By the time Peter started his classes at the beginning of the semester he was excited to do so. He was sure that even the most mundane course was going to be a source of excitement because it was college. There would be lectures to listen to and new and interesting concepts to wrap his brain around. Then there was the fact that college classrooms weren't like that of a high school. They were large and echoing with spread out tables or theatre-style seating. This was where all of the hard work he'd put in over the last four years of high school had culminated. He was a college student at MIT.
The first few days were everything he'd wanted them to be. The professor stood in the front of the room, introduced him or herself and explained everything they would be learning under their instruction within that time block. From there he was able to waltz into every lesson with his laptop and textbooks in hand ready to sit down and take detailed notes while skimming ahead in the books as they spoke.
It wasn't until a couple of weeks later that things seemed to become slightly problematic. The two more difficult classes he'd chosen were no longer casual and filled with introductions and anecdotes they were crammed with information, formulas, and details. Some of which, weren't listed anywhere in any of the textbooks he'd been assigned. Instead, they had become fast-paced and even though he had been proficient at taking notes in high school, this was different. It was more about picking out what you needed to write than copying what the teacher had posted on the board. Highlighting passages was secondary and writing in the margins was not nearly as efficient because he needed more. There was too much that he didn't understand and not enough time during the lecture to write it all down.
He was still calling Tony every single night and May almost as often but he never let on that he was starting to struggle. He didn't want them to know. He'd spent the last several years being told how he was made for college and was going to thrive. Disappointing them seemed like a real possibility and he didn't want that. So he suffered in silence as he dodged any questions that came up about the classes themselves.
The problem was that Tony knew he was lying or at the very least, omitting. Somehow he knew when he was avoiding things better than May. Probably because they were so similar that Tony could see himself in him. As such, every single phone call ended the exact same way.
"Are you sure you're doing alright, Pete? You know you can talk to me.", Tony would say every night as the conversation began to dwindle.
Peter's reply would always be the same. "I doing fine. I'm just tired. I call you again tomorrow."
Then concern would cross Tony's face as he'd begin to wrap things up with a heat-felt, "Alright, kid. Love you, Buddy.", and Peter would reciprocate, ending the call feeling a little worse each time he saw the worry lines form across the man's brow. Then he would go back to trying to piece together the notes he'd taken and try to make them coherent enough to understand before crumpling the sheets of paper he'd been rewriting everything on and throwing it across the room. It made no sense, all of the information was right there yet he didn't completely get it. There were gaps in his understanding and he couldn't seem to fill them in no matter how he twisted the words or what books he read.
It wasn't until he'd been assigned a research paper that he went from struggling to crumbling and he stopped calling anyone at all. He had been given two weeks to complete the project while still trying to understand it all and he felt as if he'd failed before he ever began.
After several days of silence, Peter's heart began to ache for home. He'd stay up long into the night, trying to perfect everything only to disappoint himself over and over again. Finally hitting his breaking point a few days later he gave in and called Tony. He was utterly convinced that he wasn't meant for college after all and that he was only wasting the man's money by staying there. Besides, Tony had promised him that there would always a place for him at Stark Industries whether he graduated or not. That was his safety net and maybe it was time to stop trying to swing across the trapeze and just let go because he could feel his fingers slipping and letting go on his own accord sounded less frightening than a sudden death-defying drop.
When Tony answered the request for a video chat he'd been elated. "Hey there, kid! What've you been up to? It's been day's Buddy!", he said before he really got a good look at his kid's red eyes and distressed features. Once he saw it, his heart absolutely sank and he softened his tone. "What's wrong, Pete?", he asked and when that was met with nothing but a few chocked sobs he had to swallow back his own emotion. "Talk to me, kid."
"I can't do this anymore!", Peter eventually shouted and the outburst seemed to calm him enough to be able to really talk it through.
"Can't do what, Pete?", Tony asked gently, his heart dropping further and further into his stomach the longer he had to wait for a reply.
After a few moments of silence, Peter was able to completely wipe away the tears and explain. "These classes. They're too much. I can't keep up.", he admitted quietly as shame coursed through his entire body. Tony had been bragging for years that Peter was smart enough to keep up with him in the lab... a genius in his own right. He'd easily been able to believe that after years of working side by side with the man building theories and perfecting technology beyond anyone else's comprehension. Between his own natural talent and Tony's hands-on approach, he'd been able to master every task he'd been assigned and then some.
"What's happening that you think you can't keep up because I know you are more than smart enough to nail this material.", Tony asked in utter confusion. He couldn't think of one subject where Peter would be likely to fall behind. He'd seen the boy's capacity to learn and eagerness to apply new concepts. This wasn't making any sense. There had to be something else.
"I don't know. I can't seem to get the notes down fast enough and there's still so much that I don't understand. I have this paper to write and I don't think I know enough to do it.", Peter rapidly explained as the hand not holding onto the screen flew up into his hair in frustration.
