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Everything Comes Back To You

Chapter Text

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?”

“Staying.”

“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.”

“I would.”

“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.”

Chapter Text

“Alright,” Tony glanced between Rhodey, Peter, and the two SHIELD agents that were their backup, “Rhodes, you’re with me. Spider-Man, you stick with our new friends and scout out that satellite warehouse. If you find access to their database, hook Karen up to it and see what you can do.”

One of the SHIELD agents raised their hands. “Uh, who’s Karen?”

“Spider-Man’s AI.”

“He has an AI?”

“Yeah.” He glared, although he knew nobody could see it through his helmet. “You got an issue?”

The SHIELD agent floundered for a second, glancing between Tony and Peter in a nervous rush. “No, sir. Of course not.”

“Good.” He turned to Peter. “Your comm stays on and linked to me the whole time. You got it?”

He may not have been able to see the kid’s eyeroll through the mask, but he sure as hell heard it in his tone. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be careful.”

“Yeah, you better.”

“I will.”

“Guys,” Rhodey said, exasperated, “can we do this later?”

“Fine.” He stepped back, had F.R.I.D.A.Y. charge up his repulsers. He offered a parting nod to Peter and the agents. “Good luck. Don’t die.”

As soon as he was in the air, scouting out the main base, he opened Peter’s comm line.

“Morning, squirt.” He grinned at the kid’s groan. “Talk to me. What’s happening?”

“I’m trying to be stealthy.”

He snorted. “Please, I already scanned the building for heat signatures. No one’s in there.”

Peter’s voice lowered. “Mister Stark, you’re embarrassing me.”

“Oh right. Forgot you were with your new SHIELD buddies.”

“Mister Stark, please.”

He chuckled. “What? You not a fan of my-”

“Shh.” 

He fell silent right away, skin prickling. Peter never shushed him. Never.

“Pete?” He whispered, freezing mid-air. Rhodey came to hover beside him, and he could see a notification pop up in the corner of the screen, letting him know that he was trying to contact him. He swiped it away. “Buddy? Hey, you good?”

“Something’s wrong.” There was a shuffle, then the kid raised his voice, obviously talking to the agents. “Hey, guys, I don’t think that we should-”

He didn’t need to be connected to Peter’s comms to hear the explosion.

It ripped through the air, sending both him and Rhodey backwards as the shockwave hit them. He rushed to re-correct his course, nearly slamming into Rhodey as he came to a stop. He could see the debris from the sky, eyes locking on the flames that were already crawling through the wreckage.

And the only thing he heard on the comm line was static.

Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.

“Peter!” He knew, logically, that he wasn’t choking on ash, that they were still hovering in fresh air, but it felt like it, because Peter didn’t answer. “Peter! Kid, talk to me!”

“I’m sorry, Boss, but we’ve lost the connection,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. said.

“No, no, no. Get me his vitals.”

“I am unable to connect to his suit, either.”

“Fuck. Fuck.” 

Please don’t be dead. Please. Please. Please don’t be dead.

He tried to dive towards the smoldering remains, heart in his throat, but jerked to a halt when an iron arm wrapped around his waist.

“Tony!” Since when did F.R.I.D.A.Y. put Rhodey’s comm request through? “Tones, you can’t go down there yet. Y’hear me? We don’t know if they’ve planted more explosives. We gotta keep our distance until-”

“Peter’s down there.” Tears, hot and angry, welled up in his eyes. “Rhodey, please-my… my kid. My kid. He’s down there. He’s-”

“Tony, listen to me-”

He fired his repulsers, growling when Rhodey just tightened his grip and hauled them backwards. “No, no. His-His comms are down. I can’t talk to him. Please. Rhodey, please.”

“Tony, man, I’m so fucking sorry, alright? I’m really sorry.”

Rhodey’s voice was strained with… something. An emotion Tony knew yet refused to acknowledge, because no. It couldn’t be that. Peter was fine. Please, please, Peter had to be fine.

“Rhodey, let go.” He strained against his best friend’s grip, and Rhodey hooked one of his legs around his shins, restricting his ability to maneuver. “You don’t understand. I have to protect him, it’s my… it’s my job.”

“I do understand, Tones.” The words were gruff. “What do you think it is I’mtrying to do? You’re not the only one who’s got something to protect.”

He choked on a breath, sob bubbling up his throat. “I need him.”

“And I need you,” the admission was sudden enough that Tony’s escape attempts faltered, “so quit fighting and let me keep you from getting yourself killed, alright? The bomb squad’s on its way. They’ll handle it.”

He went limp, waited until Rhodey’s hold loosened just slightly, then sent a calculated kick to the War Machine armor’s left boot, destabilizing his thrust and giving him the chance to jerk away.

He felt a flash of guilt at the panicked way Rhodey called his name as he blasted towards the smoking rubble, but not enough to slow him down. He landed so roughly that he went down on his hands and knees, crawling forward a meter or two in panic before staggering back to his feet.

He heard Rhodey land behind him, still cursing. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., scan the area. I need heat signatures.”

“There are two human-shaped signatures approximately 35 feet to your left. One is rapidly cooling. I cannot identify the site of the third body, however.”

“Get me to the two you can find.”

She guided him through the rubble, Rhodey following closely behind. He’d given up trying to convince him to leave, just stuck close and periodically told him to slow down, to be careful.

He did neither.

He fell to his knees by the spot F.R.I.D.A.Y. indicated, tearing through shards of metal and splintered beams until his gauntlets hit flesh.

It wasn’t Peter. It was one of the SHIELD agents, laying face-down. His back was riddled with shrapnel, blood oozing almost lazily down the back of his uniform.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y.? Is he…?”

“I can detect no vitals, Boss. However, there is another body directly underneath this one, and my scanners are picking up a heartbeat.”

He shoved the corpse away, letting it roll down the mound of debris without another glance. He knew it was wrong, knew he should feel something over the loss of life, but he couldn’t, because then he was staring down at the familiar red and blue of the Spider-Man suit, and all he could feel was wild desperation.

Peter.

The kid was also sprawled out on his stomach, one arm bent unnaturally at the elbow. He was covered in splintered wood, but Tony couldn’t see any blood, any wounds. He carefully rolled him over, cupping the back of Peter’s head to stop it from knocking against the ground.

“Buddy, Peter.” He felt Rhodey’s hand on his shoulder, and promptly ignored it. He shook the kid gently. “Hey, c’mon. Nap time’s over.”

The suit’s eyes twitched at the shake, a little groan working its way out of Peter’s throat. As much as Tony hated hearing him in pain, the spark of life sent a thrill up his spine.

“Yes! Good boy.” He slipped the mask off his face, disengaging his own helmet at the same time. Peter’s eyelashes flickered as the sunlight landed on his face. There were tiny tracks of blood from his ears, and Tony tried to wipe some of it away. “Hey, kiddo. Wake up for me.”

Peter shifted, then winced. His eyes finally opened, gazing up at Tony dazedly. “Mister Stark?”

He hauled the kid into his arms, burying his face into his hair, lightheaded and drunk on relief. He didn’t realize he was sobbing until he felt the wetness of tears on his face.

“I thought I lost you,” he gasped. “God, Peter.”

You’re alive. You’re alive. You’re alive.

“‘M okay, Mister Stark. I’m okay.” Peter tried to hug him back, then gasped. “Oh, ouch. Maybe… Maybe ‘m not 100% okay.”

Tony pulled back and rushed to ease the kid back to the ground. “Your arm?”

“Yeah.” He coughed a little. “Broken?”

“Looks like it, yeah.”

“Awesome.” Peter squinted around the rubble, freezing when his eyes landed on the SHIELD agent’s body, sprawled out a few feet away. “Mister Stark, is he…?”

He gripped the kid’s chin and forced his back gaze to his face. “Don’t look, Peter.”

“You have to help him,” Peter begged. He looked so young. “Please. He saved my life. He pushed me when the bomb went off. You have to-”

“There’s nothing I can do, kiddo. I’m sorry.”

Tears welled up in the kid’s eyes. “He died because of me.”

“No, he died because a group of terrorists planted a bomb, a bomb that you had no way of knowing was there, because some people are just evil. Do you understand? You had nothing to do with this.”

“I should’ve been faster.”

“No, no. Shh.” He maneuvered the kid back into his arms, mindful of his injured arm. “You were brilliant. You did everything you could.”

“He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have saved me. I’m not worth it. I’m not.”

He shook his head, hand fisting in the kid’s curls, fierce and protective. “Maybe I’m biased, kid, but I can’t think of anything else that’s more worth it.”

Chapter Text

Peter had been gone for 28 days, 17 hours, 43 minutes, and 27 seconds when F.R.I.D.A.Y. finally got a hit on his location.

Tony knew that because he’d had the counter running across every free screen for weeks.

There was no time wasted when the notification came in, not a second for gathering or regrouping or slowing to breathe. Just Tony, pushing the team forward with one-minded desperation. Steve scrambled to keep up, shouting terse orders and jogging just behind Tony as he stalked towards the Quinjet.

It took 3 hours and 16 minutes to get to the kid’s location. 4 minutes for everyone to organize. 7 minutes to advance on the heavily guarded research facility. 19 minutes to take out the guards, break into the winding hallways illuminated by fluorescent lights. 2 minutes for Tony to smell the blood.

It was all over the kid’s cell. The walls, the floor, the exposed pipe in the corner. Fresh and old, small smears and massive puddles. It was everywhere he looked. Blood, blood, blood.

Peter was in the center, strapped down to a medical table by fucking zip-ties. He’d been stripped down to a stained pair of boxers, hair longer than Tony remembered it being, eyes duller than he’d remembered them being. The kid let out a deep, guttural whine when the door opened, face twisting in a flinch, like he was expected a blow.

Peter,” he breathed, staggering towards him, disengaging his gauntlets in his rush to touch, skin-to-skin, to offer the comfort he’d been deprived of for way too fucking long, “Peter.”

Glazed, brown eyes stared back at him. His pupils were blown. Drugs? Fear? The kid squinted like he was struggling to see him. Drugs, then. Maybe. Probably. “Mister Stark?”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s me. It’s me, buddy.”

Peter’s head dropped back, lungs deflating. A delirious smile curled across his face, words lazy with relief. “You’re… a little short for a Stormtrooper.”

He blinked, brain still preoccupied with the metallic scent of blood aching in his nose and the incisions littering every visible inch of the kid’s skin and the fact that he could map every single one of his ribs and how sick he looked, how delicate and fragile and very not like the Peter he knew.

Then, he forced out a chuckle. Act normal, act cool. He had to hold it together for Peter. That was his only job. “Of course you’d make a Star Wars reference.”

“‘S my best quality.” The words must have sparked the kid’s memory, because some of the exhaustion on his face faded, and a thrum of panic took its place. He jerked against his restraints, chest heaving. “Mister Stark, I have to tell you something. I-”

“Shh,” he created a small knife with the suit’s nanites and started sawing through the zip-ties, carefully not to nick Peter’s already raw skin, “we can go through all that later, okay?”

“No, you don’t-”

He set a restraining hand against the kid’s collarbone. “Does this information put us in imminent peril?”

“No-”

“Then hush.” He finished with the zip-ties around his wrists and ducked to his ankles. “How bad are you hurt?”

“I dunno.” Peter’s voice was faint, eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Stopping feeling it weeks ago.”

Oh, Peter.

“Okay,” he choked out, wishing he was strong enough to hide the way that statement cut through his bones, “that’s okay. We’re gonna get you to the Quinjet, get you pumped full of the good stuff, and Helen’ll take care of you.”

“I don’t know if she can,” Peter whispered, voice broken.

“Hey,” he returned to the kid’s face, cupped his cheek, “none of that. Whatever she can’t fix, we’ll fix. Together. Okay?”

For a few beats, Peter just stared at him, wavering between his fear and the intrinsic trust he had in Tony.

The trust won. It always did.

“Okay.”

“Good boy.” He finished with the zip-ties, reengaged the gauntlets, but kept his helmet lowered. One of his arms slipped under the kid’s knees, wary of the dark bruising flaring across the left one, while the other went to support his back. Before fully scooping him up, he paused. “Ready to blow this joint?”

Peter rested his head against the suit’s metal shoulder, voice a tired murmur. “So ready.”

“Good.” The kid was light. Way lighter than he remembered him being. He tried to make a joke of it as he walked to the door, his precious cargo cradled closely to his chestplate. “We’ll have to get a burger in you ASAP, squirt.”

For some reason, the comment made Peter choke on a sob. “Y-Yeah. I guess.”

Despite how much the sound of the kid crying hurt, he consigned the reaction to the hysteria of being freed rather than anything more serious. He could still remember the plane flight back from Afghanistan, sitting against the wall, feeling something tickle his face and reaching up to realize that they were tears. Rhodey kneeling in front of him, concern written all over his expression. Are you okay, Tones? He’d shrugged. I don’t know.

He’d locked himself away in the bathroom for the breakdown, waited out the episode before stumbling back to his seat and staunchly ignoring Rhodey’s stares. Peter, on the other hand, just turned his face into Tony’s shoulder and quivered, teeth digging into his lip as he cried.

“It’s alright.” Tony soothed, moving silently through the smoky halls. Which side had set off the smoke bombs? He couldn’t remember. “You’re safe now.”

Peter nodded, short and sharp, hiccuped on a sob, then coughed.

At first, Tony thought he’d just worked himself up enough that his lungs were rebelling. He’d done it before. Or it could’ve been the smoke, although it had dispersed enough that it wasn’t bothering him, even without the helmet.

“Easy,” he muttered, catching a glimpse of the exit in front of them, “we’ll be out of here soon. A little sunshine’ll do you good, I think.”

He’d expected the kid’s coughing to abate once they got into fresh air. Except… it didn’t. If anything, it was getting worse. He jogged up the ramp to the jet, ignoring the team’s questioning looks, and made a bee-line for Cho.

She met him halfway, eyes already cataloging Peter’s visible injuries. “When did the coughing start?” She asked, guiding them over to a medical bunk.

Tony deposited Peter carefully, letting the suit leak away and pressed his bare palm against the kid’s shoulder, a silent reassurance. “Two minutes ago, maybe?”

“It was probably the smoke. His body’s struggling to adjust.” She shoved an oxygen mask into his hands. “Here. I need to check out these incisions.”

He knelt by Peter’s arm, lightly setting the oxygen mask over his face and brushing a few curls out of his eyes in the process. “There, buddy. Just try to relax.”

Peter groaned, another agonizing cough cutting the sound off short. His expression was twisted up in discomfort. Tony glanced over at Helen as he scrambled to keep the mask pressed firmly over the kid’s face, feeling strangely frantic. “He’s in pain. Can we fix that, please?”

She nodded, stepping back. “I brought his pain meds. Let me just-”

“No,” Peter rasped, shaking his head violently enough that it spurred him into another round of coughing, “no, don’t.”

“You don’t have to be brave about this, Pete, it’s alright to need-”

“Can’t.” A wheeze. Peter winced. “You’ll… You’ll overdose me.”

Cho scoffed. “Peter, I’ve been treating your metabolism for long enough to-”

“They took my powers,” Peter rasped, cutting Tony off. “They-”

The end of the sentence got lost in another round of wheezes and gags, but it had been enough to get the point across.

Tony’s frantic eyes met Cho’s surprised ones.

He shook his head, desperate not to believe it. “That… it can’t be…”

“It makes sense, Tony,” she murmured, shock melting into thoughtful understanding, “his muscle mass is severely depleted, and his healing factor hasn’t been working properly. Some of these wounds are days old, and they’ve only just started to heal.”

No. No. “Could just be malnutrition.”

“Maybe. But we should trust him.” Cho glanced over Peter with concern as his breaths got shorter. “It’s better to assume the worst so we can prepare for it. If he’s really lost his powers, that means that any medical issues he had before would be back. Is there anything-”

Tony’s eyes widened, symptoms clicking into place. God, he was so fucking stupid. “Shit, Cho. He had asthma. Has asthma. He… He has asthma. Really bad, I think.”

Understanding fell across Cho’s face. Her eyes darted to Peter’s heaving chest, then up to the ceiling. Her voice was terse. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., do we have any albuterol on board?”

“Yes. It is located in Medical Locker 12A.”

Cho was moving all at once, grabbing tubing, a mask, a dark black box that Tony assumed must be something important, and a handful of other things. She put them together with the kind of familiarity he imagined didn’t come only with being in the medical field, she’d done this before, often enough that each action had become muscle memory, but he didn’t comment on it.

“This is a nebulizer. It’ll get the albuterol into his lungs more effectively than a rescue inhaler at this point,” she explained. Her voice softened as she finished assembling everything, eyes landing on Tony’s. “He has to sit up.”

“On it,” he replied, slipping behind Peter and settling his back against his chest, shushing him gently as he tried to gag in another breath.

Cho handed him the nebulizer’s mask without another word, and he tossed the oxygen aside in favor of the new setup. 

“Just do your best to breathe, Peter.” Cho flicked on the machine, and it hissed. There was a surprising amount of sympathy on her face. “I assume you probably know the drill.”

The kid nodded, then dropped his head had against Tony’s shoulder, staring up at him like he was an anchor, something to tether him to Earth.

“Hey,” he whispered, desperate to fulfill the role Peter was so obviously imploring him to take, “you heard Cho. Just breathe. The meds’ll help soon.”

They did, too. Five minutes later, and Peter was slumped against him, breaths deep and borderline greedy, eyes shut with exhaustion, Cho was prepping an IV of plain-old morphine, supplies laid out to clean the dozens of wounds scattered across the kid’s body, and Tony was still holding the kid, one arm braced around his chest and the other holding the mask to his face.

The nebulizer stuttered, and Cho gently slipped it out of his hands. “We’ll do another treatment in 20 minutes or so, just to be safe. Are you feeling better now, Peter?”

“Yeah,” he breathed, eyelids fluttering open. He stared at Tony, expression full of guilt, “I’m sorry.”

“For what? Scaring the shit out of me? Yeah, you should be.”

Peter let out a wet laugh. “You’re gonna be doing this a lot now.”

“Doing what?”

The kid gestured at himself. “This. My body’s stupid. Can’t even breathe right. I step wrong and I sprain my ankle.” He glanced away, cheeks red. “‘M useless.”

“First of all, you’re not useless.” He used his free hand for force Peter’s gaze back to his face. “And second of all, you’re talking like I’m not gonna fix this. Which I am, by the way. You’ll be back to Spider-Manning and scaring the shit out of me in increasingly inventive ways before you know it.”

“What if you can’t?”

“Do you doubt me?”

“No, of course not.” There was something needy in Peter’s eyes. “But what if you can’t?”

He studied him silently, picking each word with caution. “Then I guess I’ll add a rescue inhaler to the list of things I keep in my pockets at all time. No biggie.”

That seemed to relieve whatever fear had been lurking under the kid’s skin, because he sank back into his chest and didn’t even flinch when Cho placed his IV. “Thank you, Mister Stark.”

He smiled, warm and fond. “I am gonna fix it, though. Just saying.”

The kid’s eyes fell shut again, mouth quirking up in amusement. “Of course you will.”

Chapter Text

Peter didn’t even have time to process the fact that the blow hit Tony before the man was slamming into the concrete, sidewalk cracking under the force of his fall.

He knew, distantly, as he aborted his previous attack in favor of swinging frantically towards the smoking Iron Man armor, that Tony would scold him. He was putting himself in the line of fire, foregoing caution for panic. He must be breaking at least a dozen of Tony’s rules right now.

But he didn’t care, because there wasn’t a terse voice snapping at him to take cover, kid, damn it, what are you doing?, no steady stream of orders, reassurances, the occasional praise. The other end of his comm was just static. Harsh and all-consuming.

He landed beside Tony and staggered to his side, tearing the faceplate off the suit with one hand and his mask off his head with the other. Karen was babbling uselessly in his ear, it was giving him a headache, and he wanted to see Tony. Didn’t want to stare at him through all the numbers and figures and warnings the man had programming into his heads-up display. He wanted to see him with his own eyes, glaringly and truthfully human.

Tony’s face was bloody, bruised. A gash ran along the left side of his forehead, dripping blood down into his sweaty hair. But he was awake, albeit disoriented, blinking slowly up at Peter. It took him a good few seconds to process what he was seeing, but when he did, a lazy smile wrapped around his face.

“Kid,” he breathed. Blood bubbled up between his lips.

“Mister Stark.” Peter ghosted his hands over the front of the ruined suit. God, he didn’t know what to do. Tony was usually the one taking care of him. “Mister Stark, what do I do?”

Tony fumbled with his gauntlets for a second, fingers uncoordinated and heavy in a way Peter had never imagined that they could be, before finally tearing the metal off and tossing it aside. His bare palm settled on Peter’s cheek.

“Nothing,” he choked, wincing as if every syllable hurt, “Rhodey’ll come. It’ll be alright.”

“I want to help.”

“You are.” Tony’s gaze drifted, eyelids drooping on a deep exhale. Adrenaline spiked through every inch of Peter: one sudden flash of pure, no-brakes panic. “Always helping.”

God, he couldn’t do this again. He couldn’t. He’d lost his his mom, his dad, Ben. Sometimes it felt like everyone he loved was doomed.

He couldn’t lose Tony. He and May were the only people he had left. He needed them.

“No, no. Stay with me,” he sobbed, clutching at the hand Tony was still holding weakly against his face, holding it there, “please, Mister Stark. You’ve gotta hold on.”

“Good kid,” Tony slurred, ignoring his pleas. He just stared up at Peter with a bleary adoration that made the whole situation ache worse in his chest, “such a… such a good kid.”

“Please,” he was begging, crying. At this point, he wasn’t even sure what he was begging for. For reassurance? For Tony to stay awake? For Tony to just not die?

“Shh.” Tony’s voice was distant, but his palm was steady and ever-present on his face. It was mostly Peter’s grip keeping it there, now, but it was so easy to just close his eyes and pretend. “‘S okay, buddy.”

Tony’s thumb brushed lightly under his eye, smearing tears across his face, and then it stopped. His grip softened, hand relaxing and growing unnaturally heavy in Peter’s hold.

He snapped his eyes open to find Tony’s closed, lips parted, face pale. He dropped the man’s hand from his cheek, reaching desperately to shake him awake, and it landed lifelessly against the suit’s chestplate.

