Actions

Work Header

Riding the Waves

Chapter Text

Virginia Laurent worked to still her two shaking hands as she tied her hair into a precise bun. Quickly she pulled the newly dyed hair into a bowler before taking one last look around her bedroom.

The large room looked immaculate. She made sure that everything looked exactly how they were supposed to. The bed was made, the shelves were dusted, and the clothes were neatly folded and put away. Just how he liked it.

Wheeling her small suitcase out of the room she made sure to glance around in case anything could give them away.

Peter's toys were scattered on the floor.

Her shoes were still by the door.

Coats were still in the closet.

Perfect.

If this was going to work she had to make sure that once she left there would be no clear trace that anything was wrong. For all he’d know was that she and her son, Peter were out visiting a friend just like she said.

Her months of planning had come to fruition.

After one final look through, she pulled the bags out of the house and packed it in her car.

Tonight, they escaped.

Twenty minutes later, with her heart beating rapidly in her chest she pulled up at the gymnasium and looked around. The sun was already hanging low in the sky and soon there would be no light. Looking around she saw that there were plenty of cars in the parking lot which meant that she was on time. Smiling she pulled out her cell phone and called her son’s phone. He picked up on the first ring.

“Hi Mama, is it time to go?” She smiled and tried to keep the fear out of her voice. For as small as he was he always tried to make her days easy. He was usually very well behaved and generally tried to help her as much as he could. On nights when she fought not to cry herself to sleep, he always made sure to bring her tea or ice packs. Even after all he’d seen he was still a good person.

“Yes, and um make sure you go to the bathroom.” She’d never told him what her plan was, but his keen eye made it hard for her to keep it from him. Even though they'd never spoke about it, she was sure he knew exactly what was about to happen. He never complained or even questioned her decision to uproot their entire lives. He was ready to go wherever she needed him and for Virginia that was invaluable.

Not even five minutes later, Peter emerged from the gym smiling and laughing carrying an astronaut bear that he must have won at the fair. He had a blue hat on his head hiding the majority of his curly brown locks and a button-up shirt that screamed how much of a nerd he was. He climbed into the car and buckled up quickly. “Hi, Mama!”

“Hi, Petey! How was the carnival?”

“It was so much fun! We won some popcorn and snow cones.” She quirked her eyebrows at her son as she pulled onto the road.

“Won them, huh?” One glance at her son told her what she needed to know; he’d stolen them. That was one habit she wanted to break, but it was hard especially when he’d always done it for a good reason. The boy had a heart of gold, but the world had dealt him a pretty bad hand. That alone made it hard for Virginia to paint a black and right world for her son. Rules became suggestions. As hard as she tried, her son just lived by his own whims and for now, there was nothing she could do about it.

"How was your day, Mama?" Glancing at her son she smiled. He was trying to keep her distracted and calm. Normally it didn't work, but at that moment it wasn't working. She was terrified. If Eric figured out what they were doing, there would be hell to pay. Not just for her, but for Peter too. Soon Peter tried to simply sing and he turned up the radio while he busied himself playing with his video game. The distraction worked well enough and Virginia kept her eyes on the road.

The deep covering of the night sky acted as a helpful camouflage for their escape. The road was mostly empty which helped tremendously for the most part. The problem was that it was ten times worse when a random car would stay behind her for longer than she felt comfortable with. She always slowed down the car inevitably passed her.

They were almost to the location.

It was only a few more miles away.

Soon they would be free.

Gripping the steering wheel she turned onto the long road once again. For the last few months, she would take a cab to a location nearby and walk to the car so that she could pack up the items she bought for their getaway. She had spent so much time being careful so that this exact moment would go off exactly as planned.

She jumped when her phone rang looking down she knew exactly who it was. Anxiety crept into every inch of her bones as she picked up.

“Virgi? Hi beautiful,” he said. She glanced at her son who was staring up at her fear shining in his big brown eyes. It was like the world had gone still for a moment.

A smile curved onto her face in an attempt to mask what she was feeling. “Hi yourself. How was your day?”

“It was good. I’m excited to see you on Sunday. I can’t believe I have to go two whole days without your pretty face to keep me company.”

“Well imagine how I feel,” she said playing along. “But I guess I have always been the strong one in the relationship.” The man let out a husky growl before laughing.

“Well, I guess we’ll see when you get back, huh?”

“It’s a date.” Virginia heard shuffling then Eric’s voice broke through the phone much gruffer than usual.

“Let me talk to Peter Piper,” he demanded. Virginia wanted to ask why he would demand such a thing, but she knew him. Eric was the epitome of paranoia. He was obsessed with knowing her location every second of every day. She also knew that if she asked he’d get angry and that could be catastrophic. “One sec, Babe,” she said. Virginia glanced at her son who nodded before she handed the boy her phone.

“H-Hi Eric,” Peter said voice trembling.

“Hey, Buddy! You’re going to have fun with your mama, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you tell me, does your Mama have a bunch of bags in the car or just a few?” Virginia felt her head jump in her chest. He was onto them! Peter turned around looking directly at the few bags she’d brought from their house.

“Uh,” he said turning around, “I only see two bags and a backpack. I bet it has my toys in it. I like that new toy you bought me. It’s fun!” Virginia marveled how relaxed her son’s voice had become. The boy used to be terribly skittish, but now it was like he had another part of him that could put on a show at a moment's notice. She listened to him babble about some random toy he'd received the week before. Amazingly, Eric's tone turned back to normal. Peter's childish banter seemed to put Eric at ease.

“Alright Peter, I’ll see you two soon! Give the phone back to your mama.” Peter put the phone in her hand. She took a deep breath.

“I can’t wait to see you, well do something special,” she said toying with him.

“I look forward to it. Well I’m going to go, you stay safe and I’ll see you on Sunday,” he said before quickly hanging up the phone. Virginia instantly put the phone on silent and dropped in the cupholder.

How tense was that?

“Mama?” She shook her head quickly at her son and put her finger to her lips. Virginia could never really be sure, but she figured that Eric had done something both to her car and her phone. For all, she knew he was listening to their conversation right now and that was a risk she wasn’t willing to take right now.

After three years of living in fear, they were finally about to break free.

In just a few more minutes their dreams would come true.

As she turned onto the curved road she turned the headlights off and pulled into the small wooded area. She took a deep breath before she got out of the car and closed the doors leaving all the electronics behind inside the vehicle. Peter did the same and waited for her to give him permission to speak. Once she was sure no one was around she nodded. “Mama? Where are we? It’s like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” he said looking around at the barn with one light in the middle of a deeply wooded area. Virginia rolled her eyes at her son’s dramatics.

“It’s ok, we’re just going to switch cars.”

“Switch cars?” He smiled as recognition covered his face. “It’s gonna be an adventure? Right Mama?”

“Sure is!” She turned around checking the area one more time. “We’re going to go somewhere safe ok? I’ve got all your toys and most of our clothes, but we’ve gotta get out of this car and into the new one. We need to be really quiet and leave our phones and all of our electronics behind ok?.” The curly-haired boy nodded and they made quick work of moving the four suitcases, two stuffed backpacks, and three duffel bags into the maroon Honda CRV.

When she closed the hatch she reached down and gave him a hug and a squeeze.

“This is the start of something brand new for us. We’re going to start over, just the two of us.” Her heart swelled when he smiled at her like he did before their worlds were turned upside down. Hope tugged in her belly. It was something she hadn’t felt for a very long time. “Let’s go!” As she pulled out of the old road, she smiled and finally relaxed.

Eric Sarvin wouldn’t control them anymore.

His hand wouldn’t strike her. His legs wouldn’t kick her. His mouth couldn’t hurl cruel words at her and her son.

For the first two years, he’d never touched Peter. He never really looked at him, but then one-night last year he hit Peter knocking him clear across the room. At first, the boy had been shocked, but soon he fled into his mother’s embrace in desperate hysterics. It was that night when she sat in the boy’s room holding an ice pack to her son’s face while he trembled in her arms that her plan was formed.

No one would ever hurt her or her son again.

She’d done it. With a smile on her face, she knew that all that was left was the road ahead and a fresh start.

~/~

Tony Stark watched the small SUV pull into the driveway from his porch. He figured that she must be his new neighbor. Everyone else in the neighborhood had been up in arms about the house being refurbished instead of torn down, but when he saw her long gorgeous legs he decided that there was no way that he was going to be upset about this.

Besides, the house meant extra income for him, but they didn’t need to know about that.

His rental company didn't give him any specifics and he didn’t mind. The money was simply to provide a bigger nest egg for his son. Tony was blessed and he didn’t have to worry about money, but he never wanted his son to have to either.

More money. More security. More of a chance to help someone in need.

It was nice to be in a position to help people without anyone knowing. Someone had done it for him before and now he could repay them several times over.

Sipping his drink, he watched her carry bag after bag in the house. Just when he was ready to walk down there and help her she reached into her car and pulled a child into her arms. The fizzing liquid slipped down his throat.

Gorgeous legs was a single mother.

That was new.

Most parents on this street were cookie-cutter couples who’d been together since diapers. He wasn’t like that at all. Tony was a divorce with a son who was simultaneously brilliant and aggravating as hell. Tony smirked to himself.

Maybe he and gorgeous legs could be friends.

Maybe they could be more.

He watched the woman turn quickly to the left and right before clutching her son tightly against her chest and dashing up the stairs of the porch. The door closed quietly behind her.

A thought snapped into his mind, this woman was someone with a story.

~/~

Eric woke up and stretched. He spent the night in his chair in the living room. He was always a wreck when she left. That’s why he needed someone like Virginia to keep him in line. She kept the house clean, managed his company, and kept him entertained. The only problem was her klutz of a son. The kid was a true menace. Looking around he saw the boy’s crap on under the table again. He guessed him smacking the kid around didn’t leave enough of an imprint. He’d have to remind him again.

Standing up he looked around. Where was his breakfast? Virginia always made sure he had breakfast. He told her they could be gone Friday and Saturday, but she needed to be back by Sunday morning. So why didn’t he hear her? “Virg!” He walked around the house looking around. It was almost ten in the morning and no one was awake. He felt himself starting to get angry. “Virginia! Where’s my breakfast? I’m starving,” he said as the words died on his tongue.

The bed was empty and looked like it hadn’t been slept in. He turned and went to the boy’s room to find the same thing. She wouldn’t just leave. No, it couldn’t be. The drawers still had clothes in them.

He smiled, yeah she wouldn’t leave him.

She knew better.

Then he saw it, the science fair picture was missing.

He growled and opened every drawer he could find. Everything was in place then where were they? Running into the kitchen he opened the trash and dumped it on the floor. He cursed.

Sitting right underneath a bag of bathroom trash was a box of hair dye.

Pulling up his phone he looked for the tracker on her car. She wasn’t getting away from him that easily.

Or ever.

Chapter Text

One Year Later

Virginia Laurent was now living a very happy life in another state. New hair. New job...and more than anything she had a new name. Virginia was no more, but now she was Pepper Denise Potts.

In the stillness of the early morning, she ran through the quiet suburban neighborhood letting her mind slip into a peaceful ease. The music flowed through her ears as she rhythmically settled into her stride as she came around the bed.

This was something she’d always loved to do, but couldn’t.

Eric hated the idea of her running out in the open where someone else could see her. He mandated she run only on the treadmill in their house promptly ruining her love of running. For Pepper running wasn’t for fitness as much as it was to clear her head. The trees, the people, and the steady flow of air in her face always cleared her mind.

A smile crept onto her face. It was amazing how something as simple as deciding what time was the best for you to wake up could change your life. For the first time in a long time, Pepper was feeling empowered and in control.

...and she liked it.

Gone were the days of rising before dawn to make an omelet, bacon, pancakes, toast, and fresh orange juice. Words couldn’t describe how much she loved watching Peter eat cereal while she sipped tea every time they enjoyed a lazy morning.

Life was completely different now and Pepper was thankful for every easy breath. She still looked over her shoulder almost every second of the day, but now it was out of habit rather than necessity.

They were free.

She was even in a new relationship. Well, an almost relationship. They weren’t exclusive, but she was seeing Steve more than she saw anyone else. He didn’t scare her and he was sweet as pie even if he was a little boring. That isn’t to say that the man didn't have his issues though. He was bred to be in the military and even after active service he was still employed as a trainer in hand to hand combat. If she was honest, that was the biggest reason why she was with him.

Steve made her feel safe.

He had an arsenal of guns that he wasn’t afraid to use. He also had several large friends who too had ammunition and large biceps that they didn’t mind flexing. Once when they were out at a bar, a rather pushy gentleman approached her. It was the best feeling in the world when Steve appeared by her side bolstering with a dangerous intensity before being flanked by his best friends Bucky and Sam who were also ex-military. After dealing with fear and being tormented for so long, to be surrounded by a makeshift family of men who could take down a herd of buffalo was essential.

Finally having that peace of mind allowed her to really start settling into her new life.

She put up pictures and decorated their little house. It was nice to add additions and her own flair without having to run it by anyone first.

She never knew freedom could be as simple as choosing curtain colors.

But it was.

Freedom, she found came in a variety of ways.

As she ran up the front steps, Pepper slid her key into the door and gave the door a push. She loved her son, but Peter was definitely carrying the film of their past in his own way.

While she kept herself busy and explored the things she hadn’t been able to do before, Peter focused on safety. He insisted on putting locks on everything he could find. No matter how many times she promised him that they were safe it never seemed to get through to the boy. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night and he’d be at the front door making sure that it was locked. He’d even found special locks that only locked from the inside and applied them to the front door one day when she was taking a nap. She knew that it was a product of their past and that Peter didn’t really feel free or safe, but she figured that normalcy would come soon enough.

At least that’s what she hoped anyway.

That’s why she let Steve watch her son so much. Maybe the man could offer her son the same security that he gave her. Well, that and she couldn’t afford a babysitter. Steve was nice enough to watch Peter most days after school and a couple of hours on Sundays. His time in the Army had made him regimented and strict, but she didn’t think those were bad for Peter. Afterall her son tended to be a bit flighty and impetuous. More times than she could count since they’d moved here, she’d scolded him for touching something that wasn’t his or reminding him that just because he saw something didn't mean that he was entitled to it. Steve seemed to be good at reminding Peter about that as well.

When she walked into the living room, she saw Steve sleeping soundly on the couch. The man often liked to take a shower and rest thereafter he did a morning workout of his own. Smiling she leaned down and gave the man a kiss on his cheek.

He was a real gentleman who seemed to genuinely care about her and her son. He paid for Peter’s school uniforms without even being asked, paid the entrance fee to Peter’s science fair, bought them groceries, and often made them dinner.

She just had to admit that it was nice to be taken care of for once.

It was obvious that she couldn’t do everything for Peter on her own and it felt good to have someone to help her that she could trust.

And in this phase of her life, trust was everything.

~/~

The early morning breeze kissed Peter’s brown curls. He brushed the hair out of his face and sat down on the breakfast table on the porch to work on his robot. It was his newest creation. Last week he’d rebuilt a DVD player and given it to one of the kids at school. He was hoping that it would help him make a friend, but the girl only quirked her eyebrows at him and turned away.

Now, he was trying again, maybe the robot would help him get the attention of the kid in his science class who watched all the same shows that he did. After being in Malibu for a year he still hadn’t made one friend. Not for lack of trying anyway. He’d spent the better part of the last six months trying to find just one friend but he always ended up with him being as lonely as he was before.

As far as he was concerned it was just another reason to hate Eric. If he hadn’t been so crazy then Peter wouldn’t have had to leave his whole life behind. Tucker had been his best friend since forever, but since they moved he couldn’t talk to him or even contact him. It was one of those safety rules his Mama had given him when they first got here and it sucked.

Peter didn’t know if he’d ever make a new friend. It seemed that he was doomed to just watch kids have fun from afar. “Race you!” Looking up Peter watched the cool kid with the hair blaze past him with his awesome looking surfboard attached to the back of his bike. He tried not to stare, but the boy always seemed so awesome. He could skateboard, surf, do tricks on his bike, and he always had plenty of friends around.

He was everything Peter wanted to be but couldn’t.

Peter was a nerd.

A big nerd in a little body.

He watched the boy’s friends wind the curve up their street toward the hill that his house sat on.

Sometimes he went on their porch and watched the cool boy playing with his friends between playing his own games by himself. They played basketball, skated cool ramps, every now and then they had a party with a bunch of other kids.

More times than he cared to admit he dreamed of going up there and asking to hang out.

It would be so cool to be one of his friends

Maybe then he wouldn’t get picked on so much.

But that, of course, wasn’t how things happened.

He had bad allergies and was small. Like really small. Yesterday at doctor Martinez’s office one of the other mom’s brought her second-grader over to play with him. It was embarrassing especially since he’d be going to the fifth grade as soon as summer started. His mom tried to make it better, but it was no use. He knew was a runt.

Everyone did.

“Peter, we’re going to go and see a friend of mine, ok?” Looking up at the blonde man, Peter nodded. His mama had gone to work again which meant Mr. Steve was watching him. Great. He made quick work of packing up his small robot even though he’d barely gotten to work on it. “You must have slept really late,” the man said. Peter didn’t answer, it was Saturday. Why should he have to wake up early anyway? “Is it getting any better,” his mom’s boyfriend said gesturing to the robot in his hands.

“Kind of. I just need some more parts,” Peter said quietly. Mr. Steve was nice enough, but he didn’t really get Peter more than anything he got on Peter’s nerves. Not that he would ever admit it openly. Mr. Steve was in the Army and he never let Peter forget it. With his big muscles and a military haircut, it was hard to miss.

“Well go put it away, we need to head out.” Sighing Peter ran into the house he set his robot in the crate that his mama let him keep some of his parts in before closing the door and going back outside. “Tie your shoes, you’ll trip.” Bending down Peter started to do what he was told while Mr. Steve locked the front door. He wished that man didn’t treat him like he did his soldiers or the kids in his Rangers program, but it seemed all he knew how to do was give orders. Once again, he knew not to say that one out loud not unless he wanted to have trouble sitting for a couple of hours.

Standing up he looked around and saw the empty mug sitting on the railing. He felt his heart clench. He really missed his mama. For some reason, in the past few months, she had to work more than before. She wouldn’t tell him why, but he figured that it was because of her car. It was always messing up. It was like it got them to Malibu and then started to give up. Sometimes it didn’t start and other times it just turned off. He wished he could buy his mama a new car, but he couldn’t. Mr. Steve leaned down in front of him cutting his thoughts off.

“So, we’re going to see my friend. Do you remember our rules when we go out?” Peter fought hard against the urge to tell the man that he wasn’t stupid. Instead, he simply nodded. “Can you tell me them?”

“Stay close to you. Be polite and respectful. Don’t take anything without asking,” he recited. The man gave him a serious gaze that made Peter stop cold.

“I’m going to ask him for some help with something very important so I need you to be on your best behavior ok?” Peter nodded. “Do you remember what happens if you don’t follow the rules?” Again Peter nodded mutely. “Yes, sir?”

“Yes, sir,” Peter said quietly. Mr. Steve pulled out his cellphone answering it almost instantly after it started to ring. The man smiled at Peter which made his insides twist in frustration. Why did his mama have to date this guy? She didn’t seem to like him very much, well not from what he could tell. When he was really little before they met Eric his mama used to smile as bright as the sun. He hadn’t seen her really smile in a long time and he missed it. Now, he just saw how tired she was. He figured that was why his mama kept Mr. Steve around he helped with bills even though she said she didn’t want him to.

“Let’s go, Peter,” he said putting his phone in his pocket.

“Are we going to take your motorcycle?” Mr. Steve shook his head as he started down the driveway.

“No, not today. My friend actually doesn’t live too far so I figure we can walk on a pretty day like this.” Peter shrugged and followed the man. As they walked down the street Mr. Steve reached out to grab Peter’s hand but he pulled away. He wasn’t a baby. “Sorry, Pete. I forgot you don’t like that,” he said chuckling. “So I heard you tried to make the soccer team. Did that work?”

“No, the grass made it hard, my eyes kept watering,” Peter said not lying. He'd chosen to sit on the bleachers and not actually try out. It wasn't like he wanted to play anyway.

“Well, that’s no fun. Well, maybe you can rethink joining the Rangers, huh? It would be really cool. We have meetings every week and there are plenty of kids your age. I bet Mr. Bucky would even let you lead some of the drills.” Peter fought to not roll his eyes. He’d watched those kids do Army drills like crawling through barrels and jumping through obstacle courses and it seemed a lot like torture to him. He wanted no part of that. Plus with Mr. Steve running the 13-18-year-old division, he got dragged to enough of their meetings and events for a lifetime.

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh come on, son. You’d love it. It’d help build you up.” Peter didn’t let his disdain not hide. He hated it when Mr. Steve called him son. He wasn’t his son. “I guess it’s always going to be robots and computers, huh? You know my friend we’re going to see Mr. Stark he builds robots every day. Maybe he’ll show you one.” That got Peter’s attention.

“Really? What kind?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He’s always talking about them, but I don’t understand that stuff, but we can ask him ok?” Peter nodded with thoughts swirling in his mind. That’s when he realized that he was walking up the street to the cool kid’s house. Peter had never made it up the hill to see it even with all of his time spent observing them.

The walk wasn’t as long as he thought it would be, but it didn’t help his nerves. His stomach was dropping further toward his feet with every step. He was about to meet the coolest kid he’d ever seen and apparently his dad built robots? Could this get any better?

“Peter?” Looking up he saw that they were already at the house and Mr. Steve and the greasy man he always saw were looking at him. Scrambling forward he moved toward the two men. “Peter this is Mr. Stark.”

“Hi sir, I’m Peter,” he said, giving him a small smile. Mr. Stark gave him a quick smile.

“Hi Peter, just call me Tony,” he said turning back into the house. Mr. Steve motioned for Peter to follow them into the house. The large blonde man turned to him and mouthed, ‘hands to yourself’. Peter took note of the pointed look of warning and nodded. He should be irritated, but everything looked amazing and it distracted him. “Harley K!” Peter looked around the house in awe. The door was probably eight feet tall and there was a waterfall in the middle of the floor. There were so many cool devices that he never even imagined could be real.

“Dad? What’s up?” Peter turned around to see the cool kid now standing right in front of him. He was wearing a pair of board shorts and a loose tank top. His hair was everywhere like he'd just towel-dried his hair.

“This is um a kid, he’s hanging out with Steve. I need you to keep him entertained while we do adult stuff and talk.” Peter watched the cool kid’s eyes glaze over before he huffed. It was clear the cool kid didn’t want him around and that sucked, but he wasn’t surprised. “Harley, be nice to him, ok?”

“Yeah, Dad I got it.” Peter heard Harley’s annoyance. Great. “Follow me, we’re just playing some games.” Turning around Peter followed Harley down the hall toward a room. He was trying not to stare at all of the cool stuff in the house, but it was hard. It was like walking into the future. Harley opened a regular looking door that opened to a very not regular looking room. “This is my uh game room. We’re in the middle of a tournament, but you can play after,” he said stepping inside the room. Peter’s mouth dropped open when he looked around. There was a popcorn machine, two arcade games, long wrap around couches, and the biggest tv Peter had ever seen up close. They were playing some killing game or something, but Peter didn’t care it was awesome.

He was hanging out with the coolest kid ever in the coolest house ever.

This day was literally perfect!

~/~

Pepper rubbed her temples again. Her stupid car had broken down again. She was finally at the end of her rope. She picked up her cellphone and leaned against the wall. “Hey uh Nat, I’ve got a problem. My car isn’t working like it’s supposed to. Do you know anyone who could help me?” Pepper heard shuffling. Nat was never one for many words. She wasn’t sure if that was due to the secretive nature of her job or just who she was. Either way, it was always unnerving. If it wasn’t for Nat, they might not have ended up in Malibu in the first place. She was the one who’d set her up in the surprisingly low priced house and she’d helped her get the car way back in Arizona. The woman had even brokered the new identities that enabled them to live in freedom. Nat was a godsend if Pepper was concerned. An angel truly sent from heaven. “Nat?”

“Yeah, I was looking into something. The car’s just cutting off on its own?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Just a guess,” the woman said. Pepper knew better. Nothing caught Nat off guard. Nothing.

“Nat if something's up and you know, please just tell me. If I need to,” she started before Nat cut her off.

“No, you’re fine. It’s not that. Just that model has a tendency to do that. Looks like they recalled it for that exact reason.” Pepper sighed with relief. “You got away, no more fear ok?”

“Yeah, free of fear.”

“That’s right. I’m going to send a name and number to your cell phone. Call him and tell him that I sent you. He’ll take care of you.”

“Thanks Nat.” They spoke a few pleasantries for a couple of minutes before they disconnected the call. Now, Pepper just had to get back to work.

~/~

Ok, so after like three hours of staring at the television and not getting a chance to play he definitely was rethinking how perfect a day it was.

He was so bored.

Each time he asked to play they said next round, but after the tenth time, he realized that he was probably never going to get a chance to play. They kept passing the chip bowl around and eating popcorn but he never got any. It was like he was invisible. He desperately wanted to fit in, but he couldn’t get the courage up to even ask them to pass the bowl to him.

He was such a lump.

After what felt like a year he excused himself to go find a bathroom. It was easy enough to find with a robot pointing directly at it. Once he finished he headed back to the game room. His hand stopped right on the handle. Why did he have to stay in there? There were so many other things he could look at. Taking matters into his own hands he started to explore the house.

It was way bigger than his own house. Like way bigger. It had two stories and a bunch of rooms.

The coolest part was the tv's everywhere. There were big ones in the corners like a movie theater and smaller ones that seemed to know everything. Like the time when dinner was, Harley’s calorie consumption, and something about rendering time.

Peter was blown away.

The game room had nothing on the rest of the house.

He moved closer to one of the small tv’s in the walls and gasped. It looked like it was hooked up to some type of artificial intelligence. How cool was that? When he touched the screen it populated his temperature and his heart rate.

Wow!

Looking around he kept walking and exploring. He wandered into a room that he could only describe as heaven. It must be Mr. Stark’s personal lab or something. There were really cool workstations like the ones he saw in his enrichment science class at school but way better. As he got closer he could see that they had computers built into them.

It was the absolute coolest thing he’d ever seen in his life.

He was happier there than he had been the whole afternoon. Everything was so amazing. There were a million questions zooming around in his head and he felt like his brain couldn’t keep up with his body.

Then he saw it; a piece that shimmered in the light and looked reminiscent of what he needed for his robot. Mr. Tony wouldn’t mind. Before he knew what he was doing he was climbing like a monkey on the large shelves trying to reach the item. Just when he almost had it in his hand he heard laughing before the door popped open. Peter was frozen in place as he watched them walk inside the room laughing and joking.

“So I’ll rig this thing for you so you and Buck can what drink beers hands-free?”

“Not hands-free exactly,” Mr. Steve said. “More like conveniently.” He heard Mr. Stark snort below him.

He’d done it again! No matter how hard he tried he always did something stupid. He was going to be in so much trouble. Peter did his best to take a deep breath and stay calm. They didn’t see him yet, maybe they would leave and not notice him? It was wishful thinking but still. He tried to not move and pray that they would just leave. His heart thumped wildly in his chest as they just kept talking about some woman with curves named Peggy. Peter felt his blood boil. Eric used to talk like that in front of his mama just to hurt her feelings. He wanted to scream at Mr. Steve, but he didn’t. He pushed his anger down hoping to get himself out of his mess. He could deal with that later. It felt like just a blink of his eyes before two pairs of eyes were trained on him.

“Peter! What are you doing?” The man’s voice reverberated off the walls like a machine gun. Gasping at Mr. Steve he felt his hands go weak. A creaking followed by the shelf below his feet giving way. A large noise encompassed the whole room as he started to fall through the air. He was afraid he would hit the ground so he closed his eyes. Moments later he felt himself land on a chest. Looking up he expected it to be Mr. Steve, but instead of the blue eyes he was met with brown ones.

“That was some fall, huh?” Peter didn’t get a chance to respond to Mr. Stark before Mr. Steve had him by the arm pulling him roughly to his feet.

“What did I tell you?” Peter tried to stammer out a response or an apology, but as soon as he saw Mr. Steve’s red face the words dried in his throat. Peter knew that look on the and he closed his eyes, bracing himself for the impact that he knew was coming.

~/~

Inside his room, he heard his mom and Mr. Steve arguing. Their house was too small to conceal things like fights. He had run all the way home after receiving a very public admonishment. Harley and all of his friends witnessed it after they’d heard the crash and Peter felt like his whole world was ending. Peter didn’t bother to stay for Mr. Steve’s tongue lashing as he sprinted out of the house and down the street. As soon as he got home he locked himself in his room until he knew his Mama was home.

Once his mom came home she took one look at him and his face shamed with tears she turned on her heel charging for Mr. Steve. Peter was too much of a wuss to say anything instead he just kept laying there in his pajamas holding his astronaut bear as the argument escalated. As much as he wanted to stay out of it his ears couldn’t help but hear what was going on.

“Leave and don’t come back,” his mom said firmly.

“Pepper, please. I’m sorry I am. I’m sorry if I overstepped, but Peter needed to be punished. He ruined thousands of dollars of equipment from my friend what was I supposed to do?”

“You could have called me.” He knew by the quiver in her voice that she was close to tears. "He was supposed to be safe with you, Steve. You hurt my son on purpose. How can I ever trust you again?"

"Pepper," Peter heard the man say softly.

“No Steve. You don’t touch my son. Ever. He’s my son, not yours. I trusted you and this is how you repay me?" Mr. Steve must have said something Peter couldn't hear because he heard his mom raise her voice. "I don’t care what he did! Stop trying to justify it!”

“Ok, ok I understand. It won’t happen again. I was just trying to discipline him. I'm sorry. I swear, I won't do that ever again, Pepper, please."

"Hitting someone who's weaker and smaller than you isn't discipline. It's barbaric and cruel."

"I understand now, I do. This won't ever be an issue again."

“You’re right. Please leave.”

“Pepper,” he started.

“Just leave,” she shouted cutting him off. That made Peter sit up straight in his bed. “It’s not working out and I’m sorry, but please just leave and don’t come back.” There were a few soft words spoken that Peter couldn’t hear before he heard the door close. Turning his head to look out the window Peter he saw Mr. Steve climbing onto his motorcycle. Gulping Peter saw Mr. Steve glaring at him from his bike before he turned it on and sped away. The man didn’t even look back.

He heard a loud crash. Jumping up he threw himself out of his be and rushed to his door. As soon as he peaked into the hallway he could see his mother on the kitchen floor crying.

He’d really done it. Peter knew that Mr. Steve made his mama feel safe.

And now he was gone.

~/~

Tony sat on his porch watching his friend fly down the road on his motorcycle. He found it ironic that Steve “I Love the Rules” Rogers was speeding in a very residential area. If he had to guess he would figure that Pepper probably didn’t like someone disciplining her child physically any more than he did. Just because you were around someone’s child didn't mean that you automatically got to discipline them. One day Steve would learn to stay in his own lane.

Tony sighed as he looked on the now-empty street. His lab was definitely a mess with tools, projects, and countless other items strewn all over the floor. He was not looking forward to cleaning it up. Clicking his teeth he stood up and walked into his house. He found his almost fourteen-year-old laying on the couch watching TV looking mildly annoyed.

“What happened today?” Harley rolled his eyes and turned the volume up on the tv. This kid. Tony stepped forward and made a slashing motion with his hand. The computer that ran his house promptly disconnected the tv.

The teen lazily sat up. “Why’d you do that?”

“Because you kid are on my last nerve. I asked you a question, what happened today?” Harley ran his hands through his long hair.

“That freak climbed on your shelf and knocked everything over. He ruined so much of my stuff! Don’t yell at me, go yell at him!”

Tony glared at his son. “Why was he alone in our house?”

“He went to the bathroom. What’d you want me to do? Go in there with him.” Tony felt his blood starting to boil. He could handle snark, the occasional sarcastic barb, but disrespect and attitude grated on his nerves.

“Watch it,” he threatened. “I asked you, no wait I told you to watch him. I have government documents and prototypes in this house and you left him alone. I told you I had an important meeting today. What were you thinking?”

"It was just Steve! He's over here all the time." Tony narrowed his eyes. Harley pushed himself backward slinking further into the couch. Tony figured his son knew he was in trouble by the defeat the boy was permeating.

“Well? Do you want me to look at the footage? Because I can.”

“Fine," he said submissively, "We were playing that new game um racing game and we were having a tournament.” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. So basically he ignored the kid which is why the little sneak ended up in his lab. “How long am I grounded for?” Tony looked around the messy living room. His son was smart and had a good heart, but the kid could be selfish.

“One week.”

“What? Why? I didn’t even do anything?”

“Let’s see, you disobeyed me, cost me thousands of dollars, and you haven’t done any of your chores for days now. Not to mention that poor kid was humiliated all because of you. There's no way that you can’t tell me you didn’t know what you were doing was wrong.” The teen sighed accepting his fate. “Go to bed, we’ll talk more in the morning.” The boy stood up and Tony pulled him in for a quick hug. “Love you Harls.”

“You too, Dad,” he said before leaving to go up the stairs. Tony blew out a harsh breath. As much as he hated to punish his son, it was a necessary evil. His heart broke for Peter. Sure the kid needed to be taught a lesson, but Steve had punished him very publicly and harshly if Tony had an opinion on it. The kid looked like his world shattered when he ran out of the room crying. Tony couldn’t stop himself from feeling responsible.

If he had done his part then none of this would have happened.

Now, he’d just have to fix it.

Chapter Text

The next day Peter was sitting on the porch again but this time his mama was there too. Her eyes were red and puffy like she’d been crying all night. After he laid down he heard her cleaning the kitchen. He'd seen her like this plenty of times and he was almost positive he didn't sleep much. Peter felt a led ball plummet into his stomach at the thought. He'd really screwed things up. She had a rare Sunday morning off and they were supposed to be enjoying a small breakfast, but neither of them had said ate or said much.

It was like a dark cloud was hanging over them again.

He hadn’t felt this way since the early days when they’d left Eric. It was here again and now it was his fault. Mr. Steve was gone and Peter knew it was because of him. One thing he knew about his mama was that when she made up her mind there was no changing it. No, when Pepper Potts made up her mind it was as solid as a plate of gold. His point was only further solidified when he spotted a small box on the edge of the porch that he was sure was filled with Mr. Steve’s stuff.

“I saw that the DVD player isn’t in your room anymore. Did you finish it?” Peter nodded at his mother and wiped his mouth surprised by the sudden conversation. “Where’d you take it?”

“I um gave it to MJ. She’s really nice, but she’s always saying she can’t watch documentaries in her room because she doesn’t have a TV.” His mom grinned happily at him.

“That’s nice of you, Bug. You’re very sweet. You have one of those one of a kind hearts that power the world.”

