If there was one thing Tony Stark understood, it was nightmares.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept without them. They are a constant presence, lurking along the fringes of his mind, waiting for the right moment to sweep him up.
For him, sleep was composed of fragments. An hour here, fifteen minutes there. No matter what he did, whatever relaxation techniques or sleeping pills or whatever-the-fuck-else he tried, he always found himself jolting awake, soaked in sweat and shivering with terror, long before sunrise. It was why he rarely actually slept in the bed with Pepper anymore, which had also been one of the primary reasons their relationship had splintered before all the shit with Steve went down. It’s hard to form an intimate connection with someone when they’re just... never there.
When they’d gotten into a screaming match over his empty side of the bed the night before she left, he hadn’t had the heart to tell her that it was because he was terrified of waking up and hurting her. That that one night after New York was still laser-engraved in his mind.
He’d had to tell her eventually. It’d come out in a long, half-drugged rush after Siberia. The nightmares, the fears, the grief he’d felt every moment in her absence.
She was doing her best to understand, and he was doing his best to believe that he deserved her.
Even now, though, with all his secrets laid bare, he struggled to sleep beside her. When he did crash, he usually crashed on the couch in the lab. This week, though, Pepper was away for meetings in Dubai, and the kid was staying over to keep him company. Usually, he could get away with not sleeping during Peter’s weekend visits. He’d played the insomnia game long enough to know how to go 48 hours without sleep and hide it effectively. But a whole week? Even he wasn’t that well-practiced. Peter would know something was up.
He didn’t want to do that to him, didn’t want to press yet another burden into the the teenager’s already over-full hands, which meant that his only option was actually getting some rest.
The things he did for that kid.
A good few hours after Peter went to bed, he dragged himself out of the lab and into his and Pepper’s bedroom. He took a shower, brushed his teeth, did just about everything he could think of to stall. Then, when F.R.I.D.A.Y. gently reminded him that he’d been staring at his reflection in the mirror for seven whole minutes, he wandered over to the bed and curled up between the silk sheets and memory foam mattress. He knew that it was a set-up most people would die for, but to him it felt anything but comfortable.
Still, the last time he’d actually slept was 76 hours ago, so it didn’t take him long to pass out once F.R.I.D.A.Y. shut the lights off.
And down the rabbit hole he went.
The wormhole tore through the sky and in front of him, a nuke lit up the emptiness with fire and flash and that special brand of death that humans are so fond of engineering, the kind of violence that makes Tony certain that there is destruction brimming within all of our chests, like creation is just an overflow of the chaos locked within our DNA, and he fell and fell and fell through emptiness until-
The gunfire ricocheted through the tank like the armored exterior was a hot glue collage of tinfoil candy wrapper and when he turned his head all he could see were the death-twisted bodies of his guards, of the people he’d been joking around with just a few seconds before, could see over-exposed blood dribble across stiff fingers, a network of tiny morbid rivers, and he ran, he hid, rushed from the gunfire until an explosion knocked him off his feet and then his chest was on fire, the world was on fire, he was on fire-
Steve’s fist slammed down on his helmet, one, two, three, and when flesh failed he grabbed the shield, his father’s shield, and pounded and pounded until the titanium mask gave way, until his face became ground zero, became the impending tragedy in a rifle’s cross-hairs, and he shrank back, waited for the final blow, wondered if Pepper would even care after he was gone, and then the shield came down and it hit his chest, not his face, and the suit that gave him flight, power, purpose became an iron cage, clumsy and leaden on his limbs, and Steve stood, bloodied and triumphant, like the soldier his father had always wanted, the soldier he had never learned to-
All he could see was red dirt, red blood, the red of Peter’s Iron Spider suit as he bobbled, staggered, stared down at his hands like he was seeing them for the very first time, gasped out remnants of childhood like I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what’s- and sir, please, and then he was slamming into Tony’s chest, weight and warmth and fading life, and Tony held him, clung, couldn’t believe that this was how their story was doomed to end, couldn’t bear the progression of time, and the kid got lighter as his body faded but they fell anyway, fell through safety and air, and Tony held him, stared into his eyes, didn’t look away even as the ash crept up his face, over his cheek, his mouth, up to his-
Someone was shaking him. For a second, he felt caught between two realities. In one, he was watching a child die underneath a foreign sun. In the other, he could feel cool fabric wrapped around his legs and the firm comfort of his mattress pressed against his back. Which one is real? Which one is real? Which one is-
“Mister Stark, please. You’re having a nightmare. I’m right here, I promise. Just please wake up.”