“No, Mister Stark, wake up.” When his frantic shaking did nothing, he fell forward with a full-body sob. “Please, please. Mister Stark, please. You have to be okay. You have to.”

He curled himself around Tony’s chest, burying his face in his neck, longing for the man to reach up and cup the back of his head, press his mouth against Peter’s hair, ask him softly why he was crying, what was wrong.

Instead, he got a stiff, not-Tony hand on his shoulder, gently attempting to tug him away from his mentor’s chest. He resisted, clinging to the suit with all his might.

His world was imploding. Tony couldn’t be… he just couldn’t… please

“C’mon, Pete, time to go.” That was Rhodey’s voice. Rhodey. Tony had said he’d come, but he’d come too late. He was too late. “The medics are here. You’ve gotta let go.”

No.”

Rhodey’s voice switched from gentle to firm in a split second. “Peter, let go.”

He dug his fingers into the armor, sharp metal biting his skin. “No!”

“We’ll do this the hard way, then. That’s fine.” The War Machine gauntlets closed around his wrists tight enough to bruise. “Sorry, Tones,” Rhodey muttered, “I know you’d kick my ass for this, but your kid’s being a brat.”

And then he was wrenched away. Hard.

For a second, he was so surprised at being overpowered that he just flailed uselessly. By the time he fully processed what had happened, Rhodey had already managed to haul him a good few feet away from Tony’s body. Medics swarmed the spot he’d just occupied, obscuring his view of the scene.

No. No. He kicked back at Rhodey’s legs, squirmed as much as he could in the suit’s iron grip. He heard the men let out a grunt as he fought to keep him contained.

Let me go. Let me go. Letmegoletmegoletme-

Fuck, Tony wasn’t kidding when he told me you were strong.” Rhodey sounded breathless, frightened. “Peter, stop. You’re making this worse. Do you understand?”

“Let me go!” He didn’t care what Rhodey said. He didn’t care. He needed Tony. He wanted to stay with Tony. Why did no one care? “I need-I need-”

His frantic babbling was cut off by an involuntary heave. He gagged weakly against the sudden swell of nausea, anguish growing. Rhodey cursed in his ear, tilting him to the side so he could throw up without getting it all over the front of his suit.

“Damn it, Peter, calm the hell down!” Rhodey’s voice was ringing in his ears, but none of the words broke past the screaming grief. “I need to help Cho, but I can’t do that if you don’t quit fighting.”

“No,” he sobbed, kicking his feet uselessly in the air. His mouth felt gross, he felt gross. He didn’t want Rhodey. He didn’t want him, “no! Mister Stark! Mister Stark!”

It hurt even more when he realized exactly what he was screaming for. He wanted Tony to come sweep up the mess, glue him back together like he always did. It was the scream that always got him what he wanted. The scream that summoned his mentor within seconds. He was decimated by loss, and the person he wanted for comfort was the only one he couldn’t have.

He screamed again, this time forgoing the name. He just screamed.

“Seriously, kid, you gotta just…” Rhodey trailed off as Peter dry heaved again. When he spoke again, his tone was tight, tense. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., this isn’t working. Whaddya got instead?”

“Doctor Cho should have restraints designed for Mister Parker’s enhanced strength.”

“Not gonna work, FRI. Don’t think you understand how worked up the damn kid is. He’ll tear his wrists to shreds, and then Tony’ll tear me a new one. Anything else?”

“Boss has an emergency procedure installed in his suit called the Naptime Protocol. It is designed to contain Mister Parker in instances such as this. The sedatives were not harmed in the crash. Would you like me to release them to you?”

“Fuck. Of course the bastard would have a fucking protocol for the kid losing his shit.” If Peter hadn’t been so worked up, he would’ve recognized the man’s brief pause as one of regret. “Yes, release them. Cho, can you bring it here?”

“On it.”

Peter sobbed louder. He knew that Rhodey was talking about him, knew that he was overreacting, that he was acting like a baby, but all he could think of was the desperate need to get to Tony. He needed him. Why did no one understand?

He was shifted a little in Rhodey’s arms, and then new hands, soft, bare hands, gripped the sides of his face and tilted his head at an angle. A sharp prick stung in his neck, and then something cool rushed through him.

“Sorry, kid,” Rhodey’s voice warped as Peter’s vision blurred, “but Tony needs me right now.” There was a hard edge to the man’s words. Peter’s head was spinning too much to ponder it. “You’ll thank me later.”

He scrabbled weakly at the metal arms that had shifted to wrap firmly around his waist, artificial exhaustion making his eyelids droop. “Mis’er Stark…”

“You can see him when you wake up. Just check out now, kid. The adults’ll handle this one.”

His muscles went lax against his will, head dropping forward and chin colliding uncomfortably with his chest. He was vaguely aware of Rhodey sighing in relief, and then strong arms laying him down, a gauntlet cushioning his head before settling it against hard pavement.

He was unconscious before he could remember why he was so upset in the first place.

The world trickled back slowly.

It wasn’t exactly unpleasant. In fact, he was pretty comfortable. He was laying on something incredibly comfortable, feeling warm and cozy and pleasantly hazy. He flexed his fingers and felt them curl around something soft. Mm. It smelled nice, too. Like fresh laundry detergent.

A thought in the back of his head tickled, telling him that he was upset about… something… but he was too numbed out to ponder it for long.

“Peter?” A hand touched his shoulder. “You coming out of it?”

He didn’t know what that meant. Coming out of what? He mumbled in response, mouth cottony and dull, pushing his face more firmly into what he assumed was a pillow.

A tense laugh sounded somewhere above his head. “That’s fine, kid. You just sleep it off.”

He sank into the bleariness for a while after that, distantly aware of the occasional shuffling or door opening, closing. He surfaced again, just superficially, when he picked up the rushing beep-beep of a heart monitor and familiar voices.

“Easy, Tones.” That was… Rhodey, right? He thought he was mad at him, but he couldn’t remember why. “You’re alright. You got out of surgery about an hour ago.”

“Peter…” And that was his name. And a nice voice. His favorite voice. He felt himself relaxing instantly, the familiar inflection washing over him. “‘S he…?”

“Look to your right.”

“Why’s he… why’s he inna…?”

“Relax. He’s not hurt. Kid put up one hell of a fight when we tried to pry him off of you. Wouldn’t quit until we knocked him out. He’s just sleeping the sedatives off. Cho and I thought it’d make the whole thing easier if we let him wake up where he could see you. He seemed close to it earlier, but he’s back off in dreamland now.”

“He’s okay, though?”

“Yeah, man. He’s fine. A little bruised, but fine. I had the medics check him over once they took you to surgery.”

“Good.”

“Do you wanna hear about you, now, or do you not give a fuck?”

“‘M I gonna die?”

“No.”

“Don’ give a fuck.” Tony’s next words came out whiny, which was funny. Peter had never heard him sound whiny before. “Want him.”

Tony,” ooh, Rhodey sounded annoyed, “he’s right there. Let him sleep.”

“Peter,” Tony called. “Peter, buddy, wake up.”

Rhodey let out an exasperated sigh. “Tony, the kid’s not just gonna push through a shit ton of sedatives just because you-”

He dragged his heavy eyelids open, blearily observing the triumphant grin on Tony’s face and the way Rhodey shoved his face into his hands, groaning.

“Never mind,” Rhodey said, not looking up, “I stand corrected.”

“Petey.” That was funny, too. Tony didn’t usually call him that. “Petey, c’mere.”

“He will not be coming here. He’ll be staying exactly where he is and-”

Peter pushed himself upright with heavy limbs. Ugh. The previously comfortable fuzziness was starting to annoy him. His head pounded, his mouth was dry, and he couldn’t seem to convince his body to do anything he wanted.

“Mis’er Stark?” He smothered a yawn into his hand, not even realizing he was listing sideways until Rhodey lunged over and gripped his shoulders, forcibly steadying him. “Huh?”

Tony giggled. Honest to god giggled. “God, kid, you’re drunk as hell.”

“Yeah, and so are you, so don’t talk.” Rhodey grabbed his face and tilted it up towards the light, checking his pupils. “Jesus, Peter. Go back to sleep. I’m impressed you’re even upright.”

Peter shook his head, fumbling off the bed and nearly faceplanting. He probably would’ve, honestly, if Rhodey hadn’t had such a tight grip on him.

“Whoa, kid, slow the hell down-”

“Mister Stark.” He reached his arms out in a pitiful attempt at conveying what he wanted. He was already dizzy from standing as long as he had. “Please?”

Rhodey sighed. “Goddamn it. You two are gonna be the death of me, y’know that?”

Tony rolled his eyes, dopey grin on his face. “Gimme my kid.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Rhodey guided him forward, half-carrying him to Tony’s beside. “Here. You can sit down in this chair, and then I’ll go get another one because I’m nice like that-”

Peter ignored him, wrenching out of his grip and bracing himself against Tony’s bed. Tony’s hand wrapped tightly around his forearm, grip surprisingly steady despite everything.

The memories were leaking back now, pieces and reflections of emotions: fear, guilt, bone-crushing grief. He swayed, vaguely aware of Rhodey grabbing for his waist to hold him up.

He blinked at Tony, heavy and disconnected but forcefully centering himself with determination. “You okay?”

“Mhm.” Checking that Rhodey had the whole keeping-Peter-on-his-feet job sorted, Tony slipped his hand up to brush a few stray curls out of his face. Peter let his eyes drift shut and leaned greedily into the touch. “Are you?”

“Mm.” He slumped more of his weight into Rhodey’s hold, ignoring the man’s grumbled curse. “Sleepy.”

“C’mere.” Tony’s hand returned to his arm, and Peter opened his eyes to shoot him a disgruntled look. Tony just tugged him closer, trying, however, uncoordinated the attempt was, to guide him up onto the bed.

Tony,” even as he scolded, Rhodey was reluctantly helping Peter clamber up, pushing wires and IVs out of the way, “you should be resting.”

“Can rest just fine like this.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rhodey directed his next words at Peter, who was crawling up to his mentor’s side. “Be careful,” he deadpanned, “Dad’s fragile.”

“Am not.” Tony’s arms wrapped firmly around his back, tucking him close. “‘M Iron Man.”

Considering the fact that his face was tucked in the crook of Tony’s neck, Peter heard rather than saw Rhodey sink back into his chair. “Yeah, well, you were Iron Man. Suit’s fucked, Tones.”

A hand carded through his hair, lingering at the base of his neck, scratching lightly. “Have more suits.”

“Which you will not be using for six to eight weeks.”

“Meanie.” Peter let his eyes fall shut. Mm. Yeah, the fuzziness was nice all over again. Tony was warm and breathing and he was tucked securely into his side. He was already drifting when his name roused him just slightly. “Peter, Rhodey ‘s mean.”

“He actually has a right to think that. I drugged him.” Even half asleep, Peter could detect the trace of guilt in Rhodey’s tone. “Let the kid rest, Tony. Better yet, get some rest yourself.”

“Don’ wanna.”

“I gave you the kid, so you’ve got a teddy bear. What else do you need? A bedtime story? One of those spinny things?”

“Mobiles.”

“What?”

“Called mobiles. Spinny things over babies’ beds.”

“How do you even know that?”

“How d’you not?”

“Alright, y’know what? I see what you’re doing, so quit. For once, take the kid’s example, and go to sleep.”

Tony’s thumb brushed over his temple, slow and coaxing. “He’s not asleep.”

“He looks asleep.”

“Not the same thing. Isn’t that right, buddy?”

Peter grinned, grabbing a fistful of Tony’s hospital gown and used it to snuggle closer. “Mm. You’re… very loud. ‘S annoying.”

He could hear Tony’s smile in his tone, could feel it in the way he smoothed a few pieces of stray hair away from his forehead. “Wasn’t asleep earlier, either. Eavesdropping ‘s rude, Petey.”

“‘M not sorry.”

“I know you’re not.”

Rhodey cut in. “I can’t believe you knew that. Your Dad Instincts are off the charts.”

I’m off the charts,” Tony slurred. Peter could feel his fingers slowing in his hair, so it seemed like, despite his protests, his mentor was going to fall asleep.

Peter decided that that was probably his cue to check out, too. He was distantly aware of Rhodey scolding Tony again, and Tony giving some half-conscious, snark-heavy reply. The last thing he heard before he dropped off was Tony’s voice, surprisingly lucid and firm.

“Oh, hey, Rhodey?”

“Yes, Tones?”

“Drug my kid again ‘n I’ll kill you.”

Chapter Text

Tony’s always said that the first day of your captivity tells you the most.

It’s a day to focus, analyze, pull together every bit of information you can to estimate just how royally fucked you are.

And by his estimate, he and Peter were so fucked that it didn’t even register on the scale.

First of all, their captors knew exactly who Peter was. They knew he was Spider-Man, knew about the gene mutations, knew everything.

Second of all, they didn’t make any demands. Didn’t monologue about how Tony had wronged them, or how Spider-Man had locked them or someone they loved in jail. They just chucked them in a cell and left them there.

Tony stumbled to his feet at the same time Peter did, breathless and confused. He went through his list of priorities, lining up everything he needed to do in a split second.

“You good, kid?” He gripped Peter’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, eyes roving over his split lip and bruised cheekbone. They’d been a lot rougher with the kid than they had been with him, smacked him around without any real provocation. “Anything broken?”

“No, no.” The kid smiled, albeit weakly. “I’m all good.”

At Peter’s reassurance, he let himself observe the cell. It was plain. The wall, floor, and ceiling were all the same shade of medium gray. There was only a single, narrow cot in the room. It looked incredibly uncomfortable, but he was grateful that they at least had one. There were blankets, too, which Tony intended to wrap Peter up in at the earliest available opportunity. The cell was cold, and the kid struggled to regulate his body temperate ever since the mutation.

Sometimes. spider DNA really wasn’t the best thing in the world.

“Why did they take us?” Peter had wandered over to the door and was running his hands over the cracks, trying to find a weak spot. “They didn’t even say.”

“Not sure, but it doesn’t matter.” He didn’t dare tell the kid that it was disconcerting, that the whole situation was settling a bad feeling in his stomach. “I’m sure they’re just dragging out the suspense, making us wait for it.”

Peter glanced back at him. “People are crazy.”

He snorted. “Yeah, kid, you’re telling me.”

They burst into the cell an hour later. Two guards went straight for Tony, pinning him against the wall, while a set of four seized Peter and flung him to the ground in front of a man who Tony assumed must be their leader.

Peter tried to get up, only to have his knees kicked out from behind. He was manhandled until he was kneeling. One of the guards grabbed a fistful of the kid’s curls and forcefully bowed his head.

Peter whimpered. Tony saw red.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He snarled, jerking against the hands holding him back. “He’s just a kid. Whatever you want, you can get from me.”

The leader looked at him, impassive. Tony had to grudgingly admit that, if he wasn’t so obviously a fucking sadist, he might’ve said that the guy was attractive. He had short, dark hair. Clean shaven. Young, too. He looked a lot like the business school upstarts he met at college fairs.

“Your capture was never the plan, Mister Stark.” Wait, what? “If you agree to walk away, we’ll free you.”

His eyes narrowed. He heard exactly what the man left out of that proposal. “Does the kid come, too?”

The leader sneered. He poked Peter’s leg with the toe of his boot, disgust twisting his face. “It will not be going anywhere.”

“Then I reject your offer,” he replied coolly.

“Mister Stark!” Yeah, Peter was pissed. “You can’t just-”

One of the guards slammed the butt of his gun against Peter’s temple, effectively silencing his scolding. Tony shouted again, to no avail, while the leader knelt in front of the kid, smiling cruelly.

“Listen closely, insect.” The man grabbed Peter’s chin harshly. “You do not speak unless spoken to. You do not look your superiors in the eye. You do nothing unless you’ve been given permission. Do you understand?”

“Honestly,” Peter said, voice tight with pain, “you just kinda sound like a high school teacher. D’you really expect me to be afraid of you?”

The leader stood suddenly. He nodded to one of the guards. “Break his arm.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Tony yelled, panicked. “Leave him-”

The sound of Peter’s bone cracking echoed across the cell. The kid did an admirable job of muffling his scream, but not good enough to hide it entirely.

Tony’s vision blurred with angry tears.

“Peter, hey, kid.” He hated the gleeful look on the men’s face, hated that they were looking at Peter like he was their newest chewtoy. “Just breathe. Breathe through it. It’s-”

He cut himself off. The leader was in his face now, eyes cold and dangerous. Still, he couldn’t help but be relieved that he’d redirected to him rather than the kid. Little victories.

“Now, Mister Stark, since you’re staying,” his eyes roved over his face, calculating, “you should learn the rules as well.”

He glared. “Yeah, yeah. No back-talk. No eye contact. All that jazz.”

That’s for the mutant. Luckily for you, you’re human.”

For a moment, he floundered. Were these people crazy?

Wait. Never mind. Scratch that. Of course they were crazy. They’d kidnapped him. Historically, not a good move.

He glanced at Peter. “He’s human.”

“No, he’s not. He’s been tainted. It’s our job to eradicate the lesser members of society. To keep the human race pure.”

“So, what I’m hearing is that you’re into eugenics? I hate to break it to you, but people’ve tried this kinda shit before, and it’s never worked. The name Adolf Hitler ring any bells? Marie Stopes, perhaps?”

“We will succeed where others have not.”

“Jesus Christ. You really are off your rocker.”

A sharp slap stung across his cheek. “I do not wish to hurt you, but I will not allow you to interfere with our plans.”

“Which are?”

The leader smiled, stepped back. 

Oh, great, he thought, here comes the monologue.

“Enhanced individuals are a threat to society, and yet their powers are exploitable. That’s what we’re here to do.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah? So you, what, imprison them and wait for them to agree to help you out? Nice plan. How’s it going so far?”

“We know how to convince them.”

“Yeah?” Tony drawled, covering his fear with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “And how do you do that?”

“You break them.”

Tony learned the rules quickly, because every time he broke them, Peter took the blame.

Peter wasn’t allowed to sit on the bed. Peter wan’t allowed to eat Tony’s portions. Peter wasn’t allowed to make eye contact. Peter wasn’t allowed to be touched. Peter wasn’t allowed to speak, or to be spoken to.

They had cameras hidden in the room, somewhere. Microphones too. One wrong move, and a legion of guards would storm in, beat the kid within an inch of his life, and leave.

After a week, Tony was terrified to even breathe in Peter’s direction.

Their days were spent in stiff agony. Tony would sit as close to the kid as he could justify, hoping that he could exude the calm that he so obviously needed. Hoping that his presence would remind him that not everyone hated him. That he was human.

He could see it tearing him down. He suspected that the lack of touch was one of the worst things. Peter had always been tactile, bushing against Tony’s side or dropping his head onto his shoulder when he laughed. It was a natural thing for the kid to seek physical reassurance.

And now he couldn’t.

Nobody used Peter’s name. When they came to take him for their experiments, they’d kick him, spit on him, call him it with disgust.

Tony couldn’t use it, either. That was one of the word offenses. Mutants didn’t have names, apparently. Didn’t deserve names. Peter wasn’t Peter, anymore. He was property, a mutant, an it.

Not a child. Certainly not Tony’s child.

The best thing he could do for his kid was ignore him.

One day, when they came in and grabbed Peter, intent on taking him god-knows-where and poking and prodding him to their hearts’ content, one of the guards paused and grinned at him.

“How’re you holding up, Stark?”

He strained against the guards holding him. “Tell your buddies to let go and I’ll give you a demonstration.”

The man cackled. “Missing getting to play with your little pet?”

Play. Pet. Peter was nothing to them. Nothing. “Fuck off.”

“Oh, c’mon now, Stark. I’m a reasonable guy.” He crossed his arms, smirk growing. “If you ask nicely, I’ll let you pet the little insect. Whaddya say?”

The idea made bile rise in his throat, but at the same time, he needed to touch the kid. This may be his only chance to give him even an ounce of comfort. He had to do this.

“Fine.” He grit his teeth. “Can I touch him? Please?”

“Ask if you can pet it.”

“You’re disgusting,” he snarled.

“Do you reject my offer?”

“No.” He took a steadying breath. For Peter. I’m so, so sorry, kiddo. “Can I pet it?”

“Say please.”

He locked his pride deep down on his gut, threw away the key. “Maybe I please pet it?”

“Well, since you asked so nicely.” The man nodded to the other guards. “Bring it here. Daddy Stark wants to give it a little pet. Isn’t that sweet?”

They dragged Peter over. The kid didn’t look up, just kept his eyes trained on the ground, but everything about his body language was keyed up in anticipation.

One of his guards release Tony’s arm with a stiff warning not to try anything, and he dragged it greedily through the kid’s hair.

The guard who struck the deal was beaming. “Tell him he’s a good boy.”

He hid his own smile. The joke was on him: Peter would know what he meant.

“Good boy,” he murmured, pouring every ounce of you’re doing so well, and I’m so proud of you, and just hang in there, buddy into the phrase.

He’d never forget the way Peter nuzzled into his hand in response.

They had a system. 12 hours with the lights on, 12 hours with the lights off. Without windows, the room was pitch black.

Peter always curled up on the floor beside Tony’s cot. It was as close to human contact as he was allowed, and the kid was learning to take what he could get.

It took Tony three weeks to work up the courage to drop his hand over the side. He hung it there, knowing it was probably dangling just inches away from Peter’s body, for a solid ten minutes.

Nobody moved. The cell door stayed closed.

Slowly, he ghosted his hand through the air until it knocked against something warm. Peter. Peter’s ribs, to be more exact. He could feel his breaths speed up at the contact.

For a moment, they both froze.

Then, he slid his hand upwards, over the kid’s shoulder until he found his face.

He settled his thumb on his cheekbone and tapped out P.E.T.E.R. in Morse code. He heard the kid’s breath catch.

He did it again.

And again.

And again.

Some nights, he’d do exactly what he did on the first: silently tap Peter’s name out against his cheek. Steady, consistent. The only tether he could offer the kid to his identity.

Other nights, he just drew circles between his shoulder blades, or untangled his unwashed hair, or massaged the back of his neck. Little moment of physical intimacy, the only contact either of them had.

But least Tony had his name. At least they treated him like he was human.

It took Rhodey 2 months to find them.