“Thanks, Mama.” He kicked his legs in anticipation knowing that the conversation was about to shift.

“Let’s talk about yesterday.” Yep, exactly what he didn’t want to talk about. “What happened?”

He slumped in his chair. “Mr. Steve told you already, why do I gotta?”

“Why do you have to? Come on Peter you know why. We’re a team buddy and I want to hear it from you.” He blew out a deep breath and chomped slowly on his toast. She hated it when he talked with his mouth full and at least this bought him some time to think. Maybe if he changed the story a bit his mama would bring Mr. Steve back. He’d settle for the more unpleasant parts of Mr. Steve if it meant his mama could be safe and happy. He wanted to try ieven if it was a long shot. “Drink your juice and answer my question, Peter.”

Doing as he was told he swallowed quickly and wiped his hands on his shorts. “Well um, Mr. Steve took me to Mr. Stark’s house.”

“Ok. Skip that part and jump to the part where you made a bad decision.” Peter sighed, she was really on a mission.

“Well, I was in Harley’s room that’s Mr. Stark’s son, but he had a bunch of kids over so I was really bored ‘cause they wouldn’t let me play or do anything. I got lost and went into his lab. There was this robot like mine and I wanted to see it so I um climbed on the shelf.” Without looking up, he knew that she was giving him her patented disappointed look.

“We’ve talked about touching things without asking, right?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.” She leaned forward and cupped his cheek with her hand making his eyes meet hers. His heart jumped when he saw her about to cry. “Don’t cry Mama, please,” he begged.

She wiped her eyes and sniffed. “I’m sorry that Mr. Steve hurt you,” he saw her lip quiver but her blue eyes looked so sad. He hated that she looked that way. “I know I said no one would ever hurt you again and I’m sorry that this happened. I didn’t let him do that ok? He’s not going to come back around anymore, I promise.”

Peter bit his lip. He had to fix this. “It’s my fault Mama, please don’t be mad at him. I deserved it.”

Before he could react, his mom pulled her chair close to him and pulled him close to her side. “You are a ten-year-old boy, there is nothing you can do to ever deserve someone to hit you. Do you hear me?”

“But I was bad.”

“Peter, he still shouldn’t have done that. He’s the adult and you’re a child. It’s not fair for him to treat you that way. I don’t care what you did.”

“It’s my fault though. I shouldn’t have climbed up there and I broke Mr. Stark’s stuff. Eric would have,” he started before stopping.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Eric set what’s called a precedent in your life. It taught you that if you make a mistake that you should be hit. That’s not ok.” She put her hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry you had to see some hard things in your life, but no more, ok? No one and I mean no one is allowed to hit you. Do you understand?” Peter nodded.

“Ok.” He let himself rest in her arms. Maybe they could be safe together. Just the two of them. Pulling his plate close to him they both sat eating side by side. They stayed like that for a while with her telling him about her job as an office clerk and him telling her about his science kit that he was working through. It was supposed to be for high schoolers, but he found most of them to only be moderately challenging.

“Let’s clean up and see if we can find a good movie. How does that sound?” He jumped up and started to clear the table. He desperately wanted to spend any time he could get with his mama. Before Eric came into their lives, they used to have so much fun. She'd take him to parks, museums, and they loved to camp out on the roof of their condo. He smiled thinking about it. Sometimes she would make him a s'more bomb which he knew was code for marshmallow fluff, crumbled graham crackers, and chocolate chips on bread. He wasn't sure how she did it, but his mama always made sure that they had fun. Those were the best times of his life. Every day he hoped that he could have that mama back, but it hadn't happened yet.

Maybe today would be the day.

To his surprise, Peter looked up to see Harley and Mr. Stark walking down the street. At first, he figured that they were just going for a walk, but then when they turned onto their grass Peter knew something was up.

Mr. Stark was wearing a pair of black jeans and work boots. He had on a black tank top that was clearly marred with grease. Harley trudged behind in him a pair of cargo shorts and flip flops. The teen looked pissed off but like he was trying to be polite. Peter tried to smile at him, but the teen-only glared in return.

“Hi, I’m Tony Stark, I live just down the street there. This is my son, Harley K.”

“Hi, I’m Pepper Potts and this is my son Peter.”

“Oh, we’ve met. You see he um broke some of my shelving in my lab yesterday,” Tony said. Pepper sighed and pulled Peter close to her side.

“Yes, I’m very sorry about that. I’ll be happy to cover any damages for your trouble. Peter you already apologized to Mr. Stark, right?”

“Yes Mama,” he said staring at his plate. He felt like such a little kid and after yesterday that was the worst feeling in the world.

“Good, how much are the damages? I don’t believe that I will have enough to pay anything upfront, but I can cover it. I’m sure,” Pepper said.

“Well, you see it’s about…” Mr. Tony started before Harley cut him off.

“It’s like ten grand worth of stuff. Well you know the stuff you can replace, unlike the first robot someone ever built,” Harley said full of teenage attitude. Without stopping to look at his son, Mr. Tony smacked Harley in the back of the head with enough force to shut the teen's mouth.

“As I was saying, I don’t want to burden you with paying for your son’s mistakes. I much prefer to let them learn how their actions have consequences,” Mr. Stark said.

Peter felt his mom’s hand grip his shoulder tightly. “What are you proposing?” Mr. Stark glanced around them before looking back at his mom.

“Well by having him clean up his mess. Mostly just having him do some chores around my house until the debt is cleared.”

“That would probably take him years,” his mom said testily.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine. Fortunately, I have the means to replace many of the items, I think the issue here is making sure lessons are learned. I know some employ other methods of correction, but I was thinking this way everybody gets what they need in the end. He learns about cleaning up his mistakes and I get my lab cleaned.”

“So you’re suggesting he spend some time at your house?” Mr. Stark nodded.

“I was thinking he could spend a couple of hours on the weekend mornings before lunch doing some chores. Helping me build a new shelving unit and sweeping up my shop. For let’s say three months? After that, we can call this even.”

Peter watched his mom do that thing where she chewed the bottom of her lip in deep thought. He didn’t want her to have to worry about paying any more money especially with Mr. Steve gone. He bit his lip, as much as he wanted to spend time with her he needed to fix this. It was the least he could do.

“I don’t mind, Mama. It was my um mistake,” he inserted quietly. He glanced up to see his mom still thinking, but Mr. Stark had an impressed smile on his face.

“I don't know. He’s only ten. I don’t want him doing anything strenuous or dangerous,” his mom said.

“Oh, don’t worry, Harley here will help him, isn’t that right Harley?” Peter winced when the teen gave the fakest smile ever.

“Of course, Dad.”

“See? It’s settled. What do you say we get started in about an hour?” Finally, his mom nodded.

“Ok, just for a few hours though.” She looked down at Peter. “You have your cell phone and you come home if you start feeling tired or anything.” He saw Mr. Stark roll his eyes, but Peter nodded.

“We’re going to head home now, Peter can come down when he’s ready,” Mr. Stark said.

Once they were gone Peter looked up at his mom. She had a very contemplative look on her face as she looked at her phone. She’d been doing that a lot lately. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, baby I’m fine. Just thinking is all. Go wash your hands and put on an old shirt.” He nodded and ran off to do just that. He started to feel kind of excited. Maybe he could get a good look at that robot or the AI again. In minutes he was back on the porch near his mom.

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

“I’m fine, nothing for you to worry about.” She leaned down toward him. “You tell me if anything happens ok? No one is allowed to hurt you or hit you or anything.”

“I know Mama.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead.

“Go on, I’ll be right here when you get back.”

“We’ll still watch a movie later?” She smiled at him.

“Yeah, baby.” Smiling back at her Peter gave her a hug before jumping off the porch.

Even though he was in trouble, he was still going to get to hang out with Harley. He practically ran up the street toward the big house. There were so many possibilities. Would Harley let him finally play that game? Maybe he’d teach him to skateboard or surf! That would be awesome. His mama didn’t know how to do those things.

This was going to be so great!

Maybe this would change everything!

~/~

Peter realized that being excited about things really wasn’t worth it. He thought it'd be this magical time in this cool lab, but that definitely not what he was experiencing. As soon as he walked in Mr. Stark told him and Harley what had to be done for the day. Harley went upstairs to change or something and in the meantime Mr. Stark made him carry a bunch of bags to the trash then he left and told him that Harley would be down shortly. The problem was that it had been almost an hour ago and Harley still hadn’t shown up. He thought about going to look for him but thought better of it.

That was how he ended up in this mess in the first place.

Finally, after he was sweating buckets, the blonde-haired boy appeared wearing a pair of shorts and carrying his skateboard. He was mesmerized by the older boy even more so up close than he was from afar. Harley carried such confidence and swagger. His smile looked like he knew that he was the hottest thing around.

He was so much cooler in person, especially with those designer sunglasses that fit his face perfectly.

Peter tried to hide his ratty thrift store shoes behind the trash bag. He felt so dirty standing next to Harley. The older boy’s clothes were perfect and his hair was styled just right. That was definitely not how Peter Potts lived.

“Hey! I’m talking to you!” Peter looked up to see Harley giving him an unimpressed look.

“Oh uh hi,” he said finding his voice. “Hi Harley, I’m uh Peter. Are you going to help me now?” The teen scoffed.

“Yeah uh no. I’m not gonna help you clean up a mess you made all by yourself,” the older boy said tensely.

“But but your dad he said, uh you were gonna help. Some of this stuff is really heavy,” he said.

Harley ignored him and grabbed his bike out of a holding rack. “The broom’s over here and the trash goes in that pile. Don’t break anything while I’m gone. My dad left lunch in the kitchen just grab what you want.”

“But we’re supposed to do this together,” Peter tried to not sound like a baby but he was so disappointed. How could he be Harley’s friend if the boy wasn’t even around?

“Well, I didn’t make the mess so I shouldn’t have to clean it up.” Peter opened his mouth to reply, but Harley’s eyes shifted and he dropped his bike with a rattling clang. Moving quickly toward Peter, the younger boy stumbled trying to get out of his way. Reaching down Harley pushed Peter backward slightly not enough to knock him down but enough to make his irritation known. “If you tell my dad, I’ll pound you into the ground,” he said towering over Peter. “Got it?” Sighing Peter nodded lamely.

With that Harley hopped on his bike, grabbed his skateboard and pedaled quickly down the street.

Peter kicked the holding rack for the bike.

This was going to be a very long three months.

~/~

Two or so weeks later, Tony found himself drumming his fingers against his leg as a drum solo came on the radio. He’d always been a lover of good music since he was small. His mother had taught him to play the piano and from there, his love had only grown.

Now some thirty years later he was still mesmerized by the subtle art of placing notes and chords in the right places. Grumbling when his music cut off he glanced down at his phone.

“Tony? I know you’re there.” He sighed as he looked at the phone with the call that got pushed through somehow. Creepy stalker spy chick.

“What do you want Natasha?”

“Oh don’t act like that. It’s not my fault you don’t understand subtlety.”

Tony scoffed. “You got me arrested!”

“It was overnight. You’re fine. Besides if you had stayed in the car like I told you to then it wouldn’t have happened.”

“I thought someone took you.”

“Right,” she shot back sarcastically.

“What do you want, Natasha,” he asked throwing more irritation in his voice. She was one of his really good friends and he knew that he could always count on her, but she was currently aggravating the hell out of him. She ran the company he used to rent out all of his properties which somehow made her think that she had the right to yell at him.

“Well, I want to know why you’re not answering your garage calls. I’ve got a single mother with serious car problems who’s called you six times and you haven’t called her back.”

Tony rolled his eyes. She was always so persistent. “I don’t have any missed calls.”

“You’re such a bad liar. What is it?”

“Fine, it’s that Potts lady. I mean she’s gorgeous, pretty like really pretty legs, but her kid’s a nightmare and Steve’s all heartbroken. I want nothing to do with that.”

“You are such a pig Anthony Stark. A pig.” Tony heard the woman shuffling papers. “Look, I don’t care what kind of weird aversion you to her or her son, but you’re going to help them. They’ve had it bad for a long time and they need their car to work. Don’t be a dick, Tony.”

“Come on,” he urged. “She has no money. Her kid already broke my shelf and is working in my garage like a pauper to pay me back. I don’t want to do anything else for them for free. If anything she owes me.”

“Let me stop you before you say anything else that makes me question why I still call you my friend. This woman has had a very hard life. She came here with literally the clothes on her back and less than one hundred dollars in the bank. She works two jobs to keep food on the table and her gifted son in private school. You know, I wonder if that sounds like anyone you know?” Tony felt like a scolded child and he hated it. “What happened to never letting anyone hurt the way that you did, huh? I thought that's why we set these businesses up in the first place.”

“Ok, I get it. Stop with the lecture. I’m a self-service dick. I know.”

“Good, as long as we’re clear. So I’m going to tell her to call you tomorrow. Make sure you answer.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll just stop by her house. Her son is in my house right now so I know she’s home.” Nat didn’t even say bye before she disconnected the call. Tony grumbled to himself feeling very embarrassed.

He was actually pretty pissed off by the kid destroying his lab and it didn’t help that Steve basically painted the kid as satan’s spawn with selective hearing when they all met for drinks the week before. Based on what the man said Tony hadn’t wanted anything to do with either Peter or his mom, but maybe that was a mistake. Steve was a good guy, but he was far from perfect. If anything he was super self-righteous and rarely thought he could be wrong.

As he turned on the street he could see the woman standing by her car with her ear to her phone looking flustered. He pulled up to the curb and climbed out. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks.” Tony didn’t believe her. “I’ve got AAA on the phone. So thanks, but I’m ok.” Tony rolled his eyes. He knew those AAA guys, they’d take at least an hour to get here. Walking around the car Tony moved to the already opened hood and started to inspect it. The spark plugs were pretty old and there was sludge all over the engine, but that wasn’t what troubled him.

Her engine looked tampered with.

A weird protective streak came over him. Someone was tampering with this woman’s engine. Only someone vindictive and sick would do something like this. He walked around the car and quickly plucked the phone out of Pepper’s hands. The woman glared at him with an annoyed look. “I was on hold!”

“No point, they won’t be able to help you.”

“Why? Is it that bad,” she said looking at him. He could hear the panic in her voice which only made him feel worse about his previous actions. As he looked in her eyes he saw Maria Antoinette Stark. Yeah, he would feel guilty about this one for a very long time. "Tony?"

“Huh? Oh yes, it is. Your engine’s shot,” he lied. There was no point in scaring her.

“Oh no. How much does that cost to fix?”

“You would be better off just buying a new car,” he said. She pursed her lips into a tight line and started to dig into her purse. “I can give you a ride somewhere if you need one.”

“I’m late, I need to call my boss.” She sighed. “I was supposed to pick up Peter’s prescription and now he’ll be congested all night and his stupid purifier is broken!” She kicked the vehicle. “Stupid car!” Unable to help it Tony felt a memory from the past consume him.

Antonio had his head against the window trying to sleep off the lingering hunger he was feeling. He'd spent the whole day at one of those seminars for engineering. He loved to build and design anything he could get his hands on. He was only twelve, but he was already in classes with kids three or four years older than him. Scholarships paid for the seminar, but they didn't pay to help with the growl in his stomach. Being smart couldn't help you if you were broke and that's exactly what Maria and Antonio were. Everyone knew it. He was wonderkid who wore a thrift store suit to the governor's mansion the week before. They were supposed to share a burger for dinner to celebrate and he couldn't wait. Those endless fries would be the one thing that could tie him over until the next day. All they had to do was get to the restaurant in the next half hour and they would be set. For him, dinner specials were literally music to his ears. This was the one day a week that he could eat and be satisfied and he knew it was the same for his mom. "What's happening?" Popping his eyes open he glanced at his mother. He could hear the engine straining and sputtering before a billow of smoke came pouring out. "No!" Turning his head he saw his mom's lip quivering as she pulled the car over. Sitting up he put his hand on her shoulder.

"It's ok, Ma." The woman shook her head.

"Oh, Tonio," she sobbed out. He could see that she was trying to restrain herself so he didn't see the fullness of her anguish. For the millionth time in his life he wished that he'd been dealt a better hand. That his mom didn't have to work tirelessly...that well life was just different for them.

"We're gonna be ok, Ma. Just pop the hood." Through watery eyes the woman smiled at him.

"Oh, my angel. My sweet angel Tonio."

Shaking it off, Tony looked up to see Pepper standing in front of him with a bewildered look on her face and tears shining in her eyes. “Hey uh, why don’t you just take my car?”

Looking up the woman leveled him with a curious expression before shaking her head. “No thanks, I’m ok. I’ll get an Uber.” Tony rolled his eyes.

“Traffic's crazy right now. You really want to pay them thirty bucks just to get you to work? What about tonight?”

She let her eyes get large in surprise. “Thirty dollars? Well, I probably have a coupon,” she said pulling out her phone to look at the app.

“Just take my car. I can walk home from here. No problem.” She eyed him skeptically and rightfully so. He’d been pretty cold to her for the most part during their interactions. It wasn’t anything personal, but ‘bros before ho’s’ was real even if it was crude. “Look, I’m not a creep or anything. I was raised by a single mother and I sympathize. I promise I’m not being weird at all. I tell you what? I’ve got some old parts in my garage, I’ll bring them down here and see if I can’t get you back up and running. How does that sound?”

Pepper didn't say anything for a few moments. Why was this situation wasn't so familiar? It was like his past wanted to haunt him no matter how far he tried to run from it. “That seems ok. Are you sure? I really don't want to put you out." Tony made a face at her. Why would he offer if he wasn't serious? "Ok, and you don’t mind Peter staying with you for a bit longer?” Tony tried to hide it, but that did bother him. The kid was nosey as hell and he could see why Steve smacked him like he did.

“No, it’s fine. He’s a joy.” She gave him a sideways look. “Ok, fine your kid is a monster who’s way too smart for his own good and sometimes I want to dropkick him because he’s always staring into space or knocking something over.” She leveled a fiery glare at him. Right, Steve. “Uh, but I would never do that obviously. He’s a good kid, just frustrating. Like sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a wall. That is unless I have some type of project I’m working on that he’s interested in because then he won't shut up. ” She chuckled.

“That more accurate." She sighed, "Ok, I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’ll probably have to work a little later because I’m late. Remember, he can’t have too much dairy or sugar, ok?” Tony nodded. She turned to walk toward the car then stopped and smiled at him. “This means a lot, thank you,” she said before practically running to his car.

As Tony watched her go he wondered just what all this woman had been through.

~/~

It had been a very long couple of weeks for Peter. He’d officially given up on anything actually working out for him. He was no closer to making a friend than when he started. It was like kids thought he had the plague or something. They never worked with him unless they had to and more times than not he ended up being excluded at recess. Even the kids that weren’t so popular themselves avoided him. Plus, his idea of being Harley's friend had gone up in utter smoke. Like clockwork Harley would help him until Mr. Stark left then the boy would promptly drop the broom and go upstairs or to the beach or the skatepark or anywhere that Peter wasn't.

Maybe that was just how his life was going to be now. He'd be 'friendless Peter' just like that one guy was 'shoeless Joe'.

He blew out a rough breath when his jeans hit a sore spot on his knee. Barrett one of the fifth graders had shoved him when they were leaving the gym and Peter took a nasty fall. His mom hadn’t seen it yet, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she was calling the school trying to get to the bottom of it much to Peter’s chagrin.

Nothing made you more of an outcast than your mom calling and whining on your behalf.

The only bright spot in his days were the scraps Mr. Stark let him take home once he’d done all the requested chores. To many kids these scraps would seem like nothing, but to Peter, they were everything.

Those scraps enabled him to build and design cooler things with better quality. Just last week he'd reinforced all of the locks in the house. He slept so good that night knowing that they were really safe. He knew his mom would never be able to afford the materials Mr. Stark worked with and to get to play with even one-third of what the man tossed out was a blessing. On some days he had to admit that was the only thing that kept him from giving up. When things were bad, he always knew he could find something to put together until things were good again.

The only problem was that he had no idea what he’d do when the three months were up. Would Mr. Stark let him stop by and check the bin anyway? He figured that if he was good, maybe he could barter for it. For now, though, he figured it was best to just try to live in the moment.

Peter was sweeping up the led filings from Mr. Stark’s newest bout with the CNC machine. After coming over for the last two weekends he was pretty used to some of the weird things that he found in the scrap pile or witnessed the man building. Mr. Stark always made things that were amazing. Even the things that he ended up getting rid of her so advanced that sometimes Peter didn't even know what he was looking at. He wished that Mr. Stark would let him ask more questions, but that usually wasn't a very good idea. Sometimes the man answered his questions, but mostly Peter knew to shut up and stay out of his way. That was more than fine with Peter. Eric was a lot like that too. He didn't want Peter to make too much noise or be in the way. So this wasn't anything new to him. Besides, all that really mattered to him were those scraps. So far he’d built a working roller coaster out of Lego parts and fixed their toaster again. He’d also made a car that ran off batteries and had a remote control. He couldn’t wait to go through the pile today he had his old backpack sitting in the corner ready to help him get it all home.

“Hey, Pete?” Looking up he saw Mr. Stark standing in a pair of jeans again, but with a T-Shirt like he was just going somewhere to hang out.

“Yes, Mr. Stark?” Peter tried to not show how nervous he was. Mr. Stark didn’t talk to him very much. When they were in the same room, the man was usually working and kept his attention fixed on his craft and on those rare days when he had to stay for a little bit longer because his mom was stuck in traffic the man was nice enough, but he treated Peter as a moderate nuisance who didn't need to be entertained.

“I’m running out,” the man said before stopping and looking around. “Where’s Harley?” Peter thought fast remembering the teen's previous threat.

“He um just went to the bathroom,” Peter lied. Mr. Stark looked at him.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir. Just went to the bathroom. I’m sure he’ll be back.” Mr. Stark stepped into the garage and Peter tried not to show how uncomfortable he was.

“Level with me, kid. Has Harley been helping or just watching? You won’t get in trouble for telling me what's going on.” Peter closed his eyes and remembered how many times Eric had smacked him for lying. After dealing with that for longer than he wanted he’d learned to lie well.

“He’s been helping me a lot,” he chirped excitedly. “He’s really cool. Plus, it would be really hard to do all this stuff by myself,” he said throwing some truth into it. That seemed to satisfy the man who nodded before leaving. Peter sighed with relief. After trying repeatedly to get on Harley’s good side Peter realized that Harley would probably always hate him. If he’d gotten caught telling on him, Harley probably would have beaten him up good. He knew if he just didn’t piss the teen off that things would be ok.

And ok was fine with Peter. As long as things were ok, then they weren’t bad and that meant he wouldn't get beat up.

Peter put the filings into the trash can and turned to go back inside to wipe down the tables when he walked right into the chest of someone. Stepping back he looked up to see Harley with half of his wetsuit down to his waist and his chest bare.

“Sorry,” Peter mumbled moving around Harley to get back to his work. If he finished soon enough he could scour the scrap pile before his mama got home from work and they worked on dinner together. As he got closer to the rag he felt it snatched from his grasp. Rolling his eyes he turned to look up at Harley who was eying him in amusement. Being used to his fair share of bullies, Peter just stared at the boy waiting for him to lose interest and drop the rag.

Interestingly enough that didn’t happen. Instead Harley gently pushed Peter aside and started to wipe down the tables himself.

“What are you doing?”

“Helping you out,” Harley said. Peter shrugged and turned to go look at the scrap pile. “Hey uh, come here. If we do this together we can finish faster.” Rolling his eyes he got off his knees and grabbed another rag so he could wipe down the other tables and shelves. They worked in companionable silence for a few minutes until they finished the task. Happily, Peter tossed the rag into the dirty item bin before rushing back over to the scrap pile. “Why are you so excited to rush over there? They’re just scraps.” In a shocking turn of events, Peter ignored him instead choosing to sift through the pile with great focus. The bucket got jostled after being kicked causing Peter to lean back. “Did you hear me?” Peter looked up at the boy with a huff of annoyance. This was the best part of his day.

“No, I’m trying to do this. I’ve gotta go soon,” he said firmly as he could with a teenager towering over him. Again to his great surprise, Harley sat down next to him. Not sure of his plan Peter slid away from him slightly.

“Relax, I ain’t gonna hurt you or anything.” Peter felt Harley looking at him. “Well, we’ve got some time your mom has to pick up a shift so you’re staying here for the afternoon. She said she’ll be home after dinner.” Peter nodded quietly. She was for sure going to be exhausted. Maybe he could take some of the dinner he'd get from Mr. Stark home to her. “Do you um want to play a game or something?” Peter looked up at Harley. The boy’s blue eyes were looking at him straight ahead, but Peter didn’t believe it. This had to be a joke.

“No um, I’m ok. I’ll just keep looking at these things,” Peter said moving his hands through the heaps of metal and wire.

“Come on, you can look at those anytime. So just come to my room, we can play whatever you want. I’ve got them all, racing, adventure, sports, RPG, anything.” Peter didn't look up at Harley, he just took a moment to think. One thing Eric taught Peter was to trust no one especially when they started being nice all of a sudden. It was a lesson taught one night after Eric and his friends were drinking. Peter found himself sporting a fist-sized bruise on his ribs for days afterward. “So like are you always this quiet?”

“Why are you being nice to me?” Harley winced at Peter’s words.

“Ouch,” he said, positioning his hands on the ground and leaning back. “I guess I deserved that.”

“Well?”

“You’re not as much of a punk as you make yourself out to be.” Peter just kept staring at the older boy. “Look, I haven’t helped you at all like not even a little bit, but a few minutes ago my dad gave me my allowance after holding his hostage for two weeks. He said he was proud of me for not being a dick and leaving you to do the work yourself. I was confused, but then I realized that you didn’t snitch on me when he asked you. That’s a pretty stand up thing to do.” Standing up Harley dusted himself off. “Come on, let's go to my room we can play games or talk or whatever up there.” Slowly and quietly Peter followed Harley up to his room or apartment really. The room was huge. It was almost twice as big as Peter’s and had a mini living room inside of it. “It’s pretty awesome, huh? Perks of being an only child, I guess,” he said pushing some buttons and turning on a game station. He tossed a controller to Peter.

Soon they were quietly engrossed in the same game Harley and his friends had played a couple of weeks earlier. Peter didn’t catch the name of it, but it was even more fun to play than it was to watch. “You’re pretty good at this. You play a lot?” Peter shrugged.

“Not really, I watched you guys play that one day. I just learned I guess.” Harley glanced at Peter before back at the tv.

“Did Steve do that to you before? Hit you I mean.” Peter shrugged. He had, but he didn’t want to talk about it. Harley glanced at Peter again before nodding. “Yeah, Steve can kinda be a dick. He tried that on me once or twice but dad put him in his place. Don’t take it personal, he just thinks it’s his duty to raise people’s kids or something.” They played in silence for a few minutes. “I’m sorry I was a jerk to you. I just wasn’t in the mood to babysit. Steve’s always bringing random kids from the Rangers around. Wasn’t your fault though.”

Peter really wanted to talk about anything else. “No worries.”

“Well you seem pretty cool I guess. You’re on your porch a lot building stuff. You like stuff like that?” Peter shrugged and kept clicking buttons away. “I’m like trying to talk to you. Can you give me a break?” Peter sighed.

“Yeah, I like building things. It’s fun.”

“That’s cool. I like building things too, but it gets boring staying in the house all day doing it. You can’t sit on your porch forever. You’ve got to get out. Trust me it helps you find new inspiration. You’ll see.” Harley reached under his bed and pulled out an old Nintendo DS. He shoved it in Peter’s hands.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s for you, call it a peace offering. I don’t use it anymore and judging from the scrap piles and your crappy looking shoes you probably don’t have one.” Peter’s ears burned with embarrassment. He shook his head and dropped the device on the couch.

“No thank you, I uh have one.” Harley rolled his eyes. “I do,” he demanded and he did it was just back in Phoenix in the abandoned car along with all of their other electronics. Peter sighed at the thought.

Peter Laurent had games, fancy toys, and clothes that were new.

Peter Potts didn’t have any of that...and it sucked.

Harley paused the game. “Look, I was terrible to you and you did a nice thing for me. I just want to return the favor. I tell you what take it home today and if you don’t want it just bring it back tomorrow.” Rolling off the bed he grabbed a bunch of cartridges and threw them into a pencil case before tossing it to Peter. “Have fun. I don’t play with it anymore.”

“This is a trick you’re trying to get me in trouble,” Peter accused with narrowed eyes.

“No, geez you’re paranoid. How does it benefit me to get you in trouble? I haven’t cleaned anything already. You getting in trouble doesn't help me at all if anything my dad will think I did something to you.” He grabbed a permanent marker and flipped the battery case open. “Here see I’m writing this, ‘for Peter’,” he said scribbling on the tab. “Now if you get seen with it they’ll see my handwriting. Ok?” Finally, Peter relaxed. He did want the game, but well yeah.

“Ok.” Harley sighed. “Great, finally. You’d be a good spy kid, paranoia is so tiring.” Peter laughed it off, but paranoia was something Peter knew very well. It followed him everywhere he went. At school, in his bed at night, even sitting there in Harley’s room.

Peter looked down at the game and realized one thing; Harley really didn’t know anything about being paranoid.

Nothing at all.

~/~

Tony stared at the engine in disgust. There was no way to fix this. In fact, it had appeared to be rigged to slowly deplete the car's electrical makeup which would eventually make it entirely inoperable.

What if this shut off when she was on the highway? Or driving Peter somewhere? Someone had definitely set this woman up for a catastrophic event.

Tony was feeling murderous and his blood was boiling.

Slamming the hood down, he tried to think of the best way he could help her without scaring her. He chewed on his lip before making a hasty decision. Pulling out his phone he called the one person he knew could help him fast.

"Jarvis Auto Solutions, how can I help you?" Tony sighed with relief. They were still open.

"It's Tony, can you put Uncle Eddie on the line? I need a quick delivery," he said grinning into the phone.

~/~

That night sitting on the couch in the living room, Pepper Potts tried to not let the fear show on her face. The email was the tenth one she’d received in as many days and just like the rest it said the same thing.

You tried to leave me, but I found you. See you soon.

Logically she knew that Eric couldn’t know exactly where she was, but it was only a matter of time if the man had found out her alias. She’d been so careful. How could this have happened?

The name Pepper was a childhood nickname and Potts was her nana’s maiden name before two marriages.

How on earth did he find her?

How?

Her hands shook in fear. There was no telling what he would do to her once he found her. She knew she should run, but she couldn’t. Their savings was almost non-existent and she didn’t have any more money to get them another set of new identities. She couldn't trouble Nat again, not after the woman had already done so much for her.

She was out of options.

Pepper looked down at her son who was sleeping peacefully pillowed on her lap. The little boy used to be so happy and how all she saw was a ball of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. Every day she lived with the guilt of knowing that he'd asked her to not to keep seeing Eric right after their second date. "He's scary, Mama." She chalked it up to her son being overly dramatic, and wanting to keep her all to himself, but he'd been right. Eric was a scary man and now they were both paying for it. She rubbed her eyes trying not to break down. This was all her fault. Peter's life would be so different if she had just stopped trying to prove something to everyone. She didn't want more no she wanted it all and in the process of chasing success, she'd failed her son.

He was her whole world and she was about to fail him again.

Looking outside at the newly gifted Honda Accord she started to formulate her next move. Should she pack up and leave? Run to a distant relative? Live out of hotels moving from place to place? Whatever it was she had to decide soon. There wouldn't be another chance to plan for this. She'd have to figure it out in moments.

She knew all too well that time would be the difference between life and death.

A thought kept swirling through her mind, who could she turn to?

Was there anyone in the whole world she could trust with the one thing she loved the most?

Chapter Text

Tony was lying face down on the couch. He’d never made it up the stairs. After working through the night for a deadline he was beat. He wasn’t looking forward to the nagging sound of his son's voice bouncing off of his skull.

“Go ‘way,” he mumbled. “Sleepin'.”

“It’s eleven, Dad.” Tony turned his face away from the teen and buried his head between two pillows.

“I’ll give you a hundred dollars just to let me sleep.” Tony smiled when he heard his son walking away. He settled into the couch happily hoping for more sleep. Then he realized exactly what the teen was planning. He jolted upright just as a cup of water fell where his head had just been. “You’re a demon, kid.” Harley grinned wickedly.

“I’m ok with that.” Tony rubbed his face trying to let the last of the sleep out of his eyes.

“What do you want demon child?”

“Let’s head to the beach,” Harley said smiling and plopping down on the other part of the sectional. “It’s been forever since we went together.” Looking up at the boy who was growing a foot a day Tony set his feet on the floor and tried to hide the warm feeling in his chest. His son wasn’t at the age where he really wanted to hang out with him much and while it hurt he understood it. Harley was growing up. “So? What do you say?” He smiled at his son. This was a nice change from the angsty teen who slammed doors and screamed about stupid curfews.

“What’s the weather like?”

“It’s sunny California and perfect. What more is there?” Standing up the man popped his shoulders.

“Alright, call Hap and see if the spot is clear. I don’t want to be surfing with plebeians.” The boy whooped and ran off. Tony stretched again doing some lunges and pulling his arms over his head. Sleeping on the couch was not a smart idea. Not at all. Blowing out a breath of hair he sighed. His plan was to spend the rare off day working on a couple of project proposals for the Air Force, but he knew days like this wouldn’t come around as much as they used to. The Air Force could wait. This was a day he needed to spend time with his baby; the boy who was growing into a man before his eyes.

He needed to cherish days like this.

Twenty minutes later they were packed and ready to go. A full day of surfing, bothering Happy while he grilled, and being Stark men lay ahead. He backed out of his driveway and eased the Jeep down the street. The Jeep had been his first car he ever bought with his own money. It was a beater with a bunch of miles on it, but his Uncle Eddie had helped him out. For years he drove it everywhere he could. Beaches, parties, to college. He made countless memories in that car until it finally gave out, but by then things were better for him. After getting his inheritance he'd spent way too much restoring it so that his own children could one day enjoy the benefits of a soft-topped Jeep. He let the windows down so they could enjoy the gentle breeze that would soon be upon them.

“Look Pete’s building again,” Harley said pointing out of the window. Tony’s eyes saw the small boy head deep in what looked to be a modified computer of sorts. “He’s always making something. Last week he showed me this Lego set that he motorized. It’s pretty cool actually. It's like a working rollercoaster.” Tony didn’t respond he just kept looking at the kid. It troubled him that the boy was always so quiet and skittish. Two days before he’d reached out to give the kid a hi-five after he helped Tony see a flaw in his wiring and boy flinched and practically jumped out of his skin. He knew that kind of reaction a mile away.

Someone had hurt this kid bad and Tony wanted to know why.

“Dad?”

“Huh? Yeah? What?”

