps that wasn’t always the way.

How long had Natasha tried to shake the moniker of Black Widow behind, before pretending to embrace it for SHIELD? How long had Tony seen straight through her?

When she gets to the car, Clint’s already lounging on it triumphantly. “Fifteen,” he says smugly.

“Seventeen,” Natasha returns, just as smug. “Hope you like pineapple, Clint.”

Chapter Text

Something whispers to him in the dark of the stars, jagged lines and carvings gleaming in gold.

Tony screams in the water, the water dropping all around him as he thrashes and writhes, his chest burning up a fiery storm in protest. He screams and screams until they pull him back and blissful air burns through his lungs once more.

“WHAT DO YOU SEE, STARK?”

“I don’t—,” he gasps out hoarsely, as the hands push back on the scruff of his neck. “Please, please, stop—,”

“WHAT DO YOU SEE?”

He can feel every ragged breath pulled out of his chest, his throat raw and burning still. There are whispers in his ear, the stars burning out in bursts in front of him. I’m going mad, he thinks to himself as the stars blink out continuously, before he realises they’re not dying.

They’re winking.

It almost makes a path.

“WHAT DO YOU SEE?”

Tony wakes screaming, writhing on the couch as he gasps for breath. Someone is at his side, something in his ears, but all Tony can see is the blinking stars, the gaping chasm of the ash-filled dark nights, his mind screaming at him. A path, he thinks blindingly. A path to the stars. That’s where the ashes lead to. That’s what he's supposed to see, where he’s supposed to go.

He can’t go to the fucking stars, Tony thinks in a blinding panic. He hates the sight of them.

“Tony, breathe, man, Tony—,”

His eyes are wide, breaths coming out fraught before Tony registers Rhodey right beside him, his friend stumbled to his knees as he stays beside Tony. His heart is still slamming in his chest, but Tony forces himself to breathe as Rhodey asks, the panic still thrumming through him as he forces himself to calm down. The stars, he thinks in the back of his mind. Something is calling him to the stars.

“Jesus, Tony,” Rhodey is saying, staring at him. “Are you okay, man?”

For a moment, Tony is so distraught and distressed he almost tells him. “Just—a nightmare,” he lies.

Rhodey’s eyes are filled with worry as he eyes him carefully, and Tony knows that he’s burning to ask after why he’s sleeping on the couch. “Afghanistan?” he asks in quiet concern.

A shiver ripples through him, but Tony swallows tightly and nods quickly. He’s flushed with humiliation as he pushes himself back but there’s very little energy left within him to actually get up. He has to collapse heavily back against the couch, hoping that Rhodey can’t spot the exhaustion within him and ask after that, too. He doesn’t have it in him to tell Rhodey about how he lies awake all night, obsessed with the ashes trailing to the stars.

Is he really going mad?

Now, he’s having dreams about following a path to the stars. Tony reaches a hand to rub his face tiredly, as he gives a nod to Rhodey.

“Yeah,” he manages to get out, his voice hoarse. His gaze falls on the way Rhodey is on his knees beside the couch and he pulls back in alarm. “Hey, are you—,”

“I’m fine,” Rhodey tells him, waving away his worries. “You, uh, want to tell me why you’re on the couch, man? Bed not expensive enough?”

Tony chuckles as Rhodey leans back, shaking his head. “Pepper’s mad at me again,” he mutters, rubbing the back of his neck.

Rhodey is frowning. “What now?” he asks. “I thought you were helping with Stark Industries again?”

“Just Iron Man stuff,” Tony mumbles, not wanting to deliberate.

He keeps thinking of the way Clint and Natasha had looked when they spoke about Pepper, something clenching his stomach. It reminds him too much of the soft quiet nights he used to have with Natasha, when she’d be on the verge of a panic attack and no amount of time at the ballet studio he’d given her would help. He used to be arrogant enough to think that he could help her, but he’d likely just been another burden. But the way that Natasha’s gaze had softened on him, the way she’d spoken of how he treated Pepper. It sounded almost like she disapproved, but it was none of her business, he thought to himself defensively.

“Alright,” Rhodey says. “You want some water, Tony? You don’t look so good, man.”

“I’m fine,” Tony mutters as he gets to his feet, moving tiredly to his desk where he rifles through the maps and markings.