When he’d imagined that moment, he’d imagined himself lunging off the cot, rushing to Peter’s side, pulling him into his arms like no time had passed. A reunion for the history books.

He’d spent weeks living in the same cell as the kid, and he’d never felt further from him.

When the door did burst open, however, and revealed the silver-gray War Machine armor instead of monotone uniforms, Tony just froze.

It wasn’t until Rhodey tried to speak to Peter and the kid threw himself into a corner with a panicked whimper than he forced himself into action.

He stumbled to his feet, staggering over to Peter and dropping to his knees a foot or so away from him. “Buddy, hey, it’s over.”

He got an unintelligible sob in response.

“Peter.” The kid physically flinched at the sound of his name, but he didn’t stop. “Peter. You’re name is Peter. Do you hear me, Peter? You’re human. You’re just a kid. Everything they said was wrong, but you’re safe now. Rhodey’s here, I’m here. You’re Peter, and you’re safe.”

Slowly, like a wounded animal curling out from its shell, Peter reached out a hand in Tony’s direction.

It was all the invitation he needed.

He crawled forward and wrapped the kid up in a hug. For a second, all Peter did was flounder. Then, old instinct kicked in, and he was snaking himself around Tony like this had all been a dream, like none of it was real.

“Peter,” he whispered against the kid’s hairline, reverent as a prayer, “Peter. Peter. Peter.”

“Mister Stark,” the kid choked back.

I know, buddy. I know. I hear you.

Peter.”

Chapter Text

Peter snuck through the window, dropping to the floor as quietly as he could.

It took less than three seconds for him to register that his caution had been pointless.

Tony was waiting for him on the couch, tossing his StarkPad to the side as if it didn’t cost more money than Peter could even begin to process and rushing across the living room.

Peter,” the man said, eyes dragging over every inch of him. Suddenly, he felt painfully exposed. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine.”

Tony reached for him, hands open and seeking. Peter flinched back, and the man deflated, disappointment streaking sharply across his face before he schooled it into impassiveness.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y., is he really okay?”

“I told you, I’m fine-”

“Yes, Boss. Mister Parker is unharmed.”

“See?” He snapped. “What’re you even doing up this late?”

“I could ask you the same question, young man.” The nickname made Peter’s blood boil. “Do I need to explain to you what a curfew is? Is that where we’re going wrong here?”

You’re going wrong everywhere, Peter thought bitterly, you’ve been going wrong since you tried to be my parent, because you’re not.

“I know what a curfew is.”

“Do you?” Tony raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. God, Peter hated him. “Then why are you so determined to disobey it?”

“Why does it fucking matter?”

“Hey, watch your language.”

“Like you give a shit if I curse.”

“I give a shit if you’re cursing at me. There’s a difference.”

“Is there?”

Yes.” Tony crossed his arms, and Peter nearly laughed. He was trying so hard to exude authority that it made him want to cringe. “Peter, I don’t ask much of you. I let you eat when you want, let you eat what you want. You don’t have chores. I don’t get on you about your homework. All that I ask is that you hold to this one curfew when you’re patrolling. Work with me a little here, buddy.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Tony’s face fell. “Okay. Fine. We’ll do this now.” He took a deep breath. “Kid, you and I both know that this is more than the curfew.”

He shrank back. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Drop the act, Peter.” There was genuine vulnerable on Tony’s face, and the irony stung. Wasn’t this what he’d wanted so badly just a few months ago? For Tony to look at him like that, for him to use a tone this gentle? “I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make you happy, and you won’t even look at me. C’mon, kid. Tell me what I can do. Tell me what you need.”

“I need May,” he said flatly.

Tony floundered, just like Peter had intended him to. “I… I know. And I know that you hate me because I’m not her, but we’re all we’ve got left, kid. Just us. Just Tony and Peter. Can’t we… can’t we try to make the best out of this?”

Yes, a part of him whispered. The part that still softened at Tony’s voice, the part that wanted nothing more than to lunge forward and accept the hug he knew the man would offer him instantly if he asked for it.

“No,” he said instead, forcing himself not to care about the way Tony flinched at his tone. “I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want to be your kid. I want to be left alone. Why can’t you just leave me alone?

“Because,” Tony said patiently, “despite what you may think, you are a child. You’re two solid years out from being 18, and once you’re an adult, you’re fully welcome to storm right out of that door and never speak to me again. But until that day comes, I’m responsible for your safety and wellbeing.”

“You don’t own me.”

“I don’t pretend to.”

“Yes, you do!” Angry tears sprung up to his eyes. “You make this stupid fucking curfew, just to stop me from-”

“Lots of children have curfews, Peter. Don’t be dramatic.”

“I’m not a child!”

“Yes, you are!” Tony stopped himself, took a forceful breath. He was better at holding his tempter than Peter, and it only fueled him on. “You are, kid. You’re sixteen. This is… this is how this works. I need to set you boundaries, and you need to respect them.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

Tony sighed, rubbed a hand over his face. Peter recognized it as one of his nervous ticks, something he did when his stress levels were reaching critical levels.

Good, he thought darkly.

“You’re grounded,” Tony said quietly. “No suit, no Ned, no anything except school and back for two weeks. Are we understood?”

Oh, fuck this.

“Screw you,” he snarled. “I’ll do what I want.”

Tony sighed. He looked genuinely regretful when he spoke. “Three weeks now, kid. Let’s not go for a month, for both our sakes.”

The anger was less hot and explosive now. It was cooling, hardening into something steely and dangerous. He was wounded, afraid, full of emotions he couldn’t even begin to understand, and it fucking infuriated him that Tony could be so calm while he was splintering.

“I don’t want to do this, you know,” Tony murmured. “I don’t enjoy punishing you. I just want you to be happy.”

“Yeah, sure.” The sarcasm was nice. It was safe. He knew where to hit, how to aim the blows. “And you know what? I don’t want you.” He got up in Tony’s space, past the point that he knew made the man uncomfortable. “Do you hear me? I don’t want you, and I don’t care what you want. You’re doing all of this for nothing.” He grit his teeth, voice going cold. “I’m not your kid, and you’re not my dad.”

Tony smiled again, soft and sad. He reached up and brushed his knuckles over Peter’s cheek before he could think to flinch away. “I know. I love you, buddy.”

The admission caught Peter so off guard that he stumbled away like he’d been slapped. It had been spoken so gently, so genuinely, that it nearly broke through his angry resolve.

God, it’d been so long since he’d heard those words. So long since someone had offered him the security Tony was right now. He wanted it so badly that it ached.

He shook his head, willed the desire away. He didn’t deserve that. He was meant to be unhappy, he was engineered that way.

He balled up his fists, wiping any uncertainty out of his face and replacing it with fury. Then, he hit back the only way he could think of.

“I hate you!”

He wanted a reaction. He wanted to see Tony hurt, wanted to see him hurt like he did. He wanted to see regret. He wanted to watch the love in the man’s eyes evaporate.

But Tony’s gaze didn’t harden with hatred. If anything, his face just got softer. Sadder. He didn’t even flinch. He just smiled softly, eyes sympathetic, eyes loving. “I know you do, Pete. I’m so sorry.”

He couldn’t stand it. If he spent one more second as the object of Tony’s affection, he was going to self-destruct. He’d wanted the man to scream at him, to throw him out and rage and give justification to his internalized guilt.

He yanked his mask back over his face before Tony could realize he was crying and spun back to the window, tearing it open and suffocating the tiny part of him that begged to stay.

“Peter Parker,” Tony’s voice was firm, but not threatening, “do not climb out that window. You shouldn’t be patrolling when you’re this upset. It’s not safe.”

He ignored him, just crawled through the opening and slammed it shut behind him. Tony stood, didn’t do anything to physically stop him, just crossed his arms and shook his head, looking impossibly old and impossibly tired.

Peter jumped.

He shot a web after a brief free fall, swung more aggressively than usual. His aim was always a little skewed, timing always brushing against too late, but he didn’t care. Recklessness was understandable. It was something he was still allowed to be.

His heads-up display went red, a photo of Tony popping up in the corner. A ringtone buzzed in his ear.

“Peter,” Karen had her volume low, tone as close to concerned as an AI could be, “Mister Stark is calling.”

“Cancel it.”

There was a second of silence, and then,

“He is calling again.”

He jerked his upswing hard enough that the web nearly snapped. “Cancel that one, too.”

Karen paused. “Mister Stark wishes me to inform you that if you do not accept his next call, he will force it through.”

“Tell him that if he does, I’ll tear my mask off in the middle of Manhattan.”

The notifications stopped.

“Karen,” he landed heavily on a random roof, rolling to absorb some of the shock, “get me a crime. A big one.”

“I have direct instructions from Mister Stark that you are not to engage in any dangerous-”

“I don’t care what Mister Stark wants. Aren’t you my AI? You can either give me something to do or I’ll find one on my own.”

Somehow, Karen’s voice came out stiffer than usual. “There is a bank robbery three blocks to your left. My scanners indicate three individuals, all heavily armed. One appears to have a weapon of alien origin.”

He started swinging in the direction she pointed him. “Like the stuff Toomes was selling?”

“I believe so.”

“How many of those weapons did he sell? It feels like everyone has one.” He landed in the ally beside the bank, dropping into a crouch. “Have the police been notified?”

“Not yet. They successfully disarmed the alarms. Would you like me to notify the NYPD?”

He slipped closer to the entrance, back pressed against the brick wall. “No. I’ve got it.”

“Peter, I strongly advise that you should-”

“Karen, shut up.”

“Noted,” she replied tersely.

He slipped through the bank’s entrance and immediately saw the robbers. They were decked out in the classic black turtlenecks and balaclavas. Two were talking quietly while the other rifled through the empty till.

“Hey!” He called, grinning as all three men spun around in a frenzy. “Sorry, guys, bank’s closed for the day. There’s a 24 hour ATM outside, though, if you need-”

He’d been expecting the gunshot. Adrenaline surged through him, and he lunged right, shooting a web and tearing the handgun out of the gunman’s grip before he could try anything else. He jumped up and crawled along the ceiling, webbing the now disarmed criminal’s wrist to the counter just as another gunshot rang out.

Pain pierced through his upper arm. Oh, fuck, that one actually grazed him.

“Well, that wasn’t very nice.” He tried to web up the second gun, but missed. “C’mon, can’t we have a conversation about this? It seems a little like you guys-”

The third man pulled out a gun that Peter instantly identified as the alien tech Karen had warned him about. He didn’t have time to do anything before a blast tore through the ceiling above him.

He fell hard, back slamming against the marble floor hard enough that his spine cracked. He felt at least two ribs snap, too. Ouch, ouch, ouch. That was gonna bruise in the morning.

Then he opened his eyes, desperately trying to drag air into his lungs, and he realized that the bruises would be the least of his problems.

The two free robbers were standing over him. One dug the heel of his boot into his stomach, keeping him pinned to the floor, while the other pointed the alien gun at his face,

He heard the whine of the weapon charging. “Sorry about this, Spider-Man. I really didn’t want it to end this way.”

For some reason, the only thing he could think as he stared down the barrel of his imminent demise was I told Tony I hated him.

The door the the bank slammed open and, as if summoned by Peter’s thoughts, a blessedly familiar voice echoed across the room.

“You shoot him, and I’ll make you regret being born. That’s a promise.”

He let out a hysterical breath of relief. “Oh, you guys are so screwed,” he gasped out.

“Shut the fuck up!” The guy with the gun hauled him to his feet and pointed the gun more firmly to Peter’s temple. “Here’s how this is gonna go. We’re gonna walk out of here, and you’re gonna let us, because otherwise, Spider-Man’s gonna get squashed.”

“No, this is how it’s gonna go.” The Iron Man suit sidestepped to the counter and pointed his repulser at the guy Peter had webbed up earlier. “You’re gonna drop your weapon, let Spider-Man go, sit around nice and pretty until the cops get here, and spend the rest of your lives rotting in jail.”

“Why d’you think we’d agree to that?”

“Because if you don’t, I’ll blow the face off of your little friend here.” Tony pressed the repulser against the man’s cheek. “Your choice. Go.”

The guy holding the gun shrugged. “Alright.”

And then he whipped the weapon away from Peter’s face and fired straight at Tony.

The blast hit both Tony and his hostage, sending them flying back into the wall. Peter didn’t have time to even process what had happened before his spider sense was screaming, and he was rolling to the side without thought. 

The floor beside him exploded. He stumbled to his feet, threw a punch without looking, and felt his fist make contact with flesh. Bone cracked on impact, and he realized a little too late that he hadn’t had the presence of mind to censor his strength. The body in front of him fell, and the weapon clattered to the floor beside it.

Peter covered it and its owner with a thick spread of web fluid. He swung around, searching for the second man, but he must’ve made a run for it in the chaos.

“Mister Stark?” He’d expected the man to be right behind him, chastisement for putting himself in danger on his tongue, but he wasn’t. “Mister Stark? Where are you?”

He jogged towards the spot the suit had hit the wall, fear rising every second. He vaulted over the counter, landing lightly on the other side, and felt nausea rise in his throat at the sight that greeted him on the other side.

The suit was sprawled out on the ground, still and lifeless. It was scorched from the blast, entire front blackened. Peter’s eyes roved from that to the other robber, and he nearly pulled his mask over his mouth so he could puke.

He didn’t even look like a person anymore. Peter could vaguely make out where his head and shoulders had been, but it was more inference than anything else. All at once, the smell of burning skin and flesh hit his nose, and he gagged.

Swallowing back his horror, he staggered to the suit and tore at the helmet, breath hitching. He couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t be dead. Peter had shouted at him. The last thing he’d told him was that he hated him.

I don’t hate you, he thought, choking back sobs, I don’t hate you.

The faceplate came away, and he was met with Tony’s bright, open, alive eyes.

“Hey, kiddo.” He winced, shifting in the suit. “Blast knocked out the suit’s power. Think you can help me outta this thing?”

“You’re alive,” he breathed.

Tony’s face softened. “Of course I’m alive. Historically, I’m kinda hard to kill.”

He yanked the breastplate away, then freed Tony’s arms. He grabbed him underneath his armpits and dragged him out of the dead suit, entire body shaking.

“Okay, okay,” Tony murmured, gently pushing Peter’s hands away as they both sprawled out on the floor, “I’m fine. See? Just a little bruised.”

Unconsciously, Peter glanced back at the corpse, gagging all over again when he realized how close they were to it. The smell filled his nose, and he tore his mask off in a desperate attempt to escape the sensation of suffocation. It didn’t work, of course. It anything, the scent was stronger without the mask’s filter.

Tony followed his gaze and stiffened. He grabbed Peter’s bicep and hauled him to his feet, dragging him to the other side of the lobby, until the counter hid the gruesome sight. “Alright,” he muttered, “it’s alright.”

He stumbled backwards, heart racing. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry,” the world spun, and he felt Tony grab his elbows to keep him upright, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so-”

“Peter, Peter, shh.” He was being folded into Tony’s arms. The man’s chest was warm, steady. “I heard you the first time, kid. It’s okay. I’ve already forgiven you.”

He shook his head. He didn’t deserve forgiveness. How could Tony just forgive him? “No, no. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Mister Stark, I’m so sorry. Please. I-I-I’m…”

He ran out of breath, and for some reason, his lungs refused to expand to replenish it. Tony cradled him gently as they both sunk to the ground, and then he was being pulled into the man’s lap.

“Fuck, Peter, stop it. You need to calm down before you hurt yourself.”

“I-I’m sorry.” His chest ached, his fingertips tingled. When he blinked, his vision frothed at the edges. “I’m… I’m…”

Please stop apologizing. You’re making me anxious. I think I preferred it when you were shouting it at me.”

He clawed desperately at the back of Tony’s shirt. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe. The fear washed everything else away, all his reservations and self-imposed isolation.

“I-I can’t… I can’t-”

“You’re going to pass out if you don’t breathe, Peter.” Tony rocked him gently, hand trailing through his hair in a steady, hypnotic rhythm. “Come on, you can do it. In and out. Deep and slow.”

“I don’t hate you,” he sobbed.

“Oh, Peter.” Tony’s voice was right next to his ear, head bowed against his. “It’s alright.”

“The last thing I did was yell at her,” he whispered. Despite himself, he could feel his body relaxing into Tony’s arms, breaths steadying, mind giving into the aura of safe that the man was exuding. “I yelled at her, and then I went on patrol. When I got back, she was… she was already…”

Buddy,” Tony’s voice broke, “oh, buddy. That’s not your fault. You just… life just sucks sometimes, yeah? You don’t have to torture yourself over it.”

“I yelled at Ben, too, and then he died.” He let his cheek rest against Tony’s shoulder, let the man take all of his weight. He’d have to pull away, soon. Just… not now. Not yet. “E-Everyone who’s around me dies, Mister Stark. My parents, May, Ben. I’m cursed.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I lied, you know. Back at the Tower. I do want you. I do. I just… I just don’t deserve to want you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t deserve to be happy. Every time I am, bad things happen. I-I have to be unhappy.”

“Nobody deserves to be unhappy, Peter. Least of all you.” 

“I do.”

“No, buddy. You really don’t.” Tony shifted him slightly, adjusting his grip. “And, Peter? I’m not trying to be your father. I just want to be… something. I don’t know what that something is, and I don’t really think we have to know. Just… let me be something to you, buddy. Let me help you.”

Peter felt small. “What if you die, too?”

Tony chuckled. “What did I say earlier, huh? I’m very hard to kill.” He paused. Peter could feel his thumb sweeping over the back of his neck, a nervous rhythm. “You know, meeting you was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m not about to give you up without a fight.”

“But I’ve been awful.”

“You’re grieving, Peter, and you’re so afraid of feeling it that you’ve locked yourself in a corner. You’ve convinced yourself that being angry is far better than the alternatives, but it’s not true, and it’s not who you are. I know that.”

“I’m still angry,” he murmured, and it was true. He could still feel that familiar fury in the bottom of his gut, a hot coal he couldn’t escape.

“I know. We’ll figure it out, I promise.”

He nodded, slow and precise. “Please don’t leave me.”

“I won’t, Peter.” He could feel Tony’s lips press against his temple. “I don’t think I could if I tried.”

Chapter Text

There were a lot of perks that came with being a billionaire, but the ones Tony Stark ended up appreciating the most were nearly always the things other people wouldn’t even consider.

Sure, he liked being able to leave large tips on small checks. He liked being able to buy clothes without checking the price tag. He liked knowing that no matter what college Peter chose, the tuition wouldn’t be an issue.

But the thing that he was grateful for now was the fact that since the MedBay was his, and because he employed everyone in it, he got a lot more leeway that he would’ve in a general hospital.

For one, he’d been able to hire the best pediatric dental surgeon in the country to do Peter’s wisdom teeth surgery. He’d also been able to demand that Helen Cho worked beside him. She was partly there to advise him on Peter’s enhancements, and partly there because there were very few people Tony trusted with Peter’s safety, and she was one of them.

He was also allowed to stay right beside Peter as they prepped him for the surgery, and had Helen’s distinct promise that she’d fetch him the second they were done. He could’ve stayed for the whole procedure, even, but Peter had scrunched up his face at the suggestion, murmured a lazy ew, and made Helen promise to kick Tony out before they started.

Now, though, as Cho and the anesthesiologist bustled around his hospital bed, Tony could see that the kid was shamelessly grateful for his steady presence at his side.

“Are you even sure I need the IV?” Peter asked, eyes darting between the elastic tourniquet the anesthesiologist was fastening around his bicep and the needle on the tray beside her. “Can’t you just, I don’t know, wack me over the head?”

Tony snorted. “You’ve got a thick head, kid. Wouldn’t work.”

Cho joined in his amusement, patting Peter’s other arm gently. “It’ll be alright, Peter. I even brought out the numbing cream we usually use with little kids. You don’t feel a thing.”

Peter cringed away when he saw the anesthesiologist prep the needle, and Tony gently tipped his chin up and away, forcing the kid’s gaze onto his face rather than the imminent poke to the back of his hand.

“Why is it,” Peter murmured, “that the older we get, the more pain people think we’re cool to tolerate? Like, shouldn’t everyone get the numbing cream? Is suffering, like, a right of passage or something? I don’t get it.”

“Hm.” Tony entertained the rambling partly because he adored the kid, and partly because it was a fantastic distraction. “You make a solid argument, squirt. Maybe you should grow up and be a doctor like Cho, here.”

“Technically, Tony, I’m a geneticist.”

“You’re also a doctor.”

“In my spare time.”

Peter gave her a lopsided smile, Tony’s hand still pressed against the side of his face. “Well, I think you’re a great doctor.”

Cho smiled back. “That’s just because I stitch you back together again after you’ve done doing something foolhardy.”

“Isn’t that a valid reason?”

“All done!” The anesthesiologist declared, taping down the kid’s cannula. “Everyone ready to get started?”

Peter started twitching nervously. Even when Tony let go of his chin, his eyes stayed locked on his face. “I, uh, this is gonna suck, right?”

“No,” he reassured, keeping his voice calm despite his own nervousness. “You heal quickly, and I made opioids that work on you for a reason. You’ll be fine.”

“It’s a very easy procedure, son.” Tony bristled at the way the dental surgeon (Doctor Rhine, maybe? He hadn’t really been paying much attention during the introductions) addressed the kid, despite knowing that it was all done in kindness. “And you won’t remember a bit of it.”

Tony shifted a little, trying to relieve some of the stress on his back from perching awkwardly on the edge of the kid’s bed. Peter’s IV-free hand shot out and latched around his wrist.

“Wait, don’t go,” he was blushing, but didn’t let go, “not, uh, not yet. Please?”

“Easy, I’m not leaving until you’re too drugged to notice.” He patted the kid’s shoulder gently. “We talked about this, remember?”

Slowly, Peter’s grip eased. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“Hey, no apologies. Just relax.”

“Alright,” Cho gave the anesthesiologist a quick nod, “you ready, Tony?”

“Mhm.” He cupped the side of Peter’s neck, firm and steadying. Part of him wanted to crack a joke about filming the kid and uploading it to YouTube later, but he held back. He knew the kid was nervous about the whole thing, and he doubted it’d help. Instead, he just swiped a thumb over his cheek and smiled encouragingly. “Hey, what’d you do on patrol last night?”