“I’ve only been talking to you for like five minutes. What’s up?” Tony for some reason couldn't take his eye's off of Peter. Maybe it was the way the boy was concentrating with his furrowed brow and tongue sticking out. Maybe it was the way he was leaning on the table in front of him to get a better angle. Either way, he didn't know, but he just felt so drawn to him in that moment.

“You think Peter would want to come with us to the beach?” Harley shrugged behind his Oakley sunglasses and looked at his dad and then back at Peter.

“Maybe? I don’t know. He hates sports and stuff.” Tony turned to look at Harley who was now glancing down at his phone.

“Are you sure or is it possible he doesn’t know how to play them?”

“Good point. I’ve never asked. We mostly play video games or screw around in the lab.” Tony nodded making a mental note to remind them both that when you take a tool from somewhere to put it back in a place where Tony wouldn’t trip over it and possibly kill himself.

“I guess we can find out, huh?” Pulling his old Jeep up to the curb they approached the small house. As soon as they did Tony was almost positive that Peter had been eyeing them since they pulled out of their driveway. They climbed out of the car and walked up the small porch to where Peter was sitting. Tony’s suspicions were confirmed when he noticed that Peter wasn’t at all shocked by their appearance on the porch even though he tried to act like he was.

“Hi Mr. Stark and Harley!” Tony frowned when the boy’s eyes furrowed. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Oh no, Pete. It’s nothing like that. Harls and me wanted to know if maybe you would like to go to the beach with us?”

“And do what Mr. Stark?”

Harley glanced up at him obviously wanting his dad to take a hint. Smiling Tony gave the boy a playful pat on the cheek. Shut up. “Surf, swim, you name it. We can even go snorkeling if you want,” Tony said. Peter shook his head and grimaced.

“No thank you. I uh don’t got that stuff. I’m gonna keep working on this,” he said gesturing to the project in front of him. Tony walked forward a bit and leaned down near Peter’s ear.

“It’s ok if you don’t know how. I can teach you. You can even use Harley’s old surfboard. What do you say?” He could see the kid desperately wanted to, but was still on the fence. “We’re gonna eat burgers.” With that, the boy’s smile erupted and he nodded his head eagerly. Burgers for the win. “Ok. You and Harley run down and get some stuff ok. I’ll clear it with your mom.” Tony stood up when Peter carried his stuff back into the house. Turning to Harley, he spoke, “make sure you grab one of your old wetsuits ok? Don’t want the kid shivering to death.”

“No problem,” Harley said in one of his voices that screamed he wasn’t saying what he was feeling. Tony sighed.

“Are you ok with this?”

“With what?”

“Peter coming. I kinda sprung it on you.” The teen shrugged fidgeted with his shorts. That was a tell if Tony had ever seen one.

“Doesn’t matter now, doesn’t it?” Tony rolled his eyes before Harley playfully shoved him. “It’s ok Dad. He’s lonely as hell. This will help give him some pep. He needs it.”

"Tomorow at the break of dawn, me and you. What do you say?" Harley's face broke into a wide grin. Seconds later Peter burst out of the house screaming ‘race ya’ and took off down the street. Harley jumped off the porch and followed Peter up the street. All Tony could do was smile at the boys heading up to his house.

He puttered a breath and stepped into the open door. Looking around he saw the remnants of what probably used to be an old toaster scattered on the floor. The kid was definitely a builder. There were pictures of Peter and his mom everywhere, but what caught him most off guard were the locks.

There were literally three locks on the front door and each window locked from the inside with a sturdy latch. Either this woman was serious about security or something was wrong. Based on what he’d seen a couple of weeks ago he figured it was probably a combination of both.

“Um Pepper?” She didn’t answer. He kept moving through the house calling her name gently, but got no response. Finally, after entering the small laundry area he found the woman in a pair of shorts and a tank top. His breath momentarily caught in his throat. She was so beautiful. He felt his mouth go numb as he watched her chew on her lip while she stared at her phone frowning. He snapped out of his stupor and he gently reached out to tap her shoulder when she screamed and hit him in the nose with a broom.

“Ow!” When he looked up at her she was panting and her eyes were watering.

“Oh! I’m so sorry! Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, holding his nose. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I’m sorry.”

“Oh my gosh! Why are you here? Don’t you knock?”

“I did! I even called your name like a million times. You were too busy staring at that thing,” he said gesturing to the phone.

“Oh, I really am sorry. I just got some bad news. It’s fine though. What do you need? Did Peter do something wrong?” Tony frowned at her. Was Peter really that bad? Why was that their default question?

“No, Peter didn’t do anything wrong. I just wanted to ask you if he could come to the beach with us.” She bit her lip before shaking her head.

“No uh we have plans.” He could see the conflict in her eyes.

“That's weird, he didn’t look like he did. Didn't mention any either. He was just out on the porch. Little guy was practically vibrating with excitement when I mentioned the beach,” he pressed.

“It’s very nice of you, but we have plans. We’re going to visit my sister and he doesn’t want to go.” Tony winced.

“Oh, I’m sorry he’s already at my house getting some stuff for the beach. I didn’t think you’d mind. I mean you’re usually leaving for at work at this time. I figured we'd just swap his lab hours for this. I'm sorry, I really put my foot in my mouth on this one.”

"And how'd you do that," she asked sighing heavily as she leaned against the washer with her arms crossed.

"Well, I told him I would teach him to surf.”

“You did what? How could you do that without talking to me first?” She glared at him before taking a deep breath and pressed her fingers into her eyes. He stood there awkwardly as she started to mutter to himself. “I don’t know where you men get off just thinking that,” she started before stopping abruptly. There were a few quiet but tense moments when all that was heard was the dryer running. Finally right when Tony was ready to just say forget it, she spoke again. “You know what, we can go anytime. He really likes hanging out with you. He can go and you guys have fun.” Ok, that was a 180.

“Would you uh like to come?” He really wouldn't have minded her company or her legs if he was honest. Plus, he really wanted to get to know this enigmatic family. There was definitely more to them than he was being told.

“No, I’m going to catch up on some laundry and rest. I could use it right now.” Looking around the room she fumbled before walking back into the kitchen. Tony followed behind quietly. “Here’s some money for his lunch and he is only allowed a small cup of soda, ok? Too much sugar and he’s a mean little guy.” Tony highly doubted that. Peter was quiet as a mouse and never gave him any real problems. He shook his head at her.

“No, I’m fine.”

“What about his lunch?”

“I’ve got it,” he said smiling. Pepper glared at him with that patented unamused look she liked to share with him. “Really, it’s not charity or anything. Just say one single parent helping out another one.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“I do. I think that takes care of everything else. I’ll have him back by dinner. Is that ok?”

“Perfect,” she said, giving him a tired smile. Tony turned to leave, but something didn’t feel right.

“Are you sure it’s ok? I don't want to overstep.” She scoffed and started to wash the few dishes in the sink.

“You don’t want to overstep? Since the day I met you that’s all you’ve ever done. Go take him and have fun. Petey could use some sun and some fun.” Tony heard Peter crashing into the house. He appeared wearing a wetsuit that was too big and a pair of sunglasses that Harley must have given him. The kid was beaming.

“Mama look at me!”

“You look awesome Peter Potts! Like a model in a magazine! Let me take a picture.” Peter started to whine, but gave her a muscle man pose for her anyway when he turned her phone toward him. Tony smirked, little ham.

“Mr. Stark says he’s gonna show me how to surf! Plus we can even go snorkeling!” Tony watched the usually low key boy jumping around in circles bursting with excitement.

“You be a good boy for Mr. Stark. Mama will see you soon.” Peter gave her a kiss on the cheek and a hug before he abruptly turned and bolted out of the door. Turning to look him square in teh eyes, Pepper spoke again. “That little boy is my whole world. You take care of him for me, ok?” Tony nodded.

“Like he was my own.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” she said.

~/~

Tony chuckled to himself as Peter and Harley came rushing back in with big smiles on their faces. “Did you see it Mr. Stark? I was up for a whole five seconds!” Tony reached out and gently patted the boy’s head.

“Yeah, bud, I did. You’re gonna be a real Kelly Slater soon.” Peter furrowed his brows and glanced up at Harley who was shaking his head.

“Old timey surfer no one remembers,” Harley deadpanned.

“I resent that,” Tony sputtered. He kicked sand up in his son’s direction which made the boy cackle.

“You’re just mad ‘cause I’m right,” Harley said. Yawning Tony stood up. He’d already packed up the truck and shook sand out of what he could. Now he just needed to convince the boys it was time to leave.

“Let’s go get some dinner,” he said dusting himself off.

“Can we stay just a little longer,” Peter asked. Tony felt his heart clench as the big brown eyes gazed up at him hopefully. The boy had spent most of the day swallowing water and he’d only recently learned to enjoy the act of surfing.

“One more wave,” he said conceding. Harley smirked at him as Peter clumsily ran back toward the beach with the small surfboard clutched in his grasp.

“He has Tony powers or something.”

“What does that mean?”

“At lunch you let him trick you into eating a milkshake before he ate then you let him use your surfboard that you don’t let anybody-including me-touch, and now you’re giving him a chance at another wave? If I didn't know any better I'd think he was like your illegitimate kid or something.” Tony rolled his eyes and kicked more sand up at his son.

“Go watch him,” Tony said effectively shooing his son off. Harley just gave him a knowing look before rushing toward Peter and the water. Tony couldn’t help but smile as Peter slipped under the water off the surfboard again to pop right back up. The kid was a fighter that was for sure. When he looked at the time on his phone he cursed. It was late.

Way later than the time he promised to have Peter back. To his great surprise, the kid’s mom hadn’t called him at all. It was weird, especially since he was sure she had his number. Since that first day he’d well Harley had watched Peter a bunch while she worked. Maybe she was finally trusting him instead of telling him what kind of diet Peter was on. When he looked up he saw Peter walking toward him carrying the red and white surfboard. The kid was definitely tanner than he was at the beginning of the day.

“Hey, you ready to go home now?” Peter nodded.

“I wanna see my mom. I miss her.” Tony smiled. The kid was definitely a bit soft around the edges. Tony figured he hadn’t had many males around him. It was ironic that this sensitive little boy got dealt a hand that included ultimate man and Army trainer Steve Rogers. No wonder the kid quaked every time he was around Rogers came around. “Thank you for today Mr. Stark. It was nice.”

“You’re welcome, bud. Anytime we’re coming I’ll try to bring you, ok?” Peter nodded happily. “Did Harley say why he was staying out?”

“He said he wanted another wave too.” Tony rolled his eyes.

“Of course he did.” Smiling he turned to grab what was left on the beach. He took Peter up the bank toward the pier toward the parking lot they parked and noticed the kid struggling with the board. Tony thought of reaching out to carry it for him, but every surfer knew that if you had a board you carried it yourself.

Peter grunted and made noises all the way to the truck, but to his credit, he didn’t whine. Which was great because Tony hated whining. It was one of his few pet peeves. He slid his sunglasses up and glanced at the sun going down. “Hey Pete, you ok to stay here? I need to grab Harley.” Before the boy could respond Tony walked with a pissed off pace toward the beach. Harley was still in the water which was so much more than one wave.

When the wave carried Harley toward the shore Tony could see his son’s sheepish look a mile away. “You know, there was this gnarly wave that led to another and I had to ride ‘em.”

“Had to, huh?” Harley winced.

“Didn’t work?”

“Nope.” Harley sighed and picked up his board silently following Tony. The sun was starting to set and as pretty as it was he didn’t want to keep Pepper waiting any more than he needed to.

Something just wasn’t settling with him about the way she was acting earlier.

~/~

Peter was freaking out. He hated being left alone in cars. One time just a couple hours after Peter had tried to stop Eric from hurting his mama, the man had woken Peter up telling him that they had to run some errands. It turned out that Eric had to go inside and Peter couldn't come. He’d told Peter to stay out of sight and to not leave the truck for any reason. At first, it wasn’t so bad because the sun wasn’t up. Then, once it did it never let up. Within ten minutes it was boiling hot. He started to sweat first then he felt like his whole body was on fire. His mouth got dry and his stomach started to tighten up. Just when he thought he would shrivel into a raisin Eric popped open the door looking cool as a cucumber. The man took one look at Peter’s flushed face and sweaty hair and smiled. “Had a good time?” It was then that Peter knew Eric had done it to warn him. After that day, Peter knew that Eric Sarvin was a cruel man and one who shouldn't be crossed.

That was a day that Peter wouldn’t ever forget.

Curling into a small ball he let himself sit on the floor in front of the back seat. He put his hands on his ears and tried to work through the periodic table in his head. The list was easy, but it helped him to focus on something other than his panicking heart. Just when he was to Manganese he realized that voices were coming closer to him.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Uh, where’s Pete?” He was so happy that he could cry. Mr. Stark and Harley didn’t leave him.

“Peter?” Jumping up he popped up from behind the back seat. Peter could see Mr. Stark letting out a sigh of relief. “What were you doing?”

He didn’t want to tell them the truth. Thinking quickly he pushed out an easy lie. “Playing a game, uh sorry.”

Mr. Stark eyed him but didn’t say anything. Instead, he just got in the truck. Sitting back Peter took a deep breath. He was ready to go home.

~/~

Tony pulled up the Potts house and was a bit confused by the sight before him. The lights were off and the car was gone. He glanced at his phone thinking may he’d missed a text or call from Pepper, but nothing came through.

He thought for a moment, maybe she’d just gone out for an errand and lost track of time. Glancing at the sleeping boys he quietly called Pepper’s phone. He cursed when it went straight to voicemail. Pepper’s phone was always on. Sometimes she didn’t answer, but she always followed it with a text. If he knew nothing else about her, he knew that she was a helicopter parent. There was nothing about her son that she didn't know. When it came to Peter she was always available.

A gnawing feeling started to consume him...something was wrong.

He waited for about twenty minutes before he decided to take the boys to his house. At least that way when Pepper comes home Peter will have eaten. Just as he was backing out of the driveway, Peter started to stir in behind him.

“Mama’s not home?”

“No, she must have left for a bit,” he said gently glancing in the rearview mirror. He saw fear flash in the boy's eyes and his body straightened immediately.

“Did you call her? She always answers her phone,” Peter said helpfully. Tony didn’t know what to say. He’d thought the same thing.

“Her phone probably died. I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”

“Did you call her job? Sometimes she has to put her phone down. Ms. Gretchen answer for her.” Tony glanced at the clock. He doubted anyone would still be at the office this late.

“She’s off today, bud. Remember?”

“What if she went in for an emergency or something? Can you call her job?” Tony sighed and handed Peter his phone. “I can call her?” Tony nodded. He watched Peter dial the number before frowning. “Nobody answered. Maybe I dialed it wrong.” Tony watched the boy dial the number three times before he finally gave up. “She didn’t say where she was going? She doesn’t like to be out at night.”

“You know, how about we go to my place and order some dinner? This way when she gets home she’ll have something to eat. How does that sound?” Peter little brows furrowed before he nodded.

Tony quickly pulled up to his own house and got the boys to start unpacking the car. As confident as he wanted to be he was pretty scared.

What if something was wrong and he had no way of knowing?

~/~

About an hour later after he fed the boys, Tony dried his hands off on the rag and took a deep breath. He still hadn’t heard from Pepper and it was almost seven at night. Turning around he found the living room completely empty. He guessed Harley had run off to his room to play a game online and probably took Peter with him. Figuring that he could get a little work done he headed into his lab. To his great surprise, Peter was sitting there on a stool staring at a projection of his security system.

How he found that Tony had no idea. He stood there silently observing for a few moments. Peter was observing the code like he knew what it meant. Ever so often he would write down little notes.

Ok, wait...Peter was ten, right?

He knew the kid could build, but advanced coding? Tony was impressed. He walked closer to see exactly what Peter was looking at. “Whatcha working on, buddy?” Peter jumped and turned around.

“I wasn’t touching it, I promise!”

Tony smiled at the kid. “Hey, it’s ok. I’m not mad, just curious. A little guy like you shouldn’t know what this stuff means.” That seemed to relax the boy who was now wearing a pair of Harley's old shorts and a t-shirt that was equally as old.

“Oh, uh ok.”

“So what are you doing exactly?”

“Nothing, I was just looking at your code. Um, it’s advanced.”

“It is. It took me years to build it.” Tony stopped and stared at the boy. Ten-year-olds should understand code especially not like this. “Where did you learn to code, buddy?”

“From a book. Mama got it for me a couple of years ago. It had a computer workbook to work through too. It taught me a lot.” Well, that was interesting. The kid learned all of that from a book? Tony figured with actual hands-on teaching he’d be a pro in no time at all.

“So you understand this stuff?” Peter rolled his eyes. Tony chuckled and ran his hands through the boy’s curly hair. The kid had a backbone after all. “Ok, so that was a dumb question.”

“Uh uh,” he replied still looking at the lines of text.

“So um what’s the coolest thing you learned to make?” Just as he suspected Peter brightened up immediately and turned toward him excitedly.

“I made bot before that told me when someone was coming. It was so cool. It would go “Alert! Alert!”

“That does sound cool. Can you show it to me?” Peter deflated and shook his head.

“No um, it broke,” he said quietly.

“How?” Peter jumped up and snapped his book closed. “Can you call Mama again?” Tony smiled at the boy hoping to give him the small bit of the confidence he had left.

“I just called her before I came in here. She’ll let us know when her phone’s back on. It probably just died.” That only seemed to make it worse, because Peter instantly tense and closed his eyes. Once he opened them Tony noticed that the boy's hands started to drum on the desk rapidly. Tony thought back to the swing the kid’s mom took at him earlier when he surprised her and how scared the kid looked right now. This wasn’t just nerves, the kid was downright jittery. He always knew they had a story, but he let them enjoy their privacy maybe now it was time to start digging. “Is there a reason you’re interested in my security code? Just to learn or…”

Peter adjusted himself on the stool and was staring at the screen again. “Mama, I gotta keep Mama safe,” he said muttered. That scared him. Why was this little boy worried about that?

“That’s noble, but can I ask why you have to protect her? You’re just a little guy.” Peter turned to look up at him and glared.

“I am big enough. Me and Mama take care of each other. We’re a team. I gotta keep her safe,” he said again. Now, he knew something was definitely wrong, but he didn’t want to press any further.

He now knew for sure that whatever they were hiding was big.

“Ok, I’m sorry if I scared you. If you want, I can help you build a security system at your house. With cameras and everything.” Peter looked up at him beaming.

“Really?”

“Yep, we’ve got everything we need here. You tell me what you want and I’ll help you make it happen.” To his great surprise, the closed-off little boy reached out and wrapped his arms around his chest.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark! This’ll be great!”

“You’re welcome, buddy. It’ll be fun!”

~/~

Around ten Tony started to get worried. After his conversation with Peter earlier he’d had an uneasy feeling sitting in the pit of his stomach. Glancing at the two sleeping boys on the couch he quietly picked himself up and slipped out the front door.

The walk to the Potts house was short as always, but he couldn't stop the anxiety that was tap dancing in his stomach. Walking up the porch he wasn't surprised to see the front door was locked up tight. Good thing he’d taken Peter’s key out of his bag. He followed the sequence that he’d watched Peter do on countless nights when he’d walk the boy home. Bottom lock, top lock, hold and push. Under normal circumstances, he would have been impressed at the kid's initiative to keep his mom safe. It was something that Tony hadn't thought of when he was a boy even though he wished he had. At that moment though, everything felt different. Inside the house was dark and neat. Nothing looked out of place, but still yet something felt off.

He hoped that maybe Pepper was out with a friend, but then all of his hope drained out of him like someone let the air out of a balloon.

In the dark, he could easily see a ratty small red duffle bag with an even rattier Star Wars blanket folded on top sitting right on the coffee table. Right in front of it was a folded note with his name on the front.

With trembling hands, he opened the note.

You promised me you’d take care of him. I believe in you.

His heart sank into his feet.

What was he going to tell Peter?

Chapter Text

Tony’s phone rang just as he was walking into his house. “Not a good time, Nat,” he said gruffly.

“Tony, this is serious. I need your help,” she urged.

Looking around the kitchen he poured himself a cup of coffee. He was definitely going to need it for what was about to come. “Uh ok. I have a few minutes.

“You know your neighbor, the single mother? Is she home?” Tony’s alarms started to blare why was she concerned about Pepper? “I need you to go and check on her and her son.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Immediately Tony started to think where his nearest gun in the house was.

“I don’t have time for this Tony! Answer me! Is she home? Do you see lights on?”

“She’s not answering her phone. Wait? Why are you trying to call her?” Slowly the pieces started to connect. Pepper was more than a client and possible friend...she was one of Nat’s relocation projects.

Pepper was a high risk domestic violence case.

Tony suddenly felt dizzy at the realization...Pepper and Peter were on the run.

”She’s gone, Nat. Like vanished,” Tony said finally. “I haven’t seen or heard from her since this morning.” There was a long silence on the line. If it wasn’t for the shuffling of papers Tony wouldn’t have known Nat was still on the line.

“How do you know? A-Are you sure?”

“Completely.” There was another long silence.

“I was afraid of this,” Nat said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s in hiding, Tony, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.” Nat sighed. “Her ex, he’s like some former Black Ops contractor who was a very violent man. He controlled every aspect of her life and allowed her very little freedom. When I met her, she was immensely desperate to get out of that situation. She had a very large black eye and a wrist that was fractured. It took almost a year before we could get him to let her take Peter on a trip overnight. They ran Tony, left in the middle of the night and never looked back. Until now, that is.”

Tony's shoulders were tense and he felt like his lungs were burning in his chest. “So you think he found her?”

“I think so. She’s been acting weird for about a week or so. She stopped checking in like she should. I couldn’t prove it, but I think he was trying to do something to her car. It seems like he got to her or at least he's tried.” That made sense why they were so high strung. Why there were locks everywhere. Why Peter flinched at loud noises and was overly drawn to his mom. Why the ten year old boy was trying to build a security system!

Oh, God. Now, he felt even worse for how he’d treated them.

How had he missed the signs?

Tony turned so he could look at Peter who was sleeping soundly pillowed against the arm of the couch. That poor little guy. “What’s the plan, Nat?”

“What do you mean, Tony? There’s nothing I can do. I have to wait for her to contact me.” Tony glanced at the sleeping boys again before he spoke.

“Well me might need to change that plan.”

“Why?”

“Peter’s here with me. She left him behind,” Tony said whispering the last part.

“What? Tony are you sure?”

“I’m looking at him,” he said pushing back.

“This just went from bad to worst case scenario."

"What? Why?" Nat blew out a tense breath.

"Tony, Pepper told me that she would never leave Peter behind. I had suggested that we send them apart for a while to throw the guy off their tracks, but Pepper refused. She said there was no scenario where she left her son behind. That was one of her demands; if she was going to get out Peter had to come with her. If she left him behind then this is bad, Tony. Very bad.” She sighed and shuffled more papers in Tony’s ear. “Let me get Hogan on the line. We’ll need all hands on deck for this one.”

“Ok.”

“And Tony, I have to ask, are you ready for this?”

“What do you mean?”

“That guys isn't Peter’s father biologically, but because he technically raised him for the last three years he can try to make a claim to get custody. If that happens it's possible that he will try and use Peter as leverage against Pepper. We can't let that happen."

"I agree. That would be terrible," he said trying to wrap his mind around the crazy scenario that was unfolding.

"We can’t take any chances with legal limbo right now. So, I’m going to email you a document that gives you custody of Peter in a few minutes. I had her sign one just in case. I need you to print it out and have Jimmy notarize it. You cannot let him go into social services. For all intents and purposes you are his legally responsible for him. Are you ok with that?” Leaning against counter Tony could see Peter’s sleeping form with ease. The little guy was laying on his back with his mouth open slightly looking more peaceful than Tony had ever seen him. He slept now and was going to wake up to his whole world shattering. Someone had to be strong for him and Antonio Edoardo Lorenzo Stark knew that he could be that person. “Tony?”

“Yeah, Nat. I’ll do whatever it takes,” Tony said nodding definitively. He knew that if Pepper trusted him with Peter there was a reason.

~/~

Around midnight Tony was sitting in the kitchen on his laptop trying desperately to get information on Eric Sarvin. So far the guy was a ghost. There was almost nothing on him before ten years ago and that made Tony even more nervous because that meant Eric Sarvin probably was just an alias.

And that was very bad.

He’d have to bring Rhodes, Rogers, Barnes, and Wilson in to see what they could come up with or if they heard about the guy. If Tony was having trouble finding this Eric character, it meant the government had a reason for it.

Great. The guy was probably a covert assassin or something.

He pushed himself up and rubbed his eyes. After hours of frantically trying to find anything to help make this situation less nightmarish, Tony was starting to feel drained. He hoped that Peter slept through the night. At least then they’d be able to deal with this with fresh eyes when everyone was rested.

When he looked up he almost jumped out of his skin. Standing in front of him was Peter. The boy was still wearing a pair of Harley’s old shorts and a t-shirt to match. The ensemble made him look much younger than his actual age. Peter’s brown eyes were glazed over with sleep and he was swaying on his feet. For the first time since he’d know the boy Tony just wanted to reach out and hug him.

“What’s up bud? Are you ok?” Peter nodded eyes drooping as he stood in place.

“Can I go home now? I want to see my mama.” Tony figured the kid was exhausted because he was letting himself sound much younger than he was. Tony stood up and grabbed the boy under his armpits before sitting him on the counter.

“Well I’ve got to talk to you." Tony took a moment to process exactly what he was going to say. He didn't want to scare him, but he had to tell him the truth. There was no easy way to say it. "Well, Pete you see your mom went to visit her sister,” he started but he stopped as soon as Peter let out a noise of distress. The sleep was completely gone from the boy's eyes. His face morphed into one of sheer terror. Tony sprung forward to catch Peter who had jumped off the counter but he was too late. In a split second the boy was out of the front door and running down out of the house in his bare feet. Tony barely had time to process the scene before he found himself running behind him to catch up. As soon as he got down the small hill he saw Peter running full speed down the street and was moving much faster than Tony knew he could run.

He caught up to the boy a few steps short of the Potts' house. Pulling Peter back he tried to figure out what was going on. “What is it?” Peter desperately tried to break the man’s hold by squirming, kicking, and punching.

“Let me go,” he screeched. “Mama needs me!”

“Peter your Mama’s not home! She went out.”

“No!” He said finally breaking away and getting to the front door. He ran inside the house and started to run from room to room. “Mama! Please don’t play like this. Mama!” Tony’s heart broke as the boy was becoming hysterical. “Mama! Please!” He heard the boy drop in his room and he rushed to see what was going on. He found Peter curled up clutching his knees with tears running down his face. Tony was so out of his element. Harley wasn’t the emotional type at all. He was just like his dad. If he was going to cry, no one would know about it. So seeing Peter sitting there openly sobbing was jarring.

He watched the boy cry for a few minutes before gently kneeling down next to him. Tentatively he reached out and placed his hand on Peter’s shoulder making the boy flinch before he relaxed.

“I’m sorry buddy.” Peter didn’t respond just kept crying. “Can you tell me what’s wrong? I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on.”

Looking up and wiping his eyes Peter sniffed. “Mama don’t have a sister,” he said choking on a sob. “Eric musta found us and she left me!” He was starting to shriek and his sobs were growing more intense.

Tony frantically looked around for something to help calm Peter down. If Peter didn’t stop crying he would make himself sick and Tony didn’t want to clean that up. Not after the night he’d had. Glancing around the room he saw a bunch of small tools and some pictures, but nothing really useful that is until he looked at the shelf next to the boy’s bed. There sat a grey bear wearing an astronaut outfit. He gingerly plucked it off the shelf and handed it to the boy.

“Hey um, will this help?” Peter pitifully grabbed the bear and clutched it to his chest. Tony noticed a slip of paper sticking out the bear’s helmet. He pulled it gently trying to not alert Peter and opened it.

Be a good boy, bug. I love you to the moon and back.-Mama

Great, it was another goodbye note. When Tony looked up, Peter was looking him square in the eyes again. He sighed, there was never getting anything past this kid. “She’s not coming back is she?” Tony glanced at the note and then back up at Peter seeing the boy’s big brown eyes leaking tears at him. What could he say? Tony sputtered. He definitely wasn’t about to tell the kid the truth.

“No, she said she was going to her sister’s earlier. She probably just went there.” Peter gave him a look that showed his ten years were older heavier than most kids his age.

“Mama don’t have a sister! Didn’t you hear me? She only says that when we have to go somewhere she don’t want Eric to know about.” Peter’s face crumpled again. “I shoulda stayed here! Now she’s all alone! What if I don’t see her again?” Tony watched him cry again and clutching the bear close to his chest. Peter wiped his eyes again and pushed the bear to his face. Tony let him cry as long as he needed. He wanted to hold the kid, but every time he got near him the boy flinched and curled into himself. He desperately wanted to help him, but how?

Maria Stark gingerly walked into the ratty apartment that she shared with her son. Antonio rushed to her side knowing that she was probably feeling much worse than she was letting show. “I’m ok, tesoro. Just a scratch.” Antonio eyed her but said nothing. A bruised cheek and the limp she was sporting seemed to be much more than a scratch.

“Ma, what happened? I thought you just went to ask for more money?” Antonio felt his heart beating wildly in his chest. Why did every interaction with his father end up with his mother bruised and bleeding?

“I did my child. Your father had other ideas though. He said your schooling isn't adequate and well we discussed it.” Tony felt his blood boiling. His choice of school had nothing to do with her. It was his decision to not skip to college five years early not hers. Tony shook his head as he helped his mother try to sit down. He knew that Howard was going to try and control him one way or another. “We did come to a decision though, Antonio and things will change.” That got Antonio’s attention. “Pack your things we will be staying with your Zio Eddie for a while. We're going to this together. You and me.” Antonio relaxed. Zio Eddie was a family friend who always treated Antonio like he was his own. He taught him to cook, read him stories, and more importantly he listened to him. Those words were music to Antonio’s ears.

With Zio Eddie and his mother, Antonio know that things would get better...and they would be safe.

Tony nodded to himself. If he was going to help Peter he'd just have to be there for him. He wasn't sure exactly how to do that right now, but he would learn. This wouldn't ruin Peter. He purposed in his heart that he would make sure that Peter was going to be ok.

“I wanna go to bed,” Peter said standing up and making a move to crawl into his twin sized bed. Tony looked around the modest room. There as a bin that looked like it had toys in it and several plastic drawers. None of the furniture matched, they must have been barely making it.

Tony had to break another tough bit of news to the boy and he didn’t want to. If was just him he might have, but he didn’t want to leave Harley alone sleeping on the couch not with everything going on. “Hey Pete, um you’re you’re going stay with Harley and me for a while.” Peter’s eyes turned back toward him fresh tears shining.

“Do I gotta?”

“Yeah, bud. You’re mama packed you a bag already. Hopefully it’ll just be for a couple of days.” The boy’s little shoulders slumped but he nodded.

“Can I take some of my toys,” he asked hopefully.

“Yeah bud. Take anything you’d like oh am uh out in a pair of shoes.” Peter made took his time going through each drawer at a terribly slow pace. It grated on Tony’s nerves, but he figured it was the kid’s way of figuring things out. Tony couldn’t really blame him. He’d left for a fun day of surfing and and came home to find his world had been blown to smithereens.

“Mr. Stark?” Looking up he saw Peter had a small backpack on his back. “I’m ready.” Tony nodded and reached out for the bag but Peter shook his head.

“Ok, um do you need anything else like your toothbrush or blanket or favorite pillow?” Peter shook his head.

“If I really need it, Mama packed it,” he said definitively. “She doesn’t forget things.” Tony nodded and Peter followed him out of the house. The walk up to the Stark mansion was quiet. Neither of them said anything and Tony wasn’t upset about it at all. The quiet gave him time to think. In the morning he was going to sign papers to be Peter’s legal guardian. He was going to be legally responsible for a child that he’d only met a little while ago. His brain was spinning. He’d need new furniture, clothes, toys, what about school? With the weight of reality hitting him, he felt dizzy. He couldn’t imagine how Peter was feeling.

When they walked in the house Tony saw Peter heading for the now empty couch. “Hey bud, I don’t want you sleeping out here. I’ve got a room for you.” Quietly Peter nodded and followed him up the stairs.

Tony had only given in a quick thought, but he figured that Peter would be better off sandwiched in between him and Harley. That way one of them could be near and so the boy didn’t wander off. He opened the door to the guest bedroom. It was smaller than Harley’s room which was actually two rooms in one, but it was still probably the size of the master bedroom at the Potts household. “This is going to be your room, ok?” Tony set the bags down near where Peter dropped the backpack. Peter just took his shirt off and climbed into the bed. “Need anything?”

“Just my mama,” the boy said before rolling over. Tony’s heart broke for him. This had to be devastating.

Hoping that Peter would be ok, Tony walked down the hall and stuck his head into Harley’s room. The teen was laying off the bed and half on with his gaming headset still on his head. Shaking his head Tony walked into the room and pulled the device off before re-positioning his dead weight child onto the bed properly. Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of gratitude he was feeling, he leaned down and gave the boy a kiss on the forehead.

“Night tesoro.” Walking out of the room he gently closed the door before leaning into the against the wall. What a night. He padded down the hall full of exhaustion and fell face first into his bed. As he was about to drift off his mind for some reason threw a memory right before his eyes.

“That little boy is my whole world. You take care of him for me,” she had said. Why didn’t he notice those sad eyes before? Or the way she abruptly changed her vehement refusal to let Peter go with them to the beach? Sitting up he sucked in a tense breath.

Pepper was already planning to leave and in a moment of desperation she altered it.

She left Peter behind so that Tony could keep him safe.

...And that was exactly what he was planning to do.

Chapter Text

The next day Tony was sitting on the chair in his office rubbing his temples. Everyone was screaming, no one was listening, and his head about to explode. It had been unanimous that the band of friends or family would come together to do whatever it took to find Pepper.

They were going to avenge her.

Deciding that was the easiest part.

The problem was what to do with Peter.

That was when things got loud. They all had opinions...very loud ones. Some wanted them to find Pepper’s biological father and see if Peter could stay there. Others wanted Tony to call Social Services so that he didn’t get caught up in Eric’s web. Then there was Nat and Jimmy who simply wanted Peter to stay right there.

Tony was trying not to lose it, but he found it more difficult when Steve ‘I’m a Captain of Everything’ Rogers made his own voice heard. “Peter should be with me,” Steve said definitively. The man was wearing a pair of jeans and his Rangers button up shirt and heavy grey cargo slacks.

“What? Why you,” Jimmy asked. The man was sitting next to Tony, but his voice was reverberating with passion. “That makes like next to no sense.”

Nat stepped forward. “I agree with Rhodes. Out of all of our choices, that’s probably the worst one.”