That was... that was the kid. The same kid that was ash in the creases of his hand, the same kid that was gripping his shoulder like he might drift away. The contradiction made his head spin until he opened his eyes.
Peter was leaning over him in the dark, face ashen. The second he realized Tony was looking at him, his expression lit up.
“Are you awake?” He whispered, hopeful.
“Yeah.” Oh, ouch. His throat hurt. He must’ve been screaming. “Sorry. I-I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, it’s okay.” Peter studied him carefully. “Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m fine.” He wasn’t, but what did that matter? “Go, uh, go back to bed, Pete.”
The kid’s head tilted to the side, calculating. “Your heart’s still racing.”
Screw the kid’s super-hearing. It made sneaking him around the truth 500% more difficult.
“Yeah, well, that happens. It’s fine. It’ll... It’ll settle.”
“Yeah, of course.” Looking like he’d made up his mind about something, Peter grabbed the edge of his comforter and pulled it back, inviting himself onto the bed and promptly tucking himself against Tony’s side.
He blinked, unconsciously bringing an arm around the kid’s back as he snuggled even closer. “Uh, what’re you doing?”
“And... why are you doing that?”
“Because you’re too stubborn to ask me to.” Peter reached out and grabbed his free hand by the wrist, plopping it unceremoniously on the top of his head. “There.”
The lingering adrenaline was quickly giving way to bafflement. Maybe that was the kid’s point. If it was, it was a damn good tactic. “You... want me to mess with your hair?”
Peter shrugged, tone matter-of-fact. “It calms you down.”
He balked. He didn’t think that Peter had noticed that.
“It’s supposed to calm you down,” he protested weakly.
“Oh yeah. I mean, it does that too.”
Without really thinking, his hand started it’s usual path through the kid’s curls. He must’ve taken a shower before bed, because they were still a little damp and clumped together. He separated them slowly, breath evening as the familiarity of the movements sunk into his bones. It was such an easy pattern to fall into, such a comforting monotony.
“Do you need to be calmed down?”
Peter closed his eyes and smiled into Tony’s chest. “Oh, definitely.”
“Mm. I can tell. You’re obviously so stressed.” The kid was loose and warm against his side, the very picture of contentment. He felt his own body relaxing in a mirror of it, safety radiating from the weight Peter was pressing into his side. “Poor thing.”
“High school ‘s really rough, Mister Stark. Need lots of comfort to get by, y’know.”
“So that’s why you always invade my personal space.” The dreams trickled away. Peter was here, all growth-spurt limbs and sleep-mused hair. As long as he had that, there wasn’t anything else he needed, no memory that could possibly touch him. “Interesting.”
Peter practically purred as he worked through a knot at the base of his skull. “You like it.”
“My personal space? You’re right, I do.”
“No.” The kid sounded genuinely offended. “Me invading. You like it.”
He found another knot by the kid’s ear and rubbed it between his fingers until it loosened. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Well, you’re entitled to your opinions.”
“I am.” Peter nuzzled his face into the worn cotton of his t-shirt. He doubted he smelled all that great, considering how much he’d sweat during the nightmare, but the kid either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Promise you’ll go back to sleep?”
He shook his head. “I’ll just wake you up again, kid.”
“‘S okay if you do. I can just sleep late tomorrow.”
“I might hurt you.”
“You won’t.” The kid squinted open his eyes. “Try? Please?”
His determination softened at Peter’s pleading gaze. He brushed the kid’s bangs away from his face, letting his fingertips linger on his temple. “Alright. I’ll try.”
“Mm. Good.” Peter’s eyes drifted shut again. “Sleep is good.”
He followed Peter’s lead and closed his eyes, too. He focused his entire being on the figure eight he was making at the crown of the kid’s head. It was steady, easy. Peter had been right: this really was the perfect distraction.
“So they tell me.”
He could feel Peter’s smile against his chest. “I love you, y’know.”
Later, he’d blame his response on the fact that he was already half-asleep, or the nightmares, or how he was mostly too focused on keeping up with his rhythm through Peter’s curls to curate his words. Obviously, he would’ve never said it without something loosening his filter.
He never once, however, claimed it wasn’t true.
“Love you too, buddy.”