“Um, I stopped a robbery on 77th. Then I helped out with a fender bender a few blocks down. On 150th, I think? ‘N then I went to, uh, to, uh… to Delmar’s.” Peter blinked rapidly. “Whoa.”

“Strong, isn’t it?” Cho touched the small of Tony’s back, out of view of Peter. A barely-there reassurance.

“Yeah. Whoa.” The kid’s eyes wandered up to meet his. “Mis’er Stark?”

“Hey, buddy. You’re alright, just let the drugs to their thing.”

He brushed his fingers through the kid’s bangs softly as he dozed off, heart warming at the fact that he never once looked away from Tony’s face, even as his gaze got glassy and unfocused.

“You can go now, Tony.” Cho patted his arm. “He won’t remember any of this.”

“Yeah, of course.” He made sure Peter’s head wouldn’t roll uncomfortably when he relinquished his hold on his face, then rubbed his cheek to catch his admittedly drowsy attention. “Hey, kid. I’m gonna let them do their thing. You alright if I go for a bit? I’ll be right back as soon as they’re done. You won’t even notice I left.”

Peter just let his eyelids droop shut. “M’kay.”

“Good boy.” He didn’t know why the kid’s easy acceptance of him leaving made him feel just the tiniest hint of rejection. After all, the whole point of the drugs were to chill him out. Tony had helped design them with that in mind. But… still. A part of him wanted the kid to ask him to stay. “I’ll see you in a bit, alright?”

He didn’t get a response. Peter’s eyes were closed, breaths deep and slow.

“He’ll probably just nap now.” Cho pulled him away and pushed him towards the door. “Go on, Tony. The sooner we can start, the sooner you can help him wake up.”

Back in the waiting room, he found himself envying the kid the drugs. He’d have given just about anything to get to check out during the hour and a bit he spent loitering in the halls. He drank three cups of coffee, ate a bagel, counted every ceiling and floor tile in sight. All the while, he had to force himself to studiously ignore the fact that just a few rooms away, someone was pulling his kid’s teeth out of his skull.

And, okay, logically he knew he was being a drama queen. Peter was fine. Wisdom teeth extractions were, like, the most mundane procedure of all time. Nearly everyone had it. Hell, he had had it, far enough back that Jarvis, the human Jarvis, had been the one taking care of him in the aftermath. He knew that his parents must’ve been alive, but they hadn’t been there. He remembered that, even through the haze of painkillers.

Peter wouldn’t experience that, at least. He’d come back to himself with Tony at his side, and it would only be a few hours before May arrived. Peter had adamantly declared that he’d rather have her see him once he was fully conscious and recovered, and nobody had argued with him.

Tony felt a little touched that the kid had been fine with him seeing him drugged off his ass. Then again, they’d been through this kind of thing before, with countless broken bones and gushing lacerations, courtesy of reckless patrols.

The doors to Peter’s room opened, and Cho and the dental surgeon walked out. Cho was already giving him a thumbs up before she’d fully emerged, aware of his tendency to work himself up during waits.

Bless her.

“All good, Tony.” She smiled, coming to a stop in front of him. “Textbook surgery, not a single complication. Two of them were impacted, which we already knew, but they weren’t difficult to remove once we got in there. He was perfect, too. A real trooper.”

“So he’s alright?” He felt a little ridiculous for needing the extra reassurance, but not ridiculous enough to avoid asking. “You’re sure?”

Doctor Rhine (Tony decided he was sticking with it) glanced at Cho briefly before nodding. “As Doctor Cho said before, Mister Stark, he’s perfectly alright. A little out of it, but nothing you wouldn’t expect after a wisdom tooth extraction.”

“He slept through most of it, which is what I was hoping for,” Cho added. “He woke up a little near the end, when we were inserting the gauze.” She grinned. “He asked for you.”

His heart clenched. “Was he upset I left?”

“No, no. He wasn’t distressed. He just asked where you went, and then said he wanted you to come back.” She nodded behind her, in the general direction of the kid’s room. “And on that note: you’re welcome to go grant him his wish. Just because we’re not sure how his system is going to react to the painkillers you synthesized, I’d like to keep him in there for his first dose. As long as he doesn’t have a reaction to that, we’ll just wait until he’s awake enough to head up to the penthouse. There’s a nurse in with him now, but you’re welcome to take over.”

The idea of Peter asking for him soothed the piece of him that was still chafing over the kid’s easy acceptance of him leaving earlier.

“Yeah, right.” He made a beeline for Peter’s door, barely pausing to turn back. “Thanks, Helen. Thanks, Rhine.”

He hoped he got the man’s name right.

If not, whoops.

The kid was exactly where he’d left him, although someone had removed most of the monitors and other equipment. The IV was still in the back of his hand, probably for easy administration of pain meds later, but nothing was attached to it. He looked asleep, face peaceful and eyelashes brushing his cheeks. A curly-haired nurse was standing at the kid’s shoulder, talking to him gently. She looked up when Tony stepped in, smiling.

“Hey, sweetheart, look. Dad’s here. See? I told you he was on his way.”

He thought about correcting her, then didn’t bother. He kept most of the details about Peter confidential, even from the medical staff, but he knew that they extrapolated, made assumptions. He didn’t even blame them. It was just human nature.

It would take to long to explain the truth at this point. And right now, he just wanted his kid.

“Hey, Pete.” He kept his voice hushed, setting his palm over the kid’s forehead in greeting. “How’re you feeling?”

Peter’s head lolled slightly in his direct, lazy smile forming around the cotton in his mouth even as his eyes stayed shut. “Mis’er S’rk.”

“That’s me.” He glanced up to the nurse, who was watching him with a knowing smile. “How’s he doing?”

“Perfectly.” She matched his quiet volume, and he made a mental note to give her a raise. “He’s been waking up a little these past few minutes. He tried to sit up a few times, which went about as well as you can imagine. He should settle down now that you’re here, though. Most kids do once their parents are in the room.”

Peter opened and closed his mouth around the gauze lazily, eyes cracking open just a sliver. “Di’ you leave me?”

Tony forced himself not to flinch. Man, this kid really knew his soft spot.

“Just for a bit, squirt.” He used his sleeve to wipe a bit of drool off of Peter’s chin, careful not to jostle his jaw. “They had to do the surgery. I was right outside, though.”

Peter’s face scrunched up in thought. “I… I don’ remember that.”

“Good.” It was good, too. He’d been having nightmares about the kid remembering the surgery for weeks. Sure, it wasn’t the same as having a metal reactor screwed into your chest, but Tony’s brain didn’t make the distinction. “You’re not supposed to.”

“W’s I sleepin’?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

Peter hummed in response, turning his face into the palm Tony pressed against his cheek.

The nurse nudged his arm to catch his attention. Man, he’d forgotten she was even there.

“I’ll step out, now. Doctor Cho’ll be back in a bit to check on him and see if he’s ready for some pain relief. Don’t be concerned if he falls back asleep, that’s very normal. Most kids are happy to nap once they realize that they’re with someone they trust.” She paused. “If you need to leave to do anything else, just hit the call button and I can sit with him for you.”

“No, I’ll stay. But thank you.”

“Of course.”

Once they were alone, he hopped up onto the bed, tapping Peter’s ear until he recognized the change of positions and started a series of clumsy attempts at octopusing his way into Tony’s arms. He helped him along, eventually settling the kid against his chest. He rubbed soothing circles over Peter’s back as he grew loose and heavy against him.

He was glad that the bed had already been raised into a semi-reclining position, because he wouldn’t have been able to fumble with the controls and also keep cradling his armful of limp teenager. After a little shifting, he found himself decently comfortable, and settled in for the long haul.

Cho came in about a half an hour later, took one look at his position, and started laughing quietly into her sleeve.

“Yeah, yeah,” he massaged the back of Peter’s neck as an apology for the noise, although the kid slept on, oblivious, “we’re very cute. Just take the picture for blackmail and move on.”

“I would never.” To be fair, he believed her. “Has he been sleeping since you came in?”

“He was awake at first, but then he conked right out on me. Nurse said that was normal.”

“It is. He’s still got the sedation in his system, and his body is probably trying to heal.” She moved to their bedside, checked Peter’s pulse on his wrist. “Do you think you could get him to wake up for me? I want to see how coherent he is, and ask if he’s in any pain.”

“Yeah, sure.” He shook Peter’s shoulder. “Hey, Pete. Wake up, buddy.”

“Hm.” The kid’s brow furrowed in displeasure. “Don’ wanna.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I know. Just for a bit though, squirt. Cho wants to talk to you.”

“Hey there, Peter.” Cho bent to look at his face. “How are you feeling?”

The kid dragged his eyelids open, blinking rapidly to try to orient himself. “Tired.”

“Are you in any pain?”

“Hm. Yeah. Ow.” Peter fumbled up a hand to poke at his cheek, but Tony caught it before he could. “Ow. M’ face hurts.”

Tony’s gaze snapped to Cho, and she was waving off his concern before he could even voice it. “Relax, Tony. The sedation is pretty limited in the analgesic department, and I guessed he’d go through the lidocaine quickly.” She held up a syringe. “I came prepared.”

He let out a genuine sigh of relief. There was nothing he hated more than Peter in pain. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She injected the painkillers into Peter’s IV port. “The pain should be better in a second, Peter. You just keep cuddling with Tony.”

Oi,” he glared, “we’re not cuddling.

“Looks like cuddling to me.”

“Well, it isn’t.”

“What is it, then?”

“It’s… physical reassurance.”

“It’s cuddling.”

“Shut up.”

She laughed, turning her attention back to the kid. “Do you feel better now, Peter?”

“Mhm. Does Mis’er Stark have t’ leave now?”

“No, buddy,” Tony rubbed his back, “Mister Stark’s staying right here.”

“F’r the surgery?”

“You already had the surgery, kiddie. You’re all done.”

“Oh. Di’ I do good?”

So good. A model patient, I hear.”

Cho walked towards the door with a smile on her lips, waving goodbye before slipping out silently.

“Mis’er Stark?” 

Peter blinked up at him heavily, little grin on his face. Some of the gauze had come loose, and Tony pushed it back into place carefully. Once he was done, he smoothed a few curls away from the kid’s forehead, soft grin coming unbidden. “Yes, Mister Parker?”

“D’you… D’you know h’w much I love you?”

His heart stilled. No, seriously, he swore he could feel it falter.

“No, bud.” The words felt numb in his mouth. “I… I guess I don’t.”

Do you love me? He thought. Do you really? Do I even deserve that?

“I… I love you… uh…” He watched Peter struggle for a unit that made sense, and some of his shock was swept away by the wildfire of his own love raging through every inch of his chest. “I love you ‘s far ‘s I c’n reach.”

There were times when Tony was struck by how young Peter was, how much the kid was still very much immersed in childhood, even if he liked to play at being an adult. This was one of those times, and it hit him out of nowhere with the full force of a speeding train.

He hugged him closer, voice rough. “I’m taller than you, kid. I can reach higher.”

“‘S not a… a compe-competi-comp’tition.”

Tony physically held back the laugh that rose at Peter’s absolute butchering of competition. “Of course it’s not,” he soothed.

Peter seemed to ignore his own declaration, trying at another clumsy metaphor before Tony could even finish. “I-I love you ‘s high ‘s Spider-Man c’n climb, Mis’er Stark. ‘S… ‘S really high, y’know.”

Peter’s head slipped forward a little as he spoke, so Tony gently repositioned him so it was resting on his collarbone and brushed the bangs out of the kid’s face. “The suit can go to space, kiddo. Got you there again.”

If he was being honest, he’d expected the kid to have lost his train of thought long before now, but he was determined, it seemed. “I love you to… to…” He blinked slowly. “Love you to… Antarctica. ‘N the North Pole.”

“The South Pole’s in Antarctica, kid.” The whole conversation was ridiculous, and it was making him feel gushy and gross, but in a way that was actually kind of nice. “Santa’s on the other side of the world.”

“‘S… ‘S not.”

He smirked at the kid’s drowsy stubbornness. “Australia’s farther than Antarctica. So I win once again.”

Peter twisted himself so he could slide further down Tony’s chest and gaze up at his face. He rushed to support him.

The kid shot him a dopey grin. “‘M gonna win. I got one.”

Tony ran a finger over his temple, right along the hairline. “Oh?”

“Mhm.” Peter’s eyes closed, then opened. His stubborn determination to finish their little game seemed to be just about the only thing keeping him conscious. “I love you t’ the Kuiper Belt ‘n back.”

If this went on for any longer, Tony was going to end up crying.

“Well,” he swallowed back a wave of emotion, “that is a really long way, huh?”

“Mhm. I win. D’… D’d I win?”

Tony dropped his voice to a whisper, smiled softly. Screw his reputation. It’s not like anyone could see this, anyway. “Yeah, buddy. You won.”

Peter seemed contented by the words, and Tony waited for the kid to relax against him before dropping his forehead against the crown of his head and letting the final layers of his armor shed, leaving him exposed and vulnerable and frighteningly adoring.

“You know, kiddo,” he breathed slowly, fully aware that this was the cheesiest thing he’d ever done and not caring in the slightest, “I love you to the edge of the universe and back. And just for reference, there is no end of the universe.” He shifted his precious bundle closer to his chest. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anybody.”

Peter stretched, fingers tangling in the hem of his shirt and voice barely audible. “Mm. M’kay. You win.”

He’d expected to be more horrified that the kid had heard him. Instead, he felt a deep sense of satisfaction, like he’d just fulfilled an innate need without even recognizing it. 

“You know,” he whispered, “I hope you remember this.”

“‘Course I will,” Peter mumbled back, “‘M… ‘M Spider-Man. Spider-Man ‘members important stuff.”

He chuckled. “Yeah? Well, good. ‘Cause this is very important.”

And so are you, he thought, smiling like the world was in his arms.

(And, in a way, it was.)

Chapter Text

The Starks’ cabin rolled into view, and the only thought Peter’s fuzzy brain really managed to grasp was a sudden certainty that Tony was going to skin him alive for this one.

Like, there wasn’t even another option. He’d never been more sure of anything in his life. He might as well ask Happy to drop him off and just start shopping for a Peter-sized coffin right away, because he was totally, inarguably, and definitively a dead man walking.

All of this, and he’d just wanted to go out to a bar with his friends.

He had thought that he was entitled to that kind of thing. It was, after all, what nearly every other kid his age did. And the getting drunk bit wasn’t even his fault. Or, okay, yeah, it had kind of been his fault. Nobody had exactly forced him to drink, and maybe Ned had even told him to slow down once or twice, but he really hadn’t gone into the bar with that intention. Despite what Tony thought, Peter actually did listen to his rules, although remembering all of them was another thing entirely.

Of course, he probably wouldn’t have that problem if Tony didn’t have so freaking many.

Don’t do this, definitely don’t do that. It felt like nearly every one of their conversations eventually came around to a review of the things he wasn’t allowed to do. And, with every passing day, it felt like the list of no’s just grew and grew and grew.

He loved Tony. He did. He loved Tony, he loved Pepper, he definitely loved Morgan. He loved them, and he owed them more than he could ever hope to comprehend. After May had died, Tony and Pepper had done everything for him. He’d been housed, fed, clothed. But even more, there had never been a single hesitation, a single doubt, that Peter was anything less than their child. When he’d turned 18, the age where all of Tony and Pepper’s legal obligations had vanished along with the illusion of childhood, Tony had sat him down on the porch, August sunset spilling over the railing, and gently reminded him that he was still their kid, they were still his parents, Morgan was still his sister, and their cabin was still his home. That didn’t change just because he’d made it through yet another rotation of the Earth.

Peter could never repay the Starks for everything they had done for him. He could never love anything as much as he loved them. But somedays, being one of Tony Stark’s heirs was exhausting.

The fame, the attention: it wasn’t anything he’d ever prepared for. It had taken less than 48 hours after Tony and Pepper had signed custody papers for the news to break, for Peter’s face and name to be plastered on the front page of every single news website on the planet.

And then it had never stopped.

The Heir To Tony Stark’s Legacy Does This, The Heir To Tony Stark’s Legacy Does That. It was a never-ending stream of microscopic evaluations. He couldn’t do anything without being watched.

For the first time in his life, he truly started to sympathize with the animals on display at the zoo.

The thing was, the press never referred to him and Morgan as Tony’s children. They were his heirs. As if this was a dynasty, not a family. Heir, he’d come to discover, was a frighteningly grand word.

He always felt caught between being Tony’s heir and being Tony’s child. He was Tony’s heir when he was being lectured on security. He was Tony’s heir when he was shoved into a carefully pressed suit for a gala he didn’t want to go to. He’d been Tony’s heir when the pressure of the Stark legacy had become too much to bear, and he’d dropped out of MIT the after a single semester and came running back to New York with his tail between his legs.

He was Tony’s child when he dozed off during movie nights, warm and cradled and calm. He was Tony’s child when the smell of pancakes and bacon woke him up on Sundays, and his morning greeting was chapped lips pressed to his forehead. He’d been Tony’s child when, in the aftermath of the MIT disaster, Tony had been waiting for him on the front porch, faded jeans and AC/DC t-shirt and all, the picture of home and safe and it’s okay, Peter, it’s all going to be okay.

He’d never been ready for that dichotomy, had always wrested with it in a way that Morgan hadn’t. It actually shocked him, sometimes, how easily Morgan accepted the chaos. Maybe it was because she’d been born into camera flashes, been raised with the knowledge that the Stark legacy came with a price and a Gemini complex. But Peter? Peter was just.. well, just Peter. A nobody kid from Queens. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined himself under the scrutiny of the entire world.

He knew that Tony tried to help as much as he could. There had been countless moments of awkward sympathy over the years. Moments of Tony painfully and sightlessly trying to understand something that was, by fortune of birth, just slightly out of his reach. Those instances always made it abundantly clear that Tony was just as removed from Peter’s world as Peter was from Tony’s. There was a disconnect between them, a gap that no amount of conversation could fix.

And then, of course, there were the goddamn rules.

Peter knew that Tony knew that Peter hated them. It wasn’t exactly a secret. Considering how abrasive both of them could be in their darkest moments, they rarely fought over anything other than the rules, the family code of conduct, the Stark Constitution, the whatever it was that Tony wanted to call his monotonous and extensive list of things that Peter and Morgan were never allowed to do.

It was a little cute, actually, how surprised Tony always was to find Peter straining against the limitations like just about every other rebellious teenager would. Maybe that was what 19 was all about: tripping into adulthood, shaving off the edges that your parents left behind. At least, that’s how Peter liked to look at it.

God, all he’d wanted to do was go out to a bar with his friends, and now here he was: sitting sullenly in the passenger’s seat while a disgruntled Happy coaxed his Audi down the Starks’ gravel driveway at 2:00 in the morning.

Going out with his friends hadn’t even technically been against the rules. Sure, he’d left his security detail (yes, he’d said security detail, because Tony literally had no idea how to chill ever) outside, but that also wasn’t a strictly banned behavior. It may not make the list of Tony’s favorite choices he’d ever made, but it wasn’t forbidden.

Getting drunk… well, yeah, getting drunk, especially getting drunk in public, was 110% on the list of no’s. Actually, it was probably one of the most grievous offenses.

But, god, Peter had just wanted to be a normal kid for once in his goddamn life, and he was going to do it if it killed him.

(He was sure that, later, Tony would claim that it nearly had, but Peter had grown pretty used to the man’s flare for the dramatic by now.)

To be fair, Peter conceded that he probably deserved a tongue lashing over the choice to leave his emergency button (because, yeah, he had one of those, too) and cellphone on the table when he went to grab another drink (that he probably didn’t need), but in his defense, he wouldn’t have done it if he was sober. He would’ve wanted to, sure, but he wouldn’t have.

It was just… sometimes, all the trackers and precautions felt like chains around his neck. He didn’t want to be on Tony Stark’s leash 24/7, even if he was his parent. Hell, maybe especially if he was his parent. He wanted to be his own person. He wanted to be independent.

So, yeah, he’d left them behind. And, yeah, it hadn’t gone well. But how was he supposed to know that that was going to happen?

It wasn’t like he’d expected a bunch of shady guys to crowd around him while he waited for his drink at the bar. If he had, he definitely would’ve brought the panic button.

Despite what Tony was so happy to believe, he wasn’t entirely an idiot.

He was lucky, he supposed, that he’d been out with Ned, and that the friends they’d collected over their brief time at Columbia were a caliber above the ones they’d made at Midtown. He didn’t even know which one of them thought to hit the panic button for him, but he was grateful. He was.

He even felt a little guilty. He rarely saw Happy frazzled, and never saw him afraid, but the look on his face when he’d hauled Peter away from the bar had come perilously close to terror.

They pulled up to the front of the house, and Peter jerked forward in his seat as Happy hit the brakes just a little too hard.

“Tony’s waiting,” the man said. It was the first time he’d spoken since the beginning of the drive, and while his voice was surprisingly gentle, there was still an edge lurking underneath that made Peter shiver.

“Already?” He asked, meek.

Happy nodded, pushing open his door. “Yep. You did the crime, and now you do the time, kid. Welcome to the real world.”

For some reason, he suddenly wanted to cry.

He blamed it on the alcohol. He’d been blaming a lot of things on the alcohol, tonight.

Happy had to steady him up the steps. It looked like he flinched at every wobble, as if each reminder of Peter’s intoxication physically wounded him.

He wondered if it was because of Tony. Peter knew about the alcoholism. They’d talked about it before. He knew that that was why the no drinking in public rule was expected to be taken so seriously.

If there was one thing Peter knew about Tony, it was that his greatest fear was his children ending up just like him. And tonight, Peter had come perilously close.

When they finally got to the cabin’s porch, Happy didn’t even get a chance to fumble out his keys before the front door was swinging open and a white-faced Tony Stark was ushering them inside.

Happy had to help Peter stumble over the threshold. While he would never admit it, he was actually pretty grateful for the iron-tight grip that the bodyguard kept on his elbow, because it was probably the only thing between him and an inelegant nosedive in the entryway.

It was dark in the living room, but that didn’t matter. Peter knew that room like he knew himself, had spent Christmases and birthdays tucked between its walls. The fireplace was lit, and Peter’s heart clenched at the sight. Pepper always put it out before going to bed, which meant that Tony had purposefully lit it for him, because he knew that it made Peter feel warm and content.