"What kind of paper are we talking about?", Tony asked curiously because usually, the kid loved writing papers. It wasn't unheard of for him to write them for fun.
"It's a research paper.", Peter replied sounding calmer than he had at the beginning of the call. As it was with so many of his worries, the more he got off of his chest the more at ease he felt.
"You know how to do a research paper, Buddy...", Tony said with a smile because he did. Peter had even done some research papers alongside him. There were articles published in renowned science journals with his name in the footnotes. Whatever this was had to be less precise than any of that.
Making a sound of frustration, Peter resisted the urge to tug at the hair that was still in his hand. "This is different. We're supposed to compare methods and I don't understand them all.", he strained through his teeth and that was enough for Tony to realize how much pressure his kid was putting on himself.
"It's only the first month of classes, Pete. I don't think anyone expects you to know them all yet.", Tony laughed, hoping that by making light of it all would help but it didn't seem to.
"How am I supposed to compare things that I don't understand!", Peter frustratedly questioned. Though, admitting out loud that he hadn't yet mastered the information being offered to him, was humiliating on its own. That had never happened before. He was always the first to get it right. Always ahead of the class. Not being either of those things at the moment was a hard pill to swallow.
"Kid, the idea is for you to start putting what you're learning to use. You don't have to touch on every single point.", Tony tried to explain not really grasping what the problem was just yet but he was starting to get an idea.
"Maybe. ...but it's not just the paper. It's all hard, Tony.", Peter said with a heavy sigh. It was out there now. Peter Parker wasn't the genius everyone thought he was and college wasn't for him even though he desperately wanted it to be. "I just don't understand. I've gone to every single class and I still get confused. Why can't I just learn it all?"
Those words were confirmation enough and Tony was then able to truly interpret what was really going on. The kid had never had to study before. He'd fly through his schoolwork, supplement it with his own research and only had to skim the material before a test. He lacked actual study skills, he'd never learned how to learn. "You are learning it and, and I think that's part of the problem, Buddy.", he tried to carefully explain. Peter had come to him for help and he already sounded fragile with self-doubt. "You've spent your whole life being ahead of the class. You've never had to think twice, it just all clicked right away because you're really good at plugging things into the basics. I guess, I guess what I'm trying to say is that... maybe this is the first time you've had to work at it."
"I've always worked at it. I didn't get straight A's by not working at it, Tony.", Peter defensively spat. He had spent hours getting ahead of his class, perfecting his essays and memorize fact after fact for the decathlon team.
"Yeah, you did your work and you took your time to get it all right but you never had to really study it, Pete. This is a bit harder and that's okay. You're learning it, just not as fast as you want to. You need to be patient with yourself."
There were a few moments of pause before either of them spoke again. Peter quietly contemplated everything he'd been told and tried to wrap his brain around it. "Is that normal? I mean for it to be this hard? I'm supposed to be smart."
"You are smart but yes, it's normal for all of this to be hard at first.", Tony replied softly. "You're building a whole new set of basics. It's going to take some time. You can't rush it."
That was part of the problem, Peter was rushing it. When things didn't fall into place immediately he got frustrated and tried to force himself to read it over and over again until he wanted to scream. "I just feel like I should be better at it. Like, if I work harder it will click faster."
"Have you joined a study group?", Tony asked thoughtfully. He would have thought that would have been one of the first things the kid did. He was likable, social, if not slightly awkward, and smart as hell. He could picture Peter sitting around a table acting goofy with a bunch of other students. Books, papers, and fast food wrappers spread everywhere as they discussed the latest lecture or assignment.
Peter hesitated before answering because he had looked into it before things got difficult. It had looked like fun up until he couldn't figure everything out and started to feel like he was failing. "No. I can't ...I'll look stupid."
"You won't.", Tony said with sympathy. He knew his kid well enough to know what he was thinking. He'd spent the last couple of years of high school heading up study groups as a tutor. He was the head of the table, the one with all the answers but this wasn't high school. Study groups weren't about tutoring, they were collaborative. "You don't have to know everything to be a part of a study group, Bud. You're learning just like they are. You can help each other, by filling in the blanks and comparing ideas."
"I won't be the best.", Peter dejectedly proclaimed making Tony sigh.
"Maybe not. ...but that's okay too. You don't have to be at the very top of every single class, Pete.", Tony replied with no room for argument. He supposed that by graduating top of his class in high school he'd expected himself to do the same in college and it wasn't like that was unrealistic in the future but for now Peter needed to slow down and figure out what methods were going to work for him.
"... but shouldn't I be?", Peter asked with hesitation. Tony had gone on and on about Peter being his kid. The man had all but told the professors around campus that he was practically his son and maybe even smarter than him. At the time it had been amusing and made him feel really good about himself. Now those same words were haunting him with expectations he felt he could never live up to. "I'm, I'm your... legacy."