Last night, he’d managed to put Natasha’s maps to the markings he’d managed to accumulate, realising that they did indeed carve out a path to the stars, from the Compound. He stills at the sight of the markings, recognising them in his dreams. Only difference now was that they weren’t glowing, he thought.

“You know, Happy told me that you went downtown yesterday,” Rhodey says, as he seats himself on the couch. His voice isn’t at all casual, because Rhodey is blunt and Tony’s always been grateful for it. “To see Barton and Romanoff.”

“Platypus—,”

“And Pepper says Fury came to visit.”

“Rhodey—,”

“Tony.” Rhodey’s voice is taut. “What’s going on?”

Tony turns his head, his heart in his throat. “Nothing—,”

“What are you hiding, Tony?” Rhodey asks him. There’s something wrought in the way he speaks, but Tony’s still hesitant and he doesn’t even know why. “Just let me in, man. Whatever they said to you, it was piles of shit, okay?”

“I know,” Tony says. “I know that.”

He wants so badly to tell Rhodey the truth, to tell his best friend what he’s been seeing in his dreams and what’s been happening. About the sleepless nights, the growing obsession with the ashes trailing to the stars. This new dream that has taken a hold of him and won’t let go. But for some reason, Rhodey sounds like Natasha.

Over and over again, they’ve always wanted to know what he’s doing, what he’s planning, probably fearful of another Ultron. He would have told Natasha in an instant, before the Civil War, would have told them everything, but now? Now they’re not worth it. The crumpled light in Natasha’s eyes told him that she knew it, too.

But if he tells Rhodey he has to go to the stars, his best friend will send him straight to the mental institution. Truth be told, Tony’s not entirely sure that he shouldn’t go. It sounds like madness to him, to go chasing the stars because a dream told him to. It is madness. And yet, he’s half ready to leave already.

Rhodey is still looking at him, his face creased in concern, and Tony wants to curse himself in distress. He’s such a shit person, Tony thinks to himself. This is why he doesn’t have any friends. He’s not just bad at it, he’s the worst. He forgets to call or text. Doesn’t know what to say when he does. He’s an expert at putting his foot in his mouth. Allergic to awkward silences. Rhodey understood better than most people, but Tony is a shit to him, too.

“It’s fine, platypus,” Tony lies smoothly. He’s not having Rhodey leave him, too. He’ll tell a thousand lies to make him stay, if he has to. “I’m just—worried about Pepper. I think I really put my foot in it this time.”

Rhodey’s face clears. Helping his friend with relationship problems is easy as pie, compared to the rest of their problems.

“What does she like?”

Tony has to think. “Shoes.”

“Is that all she likes?” Rhodey arches an eyebrow.

“Strawberries…?” He furrows his brows thoughtfully. “No. I think she’s—allergic?”

Rhodey snickers at him. “Do you even know your fiancé, man?”

Something in his throat thickens and again, Tony remembers Natasha’s words. How did he not know anything about his own fiancé? Was that on him? Did they ever talk about each other? He only remembers Pepper talking about how stressed he made her, how balancing the demands of the company was stressing her out. How Iron Man was bad for them both.

Tony’s gaze turns to the maps and the markings on his table. He doesn’t think he can hide a trip to space from his fiancé or his friends.

“Tony?” Rhodey is calling him, his voice slightly distant. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Tony lies, as he reaches to cover the maps. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

.

.

Tony turns his head to reach for the carton.

Without even looking up, Pepper says, “No.”

“You don’t even know what—,”

“I know it won’t be good. So, no.”

He feels like a child being scolded. “I’m not stupid. You know that there’s something out there, Pepper,” Tony says, trying not to sound frustrated. He’s trying to show her the plans and the new designs for the Iron Man suits, but she refuses to see them, something disappointed sinking in his gut. “I’ve told you about it—,”

“And I’ve told you that it doesn’t concern either of us,” Pepper says.

Tony’s heart clenches. “Don’t you want to, at least, look at them?” he asks, almost pleadingly, hating the way his voice keens. “At what I’ve tried to do?”

But Pepper barely bats an eye at the suits. “Tony, you know what I think of them.”