Tony was always thinking about him, always reaching for him, and all Peter knew was pulling away, letting him down.

He felt like the absolute worst person in the entire world.

There were a few seconds where they all came to a halt by the couch: a suspension of the anger and frustration and grinding of gears. Everyone let out a collective breath of relief.

Then, Tony snapped.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, huh?” He grabbed Peter’s forearms, shook him so violently that his vision swam. “Getting drunk in some shady downtown bar? Leaving your security detail outside? Nearly getting yourself fucking kidnapped? C’mon, kid,” Tony seethed, “give me an answer. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I…”

Tony cut him off, yanked him closer. “Do you think I give you these rules because I don’t have anything else better to do? Do you think that this is a game?”

Peter wanted to respond. In all honesty, he wanted to apologize. He really hadn’t meant to fuck up so badly, hadn’t meant to make Tony so mad.

He wanted to say that, to ask for forgiveness, to convince Tony to drop the fury and coddle him instead, because he didn’t feel good and, although his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit it out loud, what had happened at the bar had scared him, but being jerked around so much had made nausea bubble up in his throat, and he didn’t know how much longer he had until his precarious balance deserted him entirely, so he just swayed in Tony’s grip, blinking rapidly as he tried to focus on his face.

And then Happy came to his rescue for the second time that night.

“Boss, Boss,” Happy cautioned, reaching around Peter to put a restraining hand on Tony’s shoulder, “take it easy.”

Tony’s eyes flickered away from Peter for the first time, anger burning inside them: bright and uncontrolled. “Don’t tell me to take it fucking easy. Do you see what he did? He could’ve-”

“I know, Tony, I know. And I’m pissed at him, too, but look at him. He’s plastered. You’re not helping anything by shouting at him in this state.”

Peter realized that he should’ve felt an extra twinge of shame at Happy’s words, but all he really focused on was the relief of Tony’s face melting, his grip gentling on his arms.

He brought a hand up to Peter’s cheek, swiping his thumb underneath his eye. “Hey, hey.” Tony’s voice cracked a little, and it was all the apology that was needed. The fire was gone, and Peter could deal with the coals. “Are you alright, buddy?”

“Feel gross,” he admitted, swallowing compulsively, trying to keep everything he’d drank at that bar solidly in his stomach on not on the living room floor.

“I bet. You look like you drank a liquor store.” Tony’s hands slid down his arms, over his chest. He pressed down on his ribs, checking them. “Are you hurt?”

“No.”

Tony shot a questioning glance Happy’s way, and the man shook his head. “Kid’s telling the truth. He’s fine. The assholes just pinned him against the bar. Don’t think they had any plans outside of taking Tony Stark’s kid as some kind of sick conquest.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tony snarled, and Peter could feel the man’s anger bubbling back up. He didn’t really mind, though, because this time it wasn’t directed at him, “then they’re just a bunch of stand-up fucking citizens, Hap.”

Happy let out a sigh, and although Peter had closed his eyes against a sudden wave of dizziness, he could imagine him holding up his hands in submission. “Just take him to bed, Tony,” Happy said, voice low. “Everything else can wait until the morning.”

“Yeah, yeah.” There was a pause. Peter didn’t open his eyes. “Hap, I want you to have those assholes arrested on whatever you can. Harassment, underage drinking, whatever you can get, you get, y’hear me?”

“Already on it.”

“Good.” Peter felt Tony slide an arm around his waist, coaxing him towards the stairs. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Happy, I’m going to take the child to bed and think of all the different ways I’m going to kill him in the morning.”

“Have fun.”

“Will do.”

They were halfway to Peter’s room before he found the presence of mind to speak, eyes still squeezed shut as he fought back wave after wave of lightheadedness. “I didn’… I didn’ mean t’…”

“Shh. We don’t have to do this now.” There was a click of his bedroom door opening, and only a few more steps before Tony was sitting him down on the bed. “I’m gonna pull your jeans off, okay? Don’t get weird about it, cause that’d just be embarrassing for the both of us.”

He must’ve drifted off after that, because the next thing he knew, he was just wearing a t-shirt and his boxers, and he’d been tucked underneath his comforter. The mattress sank a little as Tony sat next to him, and he heard the man sigh heavily, as if the weight of the universe was resting on his shoulders all over again.

He lifted his head a little, blinking up at Tony owlishly. “Wha’?”

Tony shushed him, running his thumb down the side of his face, and Peter drunkenly decided that he should really let Tony baby him more often. He liked being independent, sure, but he liked this, too. Liked being taken care of. Liked the gentle way Tony was rubbing his back. Liked feeling nice and warm and protected.

“Easy, bud,” Tony murmured. “I’m sticking around to make sure that you don’t choke on your own vomit. I’m a real nice guy like that.”

He didn’t really know how to process that, so he just slurred out a little thank you.

For some reason, that made Tony laugh. “Anytime, kid.” There were a few beats a silence. “Anytime.”

Peter was mostly asleep again by the time Pepper came in. He didn’t even know she was in the room until her voice floated over him.

“Tony?”

Tony’s tone was pitched low enough that he must’ve assumed that Peter was already asleep. “Hey, Pep.”

“Hey, honey. Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. Just drunk.”

“Nothing happened?”

There was an anguish in Tony’s voice that made Peter’s stomach twist. “Something… Something almost happened, but no. Happy got there in time.”

“Oh, thank god.”

“No, thank Ned. He was the one who realized something was wrong and hit the kid’s panic button. A panic button that he’d left at the table, by the way.”

“Tony, shh. The kids are sleeping.”

“Right. Yeah. Fuck.”

Silence. For a while, Peter half thought that Pepper must’ve gone back to bed.

“Are you gonna stay with him?”

“Yeah,” Tony muttered.

More silence. More breathing. More time for Peter to disjointedly ponder how badly he’d screwed this one up.

“Nothing happened, honey,” Pepper whispered. “He’s just fine.”

This time, Pep. Nothing happened this time.”

“Yeah,” she murmured, and Peter could feel her eyes on him. “Goodnight, Tony.”

“Goodnight, Pep.”

Once the door shut, Peter blinked his eyes open again. Tony just watched him passively, not offering any surprise at seeing him awake.

“‘M sorry,” he whispered.

The man snorted, slightly bitter. “I know. You always are, when you fuck up.”

“Are you g’nna yell at me?”

“Tomorrow,” Tony murmured. “You get a free pass tonight, so savor it. Well, savor it as much as you can, in this state.”

Peter couldn’t stop the rush of helplessness that made hot tears prick at the back of his eyes. He could see the anger lingering behind all of Tony’s soft words, soft touch. He knew that he’d pissed him off. Worse, he knew that he’d let him down.

“One m’re night for you t’ love me.”

Tony froze, gaze dragging over his face for a second before a tired sigh slipped through his lips. He brushed his hand over Peter’s hair, pushing his bangs up and away from his eyes. “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, buddy. I always love you, even when I’m yelling. Maybe… Maybe especially when I’m yelling.”

He swallowed hard, a few tears spilling over and down his cheeks. He spoke slowly, carefully enunciating each word, but still blurring the edges a little. “I love you too, y’know. Even when ‘m not actually following all ‘f your rules.”

He got a little smile for that, and he could see the love there. The love, the dedication, the overwhelming drive to protect. There would never be anybody else on Earth who loved him as much as Tony did. Peter knew that. He just wished he appreciated it a little more.

“Please go to sleep now, Peter,” Tony finally said, sniffing hard. “I’m tired of seeing you drunk.”

And because it was the least he could offer, Peter finally did as he was told.

--

Peter woke up, and Tony was still there.

It wasn’t surprising. It might’ve been, at one point, but not anymore. Certainly not after last night. While all his memories were a little blurred, a little dreamlike, he still remembered Tony’s face. The love, the fear. Tony loved him more than he deserved. Loved him in the same way May had: totally, completely, unconditionally.

Loved him even when he probably shouldn’t. Loved him even when it hurt to love him.

“Morning, sunshine,” Tony greeted. He was studying him passively, calmly taking in his squinted eyes and pained expression. “Head hurt?”

“Hng.” In his defense, eloquence was nearly impossible when your head was splitting in two. He tried to turn his face away from the light, pawing at his forehead in discomfort. “Ouch.”

Tony’s palm settled gently over his eyes, blocking out the offending brightness. A second later, his head was being propped up on a pillow and the rim of a glass was pressed against his lips.

“Yeah,” Tony said, voice overflowing with sympathy. “Here, Pepper brought you some spidey-strength Advil.”

He took the pills without complaint, but he only kept them down for all of five minutes before he was heaving them up into the trashcan that Tony held steadily beneath his chin.

He had a sneaking suspicion that this particular period of his life would not be fondly remembered by either him or Tony.

When Tony tried to coax him into eating some crackers, the last thing he wanted to do was put anything in his stomach, but he did it anyway. It was, he decided, mostly a cooperation born out of guilt, but his old mentor didn’t really seem to care either way.

Apparently, having something solid in his system helped a lot when it came to cushioning the meds, because the next dose stayed down. He rested with his head in Tony’s lap, dozing on and off, until the pain receded and the tightness in his throat finally lessened.

“Feeling better?” Tony asked, despite the fact that Peter was pretty sure he hadn’t given any visible sign of his discomfort abating. He just chalked it up to one of the man’s weird parent senses.

“Yeah,” he rasped, sitting up slowly. The world didn’t spin, and his head didn’t scream with pain. Score one for him, then. “Yeah. I kinda feel like a human again.”

“Good. Then c’mon,” Tony said, gently tugging at Peter’s shirt, “grab some pants, and let’s go downstairs.”

He followed the orders dutifully, even though he knew that he was being led towards a chopping block.

The other half of their little family was already in the living room, going about their mornings as if last night had never even happened. Pepper was sitting on the couch, flipping through a book, while Morgan had a bunch of stuffed animals spread out on the floor. It looked like she’d set them up in a battle formation, with the bears facing off against the rabbits.

Tony cleared his throat, and both girls looked up at them, Morgan with excitement and Pepper with relief. 

“Pepper, honey,” Tony tightened his grip on Peter’s arm, “why don’t you take Morgan to the park? Or to the store? Go do something fun.”

Pepper nodded, understanding in her eyes, while Morgan perked up.

“Can Peter come?”

“No, he cannot,” Tony said, voice sharp, and it was the first time he’d snapped all morning. It was a little like watching storm clouds roll in: Peter knew that his calm before the thunder was waning rapidly. “Your brother’s in trouble.”

Peter pulled away from Tony and collapsed against the couch with a groan. “Oh, god. I’m so screwed, aren’t I?” He looked over to Pepper, pleading without any real expectation of savoir. “Please. Don’t leave me. He’s not even gonna leave you a body to bury.”

Pepper’s face softened, and she gently sent Morgan away to put on her shoes before giving him her full attention, running a light hand over his head. “Sorry, honey, but you do deserve this one, unfortunately.” She leaned over, kissed his temple, then whispered softly in his ear, quiet enough that only he could hear. “He only yells because he loves you, and you scared him. You can’t do that, and he’s trying to make you understand.”

Then she stood, slipped on her shoes, grabbed Morgan’s hand, and left him to his fate.

As soon as the front door clicked shut, Tony started pacing in front of the couch, jaw tight. Peter just sat there awkwardly, waiting.

He knew that Pepper was right. He did deserve Tony’s anger. He’d screwed up. He wasn’t too proud to admit that.

The thing that infuriated him, though, was that Tony was always so quick to point out the flaws in Peter’s actions, but he was never willing to admit fault in his own. He would shout at Peter, tell him that the rules were important, but he wouldn’t listen. Peter could talk and talk and talk, and it wouldn’t change a thing.

He was 19 years old and he didn’t have an ounce of control over his own life, and it made him feel cornered. Worse, it made him angry.

He’d never liked being angry.

“What happened?” Tony finally snapped, still pacing.

“I’m sure Happy told you what happened.”

“Yeah, but I wanna hear it from you.”

Of course he did. Tony wanted him to humiliate himself: to confess his sins, to plead for forgiveness. He wanted Peter to admit that it was all his fault, that the rules were important. To promise that he’d never do it again.

But… he just couldn’t do that, even if a tiny part of him really, really wanted to.

“I was drinking, okay?” Peter said, glaring. He hadn’t meant for the words to have so much bite to them, but there was no going back now. “I’m in college, and I wanted to go drinking with my friends. So I went, and I got drunk, because that’s what normal kids do, and-”

“And then it went wrong, right?” Oh. Oh shit. Tony’s hands were curled in fists, and he snarled the words out through clenched teeth. Peter’s defiance had set him off, apparently. He probably should’ve anticipated that. “It went wrong, because you think that you’re infallible. Because you sit here, and you tell me that you want to be independent, to be an adult, and then you do irresponsible shit like that and you prove to me that you’re still only a child.”

Peter hated that word, and Tony loved to throw it around because he knew that Peter hated it. It always felt so minimizing, like a dismissal.

“I’m not a child-

“You are!” Tony shouted, then instantly sobered himself, letting out a slow breath and forcefully controlling his voice. “You are,” he continued, calmer. “I tell you not to drink in public. I’ve told you that over, and over, and over again. You can drink here all you want, Peter, you know that, and yet you decided to go off and be stupid, because you’re a child and children don’t like rules.”

“Yeah, well,” he muttered, hating that he was probably the picture of a sullen teenager in the wrong, hated that this is what Tony always managed to reduce him to, “you don’t like rules, either.”

“We’re not talking about me.”

“Why do adults always say that?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Because our kids always try to twist this shit back around so they can avoid admitting that they screwed up. And you did, didn’t you, Peter? You screwed up. Your life would be a hell of a lot easier if you just admitted it, and apologized.”

Peter bit his lip, staring at his lap rather than meeting Tony’s anger-filled gaze. “I… I didn’t think-”

“Evidently not.”

“I’m sorry, okay?” Ouch. That hurt sober. Although, to be fair, maybe it didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected it to. “I am. I just wanted to go out with my friends. I swear that I wasn’t actively trying to do something stupid.”

His eyes flickered up just in time to catch Tony’s tiny nod. He could tell that he’d been forgiven, but the stiffness still hadn’t left the man’s shoulders, and he processed, for maybe the first time, that Pepper had been right. What he’d been interpreting as anger wasn’t actually anger at all. It was fear.

“I’m gonna up your protection,” Tony finally said, letting out a deep, measured breath.

Peter startled, indignation rising. “What? No!”

“Yes.”

“Mister Stark!”

Tony didn’t seem to give even the slightest notice to Peter’s protests. “Starting tomorrow.”

“I have to be on campus tomorrow, Mister Stark! I can’t just-”

“Well, you’ll have plenty of friends to walk you to class.”

Peter bolted to his feet, anger making it impossible to sit still. “I don’t want this, Tony!”

The outburst brought genuine shock to the man’s face, along with a half-hearted reprimand in the form on his name. Peter forgot, sometimes, that this wasn’t a person who was used to being disobeyed. There were only a handful of people alive who would dare snap at Tony Stark, and even the man himself seemed to forget that they existed.

“We talked about this!” He continued, ignoring all the warning bells in his brain telling him to hit the brakes. “I’m entitled to this part of my life. You… You don’t get to mess with college, you’re supposed to stay out of that-”

Whatever fumble had briefly destabilized Tony before was obviously over, and the anger was falling back into place. He glared Peter down, voice dripping with annoyance. “Oh, don’t be so dramatic. I’m allowing you this part of your life-”

“You’re allowing me to go to college? Oh, gee, thanks Tony. That’s just so nice of you-”

“Use that tone again, Parker. I’m actually daring you-”

He felt like screaming. He could talk until his throat went dry, and Tony still wouldn’t listen. “I’m entitled to a normal-”

“Oh, please, don’t be such a child, Peter. You’re not normal. I’m not normal. Morgan is not normal. None of this,” Tony waved his arms around the cabin, “is normal. You will never be normal.”

“Don’t say that! That’s not-”

“I know you don’t like it, but it’s the truth, Peter. Morgan understands it, so why can’t you?”

“Oh, please,” Peter said, crossing his arms defensively in front of his chest, “Morgan doesn’t understand, she’s just too young for it to matter yet. One day, when Happy’s breathing down her neck whenever she wants to go to the bathroom, she’ll have the same issues that I do.”

Tony rubbed tiredly at his forehead, like Peter was a headache that he was trying to ignore. “Happy’s job is to protect you.”

“And somebody tried to assassinate you last month,” Peter snapped, throat tightening at the memory. “Happy should worry about you getting shot.”

“Happy is worried about me getting shot. I’m worried about me getting shot.” Tony stalked forward, and there was something about his demeanor now that made all of Peter’s protests freeze on his tongue. “But that is nothing compared to how terrified we are of you. You scare the hell out of Happy, Peter, and you scare the hell out of me, too. My getting killed would be bad enough, but that is not the nightmare scenario here. The nightmare scenario, buddy,” Peter balked at the familiar nickname being aimed at him in such a rough tone of voice, “is you getting kidnapped.”

“I’m not going to get-”

“No, no, you’re going to shut up and listen to me now, alright?” Peter’s mouth clicked shut, eyes widening at the order. Tony just plowed on, voice rising with agitation as he spoke. “You go out to a bar, or a party at some club. Your friends are all drinking, so you do too, and the next thing you know, you’re so fucked up that you can barely think straight. Maybe you’re just young and dumb and you don’t know your own tolerance, or maybe someone slipped something into your drink. Either way, you’ll never know, because then you get up to go to the bathroom, and somebody comes up from behind, puts their hand over your mouth, and whisks you out the backdoor.”

Tony was right up in Peter’s space, then, and he wasn’t even afraid. He supposed that most people would be, with Iron Man staring at them like that. Except… Peter knew Tony. Knew him well enough to see the torment in his eyes, could hear the horrifying specificity in his words, and he knew that this was a scenario that Tony had played in his head over, and over, and over again. It was one of the nightmares that kept him up at night.

“You’re so petrified, because despite what you think, you’re just a child,” Tony snapped, voice breaking on the word, and Peter wasn’t so sure that he hated it all that much, anymore, “that you don’t even notice Happy’s body lying on the ground with a bullet hole in his head. Then you’re whisked away in a car. They beat you, they drug you, they duct tape your hands together and shove a gag in your mouth.”

Tony waved his hands around, borderline hysterical, breaths coming short and sharp. “It’s a big party, with lots of noise, and lots of people coming and going. And it’s a half hour before someone says, ‘Hey, where’s Peter?’ and it’s another fifteen minutes before the first phone call. Let’s throw in five minutes for me to find Happy’s body, and another ten to get over the shock. Another hour and a half at least before I can convince the State Department that it’s a serious enough emergency to even consider closing the airports. And now we’re off to the races.”

Tony grabbed Peter’s shoulders, shook him. “You’re tied to a chair in a cargo shack, somewhere in the middle of Uganda, and I’m told that I have 72 hours to get a bunch of terrorists in Syria a shipment of weapons that can kill thousands, and I’m fully prepared to do it because thousands of innocents, thousands of children are nothing compared to you, Peter. They’re nothing compared to my own child.”

There was something in Tony’s expression that was begging to be understood. Peter could feel the tension in his chest, could suddenly see why Tony was so strict about the rules, why Happy had looked scared out of his wits the night before.

He could see, and he hated it.

But Tony wasn’t done.

“And now I’m on the phone with every government official I can think of, pleading for them to give me permission to send the shipment, and all that any of them will tell me is, ‘I’m so sorry, Mister Stark, but the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, period,’ and now we’ve got a new problem, because SI doesn’t have an owner, and the world no longer has an Avenger, it just has a father who’s out of his fucking mind because his child, his precious, precious child that he loves more than anything else in the universe is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to his head!” Tony’s voice shot up, and Peter flinched. It was the loudest Tony had ever shouted at him, the most forceful. “Do you get it now, Peter?! Do you understand?!”

“Yes,” he whispered, voice shaky. Every ounce of fight he’d had inside him had evaporated during Tony’s speech. Now, all he really wanted was for this whole thing to be over. He wanted to erase it, expunge it. More than anything, he wanted Tony to never look that unhinged again.

And before he could stop it, he was crying.

It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t like he was sobbing or anything, but there were definitely tears, and they were definitely coming from his eyes. Horror leapt across Tony’s face, and he jerked his hands away from Peter in a rush, staring down at them like he was seeing each line and curve for the first time. When he looked back up, Tony’s face had softened from foreign edges into the adoration that he had learned to depend on.

“Oh, Peter, I’m sorry.” Tony’s hand slid up from Peter’s shoulder, palm curving over his jaw. The gentle touch was jarring when compared to the previous conversation, but it was exactly what he needed in that moment. “That wasn’t fair.”

He felt small. Smaller than Morgan, even. Just… Just so, so small.

He wondered if that was what Tony saw whenever he looked into his eyes. Something small. Something delicate. Something that needed to be swaddled with security and panic buttons and protocols.

He wasn’t sure that he fully agreed, but he did think he might be starting to understand.

“It’s okay,” he whispered, letting Tony wipe away the tears dripping down his cheeks.

“It’s not.” Tony’s voice sounded a little broken, and Peter knew, somewhere deep down, that he was wallowing in the guilt that his own father left behind. He wished he wouldn’t do that, but he also knew that it was inevitable.

“You know,” Tony continued, voice gentle, coaxing, “I… I want you to have the things I didn’t have, buddy. I want you to have your freedom and your youth. I want you to have common, everyday experiences with kids your own age. There’s… There’s nothing I want more than that. But these things can be complicated, and you have to be safe. I know that the security sucks, Pete. I know it does. But if that’s the price we pay so that I can sleep at night, then we pay it. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

A small smile played on Tony’s lips, and he pulled Peter towards the couch. “C’mere. Sit with me for a sec.”

He let Tony guide him down, didn’t protest how closely they sat, didn’t protest the hand that refused to leave his face. He’d never wanted to upset Tony in the first place, just like he knew that Tony had never really wanted to upset him, either. Scare him a little, sure, but that wasn’t the same thing. Maybe it seemed like it to someone who didn’t understand, but it wasn’t.

“I know that this is hard for you,” Tony started, speaking slowly. Peter could tell that this would be a carefully arranged speech, but not an ingenuine one. “I know that this has been hard for you. And I hate being the bad guy, but… that’s what I have to be now. Sometimes, at least, even if neither of us like it very much.”