“Steve’s always been good with the kid,” Bucky said stepping forward. He was dressed in an outfit similar to Steve’s but instead of a black shirt he was wearing a navy blue one. “I mean they’ve spent plenty of time together. I think the kid would be best off with him. It’ll be familiar to him. Plus, Steve offers the kid lots of structure and stability and that what Peter needs right now.” Tony rolled his eyes.

“What are you getting at Barnes,” Nat asked.

“I’m just saying, Tony’s not the picture of stability. I mean let’s be honest he’s like never on time and he changes his mind more than the wind moves. Peter needs somewhere stable. That’s with Steve.” Tony took great exception to that, but he didn’t get a chance to defend himself before Jimmy jumped back into the conversation.

“I’m pretty sure the kid hates Steve,” Jimmy said. “Like almost positive.”

“Why would you say that,” Steve asked leaning forward. Tony laughed when both Jimmy and Nat dramatically rolled their eyes.

“Um I pretty sure you smacked the kid in front of everyone like no too long ago,” Nat said.

Steve looked shocked. “Who told you that?”

“Steve! Pepper told me. Tony told me. It was practically on the community bulletin board. ‘Rogers at it Again!” Almost everyone snorted with laughter while Steve shook his head again.

“Tell ‘em Nat,” Jimmy said.

“The thing is that Pepper purposefully left him with Tony. She could have called you to come and watch him or taken him with her, but one thing is true, she left her son with Tony not me or you or anybody else. With Tony and as far as I’m concerned that’s where he stays,” Nat said with severe finality.

“Tony doesn’t know him like I do,” Steve said not letting it go. Tony rolled his eyes finally over this conversation.

“Look, priority number one is finding Pepper. You guys take care of that and I’ll take care of him. We’re going to figure this out together, ok?” Then he stood up. “But make this for certain, that little boy isn’t going anywhere. He’s staying right here with me and anybody who doesn’t agree can get the hell out.” Tony didn’t know where the sense of determined protectiveness came from, but he liked it.

A quiet fell over the room and Tony felt rather accomplished.

“I guess it’s time to start working on finding her,” Jimmy said after a while.

“Let’s get on it,” Nat said heading toward the whiteboard. "We'll need all hands on deck for this."

~/~

After everyone had left Tony found himself padding down the halls of his expansive house. He found himself checking doors and windows and making sure they were locked. It was something that he’d never done before, but something he felt a strong urge to do.

It was amazing to see how many doors he had that he never kept maintenance over or even bothered to check. Sure, his newly named AI Friday would be overlooking it, but he felt rather guilty about how passive he’d become in his later years.

Especially with such precious cargo.

He figured that when the demon in your closet died that the paranoia of it coming out died with it.

As he rounded the corner during his excursion, Tony heard voices coming from the game room. The door was open slightly and with each step he could hear more of the conversation. “Looks like he’s stuck here, huh?” Tony’s brows furrowed.

“Seems like it. Don’t know how I feel about it yet. One thing for a couple of hours another living in the room next to me,” he heard his son say. Finally Tony made it up the stairs toward the room and saw the small pajama cladded leg of a little boy running down the hall.

Great.

Not feeling much like caring he opened the door to the game room and took inventory. Harley was sitting on the couch with a Twizzler hanging out of his mouth playing a football game while, Jordan, his friend was sitting on the floor devouring a bag of chips. From the looks of it they’d had a junk food party all afternoon. There were cups, cans, wrappers, and crumbs on every flat surface.

It was gross-city.

Harley seemed to finally notice him and turned around. “No worries, Dad. We’ll clean it up in a bit.” Tony clicked his teeth.

“Where’s Peter?” Without seeing his son’s face, he knew the boy was rolling his eyes. He refrained from yelling at him in front of his friend.

“I don’t know, he ran off earlier,” his son replied.

“Yeah, Mr. Stark, kid just left. Said something about reading,” Jordan added in. Tony moved deeper into the room.

“So, did he get to play or was this a repeat of last time?”

“He didn’t want to play,” Harley shot back matching his Dad’s tone.

“Did you ask him if he knew how,” Tony shot back. “I shouldn’t have to tell you about the basics of compassion!”

“Chill out, it’s not like he’s a visitor anymore,” Harley added with a bite to his tone that Tony didn’t appreciate. “I guess he can come and go as he pleases.”

“What did you just say?”

“Nothing,” Harley grumbled still looking at the game. Jordan must have sensed tension and dropped his controller.

“Never been a fan of yelling by association, see ya Harls,” he said almost running out of the room. Harley pressed himself into the couch so he was almost consumed by it.

“I guess you’re going to ground me for ignoring him again, right?”

“What is this about? You’ve watched plenty of kids in your life. Hell, Steve finds a new once almost once a week.” Harley spun himself around viciously and put his feet on the floor. He shot a fiery glare up at Tony.

“That’s just it! I don’t want to watch kids! I don’t even like kids. You always make me watch anybody who comes around like it’s my duty or something and now it’s not just going to be for one day it’s going to like a long time!”

Tony took a moment to stare at his son. He appreciated the fact that the relationship he had with his son wasn’t the same one he had with his own father. Tony didn’t get to scream at Howard. Hell he didn’t even get the chance to voice an opinion. Harley sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “I didn’t mean to yell. I’m sorry.”

Walking forward, Tony moved from his chair and sat down on the couch next to his now sitting teen. “You’re fine, Bean.” Harley rolled his eyes at the obnoxious childhood nickname. “It’s ok to be frustrated. This situation isn’t ideal for anyone.”

“Tell me about it.”

“How about this? Tell me how you’re feeling. Open forum.” With that Harley gave his dad a question gaze. Tony ruffled the teen’s hair eliciting a grumble, groan, and a frantic attempt to adjust his loose curls back into form. “Yeah bud, open forum. No repercussions.”

Harley leaned back on the couch and sucked in a deep breath. “I want to be ok with this, but I’m not.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a lot, Dad. I mean hanging out with him is fine, but like him living here? I didn’t get a say in that. It’s like you don’t even care how I feel.”

“That’s not true, bud. I care very much how you feel, but I need to tell you understand that he didn’t get a choice in this either. I bet if you both had your way that wouldn’t even have this conversation.” Tony put a gentle hand on his son’s neck. “I get that this is hard. It’s a big adjustment for all of us. I also know that you have a big heart and you’ll help this out.”

“What if I don’t want to have a big heart, Dad? You and Mom just got divorced two years ago. Just when things are settling down and getting normal again this happens.” Tony felt his son starting to tremble slightly which was a sign that the boy was fighting tears. “What if I don’t want to share you?” This only made Tony hold the boy tighter. “I know it’s sounds horrible. You should hate me.”

“Harley Kalen Stark, I could never hate you. Like ever.” Harley just leaned into Tony’s side letting the man hold him as tightly as he wanted. “I get how you’re feeling. I do. I kind of feel the same way.” Harley sat up and let his blue eyes pierce Tony’s brown ones.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I wasn’t planning on having another kid around. I like having just one. I get you, you get me, we have a system. Throwing someone else into that is well hard.” He heard Harley hum an affirmative. “This isn’t ideal for any of us, but we have to make this work.” When Harley opened his mouth, Tony shook his head. “Did I ever tell you about my dad?”

“Not really.”

“There’s a reason for that. He wasn’t a pleasant man. Very controlling, hard nosed, and violent. Everything had to be done his way or there would be hell to pay. When I was around Peter’s age, my mom and I ran from him. We were scared but we were free for a little bit at least. Of course he used his money to hire a private investigator to find us. Within a month we were right back living in hell. They tried to make it work, but he was just too violent. So we left and this time it was for good. We lived in one of my dad’s other lofts in the city and it wasn’t perfect, but it was nice and safe. The only problem was that he controlled the money so some months we got a lot and others we got next to nothing. Anyway, when I was a little younger than you, he made a decision. If we weren’t going to live with him then we weren’t going to get anything from him. He gave my mom three thousand dollars and told us to get out. It was miserable. We drove this crappy little car and lived in a dingy little apartment with no heat. He wanted us to suffer and we did. My mom worked herself to the bone trying to make a life for me. She could have gone back to my dad and lived an easy life, but she didn’t. You know why?” His son shook his head. Tony took a deep breath feeling the emotions coming stronger than he’d felt in a while. “My dad saw my potential and he lusted after it. He knew I was smart so he pushed me relentlessly. He didn’t care what time of day it was, my job was to learn. Sometimes I pleased him, but more than not I disappointed him.” Tony felt the frog form in his throat so he tried to clear it out. “When that happened his belt came off. It got so bad that uh my mom had to stop him sometimes because uh I was unconscious.” He cleared his throat again. “So yeah, she left him to protect me and I love her for it. I don’t know if I would be alive if she hadn’t.”

The room was thick with emotion.

Tony hadn’t share those truths with even the people closest to him. Sure, Jimmy knew and Happy knew a bit less, but they’d seen him at his worst through the dark years. Aside from them, those were secrets locked deep in Tony’s soul. Which is why he found talking about it now felt like removing a bandaid that had been scabbed over.

He hoped it wasn’t too much for his son. Tony had worked very hard to give Harley a life that was completely unlike what Tony had growing up. He hugged his son, told him that he loved him, let him explore his interests at his own pace.

He wasn’t harsh though...and he definitely wasn’t Howard.

“So he’s like you?” Tony looked down and gave his son a look urging him to go on. “Pete I mean. Uncle Jimmy told me he’s had it hard with his mom’s boyfriend and all. You see you in him?” Sitting back Tony had to ponder on that. He hadn’t really considered it before, not to that extent anyway.

A small child desperate to protect his mother even though the world before him seemed to hellbent on swallowing him up. One smarter than most adults, but still struggling with the most basic of human interaction. A boy who wanted to be loved and accepted.

Yeah, Tony could relate to that.

“I empathize with his situation, yes.” Harley sighed leaning forward.

“I get it Dad and I’ll try. I will.” Tony pulled his son close and laid a kiss against his head.

“I know you will bud.”

“Tomorrow, I’ll see if he wants to do something with me. You know try and be nice.” Tony smiled at his son. Harley was a good kid.

~/~

Later that night after watching Peter eat no more than two bites of his dinner, Tony found himself searching for the now quiet little boy. It wasn’t hard to find Peter sitting on the floor in the guest room staring out of the window at the beach. His little legs were drawn to his chest as he gazed longingly out the window. Quietly he slid next to him and watched the same waves bounce off the shore as Peter. He knew that Peter knew he was there, but the boy hadn’t done anything to let him know that he’d seen him.

As the quiet continued to consume them, Tony noticed how long Peter’s hair was getting. It was starting to travel down his back. The boy was skinny, like super skinny. Tony could see his shoulder blades through the pajama top. Sighing he realized that would be another hurdle they’d have to climb. After looking at everything Peter owned, it was obvious that he’d need brand new everything. Glancing around the room he figured he’d have to overhaul that too. It didn’t need to be a sterile guest room.

It needed to be Peter’s room.

“Where will I go?” The voice was so soft that Tony thought he’d imagined it at first, but then Peter turned to him with his eyes shining wet with tears.

Oh, buddy.

“What do you mean?” Peter just blinked up at him. “You’re staying right here Peter, with me and Harley until we find your mama.” Biting his lip Peter nod slightly and turned back toward the window.

“W-what if she doesn’t come back?” Tony could hear the fear in the little boy’s voice and it was so hard. He tapped the boy’s shoulder to get Peter to look at him. The boy did just that.

“I know you’re scared, but we’re going to do everything we can to find her and bring her back to you. I know she wants that more than anything in the world and I’m sure you do too.” Peter nodded.

“But I can stay here until then?” Tony furrowed his brows. Is that why the kid had been so quiet? “I don’t gotta stay with nobody else?” Then Tony remembered Peter’s penchant for hearing things he shouldn’t.

“Did you overhear the conversation today in my office?” Peter nodded slowly.

“Not everything, just some.” Tony leaned backward against the bed’s frame. “‘Harley and that boy. I know they don’t like me,” he said quietly.

“Harley likes you fine, Peter. He’s just adjusting.” The little boy didn’t say anything or acknowledge Tony’s words at all. For another few minutes they just sat in silence watching the waves. Tony was at a loss for what to do. Peter was so different from Harley. His son never showed any emotion until he was ready to explode. Peter on the other hand seemed to wear his heart on his very small sleeve. The boy was annoyingly straightforward but so woefully anxious. Tony never knew if the boy would burst into tears or ask him the most intimate questions. Leaning back on his heads, Tony decided to try a new tactic. “Do you want to stay here?” Peter turned his head toward Tony and then fidgeted with the hem of his shirt for a few moments.

“Do uh you want me to?” Tony looked down at the little boy whose eyes were so full of fear it broke his heart.

“What do you want, Peter?” As soon as Tony said it, he knew it was a dumb question. The kid obviously wanted his mom. “I mean like right uh now. Where would you like to stay?”

“Here,” he said softly. “I-If you want me.”

“I didn’t ask you that, Pete. Do you want to stay here?”

The boy gave a tentative nod. “Yes.”

“Ok then.”

“That’s it?” Tony could see the surprise on the boy’s face. “Just like that?”

“Yes, your mama asked me to take care of you and that’s what I want to do.”

“What about Harley?”

“What about him?”

“He doesn’t want me here.”

“That’s not true, Peter. He’s just trying to figure things out. I don’t know what you heard, but I talked with him earlier today and he’s looking forward to this.” That last part was a partial lie, but Peter didn’t need to know that. “He’s ready to be your friend for real, ok?” Peter sighed. “OK?” Finally the boy nodded. “We want you here Peter. We know that you want your mom and we want her for you, but for right now we both are very happy that you’re here with us. We wouldn’t want you to go anywhere else either.” That seemed to put Peter at ease and he wiped his eyes quietly with his shirt.

“Mr. Stark, what if...what if she never comes back for me? What if Eric took her for good?” Peter’s fists were drawn tightly into balls that were grasping desperately at his pajama top. Tony knew that the boy was barely holding it together.

“First, we’re going to find her. I promise,” he said decisively. “Me, Mr. Steve, Bucky, Ms. Nat, Jimmy, we’re all going to help you. There are so many people working to bring your mama home it’s not even funny. We’ll find her, Peter. We will.” Peter didn’t seem to believe him, but nodded anyway. “But, to answer your question if we don’t then you’ll just have to stay here forever.” Peter’s lip started to wobble and he nodded. He clambered up onto the bed and threw himself on top of it.

“Ok,” Peter whimpered pitifully. “G’night,” he said shoving his face into the pillow. Standing up Tony reached down to help the boy settle under the covers. Brushing the boy’s hair gently he leaned down and pressed a kiss to the back of his head.

“You’re ok, Peter. We’re just going to take this one day at a time.”

~/~

Peter sat in the big room rubbing the remnants of the sleep out of his eyes. He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he sure remembered the events from the week before. His mama was gone and she left him. She left him in a strange place with people he didn’t know very well.

...And people who didn’t really seem to want him.

Every night Mr. Stark made them all eat dinner together. At first they would try to ask questions that he could relate to or answer, but slowly the conversation always reverted to them talking about concepts, ideas, or people that Peter didn’t know about.

He knew nothing about surfboard maintenance or skateboard decks. Inevitably he always ended up playing a game silently in his head, hoping to be released from the table so he could go and watch TV or play with his Legos or just be alone.

Most nights he found himself huddled into the big closet in the guest room reading by flashlight. Mr. Stark either didn’t notice or didn’t care and Peter liked it that way. It was like he was hidden from the world safe intruders.

Reaching out, Peter wrapped his arms around his bear and pulled it close to his chest. If he breathed deep enough he could still smell his Mama and he desperately wanted to remember her smell. That meant everything to him. If he could he would preserve it forever.

Sniffing he gripped the small bear and pushed himself against the wall. He felt another stream of tears coming toward him. Why would his mama leave him? Mr. Stark gave him the note his mama had left behind. He just wished that she would have told him or hugged him one more time or something. He sucked in a deep breath. Maybe if she had said goodbye for real then it would be easier. Maybe it wouldn't hurt so bad. Wiping his eyes he tried not to let the tears consume him. He had to be strong so he could think of ways to find his mama.

The door to the room popped open before Peter could wipe his face good. He quickly did just that as he looked up to see Harley dressed for the beach.

“Hey uh, I’m going surfing, do you want to come?” Looking outside, Peter loved the pretty color of the waves. It’d be nice to go surfing, he’d had fun the last time, but that was when his mama had left him. If he could avoid thinking about that day for the rest of his life he’d be ok.

“No, thanks.”

“It’ll be fun. I can try to show you again how to keep your balance,” Harley said stepping into the room.

“I don’t want to go!” Peter surprised himself by the harsh tone he was using, but Harley wasn’t listening. If he never saw that stupid beach again it’d be too soon.

“Chill out. I’m just trying to help you.”

“Whatever, I don’t need your help! Ok? Just leave me alone!” Peter was breathing rapidly when he heard Mr. Stark come running into the room. Great.

“What’s going on in here? Is everyone ok?” Peter shrunk into himself.

“Dad, he’s just being a complete a**hole.” Mr. Stark flicked Harley’s ear making the boy wince slightly.

“Mouth,” the man said glancing between him and Harley. “Just calmly what’s going on?”

“Peter’s being annoying. He just started screaming at me when I asked him if he wanted to go to the beach.” Mr. Stark glanced at Peter and somehow he knew that Mr. Stark knew exactly why he was screaming at his son.

“Harls, maybe Peter doesn’t want to go to the beach. Did you ask if he might want to go to that place where you guys meet up to play video games or the skatepark or maybe ask if there was something he wanted to do?”

“You told me to invite him somewhere,” Harley said.

“Yeah, but it didn’t mean it had to be somewhere you wanted to go,” Mr. Stark said.

“Fine, let the little freak have his tantrum. I’m going to the beach,” Harley said walking away. Peter glanced up at Mr. Stark. The man was dressed casually like he was planning a quiet day at home. Peter had definitely ruined that.

“So uh what do you want to do, Petey Pop?” Glancing up Peter looked at Mr. Stark in surprise. No one had ever called him that before. It wasn’t a name to make fun of him, it was one of those sweet names like his mama used to call him. “Do you not like that name? I can stop calling you that.”

“No, it’s ok. I uh like it.” Mr. Stark smiled at him.

“So what would you like to do?”

“Nothing.”

“Come on, you can’t stay in this room forever.” Mr. Stark came and sat down on the bed right next to Peter. He could see Mr. Stark looking at the few things he’d brought up from the room in their house...well their old house. “How about we do some shopping? Get you some clothes, shoes, and some stuff for the room.” Peter blew out a breath.

“I don’t want to,” Peter said.

“Well kid, what would you like to do? Because it’s starting to smell like a gym locker in here.” Mr. Stark leaned toward him and sniffed making Peter feel like a farm animal. The man coughed. “Kid, when is the last time you took a bath?” He didn’t know what to say. It should be easier to remember, but it wasn’t. Was it Wednesday after they went for a walk? Or Friday when he cleaned out his room at the old house? “Too long,” Mr. Stark said standing up. Before Peter could say anything or react Mr. Stark had him over his shoulder and was moving quickly. Peter had no idea what was happening did Mr. Stark not like him anymore because he smelled bad? Was he going to hit him? “Bath time, kid,” he said launching Peter into the air. Fear consumed him as he flew through the air.

What was happening?

He hit the water with a splash. At first he couldn’t believe that Mr. Stark had thrown him in the pool! The cool water kissed every part of his body and then an odd thing happened as he pushed himself up to the surface. He felt himself smiling. A real smile for the first time in forever.

That was pretty fun.

Mr. Stark had a smile on his face when Peter looked at him from his place in the water.

“So like was a bath too predictable?” Mr. Stark’s smile morphed into a full out laugh.

“Kid, if you waited any longer you would have started to grow a garden behind your ears.” Mr. Stark knelt down on the edge of the pool and motioned for Peter to come closer. “You want to swim more or go take a real shower?”

“Shower,” Peter said, still smiling at the absurdity of the situation. Mr. Stark pulled him out of the water by his hand.

“Ok, so here’s the plan. You’re to take a shower and get dressed then we’re going to go shopping and to the movies after that you can mope all you want. Cool?” Peter nodded starting to get cold. “Ok, hop to it. Don't want you becoming a popsicle.” Peter shuffled away. “Oh, and new rule you gotta bathe like every two days at least. Yuck!”

~/~

Tony licked an ice cream cone while Peter kicked a small rock he’d found. The light gentle breeze made the rather hot day bearable. After finally getting the kid to stop smelling like a pair of old gym socks, Tony found the rest of the day to be mostly pleasant. Peter was still quiet, but there hadn’t been any outbursts which made Tony feel at ease.

They had breezed right through the mall when Tony went in search of new clothes and shoes for Peter. It seemed foreign to the boy to have a choice or say so. He figured that Pepper had probably picked out most of his clothes before. As odd as it was, it made the task a million times easier. He’d pick out a couple of shirts and Peter would nod or shake his head. They were in and out in under twenty minutes. While the boy was a bit more selective on the shoes and requested something that was ‘comfy’ and ‘didn’t hurt his feet’ they were able to walk away with three new pairs of sneakers and a pair of dress shoes before it was even lunch time.

Tony had been shocked by how easy the boy had made it. Harley was like in dad in how everything had to be just right. His clothes needed to match and his accessories needed to do the same. That was one thing he had been noticing over the last week or so.

Peter and Harley were drastically different.

While Harley spoke with an ease and carried himself like he was the best thing around, Peter was reserved and preferred to speak in hushed tones. The kid wouldn’t know confidence if it smacked him in the face.

Watching Peter he knew that he was spot on. The boy’s gait screamed how insecure he was. Anytime anyone got close to them in their walk rather than continue his path Peter would silently slip closer to Tony as if somehow being near the man protected him.

It was an odd feeling to have, especially since he felt like he would maim anyone who tried to hurt this little boy. Each day when he woke up he found himself focusing immediately checking the security cameras in his boys’ rooms. The first few days he had to remind himself to look at the feed for Peter’s room, but sometime in the middle of the week he realized that Peter had skyrocketed on his priority list. The boy hadn’t said or done anything substantial to cause this change, but that didn’t stop Tony from looking at Peter as his own. He wanted to see the boy succeed, he wanted him safe, and more than anything he wanted him happy.

Those were the same things he wanted for Harley.

He was still trying to wrap his head around it, but somehow Peter had become his kid.

That was why he’d spent the day working to get the guestroom transformed to Peter’s room. He’d ordered a new bed, sheets, a desk, a toy chest, some shelves, and wall decals. Hoping to accomplish the surprise in one day he’d paid a small fortune to get the work expedited. Just a few minutes ago he got the text from Jimmy that everything was handled and they could come home.

“Mr. Stark?” Looking down at the boy who cut into his thoughts, Tony nodded.

“Yeah, Pete?”

“Any update on my mama?” Tony sighed. Without fail, the boy asked him this same question at least once an hour. He wished he could give the boy better news, but so far they’d all come up blank.

“Not yet bud. Your mama is a good hider.” Peter stuck his hands into the pockets of his board shorts.

“She is. One time, Eric got real mad at me and Mama hid me in the closet under a bunch of clothes and behind a suitcase. He didn’t find me. She’s the best hider. She always hid me though, I wish she hid herself sometimes.” That was so had to hear coming out of a child’s mouth and it was such a weight to carry.

“You know your mama is really smart and strong, right?” Peter vigorously nodded looking up at the man. “Well that’s going to keep her safe. You said it yourself she’s the best hider so you gotta believe that she’s just doing a really good job right now.”

Tony turned them off the path and started walking them toward the parking lot where he’d left the Jeep. “Do you think that when it’s safe she’ll come out?”

“I think so, Pete. I know she wants you both to be safe so it might take a while, but trust her. Has she ever let you down?” Peter thought real hard.

“Just one time.”

“One time? Out of your whole ten years, just one time? Those are great odds!” They walked the short distance to the Jeep and climbed in.

“Is it ok if I go to sleep? My belly hurts.” Tony quirked an eye at him.

“Pizza, hotdog, nachos, and ice cream too much?” The boy gave a sheepish grin before curling on himself. Unable to stop it, Tony reached out and pushed the boy’s curls out of his face. “Get some rest, bud. I’ll get you some medicine when we get home.” That seemed to be all Peter needed to hear because the boy was out like a light in no time at all. Chuckling to himself Tony turned around and let the gentle breeze guide him home.

About twenty minutes later he pulled into the garage. He was ready to wake Peter up, but he knew that the boy wasn’t going to sleep when Tony was telling him to and who really could blame him? On more than one occasion Tony found Peter asleep leaning against the bed staring out the window.

Choosing instead to let the boy sleep, Tony quietly opened his door and slid the seat forward so that he could pluck the boy out of his chair. He didn’t know if it was voluntary or the kid’s subconscious but he latched onto Tony as soon as the man had him close to his chest. Smiling to himself, Tony felt odd but perfect. He’d only ever carried his own son like this.

As he walked toward the house the boy nestled himself further into Tony’s neck. “I’ve got you bud,” Tony said patting the boy’s back.

“Look at you. I thought you said the kid was uncomfortable,” Jimmy said appearing as if out of nowhere.

“He is, but I don’t know. Little guy just attached himself to me. Maybe it’s a breakthrough.”

“I hope so,” Jimmy said with a smile on his face. “Another nephew wouldn’t be so bad.” Tony rolled his eyes, but it was only because he loved his friend so much. Aside from his mother, Jimmy knew more about Tony than anyone else in the world. He was always a rock in Tony’s ever changing world. Tony was glad that his son got to experience Jimmy’s love first hand. He accepted the role instantly on the day Harley was born and had been there for him ever since. The boy often spent days or nights with his uncle. Tony knew that they spoke almost everyday. The list could go on and on, but Tony knew that with Jimmy around his son would always have a positive male role model.

“Just don’t spoil this one like you did the other one.”

“He’s not spoiled.”

“Kid’s month old expired milk,” Tony shot back quickly. “If he gets any riper I’m going to have to chuck him and start over.” Rhodey snorted as they moved up the stairs toward Peter’s new room. “Everything all set?”

“Yeah, I mean you went all out. Kid shouldn’t need anything for a while. Maya stopped by and help me put all the clothes away in drawers.” That got Tony’s attention and he stopped suddenly making Peter stir and whined. Unconsciously he shushed the boy and rubbed his back again. Peter went back out in moments. Jimmy was smiling broadly at him.

“What?”

“I’m just surprised is all. If you would have told me I’d be standing here watching you love this kid like this fifteen years ago I would bet you my right arm that it was a lie. But man, you are a great dad. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”

“I’m not his dad, Jimmy.” Tony felt somehow that was overstepping. How could he be the kid’s dad when his mom was MIA?

“Yeah well, does he know that,” Jimmy asked gesturing at the boy who was sleeping comfortably in Tony’s arms. “It’s like he’s been doing that with you his whole life.”

“What did Maya say?” Tony said gently laying the boy down on his bed and trying to change the subject.

“Nothing much, she just helped while Harley gathered his stuff for their weekend.” Tony nodded and plucked off Peter’s shoes before doing the same with his socks. “Won’t he be cold?”

“No, kid sweats at night. Socks make it so bad.” Jimmy stared at him again. “Oh shut up.”

“Just saying, I need another “best uncle” mug.” Tony rolled his eyes as he pulled the new duvet over Peter.

“Just admit that the kid’s growing on you, Tones, I see it in your eyes.” Tony objected his mouth to object, but no words came out.

How could he deny the truth?

~/~

Looking to the left and to the right, Pepper slid inside of the dark hotel room. Instantly she firmly latched the door behind her and turned on the makeshift alarm she had rigged up. Once she was sure everything was secure she sat on the small bed and pulled her shoes off of her feet. Being smuggled via a collection of cars, vans, and motorcycles left her feeling drained. She pulled the brown bag toward her and set out the sandwich, the apple, the chips, and the small cookie. She pulled the milk out of the bag last and drank it in a couple of gulps. That way her stomach would be lined and partially full when she ate so that she could stretch the small amount she had.

It had been a long two days.

After hiding in Irvine for a while she was told that it was time to move forward to get her out of the state. Rubbing her temples, Pepper tried to hold her composure. She didn't remember it being this hard to leave with Nat, but then again the 'Violence Stops Here' team were different than Nat. While they were nice and helped her out considerably, it wasn't the same familiar feeling that Nat gave her. These people didn't want checkins or helping her find a job, house, or car their only concern was her safety.

Pulling her feet toward her she rubbed the soles softly. Apart of the journey was walking mile after mile in a disguise. Now, all she had to do was wait here for the next round of escorts that would take her to her next destination.

A tear slipped down her cheek as she thought of her son. She kept the framed picture of them at the Science Fair a couple of months ago in her bag. It was one of her favorite pictures ever. Steve had taken it and gifted it to her as a surprise. Every time she saw the picture she smiled. Peter smiling widely and Pepper's arms wrapped around him as he held up the blue ribbon. Her little science man. More tears slipped down her cheeks. She wished she could hold him and kiss him...but she couldn't.

She sacrificed it all for her baby.

She couldn't let him suffer for her actions, not anymore. Wiping her eyes she figured it was best to rest for a bit. As she rolled over she knew that it was the best decision for both of them, she wouldn’t fail her son again.

~/~

Rolling over Peter felt a little heaviness in his stomach. Rubbing his eyes he sat up and looked around the dimly lit room. There wasn't any light on, but he could see the strange room due to the light from the moon shining brightly through the window. Turning his head wildly he felt his breathing start to hitch.

Where was he?

Climbing out of bed he reached for a light but in his panic he hit the ground with a low thud. "Ow!" Please don't let him be somewhere else. Did Eric find him? Was his mama here? Frantically he tried to untangle himself from the sheets. "Help!"

Almost instantly he heard thudding footsteps flying down the hall. Mr. Stark burst into the room turning on the light. "What's wrong?"

"Where am I?"

"Bud, you're in your room." Peter shook his head. This wasn't his room. His room was smaller than this.

"No, we cleaned out my room, remember?" Mr. Stark smiled at him.

"Peter, this is your room at my house. Do you remember the guest room, well now it's yours." Peter's heart stopped beating in his chest...what?

"I don't need a room, Mr. Stark," he started as his eyes fell on the room around him. There was a brand new bunk bed leaning against the wall. The top was a small one like his own at home, but the bottom bunk was a wide bed like Harley's. As his eyes traveled across the red and white room, he saw all of his things from his room at his house. His books, his pictures, his toys, even the new robot he was building sitting on s shelf.

"It's supposed to be a big surprise, Pete." The man shrugged, "But you were sleeping when we came home so I just put you on your bed." Mr. Stark walked toward a small little workbench that had a green toolkit on it. He held it out for Peter to see. "I figure if I have one and Harley has one, you'll need one too. It's got your name on it and everything." Peter looked down at it and then back up at Mr. Stark.

The only thing Peter needed was his mama.

"Do you like it," Mr. Stark asked. Peter wanted to say yes, ‘cause it was freakin’ awesome, and he knew he should say yes, but he didn't.

"I hate it," he said firmly. Mr. Stark looked hurt at first like he didn't believe him then shook his head.

"It's everything you like Pete. I had a designer come in and I told her all about you. This room is literally made for you kid. I've got you lots of new books, a computer with restrictions of course, and toys. Those posters on the wall? Signed by Luke himself. Come on, who else can say they have that? I even had them hang up the clothes we bought earlier. This is a room so perfect for you Peter." Peter shook his head.

"My room is perfect. This one isn't," he said glaring up at the man. That was when the man's face fell. He looked sick and a bit hurt. Peter wanted to apologize, but he didn't. "It sucks and I hate it." Mr. Stark pursed his lips.

"Well, I'll let you get to bed then. Goodnight Peter," he said closing the door. Peter looked behind him and then again at the awesome room.

He wasn't going to enjoy this if his mama couldn't see it.

Shaking his head he grabbed his Star Wars blanket off the end of the bed and pillow before he opened the closet and went inside. This was perfect, it was warm, cozy, and reminded him of home. Smiling to himself, Peter laid down and closed his eyes. Hopefully sleep would come for him soon.

Chapter Text

Peter was pacing in his fake room at Mr. Stark’s house. His new sneakers were squeaking against the floor with every step, but he couldn’t help it. Something was wrong.

It had been a month…one whole month without seeing his mama.

Thirty of the longest days in his short life.

And now things just seemed to be getting worse.

It hurt so bad that he could barely stand it. Almost every night he found himself in the closet clutching his bear and crying for her. He wanted to be stronger like maybe working on a plan to find her but it was too hard. All he could think about was that she was gone.

That was probably why he found himself sent to his fake room for whatever reason. Mr. Stark had said it was only for him to do his homework, but Peter didn’t believe it. His guardian had been acting funny when he’d picked Harley and Peter up from school. Harley didn’t have to go to his room, but Peter did.

And that meant he’d clearly done something wrong.

He was pretty sure his teacher had sent an email to Mr. Stark, but he wasn’t positive. Mr. Stark had told him that his mama gave him custody of Peter or whatever, but he didn’t know what it meant exactly. Did that mean he was the person they now contacted at school? His only hope was that no one told the school about his new life. Maybe the teacher didn’t know about his mama being gone.

Why didn’t he just pay attention? If he had he would have known for sure.

It was just so hard. All he could think about was his mama. Was she ok? Did she miss him? Did Eric find her? He didn’t mean to ignore everything, but it just seemed to happen.

If he could just talk to her once then he’d be ok.

He took a deep breath. Maybe he was worrying for nothing. A knock came to the door and he jumped startled by the sudden noise. Mr. Stark peeked his head inside before stepping into the room. A quickly glance shown the man in a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a blazer. The same outfit he’d worn earlier, Peter hoped he had some type of meeting or something. Then his attention caught the side of the rounded wad of paper in Mr. Stark’s hand. Peter knew immediately what it was….it was his unfinished homework packet.

This wasn’t a friendly visit.

Great.

He watched the man sit down on the ottoman right in front of Peter. His heart was jumping in his chest. “Am I in trouble?”

Mr. Stark gave him a confused look. “No. Not you’re not.” Peter eyed him wearily. “You’re not in trouble, I just want to talk to you. Have a seat.” Not really believing him, Peter pulled the desk chair toward the window and sat down on it. He wanted to put a lot of distance between him and Mr. Stark. “I got another email today from your teacher. She asked me to stop by your school and talk to her. We had a nice chat actually. Ms. Connors thinks you’re great. She said you’re polite, helpful, and usually a very good student, until recently,” Peter slumped down into his chair. This was not going to end well.

“I’m sorry,” he said not really meaning it. He figured it was better to give up than to fight it.

“You don’t need to apologize, Peter. I just want to talk. You’re not doing so good at school right now which is why Ms. Connors contacted me.” Peter sighed of course Mr. Stark had told the teacher what was going on. That’s why she kept giving Peter those looks and saying ‘everyone can have a bad day’. “She says you’re not paying attention and you keep daydreaming.” Peter didn’t hide his annoyance. This was so stupid. “What’s going on? You didn’t do any homework at all last week and so far you haven’t done anything this week either. Do you need help? I know you were out for a couple of days when you moved in, but are you feeling behind?” Peter shook his head. “You know me and Harley can help you with whatever it is.” Silence covered the room. “Come on, I need you to help me here. Your teacher is worried and I am too. What’s going on?”