Would it kill her to even feign a little interest in the stuff he likes? Tony’s tried hard tonight, even getting her favourite Chinese order to set it out nicely. Pepper’s surprised smile had been a brief balm to his feverish soul and the anxiety that had been prickling under his skin constantly had started to ebb away, until Tony brought up the Iron Man conversation again. She’s convinced that Iron Man is dangerous and will only bring them ruin.

He can’t think why she believes that of him, Tony thinks. He is Iron Man. Does that mean she doesn’t like him either?

He’s not going to go to space, because it’s ridiculous to follow some weird dream he’s had, Tony knows. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t prepare for what threat is out there. Tony’s been focusing on making more Iron Man suits, almost a whole armada to protect them. He’d been almost giddy to show them off to Pepper before realising that she didn’t care for them in the slightest.

Tony watches her spear a green bean carefully before putting it in her mouth. “You’re pouting, Tony,” she says, her voice chiding. “You’re not a child, you know.”

Then stop treating me like one, he thinks so suddenly that he can’t believe the sudden vitriol from him.

Pepper lifts her head to look at him. “Stop sulking, Tony,” she says. “You know exactly what I think about Iron Man.”

“Then why did you agree to marry me?” Tony asks.

“Because I know you,” Pepper says. “I know what you’ll choose.”

Tony stills, his heart aching in his chest. “What?”

Her brows furrow a little, fingers stilling. “I know that—,” she begins, before faltering.

“You think I have to make a choice?” Tony says. “That I would?”

Pepper’s starting to look a little distressed, her forehead creased in alarm. “Iron Man,” she asks, her voice heavy, “or me, Tony?”

Tony feels as though he’s splitting apart, his heart physically hurting. Pepper’s proposed the choice to him over and over again, but things have never felt so fragile and tangible than they do right now. He knows he’s a lot to handle, he knows this. Who else better than he would know what a bubbling hot mess he is? Iron Man soothes the mess, calms his soul, makes him feel as though he has a lid on what he is and what can become.

Iron Man is his redemption, his salvation. Tony knows he needs Iron Man to save the world, to be a better person, to even live with himself. Without Iron Man, he would have likely killed himself years ago.

And Pepper… she is everything he loves. He’s never been so happy than when he’s with her. She’s sharp and she refuses to let him get away with anything which were two of the main reasons he’d hired her in the first place. Though lately she’s just been getting more and more tired with him, but Tony still feels his heart lighten every time he sees her.

He wants Pepper so badly, but he knows he can’t live without Iron Man.

“Pepper,” Tony begins hoarsely.

Pepper gives him a tired look. “That’s what I thought,” she says, and there’s the tiniest trace of pained bitterness lining the edge of her voice that stabs Tony. When she gets up, his throat sticks and his chest aches.

“Pepper, you know I need it,” he tries to tell her. “The PTSD and—Iron Man helps me. Helps everyone. You know that.”

Her face is just filled with pity. “The suits are a distraction from doing actual work,” she tells him, and it’s like she just doesn’t know him at all, Tony thinks, startled. “They’re toys. It’s time for you to grow up.”

I did that years ago, when the Winter Soldier shot out Howard’s car, Tony thinks so bitterly sharp that he’s startled at the vehemence of his own thoughts. He’s never gotten mad at Pepper, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated with her. Why doesn’t she understand?

It’s like she can’t see past his old persona, what he used to be before Afghanistan, he thinks, staring at her hopelessly. Pepper just uses his old playboy life against him and yet, seems to want it at the same time. The suits are toys to her, but she wants him to disregard everything he’s been through after Afghanistan like Iron Man doesn’t even matter.

Tony has to pause a little to think about it. Does Iron Man matter to her?

“I did that,” Tony tells her. “I got rid of the suits for you—,”

“And then the moment I turned my back,” she argues, getting mad, “you start building more. You start building Ultron—,”

Tony stares at her. “You know that Ultron wasn’t just me, Pepper,” he tells her, a bitter string of fury rising up in his chest. It’s hard not to kind of resent her for taking Iron Man away from him, especially with the barbed Ultron remark, too. “I just—I don’t understand. I want to make you happy, Pepper. But how much more do I have to do? What more do you want from me? What else do you want me to do for you?”

“You make me out as though I’m the worst person in the world, Tony,” Pepper tells him tearfully. “I love you, but you’re destroying yourself and I can see it happening and I won’t be a part of it.”