“I know.”

Tony smiled at him again, the kind of smile where his eyes crinkled at the corners and it was like staring at the man rather than the armor. Then, he tipped Peter’s head forward and brushed a quick kiss to the crown of his head. “You’re a really good kid, Pete. Just uh,” conflict flickered in the man’s eyes as he pulled back, “let’s take it easy on the drinking, yeah? I know that it’s tempting, but it’s not worth it. Your mind is so unique, Pete. Don’t make me watch you ruin it.”

“I won’t,” he promised, and he meant it.

“That’s my boy.”

Peter had always secretly liked when Tony claimed him like that. It’d stung a little, in the beginning, because if he was Tony’s kid, he wasn’t sure that he was still May’s, but now it was just… nice. A moment where he was Tony’s child, not his heir.

“Thank you,” he blurted.

Tony’s head tilted, expression soft and surprised. “What’re you thanking me for? Yelling at you?”

“No. For, well,” for looking after me, for loving me, for caring enough about me that you’d take the time to yell at me, “for being here.”

“Peter Parker,” Tony started, voice dripping with the kind of fake seriousness that he often used to mask the moments when he was actually being serious, “that has been, and continues to be, one of the great pleasures of my life.”

“Even when I’m drunk?”

Amusement sparked in Tony’s eyes. “Eh, alright. Maybe I can negotiate down on certain occasions…”

Chapter Text

“Suma cum laude from Columbia. Columbia, Rhodey. Did you know that their acceptance rate is 5.1%? That’s the second most selective college in the Ivy League.”

Rhodey didn’t look nearly as impressed as Tony thought was appropriate. He just took a sip from his whiskey, tone dripping with sarcasm. “So you’ve told me.”

“That’s more selective than MIT.” He gestured with his own glass, although his was filled with some of Morgan’s apple juice. “Their acceptance rate is 7.9%. That’s a 2.8% difference.”

“Yes, Tones. I, too, am capable of basic math. Even though I did graduate from MIT, which is obviously the inferior institution here.”

He glared. “Yeah, well, did you know that Peter graduated on a 4.0 GPA? You know how hard it is to graduate on a 4.0 GPA at an Ivy League school?”

“I don’t know. Probably about as hard as graduating on a 4.0 GPA at MIT. Which I did, by the way.”

“Are you ever gonna let that one go? I’m the visionary of a generation, but I got one B in an English class and my best friend does a mutiny.”

“Yeah, well, your son managed to make an A in English.”

“He did, didn’t he?” He grinned, still drunk on the memory of Peter in his cap and gown, leaning down so that Morgan could adjust the tassel. “I think he made a 99 in that course, too. He’s smarter than you and me, Rhodey. I’ve been telling you that for years.”

Rhodey held up a hand, stalling him. “I’m sorry, you remember the exact number?”

“Of course he remembers the number, Rhodey,” Pepper sighed, slumping down at Tony’s side with a glass of wine in her hand. “He used to pin the screenshots from Canvas up in his office.”

Used to? He thought, a little incredulous. He still had them there.

“Listen,” he griped, “there are worse crimes than a father being proud of his child. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Sure,” Rhodey said, not even trying to conceal his amusement. “By the way, I thought that his security detail did a good job of blending in today. If I didn’t personally know all of them, I wouldn’t’ve suspected a thing.”

Tony snorted. “Let me tell you something: when it’s your kid, you don’t want them to blend in. You want them carrying a sign that says, I’m carrying a loaded gun and the safety’s off.” He swirled a finger around the rim of his glass. “But, yeah. I think Peter even managed to forget about them for most of it, which was the goal.”

“His speech was lovely as well,” Pepper interjected. “Very polished. He’s grown up a lot.”

A dagger of nostalgia pierced through him. “Oh, don’t remind me. I swear that I was coaching him through his first awkward date just a couple of days ago. What the hell is he doing going off to California all alone? It’s ridiculous.”

Rhodey snorted. “Sorry, I don’t get it. Are you proud of him or are you trying to lock him in the house and never let him out? I’m just trying to make sure that we’re all on the same page here.”

A chime from Rhodey’s phone interrupted the conversation. The man glanced down at the screen, expression darkening at whatever it was that he found there, and then quickly excused himself.

Tony didn’t really think anything of it. Rhodey got a lot of calls and texts that weren’t pleasant. It came with the territory of being such a high-ranking Colonel in the military. Nobody on Earth would call that a relaxing job. Plus, he still flew the occasional mission as War Machine. Not every superhero was quite as ready to leap into retirement as Tony had been.

Minutes trickled past with Rhodey out of the room, and Tony and Pepper found themselves constantly circling back to their favorite topic: their kids. They (well, it was mostly him, but Pep joined in occasionally) reminisced and complained, in the pride-struck kind of way, about the bittersweet upheaval that the upcoming months would bring to their lives. It was nice. It was quiet. It was a taste of the peace that he’d fought for through all those years as Iron Man.

Isn't that the mission? Isn't that why we fight? So we can end the fight? So we get to go home?

He’d ended the fight, and the endgame had been so much better than he could’ve ever imagined. When he’d said that to Steve, he hadn’t even had a home. His home had been the Avengers, even if he wasn’t ready to admit that to himself. But after Thanos, after hanging up the armor and looking into a future, a real future, he’d built a home. He’d built a home out of a dozen scattered bricks: the scarred shambles of his and Pepper’s baggage-laden love affair, a pregnancy test that was never meant to be positive, and a frightened, orphaned teenager with nowhere left to go. He’d taken those foundations, and he’d built and built and built until they were sheltered. Until they were home.

The pain of letting Peter leave, of releasing his grip and watching him run off to California to be his own person, to build his own home, his own life, was such a new, privileged kind of pain. It hurt, but in a gentle way. In the way that good things sometimes ached in the beginning, before they settled into a normalcy.

Tony had just decided that he’d be happy to live through a hundred moments of Peter graduating college (just so long as he could feel this proud with each repetition) when Rhodey surged back into the room, chest heaving.

He knew, somehow. He knew from the moment he saw the look on his best friend’s face. He knew even before Happy, who was not supposed to be here, who was supposed to be with Peter at some graduation party in the city, came barreling in at his heels. He knew.

Maybe it was a father’s intuition, maybe it was just paranoia, but he knew, and that knowing was the absolute worst thing in the world.

Everything froze.

“Rhodey?” He set his glass down on the coffee table, half-rose from the couch, wanting to ask but desperately not wanting to hear the answer that came after the asking. “What’s-”

“Tony, it’s Peter.”

--

The world had broken into color and chaos. The drinks had been cleared away, the coffee table in the living room swiped clean. Pepper was in the kitchen, babbling on the phone to about a dozen different people at SI, trying to organize whatever and whoever she could. The team was on their way: the new and the old. He’d spoken to Steve for a stunted 30 seconds, had pulled himself out of his adrenaline just long enough to process his promise of I’ll be there in an hour before hitting End Call.

He was sitting on the floor, now, back pressed against the couch, clutching the TV remote in his left hand for no reason other than to be holding something.

“Is Morgan still in her room?” He whispered, because that was… that was all he had left. God, he couldn’t live without one of them, how would he possibly survive losing them both?

“Yeah, Tony.” Happy seemed hesitant, like he wasn’t sure how much information he was meant to be revealing. “Pepper checked on her. We’re letting her sleep.”

“Okay. Okay.” He closed his eyes. Tried to steady himself on a home-grown foundation that had just lost one of its most vital supports. “Okay. Tell me everything.”

Rhodey knelt beside him, hand heavy on his shoulder. “Tony, are you sure that you shouldn’t-

Yes, I’m sure,” he snarled, although he wasn’t really sure what he was sure about. He wanted his child back? Yeah… Yeah. He was sure about that. He was sure about regretting the fact that he’d ever let Peter leave his sight. “Now, will somebody please tell me what the hell is going on?”

Happy sighed, pushing the coffee table out of the way and joining Rhodey on his knees in front of him. It was funny, in a horrible, morbid, stomach-twisting sort of way. Three of the most high-powered men in the country were kneeling on the floor, falling to pieces because a single kid was missing.

“He was with his friends, at a club,” Happy started slowly. “We had two of his guards in there with him, blending in and keeping their distance, and a group of six more stationed on the outside. He got up to go to the bathroom. One of the guards followed, the other stuck by his friends so they could have eyes on him when he came back. We don’t really know what the hell happened after that. As far as the guards saw, he never came out of the bathroom. One of them went in after about ten minutes, checked all the stalls. His phone was on the floor, but he wasn’t there, so they raised the alarm. We scanned the perimeter, and found skid marks and one of the external guards down by the kitchen’s loading area-”

Tony hated panic, hated situations that threw him in the deep end like this. He wasn’t used to being slow, to being one step behind everyone else, but that’s exactly what this was. He was handicapped, stuck in molasses because this was his child. There was nothing… There was no way that the word efficiency could slot into the haze settling over him.

“What, uh,” he shook his head, trying to clear it, to knock his thoughts into something orderly and complete, “what do you mean, one of the guards was down?”

“They’re dead, Tony,” Happy breathed, and even though his own turmoil, Tony could see the pain on the man’s face. “Whoever took Peter shot them in the head. By the time we got to the scene, there was nothing we could do.”

Peter’s never going to forgive himself for that.

He didn’t even have the presence of mind to feel guilt over the fact that his only concern was for Peter. The guard… he’d feel bad about that later. He’d compartmentalize it, because it was selfish and horrible and very unheroic, but nobody mattered more than Peter. Nobody mattered more than his kid.

“Why… Why didn’t he hit his panic button?”

“That’s the question.” Happy scrubbed a hand down the front of his face. Every inch of him looked tired, like he’d been running on empty for weeks and weeks and weeks, except it hadn’t been weeks. It had only been a few hours since Peter had been taken, only a few minutes since Tony had been told, but it felt like… it felt like decades. “We found it out in the alley, a few feet away from where we think the getaway car must’ve been parked. He never pushed it.”

“He didn’t push it?”

“No.”

It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. Sure, Peter could be a brat about security sometimes, but he did use the resources he was given. He’d hit the panic button multiple times before. Why didn’t he do it now? Why?

He shook his head again, swallowed hard past the lump growing in his throat. “So… So he knew them. He must’ve.”

“Or… Tony, you know I don’t wanna be the person to break this to you, but he was drunk. He’d already had about half a bottle of champagne and a few shots by the time he was taken. One of the guards said he was stumbling when he got up to go to the bathroom, and his friends told us that he seemed pretty wasted.”

That shouldn’t have mattered. Peter was… he was 22, for god’s sake. He’d just graduated valedictorian from Columbia. The kid was allowed to drink some champagne, to get a little-

“Wait, no.” He ran a few numbers through his head, cold and ice and dread sprouting up in his lungs as they refused to compute. “That… he was stumbling?”

“Yeah. That’s what one of his detail said, at least.”

“No, that… that doesn’t make sense, Hap. He… He shouldn’t’ve been that out of it already. His… His metabolism. It’d take more than some champagne and a few shots to get him that drunk. He’d need… He’d need something else.”

Realization snapped over Happy’s face, and he lunged to his feet, kicked the leg of the coffee table irritably when it got in his way. “Fuck. Shit. Why didn’t I think of that? They drugged him. They must’ve.”

Rhodey rubbed Tony’s shoulder, his calm presence the only anchor in wave after wave of helplessness, failure, fear. “Then they were inside the club. Or they had someone helping them.”

Happy was nodding restlessly, already working furiously on his phone. “I’m gonna call the guys on the scene, tell them to detain the bartender and anybody else who might’ve had access to the kid’s drink. And I’ll have someone get his glass and that bottle of champagne for testing.”

“You go,” Rhodey said, slipping forward to settle down at Tony’s side. “I’ll stay here. Hold down the fort.”

“Got it.”

Happy was rushing for the door. Tony could still hear Pepper talking in the kitchen. The team must’ve been most of the way to the cabin by now, scrambling over themselves because this was… it was all too much. Too awful to comprehend. Tony’s brain couldn’t process it. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that Peter just… wasn’t going to come home. Wasn’t going to walk through the front door, a little tipsy and a little unbalanced but fine. Safe and loved and present. Ready to fly off to California at the end of the summer and leave a very, very proud Tony behind.

“Happy?” He called out, voice rough. The man went stock-still in the doorway, just barely turning to let him know that he had his attention. “Call me as soon as you know anything? Even if… Even if it’s bad. Just… please. Call me.”

That’s my baby, he thought, chest constricting at the bone-crushing loss of it all, if he’s dead… if he’s… if he’s never coming home, then I need to know. I need to know.

“I will, Tony. I promise.”

--

The Avengers blew into the cabin like a choreographed hurricane.

Tony had rarely had a chance to admire their efficiency from afar. He was usually on the outskirts of the disasters, working alongside them. But now he was the disaster. He was ground zero.

Rhodey brief them on what they knew so far, and the living room was quickly transformed from a haven of fireplace and colorful throws and family movie nights into a control room. The only thing that wasn’t touched was the couch Tony was leaning against. He didn’t even realize that it was because of him until Steve sat down on the carpet, brow furrowed in concern as he set a cautious hand on his knee.

“Tony, I want you to let Bruce examine you.”

He scoffed at the suggestion, bitterness rolling over him so suddenly that he felt swamped by it.

“And I want my child back,” he snarled. “Guess tonight’s just gonna be full of disappointments for all of us, huh?”

Tony.”

“Don’t even start with me, Rogers.” He didn’t know why he was being so cruel to Steve. The man didn’t deserve it. He was just… the closest target. The easiest thing to despise. “I’m just not in the mood.”

“Tones,” Rhodey whispered, dropping down pacifyingly between him and Steve, “listen to me. You know that your heart’s weaker after the Snap. If I’m hauling your ass to a hospital, I’m not looking for your kid. We’ve gotta prioritize, here.”

Even in this state, Tony was clever enough to know when he was being manipulated.

Luckily for Rhodey, he was just too goddamn tired to care.

“Fine,” he growled. “What the fuck ever. Just do it.”

Rhodey was right, unfortunately. He didn’t have time for a heart attack right now, didn’t have time for his body to be anything but functional. After they brought Peter home, well… then it didn’t really matter anymore.

He blinked up at the ceiling, ignoring Bruce as he tugged out his arm, clipped something onto his finger.

Bring him home, he prayed, although to who, he didn’t really know, please, just bring him home to me.

--

Apparently, his blood pressure was high.

Everyone seemed pretty damn concerned about it, which was just… honestly, it was hilarious.

Did they think it wouldn’t be high? His child was off god-knows-where with god-knows-who, probably drugged and confused and afraid and desperately in need of his father, and Tony was supposed to be calming down for the sake of his blood pressure?

His blood pressure could go screw itself, for all he cared.

Of course, nobody else seemed to share his viewpoint. They all fussed over him. Pepper tried to get him to do some bullshit breathing exercises, while Bruce called Cho and bickered with her about medication and preventative measures.

He really didn’t know how to explain to everyone that there was only one cure, and it was his child, safe in his arms.

Until that happened, there wasn’t a drug or a pill or a yoga technique in the world that could save him.

--

Happy burst into the room without any ceremony.

“I’ve got the results from Peter’s drinks.”

Tony staggered upright, shoving Clint’s hands away as the man tried to steady him. He felt breakable, like a single touch might send cracks down his spine, into his bones and down through the ground. Like one wrong move might split him apart.

“And?”

Happy winced. Physically winced, like the words he was about to say weighed a thousand tons. “They found gamma hydroxy butyrate, more commonly known as-”

“GHB,” Tony finished, and he was surprised by how numb he felt at the news. It should’ve terrified him. At the very least, he should’ve felt something. Instead, he just stared at it clinically, chemical formulas and sterile facts filling his head in place of the things he just couldn’t think about. The things he didn’t want to face. “It’s degreasing solvent mixed with drain cleaner.”

God. Drain cleaner. Someone… Someone had given his kid drain cleaner.

“Exactly,” Happy said, voice small and unsure. “And in low doses-”

“In low doses,” he breathed, “it’s a date-rape drug.”

Pain streaked across his old bodyguard’s face: a cocktail of guilt and terror and shame. “Yeah, Tony. It’s… It’s a date-rape drug.”

He swallowed. “That’s, uh, that’s why he was stumbling. Why he didn’t hit the panic button.”

Happy nodded. “Yeah. From the looks of the doses, it was probably meant to knock him out, but with his metabolism…”

Tony finished the sentence in his head. With his metabolism, it probably just made him feel awful, sick, confused. He probably wondered what the hell was happening to him. He probably wanted me.

“He was awake when they took him,” Tony whispered, nauseous. God, he was awake when they took him.

“That’s our best guess. And, uh, Tony…. Listen, I don’t really know if I should be telling you this, but-”

“Tell me,” he ordered, voice somehow sharp and resigned all at once. He… He had to hear it. He had to hear everything. It didn’t matter if it gave him nightmares for the rest of his life, didn’t matter if it was the worst thing he’d ever heard.

It was the only link to Peter that he had.

Happy was silent for a few seconds, then let out a defeated breath. He reached into his pocket and pulled out Peter’s phone. Tony knew it was his because of the case: pink and green and godawful to look at. The kid had only bought it because Morgan had liked it so much.

“We’ve gotten all we can from this, so I thought I’d give it back.” He handed it over, and Tony slid his fingers over the case, borderline reverent. He could still imagine it in Peter’s hands, or charging on his bedside table, or getting tossed onto the couch in favor of playing a boardgame with Morgan. Tiny, insignificant snippets of life, and yet they mattered so much. They’d mattered so much. “We think he was using it when they grabbed him.”

He tilted the phone to the light, watched his reflection warp in the glass screen. “What was he doing?”

“He was texting you.”

Something icy gripped his chest. When he finally managed to force words up his throat, his voice came out hoarse.

“What’d he say?”

Happy just gestured at the phone, expression pinched. “Bathroom didn’t have any service, so none of them sent, but it’s all still there. We didn’t delete anything. D’you know his passcode?”

“Yeah,” he said. Peter just doesn’t think that I do.

“Okay. Well, I’m… I’m gonna get back to work. I’ll come back if we find anything.”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t have to read it, Tony.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Alright.”

He heard rather than saw Happy move away, just barely caught him murmuring, “don’t let him spiral,” to Rhodey before he left.

Sure enough, Rhodey was right beside him within a few seconds, voice lowered in a guise of privacy, despite the fact that the room was still packed with Avengers, all pretending not to watch but definitely watching.

“Tony, it’s late,” he whispered. “Don’t do this now. Get some rest, and you can face it in the morning, if you really have to.”

“No,” he said, more forceful than he’d intended, but then again, Rhodey just didn’t understand. He was holding his child’s last words in his hands. How could he not read them? What kind of father would he be if he didn’t? “No. I need to do this now.”

He left the living room before anyone could stop him.

Happy’s car was already gone by the time he got to the front porch. He briefly considered settling down in one of the rocking chairs, or the porch swing, but every one of them carried a dozen memories of Peter, of summer days and fall nights and laughter and warmth and the kid’s head pressing heavy on his shoulder and he just couldn’t. He couldn’t face them.

He sat on the floor, back pressed up against the cabin, knees drawn to his chest.

He unlocked Peter’s phone. The brightness was up, but it automatically adjusted after a second or two. He opened the messages app, clicked his contact icon, and read.

hey tony? i thimk i fucked up
(ERROR: not delivered)

i feel super super gross
(ERROR: not delivered)

:(
(ERROR: not delivered)

plz dont be mad i didnt mean to grt thsi drunk
(ERROR: not delivered)

ugh fuck batgroom service
(ERROR: not delivered)

i just kinda wish u were here to yell at me rn
(ERROR: not delivered)

--

The front porch was nice at sunrise.

He’d spent so many hours out here, with Morgan and Peter. Both of them tended to be up early: Morgan because she was a child, Peter because he carried things that no child ever should. He’d sit with them, curled up under one of the afghans Pepper liked to buy from pop-up markets, and watch the sky become an oil painting.

That’d be a pretty smoothie, Morgan would say, pointing at the horizon, and Peter would laugh like she was the funniest thing in the world.

And what would it taste like, Mo?

Like a smoothie!

He heard the door swing open to his left, and while he knew it wasn’t Peter, a tiny part of him wanted to keeping pretending.

“Tones?”

Rhodey. Right. Of course it was Rhodey. Who else would come out here this early, ready to pick his ass up off the floor?

“Did you find anything?” He rasped, still staring out at the lake, watching the daylight step into the clouds, wishing he was watching Peter instead.

“Not yet.”

He just barely inclined his head in response. The answer should’ve hurt him, should’ve stung or panged or something, but it didn’t. After a while, pain just become pain. There wasn’t a scale anymore, wasn’t any room for additions or levels. There was just pain. Pain, and a family missing child. That’s all Tony had.

“I need you to tell me something,” he whispered, then swallowed. His throat scratched, dry and hot, “and I need you to be honest with me when you answer.”

Rhodey sat down beside him, leg braces glowing gently in the yellow-red dawn. “I can do that,” he responded, solemn.

“Do you… Do you think he’s already dead?”

Rhodey’s answer came immediately. “No.”

“Are you lying?”

“If I thought he was dead, I’d tell you.”

“Do you promise?” He balled up a fist, resisted to urge to slam it through the nearest object. “If you… If we reach a point where you think he’s dead, do you promise to tell me?”

He knew he was asking a lot. He could tell, because Rhodey’s breath caught, and he paused. Considered.

“Yeah, Tony,” Rhodey murmured, with all the enthusiasm of someone bartering away their soul. “I promise.”

“Good.” It wasn’t, but it felt like the right thing to say. “This is… This is bad, Rhodey.”

“Yeah, Tony, I know.”

He dropped his head into his hands, strained and exhausting and defeated. Peter was all it took, and Iron Man was down, decimated, conquered.

“If… If they show me a picture of him alive,” he whispered, and he knew he was saying something awful, admitting something dark and frightening, “and then they tell me to aim missiles at… at some hospital full of refugees on the Syrian border, they’re counting on the fact that a father would-”

“But you wouldn’t.”