Peter just stared at the man. He was supposed to be a genius.

It was obvious that Mr. Stark was a little annoyed with him he figured that it would be better to not push it. “Nothing. I just forgot.” Mr. Stark shook his head and his eyes narrowed a bit. Ok, this was getting serious now.

“I don’t think you forgot. Especially since I ask you every day if you did your homework or not.” Peter started at his hands. He didn’t care what Mr. Stark said, Peter was definitely in trouble. It was written all over the man’s face. “I think you didn’t try.”

“I am trying.” Peter noticed how the man leaned forward a bit.

“Peter, bud. I’ve seen your grades before. You can’t go from getting hundreds on everything to zeros and tell me you’re trying. Some of the answers you’ve been scribbling down don’t even make sense. Come on, don’t lie to me.” Peter still didn’t say anything. “You know she and I have been talking about you doing some more challenging work in math and science.” Peter looked up at him. “We’re considering having you join the fifth graders for those two classes, but I don’t think we will if you don’t even do your work now.” Peter crossed his arms and didn’t bother to hide his eye roll.

“What does it matter? It’s just a couple of days. It won’t hurt me.” Mr. Stark rubbed his face with his hands.

“Look, school is important, ok? I need you to do well. That’s what your mom would want, right?” Peter stood up glaring nostrils flaring like a bull. That was the wrong thing to say.

“You don’t know what she would want!” Mr. Stark put his palms up in submission.

“That was my fault and I’m sorry,” he sighed. “And you’re right I may not know her well, but I know that she would want you to do well in school. That’s why she paid for you to go there, right?” Peter continued his glare before deciding he had enough of this conversation for a lifetime.

“Yeah, sure whatever. Can we work on the engine some more?” Leaning back against the wall Mr. Stark crossed both his arms against his chest.

“No, not tonight.” Peter frowned.

“Why not?”

“I need all of your missing homework turned in then I’ll help you.”

“What? No fair.”

“Bud, we all have jobs and yours is school.” Peter picked up his pencil and gripped it tightly in his hand and stared at the empty worksheet sitting on his fake desk. The work was easy. If he could figure that crap out, he could figure out how to build an engine on his own.

No problem.

“Fine, I don’t need your help anyway,” he shot back. “I’ll do it myself.” Mr. Stark raised an eyebrow.

“Watch your attitude, kid,” Mr. Stark said. He felt his lip starting to wobble as he tightly closed his eyes. Looking up Peter saw his mama scowling at him. He scowled right back. He could feel her frustrated glare tearing into him and he started to wilt. ”Peter Benjamin, you take that look off your face right now,” his mother admonished. He shook his head, this couldn’t be real. Thankfully when he opened his eyes, his mama wasn’t there anymore it was Mr. Stark.

A flurry of emotions were swimming in his body and he couldn’t contain them anymore. “I’ll do what I want to!”

“Well good luck on that, because you’re not allowed in the lab, or the garage, or out of this room until those two packets of homework are done and I’ve checked them.” Peter made a face.

“What is this jail?”

~/~

Tony squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t believe the scene before him. This little miscreant was completely shirking his responsibilities and now he was giving him attitude?

The kid was grating on his nerves. He took a deep breath. “No, this isn’t jail. This is called being grounded.” Peter glared at him like it would have changed anything.

“But you said I wasn’t in trouble!”

“You weren’t until you gave me attitude. I know you miss your mom, but it’s not ok to talk to me this way. It’s rude and disrespectful.” Before he could finish Peter beat him to it.

“Whatever,” Peter huffed out kicking the leg his desk. “I don’t need your stupid lab anyway.” Tony looked at the boy. He was almost positive the kid was planning on ignoring him and going straight to the lab or the garage when he wasn’t looking.

This was the exact reason why Steve had such a hard time with him.

The kid was stubborn as a mule.

“Peter,” he said firmly. “I mean it, no lab or garage. Don’t test me, ok? I don’t want to hire a babysitter for you, but I will.”

Peter looked up at him insulted. “I'm not a little kid!”

“Then don’t act like one,” he replied logically. “I trust you right now, but if I can't, I'll hire someone to watch you when I can’t.” Peter bit his lip and glared. The boy opened his mouth but Tony posted a finger at him. “You’re already grounded for the rest of the night, want to try for tomorrow?” With that, the boy glared even harder before stomping over to his bed and throwing himself on top of it. Tony waited knowing the kid was crying.

What was he supposed to do?

This was so tough. He knew it, but every day kept proving it. Peter wasn’t anything like Harley. He could count on one hand how many times his kid had thrown a tantrum since he’d been a toddler. Peter on the other hand

“Pete?” He stopped closer trying to be gentle. “Peter?”

“Just leave me alone,” he heard through the pillow.

“Peter,” he tried again.

“Go away!” Sighing Tony took his hand off the boy’s shoulder.

“We’re leaving for dinner in an hour,” he said before he walked out of the room and closed the door gently.

~/~

Peter was glaring at the stupid packet in his hands while he leaned against his fake bed. Mr. Stark had no right to ground him or even yell at him. He wasn’t his dad!

He bit his lip angrily. If his mama was here she’d told him to fly a kite.

As soon as he said it he felt a twinge of guilt. If his mama was here and she found out he hadn’t done his homework she would have made him do extra chores and do his homework in front of her while she made dinner.

Did his mama want Mr. Stark to be like this? Eric wasn’t like that and Mr. Steve wasn’t either. If he had yelled at either of them they both would have done the same thing…hit him. Except Eric’s would have been a lot worse.

Mr. Stark was a lot like his mama. He listened and only yelled sometimes. He didn’t scare Peter, but he did.

What if the man left him like his mama? What if he said he had to go stay with Mr. Steve like before? Peter looked down at the paper again. He couldn’t let that happen.

~/~

“Hey Tony,” Sam said skeptically. Tony didn’t call him often, they weren’t exactly friends just acquaintances really.

“Hi Sam, um I’m having some trouble with Peter. Steve mentioned you’re good with this kind of stuff. Think you could help?

“Well I’m used to dealing with vets, but I don’t mind. What’s going on?”

“I mean the kid is a zombie or something. He just stares or sulks unless you piss him off then he screams like a banshee.” Tony sighed. “I mean I know he misses his mom, but I feel like it’s something else.”

“I think I know, but I tell you what I’m free Saturday morning, how about we do something then? You can drop him off with me and we’ll walk the park or something.”

“That would be great! Thanks, Birdman!” Sam chuckled.

“Just because I’m a pilot doesn’t mean I’m a bird,” Sam said. All Tony could do was smile as the call ended.

“Hey Fri, tell Peter to come down for dinner,” he called out. Tony rubbed his eyes as he looked at the panel in front of him. He was hoping that he could have blueprints and a mock-up ready for his presentation on Friday. He wrote down a set of numbers just as the door to his lab was opened. Standing in the doorway was Peter in a pair of shorts, those gaudy green sneakers, and a t-shirt. “You ready?” The boy didn’t say anything to him, he just walked toward Tony and placed two stacks of paper down in front of him. Looking down he let out a whistle. “Is this all of it?”

“Yeah,” Peter said softly. Tony turned to look at the kid. He seemed overly anxious as usual and maybe a little sad. “Can I um work on the engine now,” Peter asked twisting his fingers as he fidgeted.

“We are leaving for dinner right now so no.” Peter dropped his head but nodded. “However, we should get back a little before you need to go to bed so maybe we can work on it then. Would you like that?” Peter nodded slowly. “Now, I should say no because you’re grounded, but I don’t really think you meant to be rude to me.” He looked at the boy who looked dead on his feet. It kind of made sense with the kid sleeping in the closet like that. It couldn’t be very comfortable. “So, I’m going to say yes, but only if you promise me that you’ll do your homework from now on, ok?” Peter shrugged. “And your attitude, bud. Can you show me that your attitude is different? If not you can go back to your room when we get home and we’ll try again tomorrow.” Looking down, Peter scuffed his shoe but didn’t respond. “Well, is it?” Tony watched the boy suck in a deep breath like he was surrendering his soul or something.

“Yes, sir. It’s different,” Peter said softly.

“Ok, let’s get in the car and then we can tackle that engine later.” Peter shuffled behind him.

“Uh Mr. Stark, where’s Harley?”

“On my nerves.” Peter looked up at the man. “Let’s just say you’re not the only one getting grounded around here tonight.” Rubbing his eyes Tony pulled the door closed as Peter walked out and climbed into the back of the Audi. "You want to sit up here with me?" He was still standing outside of the car and saw Peter shake his head from the backseat. "Aww, come on, I get lonely." Another head shake. "Why not?"

"That's Harley's seat." Tony rolled his eyes.

"Well he's not here. Besides it's not like he owns it or anything." Still, the boy wouldn't budge. Shrugging and giving up Tony slid into the front seat and pulled onto the road. The car was consumed in silence for several minutes. Ever so often Tony would glance at Peter who was quietly kicking his legs and staring out the window. The kid just looked so sad. Tony couldn't imagine how he'd feel if he was in Peter's shoes. His mom was his rock during those dark years; to not have her would have been disastrous. He hoped that Peter wouldn't suffer like that. They were working tirelessly to find Pepper, but she had gone deep underground. Well, at least that's what Nat though. The only other option was one that none of them voiced, but all feared. Every time the thought came he shook it off. He wanted to think the best most positive thoughts.

They were going to find her...they had to.

In the meantime though he had to figure out a way to get Peter to survive. The kid was living like a ghost. Barely existing only speaking when prodded. It was like the kid had just given up. The school counselor thought it might be a form of depression, but Tony knew that it was simply a broken heart. The kid was lost without his mom and Tony couldn't blame him. Glancing in the mirror again and got another glimpse of the sadness in the boy's brown orbs. He hoped Sam could get through to Peter.

Somebody had to.

~/~

Peter felt a wave of emotions flutter through his body. When Mr. Stark said that he was taking Peter to the park he actually got a little excited. Since his mama left, he hadn't been able to go to the park. Even though he had pretty bad allergies if he stayed on the sand or dirt he could have a pretty good time climbing the monkey bars or sliding down the slides. When they pulled into the park though this one wasn't like the kind Peter thought about. This was one of those adult type parks, which Peter knew meant this was some kind of set up. His first thought when Mr. Stark got out of the car was that maybe he was in trouble or something, but then he figured the man was going to send him away or something. All he knew was that this was bad. He really just wanted to get out and run far away, but he knew he couldn't do that. What if his mama came back for him and he was gone? A knock on his window startled him and he jumped. Mr. Stark pulled the door open and Peter would have fallen out of the car if Mr. Stark hadn't reached out to catch him. “Peter, you remember Mr. Wilson, right?” Looking up at the man with the big sunglasses he nodded.

“He’s Mr. Steve’s friend,” Peter answered quietly. His insides started to churn. Mr. Stark was going to send him away!

“That’s right. He wants to talk to you a bit, ok? I’m going to get some work done and I’ll pick you up in an hour or so.” Peter looked up at him expectantly.

"You promise?" Mr. Stark huffed out a laugh.

"Of course, bud." Peter watched the man reach into his pocket and pull out his cellphone. "Here, take my cellphone and if you need me you call me ok?" Peter looked down at the device and then back up at the man. "I'll be back in an hour, I promise." Peter shrugged, it wasn’t like Mr. Stark was giving him a choice. Not really anyway. An odd thing happened instead of leaving like Peter expected Mr. Stark leaned down and gave him a kiss on the forehead before ruffling his hair. “Be good, ok? I’ll see you in a bit.” It was so much like how his mama was that Peter wanted to cry. He watched the man leave as long as he could before he crossed over to the parking lot. It had to only be a few moments, but it felt like forever.

Why did he want Mr. Stark so bad?

“Hey, Peter are you ready?” Turning around he looked at Mr. Wilson. “I figure we can hit the swings, walk around and feed the ducks, or just sit here. What do you want to do?”

After choosing to feed the ducks Peter and Mr. Wilson walked around the park for a bit in silence. Ever so often the man would ask him a question like does he miss his mom or where'd he grow up? Peter thought they were dumb, but he still tried to answer without sounding rude. Would Mr. Stark leave him if he was mean to Mr. Wilson? Would he send him to Mr. Steve? He heard Mr. Wilson talking again, but he couldn’t really focus on what the man was saying.

He just wanted Mr. Stark.

Why did the man have to leave him here?

He felt a hand land on his shoulder making him lookup. “It’s almost time for your dad to come back, but I have a few more questions.” Peter stopped dead in his tracks. Mr. Stark wasn’t his dad.

“He’s not my dad,” he said firmly. Mr. Wilson looked at him funny and then smiled.

"You sure about that? I mean the way you keep looking for him to appear I figured he might be." Peter scowled wanting his frustration to be known. “I'm sorry, you’re right he's not your dad. I guess I got confused because he makes sure you have clothes, he feeds you, takes you out to the beach, I heard he even bought you a brand new bike. I guess he’s not a dad though. So what is he?” Peter glared up at Mr. Wilson and started to angrily walk away.

Mr. Stark wasn’t his dad. He was his well uh…guardian. That was it.

“He’s my guardian.”

“What does that mean?” Peter licked his lips. He’d heard someone say it on tv once. He wasn’t really sure what it meant it just made sense. The man wasn’t his dad or his mom so he had to be a guardian. “I see you’re having some trouble so let me help you out here, ok? A guardian is someone who looks out for your best interest so that you’re not harmed. Sometimes kids whose parents can’t take care of them anymore get guardians appointed to them to make sure they’re ok.” Peter nodded. That definitely sounded like Mr. Stark. “Did you know that guardians don’t have to do anything more than that? They don’t have to buy you toys or play games with you or help you with your homework.” Peter was confused again. So why was Mr. Stark doing those things? “Some guardians do that stuff, but most of the time when someone is really nice and really cares about you like that then it’s probably the kid’s mom or dad or at least someone who loves them like that.”

Peter stopped walking again. Mr. Stark wasn’t his dad. He was nice, but he wasn’t his dad. No, he was Harley's dad. Not Peter's.

“Would you say he’s a bit like a dad or like a guardian? Based on what we just talked about.”

“He’s my guardian, ok? I don’t care what you say he’s just that.” Mr. Wilson nodded. “He told me that you yelled at him the other day. Why are you so mean to him? Mr. Stark I mean.” Emotions were bubbling forth inside of Peter. Why was this the only thing he wanted to talk about?

“Because he’s mean to me, ok?” Mr. Wilson nodded. Peter let his eyes fall on the ducks.

“Mean? How is he mean Peter? Does he hurt you?” Stepping onto the path he took a deep breath. Adults were so dumb sometimes.

“No, he makes me do homework and stuff. Chores. Made me clean the living room ‘cause I lied. Stupid mean stuff,” he said feeling flustered.

“Well lots of kids have to do that. Is that all?”

“He acts like my mama, and I don’t like it, ok? He’s not her. He’s just a guy she left me with.” Peter felt tears climbing into his eyes. “He’s not my dad. I don’t have one. I have a mama and I want her! Nobody else, ok?” He was panting like a bull by this point and tears were threatening to fall. Mr. Wilson leaned down and put his hands on knees so he was closer to Peter’s eye level.

“Peter, it’s ok to want your mama. You hear me?" Peter wiped his eyes and nodded. "I promise you that nobody is blaming you for missing her and wanting her, but it’s ok to let other people love you too.”

Peter sniffed feeling like his chest was getting tight. “Mr. Stark doesn’t love me.”

“Oh, I think you know you’re lying now.” Peter bit his lip. “I bet if you think about it you love Mr. Stark too." Mr. Wilson stepped a little bit closer to Peter. "I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I want you to know that I spoke with your mom a bunch when she was dating Steve. She's a really nice woman and she loves you very much and there's no doubt in my mind that she would want you to be happy.” Peter backed away from the man angrily.

How could he ever be happy with his mama gone?

~/~

Tony saw Peter running toward him. Wow, Sam must have really gotten through to the kid. He braced himself for a little boy to run into his arms, but instead, the kid just stopped when he got close to him. Talk about a letdown. Trying to shake off the embarrassment Tony smiled and ruffled the kid's hair. “Hey buddy, did you have a good time?” Peter didn’t answer him he just stalked angrily to the car and climbed in slamming the door. Tony winced and looked up at Sam. “That good, huh?” The other man gave a non-committed shrug. Tony glanced at Peter who was leaning against the window scowling in the backseat of his Audi. “So what’s wrong with him?”

“He’s pissed off.” Tony rolled his eyes.

“Gee, I couldn’t tell. What did you do to him?” Sam shrugged.

“Not much, he wasn’t responding to be being vague or to any gentle coaxing, I did. So I hit him on some raw nerves. It’s a tactic we use with people who want to talk but don’t know how to start. Anyway, kid’s got a lot of pent up emotion. He’s confused, scared, hurt and angry. Very angry. I don’t just mean about today either. He’s one pissed-off little guy.”

“Angry about his mom?”

“That and a million other things. Life isn’t fair and he knows it in spades. More than anything though, the kid’s mad at you for being good to him and mad at his mom for leaving.”

“So break it down for me, what’s going on exactly?”

“He’s grieving, Tony. His mom was the only constant in his life and now she’s gone. He’s confused, hurt, scared, angry. You name it.”

“How can I help him?”

“Just keep doing what you’re doing. He’ll adjust to the new normal in his own time. This is something you can’t rush.” The man smiled at him. “Believe it or not, he’s actually treating you so badly because he’s scared.”

“Come again.”

“You remind him of his mom, Tony.” He shook his head. He didn’t hear what he thought he heard.

“What? He said that?” Sam nodded. “I don’t get it. How? I mean, I guess I’m just confused.” Sam spread his legs apart and gestured to Tony with his hands.

“Hear me out. She’s his everything but she’s gone, right? Here you come asking him to be polite, do his homework, brush his teeth, making him do chores, you know. Well, that’s what she used to do. This kid hasn't had a lot of nice adults in his life. From his perspective, it was just his mama and you now." Tony nodded in understanding. "You remind him of her and he’s afraid you’ll leave him too. It's all he knows.”

“So in his mind, if he doesn’t get close to me then he can’t get hurt again?”

“Exactly.” Huh. “You’re doing all the right things just keep being there for the kid. He’s gonna come around. He's got a big heart and he's fighting what he feels for you really hard right now."

"How can you tell?" Sam smirked.

"You see how he looked when you wanted to leave him? Kid stared at you until you were out of sight then spent the first thirty minutes looked for you every few minutes." Tony was shocked. Peter seemed so waver between indifferent toward him and treating him like he was this giant annoyance. The kid was really that torn up about him leaving? It was kind of shocking.

"What do I need to do?" Tony watched Sam eye him really hard before smiling.

"You really love him, don't you?" Ok, uh wow. He wasn't expecting that.

"W-what makes you think that? I mean I'm just making sure he's alright."

"Oh, please Tony. I can see it a mile away. You're in denial just as much as he is. Just admit it, you love him." Tony tried to pretend like he was still cool as a cucumber, but he wasn't. Sam called his number and now he had to pay up. He thought about it for a moment, he did love, Peter. At first, it felt a lot like he was just babysitting, but Peter was his now. He woke up scared for him and went to bed worried if he'd done the right things for him. "Just tell him how you feel. It's going to make you both feel a lot better to have your relationship defined." A lump sat deep in Tony's throat. All he could do at this point was nod. "You're a great dad, just keep loving on him. I’m sure you’ll see a breakthrough soon enough.” Tony nodding to himself with the new revelation. “If you need me to talk to him again I’d be happy to.” Before he could stop it a snort escaped his lips.

“Uh yeah, I think he hates you as much as Steve right now.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” the man said. "But at least he doesn't hate you and right now that's what's most important." As Tony looked at the car again, Peter's little face was staring out the window looking so lost. His heart instantly clenched.

All he wanted to do was help him.

~/~

The next afternoon Peter found himself sitting on his knees sliding a Lego into place as he applied it to the spaceship he was building. So far he'd built a race car and a dinosaur. Those were two of his staples and he knew he could make them within minutes. The spaceship always took a bit more finesse and he liked the challenge of trying to remember how it looked so he could recreate it. Looking around at the parts he found the one he needed. He leaned forward to add it to the top. Looking over his shoulder he smiled again when he saw the doorway to the ‘building room’ was empty.

So far they hadn't found him yet. Thank God.

He knew he was going to get in trouble for sneaking away, but it was worth it. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Game Factory or even Mr. Stark, Harley, or Mr. Jimmy it’s just he wasn’t in the mood for this type of fun as Mr. Stark called it. All he'd really wanted to do was sit in the closet or even his fake room and think, but that wasn't an option. As soon as he’d appeared for breakfast Mr. Stark had told him that they’d be spending the day having fun to 'get the boys some air', but he knew it was a ploy to try and cheer him up and boy did they try. So far they'd gone to the carnival, walked the pier and seen a magic show. Normally it would be awesome, but when all he wanted to do was be alone it was miserable. There wasn’t one minute in the entire day he’d been by himself…until he snuck off and found this heaven-like place.

The problem was that now the conversation he'd had with Mr. Wilson continued to play on a loop. That was the reason he hadn’t slept well. It was way too much to think about an no matter how hard he tried he couldn't make the questions stop.

Was Mr. Stark trying to be his dad?

Was his mama never coming back?

What if Mr. Stark left him too?

What if Mr. Stark wanted him but Harley didn't?

Sighing he leaned forward and made quick work of adding in moving windows hoping to quiet the thoughts buzzing in his head. He was actually the only kid currently in the small room and it didn’t bother him one bit. He wanted to be alone and now he got his wish.

"Peter!" Turning around Peter gasped when he saw Mr. Steve charging toward him nostrils flaring.

"M-Mr. Steve?"

“What have you been doing?” Peter looked up at Steve with wide eyes. The man’s blue eyes were shining bright in anger. Roughly he pulled Peter up off the ground and up to his feet. “What were you thinking?” He honestly hadn’t thought it would be that big of a deal. He was just having some fun. “Peter, answer me. We’ve been looking for you for an hour.” Harley ran up to the scene and sighed.

“Oh man, there you are. Dad’s going crazy looking for you, I’m going to go and grab him and Jimmy.” Peter tried to shrink toward the Lego pile because getting stabbed by jagged edges would be better than experiencing what happened when Mr. Steve’s vein popped out of his skull like it was. It had been a while since he’d made him that angry, but he knew that he had screwed up. He kept waiting for Harley to rush in while Mr. Steve was yelling at him. He was so desperate for someone to come and save him from this. He felt really brave before but not now. When he looked up again he heard the words 'selfish' and 'brat' in the middle of Mr. Steve's rant. Peter wasn’t any of those things. He was a good boy. He felt his insides bubble up in anger. Finally, he felt cornered and had enough.

“I was just building. I do it all the time." He crossed his arms in defiance, "I didn’t think anyone would care. Not like you noticed I was gone anyway.” The man rolled his eyes.

“That’s not true and it’s not nice for you to say things like that, Peter.” That made his blood boil. Nothing that happened to him was nice. Eric being a douche. His Mama leaving him. None of it. Peter reared back and kicked Mr. Steve as hard as he could. Apparently, that was the wrong thing to do because he quickly found his arm gripped tightly by the older man. Crap! He desperately tried to squirm away.

“Leave me alone!” Mr. Steve didn’t say anything he only gripped his arm tighter. Peter knew what was coming and closed his eyes bracing for the inevitable flash of pain that was sure to come.

Just when he thought it would happen he felt himself lurched backward. Surprised he saw Mr. Stark step in between him and Mr. Steve. “Rogers are you crazy?” Peter looked up at Mr. Stark who was breathing like a bull and glaring daggers at Mr. Steve.

“Tony, the kid is out of control. He was gone for an hour, never even thought about what we might go through looking for him and when I find him he’s not even apologetic. Just kept glaring at me like I’m the one who did something to him. This whole day was to cheer him up and he’s acting like a brat!” Mr. Stark stepped right into Mr. Steve’s space not caring that he was several inches shorter.

“He’s my kid, Rogers. If you have a problem with him you come to me.” Mr. Steve rolled his eyes.

“And you’ll do what? Talk to him? I’ve been around him, Tony. I know how he works.”

“Yeah, right! The kid hates you! He literally shrinks every time you come into a room. I’m telling you, Rogers, if you ever put a hand on either of my kids again, I will bury you.” Mr. Steve glared down at him. Peter didn’t know how to feel. Mr. Stark was sticking up for him. Nobody but his mama ever did that before.

“He’s out of control, Tony.” Steve glared down at Peter who was still positioned out of Steve’s sight mostly tucked away safely behind Mr. Stark. “You need to be a responsible adult and handle him or step aside let someone else do it. You’re not doing him any favors by letting him run wild.”

“He’s grieving! Can’t you see that? Get your head out if your...” he paused before taking a step back and latching his hand onto Peter’s. “I don’t care what you say or what you think is wrong with him, you do not ever put your hands on him again. You hear me? Harley take Peter to the car, we’re leaving.” Peter’s feet stayed glued to the floor, despite Mr. Stark handing his arm to Harley.

“Come on, let’s go,” the teen said. Peter couldn’t move. Mr. Stark was standing nose to nose with Mr. Steve ready to fight him to protect Peter. Snatched out of his thoughts Harley gave his arm a good yank to get him moving. Once they were outside Harley blew out a breath.

“You sure know how to put on a show.” Harley was chuckling to himself. “I ‘mean just disappearing like that and all. Kinda ballsy really.” Looking at the door again, Peter shrugged. He wasn’t feeling very ballsy, just confused. Mr. Stark had called him his kid, put him in the same breath as Harley. That was a big deal.

“I guess,” Peter said finally.

“You guess? Dude, you sure know how to piss off Steve. He was glowing like bright red. I bet he didn’t picture that today. Mr. Rogers the drill sergeant bested by a ten-year-old. Take that Ranger Joe.”

Peter giggled at that. “He’s a dick.” Harley gave him a smile and started to cackle.

“Wait until I tell Jordan and Kris about this. They’re going to die.” The teen kept talking to himself while Peter let his thoughts consume him again. He hadn’t ever seen Mr. Stark that mad before. Irritated, frustrated, yeah, but not like that. He wasn’t really sure how to say it, but when people got angry it scared him…a lot.

“Hey uh, what’s he gonna go now?” Harley held up one finger and finished his Snapchat recording before turning to Peter.

“Who? Steve? Dad’s going to tear him a new one if he hasn’t already.” Peter shook his head even though he was intrigued by this situation.

“No, uh what's um your dad gonna do?” Harley gave Peter those soft eyes that adults gave when they felt bad for you. He hated those eyes. The teen moved toward Peter and put his arm on his shoulder.

“Hey, you don’t gotta worry about nothing, ok? My dad’s gonna yell at Steve for sure. He’s such a pretentious dick who’s always trying to teach somebody something that he thinks he knows. I’m sure dad’s giving it to him now. I don’t think he’ll actually fight him though. Steve didn’t actually hit you this time.” Peter shook his head.

“No, I um mean with me? You think he’ll yell at me?”

“Oh uh, I’m not sure. I don’t think so. He’ll make you do the dishes or something probably. I know he’ll want to talk to you about why you just left, but you don’t gotta be scared or nothing. Dad’s not like Steve. That I know for sure.”

“But he was mad,” Peter said. Harley shrugged.

“He gets mad at me a bunch, never hit me once. Except for my head, in which case that happens a lot.” Peter glanced up at Harley who was smiling. Oh, it was a joke. Just then before Peter could really laugh, Mr. Stark came charging out of the building shaking his head and sputtering.

He rushed across the car and kneeled down directly in front of Peter running his arms up and down Peter’s arms and torso. “He didn’t hurt you did he?” Peter shook his head surprised. Mr. Stark wasn’t acting himself. He seemed genuinely concerned. “If he hit you I swear I’ll kill him.”

“I’m not hurt, Mr. Stark.”

“You sure? He was mad.”

“No, I’m ok.”

“Let’s go,” he said tensely. “I don’t want to breathe that guy’s air for a second longer than I need to.”

~/~

Tony sighed as he and the boys settled into their usual table for dinner. After the fiasco at the arcade, he just wanted to have a nice quiet dinner with the boys. It has always been the Stark’s table of three. Before it was Tony, Harley, and Maya. Then when things got bad the third chair haunted them like a ghost. Staring at them, taunting them with dust until finally, Happy took it away. For years it became the two chair table, but now it was back to three.

Just as they settled in and ordered their drinks, a bustling group of teens charged toward them. “Harley K!” Slinging out of his chair Harley smiled and rushed toward the group. Tony could hear them clambering and chatting about the coolest thing. His blonde son rushed toward him.

“They’re having a fire pit tonight on the beach. You know for like fun.”

“Is that so?”

“So, Dad, can I go?” Tony glanced at Peter, but he could tell by the look on Harley’s face that the teen didn’t want a partner to tag along.

“Yeah, go ahead, but I want you back here by eight so you can eat something before we go home.” Harley made a face but took off anyway. Peter quietly kicked his legs and stared at what was left of his milk. “It’s been a rough day, huh?” Peter shrugged. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. Do you have some friends you want to go play with? I can set something up.” When the boy didn’t respond, Tony sighed. No wonder the kid was so torn up. He literally had no one else.

Tony found the conversation stalling. Peter seemed like he was in deep thought or in a deep pout maybe. He still was learning the kid’s faces. The food came out just as quickly as always. He dug into his salmon burger whirl Peter munched on his fries and kid-sized cheeseburger.

“Ok, kid you’re killing me here. What’s going on in your head?” Peter snapped up at him like he hasn’t heard anything else all day.

“I’m fine Mr. Stark.” Tony sighed.

“Kid you’re literally killing me with this Mr. Stark stuff. Why don’t you just call me Tony?”

“Um I-I don’t know.” Tony puttered again before he finished off his burger. He watched Peter eat slow methodical bites like he was thinking through each bite. Ever so often the boy would glance over his shoulder as if he was waiting for a boogeyman to come and grab him.

Enough was enough. He had to say something.

“Pete, you know I wouldn’t let Steve hurt you, right?” The kid’s ears turned red before he nodded. “You’re safe with me. If anyone tried to hurt you or threatens you tell me and I’ll handle it.” The boy looked up at him confused. “Especially Rogers. Can’t believe that guy.”

“Why?” That caught Tony off guard.

“What do you mean, bud?”

“Why do you want to handle it?” Tony eyed the kid who was looking up at him expectantly. He figured this was some of what Sam has been talking about. Wiping his mouth with his napkin he chose his words carefully.

“Peter, you deserve to be safe and with your mama gone for a while, it’s my job now. I know I’m not her, but I care about you Peter and I would kill someone before I let them hurt you.” That seemed to click in the boy’s head because he relaxed his shoulders a bit and took a big gulp of milk.

“Ok.”

“How about a four-wheeler ride?” The boy’s head popped up again.

“Really? Like right now?”

“Yeah, come on!” Scrambling up Peter followed right on Tony’s heels. “Hap, box up yeah kid’s dinner for me. We’ll be right back.”

Tony picked Peter up and held him sideways as he rushed toward the shed where Happy kept the four-wheelers. He threw a helmet at Peter before plopping the boy down on the seat in front of him and taking off. Tony smiled as Peter screamed as they sped up the path. He was going as fast as he could within reason with a child on board. He took the long path up the mountain. He could hear Peter’s excited squeals. His heart melted when Peter turned around and beamed up at him.

He’d cheered up the kid.

He let the machine idle for a moment before cutting it off. “That was great, Mr. Stark! Can we do that again?”

“Yeah, we have to get down somehow.” Peter rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Yeah, but I mean like another time. That was amazing! It went zoom and then you went zoom and wow! It was awesome!”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it, sourpatch.” Peter made a face.

“‘M not a sourpatch.”

“You might as well be. You’ve been sulking and putting for like weeks now.” Peter huffed trying to climb off. Tony shook his head and lifted the boy onto the ground. “Kid you are some kind of stubborn.”

Tony climbed off the device himself and let him lean on it. There was no way he was going to sit on the ground.

“Mr. Stark? I’m sorry.” Tony furrowed his brows.

“For what little buddy?”

“Everything. I’m sorry.” Tony wanted to press, but the kid looked miserable.

“It’s all good now. No harm no foul.” Peter nodded.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” Tony hit his lip thinking about what Sam said.

“Hey bud, how about you call me Tony?” Peter thought about it again and the only adult he’d ever called by their first name was Eric. That was only because the man didn’t want to be Peter’s dad. If it was up to him, he’d have sent Peter somewhere along time ago.

He shook his head vehemently. He didn’t want Me. Stark to be like Eric. Peter didn’t like Eric, but he liked Mr. Stark. He shook his head again. “We’ve got to do something kid, I keep looking over my shoulder for my dad and trust me that’s not a good feeling.” Peter scrunched his nose. “You like Star Wars, how about a name from there? Like Vader, he was Luke’s dad, right? Or Han Solo that guy was pretty cool.” Peter sputtered stuck on that word again.

“You’re not my dad though.” Peter took a deep breath and Tony matched it.

“Do you want me to be?” He could see the shocked expression on the child’s face.

“Huh?”

Geez, the kid was making Tony more nervous than he wanted to be. “Well, I was just um, well you’re killing me with this Mr. Stark business. It’s so formal and I’m not a formal guy, Pete,” Tony finally managed to get out.

~/~

He stood there staring at his feet in shock. This was not how he figured his day would go. Peter took a deep breath trying to calm down.

Why was this freaking him out so bad?

It’d be nice to have a dad. He never had one before. Well he did, but his mom never talked about him. With a dad, he could feel safe again like how his Mama made him feel.

Was this what his mama wanted? Is that why she left him? So Mr. Stark could be his dad?

He looked at the four-wheeler. For months he’d dreamed about being close to Mr. Stark. When he'd watched the man crunch numbers into his computer he would daydream that he could sit right next to him and help. His mind often wandered to all the fun they could have...How the man would show him how to build things like he’d done for Harley.

It hit him suddenly...he had all of that now.

Mr. Stark showed him how to fix a carburetor and how to flush an engine. He’d shown him how to build a rocket that could fly high in the air.

All of his thoughts went blank when Mr. Stark snapped his fingers. “How about Babbo? It’s Italian for dad. That way you don’t have to call me by my first name but it will still be me.” Peter bit his lip.

“Yeah, um that’s ok. I uh like Babbo,” Peter said hoping the conversation would end. He turned to look at the pretty sky. He knew that his ears were burning red with embarrassment. How could he have been so stupid? Mr. Stark had Harley, his own son. That kid was cool and awesome. Why would he need Peter? No, head just being mean when he asked that. There was no way he wanted to be his dad.