“You can’t make me choose, Pepper,” he tells her, almost pleading. “You know what Iron Man means to me.”

Pepper stares at him. “I thought I meant more,” she says.

His heart aches. “We just keep fighting,” Tony says to Pepper. “Aren’t you tired?”

“I’m not the one playing at superheroes, Tony,” Pepper tells him. “I don’t want to fight with you. You know that. You’re volatile and too set in your own ways to ever change.”

“I don’t—why do you want to change me?” Tony asks her. “What’s so wrong with me?”

Pepper just gives him a tired look. “There’s a couple of emergency shareholder meetings set up for tomorrow,” she tells him. “Don’t—don’t bother coming up to bed, Tony.”

He doesn’t bother coming to bed. Instead, Tony throws the maps and files off his desk and makes straight for the liquor cabinet.

.

.

Peter wakes in a desperate sweat.

He spends the morning in some dizzied daze, the heat so thick and curling that Peter only just manages to swipe up the developed photos from his camera, collapses into the couch and groans as May tousles his hair fondly. He’s been dreaming of the strangest things lately, of faces and gleaming temples, of all things, of screams and hoarse voices, as he reaches out for a hand before it all turns to dust around him. He dreams of furnaces and gleaming metals, wakes gasping, the smell of burning coal lingering in his nose and his heart racing like he’s been running from something. The heat grows ever heavier around them, and Peter turns his head, when May calls to him, his gaze falling on the raven on the window.

“I’m going to be back late, Pete,” May is saying, before her gaze follows his. “There’s so many birds around lately.”

“Ravens,” Peter corrects quietly, and he reaches to crumble some bread for the bird as it chirps at him.

Birds of death, he thinks suddenly and stiffens, swallowing thickly.

“Are you going to Mr Stark’s again, today?” May says as he nods. “Take my car today, honey.”

“Aunt May?” Peter frowns at the ashes trailing after the bird before his gaze focuses on the shadows flickering on the walls around him. “Does the shadow look like it’s moving?”

Aunt May blinks at him. “You feeling okay, Pete?” she says, before putting a hand to his forehead in concern. “You don’t seem feverish.”

“I’m not!” Peter protests. “I’m fine! I can’t even hear anything either!” He’s the worst liar, he thinks to himself as his aunt arches an unimpressed eyebrow before looking at him carefully. “I’m fine, Aunt May, I promise. You should go, you don’t want to be late.”

She’s late and that’s why May drops a kiss on his hair before she has to rush off. Peter settles into the couch after shooting the raven a long look when it wouldn’t leave, and swipes through the pictures he’s got. He’s got a lot of May and his friends, but every now and then Mr Stark bleeds through, too.

The Compound’s rooms and the bots gleam weakly on the photos, courtesy of his cracked, cheap camera, but Peter snickers delightedly at the ones he’s got where Mr Stark is making faces. Mr Stark makes a lot of faces, especially when he has to take personal calls during their training sessions, and Friday has a whole folder of them; he and the AI have been competing on who can get the goofiest picture of Mr Stark.

When he gets up to leave, packing some of the photos into his bag for Mr Stark and Friday, the raven is still at the window. Peter frowns at it briefly before he reaches to crumble some more bread for the bird and makes his way to the Compound. The city is wrapped in an insufferable heat and it turns most of the people irritable, as Peter drives slowly through the traffic. It’s hard not to get frustrated too, but Peter thinks of the blissfully cool Compound waiting for him and continues driving.

“Hey, Friday!” Peter calls out when he’s walking in, but the AI is silent. “Friday?”

He frowns at the silence, something clenching his stomach uncomfortably as he makes his way inside the Compound. The place is quiet as ever, but Peter’s eyes widen at the sheer devastation sweeping through the place. Upturned sofas, broken tables, glass strewn across the floor, the Compound is a brimming mess. But that’s not all, Peter realises as he lifts his head to gape. There are literal holes in the walls, the bricks falling apart still, sunlight filtering through and limning the remaining dust in gold.

Most of the damage seems limited to the rooms of the Compound, the wings that Peter has never really set foot in, but even the kitchen windows are smashed apart. Something uncomfortable settles in the bottom of Peter’s stomach as he hurries on, one hand in his bag wrapping around his Spider-Man suit warily. Friday’s missing. The Compound is smashed to bits. What happened?