His head snapped back up, and he nearly laughed at the conviction in Rhodey’s voice. God, had everyone really forgotten who he truly was? The heroism of Iron Man was an act. It was a stage curtain, drawn down to hide the monster underneath. Tony Stark was not a good man. He was certainly not a selfless one.

Yet he was so good at pretending that even his best friend believed the ruse.

He turned to stare at Rhodey, voice low. “I might.”

And that might be the most important thing I’ve ever said to you.

The corner of Rhodey’s mouth quirked up, like some part of this was actually amusing to him. “There are people around you who won’t let you.”

He couldn’t possibly be this good at deception. Had Rhodey actually forgotten? Had he forgotten that Tony hadn’t always been an Avenger, that the Merchant of Death was still a title that haunted him? Somedays, he was almost certain that he was more Merchant of Death than he was Iron Man. More a war-profiteer than he was an idol.

“What about a picture?” He said, because he didn’t know how to stop. He’d never known how to stop. “They’ve got a knife to his throat, and they tell me to send a Jericho missile to a bunker in Afghanistan?”

Rhodey shook his head. “You shouldn’t think of images like that.”

This time, he did laugh. Rhodey flinched, concern etched in every inch of his face, because yeah, Tony probably looked like he was losing his mind. And wasn’t he? His child was missing. There was no sanity to this.

“All I can think of are images like that.”

“Tony…”

“I know it's a strange time to bring this up,” he said, and he knew it was abrupt, but nothing seemed quite so linear anymore, “but I forecasted this once. I made up a scary story a few years ago for Peter so that he’d take his protection seriously, and I… and I went too far. And I scared him.” He let out a breath, years-harbored shame rising in his chest. “And he cried. And this… this was the story.”

“Tony-”

“I’m supposed to keep him safe.” His shoulders jerked, his breath hitched. He bit his knuckles to hold back a sob, ribs creaking under the strain of keeping it in. “That’s… fuck, Rhodey, that’s my only job. I’m supposed to keep him safe.”

“You can’t protect him from everything.” There was a pause, hesitant. “The world doesn’t stop spinning just because he’s your child. He’s gotta find his way just like everybody else, and you were letting him do that.”

He wished it was as easy as that, as straightforward and simple to navigate, but it wasn’t. Once again, they’d found their way back to the same frustration he’d been helping Peter cope with for years: being a Stark was not normal. Nothing around them would ever be normal. Sure, the world didn’t stop spinning, but they had to operate differently inside of it, just because of Tony and his curse of a last name.

The money was nice. The fame was even pleasant, every once in a while. It certainly had been when he was young. But now? God, Tony just wanted quiet. He didn’t want this for his children. He’d give anything to drop off the radar, live in some middle-class neighborhood, buy a lawnmower, argue with Pepper about school districts.

“But they took him because he’s my child,” he pushed. They took him because they know it’ll break me. “This… This wouldn’t’ve happened to another kid, Rhodey. You know that.”

“Maybe not, but it did happen, and that’s what you’ve got to work with. Now, come inside,” Rhodey ordered, slicing a knife down on the conversation, as if ending the words could end the horrors still playing through Tony’s head. “Come inside, sit with your wife, and let us fix this.”

There is no fixing this. This will never be fixed.

But instead of staying that, he just did as he was told, and hoped that the next few hours wouldn’t bring him doing something awful in Peter’s name.

It was such a pure name, washed clean by kid who carried it. It didn’t deserve to be sullied by Tony’s true nature, by the darkness he dragged behind him like a chain.

God knows that enough had already been sacrificed on that altar.

--

It was daylight, and there were reporters outside.

Happy and his guys were keeping them back. Apparently, they’d released details of Peter’s kidnapping to the press in the hope that someone might’ve seen something, that they’d come forward with information. In these kinds of cases, one detail, one first person account, could be the difference between life and death.

They’d set up a hotline, and the team was already chasing a few leads, but the reporters were chasing the story, the sensationalism of it all, and Tony hated it.

His child wasn’t a headline. His child was a child. A living, breathing, precious person. Something be cradled and adored and protected. Not something be exploited for a melodramatic hook.

Pepper and Steve would talk about it in tense, hushed tones. A couple of the Avengers had gone out to talk to the gathered press, just once or twice, but Tony didn’t have a clue what they were saying.

What did other parents do when this sort of thing happened? When their child was taken from them? He remembered a few high-profile kidnappings, all distant and wobbly in his head. What did they do? Did they print flyers? Did they give interviews? Did they beg?

Wait. Wait. That’s… That’s exactly what parents did.

They begged. They pleaded. They told the kidnappers that they’d do whatever they wanted, as long as they got their baby back.

He staggered to his feet, a little wobbly but emotions finally hardening into something tangible, something he could focus on.

There were only a few things on Earth that Tony Stark was willing to swallow his pride for, and this… this was one of them. His children would always be one of them.

He was going to beg.

He only made it about four steps towards the cabin’s door before the team noticed. There were a solid few seconds of scattered glances, a rapid exchange of responsibilities, until Natasha stood and took the lead.

“Tony?” She grabbed at his arm, expression somehow soft and fierce all at once. “Tony, what are you doing?”

“I’m gonna make a direct appeal.”

The whole room went silent. He made the mistake of glancing at Clint’s face, and the raw pity there made him want to scream.

“Tony,” Nat said, voice quiet, coaxing, lowered like he was stupid, “you can’t.”

“I’m his father,” he choked out, because at the end of the day, that was the only thing that mattered, the only explanation that he should ever have to give. “I-I don’t even know why I’ve waited this long. I-”

And then Steve was there, reaching for his other arm, voice as calm and solid as it always was.

“Come on, Tony, let’s think this through-”

“Get away from me,” he snapped.

“Tony-”

“I’m going to make a direct appeal,” he repeated, and even he knew that he sounded like a broken record, but he just… all he could see was Peter. The stupid grin on his face earlier that day, when Morgan had barreled into his chest and he’d scooped her up off the ground, spinning her like she was the one who just graduated, like she was the most valuable thing he’d ever held. “I don’t know why I waited this long.”

Nat sounded a little desperate now, pulling hard at his sleeve, warning. “Tony, I know that you’ve convinced yourself that you’re doing what’s right, but you’re not thinking straight-”

And then there was Pepper.

She planted herself between him and the door, firm and solid and Tony knew, he knew that he wasn’t getting past her. He knew it from the moment he saw the look on her face: devastated and loving and calm.

“Stop it, Tony,” she said, soft and kind.

He grabbed for her, taking fistfuls of her shirt and clinging. He felt like a little kid, confused and lost and alone. He was navigating whitewater rapids without a map or a paddle. He couldn’t… He couldn’t do this. People weren’t built to survive this kind of thing. It wasn’t possible.

“I… I have to make a direct-”

“No,” she murmured, cutting him off. “No, Tony, Natasha’s right. You can’t.”

“Why not?”

He had meant for the question to be abrasive, angry, but it just came out broken.

“It can be seen as negotiating with the people who took him,” Pepper said, not apologizing, not pulling punches, “and if their goal is to destabilize us, or Stark Industries, or the Avengers, then they're going to see you and know that they're succeeding.” She let out a breath, composure cracking just a little, just at the corners. “You… You can’t make a direct appeal.”

He knew she was right. He’d known she was right long before he’d even made the choice to do it.

It still felt like he’d been torn in two.

He sank to the floor. He was vaguely aware of Natasha grabbing his elbow, guiding him down so he didn’t hurt himself. She pushed him up against the wall, then stepped away, gave him the room he needed to crumble.

“Honey,” Pepper whispered, voice hitching, hands tracing down his face. He didn’t know when she’d joined him on the floor, but he… he was so glad she was there. He was so glad that someone was still there. “Honey, I…”

“I’ve seen other fathers do it,” he croaked. “Before. In… In other kidnappings. I’ve seen other fathers do it.”

“I know.”

“I thought… I just thought that, that maybe if I tried, then I would’ve… then I would’ve done something.”

“I know.”

“I can’t stand not doing something. I have to be doing something.”

“I know that, too.”

His eyes jerked up, meeting hers in a clash of long-harbored panic. “Pep… What if he’s…”

“He’s not.”

“How do you know?

“Because you’re not other fathers,” she said gently, a sad smile on her face. “Other fathers make direct appeals because that’s all they can do. They’re going to want to negotiate, Tony.”

“I… I can’t negotiate, Pep. Not… Not for him. How could I?”

“I know that. That’s why I’m going to do it.”

He blinked. That was… a good idea. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. Pepper had never, ever lost a deal that mattered. Ever. She had a spotless track record. And while she loved Peter, she wasn’t as shredded by this as he was. Her head was still above the water, at least for now.

Pepper had joked, once, a little bitterly, that Peter was all Tony’s kid, she just helped out with the details. He knew that wasn’t entirely true, of course. She’d stepped up for Peter in ways that had mattered beyond her comprehension, but she wasn’t entirely wrong, either. Peter had been his kid long before he’d been Pepper’s. And that changed dynamics. It had to.

“You have to bring him home.”

“We will, Tony,” Pepper said, and Tony wished with everything he had that he could drown himself in her belief, her faith. “We’re going to do everything we can to bring him back to you.”

He tried to ignore the fact that, as promises went, she’d just given him a pretty unstable one.

--

Tony was still sitting on the floor, staring blankly into nothing, when the alert chimed in.

He didn’t think anything of it, at first, and he supposed that he’d been doing a lot of that tonight. Staring past the obvious, overlooking the signs because ignorance was so blessed and calm compared to knowing.

But then Natasha’s face went hard, and she was waving for Steve, and then he was waving for Rhodey, and then he was waving for Pepper, and Tony realized that something had just gone very, very wrong.

He staggered upright, making a beeline for the rapidly growing group huddled around Natasha’s laptop. He couldn’t see past their shoulders, couldn’t even hear what they were saying, because so many voices were intersecting and overlapping in every other beat, and it was enough to make him want to scream.

“Is it Peter?” He snapped, and Steve swung to face him, face a mixture of pity and concern.

“Tony…”

That was all the answer he’d needed. It was Peter, then. Hell, what else would it be?

Something else had happened to Peter. Somewhere in his gut, he knew it was bad. Awful. Nothing that he wanted to see.

And yet he knew that he had to.

He tried to push past Steve’s restraining hand, craning his neck to catch of glimpse of the screen. “What is it?”

“It’s a ransom note,” Natasha said, forever to the point. He’d never appreciated that personality trait more than he did in that exact moment.

“And they sent a picture,” Steve added.

The world snapped to a halt. He felt hysterical. Unhinged. And Steve… Steve didn’t understand. None of them did, except maybe Clint. He was a father and he’d been torn away from his child. He just… He just wanted him back, even if it was in the form of a picture. Even if it was through a ransom note.

“Is it of Peter?!” He tried to lunge forward again, and failed. Damn Steve’s super strength. He wished he had the suit. “The… The picture. Is the picture of Peter?”

“Yeah, Tony, it is, but you have to understand-”

“Let me see,” he snarled. “He’s my kid. It’s for me. So let me see it.”

To his surprise, the group all exchanged glances, different people in varying degrees of sympathetic pain, and parted.

The image had obviously been taken with a polaroid camera, and then scanned or faxed alongside the handwritten ransom note. The quality was bad, but it was clear enough to show details. It… It wasn’t grainy enough to spare him.

Peter was tied to a chair, a dirty gag shoved into his mouth, digging into his cheeks. The kidnappers had tossed a newspaper into his lap, proof of life with the date clearly shown, but that wasn’t what caught Tony’s attention. No, it was Peter’s face that ached, somewhere deep in his gut. If he was a spiritual man, he would’ve said that it ached in his soul.

He knew his kid. Knew his eyes like he’d never known anything else. And that photo? It was wrong. Peter wasn’t just scared: he was drugged out of his mind. In fact, it was the general lack of fear in the kid’s gaze that disturbed him the most. He looked too incoherent for any emotion other than exhaustion.

He’d seen Peter high before, always after Spider-Man related injuries, but it’d never been like this. It had always been monitored, consensual, safe, and nothing they’d given him had ever made him vacant. He was usually just sleepy or giggly or both. He’d… He’d never looked so detached.

It made Tony want to hold him, shield him, but now he couldn’t do either of those things and it hurt.

“Oh, god,” he gasped, panic attack smacking right into him without warning, without a single chance to batten down the hatches. “Fuck.”

The world tilt-a-whirled. He felt Rhodey grab him, push and pull and tug him until he was sitting on the couch. His head was shoved between his knees, and conversations pinged around above him without any of the words computing. All he could hearseethink was Peter, Peter, Peter.

If I was a better father, none of this would’ve ever happened.

Eventually, someone grabbed his shoulders, hauled him upright, and it took him a full minute to realize it was Rhodey.

“Tony,” the Colonel said, and he sounded serious, like whatever he was saying was final, no arguments allow. “I’m going to call Bruce, alright?”

Yes. Yes. Bruce… Bruce would be good now. He’d heard them whispering about sedating him earlier, off in corners and hallways, when they thought he was too absorbed in his grief to notice. At the time, the thought had made his heart race, terror and revulsion making him paranoid. He couldn’t check out. He couldn’t. What use would he be to Peter like that?

Now, he’d lunge for just about anything that would take this feeling away. That would let him pull back from the grainy images of Peter’s eyes: glassy, unfocused, afraid and confused and lacking in that spark that would lull Tony into moments of forgetfulness. Moments when he’d genuinely have to remind himself that Morgan was the one with his DNA, not Peter.

“Tell him,” he gasped, eyes squeezed shut against the things he didn’t want to see, the photo that he’d never be able to forget, “tell him that I want whatever it is that Peter got.”

--

He didn’t know how long he slept for, but he knew that when he woke up, he woke up groggy. Groggy enough that, for a shamefully calm half hour, he forgot that Peter was missing.

And then he remembered, and he lost his child all over again.

F.R.I.D.A.Y. must’ve alerted Pepper when his heartrate spiked, because she slipped into the room within two minutes. She sat beside him, hand resting on his hip through their comforter. Her eyes were red, but she smiled like it was just another Tuesday, like their entire world wasn’t crumbling down around their feet, and he envied her. He envied her the composure. The ability to catalogue the things that were important and the things that weren’t.

“Hey,” she whispered.

“Hey.”

“I thought you’d sleep longer than this.”

He pursed his lips, ignored the implicit suggestion in the words. “Anything new?”

“No.”

He nodded, took in the disappointment slowly, wondered how long he could survive living in limbo. There were thousands upon thousands of unsolved missing persons cases in the United States alone. Every hour that crawled by lessened their chances of bringing Peter home alive, or even bringing him home at all. How could Tony possibly be one of those parents, the ones who spent the rest of their heartbeats agonizing over their child’s loss?

Are they still alive, hidden somewhere out in the world, vulnerable and unprotected? Are they dead? Which option is better: knowing that they’re alive, and suffering, or dead and free? Oh, god. What was it like, at the end? Were they afraid? Did they cry? Did they call out for their dad, because he was the one person who was always meant to save them?

Tony hadn’t been there for the start of Peter’s life. And now it might be over, Peter might be gone, and he hadn’t even been there for that, too. Couldn’t even say if it had happened.

“What time is it?” He asked, just to distract himself. Besides, every hour marked a dwindling statistic. Tony needed to know if they stood a chance, if there was still even a sliver of hope, and someone must’ve closed the curtains after he’d gone to bed, so he couldn’t quite see if there was daylight or darkness behind them.

“7:30.”

“Oh,” he whispered. That was later than he’d thought. The graph in his head nosedived. “Bruce gave me something.”

Pepper’s face twitched, eyes bleeding sympathy. “I know. I’m so sorry, honey.”

“They gave… They gave Peter something, too,” he choked out, “and… and he said that it made him feel sick and I wasn’t there to take care of him.”

Pepper’s blink lasted a good few seconds longer than it should’ve, as if watching Tony crumble was too much for her to watch, but the rest of her stayed steady. “It wasn’t your fault.”

He swallowed, trying to stamp down the perpetual helplessness that had taken residence in his gut, replace it with something else, something he could hold.

“How’s Morgan?”

“She’s okay. She’s been asking to see you.”

“I wanna see her.”

“In a minute.” Pepper slid her hand through his hair, voice soft, the kind of tone she used with Morgan or Peter when they were upset. “Try to relax a little first.”

“I had a dream,” he blurted. He knew that this was probably the opposite of what Pepper meant by relaxing, but he couldn’t help it. “I was in Peter’s bedroom, but it was… it was before. Right after May died. Remember… Remember how he wouldn’t get out of bed?”

For a split second, Pepper’s face flashed from composure to devastation, but it was so brief that it was easy to imagine that it had never happened at all. “Of course I remember. He wouldn’t get up, so you used to go in there and sit with him.”

“Yeah,” he whispered, and he smiled despite himself. He treasured those memories just as much as he wished they’d never happened. Helping Peter grieve for May was an ongoing tragedy, and one of the hardest things he’d ever had to watch, but once the initial aftershocks ended, Tony had gained a second child. “He’d curled up in my lap, and I was holding him. We didn’t… We weren’t even talking. I was just holding him.”

He swallowed, breath hitching. He met Pepper’s eyes, trying desperately to convey something that just wasn’t possible to capture in words. A loss, a fear, a weakening hope.

“Pep,” he whispered, hoarse and crackling, “Pep, I was holding him, but then I woke up and he wasn’t there.”

She didn’t say anything. Didn’t apologize, or promise that they’d get him back.

She just reached out and took his hand.

--

It was just past 11:00 when Rhodey pushed into the bedroom.

For a split second, Tony assumed the worst. But then,

“We found him,” Rhodey breathed. Beside him, Pepper gasped, like she couldn’t believe it. “Happy got a lead and, well, it doesn’t really matter. But we’ve got him, Tones. Steve’s got him.”

--

The flight from New York to Calverton, Virginia took an hour. They left Morgan back at the cabin, with Clint’s wife. Tony half considered bringing her, but he didn’t know what shape Peter would be in, physically or mentally. And he… he didn’t want to frighten her, although he supposed that was a moot point after the last 48 hours.

When this was all over, Tony promised himself that he’d apologize to both his children, for lots of different things.

For now, he just wanted Peter. He wanted to hold him, like in his dream but real. He wanted a moment that he couldn’t wake up from.

He mostly ignored Rhodey’s explanation of how they’d tracked the kidnappers down. It was complicated and had something to do with a gas station and a random college kid who’d seen Peter’s picture on the news. Happenstance, really. They’d gotten lucky.

“Is he alright?” Pepper asked, and Tony was glad that someone rational was thinking of the important things. “Did they hurt him?”

“The medics think that he may have a clavicle fracture,” Rhodey said. Tony could feel his eyes on him even though he was staring at his feet. “His kidnappers set off some tear gas and stun grenades when the team went it, so he’s got some irritation and ringing in his ears. No sign of sexual assault, but he’s still pretty out of it. They’re running a tox screen to make sure we’re not in danger of any overdoses.”

Tony looked up. He flexed his hands out in front of him, wincing when his wrists popped. “Is he asking for me?”

“Yeah. Steve said that that’s pretty much the only thing he’s said, too. Asked where you were a couple times and checked out.”

Tony bit his lip. Peter had been drugged, beaten, surrounded by doctors he didn’t know and thrown right into the chaos of a crime scene, and yet he’d still looked up at strangers and asked for him.

“Does he know I’m coming?”

“The medics told him.” Rhodey reached across the seats and grabbed his elbow as they started to descend, engines whining. “Hey, look at me. You sure you’re good to do this?”

He blinked, barely even processing the words.

What kind of question is that?

This,” he started, quiet enough that there was no way Rhodey would’ve heard him if they didn’t have headsets, “is my job.”

“If he sees you upset, it’s gonna make him even more upset.”

“He won’t see me upset.”

Rhodey groaned, and it kind of hurt that nobody seemed to believe he was capable of parenting his own goddamn kid, no matter what emotional state he was in. “Tony, you’re-”

“Very good at this,” he finished, cutting off whatever Rhodey actually meant to say. He imagined he wouldn’t’ve liked it much, anyway. “I’m very good at this.”

“I know you are, Tony, but this has been a rough-”

“He won’t know I’m upset,” he snarled, voice dangerous, and it felt so good to have a purpose. To have something to curl over and protect. “He won’t.”

Rhodey sighed, defeated. He didn’t look like he believed him, but Tony didn’t really care. “Alright. Just be careful, okay? Don’t go overboard.”

Overboard. Of course he was gonna go overboard. He was gonna go overboard with absolutely everything for the rest of Peter’s life.

He didn’t bother walking when the helicopter landed. He just bolted, weaving through police and paramedics and FBI agents and what felt like a thousand other pointless uniforms. Pepper and Rhodey both tailed him, not missing a beat.

Nobody had told him where Peter was, and it was pitch black outside, midnight having only recently come and gone. The only light came from the dozens of different emergency signals spread out across the field, blue and red and yellow and every other color of the rainbow, all blinking at their own dizzying frequencies. There was no logical way that he should’ve been able to find his kid in that chaos, and yet his feet just took him there, like they’d walked this path a million times, even though he wasn’t sure that he’d ever been within a hundred miles of Calverton before.

He saw the security before he saw his kid. There were about ten guards holding a perimeter around the solitary ambulance, and Tony made a mental note to give Happy a goddamn raise once this was all over.

And then there was Peter, and every single mental note he’d ever made evaporated into thin air.

He was slouched over on the back of the ambulance, orange shock blanket folded over his shoulders. He was bloody, bruised. There was dirt and ash all over his face, but none of that mattered at all because he was still the most beautiful, wonderful, breathtaking thing Tony had ever seen.

“Peter!” His voice broke with the force of the shout. “Peter!”

Despite everything, Peter recognized him right away. His head turned towards the sound, and his arms lifted up, fingers curling weakly in the air.

“Tony?”

“Here,” he gasped, skidding to a stop in front of the kid. “I’m right here, Pete. I’m right here.”

He grabbed Peter’s face between his hands, dragged the pads of his thumbs along the curve of his cheekbones, brushing away tear-smudged grime, and all his anguish evaporated. Gone. He knew it’d return, at some point, probably in the folds of night, far away from where anyone but Pepper could see it, but for now he was calm, capable. He felt in control, because that was the only thing he was allowed to be. Because that was exactly what Peter needed him to be.

He’d meant what he’d said to Rhodey. He was good at this.