None.

Feeling tears pool to his eyes Peter closed them tightly hoping that it would make them just go away. "Hey Pete," Mr. Stark said causing Peter to jump. Peter slowly turned around to face the man. Mr. Tony was kneeling on one of his flip flops. “I think we need to discuss something here.” Mr. Stark put his hand on Peter’s cheek. “Peter, I’m not your dad and we both know this, but I feel like your dad. I want you to be happy and safe. You’re a good kid with a great heart and anyone would be proud to call you their son.” Peter felt Mr. Stark wipe a tear from his cheek that he didn’t even know was falling.

“I miss my mama,” he said trying desperately not to cry. “I miss her a lot, Mr. Stark.”

“I know bud.”

“Why does it hurt like this?”

“Because you love her Peter.”

“I wish she would come back.”

“I know.”

“I don’t have anybody else. I’m all alone now. It was me and her and now it’s just me.” He knew that Mr. Stark wasn’t very affectionate which was why he was surprised when he felt the man leaned in for a hug. Peter wrapped his arms around Mr. Stark’s neck and cried.

With his face still buried in Mr. Stark’s neck the man spoke again. “I don’t know how long you’ll be with me, but until then I’ll be your dad, ok?” Unable to get any words out, Peter just nodded.

Maybe it would be nice to have a dad.

~/~

With bleary eyes feeling like the whole day had piled on top of him, Peter tried to make it upstairs. Harley had gotten permission to sleep at a friend's house so it left Peter to try to navigate the giant house in the almost pitch black. He took a step forward before he felt himself get picked up from behind. "You're never gonna make it, kid," he heard Mr. Stark chuckle as the man carried him bridal style.

"I was doin' k," he mumbled as he let the man carry him up the stairs.

"Uh-huh, sure. That's why you almost ate on the stairs." Peter yawned and felt his feet hit the floor. He figured he was in his fake room again. "Arms up." Groggily he did as he was told and raised his arms. To his surprise, the shirt he was wearing was slipped over his head and replaced with a clean t-shirt. He wasn't sure when it happened but he felt a gentle tug on his jeans and they were soon replaced with a pair of shorts as well. Rubbing his face he picked the discarded clothes off the ground and threw them in the hamper in the corner. Grabbing his pillow, he started the sleepy journey toward the closet when he heard a grunt and a gentle nudge. A cool cloth was gently scrubbed against his face and neck.

"Lemme sleep," he angry whined out as Mr. Stark wiped the area around his cheeks yet again.

"Not covered in filth. You'll catch bugs." Peter grunted and pushed the cloth away when it tried to get his neck again. The man held up the cloth in the darkness. "You see this black stuff? That's dirt from you, little creature. I'm trying to help you." Peter shook his head and the man threw the cloth down. "Fine, stay stinky but tomorrow you're getting a bath. Hear me, kid? A bath. You're going to get rid of all that mildew growing on you." Peter chuckled and before he knew it he was sailing through the air and landing on the bottom bunk. His pillow followed soon after. b Then just like every night since he'd arrived he felt his hair pushed back and a gentle kiss pushed against his forehead. "Night, Peter," Mr. Stark said.

"Night," he said trying to see the man in the dark. As the door closed gently Peter moved to sit up and head toward the closet, but he stopped. His mama's face shone brightly in the picture frame as the moonlight illuminated it. Her smile made him smile. He lay there just staring at it. She was perfect. Sighing he knew that she had always tried to find a good dad for him. She never said it, but he could tell. They were always sweet, smart, and honest, well except for one, but Peter didn't hold that one against her. Smiling to himself he settled down on his bed in his room.

His mama wanted to find him a dad and she'd found him the best one in the world.

Chapter Text

Peter sat down on the floor in his room staring at the new Nintendo Switch his dad bought him. It was still hard to think about how easy it was for him to get new things again, but he liked it.

Before Eric, his mama got him a lot of fun stuff. She said that if she needed toys he did too.

That all changed once Eric came along. He showered them with gifts at first saying that they wouldn’t ever need anything again. He got Peter a brand new PlayStation and about a million games. More than Peter ever thought he would need. His mama got a bunch of new jewelry and shoes. It was like Christmas every day for months. Just gift after gift. Soon though the gifts stopped coming and Peter found himself having less toys than he started with.

He remembered the day when he came home from school and found his toy chest almost empty. His mama wasn’t home, Eric had sent her to the spa or something. The cold look in the bald man’s eyes stopped him dead in his tracks. Still, though he dared to ask the question. Where had his toys gone?

Quit crying. Plenty of kids got less than you the man had spat.

After that day, nothing was the same again. Peter stopped getting as much fun stuff and his mama did too.

“You like that thing?” Looking up Peter saw his dad standing in a pair of jeans and boots. He must be heading somewhere he thought.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of fun, thank you,” he said smiling shyly. Somehow in just a few days, he’d managed to get his grades back up thanks to a bunch of retests and extra credit. So Mr. Stark well his dad surprised him with his new Nintendo Switch.

“You’re welcome, bud. You get another good report card and we can talk about getting a new game too.”

“Ok!” Peter nodded smiling.

“I’ve got to go out for a bit. Harley is here if you need anything.” Peter leaned forward anxiously onto his knees.

“Is it about mama,” he asked biting his lip.

“Yeah, but we’re just following some leads. When I know something I’ll let you know, ok?”

“Promise?” His dad reached his hands out and motioned for Peter to come forward. He lifted his arms and leaned into the hands letting himself get picked up. His dad’s brown eyes locked onto his own as he settled Peter onto his hip.

“I’m always going to tell you the truth ok? No matter what. As soon as I know something about your mom I’ll let you know and that my dear Petey Pop is a promise.” Peter didn’t know why, but as he looked into his dad’s eyes he knew that he could trust him.

“Ok.” Peter leaned his head onto the man’s shoulder. He wasn’t really sure why, but the action felt like exactly what he needed. “Are you gonna be gone all day?” He heard his dad chuckle.

“Why you miss me already?” Peter nodded feeling embarrassed for some reason. “How about when I get home you can teach me how to play that game?” Peter lifted his head and sat up straight with excitement.

“Really? You’ll play with me?”

“Of course!” Peter smiled brightly. “Ok, I’ve gotta go now give me a hug.” Leaning forward Peter wrapped his arms around his dad’s neck and he felt arms wrap around him. A kiss was planted against his head before he felt himself set down. “Bye Pete.”

“Bye Dad,” he said softly.

Peter played with his Switch and a few more things in his room before he decided to go and find Harley. Since he’d moved in Harley only got cooler. Mr. Stark let him work on projects by himself and let him weld all by himself. Peter wanted to do that so bad, but his dad said not until he was older. Especially after he’d tried to solder something with his dad’s much stronger soldering gun and practically burned his fingertips off.

Harley was older and still so much cooler than Peter.

Like lightyears away.

“Harley?”

“Peter, Harley is in the game room you may join them if you’d like,” the ever-evolving AI stated. Smiling Peter rushed forward. Maybe Harley could help him beat the level on Mario. He pushed the door open and immediately felt his stomach sink. Harley’s friends Jordan, Kris, and Flash were all sitting around the room playing the Xbox.

Just like the first time when he’d come over.

Quietly he decided to step back into the hallway but Fridays’ voice rang out. “Harley, Peter is here and wishes to play. Your father asked you to keep him entertained and out of trouble.” Peter felt his ears turning red.

How embarrassing.

He heard the boys all snicker at him making his insides clench. “Yeah, keep him out of trouble Harls. Wouldn’t want him getting popped again,” Flash called out. Peter felt tears rise to his eyes.

“Hey, leave him alone. Steve’s not around,” Harley said.

“Lucky for him,” he heard Jordan say quietly snickering.

Turning around he gestured at the room Harley spoke again, “You can sit with us if you want. We’re just taking rounds on this random game.” Biting his lip Peter silently shook his head. “Hey, don’t let them get to you. They’re just messing with you.”

Peter found his voice even though it felt like it was caught on a net. “I’m going to play in my part of the lab.”

“Nope, last time I let you play by yourself in the lab you almost burned your hand off,” the teen said unpausing the game.

“What a baby,” Peter heard. He felt himself getting frustrated.

He wasn’t a baby!

His dad’s soldering iron was stronger than his. How was he supposed to know it would get hot twice as fast? “I’m leaving!” Harley rolled his eyes at Peter’s outburst and continued to click away at the game.

“I really don’t care. I want to go to this party this weekend and if you get hurt my dad will ground me for sure. So just play your game and relax.”

“I don’t have to do what you say,” Peter said indignantly. He made a move to leave the room only to have Harley jump up and push the door closed before Peter could leave.

“Yes you do, I’m in charge or did you miss that? You’re so thick sometimes,” Harley huffed out. He shoved Peter down onto one of the couches. “Grab some chips or something and shut up.” Peter narrowed his eyes and pushed himself back to his feet.

“Dad didn’t say I had to stay in here,” he said trying to flee for the door again. Peter heard the game pause again and all eyes were on him.

“D-Did you just call his dad your dad?” Peter felt the air leave his lungs. Flash had a smug sneer on his face while Harley looked annoyed.

“Y-Yeah,” Peter responded.

A beat passed before Flash erupted into laughter. Then the whole room followed suit. “You’re delusional. You can’t just take things you want. Well, maybe you can. I mean you did try and steal Harls’ robot, you stole his house, some of his clothes, and now his dad. I bet your mom’s like some black widow gypsy.”

Jordan leaned forward cackling. “And you’re like her apprentice.” Peter opened his mouth and closed it. He burned with fire over the insinuation.

He wanted to kill them.

“She probably left him here so she could get child support or something,” Jordan said. Peter felt tears welling in his eyes. Looking at Harley he silently pleaded for the teen to help him, instead, he was met with a shrug.

Harley was supposed to be cool.

...and his brother.

Peter shook his head as the taunting continued around him. Poor. Thief. Loser. Baby. Orphan.

Dropping his game he fled out of the room and to his own room. Locking the door behind him, he threw himself onto his bed.

He really just wanted his mama and to just go home.

~/~

Tony looked around the breakfast table and chewed the inside of his cheek. The last few days had been eerily quiet. The boys seemed like Stepford children. They didn’t argue, he didn’t hear doors slamming, it was just nothing.

...and he was confused.

Even if the boys weren’t best friends they still talked and joked around. Now though it was nothing.

At first, he thought it might be that they were just being tired from the crazy day, but as the days started to turn into almost a week Tony was growing concerned.

“You guys go brush your teeth and I’ll drop you off,” he said. As if on cue, Peter stood up and grabbed his bowl and Harley’s. He’d been doing that all week for some reason.

“Are we going to work on the engine tonight, Dad?” Tony smiled at the little boy and nodded. “Great!” Glancing between both boys he saw something peculiar. It was so minor that if he hadn’t been looking for it, he wouldn’t have seen the glare the teen shot toward the smaller boy as Peter left the room.

That was odd.

As soon as Peter was out of earshot he leaned forward toward Harley. “Hey Bub, how are you?” The teen shrugged and kept his eyes on his phone. “Come on, you know no phones at the table.” That got Harley’s attention and his head shot up.

“You didn’t say anything to Peter when he had his Switch out.” Tony narrowed his eyes.

“And that was my choice.” Harley stood up.

“I need to go grab my stuff,” he said walking away. Watching his son leave, Tony was now almost certain that something happened between the boys that he was unaware of.

Peter walked back into the room looking around before entering. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw his handheld video game still sitting on the table. “Thought I lost it,” he said, smiling nervously before running out of the room.

Ok, now he knew something was wrong.

The same song and dance continued through the weekend when Tony just couldn’t handle it anymore. Walking into Peter’s room he found the boy playing with his VR headset already dressed in his pajamas.

“Hey Topino?” Rolling his eyes Tony reached down and grabbed the boy’s shoulders quickly yelling, “Boo!” The ever scary Peter jumped out of his skin and fell over his ottoman. Tony winced as the boy scrambled to his feet glowing red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry buddy, I didn’t mean to scare you.” The boy rolled his eyes and picked up the headset roughly off of the floor before setting it back on the shelf. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t know you’d freak out like that.”

“Why wouldn’t I,” Peter yelled. “How would you feel if I did that?”

“It was just a joke Peter,” Tony said softly. Looking at the boy it seemed that this was obviously a big deal to him. His shoulders were drawn together and his body was rigid.

“It was a mean one!” Tony nodded understanding deepening that kid was clearly upset.

“I’m sorry. I called you and you didn’t answer me. I just thought it would be fun.” Peter glared.

“Is that what you all think? Scaring Peter is so much fun! His mama left him so no one will care! You’re all jerks!” Wiping his eyes the boy scrambled up to his top bunk and pushed himself against the wall. Tony bit the inside of his cheek again. Looking around he saw many of Peter’s toys laying on the floor and some textbooks sitting on his desk. Outwardly it looked like he was finally settling in. Inwardly though it looked much worse.

Walking around toward the bed he let his barefoot step onto the bottom rung and leaned over the railing. He could see Peter’s trembling form.

What was going on?

“Hey, bud. I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to upset you.” He heard Peter sniff.

“I know,” the boy said voice muffled by the pillow.

“Can you sit up and tell me what’s wrong?” Peter shook his head still not looking up. “Come on, I want to help you, but I can’t if you don’t let me.” Peter turned his head so Tony couldn’t see his face but his voice was no longer hidden by the pillow.

“I don’t need help. I’m not a baby.” Tony smiled to himself. How simple life was when your biggest insult was someone thinking you were a baby.

“I know that, but everybody needs help sometimes. That’s what moms and dads do they help you when things are too big.” Peter turned over quickly and Tony’s heart clenched when the little red-rimmed eyes looked up at him.

“Y-You’re not my dad.” Tony stared at the boy. He wasn’t at all offended if anything he was concerned. The boy seemed to like calling him dad that was up until a few days ago when he started oscillating between that and Mr. Stark.

Mostly landing on Mr. Stark again.

“We talked about this. I want to be your dad, Peter. Isn’t that what you want?”

“It doesn’t matter, ok? None of it matters,” he said before burying his face in his pillow again. Tony sighed looking around the room. He hoped for any clues that could tell him why the boy was acting like this. Peter was always sensitive and a bit withdrawn but this wasn’t normal. Especially after they’d seem to have gotten so close since their four-wheeler ride. Peter was finally sleeping in his bed. He was as cheerful as Tony had seen him in a while, but it was like things abruptly started to change again.

And he had no clue why.

As far as Tony was concerned this was downright regression. He stared at the little boy hoping somehow that he would just open up.

Something happened to his boy and Tony needed to know what it was.

“I wish my mama was here,” he heard the soft voice say.

After thinking for several moments he stepped forward. If Peter wouldn’t come to him, he could just go to him. Peter wouldn’t budge so Tony climbed up the stairs more and sat down next Peter on the top bunk. The boy turned over and looked up at him with surprised red puffy eyes. “Didn’t expect that, huh?” Peter shook his head quietly. Gently he rubbed the long curls out of Peter’s face. “What’s going on? I know something is wrong. Just tell me.” Peter pushed out a tired breath.

“Some boys said I don’t belong here. Said mama left me here for your money.” Peter seemed to launch into hysterics. “You don’t believe it do you? Mama wouldn’t do that!” Tony leaned forward and put a gentle hand on the boy’s chest rubbing calming circles.

“What? No, Peter. Your mama would never do that. Never.” His closed his eyes tight.

“I know. They were just so mean. I just want mama to be safe. That’s all.”

“I know, bud. I know. I’ll handle it, ok? This won’t happen again.” Peter took a deep breath and nodded. “Can you tell me who said that?” Peter shook his head. “Did you tell somebody? How’d they know?” The boy hadn’t been expecting that question and his eyes showed it. “I mean it’s ok if you did. It’s not a secret. I’m just trying to figure out who was trying to hurt you.”

“I didn’t tell anybody,” he said. Tony ran through it in his mind. Would Steve? No, why would that come up at his knock-off Boy Scouts thing? Then it clicked…Harley.

That’s why Peter had been cleaning up after himself and walking around like a mouse.

He felt unworthy...like he owed them something.

Tony’s blood boiled. He’d dealt with the looks of pretentious snobs who thought they knew everything because they had more money.

“Sit up a second for me,” he said. Peter wiped his eyes did as he was told. “Now, I’m going to ask you a serious question. A real serious one so I need you to think real hard, ok?” Peter nodded. “Do you want me to be your dad?” Tony thought Peter would struggle with his answer, thought he’d fidget like he was prone to do when he was scared, but to his great surprise, the answer came almost instantly.

“Yes,” the quiet voice replied. Leaning forward Tony placed a kiss on the boy’s head.

“Then it’s settled. You're my kid, ok? I don’t care what anyone else says.” Peter sniffed. “So from now on if they say something to you hold your head up high and tell them to suck a lemon.”

“But it’s not real. We’re just pretending.”

“Are you pretending? Because I’m not.” He leaned forward and put a gentle hand on the boy’s back. “Buddy, do you think that adopted kids are pretending to love their parents or are they a real family?” Peter sniffed and looked up at him.

“You would a-adopt me?”

“I already have. Well not legally, but you’re my child. You know that, right?” Peter bit his lip and nodded before crying again.

“I just want it to be true,” he sobbed out.

“It is true, Topino, it is,” he said rubbing the boy’s back and pulling him into a hug. “It’s so true.” Peter cried into the chest letting the bottled up emotions pour out. Tony was on the verge of crying too. He kept his mouth near Peter’s ear murmuring reassurances to him. “I love you, Peter. Nothing or no one will ever change that. You’re my son,” he said firmly.

Peter sniffed looking up. “I don’t fit in here. I’m not cool like you and Harley.” Tony shook his head knowing he couldn’t solve all of the boy’s problems in that moment.

“You fit Peter, right here,” he said pulling the boy close again. “You fit right in my heart.” He had one hand holding the boy close to him and the other on his back rubbing gentle circles trying to calm the boy down. He pressed kisses to the boy’s hair and face, but that only seemed to make him cry harder.

“I want my mama, but if she don’t come back you’ll still be my daddy?” Tony leaned down and nodded firmly. “I want to stay with you forever, ok? The only person I want more is mama, but she left me with you so that’s ok, right?”

“It’s more than ok,” he said squeezing Peter again. “The only person I’ll ever let you go for is your mama and even then she couldn’t go very far with you.” He felt Peter relax in his hold. He pulled the boy onto his lap close to his chest. Gently he rested Peter’s head against his chest so he could hear the persistent heartbeat of his dad. Maybe that coupled with his strong embrace would inject safety and comfort into Peter. “You’re always going to be my son and I’m always going to be your dad.” He felt Peter nod against his chest and curl into him even tighter. He held onto Peter as tightly as he could. “No one’s ever gonna change that.” Peter didn’t respond he simply wedged himself deeper into Tony’s chest.

Tony knew that was where he belonged.

~/~

After getting Peter to settle down Tony gently extracted himself from the boy’s hold. Thank God they had moved back onto the bottom bunk or Tony would have been stuck up there the entire night staring at the ceiling. He gently handed the boy his astronaut bear and smiled when even in his sleep Peter pulled it close to his chest. He pressed a gentle kiss to the boy’s forehead before quietly leaving the room.

Talk about a whirlwind of emotion.

In his exhausted state Peter told Tony about more taunting, teasing, and jokes than Tony could stomach. The boy wouldn’t ever mention names, but it was easy enough to deduce who the culprits were. The best decision he could make would be to confront his oldest head-on.

The thought of Peter’s anguished face flashed before him making anger and frustration bubbled forth yet again. He moved down the hall with a fierce determination and found his oldest son’s room empty. Heading down the stairs he pushed open the door to the game room. The usual band of suspects were all yammering and milling around. He wasn’t positive but he was pretty sure these little bastards were the ones who’ve been causing Peter all of his anguish.

“Go home,” he said. At first, they looked at him confused and he snapped, “now!” That did it and the teens exited the room quickly without even a goodbye. His own son stood looking at him seemingly stuck in between to thoughts...I should run and my dad is going to kill me.

Tony nodded they both were true.

“We need to talk, shut it off.” Harley sighed and clicked the television off. “What the hell is going on?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Peter told me that Jordan’s been saying awful things to him. Lightening too.”

“His name is Flash, Dad,” Harley said rolling his eyes.

“I’m not that kid’s mother. The point is why are they saying stuff like that to him?”

Harley’s blue eyes flashed fiercely before shrugging. “It’s true.”

“I cannot believe you just said that.”

“What? It is. Peter’s just sensitive.” Tony felt the blood rushing to his ears. He hadn’t been angry like this in a long time.

“Harley Kalen Stark, have you lost your mind? He’s a little boy who as of right now has lost everything he knows and you think it’s ok to make light of that?”

“It wasn’t that bad, Dad.” Tony put his hands on his hips.

“Fine, what’d they say? Tell me.”

“Why Peter already told you?” Tony smirked at his son. Kid was ballsy.

“I want to hear it from you and if you know what’s good for you then you’ll cut the attitude.”

“Fine. He probably told you anyway. It wasn’t anything bad you know, just stuff like couldn’t be a Stark because he’s not cool enough. He probably wouldn’t know what a pair of Jordan’s looked like.” Tony couldn’t believe his ears. “The kid is lame, Dad you know it. I mean look at how he dresses. Ratty shoes, wearing kiddie clothes. He’s a dork.” Tony narrowed his eyes building his case. “Don’t look at me like you haven’t seen those shirts with trucks on them or that ugly dog sweater he wears. Like really? What does he do shop in the preschooler section?”

Tony rolled his eyes completely ignoring the kid. His son was simply filling in gaps and there were a few more on his agenda. “What about the dad thing? What’d they say?” Harley visibly tensed.

“I didn’t laugh when Flash said it. I swear.”

“It doesn’t matter, if you didn’t stop it you’re just as guilty. So, what did they say?”

Biting his lip Harley avoided his dad’s eyes. “Flash just said uh that Peter could have a pretend Father’s day because you’re his pretend father.” Tony was floored. How had he missed this? That was almost verbatim to what Peter had cried so frantically over. “Said his real dad was probably some lame guy with no fashion sense.” Even with his skin burning hot with anger, Tony pressed on. He needed to know what they were dealing with so he could protect his son.

“What about this whole he’s here for my money thing?” Harley muttered angrily under his breath sounding a lot like ‘snitch’.

“Jordan um said his mom probably left him here so she could get child support.”

“That’s stupid,” Tony spat out slightly in shock.

“I know! I didn’t say it,” Harley said holding his hands up in surrender.

“But you didn’t stop it either!” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “Where were you?”

“I um was, well.”

“Spit it out.”

“I was right there.” Tony felt like his head was going to explode. “But see no, it wasn’t like that. I tried to stop it when I could.”

“When Harley when? Because all I’m hearing are these kids ripping Peter to shreds and you standing there like you can’t hear it. So when did you stop it?”

“When Flash and Jordan were making fun of him about what Steve did.” Tony shook his head. These freakin’ kids were vultures. “I stopped that Dad, I did.”

“So that crossed the line for you, but this other stuff was fair game?” Harley looked up at him like he was sick. He was going to deal with him later. “Whatever. Why’s the kid freaking out over jokes?”

“Last week they were giving it to him pretty good so Peter ran out of the room and left it behind. Peter came back for it a while later, but uh Flash took it and said it was collateral to see if he was here for the money. He said Peter had to do housework to earn his place with us. Peter looked for it, but Flash hid it pretty good. He started crying when he couldn’t find it after a couple of hours and just stayed in his room.” Tony felt like his head was going to explode. His mind circled back to the look the kid had on his face the other day at breakfast. How relieved he looked when he realized his Switch was still on the table where he’d left it.

Now it made sense.

The constant chores. Trying to be overly helpful. The excess sadness.

Poor Peter.

“I made Flash give it back, Dad I did.”

“After the kid was searching for hours for something that someone took from him?”

“So how long has this been going on?”

“What?”

“The harassment? The name-calling? General cruel behavior?” The teen bit his lip. “This is not the time for you to hold back. Now tell me, how long?”

“Since he got here really,” Harley started. Tony felt like he was going to explode on his son, but Harley cut him off. “But I mean it got worse when they heard him call you dad.” Tony’s face melted into a deep scowl.

“Harley, are you serious? Please tell me you’re joking. How could you let this happen?”

“What did you want me to do?”

“Have some compassion! Do I really need to tell you that?”

“I’m sorry,” he said lowly.

“No, sorry doesn’t cut it. It doesn't.” Harley opened his mouth again but Tony shook his head. “I don’t want to hear another word from you right now. So before I get anymore disgusted, I want to say that I don’t think you’ve ever disappointed me more than you have in these last few weeks.” Harley went to open his mouth but Tony shook his head. “What did I just say? You sat there while a child one who lives in your home was treated less than human. Insults hurled at him just to hurt him and you said nothing. Just think for a second. How would you feel if you were him? His mother had to leave him behind because her life was being threatened. It wasn’t a trip it’s not a vacation. She is running for her life. This kid is here trying to make it every day without the one person he loves the most and you sit there and let them say those things to him and treat him that way? Harley, you’ve done some crappy things, but this is the worst.” Tony let that hang there. His emotions were literally everywhere. Peter had said it, but he’d so hoped it wasn’t true. That the boy had been lying again, but it wasn’t.

His son had really been that heartless and cruel.

“I can’t do this right now,” he said needing to be alone.

Harley looked up with tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

“I’m really not the one who you need to apologize to.” The teen nodded. “Go to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow.” Standing up Harley started to walk toward the door. He turned and wrapped his arms around his dad and as angry as Tony was he still gave his son a firm hug.

“Love you,” Harley said quietly.

“Love you more, Bean.” Harley pulled away and quietly left the room. Standing up Tony looked around before leaving the room.

“Hey, Friday restrict Harley’s access in here for two weeks.”

“Got it, boss,” the AI replied. Turning the light out he left the room quietly hoping the next time his oldest came here he would have a different perspective.

~/~

Tony was sitting enjoying the quiet in his lab. He’d just got off the phone with Jimmy. The call had helped to calm his nerves a lot. He no longer wanted to kill his son, instead he just wished he had a partner to help him navigate all of this. Maya although she was still Harley’s mom, she wasn’t much of a co-parent. Even when they were married Tony took the lead on raising their son while Maya battled depression and a nasty drinking problem. It was all Tony could do to keep things afloat then and now that she was slowly recovering things were still all on him.

It was on nights like this that he wished he’d chosen a better partner. Maya wasn’t a partner really just apart of making a child. It had been his fault for marrying someone during those dark days, but the like the got from his son was enough to guide him out. For Maya though nothing seemed to work. Not rehabs, not interventions, not even their son finding her passed out. He tried to help her, he really did, but in the end, he realized that he would end up going down with her if he didn’t break it off.

The day he told her to leave was the hardest one he’d had in his adult life.

But it needed to happen. As much as he tried to not be like his own father, it seemed that the generational curse of Stark men and broken marriages carried on. It nagged at him even if it wasn’t his fault.

“Dad? Can we talk?” Tony glanced up not quite ready to have this conversation but nodded nonetheless. He felt heavy and tired all of a sudden.

Judging from the looks of his son he wasn’t the only one feeling that way. The teen’s hair was messy and disheveled. He was barefoot and shirtless like he’d been in bed and his thoughts had forced him out of it. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Not really,” Harley said moving forward. He sat down on the stool next to Tony. Silence passed over them for a Tony continued to work. “I really am sorry about Peter.” Tony set his tools down and looked over at his son.

“Ok.”

“It wasn’t like how it sounded, really. It was innocent at first I mean just some ribs you know? Like what guys do. Peter just makes it really easy you know? One time we were outfront skating and well Peter just came outside. Like he was staring at us kinda creepy like.” Tony sighed. He’d have to figure out a way to help Peter not be so awkward.“I just go so annoyed like why is he out here? We’d just watched a movie that he begged me to watch and now he wanted to be with me and my friends. Anyway, they were just messing with him at first ‘cause he was wearing those super old clothes. One thing led to another and before I knew it he was running away crying. I should have said something I know.”

“Why didn’t you?” Harley dropped his eyes. “Look at me.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so ashamed. I didn’t think about it like that. It’s just so frustrating. He gets away with everything,” he said with his head low. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You just let it pass. It felt good to finally see him squirm for once.” Tony sighed.

“That’s not true. I don’t favor him.” Harley shook his head scoffing.

“He yells at you, throws tantrums, he kicked Steve, like disappeared and what did you do? You took him on a four-wheeler ride up the mountain. If I had done any of that you would have grounded me.”

“Harley, he’s different than you. You know the rules but he’s learning them.” Turning he looked at his son. “Bean, you have to understand that he’s going through a lot right now. Like a lot. I have to take it easy while he adjusts. Just think about how out of sorts you’d feel if you were in his shoes. Remember how crazy things got just before your mom left? You were feeling all of these emotions that you didn’t know how to handle.” Harley sighed seeming to understand the correlation.

“It’s not fair, Dad.”

“No, it’s not, but this hasn’t been fair for him either.”

“Fine, you’re right. I’m just some spoiled rich kid who only thinks of himself. If I’m so bad why don’t I just go live with mom? Then you can adjust with Peter all you want.” Tony turned toward his son fire flickering in his eyes.

“You’re jealous.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. You’re jealous because I’m spending time with him.” Tony nodded with the thoughts clicking together. “This is why you’ve been acting so weird this week. You think he’s in your space.”

“You never spend time with me anymore! Even when I asked you to go to the beach you found a way to bring Peter!”

“You said it was ok!”

“I asked to spend the day with you, Dad! Not him you! What was I supposed to do? You would have said I was spoiled and selfish.” Harley shook his head. “I just wanted some time with you.”

“Harley,” Tony started but his son pressed on.

“Every time I try to spend time with you he’s there. It’s always Harley why did you let that happen? What were you doing? He’s not my responsibility he’s yours!” Tony stared down at his son. “I get I screwed up, ok? I get it, but you can’t tell me that you haven’t been treating him a whole lot better than you do me. You didn’t care about what I was going through when you smacked me in front of my friends, but poor Peter needs time to adjust.” Tony licked his lips.

“So you’re mad that I haven’t disciplined him like I did you? Harley, you threw a skateboard at your mother’s head. What did you want me to do?” The teen was crying silently.

“I just wanted you to listen! Nobody was listening and she was ruining everything.” The teen sniffed. “Peter comes along and does much worse crap and you never embarrass him like you did me. You stopped Steve twice and he’s not even your son. It’s like I don’t even matter.” Tony stood up and wrapped his arms around the teen.

“Of course you matter. How could you ever think that? You are literally my sunshine, kid. Like if it weren’t for you I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere. You’re my treasure or did you not notice?” Harley let out a wet chuckle.

“The necklace with the treasure chest kind of gave it away,” he said rubbing his hand over the aforementioned trinket.

“Harls I should have said this years ago, but I’m sorry that I embarrassed you and that I hurt you.” He tilted his son’s chin so the boy was looking at him. “I’m not perfect and I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have hit you. I was sick about it for weeks.” His son stared at him eyes shining with tears.

“Really?”

“Bean, I told you a little about my dad, right? Well, when I was about your age I promised myself I would never lay a finger on my kids.” He sighed deeply. “Tensions were high and so much was happening. Your mom well she was having some problems and then you started and the next thing I know everything was out of control. Your mom and I were arguing all day and then when you did that I just had enough and I snapped. When I did what I did, it wasn’t as much your fault as it was mine. I cried for weeks. I thought I failed you. It was a hard time for us all.” Tony smiled to himself at a memory that flashed before him. “That’s when I bought your own four-wheeler, remember? We rode around on that for hours.”

“Yeah, I remember. It was amazing.”

“I am really sorry Tesoro, but what I did to you isn’t something I’d ever do again.”

Harley leaned his head against his dad’s chest. “I get it, Dad.” Tony was content just to hold his son like that. With his boy growing up sweet tender moments like these didn’t happen as often. It was nice just to have it like that. Stepping back Harley took a deep breath. “I guess I was a little jealous.” Wiping his eyes, the teen ducked his head. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to hurt him. Everything is just so weird right now.”

“I know.”

“Do you hate me?” Tony gave a sad smile to his son who was looking so much younger than he was.

“I never could. Even on your worst day, I love you to eternity.” They sat back down letting the quiet air pass over them. It was all so real in that moment. This was really his life and these were the things he was really encountering.

“Am I in trouble?” Tony chuckled to himself. He knew that question was coming eventually.

“Yes and no.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m locking you out of the game room for two weeks.” Harley sucked in a breath.

“That’s fair.”

“But that’s it. I had some plans about what to do, but I think you’ll make the right decision all on your own. You’re too smart and too loving not to.” Tony noticed the weight that settled on Harley’s eyes. He’d gotten his point across. “I want you to know that I’m never going to love you any less, no matter what happens. You’re always my oldest, my bean, my number one guy. You’re the person who changed my name.” Harley nodded.

“I feel dumb.”

“Don’t. It’s apart of families and more people being added well that’s what your Uncle Jimmy says. Said he hated his sister when she was born. Sibling rivalry he called it. So it’s normal. I’m sorry I didn’t realize it earlier.”

“It’s ok, Dad. I should have come to you. I was just so pissed off. Little prince was getting everything.” Tony smiled at him.

“You really do sound like a jealous older brother.”

“Do not.”

“You kinda do and it’s ok. It’ll take a lot of adjusting for us all to find a new normal. We did before and we can do it again, but we’ve got to do it together.” Tony looked directly into his son’s blue eyes. “He needs you, Harley. He needs someone to guide him, to show him all the things that I can’t. I mean as awesome as I am I don’t know about how to be a kid in today's world. There’s going to be some things he’ll only be able to come to you about.” Tony put his hands on Harley’s shoulders. “Just think about this, Peter could have told on you repeatedly for this and probably the other crap that you’ve done to him that I don’t know about, but he didn’t. He wouldn’t even tell me who told him those things.”

“You said Jordan and Flash.”

“I deduced it. Kid was tighter lipped than a rhino in a tsunami. Here’s the thing, you guys will get on each other’s nerves, but that’s a given. I know he's ready to be your brother. Are you ready to be his?” Harley sighed and leaned forward, letting his forehead rest on his dad’s collarbone. Tony gently ran his fingers through his son’s hair near his neck. “No family is perfect. I just need you to try.”

Chapter Text

Peter woke up feeling like he’d been beaten with a wet rag. He shuddered at the thought. That wouldn’t happen to him anymore. When he popped his eye open he found his dad’s hand gently rubbing his torso.

“Morning, Topino.” Peter blinked and smiled. It was so nice to be woken up gently. It was like how his mama used to greet him.

“Morning.”

“I was thinking how about we catch up and have a fun day together?” Peter smiled at his dad.

“Really?”