"You think I was at the top of all of my classes at first? Kid, I spent more time goofing off than anything else. In fact, I barely passed my first semester. Did just enough to not get kicked out. Ask Rhodey, he's the only reason I graduated with honors. I am not a shining example of an upstanding college student... just ask the dean. I'm sure he could tell you some stories I've forgotten.", Tony laughed before trying to sound serious again. "You, on the other hand, are doing amazing."
"How do you know?"
"Because you care about how you're doing and I love that, I really do...", Tony replied with some amount of irritation lacing his tone. He had to take a deep breath to erase it before moving on. "...but I would also love it if you would ease up on yourself a bit. Join a study group and make some friends, kid. Don't worry about being at the top. You don't have to impress anyone, we're all already proud of you."
Sighing, Peter dropped his head down on to his desk and thought about those words. He had to admit that it made him feel a bit better. Tony wasn't expecting him to be perfect and maybe no one else was either but there was one problem that he still didn't know how to fix. "What am I going to do about this paper?"
"You're professor has open office hours right?", Tony asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yeah, Tony... but I can't exactly go in there and ask him how he wants me to write up my research.", Peter blandly retorted.
Laughing lightly, Tony replied, "Yeah, you can. That's what open office hours are for, Buddy. To get some help."
"I shouldn't need help.", Peter strained.
"It's okay to ask for some help if you have questions.", Tony said before huffing a laugh. "Hell, you ask me questions all the time."
Peter laughed too but it was short-lived because he was still slightly worried. "Yeah, well, you're you. I've never had to ask a teacher how to do something before."
"No, you haven't.", Tony admitted with a long sigh. "That doesn't make it wrong though. Go talk to them, yeah?"
"I will.", Peter said, giving in before wavering on his next words. "When, when can I come home?"
Taking a deep breath, Tony thought about how much he wanted to tell the kid he'd be there Friday but it wasn't a good time yet. Peter still had a lot to figure out before disrupting everything and allowing him to come back. "Soon", he replied simply, not eager to over-explain it. "Until then, you're going to loosen up, join a study group and remember to take advantage of your professor's open office hours." When Peter agreed, he let out a breath he didn't even know he was holding. "Promise me?"
"I promise.", Peter said before having to wipe away a tear. Part of him wanted to tell Tony that if he couldn't come home then he wanted the man to come to him because he missed him so much that it hurt.
Tony could hear the emotion in his kid's voice and wished he could climb right through the phone and hug him so tight he couldn't breathe. "I trust you, Kiddo. Now, go get some sleep, it's way too late. ...and tomorrow--"
"--Find a study group and talk to my professor.", Peter finished with a wet laugh, knowing exactly what the man was going to say.
"Exactly. Good-night, Pete. I love you."
Peter smiled and returned the sentiment. "I love you too... and Pepper. Tell her I said so.", he replied making sure to have the man pass along his affection.
"You got it, kiddo. Talk to you soon.", Tony returned with a smile before ending the call. All he could do from there was to hope upon hope that his kid listened to him and that everything would turn out the way it was supposed to.
Which they did because from there, things began to fall in to place. Tony had been right, a study group was just what Peter needed. Not only to master the material and learn to pace himself but also to make friends.
Talking to his professors, while being nerve-wracking at first, definitely eased some of his stress and with his self-expectations now where they should be, all of the lessons started to sink in and classes became enjoyable again.
As it turned out the paper he'd been so worried about hadn't even counted towards his grade and even if it had, it was passing. The second it was returned to him, Peter took a picture of it and sent it to Tony, Pepper, and May. All three of them congratulated him on a job well done but for some reason, Tony's message meant the most. 'I knew you could do it, Buddy. I'm so proud of you.', it said and Peter must have read it over and over again a hundred times because not even three weeks ago he'd called the man ready to give up but Tony hadn't let him. Just as he always had, Tony had been able to collect all of Peter's broken pieces in order to put them back together again and like any good engineer, he'd created a finished product that was better than it had been before it had broken.
"Thank you for helping to get it all together, Tony.", Peter laughed one night before dropping to something more serious. "You're always going to be around to do that right?"
Tony sighed and allowed a small smile to tug at one corner of his mouth. "You won't always need me to do that for you, kid. One day you're going to learn how to do it yourself. You won't need me anymore."
Smiling and shaking his head Peter looked Tony right in the eyes from through the video screen. "I'll always need you.", he breathed out in pure honesty.
Feeling his throat ache with emotion, Tony tried to swallow past it in favor of replying. "Yeah? Well, I promise to stick around as long as humanly possible.", he firmly claimed because he would. His family was his pride now and he would do anything for them.
"That's all I ask.", Peter said as he let out a breath he'd been holding before a yawn escaped him and he knew it was time to call it a night. "It's late. I think I'm going to go to bed. Goodnight Tony. Love you."
"You too, Buddy. See you soon."