“Hey there, buddy,” he whispered. He sniffed hard against the tears building in his throat, but he was grinning so wide that his cheeks ached. “You really got yourself into a mess this time, huh?”

“He’s been a little too close to unresponsive for our tastes,” one of the medics offered, and he glanced up to her. She had a sympathetic smile on her face, soft and kind, “but we were hoping that having dad here might help.”

He nodded, hoping that his expression conveyed the thanks he didn’t have the breath to voice, and turned his attention back to Peter. “Hey, hey,” he cooed, shifting Peter’s face a little, trying to get a reaction. “You with me, squirt?”

Peter looked dazed, pupils blown so wide that Tony could barely find any brown in his eyes at all, but there was recognition there, too. Drowsy and subdued, but recognition all the same.

“‘M with you,” he slurred, blinking hard. “I don’ feel very good.”

“I know, squirt. We’re gonna fix that, okay?”

Peter nodded, then slumped forward into his chest, nose digging into the crook of his neck. “‘M sorry. Didn’… Didn’ mean it.”

Tony had expected the apology, but it still felt like a slap in the face. “Shh, shh. None of this was your fault, kiddo.”

I’m sorry I didn’t do enough to protect you.

“‘M so glad you’re here,” Peter mumbled, and Tony wondered if he even knew that he was talking. “Kept asking for you. They said you w’re coming.”

Tony could feel each one of Peter’s breaths on his skin, warm and slow and relaxed. He’d heard about hostage victims being keyed-up on release, jumpy and paranoid, and just here his kid was: practically dozing off in his arms, murmuring apologies and sermons of faith, easy and relaxed just because Tony was here. Because Tony was holding him.

“Of course I was coming,” he managed to choke out. “I’ll always come for you, Pete. I’m always gonna come for you.”

“Mm. I know. Always got me.”

He’d never deserve this. Never. He could spend the rest of his life devoted to charity, to selflessness, and yet there would never come a day when he would deserve his children.

It should’ve been a disheartening thought, but it wasn’t. It was humbling. It made him feel grateful.

He found the gaze of the nurse who’d first spoken to him, fingers threading slowly through Peter’s hair. “Can I take him?”

“Of course,” she said. “But he’ll need x-rays to confirm that fracture, and fluids, and I wouldn’t let him go unmonitored until his tox screens start coming back clear. You have someone back at base who can do all that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then he’s all yours.”

He wrapped the shock blanket more firmly around Peter’s shoulders, dreaming of the moment he could tear it off, burn it, and replace it with one of the red fleece ones Pepper had brought back from a conference in Colorado at the end of Peter’s senior year. He couldn’t wait until they could finally peel off the layers of this night and replace them with new memories, with new things, with good, peaceful, mundane things.

“I’m gonna take you home now, Pete,” he whispered, fisting his hand desperately in the back of the kid’s shirt. “We’re gonna go home.”

--

Peter slept straight through the helicopter ride back to New York, legs stretched over Tony’s lap like a cat. He woke up just long enough for Tony to guide him to his bedroom (Tony had to coach him up the stairs like it was his first encounter with the concept), but he was out again as soon as he reached his bed. Cho and Bruce both assured him that there was nothing to be concerned about, that his body was just burning off the drugs, but it didn’t stop him from laying Peter against his chest and keeping a finger on his pulse.

Cho and Bruce must’ve sensed that he wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his kid, because they rushed through the process of converting Peter’s bedroom into a makeshift hospital suite. Peter roused a little when Cho placed his IV, but only enough to make a mild noise of displeasure and bury himself more firmly into Tony’s arms. Otherwise, Peter seemed perfectly content to let Tony deal with the world for him.

That was fine. That was more than fine, actually. It was exactly what he’d been wanting to do for days.

Pepper wandered in and out of the room, spreading her time between them and Morgan. Bruce popped in to give him the tox screen results, but he left almost as soon as he came. He didn’t know what the rest of the team was doing, but he knew that Rhodey had stayed behind in Calverton, with Happy.

The longer he spent unwinding, the more he wished he’d asked better questions.

He didn’t have a clue what had actually happened to Peter, didn’t know if his kidnappers were captured or dead, or if they’d escaped. He didn’t know anything.

Steve knocked on the doorframe after a few hours of pointless wondering, shifting nervously on his feet. It was as if Tony had put an impassable barrier around Peter’s bed, the kind that no one could see but everyone could feel. Nobody was brave enough to touch it.

“You can come it,” he said, amused. “I don’t bite.”

Steve took two steps forward, then stopped, clearly having no intention of moving any farther. “I don’t mean to intrude-”

He rolled his eyes. “What do you need, Steve?”

“The press is clamoring for a statement,” Steve said, after a brief moment of hesitation, “preferably in person.”

Tony pushed some of Peter’s hair back from his forehead, forcing himself to ignore the tiny cuts and bruises littering the kid’s face. “Giving a statement would involve leaving this room.”

Steve just nodded. “I understand.” He gestured in Peter’s direction, stiff and unsure, like he was treading on ice. “How is he?”

Tony smiled. He really didn’t know why everyone seemed so determined to dance around the topic of Peter, especially now that he was home. It wasn’t a touchy subject, it was Tony’s favorite subject.

“He’s sleeping, safe and sound.”

“I’m glad.”

“They ran a tox screen,” he offered. “He’s got GBH and ecstasy and a couple other pretty nasty things in his system. Cho’s confident that the fluids should help him metabolize it. F.R.I.D.A.Y. confirmed that he’s got a small fracture in his collarbone, but his healing should take care of it pretty quickly once his body recalibrates.” He smiled, eyes never leaving Peter’s face. “He’ll be back to playing Mario Kart with Morgan in no time.”

“Good.” Steve walked around to his side of the bed, steps slow and measured. “Do you want me to give you the details of everything now, or later?”

“Give me the essentials. Are they dead?”

“Yeah.” Relief shot through him. “Clint got two with his arrows. The other one was sleeping when we came in. He tried to grab a weapon, but Nat got to him first. Sam found Peter locked in a closet in the back bedroom.”

The rage he felt at the detail conflicted with the tenderness that rose with every second he spent with his children. In the end, he set the anger aside. He didn’t need it, right now. It wouldn’t made Peter heal faster.

“You sure there were only three?”

“We’re looking into it, but we’re nearly positive.”

He dipped his head in Peter’s direction. “How was he when you found him?”

Darkness swooped over Steve’s face, and his voice went hard. “Not great.” A pause. “You think he’ll be alright?”

“Without a doubt,” he said, and he meant it. “He’s a tough kid, and he’s got a good therapist. Pretty sure there isn’t anything he can’t tackle and come out the winner.”

“And what about you?” Steve asked, as sincere as Tony had ever heard him. “Will you be alright?”

He smoothed his palm down Peter’s back, and thought back to his dream. He’d imagined the whole thing wrong, he realized. The joy he’d felt then hadn’t captured even a single fraction of the joy he was feeling now.

“Of course I’ll be alright,” he said, like it was obvious. “I’ve got the best family in the world.”

--

--

--

Natasha had never been in Peter’s room before. Then again, she’d very rarely been the cabin, either. Tony had gone out of his way to keep his family shielded from everyone, even the team.

After everything they’d been through, she had a hard time blaming him for that.

Tony and Peter were both asleep when she poked her head through the door. She guessed that it was probably the first time either of them had had any real rest in days. Even unconscious, Tony had placed himself between Peter and the door, arms wrapped tightly around the kid, as if someone was going to try to steal him when he wasn’t looking.

Bruce and Cho had turned the bedroom into a makeshift hospital room, monitors and an IV pole tucked up in a corner, but it didn’t change the cozy atmosphere. A few framed sci-fi posters littered the walls, but there were family pictures as well: everything from photobooth strips to professional portraits.

For a brief few seconds, she let herself wonder what it would’ve been like to grow up in a place that felt like a home.

Pepper ended up catching her attention before the thoughts could go too far. She was the only other person in the room, and, unlike Tony and Peter, she was actually awake. She beckoned for her to come in, posture as relaxed as Natasha had ever seen it.

“Hey,” Pepper greeted, voice just above a whisper. “Are you here for Tony?”

“I am.”

“Can it wait?”

Her eyes flickered up to the pair curled around each other on the bed, and she made her decision without a hint of hesitation. “I’ll make it wait.”

Pepper shot her a genuine smile. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. How are they?”

Pepper leaned forward in her chair, and brushed the back of Peter’s hand gently. It was a mother’s touch, kind and adoring. She tried not to stare.

“Peter’s still pretty out of it, but he’s been talking to Tony, so that’s a step in the right direction. It might take a while for his metabolism to clear out all the shit they pumped into him, but his vitals are holding steady.”

“Did the tox screen come back?”

Pepper sighed. “It did. It’s a miracle Tony didn’t have an aneurism when Cho read it to us. They gave him GHB and ecstasy, among a few other things, but there’s nothing we can do about it except wait.”

That certainly wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. She hadn’t said it out loud, but she’d been prepping herself for the possibility that by the time they found the kid, they’d have already OD’d him.

She’d seen those kinds of bodies before, and they weren’t pretty. She wasn’t sure how Tony’s would’ve handled it.

Speaking of which…

“And how’s Tony?”

Pepper’s face softened even more at the mention of her husband. She reached out to adjust his shirt, tone warm. “His baby’s back, so all’s right with the world again. At least for now.” She let out an exhausted breath. “And after everything that’s happened, I’ll take for now.”

She wondered if Pepper had slept since Peter’s graduation. The more she analyzed the past few days, the more she came to the conclusion that she hadn’t.

“I doubt Peter’ll be allowed out of his sight for the next few weeks.”

“Weeks?” Pepper snorted, a rare slip of her polish. Natasha guessed that she saw it more than the boys did. “Oh, Peter’s going to have Tony following him around for the next decade at least. It’ll be sweet for a while, because at first he’ll actually enjoy the coddling, but then both of them are going to make my life a living hell.”

Natasha just smiled. There wasn’t even a hint of genuine aggravation in Pepper’s voice: just relief. “You can’t wait, can you?”

Pepper’s face lit up. “God, Nat, I’ve never been more ecstatic over the thought of the two of them snipping at each other in my life.”

She laughed, careful not to disturb either of Pepper’s charges, then took a cautious step towards the door. As much as she enjoyed Pepper’s company, there were still a million things to be done. She’d handle the paperwork, and she’d let the parents handle the kid.

She wasn’t really qualified for the gushy stuff.

“I’ll let you spend some time with your family.”

“Actually, Nat, before you go…” Pepper paused, chewing on the words, “just, well, thank you. People are never able to forget that Peter’s Tony’s child, but they tend to overlook that he’s mine now, too. He’s been mine for nearly six years. And I know that I’ll never love him like Tony does, but… but I still love him, and I’m still grateful.”

“I’m just doing my job,” she said, smile tight.

“It’s a good job, Nat.”

She backed the rest of the way into the hall. “Yeah, it is.”

The door clicked shut, and she just barely inclined her head to the security guard that was stationed outside of it. They’d be a common presence around here, for a while, at least until Stark re-found that tenuous balance between keeping his kids safe and letting them live.

She’d been worried about Peter, before. If there was anyone in the world who understood trauma, understood what it could do to your soul, it was Natasha Romanoff, but she knew now that Peter Parker had something that she’d never had.

He had people who gave a shit. People who’d make sure that he was fine.

She wondered if he knew how lucky he had it.

Chapter Text

 Peter smacked his bedside clock, and his ceiling lit up with a galaxy, swirling and lazy. In the center, bright green numbers spelled out 1:58 am .

He could hear the indistinct murmur of the TV wafting up through the floorboards. When he focused, he could pick up Tony’s breath, and unmistakable off-kilter, over-fast thud of his heartbeat. Tony had told him that the technical name for it was tachycardia . A permanent reminder of Afghanistan and the damage done there. Even without the reactor and the shrapnel that had orbited it, Tony’s heart would never be healthy again.

He probably could’ve gone back to sleep. Actually, he definitely could’ve gone back to sleep. He’d been burning the candle on both ends, recently, with Spider-Man and all the summer work Midtown had assigned, a half-assed attempt to catch the Dusted students up to speed. His general lack of self-care had come to an apex last week: when May had ambushed him with a print-out of his sleep patterns, courtesy of the biomonitor Tony had given him. 

And that was, of course, how he’d ended up here: on a forced break from the suit and school and everything else. He’d been a little bitter about it, for the first five minutes, but then Morgan had lunged into his arms and a late-summer breeze had rattled the trees and Tony had pulled his duffle bag off of his shoulder, squeezing the back of his neck as he did it, and he’d decided that being bitter was for people who hadn’t died yet.

He hadn’t even realized how exhausted he was until he’d had Pepper’s homemade mac and cheese in his stomach and his head pillowed against Tony’s shoulder. He’d made it all of fifteen minutes into the classic Cinderella before Tony was ushering him off to bed, guiding him up the stairs and griping about teenagers having a major deficit in self-preservation skills.

To be fair, he was probably right.

Those few hours of sleep had been nice, but Peter could tell that he needed a lot more. Maybe an entire week’s worth. If he moped enough, he was pretty sure Tony would let him do it, too. Yeah, that would be nice. Sleeping for a week, curling into his sheets, listening to Tony’s heartbeat thumpthumpthump-skip through the floor.

Except it was 1:58 in the morning, Tony was watching TV in the living room, and Peter was too curious for his own good.

He pushed off his bed, grabbed the throw that Pepper had folded over the foot of his mattress, and settled it over his shoulders like a cape.

The hall was cold. Peter traced the wall as he headed for the stairs. There were picture frames everywhere. So many that he could barely see the wallpaper through them. Of course, there were dozens of photos of Morgan, from the first picture taken after she was born to one they must’ve hung only a few weeks ago: her dangling upside down from a swingset in the backyard, grinning wide. There were a few photos from Tony and Pepper’s wedding, the one they’d had during the five years Peter had missed, and a few more from the vow renewal they’d put on after he’d come back. And then, of course, there were the photos of him.

When Peter had first come to the cabin, there was only one picture of him hanging in the hall, which was definitely one more than he’d expected to see. Tony didn’t really talk about it, mostly because he didn’t really seem to like talking about anything that had happened during the missing years, but Pepper had told him that he’d put it up sometime after Morgan’s second birthday.

The funny thing was, it wasn’t even a picture of Tony and Peter together. In fact, it’d been taken long before Tony had ever even met him. Peter couldn’t have been more than two, but he was sitting in a patch of grass, brandishing a flower out to whoever was holding the camera with a smile on his face.

Apparently, Tony had found it when he was going through his and May’s apartment. He’d shyly offered it back to May, once everything had been reversed, but she’d just smirked at him and told him to keep it.

Now, though, there were at least half a dozen photos of him, all framed and hung alongside Tony and Pepper and Morgan. Peter holding a Spider-Man themed tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Peter and Morgan sitting on the dock. Peter and Tony working in the lab. Peter curled over his desk, taking notes from a textbook.

The stairs creaked under his feet, but Peter knew the pattern. Third step, seventh step, twelfth. The TV was louder, now, and he could tell it was turned to a History Channel documentary on Hitler and aliens. Tony wasn’t actually watching anything, then. He was just using it for background noise.

Sure enough, Peter turned the corner to see Tony slouched back on the couch, eyes fixed on his StarkPad rather than the badly-rendered animation of Hitler being abducted by a UFO.

“Hey, bud,” Tony said, not glancing up. He moved his arm, though, holding it up in an unspoken invitation for Peter to curl up with him.

(It was Peter’s favorite kind of invitation.)

He padded over, hardwood cool and textured against his bare feet. He flopped bonelessly into Tony’s side, and he heard the man let out a little snort of amusement, like Peter’s laziness was the most precious thing in the universe.

“You comfy?” Tony whispered, fingers tracing gently through Peter’s hair.

“One sec,” he muttered. He spent the next few seconds curling himself into a ball, knees knocking against Tony’s ribs. He poked him irritably until he twisted a little, letting Peter settle more comfortably, cheek pressed up against his collarbone.

He let out a contented sigh. “ Now I’m comfy.”

“Oh, good,” Tony said, dry. “Glad we’ve got that sorted.” His voice softened, low and concerned. “What’re you doing awake?”

“I woke up and heard you breathing.”

It was probably something Peter wouldn’t have said if it wasn’t 2:00 am and he wasn’t half asleep. From the way Tony went all still and quiet for a few seconds, he guessed that his mentor had realized the same thing.

“You can hear me breathing from your bedroom?”

“Mhm. And your heartbeat.”

“Huh.” Tony turned his attention back to whatever it was he was doing on his tablet, seeming perfectly content to end the conversation there. “Fascinating.”

He hadn’t exactly had a specific intention in coming downstairs, outside of finding out what Tony was up to, but being ignored was not on his list of expectations. May kept making offhand jokes that Tony was spoiling him, and maybe that was a little true, but it was nice to have someone who looked at him like everything he said was lined with gold. He’d gotten used to it, after coming back. Tony listened to him like he was speaking scripture, or something. Like everything he did was a miracle.

He reached out and plucked the StarkPad out of Tony’s hands, setting it on the arm of the couch.

Hey ,” Tony chastised, but there was no real bite in his words, “I was doing something.”

Peter glanced up, smiling innocently. “Whoops.”

Tony rolled his eyes, but there was something curious there, too. Curious, gentle, concerned. “Why’re you being difficult, huh?”

“I just wanted to make you pay attention to me.”

Tony huffed out a breath that was half laughter, half fondness. “You don’t have to make me pay attention to you, buddy.”

Peter didn’t really feel a need to respond to that. Instead, he just nuzzled closer, pleased.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Tony asked, eventually. It took him a lot longer than Peter had been expecting.

“Nope.”

Tony was quiet for a second.

“So you really did just want attention.”

“It’s what I deserve,” he joked, and he felt a satisfied rush of success when Tony laughed.

“Uh-huh. Sure.” Another soft chuckle. “God, I’ve created a monster, haven’t I? Everyone kept telling me it would happen, and now it has. I’m reaping what I’ve sown.”

“You like it.”

“What, having clingy children? Absolutely not. I despise it.”

Peter just shook his head. He was too cozy to play along with Tony’s game. It was past 2:00 am, Peter had been dead this time last year, and he just wanted to have a few moments of warm, honest affection.

“You like it,” he repeated, and he could tell that Tony got the message, because he pulled Peter closer with a long, white-flag sigh.

“Alright, I do. Just keep that a secret, okay? If Morgan finds out, we’ll have trouble on our hands.”

“I think she already knows, Mister Stark.”

“Oh, god. We’re doomed.”

He snorted. “You weren’t doomed with just me?”

“That’s a fair point, actually.” There was so much affection in Tony’s voice that it overflowed into Peter’s chest. “There was never any hope for me, huh?”

“Nope.”

A few minutes slid past in relative quiet. The TV still droned on in the background, but Peter mostly tuned it out. Tony’s heartbeat was a better soundtrack, anyway.

Tony rubbed his side to get his attention. “Can I have my tablet back, Pete?”

Peter squinted one eye open, suspicious. “Why?”

“Because you’re going to be asleep in,” Tony faked glancing at a watch, “approximately five to ten minutes, and I have work to do.”

He didn’t really take offense to the estimate. Anyway, he was tired, and there wasn’t a better place to catch up on some sleep than with Tony there. Nothing, not even nightmares, could touch him like this.

Peter lazily handed him the tablet. He guessed it was probably a defeat, but it didn’t feel like one. After all, Tony just set it aside again and kept all his focus on him.

“You know,” Tony murmured, and he was using the tone he always put on when he read Morgan a bedtime story, “I saw an article earlier. I don’t remember what it was about, exactly, because you and Morgan were distracting me, but it talked about a study this institute did into parents. D’you wanna know what it said?”

“Uh-huh.”

“It claimed that the average parent worries about their child for five hours every day. And right away, I thought, that can’t be right . That’s not enough. I’m worrying about Morgan and Peter constantly .” He felt Tony press a light kiss to his head. “You never need to make me pay attention to you, Pete. I promise that I’m already doing it.”

He liked it when Tony referred to him and Morgan as one unit. My kids. My children. It didn’t really matter how often Tony reassured him that Morgan didn’t change anything, that Peter still mattered to him just as much ever: the hint of insecurity lingered. But these moments, these little slices of full-focus, all-on-him attention, soothed it away, if only for a little while. If only for a second.

“It’s a full-time job,” he whispered.

Tony paused. Peter recognized the silence as thought. Tony Stark may be known for rushing ahead, but that wasn’t all he was. He was careful with Peter, in the same way that he was careful with Morgan.

“It’s more than that,” he finally said, slowly. “You and Morgan… you two are the most important pieces of who I am. It comes before everything else. Everything I want, everything I need , is a secondary concern. And I know you hate it when I say this, but it really isn’t a feeling you’ll be able to understand until you’re older. Right now, it’s all about you, and that’s how it should be. It’s how it’s meant to be. But one day, you’ll have kids of your own, and you’ll get it.”

Peter just hummed. He hadn’t really absorbed much of what Tony was actually saying. He’d been way more content to doze during the speech. And in his defense, he had gotten the gist of it. Tony really could’ve just said I love you, I love you, I love you over and over again and ended up with the same result. 

Tony huffed a gentle laugh.  “You didn’t pay attention to a word of that, did you?”

“I kinda did.”

“Yeah, sure.” Tony scratched lightly at Peter’s scalp. Somehow, he always knew the exact spot to hit. “Get some rest, kid. I swear I’ll give you all the attention you want when you wake up.”

“And now.”

“Yeah, yeah. And now. You want constant attention when you’re tired. I’ve gotten the memo.”

“No, all the time.”

He could sense Tony shaking his head, hands moving to carefully tuck his bedroom throw more firmly around his shoulders. “You’re gonna be so embarrassed about this when you’re not sleep deprived, bud.”

“Nah,” Peter mumbled. He was already done with the conversation, if he was being honest. He was curled up against one of his favorite people in the world, he was exhausted, and he just wanted to sleep. “‘M never embarrassed with you.”

The comment won him Tony pulling him closer, which was never something to complain about. “That’s what I’m here for.”

“And attention,” Peter added, grinning lazily. “And food. And money.”

“Oh, yeah. Let’s not forget all that.”