“Yeah, there’s this new science museum downtown. I thought you might like to go check it out.”

“I would! Thank you!” His dad smiled down at him before raising an eyebrow.

“Did you take a bath last night?”

“Yes.” He was pretty sure he did anyway.

“Are you sure?” Peter nodded. “Alright then, put some clothes on and meet me downstairs. Well, grab breakfast on the way.” Peter clambered out of his bed and quickly got dressed. Rushing down the stairs he found his dad sitting on the couch reading his tablet.

“I’m ready!”

“Go brush your teeth,” he said not looking up. Peter ran his tongue over his teeth. Crap. He did forget that. He ran back upstairs and put toothpaste on his toothbrush and scrubbed before dropping it in the sink. “With water for at least three minutes,” his dad called out when he was at the top of the stairs. Sighing he turned around to brush his teeth again.

When he finally made it down the stairs, his dad was grinning at him by the door.

“Let me see,” he said. Peter sighed and opened his mouth. “Well look at that. Now you’re minty fresh.” He rolled his eyes and pushed himself outside. The sun was just coming up and Peter loved that time of the day. He pulled his small camera out and took a picture. He’d found it last week when he was looking for his Switch. He took several shots before climbing in the backseat. “Oh for Pete’s sake, can you sit up here? I really don’t want to talk to a mirror.” Peter climbed over the console and plopped down in the seat giggling.

“For Pete’s sake I will,” he responded cheekily.

Peter kicked his legs and bounced to the music while his dad drove. The roads were so pretty in California. In Arizona, he’d only ever seen buildings or dirt, but here it was all so nice.

He let his memories fall back to the times when car rides were usually a tense experience. Eric made his mom work from home a lot on his business so the man often took him to school or to run errands and Peter knew to keep his mouth shut and to not touch anything that wasn’t his. Conversation was never something Eric wanted to have with Peter instead the man preferred to blast the radio to heavy metal at insanely loud decibels. Those rides were the worst.

Other times his mama and Eric would be in the car too and when that happened, he tried to stay as quiet as possible. Eric’s temper could turn on a dime and Peter knew by just one look that everything would be terrible for him. The man never said it, but Peter knew his mom didn’t know everything that Eric did to him. The implication was always there that Eric was in charge and even one toe out of line meant dire consequences.

Some days that meant going without food until breakfast when they all ate together, sometimes it meant walking the mile to school by himself, the worst was when the man would make Peter wait knowing that he was upset with him. Peter would be on pins and needles for days until the man came for him. It was usually when his mom went to run errands after school and Peter was supposed to be doing his homework. He was always so scared when he heard the door lock and saw the wet towel wrapped around the man's hand. The beatings never left bruises, but the pain was intense and the warning always kept him in line.

As he looked over at his dad who was smiling and drumming his fingers along to the beat of the music Peter smiled himself. He wished that life had been like this forever instead of only for a little while. A deep longing for his mother pulled inside of his chest.

He missed her so much.

“Is uh my mama ok?” His dad glanced at him.

“Sorry, Pete. With everything that happened last night, I forgot to tell you. While we don’t know where she is we have pretty good sources who say she’s safe.” Peter sighed with relief. “Ms. Nat has really good friends all over and they say your mama is being taken care of.”

“That’s great,” he pushed out. He was so happy that he wanted to cry. His mama was ok. “Thank you.”

“Oh, you’re welcome buddy.”

“I wish she’d come for me.” Peter wiped his eyes. “I love being with you but I miss her so much.”

“It’s ok buddy. I know she misses you too. I’m working really hard so she can come home to you, ok?” Peter nodded.

“Sorry for being a baby.”

“You’re not a baby. I’m a grown man and I don’t know if I could handle this like you have. You’re very strong Peter. Very very strong.” Looking at his dad Peter felt himself nodding. He loved how smart and safe his dad made him feel. He told him that it wasn’t bad that he didn’t like sports or was quiet. His dad made him feel comfortable in his own skin.

Just like his mama.

~/~

Just as the sun was really setting in the sky, Peter found himself sitting with his dad in a small mountain top restaurant overlooking the beach. They had a small table that sat right on the edge letting them look over the bluff.

He smiled as the hot chocolate with whipped cream was set down in front of him. “I’m sure I’m going to regret this sugar rush that’s going to come upon you making it impossible for you to sleep.”

“I’m not hyperactive. Mama had me tested. They just say I’m naturally energetic.”

“In that case,” his dad said smiling and pulling his hot chocolate away.

“No! Mine, give it back!” Chuckling his dad let go.

“A possessive little guy, huh?” Peter hunched on himself.

“I just uh yeah.” His dad leaned forward with a slight frown on his face.

“I talked to Harley last night. He told me everything. Peter, if something like that ever happens again you tell me ok? Nobody has the right to right you like that. Especially not in your own home.” Suddenly he felt very uncomfortable. Like he was intruding. Mr. Stark wasn’t really his dad and their home wasn’t really his home. If Harley didn’t want him there then it was only a matter of time before Peter had to leave. He bit his lip. The older boy was probably pissed off at him again.

Just great.

“Where’s Harley?” His dad gave him a curious look.

“With Jimmy. He needs some time to himself.” Peter sighed.

“He’s mad at me for telling.” He knew he was going to get pounded like last time when he let it slip that Harley left him home alone. He’d coughed for ten minutes straight after he got punched in the stomach.

“He’s not mad at you.”

“Sure.”

“He isn’t, ok?”

“He's in trouble because I told.”

“He's in trouble for being a jerk and a bad brother. That’s not your fault.” Kicking his legs Peter smiled and gave a soft thank you when his plate was set in front of him. He picked at it blindly. His chicken tenders were no longer appetizing. All he could think about was how angry Harley was going to be. The teen was way bigger and stronger. Peter was sure he was going to get it good.

“Hey Harley K! How are you?” Looking up Peter saw his dad holding the phone up so he could video chat. He wasn’t sure who’d called who but it made him uncomfortable nonetheless.

“I’m good. Jimmy’s grilling burgers. Says we’re gonna watch Rocky 2 because that’s the best one.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re all bad,” his dad said.

“Yeah, but you know how Jimmy gets about his nostalgia. So how’s Pete? He feeling better?” His dad smiled and handed the phone to Peter. Gripping the phone gingerly he tried to smile. Maybe Harley wouldn’t be so upset then.

“H-Hi, Harley,” He said feeling very anxious. To his surprise, the face he was seeing now was a lot like the one Harley used to give him before he’d moved in with them.

“Hey, Pete. I’m sorry about what happened. It wasn’t cool. Like at all,” the teen said.

“It’s ok,” Peter said, glancing at his dad who was looking like he wasn’t listening even though he clearly was.

“No, it’s not. I’ve been thinking and I was just jealous, but that’s over now. So no more worries, ok?” Peter didn’t believe him. It all seemed to easy like it was a trick. And Peter knew about tricks. Still though he chose to play along.

“Ok. What are you doing?”

“Uh not much. Me and Uncle Jimmy just hung out a bit. We did some fishing off the pier so that was nice. What about you?”

“We went to this museum that had some cool experiments. I got to lay on a bed of nails and see some oxidation from the Titanic.”

“That sounds like fun. I have an old chemistry set you can have if you want. I made some cool stuff with it.”

“With supervision,” his dad cut in. Peter felt his ears growing red with embarrassment.

“Dad,” he whined.

“Yeah, Dad chill out,” Harley said. Peter perked up. Harley always glared at him when he called Mr. Stark, ‘dad’.

“He can use the set but only if you or an adult is present,” his dad said not even slightly wavering in his judgment.

“Whatever. Me and Pete can handle it. Right?”

“Right.” Peter was floored. Harley seemed ok with him for once. He wasn’t sure if he believed it but at least he could just observe it for now.

The conversation soon died out and Harley left to go eat dinner. That left Peter and his dad staring out looking down on the beach. The colors were so pretty and vibrant. It was like a whole other world of tones and shades he’d never seen before. He itches to capture it on his camera, but after a gentle reminder to eat Peter chose to just watch the beauty with his own eyes.

With everything at least a little better Peter had an easier time eating his chicken tenders and fries. The chicken was so good that Peter couldn’t help it. He found himself smiling throughout most of the meal and the conversation that came along with it.

His dad’s phone chirped and the man smiled. “I’ve got to go inside for a second, don’t move, ok?” Peter nodded and his dad sent a serious look his way.

“I won’t get up. Promise.” Smiling his dad left and Peter busied himself by kicked his legs and looking out at the ocean. It was so pretty and he wanted to take a picture of all the colors, but he’d left the camera in the car. He wanted to go and retrieve it, but he also didn’t want to get into trouble. Sighing he just continued to enjoy the pretty scene in front of him.

“Ok, I’m back,” turning around Peter saw his dad carrying a small box that he set on the table.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, you mean this?” His dad was giving him one of those annoying smiles that screamed ‘I know more than you’. “I really don’t even know what it is.” Peter made a face. “Ok, it’s for you. Open it.” Leaning forward Peter ripped open the small box and gasped.

It was a new camera!

One like the professionals used.

He looked up smiling at his dad and then down back at the camera. “W-Why? What is this for?”

“Because you deserve it.”

“Can I open it?”

“Of course, dig in!” Peter wasted no time ripping the box open and looking at the new device in his hands. His heart was thumping wildly. This was so amazing. It took a few minutes for his dad to help him get the camera assembled and the lens attached, but in the end, Peter smiled so much that his cheeks hurt.

“So, Petey this is a gift.”

“Yep, and I love it!”

“I’m glad,” his dad said smiling, “but it’s got a purpose too. I signed you up for a photography class.” Peter’s felt his smile drop.

“What? Why,” he drawled out with a squeaky whine.

“What do you mean?”

“Why do I need a class? This is just for fun!”

“Pete it’s nothing bad. It’s just a class for kids your age.”

“You think I can’t make friends,” Peter said feeling sad all of a sudden. Some gift.

“Hey, bud look at me.” Peter lifted his eyes and saw his dad’s face. “I bought that camera because I want you to have fun. If you make friends great, but if not you’ve pick up a new skill.”

“So this isn't a setup?” His dad raised his eyebrow. “Mama used to set me up on playdates when we first moved here. They didn’t work out.”

“No, bud. I saw you playing with my old one. I figured you might like this.” Peter nodded still feeling like he wasn’t being given the whole truth, but chose to ignore it. He just wanted to enjoy his awesome new gift. Peter leaned over the table toward his dad who was helping him work through all of the settings. Tired of reaching he left his own chair to climb into his dad’s lap. He felt his dad silently worked his arms around him to help Peter to continue adjusting the settings.

They stayed like that for awhile. Then, as the sky started to change colors Tony turned the chair toward the sky. “Give it a shot, bud. See what you come up with.” Looking up and back at his dad he smiled pulling the camera up to his eye.

He started to click.

And click again.

It was such a nice feeling. He clicked and clicked some more. Before he knew it was almost dark. He felt his dad stand up before the man settled an arm under his butt supporting him.

“Time to get home so you can get ready for bed.”

“Could we stay a little longer?” His dad smiled down at him. “Five more minutes.” He thought that his dad would set him down, but instead, the man just settled him on his hip as the sun sunk deep into the sky.

“This is great!”

“Did you have fun?”

He was nodding vigorously. “A whole lot of fun. This was one of the best days ever. I miss mama, but when you’re around I don’t miss her as much.” He turned and put his head on his dad’s shoulder. “Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re welcome, Pete.” Leaning into the man’s side he felt his dad’s arm reach out and pull him close to his chest. Putting the strap around his neck he the camera hang down at his chest. Peter wrapped his arms around his dad’s neck and settled in. Just like that, wrapped in each other’s embrace they watched the sunset on yet another day.

Chapter Text

Two Months Later

When he opened his eyes Peter smiled to himself. Ever since he’d told his dad about everything, things had been great.

It was like things were finally settling down.

The week after that his dad had them all cook dinner together and they started having boys night with just the three of them and it was nice. So very nice. One time they went to a monster truck show, another time they saw this cool band, and one time they all got to ride in a real race car! Only their dad go to drive but it was still awesome to be inside of a race car as it zipped around the track. Mr. Stark had made sure that Harley and Peter both got plenty of souvenirs and equal trips around the track which subtly reminded Peter that he and Harley weren’t so different anymore.

Then, just last week they’d all gone to the Giants game. They’d each got a jersey that said ‘Stark’ with the number one on the back. Peter grinned the entire game and Harley helped him understand all of the rules. He’d gone to the game not quite so sure where he fit in and he’d left the idea cemented in his mind.

He was finally apart of the family.

One of the Stark boys.

It was weird to think about it like that, but his name already went from Laurent so from Potts to Stark wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Potts wasn’t his real name anyway. It was a fake name for a fake life.

And so far being a Stark had been way better than being a Potts.

His door popped open and before he knew what was happening he felt Harley pushing him roughly. “Stop! Ok, what do you want?”

“Get up,” his brother said pulling the blankets off of Peter’s body.

“Why? I don’t gotta get up yet.” Harley huffed and Peter felt the air hit his skin, making him shiver. He sat up angrily.

“You’re so cute. Like you could actually hurt me,” Harley said smirking. “Get up. If you’re gonna be my brother you’ve got it look like it,” he said walking to the closet. “No more nerd clothes. It’s the last day of school and we’re gonna do it right.” Harley threw a t-shirt with a weird science pun on it at him before finding a pair of navy blue fitted cargo shorts. Put those on.” Peter looked down at the clothes and then up at Harley. “Come on! Move! I’ve still got to show you how to gel your hair.” Peter grabbed the clothes and hurried into the bathroom. He made quick work of changing his underwear and putting on a t-shirt. Just as he was putting on his shorts, Harley burst into the bathroom with a crisp pale yellow button up. “You’re slow as molasses! We have to get ready! If we miss the bus, Dad will kill us.”

Peter made a face.“Dad’s taking us, right?” The word didn't feel as foreign on his tongue these days. At this point it was almost like second nature.

“Nope. He’s at a big meeting downtown. Apparently he stopped thinking you need your hand held, so move it! You haven’t even packed yet!”

“What about breakfast?”

“We can eat Poptarts.” Harley shoved Peter backward playfully before throwing the shirt at him. Peter quickly pulled on.

“Why do I gotta wear two shirts?” Harley rolled his eyes.

“It’s fashion. You use the t-shirt to set the tone and the button up as a way to pull the look together. See the yellow in the shirt pulls from the weird planet on your t-shirt, then the blue shorts grab the wavy space thing in the middle of the sun.”

“Oh.”

“You’re kinda hopeless, but you’ll get it, I hope.” Harley took one of his combs and pushed the sides of Peter’s hair back. “We’ve got to get you to dad’s stylist. She’ll help us tame these curls. I mean you’re cute for ten, right? But next year you’ll be in class with middle schoolers. We’ve got to up your game you’re gonna get wrecked. Anyway, for now we’re just going to gel the sides and let it hang down in the front.”

Peter looked up at Harley. The teen was wearing skinny jeans with a pair of crisp white shoes and a button up with the sleeves rolled into crisp edges. Peter felt like a mini version of Harley. “Won’t I look like you?” Harley made a face.

“And?” Peter gulped but the teen rolled his eyes. “It will kind of look like me, but that’s the point. I want people to know you’re with me. Next year I’ll be in high school so you’ll have to stand on your own. Hopefully giving you some shine will shut em up once and for all.” Peter looked up at Harley who was focused on getting Peter’s hair just right using some type of moose or at least that’s what the bottle said.

“Oh,” he said softly.

“I talked to them. People know you’re with me,” Harley said. “Now we just gotta remind them.”

Peter felt a bit anxious all of a sudden. He knew kids at school were suddenly being nice to him, but he had hoped it was just because they finally realized they liked him. No such luck. “You don’t have to do. I mean there’s no need to. I’m ok.” Harley stopped adjusting his hair and looked down at him. Peter hoped he hadn’t said something wrong.

“I haven’t been good to you. You’re going through alot and I just made it harder. Life is rough enough without me adding to it so just take this for what it is.”

“But,” Peter started before Harley shook his head.

“Brothers help each other,” he said definitively. He started to adjust Peter’s hair again. Smiling to himself as his shoulders relaxed Peter settled to just soak in the moment.

Things were going to be ok.

~/~

“Bye Peter,” a pretty girl with brown bouncy girls said. Slightly in shock Peter stuttered out a response.

“B-Bye Cambria,” he said waving slightly. She had her friends giggled. Shaking his head smiling Peter started to collect his books from the desk and piled them into his backpack.

Things just kept getting better off him.

Just like last month or so, all day long, people had been telling him hi and waving at him instead of acting like he wasn’t there. Today it seemed to increase even more. He got to be in a science group with some kids instead of working in the back of the room by himself. He wasn’t sure if it was the new clothes or not, but it was still nice anyway. After being invisible for almost a year to finally have people notice him was like a breath of fresh air. With his bag promptly packed he stood up to leave the room and smiled when he saw Ned standing by the door waiting for him.

“Hi Peter.”

That was another new feature of his newfound status. Peter had been trying to be his friend since he’d moved to Malibu, but finally it seemed to actually be working. “Hi Ned.” They’d met on an online game and had been chatting and hanging out at school ever since. Ned loved the robot that Peter had built for him earlier in the year and Peter thought Ned’s computer skills were insane. He knew Ned’s birthday was coming up and he hoped that he got invited to his party. All week long he’d been eavesdropping and hearing about all of the fun they were planning. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but he really wanted to get invited.

Really bad.

“I still can’t believe you get to go to the fifth grade class for math and science. That’s so cool.” Peter shrugged. “Next year will you still be ahead like going upstairs with the middle schoolers?”

“I don’t know. I guess so,” he said grabbing what was left in his locker. He was going through each shelf to make sure he didn’t leave anything behind. Satisfied that he had all the stuff he needed Peter closed his locker and turned back toward Ned.

“That makes sense. Do you uh think you want to come to my house this weekend?” Peter stared at his box of stuff not sure if what he thought he was hearing was real or not. Was this it?

“What do you mean?”

“Well um it’s my birthday and I wanted to have a party with some of my friends, but my stepdad says I have to have at least five kids come or I can’t. So uh with you it would be five.” Peter deflated he was the last choice.

“No I don’t think I can. My dad’s going to take me out and stuff,” he said lamely.

“No? Come on Peter, please? I don’t have a lot of friends and if you don’t come I can’t have it and EJ will make fun of me forever. I know we don’t talk much until a little bit ago on Minecraft but I really like you and I want you to come.”

“Why are you just now asking me? I mean you could probably find somebody else,” Peter said desperately trying to hide the hurt from his voice.

“I’ve been wanting to be for your friend for a while, but my brother said I couldn’t. But then your dad called my mom and she yelled at EJ and said he had to be nice to you so I knew he couldn’t hit me for being your friend. So then that’s when I found you online and we started talking.” Peter was kind of confused, but Ned kept talking. “Plus that robot was so cool and yeah. It’s all EJ’s fault really. So please come ok? My mom wants to meet you and I want to have a good time.”

Peter still didn’t get it. “Why would your brother not want you to be friends with me?” Ned shrugged.

“Who knows with Flash.”

Peter sputtered almost like he was malfunctioning. Flash? Demon spawn who lived to ruin Peter’s life? “Wait, Flash is your brother?”

Ned seemed a little shocked and confused. “My stepbrother, but yeah. Why?”

“I thought your brother’s name was EJ?” Ned shrugged.

“It is, but like at home we call him EJ. His dad’s name is Eugene too.”

Peter but his lip in contemplation. Flash was the gift that just kept on giving. He’d stopped saying rude things to Peter unless no one was around then he said whatever he wanted which was usually something very cruel. Peter found as long as he avoided him then things were mostly ok. The confusing thing was that Ned as nice as he was had to live with Flash? That was nuts. “How did that even happen?” Peter winced and went to apologize but to his surprise Ned was laughing.

“Peter, I’ve been asking myself that everyday for like five years now. He’s literally the worst. Yesterday he sat on my head because I wouldn’t clean his room.” The boy gave him an imploring look.

“And I thought my brother was bad.” Ned smirked.

“We have that in common too. So, will you come?”

“Yeah.” Ned’s smile erupted across his face.

“Great! I’m going to tell my mom as soon as I get in the car, ok? Yes! Thanks Peter! I can’t wait until Saturday!”

“Tubbs! Mom is here we need to go!” Ned gave a sad look and started to move toward Flash.

“I’ll see you on the game tonight, ok! Right after dinner!” Peter turned watching his friend jog down the hallway. Before he could do anything else he felt himself get shoved hard from behind.

“Think changing your look is supposed to do something?” Peter tumbled backward into the small kid sized lockers the books in his hand spilling onto the floor. He looked around seeing a group of kids walking toward him.

“Just leave me alone, Barrett,” Peter said voice wobbling noticeably.

“Just leave me alone, Barrett,” the kid mocked back. Barrett was the typical lion trying to protect his status. He was relatively popular and seemed to have his own little following. From what Peter could tell he was the king of the elementary school kinda like how Harley was for the middle school. For some reason he didn’t like Peter and let it be known since they day they’d met. “You’re nothing, you know that? Just some wannabe who thinks he’s somebody.” Peter licked his lips and narrowed his eyes. He could feel the eyes of every kid staring at him. Silently he hoped that Harley would appear ready to defend him. “You think that because you’re in our math class now that you’re all that? You’re nothing Potts and you know it.” Peter opened his mouth to respond, but a girl’s voice broke through.

“He’s Harley K’s brother, man you’re screwed.” Barrett took a deep breath and took a step back. It was like the boy had seen a ghost. Peter knew that Harley was pretty freakin’ cool but this was like something else. The boy shook the fear off and smirked.

“You’re just messing with me,” Barrett said shaking his head smirk still etched onto his face.

“I saw them at the Giants game,” he said. “They had on matching jerseys. Plus he sits next to him on the bus sometimes. They get off on the same stop.”

Barrett looked at Peter before looking at the girl again. He seemed to consider the thought for a moment making Peter hold his breath. He really just wanted to go home. The silence was deafening as he awaited their judgement. “Nope. No way Harley wouldn’t be associated with this waste of space. Not true. Hashtag fake news.” The girl just shrugged. “I mean I just talked to Harley today and he didn’t mention anything about this little freak.” Barrett laughed a smug laugh. “I heard Captain Rogers popped him good at War Games. Right on the field in front of everybody. Like a little kid.” The black haired boy shook his head still laughing. “No way this nerd knows HK. No way.”

The girl he didn’t known just shrugged. “Your funeral,” she said walking away. Barrett turned and looked at Peter.

“No way,” he said before he punched Peter in the stomach. Groaning Peter sank to the floor gasping for air and holding his stomach. The kids still heard laughed. “That’s for trying to show me up today. Getting those answers right. Kiss up.” He flashed a menacing smile at Peter. “I bet you probably made all of that up for attention. Well guess what? No one cares.” Barrett laughed. “Harley K? Yeah right. Should have aimed lower like dirt or something. At least that would have made sense.” The boy stopped to snort at his own joke. Peter just tried to be as still as possible hoping that the older boy just left him alone. In a flash though he felt himself get shoved hard to the ground making Peter’s head slam into the hard gross tile. He still couldn't breathe and was coughing the flash of pain that reared through his head only made everything worse.

“Hey!” Peter heard the rapid steps approaching him, but he was too busy trying to quiet the throbbing in his head.

“HK! What’s up?” No response came instead he heard Harley push past Barrett to get to him. "Hey!" Judging by the sound of it, the older boy had himself crashed into the lockers.

Harley knelt down in front of him. Even though he'd heard his brother coming it was still nice to see his face. “Peter, are you ok?” Harley gently grabbed his face and hissed. “That’s gonna bruise.” Slowly he helped him to his feet. “You dizzy?” Peter shook his head. In a split second he watched Harley punch Barrett right in the stomach. “Don’t touch my brother."

"Didn't know he was your brother," Barrett gasped out. Peter felt Harley wrap his arm around his shoulders.

"Well, now you do and if you ever mess with him again I’ll end you.” Peter felt his backpack slung onto his shoulder and he offered a quick smile to his brother who smiled back. "He'll never bother you again," he said quietly into Peter's ear.

Looking up at the blonde boy he'd once thought was the coolest kid in the world, he smiled because now he could call him his brother.

~/~

Tony sputtered as he walked into the house. It was the last day of school and he had planned a massive blowout for them filled with fun, four wheeler rides, and just general chaos, but that was all ruined now. His ex wife had made sure of that. Sighing, he walked into heart of the house searching for his boys. He was sure that they were running around somewhere excited that it was finally summer. Why wouldn't they? It wasn't like they knew their worlds were going to be thrown off course. “Good Afternoon Boss,” the AI greeted. “Harley and Peter are in the kitchen preparing dinner.”

“Great, burnt lasagna.” Chuckling he smiled at least they were finally acting like brothers. Too bad he was going to have to split them up for a while. Maya’s request really couldn’t have come at a worst time, but he couldn’t deny her right to see their son. It wouldn’t be fair to her or Harley.

But it still sucked.

She was going to ruin the rhythm that he and the boys were fighting for. He’d tried reason, but she was determined to get her way or have the police to help her. He really didn’t want that at all. Not with Peter’s mom still in the wind.

Even with Bucky’s help on the police force if that got out too soon, it could be catastrophic. So for now, he had to give into his ex’s crazy and completely selfish demands. He just hoped that the arrangement he’d come up with would accommodate everyone. As he walked into the kitchen he took a deep breath expecting to see a disaster, but instead he found Peter sitting in a chair holding an ice pack to his face and playing a game while Harley appeared to be trying to cook ground beef.

“Hey, what’s going on in here?” The boys turned to look at him before shrugging. Walking closer to leaned down to get a good look at why Peter was holding an ice pack to his face. “That’s some shiner there. What happened?” He saw Peter glance at Harley before the older boy chose to speak.

“Some fifth grader tried to intimidate him,” Harley said. Tony raised his eyebrow in intrigue. Harley being oh so much his son, gave him a wry smirk and an eyebrow raise of his own. “So of course I intimidated him.”

“Am I going to get a letter with a court date?”

“I don’t think so? I mean I did punch him, but just once. He’s probably too embarrassed to say anything.” Tony sighed and then shrugged. At least they’d stuck together.

“Alright well I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” Turning back toward Peter he winced. “How are you feeling?”

“Ok.” Tony noticed how the boy was kicking his feet in the chair. “It was fun to watch Barrett sputter for once,” he said smiling. Tony ruffled the kid’s hair.

"Does your face hurt though? I can get you something for the pain." Peter shook his head.

"It's ok. I've had worse," he said shrugging. Tony flinched involuntarily at the boy's words. Peter was so calm about it, but the mere mention of his previous life left Tony wanting to strangle the man who'd caused Peter and his mom so much trauma. Harley must have sensed something was off because he cut into the conversation awkwardly.

“I um made tacos. Peter put out the toppings and stuff and Google told me how to cook the meat,” Harley said. "Hope it's ok."

“I’m sure it’s going to be fine. Let me go get changed real quick and then we’ll eat," Tony said. He turned to walk out of the room then stopped. "Hey, Pete go wash your hands." The boy rolled his eyes but got up to go to the restroom.

Kid was just plain dirty and there was no doubt about it. He hoped he’d grow out of it, but for now he Tony’s life consisted of reminding his youngest about hygiene.

Tony quickly started the journey to his bedroom. He couldn’t wait to get out of his suit and into something way more comfortable. Slipping into a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt he sighed with relief. Suits were just so stuffy.

Quickly he made it back down the stairs and into the kitchen where he found his boys joking among themselves.

“Kris, said he started crying. I told you he won’t brother you ever again.” Harley told Peter. “See? They recorded it.” Tony could see Peter’s discomfort as Harley tried to show him something on his phone.

“I don’t want to watch it,” he said quietly.

“Come on, you said he’s been bothering you all year. Doesn’t it feel good to watch him get what he deserves?” Peter tried to open his mouth but no words came out.

Tony quickly cut into the conversation. “He probably wants to just enjoy dinner, right Pete?” His youngest son nodded. Tony made a mental note to talk to Harley about so of the difficult parts of Peter’s life that he was unaware of.

“Yeah uh sure,” Harley said putting the bowl of meat on the table. Quickly everyone started to pile their plates high with food and the chatter turned familiar. The boys were joking and laughing at random things they’d seen on tv or at him and it was so nice.

These were his boys.

It sucked that he was going to have to separate them just when they were hitting their stride. He’d always wanted siblings when he was younger, but his mother hadn’t been able to have anymore children. So that left him saddled solely with the burden of the Stark name and the bevy of baggage that came with it.

“These are really good, Harls,” he said wiping his mouth. “Like we should have these more often. What do you think Sprout?” Peter piped up at the new nickname.

“I love it. Doritos make it better!” Tony did notice the pile of chips on his son’s plate that he called a taco salad but said nothing. The red nacho’d face and hands made him go all gooey with a warm feeling. He loved that little boy and all of his messiness. He was dirty and typically had to be manhandled into a bath but he was one of the best things that had ever happened to Tony.

“Dad?”

“Huh?” Snapping back into reality he saw both boys staring at him. “What’s up?” Harley rolled his eyes.

“Well, it’s summer and we’ve got to make some plans,” Harley said.

Great, he’d have to ruin the night way earlier than he planned.

“Oh Dad! I got invited to Ned’s for his party tomorrow. Can I go please?” Tony grimaced and rubbed his stubble.

“I don’t know, Topino. Probably not.”

“What? Why? I did my chores,” Peter all but shouted. Tony sighed.

“If it’s about the fight Dad, Peter didn’t do anything. It was all my fault,” Harley said. Tony sighed heavily. The boys were looking at him expectantly and he was struggling for words.

This was the wrong time to try and separate them, but he didn’t have a choice. A court order was in place and the demands were made.

His hands were tied.

Leaning forward in his seat he took a deep breath. “We have plans for the first part of the summer.”

Harley instantly smiled filled with excitement. “Are we going to Disney? See Peter, I told you!” Peter’s face was bright with cheer.

“I’ve never been to Disney! Mama was going to take but it didn’t work out. So are we going for real?” Tony gave a sad smile.

“Well go to Disney this summer. I promise. Ok?”

“But not right now?” Tony shook his head at his youngest.

Harley leaned forward no longer eating his tacos. “So what is it Dad?”

There was no way to do this gently so he just came right out with it. “Harley, your mother wants to spend some time with you this summer.” Harley stared at him like he couldn’t figure out what his words meant.

“I just saw her last week,” he finally managed to say.

“I know, bud. She uh wants you to spend the first two weeks of summer with her at her ranch house.” Harley sighed.

“Two weeks?” Tony could see Peter’s uncertainty building with every passing second. He knew he had to act quickly before the boy fell into an abyss of hysterics. “Pete,” just as he expected the boy’s head instantly snapped up, “I was thinking that you and I could take a trip to see your Nonna.”

“Nonna?” Peter turned to Harley hoping for an answer.

“Dad’s mom,” Harley said quietly staring at his tacos. “Dad, do I have to go? I’d rather be with you, Pete, and Nonna.”

“Yeah bud, your mom really wants to see you.”

“Why can’t she come to Nonna’s? That way we could all be together.” Tony sighed. He wished that divorce didn’t mean life would be more complicated for his son, but it did.

“She’s your mom, Bean. She wants to spend time with you.” As soon as he said it he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Peter’s eyes were glassy and looked ready to spill with unshed tears at any moment. He leaned forward but Peter ran away before he could say anything else. “Great.”

“Dad, why didn’t you just say no? I don’t want to go there.”

“Harls, she’s your mom and I can’t stop her from seeing you.” The teen bit his lip.

“When am I leaving?”

“She wants to see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Dad, like this sucks. Why does she always do this stuff? What if I had plans?”

“Do you?”

“Well we were gonna hang out at Flash’s house tomorrow. His brother is having a party and he wanted to have one of his own. We were gonna ask to sleep over,” he said groaning. “Does she just not care about anybody?”

“That’s not true. You know how she is. That’s just the life of a free spirit.” Harley sighed again.

“I guess I should go pack. Can I go to my room?”

“You barely ate anything.”

“I’m not really hungry.” Tony sighed as he looked at the uneaten dinner before him. Once again Hurricane Maya has ruined his plans.

~/~

Peter watched Harley pack his suitcase whilst grumbling. He was supposed to be playing his Switch, but his heart wasn’t in it. After dinner their dad tried to cheer them up and remind them that it was only going to be for a little bit, but it didn’t seem to help Peter or Harley either. So after some aimless attempts to find something to do Peter had accepted Harley’s invite to chill in his room and listen to music.

It was something that Peter secretly relished, but always tried to hide. He’d only been a little brother for a few months, but he knew that being overly excitable usually meant getting left out. Harley was still super popular and had friends over a bunch and when that happened Peter tried to hide in his room or in the lab with his dad.

His brother was super social and was always at a party or entertaining so getting him all to himself was a big treat.

Peter watched his brother quietly pack and it was very obvious that Harley would rather be doing anything else. He found it odd that Harley desperately wanted to stay away from his mom while that was all Peter wanted. Every day he woke up hoping that his mom would ring the doorbell and say that it was time for them to go home and everyday his hope was dashed. It was hard for him to imagine not wanting to see her. The curiosity got the best of him.

“How come you don’t want to see your mom?” Harley stopped mid-motion. “Sorry.”

“Um,” the teen said before sighing. “It’s not your fault. I just don’t like to talk about it.”

“I get that. Sorry I asked,” Peter said feeling uncertain. Even though he lived with them, he knew there were still things they talked about after he went to bed or when he wasn’t around. It was kind of like being in a bubble and seeing everyone but not being able to really touch it.

Music again filled the room as Harley continued to pack and grumble, while Peter aimlessly played on his Switch. His dad had showed him some pictures of his new Nonna and told him stories about her, but that didn’t help.

He didn’t want to go meet Nonna. Even though it would be cool to have his dad to himself for a week, he wasn’t trying to meet anybody else. All he really wanted was his mama.

“Did you pack?” Peter looked up at Harley before shaking his head.

“D-Dad said he’d pack for me. Something about I wouldn’t pack clothes just tools.” Harley snorted at him making Peter roll his eyes.
“Your room does kinda look like a junkyard.”

“Does not.”

“Dude, you have like more nuts and bolts than a rollercoaster,” he said chuckling. “You want to watch a movie or something?”

“That’d be cool.” Harley smiled at him. They spent the next few minutes debating on which movie to watch before finally settling on Pitch Black. Harley made Peter promise to never tell their dad that he showed him a rated-R movie to which gave a cheeky grin. While they were waiting for the popcorn to pop, Harley plopped down next to Peter on the couch.

“You gotta be nice to Nonna, ok? She’s been through alot and dad’s real protective of her.” Peter looked up at his brother curiously. By now the teen had long since shed his shirt and was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. He could tell that his brother had done his nightly work out just by the veins that were popping out across his arms.