“Mr Stark?” Peter can’t help the slight waver in his voice as he calls. “Mr Stark!”

He hears a slight groan, enhanced through his senses, and promptly bolts towards the workshop. Peter hardly stops to breathe, hurrying through the Compound and wincing at the damage strewn across the rooms, thrown into even sharper relief by the dawning sunlight.

When he bursts into the workshop, sidestepping the strewn glass from the shattered doors warily, Peter’s breath hitches at the sight of Mr Stark. The man is collapsed against a couch, his hands wrapped around a bottle, and he’s muttering something under his breath. Peter surges forward, alarm rippling through him, as he stiffens his shoulders in defence, ready for whatever threat might show itself.

“Mr Stark!”

But Mr Stark isn’t awake, he realises faintly as he looks around. Mr Stark’s eyes are closed though he’s starting to moan something in his sleep, clutching an empty bottle to his chest almost protectively, a gauntlet still fizzing at his side. The workshop is empty but for them and even the bots aren’t around, Peter realises, frowning. Mr Stark’s coffee table is pushed aside, old gauntlets and metals scattered, sparking on the floor. Peter looks around again carefully, registering the smoking burns in the walls, the smashed glass, the fallen bricks, before he focuses on Mr Stark himself, understanding dawning on him with a sudden uncomfortable tug in his gut.

Nobody attacked the Compound.

Mr Stark did this himself.

Peter stumbles back a little, unsure of what to do, of what to say. He’s seen Mr Stark mad, but not to this extent. And this—this is scary, he thinks to himself, looking around again. Every time he looks, he sees something new. Numerous bottles of alcohol rolling on the floor, an Iron Man suit literally ripped apart and Mr Stark’s nails still bleeding, the old mirror in the corner smashed to pieces.

What does he do? Does he call someone? Who?

And then Mr Stark lets out a panicked moan in his sleep, and Peter makes up his mind himself.

“Mr Stark, wake up!” Peter calls out, dropping to his knees. He tugs the empty bottle away from Mr Stark’s fingers, pulling a face at the smell, and drops it near the others. “Mr Stark!”

“Something… path… coming, promise…” Mr Stark is moaning, a thin sheen of sweat lining his forehead as he tosses and turns. “Please… stop, stop—,”

For a moment, the expression on Mr Stark’s face is so familiar that Peter literally freezes before he realises it. Mr Stark looks exactly like how he did that morning, he thinks to himself and wonders stupidly if they had the same dream. When Mr Stark’s moans turn sharper into the beginnings of a scream, Peter surges forward again, starting to grow alarmed.

“Mr Stark!”

Peter is growing distraught now, his breaths turning fraught with concern.

“Mr Stark, please!” he calls, shaking Mr Stark’s shoulder as the man moans in his sleep, distressed. “Tony, wake up!”

Tony wakes, screaming and gasping on the couch, breathless and wide-eyed. Mr Stark is screaming and it’s one of the worst sounds Peter has ever heard, right up there with the gasping breaths Uncle Ben made when he was bleeding out on the floor. Peter barely manages to stop himself from stumbling back when he realises that Tony is panicking, scrambling and writhing on the couch. To his horror, Peter realises that Mr Stark is crying.

Everyone needs someone, Peter thinks and this time, when Tony reaches out, Peter slowly grasps his hand.

“Peter?” Tony is gasping, staring up at him. “What the—,”

“I think you had a nightmare,” Peter says, and Tony’s cheeks flare red with embarrassment.

The man looks still panicked and breathes hard as he forces himself up. “Pete, could you—there’s a bottle there—,”

Peter is so startled for a moment that he doesn’t move. Then he turns his head to where the bottles lie, his eyes widening at the stash. There are half a dozen empty bottles, some propped up against each other, others rolling steadily on the floor. Mr Stark must be absolutely hammered, he thinks. And he still wants more?

“That’s unhealthy, Mr Stark,” Peter says, shaking his head. “I’m going to get you some water, instead—,”

“I said, give me the fucking bottle!”

He’s shaken at the vitriol, but Peter stands his ground. He’s not scared of Tony, though Mr Stark is looking really mad right now. Peter swallows hard, tilts his head up, and refuses to back down. It’s terrifying and awful all at once because he’s never defied Mr Stark, but more alcohol is going to be worse for him. For the first time since he’s known him, Peter says no. He gets up to quickly run for the kitchen but to his surprise, DUM-e is right there, a glass of water grasped in his claw. Peter double checks it for engine oil.

“No, Mr Stark,” Peter says, shaking his head. “I don’t care what you say. It’s bad for you right now.”

“You little shit,” Mr Stark snarls out hoarsely.

He pushes the glass of cold water into Mr Stark’s fingers, not knowing who is shaking worse.

No,” Peter says again, though his voice wavers a little.

It’s perhaps the first time that Peter has ever defied Mr Stark, that he’s refused to back down since he’s known him, and though Mr Stark is mad, Peter knows that he’s right. And Mr Stark knows it, too. He lifts his head defiantly, daring to look the man in the eye, and shakes his head fiercely, as he glares at Mr Stark.

For a moment, Mr Stark looks furious, before his gaze falls to the cup trembling in Peter’s hands and the energy and fury seems to fall away from him in a single breath. Peter sees the emotions flicker through Mr Stark’s features, razor-sharp and too fast for the human eye but easy enough to decipher with his enhanced senses. The brief fury lights up Mr Stark’s eyes powerfully before blinding guilt writhes through the way his lips tremble, and then he’s completely impassive.

“I’m sorry—,”

“Don’t apologise,” Mr Stark says immediately, his voice a gruff mumble. He takes the cup from Peter, bending his head, and drinks deeply, but Peter sees the way his gaze lingers longingly on the bottles. “It’s—it’s fine, kid. You did good.”

The small quiet that settles between them is strange and frigid, but not uncomfortable. Peter waits, trying not to fidget, until Mr Stark is completely finished, wondering what to say or do. He’s anxious watching Mr Stark, nervously tugging on his fingers and pretending like he isn’t nervous at all. What is he supposed to do now? How does he help Mr Stark? Iron Man?

“You, um, were saying stuff,” Peter says, barely knowing what he’s saying himself. “In your sleep.”

Mr Stark’s cheeks burn hotly. “Look, kid,” Mr Stark says. “You shouldn’t have to stay for this. It was—I’ll get Rhodey to look over your training now. Should’ve done it ages ago, anyway—,”

“Wait, what?” Peter echoes. Where did this suddenly come from? The idea of not coming to the Compound for training sessions with Mr Stark is very unappealing. He’s made it a part of his life now; he doesn’t want to just leave and be pushed aside because Mr Stark can’t take him on anymore. “I don’t want—I mean, Mr—Colonel Rhodes is really nice, but—Mr Stark, I’m not going anywhere!”

The man just stares at him, something strangely sad etched out in the impassive features. “Kid—,”

“My name is Peter!” Peter says, furrowing his brows. “And Mr Stark, you’re a jerk!”

Mr Stark blinks at him, straightening properly. The slight fuzziness seems to fade out of his eyes as he focuses. Now he’s got Mr Stark’s attention, Peter thinks determinedly as he clenches his jaw. He’s getting kind of mad now, because this isn’t Mr Stark and he’s not going to listen to Mr Stark’s guilt a second longer.

“Peter—,”

“No, you’re going to listen to me, Mr Stark,” Peter tells him fiercely. “I don’t know what happened to make you like this—I think it was something real bad, but I’m not judging you, Mr Stark. And if you think this changes my opinion of you, then, for the first time, you’re wrong—,”

“Kid.” Mr Stark’s cheeks are hot with humiliation and his eyes are narrowed in anger. Peter knows innately that it’s because he reminded Mr Stark of the devastation still strewn across the Compound, laid out there for all to see and judge. But Peter’s not judging. Why won’t Mr Stark just see that? “You can have your little temper tantrum later. For now, just leave—,”

“You’re an asshole, Mr Stark,” Peter tells him tightly.

“Tell me something I don’t already know, kid,” Mr Stark snarls. “Now get lost.”

“But you’re going to have to do a lot worse than that to get rid of me,” Peter insists, and he’s smug when the surprise on Mr Stark’s face overrides his initial anger. “You’re not a bad person, no matter how much you try to convince yourself, Mr Stark. If you were, do you think I’d be here?”