“Is she mean?”

“Nonna? Oh no, definitely not. She’ll want to bake cookies with you and tell you all these old stories. She’s really fun. Just treat her with respect. Trust me on this, dad will freak out on you if you’re rude to her. So just be cute, I know you’ll have a great time.”

“I’ll try. What will you do?” Harley shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said sadly. Leaning back into the couch he spoke in a tone that Peter hadn't heard him use before. “You miss your mom a bunch, right?” Peter nodded. “See I don’t miss mine like at all. She’s got some problems. You know, when I watched you with your mom I used to get really jealous.” Peter raised his eyebrows in confusion.

“What? Really? I mean like why?” Harley gave him a soft smile.

“Your mom pays so much attention to you. She was always telling Dad what you can eat or how much sunscreen you needed. I mean she made you breakfast, took you places, all that stuff. You guys had like no money, but she still got you that chemistry set for your report card. I can’t remember my mom buying me anything, like ever. I’m just saying, seeing you with her made it hurt so much more that mine isn’t like that.” He couldn't help it. A laugh escaped his throat. “What part of this is funny to you?”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that. You see um, I watched you with your dad and I used to be so jealous. I don’t know who my dad is my real dad I mean. None of the guys my mama dated ever felt like a dad. I used to see you wearing all those cool clothes and having the best stuff. I just thought it was like a fairytale life. You and your dad getting to build all that cool stuff together. I thought your surfing trips were like a dream. Just you and him at the beach together. It seemed perfect. I remember one night I saw you guys on the balcony real late just talking. I couldn’t see what else you were doing, but it just seemed so cool. It was so late but you guys were talking. I always wanted that. Just funny that I wanted what you have and you wanted what I have.” Harley nodded his head and gave him a slight grin.

“I guess I can see the humor in that. Life is kinda funny, huh?”

“Yeah, Peter said laughing. The popcorn machine beeped and Harley jumped up to get it. He quickly scooped out two bowls before dropping back onto the couch.

“Hey Pete?”

“Yeah?”

“You know who your real dad is.” Turning around he furrowed his brows at his brother. He didn’t know his real dad. He’d just said that. “Your real dad is our dad.” Oh. Smiling Peter nodded and Harley returned it.

Brothers.

Yeah, that’s what they were.

“Play the movie Fri,” Harley said.

“Sorry, I cannot do that under the “Babysitter” prootocol,” the AI said. “I cannot play any movies that are above PG-13.” Harley jumped up and started clicking the TV to no avail.

“You have got to be kidding me,” he grumbled out. “Stupid computer. Play my movie!” Peter just laid on the couch smiling as he watched Harley try to find a way around the parental block.

~/~

That night Peter found himself wide awake cringing at the clap of thunder ringing out. He was laying under his covers with his pillow pulled over his head. The thunder was loud and felt like it was right on top of them. A large crack of lightning flashed through the sky making him jump. Sitting up he willed himself to stay in his room.

He wasn’t a baby.

His feet his the tile and he took a deep breath. He was in his room and on solid ground. Yeah, he could do this. Pulling up his chair to his desk he sat down and started to toy around with the computer he was fixing for Michelle. She had really liked the DVD player or at least that’s what her note had said, but now he wanted to help her again.

She was on scholarship just like him and a computer could help her do her work without having to go to the library all the time. Rubbing his eyes he put on his noise cancelling headphones and started to work. The ambient noise really helped to calm him down and help him focus.

It was his dad’s idea, he didn’t say why but Peter figured it was another suggestion from Mr. Wilson. After their little talk ever so often his dad would say something that sounded a lot like therapy and Peter would get something to ‘help’ him. When he had a hard time focusing on homework, he got noise cancelling headphones, when he went through a stretch where he couldn’t sleep, he got a weighted blanket.

Peter wasn’t sure, but he figured his camera was another one of those therapy gifts, but he couldn’t prove it and he loved it anyway.

A flash went into his room, but it was small. Turning around Peter saw a light shining against his wall.

That was odd.

Standing up he walked toward his window. Maybe one of the street lights had fallen. As he got close to the window it wasn’t a streetlight that he saw it was a man.

Stepping back from the window he felt his heart hammering in his chest.

A man was in their yard!

Unable to stop it, he screamed and kept screaming. He screamed so much that his throat hurt.

“Peter! What’s wrong?” He fled into his dad’s embrace and frantically pointed toward the window.

“A man! There’s a man outside!” His dad set him down and walked toward the window. He looked at Peter then back at the window.

“There’s nobody out there.” Peter looked back and forth from his brother to his dad. They both looked tired and completely unfazed by the fear that was gripping him. "Did the rain scare you buddy? Want to come and sleep in my room?" Peter felt himself getting angry.

“I saw it! He had this big flashlight and he was shining it into my room.”

“It was probably just a reflection from the streetlight in the rain,” Harley added in sleepily.

“No! I saw it! He was standing right there,” he said gesturing toward the window. “He was wearing black and had a big flashlight.” He turned to his dad who was giving him the ‘I’m tired of your lying’ face. “I’m telling the truth.” His dad gave him a tired look.

“Peter,” his dad said sighing. “Maybe you were sleeping. Just having a bad dream because of the storm.”

“I wasn’t,” he demanded. “Please believe me, I saw it.” His dad reached his hands out and Peter slapped them away not wanting to be held. Why didn’t they believe him? “I’m not lying,” he whined out.

Harley snorted, “like last week when you said you missed the bus you said a stray cat tried to take your backpack so you chased it into the nonexistent woods.” Peter glared at his brother. He didn’t need him to remind him of his awful lie. His dad was yelling and Peter panicked. Ugh. “Or like when you said that a robot spilled oil in the workshop yesterday.”

“He did!”

“There’s footage, Peter!” Harley grunted and threw his hands up. “I’m going back to bed, see you tomorrow,” Harley said as he left the room. Peter sighed and turned to his dad.

“Fine, don’t believe me,” he grumbled indignantly. He knew what he saw. “I guess I’ll go to bed too,” he said climbing under the covers. “That is if I can fall asleep with the stupid light shining again.” He angrily nestled himself under his blankets and plopped back onto his bed. He was vaguely aware of his dad still looking out the window, but it didn’t matter.

He wasn’t lying!

“Want some company?” Peter shrugged. His dad still slid in the bed next to him. “Are you tired, Sprout?” Peter didn’t answer. He was super annoyed that no one believed him. So he busied himself by glaring at his blanket. “We just talked about this yesterday, bud. No more lies, right? You promised me that from now on you’d only tell the truth and be honest.”

Peter kept his eyes fixed on his blanket. “I am telling you the truth. There was a man.”

He heard his dad grunt and he felt his dad tap his shoulder. “Look at me, please.” Sighing he did just that. “Peter, do you know how unbelievable that is? A man standing in a torrential downpour just to shine a flashlight into your room? What could he see?” Peter felt his anger growing, but didn’t say anything. “These lies have got to stop, Pete. They have to.” Looking up he felt so betrayed. He hadn’t known his dad that long, but he’d always made him feel like he trusted him unlike Mr. Steve who’d always made Peter feel like some type of con artist.

“I'm not lying,” he said pouting and feeling a little hurt.

“Lying for attention isn’t ok,” his dad lectured. “We were all sleeping and you woke us up. We have to get up really early and now none of us will have gotten a good night's sleep. Do you think that’s fair?” Peter didn’t say anything. “I know you think it was fun, but it’s not. What if something really happens? Then we might not believe you.”

“I’m not that kid who cried wolf. I saw it!” He glared down at his blanket again.

“Peter, it just doesn’t make sense. We live on a hill overlooking the ocean. We have a gate outside our house. There’s no way that someone got past my security system. I designed myself which makes it virtually impenetrable. They’d have to be like a super genius to get past it. ” He shook his head he was basically calling him a liar.

“I know what I saw.” He couldn’t believe this. He saw something scary and told his dad and now he was in trouble because of it. “Maybe you’re not as smart as you think,” he mumbled.

“What did you just say?” Peter gulped at the firm low level growl that his dad said. He hadn't really meant to say it out loud.

“I um,” he started but his dad was already standing up.

“Get up.” He scrambled out of the bed and felt his dad grab him by the wrist pulling him into the bathroom. “Sit on the toilet.” Peter silently obeyed feeling himself really start to get scared. He hadn’t meant to say that.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,” he said. His dad didn’t respond instead he fumbled around in the cabinet under his sink before pulling out a box of soap.

Peter gasped.

“I’m tired of this Peter. Lying, being rude, backtalk. I’m done with it.” He ran the bar of soap under the sink. “Open.” Miserably he obeyed and he felt the soapy bar rest on his tongue. Unable to stop it he felt tears trickling down his face. “Ten minutes. Then you can go back to bed.”

Those ten minutes were agonizing. Simply brutal. He was trying so hard not to cry anymore, but the taste was awful. It was all so miserable. He really hadn’t done anything wrong. “Ok, you can spit it out now.” Not needing to be told twice Peter jumped off the toilet and spit frantically in the sink. He frantically took the glass of water from his dad and tried to get the gross taste out of his mouth.

“This is awful!” He heard his dad chuckle.

“Supposed to be. No more water, it won’t help, trust me.” He gently knelt down in front of Peter who turned and looked up at him. “You think you’re the only boy with a smart mouth? Nope. I’ve sucked on more bars of soap than I can count.” He gave Peter a smile. “I know it sucks buddy,” he said rubbing Peter’s cheek gently, “but the lying has got to stop.”

“I wasn’t lying,” he whined still trying to get rid of the gross taste by spitting again. “You told me to tell you stuff and then you say I’m lying,” he retorted indignantly.

“I’m not liking this tone you’re using.” Biting his lip, Peter wiped his eyes again before moving into his room. He was so frustrated. “You’re a man of science, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is your reaction.” Peter curled into himself feeling tears coming. He climbed into his bed without another word for his dad.

This wasn’t fair.

He wasn’t lying.

~/~

Tony smiled as the familiar sight came into view. It was a beautiful two story beautiful rustic cabin that he’d designed and built for his mom. After living in cities for far too long she was ready to move into the simple life again.

He didn’t make it up here as much as he’d like to, but he knew she stayed busy with her garden and teaching piano.

A much needed calm settled over him as he pulled into the driveway. The morning had begun on a very rocky start. He’d driven Harley up to San Jose and had the privilege of watching his son try and plaster a fake smile on his face when he saw his mother’s new boyfriend. He hugged the miserable looking teen as long as he could before they had to leave themselves. Peter had held his hand as they walked the long journey back to the car. It broke his heart to see the boy so covered in uncertainty. He knew Peter leaned on Harley a bit, but he hadn’t realized just how much.

It took him forever to get Peter to fall asleep once they'd left Harley. The boy had busied himself playing on his Switch and mostly sat curled in a ball in the front seat. After he'd finally fallen asleep. Now that they were there it didn’t seem right to wake the little stinker up. Turning off the car he grabbed his keys before moving around his Jeep and pulling Peter into his arms. The little boy was a bit heavier than he was before and Tony liked to think that was a good thing. He hadn't realized just how tight things were for them until he watched Peter eat only half a portion of food hoping to save the rest for his mom. After several weeks of reminders the boy had finally started to eat his full portion.

With a smile tugging on his lips he heard the birds chirping in the woods as he moved toward the heavy wood door.

“Antonio!” Tony winced at his mother and used his head to gesture toward Peter. The woman clasped her hands tightly and let a smile cover her face. Her hair was completely gray but her olive skin was as vibrant as ever. Quickly she moved toward them and wrapped her arms around him. He leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She gently ran her hands through Peter's curls. "Oh you’ve tired him out already,” she asked playfully.

“He did that himself.” She raised her brows at him. “You’ll see. He has quite the imagination.” Just as he was about to ask to lay him down Peter started to stir in his arms.

“Wha?” Tony leaned down and pressed a kiss to the boy’s cheek.

“Peter, this is your Nonna.” With bleary eyes he tried to look at the woman. “Can you say hello, sleepyhead?”

Lifting his head up he gave a small wave. “H-Hi ma’am,” he said.

“Capisco perché lo chiami Topino.” (I see why you call him Topino.) Tony gave a sweet grumble he opened his mouth to respond, but surprisingly someone beat him to it.

“Lo fa perché sono tranquillo,” Peter replied yawning. (He does because I'm quiet.) Both Tony and his mom looked at Peter with wide eyes.

He knows Italian?

“Buddy where’d you learn Italian?” Peter shrugged and yawned again.

“When I was a baby Mama’s friend taught me. She spoke Italian, French, and English. I know some French, but I’m real good in Italian. She watched me all the time and that’s the only language she’d let me speak. She said I learned English at school.”

“Looks like you picked the right child, Bambino. Welcome to the family Peter. I am Maria, but if you like you may call me Nonna.”

“Ma, he’ll call you Nonna. It’s only the proper sign of respect,” Tony said still holding Peter in his arms.

“Now, Antonio, you’ve told me that Peter called you Mr. Stark right up until the day he decided to call you dad. He is a very respectful boy and I’m sure he’ll make the right decision in his own time.” Tony wanted to roll his eyes, but he didn’t want his mother glare at him.

He didn’t care what anybody said, getting scolded in front of your kids was probably the most embarrassing thing ever.

“Yes Mama.” The woman smiled at him.

“Why don’t you go and put our little one down for a nap while catch up? Would you like that Peter?” The only response they got was a soft snore. They both chuckled.

“I guess that’s our answer.”

~/~

Just around lunch time Tony was sitting in the living room smiling at his mother’s antics. She’d already fed him twice and asked him if he’d used the restroom today. He tried to not let it bother him, but ugh it was so embarrassing. He imagined that was how Peter felt when he nagged him about taking a bath, or brushing his teeth, or good gracious wearing deodorant. He guessed it was just the cyclical nature of life.

His mother placed a plate of biscuits and tea in front of him bringing another warm smile to his face. "I cannot wait to get to know that little one."

"I'm sure you're going to love him. He's sweet, kind, smart, and just so loving."

"He looks much healthier than that picture you showed me. He seems happier now."

"He has his days Ma. Sometimes he's the happiest boy in the world and other's he's quiet, withdrawn, and brooding. It's both exhausting and hard to watch."

"I totally understand. I have been there many times. Are you handling it well?" Tony loved how easy his mom had always made it for him to share his feelings. His father had done the complete opposite. Once again, Tony was so proud and excited that Maria made the choices she did. He became a good man because she was a great woman.

"I guess? I mean, some days I have patience for years and others I snap at him. I mean I don't know. He's going through his lying phase right now and it's grating on my nerves. I've tried everything." His mom chuckled and sipped her tea.

"Do you remember how I handled your lying phase?" Tony rolled his eyes.

"Dish soap and peppermint." He grimaced at the memory. "It took days to get that taste out of my mouth." She raised her eyebrow at him.

"Well, you don't lie to me though, do you?" A gentle quiet settled over them and they continued talking among themselves until the conversation once again shifted to his children. “Did Harley seem excited?”

“No, the exact opposite,” he said just before leaning back to scrub a hand down his face. “Maya’s new boyfriend was there and he has a daughter. I hated leaving him there when he looked so miserable.”

“That’s terrible. I would hope that she would consider his feelings, but we know that’s not how she prefers to operate.”

“I tried to ask her to wait until the end of the summer, but she was adamant. I had no choice.”

“I’m sure Harley knows that. The judge made his decision.” Tony leaned back and yawned.

“Yeah. That’s true.” Closing his eyes he took in the sweet scent of his mother’s home. She had always managed to make every place they stayed in their home. No matter if it was a beach house or a run down apartment in New York, If Maria was there then it was home.

Just like that he’d fallen asleep only to be awakened by a shriek. “Daddy!” Tony instantly jumped up just in time to see Peter sprinting into the room.

“What’s wrong buddy?”

“I woke up in a strange room and you weren’t there! I thought, oh,” he stopped abruptly turning red as he saw the woman walk into the room. Tony leaned forward and set his hands on the boy’s sides.

“I’m right here. I promise you I won’t ever leave you like that, ok?” Biting his lip and squeezing his eyes tight the boy nodded. He didn’t care about how much his son didn’t want to be held these days he scooped the boy into his arms and settled him on his lap. That seemed to be all he needed to start crying. “Dad’s here, bud. It’s ok.”

“I thought you were gone like Mama.”

“Nope. I’m right here, baby.” Tony kept reassuring Peter that things were ok and that he wasn't alone. He had become somewhat of an expert at this by now so he'd quietly asked his mom to bring Peter's astronaut bear. The boy clenched it tightly against his chest.

"Mama left me with you and didn't say goodbye. Please don't do that, ok? If I'm asleep tell me where you're going." Tony leaned down and kissed the boy again. Without looking up he knew his mother was lingering with a very sad look on her face.

"You know if your mama could she would have stayed with you forever. There's no doubt in my mind." He saw Peter wipe his eyes. "And I promise I won't leave you like that. I'll always leave you a note and let you know where I am. And hey, if I'm not around it's always going to be someone you trust that's there with you until I can come back." Almost instantly he knew that was the way wrong thing to say. Peter had jerked up and was looking at him with unshed tears.

"You're gonna leave me too?"

"No baby! No, what I meant is sometimes I have to run an errand or something and you might be asleep. If that's the case I wouldn't want to wake you especially if I'm coming right back." Peter eyed him skeptically.

"Promise?"

"Of course, Topino." Peter seemed to believe him and relaxed again in his hold.

“Even when I’m old, I’ll never want you to leave me, ok? Always write me notes.” Tony chuckled down at the boy.

“I’ll write notes as long as you need me to.” That seemed to be what he needed and Peter burrowed into his chest and let himself fall asleep.

Once they were sure Peter was asleep Tony gently settled him on the couch next to him and covered him with his Star Wars blanket and his bear. Maria was the first to speak in the now quiet room. “He is quite attached to you."

“I know.”

“Looks like you found another treasure for your chest.” Tony smiled at her and then down at Peter.

“Yeah, Ma, I did.”

~/~

Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, Eric Sarvin was sipping a glass of amber liquid. His frustration had risen to a boiling point. For the money he was paying it made no sense why he didn’t have her back. He really didn’t want to have to kill anyone today, but his patience was wearing thin. It shouldn’t have taken this long. He’d gone overseas to do some freelance work for awhile and was guaranteed that he would have her upon his arrival home, but that hadn’t been the case.

And he was pissed.

“What did you find?”

“It’s just what you thought. She left the kid with that Stark guy. The boy has assimilated into his family almost seamlessly. He has a gorgeous room, new bike, the works. Even calls the guy dad. Kid’s practically adopted.”

Eric clicked his teeth and put his feet up on the desk. He could care less about that runt. Kid was a nightmare of annoyance and a waste of space. There was only person that he was concerned with. “What about my Virgi, any word on her?” As soon as he saw the muscular man’s jaw clench he knew he wasn’t getting the answer that he wanted.

“No, hasn’t made contact since she left.” That was where Eric's main source of aggravation was. How had she eluded them again?

"You told me months ago that you found her and she was in your sight. One day she's going to be dropped off when I got back and the next she's in the wind. Tell me what happened," Eric ground out not at all happy with what he was hearing. The man shifted on his feet.

"Well, we found her living in Malibu like we said. Things were going great. We put the squeeze on her real good even sending her letters to her email address, then she disappeared." Turning his head from side to side Eric felt his blood starting to boil. This was all the man had to show for over a year’s worth of intel? He launched his glass across the small office watching it shatter everywhere.

“Watch it! My kids play in here!” Jumping up to his feet in a matter of seconds Eric had the man’s arm wrenched behind his back and pressed into an awkward angle. “Ah!” Eric smiled sweetly as he pulled the man’s face toward his.

“See, I’m having a hard time with this whole thing. For years I’ve paid you to keep tabs on her. Not her kid. Just her. So how is it that she can leave not once but twice when all I’m paying you to do is keep an eye on her? You have hundreds of pictures of a kid I don't care about, but not one of the person I asked you to find,” he growled. “I want my Virgi! Where is she?”

“Eric, it’s not that easy. She’s been having help. The tracking devices alone were enough. We had one in her phone, her car, even some on the kid. They all went black. That's unprecedented. Someone who knows equipment has been assisting her.” Eric clicked his teeth. "She got a new car just days before taking off. We didn't have a chance to put a tracker in it before she left. She was literally there then went out and hasn't been back. It doesn't make sense unless someone very powerful is helping her."

“So she’s got help, huh?”

“She has to. She’s smart, but not that smart. My suggestion is the same. If you want her to come out go for her knees.” Eric rolled his eyes.

“I need her. I don’t care what you have to do to find her. Hear me? Get her back!” Smiling Eric wrenched the man’s arm until he heard a distinct pop. He let the man fall to the floor like a sack of potatoes screaming the whole while. “Consider that insurance. Next time it’ll be your wife’s arm.” Grabbing his keys Eric left out the back door.

He had some business to attend to.

Chapter Text

Tony glanced up at his son who was happily reenacting some fight scenes from a movie. He’d been at it for close to an hour and he didn’t seem poised to stop yet. It was a normal occurrence for him, but his mom seem to enjoy Peter’s burst of energy and continued to egg him on with yet another, “What happened next?”

“Then it was like this,” he said, jumping on the couch for emphasis.

“Peter,” Tony chastised. “We don’t jump on furniture.”

“Oh Antonio, boys will be boys.” Tony’s face fell into complete shock. This was the same woman who’d swatted him out of the air with a wooden spoon when he’d tried the exact same thing.

“Yeah, Dad,” he said cheekily, “boys will be boys.” Tony rolled his eyes and Peter continued to act like he was soldier braving through the fierce jungles. Peter did a jump off the couch and was hiding behind one of the arm chairs for emphasis when Tony’s phone beeped again.

Something it had been doing all morning.

Tony let his eyes fall down on to his phone and searched for the source of the notification. Nat had been sending him emails and texts all morning and things just seemed to get more urgent. Whatever she had uncovered was important. He glanced up at Peter who was now running in slow motion for some reason that Tony couldn’t figure out, but it made him smile nonetheless.

Even after the rocky start Peter was settling in with his Nonna and it warmed his heart to see. It was another one of the seemingly endless reasons why Tony feared Pepper returning.

How would he be able to let go of this little boy?

Another notification came across his phone ring jarring him from his thoughts. He let his eyes flicker over the screen before letting out a tisk. The three red exclamation points sealed the deal. He definitely had to go and handle this in person. Slipping his phone back into his pocket he laid eyes on his son. “Rocky, why don’t go you and use the restroom and get your Switch?” Peter stopped and looked up at him confused.

“It’s Rambo, Dad,” Peter said rolling his eyes.

“Whoever you are, let’s go.” The boy gave him a very exasperated eye roll.

“We’re leaving already? You said two weeks.” Tony made a face as his mom who was smiling smugly on the other couch.

“Just for a little bit. I need to get some stuff from work and get you some more of your clothes,” he said Even after Tony had packed Peter’s bag the boy still ended up taking out several essential items and replaced them with spare parts and tools. He had wanted to be annoyed, but if he was honest, he probably would have done the same thing. “If we hurry, I’ll get you a burger from Happy’s on the way back.”

Peter seemed to ignore the subtle dig that he’d thrown at him. Instead he walked toward Tony and set his hands on his dad’s knees. Leaning forward he batted his eyes up at him and stuck his lip out. “Can I stay, Dad, please?” Tony quirked an eyebrow and looked at his mom who shrugged knowingly. How she managed to break Peter’s walls down in a couple of days when it took him months would never cease to amaze him.

Tony faked hurt and held his chest. “You don’t want to spend time with me? You’re gonna choose your Nonna over your dad? I’m so hurt Peter,” he said trying to sound genuine. The little boy saw right through it and turned and fled into his Nonna’s arms before turning around and smiling knowingly. He pulled the woman’s arm around him and leaned into her side.

“I’m staying with Nonna,” he said. Tony frowned standing up. His knees creaked with the effort, but he walked toward Peter. The little rat put his arms around his Nonna again. “I love my Nonna,” he said giving Tony a mischievous smile.

Betrayed by his own child.

“That’s because she gives you cookies. Don’t think I don’t know she gave you a cookie last night after you were in bed.” His mother smiled at him, while Peter looked shocked, and he rolled his eyes. They were so not sneaky.

“I want to stay.”

“Ok, that’s fine. Give me a hug.” The boy leaned forward into Tony’s hands and let himself be picked up. He quickly pressed a kiss to the side of the boy’s head before squeezing him. “Be good for Nonna and take a bath. Don’t be stinky. ” Peter huffed and tried to squirm out of his dad’s hold.

“I’ll take a bath.”

“Or a shower, I know you hate them but just don’t be the smelly kid.” Peter slapped his chest and glared up at him. “Ooh like a mean old puppy,” Tony said chuckling. His mother threw a small throw pillow at him. “Hey!”

“Go! We’re gonna bond, right Pietro?”

“Right Nonna.”

~/~

A little later in the day, Peter washed his hands and pulled a chair up to the island where Nonna was going to show him how to make her famous cookies. Harley had told him that Nonna made the best cookies, but Peter had no idea they’d be that good.

He ate almost a dozen of them in just a few days. If his dad wasn’t always hovering he would have eaten more.

His mama was a great cook, but she didn’t bake very well. It never really bothered him. She always had ice cream, cookies, or something else sweet for him to eat. That was at least until Eric started telling her that she needed to eat healthier. Then the sweet desserts were gone in exchange for greek yogurt or sugar free popsicles that tasted like ice.

Just like that he was standing in the kitchen listening to his mother and Eric discuss dinner.

“What do you mean we’re having sandwiches?”

“Eric, they’re paninis. I made chicken, beef, and turkey ones. I loaded them with vegetables and added in some seasonings.” Peter saw Eric lean closer to his mom grabbing her waist in the way that always made his stomach churn in anger.

“You’ve been home all day and you made us some glorified grilled cheese sandwiches?” The next second the entire platter of sandwiches were flying across the room and landing on the floor. “I work all day and this is the best you can do? I ask for a hot meal! Not something you threw together.” Peter could see his mother trying not to cry.

“You’re right. I’ll make us some chicken alfredo. It’ll be real quick,” he heard his mom say in a shaky voice. Peter felt something inside of him burning. He hated how his mom looked right now. Her hands were shaking and her neck was flushed red.

“I wanted sandwiches,” Peter heard himself say. “And now I don’t get one.” As soon as the words left his mouth he knew it was the wrong thing to say. The man charged toward him and Peter stumbled backward over his chair knowing what was coming next.

A gentle hand glided across his back as his grandmother came around the table shaking him free of his memories.

“I am so ready, Nonna,” he said leaning forward onto his palms and pressing into the heavy countertop. “I’ve never made cookies before.” She came forward carrying a big bowl, eggs, butter, flour, and some things that she hid in the cupboard below.

Her shiny teeth seemed to glow against her olive skin. He smiled to himself, with that lopsided smirk she looked exactly like his dad.

“So now we have everything to make the best cookie in the world and I need just one thing from you.”

“Anything! What is it? I’m your guy.”

“I know. You Pietro need to give me your best promise that you will never tell anyone my secret.” Peter looked at her confused.

“Don’t Harley and Dad know?”

“Your Babbo knows, but Harley has never cared much for baking just for eating.” Peter felt himself sit taller. He was going to learn Nonna’s recipe and Harley didn’t. She really liked him! “So are your hands washed?”

“Yes Nonna. I’m ready! I washed my hands just before I came over. So let’s go!” She smiled and rubbed her hand down the back of his neck near the extra long curls. A smile crossed his face.

His mama used to do that all the time.

Just like always she spoke to him in soft warm tones that made him feel loved and safe all at once. She showed him how to use flour on his hands to stop the batter from sticking to him. Before he knew it they were speaking in Italian almost as much as they were English. It was nice and comfortable in a way he didn’t ever imagine it could be. He’d never had any grandparents before so this was a treat indeed. What he loved most though was that she never once made him feel like he wasn’t her real grandson. Not even when the nosy lady had come by the day before and asked who he was. Without a second thought she said her grandson.

He let himself get lost in her story about her life when she was little as they kept working on the cookies. She would laugh and then he would laugh.

The longer they worked the more they laughed and the more they told each other stories about their lives and interests. By the end of the day she promised to teach him the piano and he’d shared with her all of the experiments he’d done without anyone knowing. Peter was amazed by how much she knew about Mythbusters. Apparently Harley had gone through a similar phase years before, but it still made her cool nonetheless.

As he toyed with the dough in his hands he bit his lip. He knew he could trust her to tell him the truth. Maybe that would help him finally move past this issue. “Nonna?”

“Yes, il mio amore?” (my love) He fidgeted in his chair while she lined the pan for a pie she was baking.

“Do you think I can be dreaming if I’m awake?” He kept his eyes fixed on the dough in front of him as he started to roll the pin over this batch.

“Some say you can. Why do you ask?” Peter shrugged.

“Dad and Harley say I’m lying, but I saw a man outside of my window the other night. He had a big flashlight and a yellow stripe on his sleeve. Dad said I was dreaming, but I didn’t go to sleep.”

“Why did he think you were dreaming?”

“I dunno. I was supposed to be asleep, but the thunder was real loud. I got up to work on a computer and then there the light was. I feel like I was awake.”

“Do you?’

“I really do. If I was asleep then how come I remember having to pee?” Peter bit his lip.
“Maybe I was asleep.” He started to roll the pin again, but he felt her hand gently stop him. When he looked at her she really looked concerned. Peter bit the inside of his lip to stop from smiling.

Finally someone was listening.

“Do you remember anything else about the man?” Peter thought for a moment.

“He was big. Not like fat, but wide maybe. The flashlight was real big and he was holding it so maybe it was muscle? Oh uh when I went to my window he was smiling at me. I forgot to tell Dad that.” His grandmother nodded and rubbed his arm reassuringly. “Does that sound like a dream Nonna?”

“No, it doesn’t.” Peter sighed feeling a sudden rush of relief. Finally someone was taking him seriously.

“Thank you,” he said voice full of watery emotion.

“For what?”

“Believing me. No one else did.” Silently the usually boisterous woman wrapped him in her arms and let him cry. He was just so happy that someone was finally believing him.

~/~

 

Tony hadn’t been back in the city for more than twenty minutes before he heard the familiar sound of boots stomping into his house. He moved out of Peter’s room where he was packing another bag for the boy and found Nat already coming up the stairs.

“Did I give you a key? I don’t remember doing that.”

“You didn’t need to. Rhodes gave me one.” Tony rolled his eyes. What great friends he had. He moved back into Peter’s room as Nat followed him.

“So, whoa, what is all of this?” He turned around and saw her looking around the room. “Does it always look like this?”

“No, I made him clean it before we left.”

“Tony, this room is a nightmare. It looks like Sanford’s junk yard in here.” Tony snorted. She walked around the room. “I mean, there’s like four computers in here,” she said kicking a set of monitors lined up on the floor. “A DVD player and what’s this? A toaster? Tony I know you like you to let your kids have fun and explore, but this is a lot.” He shrugged and went back to lining up pairs of shorts for his son on the bed.

“Pete’s had it kinda tough. When he didn’t have toys he made due by finding old things in trash cans or garage sales and re-purposing them. It’s a quirk I can’t quite get him to shake. You think this is bad? You should have seen how it was with Pepper. Kid’s closet was like Mary Poppins’ purse.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you gave him a room the size of Texas then, huh?” All Tony could do was smile.

“So what was so important that you had to come over?” He saw Natasha’s face instantly go from playful to solemn.

“Well, we’ve got a problem.” Turning around to face her fully he saw Nat giving him the most serious look he’d ever seen her offer him. Instantly he felt hot and cold all at once.

“What?”

“This guy, here,” she said handing him a picture from her folder. “He’s a top dog for an off the grid security team. He’s one of the best. We’ve got pictures of him and some others doing surveillance on you and the boys.”

Tony dropped Peter’s clothes on the bed and stepped toward her. “What? What do you mean?” Natasha gave him another picture of the same man observing from across the room at Happy’s while they ate. It sent a chill up Tony’s spine. While they were eating they were also being watched.

Stalked, really.

“Happy’s feet guys or footman I don’t know what they’re called anyway, they’ve got pictures of the guy going back months. It looks like Eric Sarvin paid him to tail you.” Tony gripped the picture tightly in his hand as he examined it. It was almost too hard to fathom what he was seeing.

He’d come down so hard on Peter that weekend and the kid was telling him the truth.

His son had screamed for him and all Tony had done was yell at him. Great. “Looks like I owe my kid an apology.”

Nat was standing in a pair of tight black jeans and a matching leather jacket that made her look taller than she was. “What?”

“Pete said someone was shining a light into his room during a storm a couple of days ago.” He sighed. “I thought he was just trying to get attention. He does that sometimes when he thinks he’s in trouble or if he’s feeling left out. Anyway, I came down pretty hard on him. Gonna have to make it right.”

“You know you’re doing a good job.” Tony looked up from the picture to see Nat’s soft smile. “You are. Peter trusts you and he didn’t trust anybody but his mom when I met him. Used to sit at the table head on a swivel looking for anybody who would try to hurt them. He doesn’t do that anymore.”

“Thanks Nat.”

“Trust yourself Tony. That’s when you do your best work.”

~/~

Tony had raced from the city back to his mom’s house doing his best to drive evasively so that no one could follow him. He pulled his car into the garage, making sure that it was hidden before walking into the house quickly. “Hi Ma! Was Pete ok?” He immediately knew something was wrong by how his mother was looking at him. “What’s wrong? Are you ok? Is he?”

“Everything is fine.” She sighed. “He is fine. I asked him to take a bath a while ago.” Tony frowned.

“And he went? I usually have to wrestle him into a bath. He’s like a cat. Screeches and everything when he gets near water.” His mother’s face never cracked a smile. “What’s wrong?”

“You said his mother had some problems with a boyfriend before?” Tony nodded not sure where this was going.

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Tony, I don’t think Peter was lying about the man he saw. You know the one you thought was a dream. There are too many details. I think you need to look into it.” He sighed kicking himself or not believing him sooner. “He was almost in tears because he was so scared and didn’t know who to turn to. He told me that men watched him and his mother before.”

“Really?”

“Yes, please look into it. I would hate for there to be something really wrong.”

“Don’t worry Ma, I’m already on it.” He looked around the living room that was still in somewhat disarray from Peter’s demonstration earlier. He made a note to remind his son again about picking up after himself. “Is he upstairs?”

“He should be.” She placed a hand on his cheek. “You’re a wonderful father, Antonio. Even better than I imagined.” Tony smiled.

Tony ran up the stairs and found the room Peter was staying in rather quickly. He set the extra bag of clothes down on the floor and looked around. Peter’s computer was sitting on top of the desk showing his status on the online games he loved to play.

Sitting on the bed Tony stopped and thought about how far they’d come in such a short time. He remembered how skittish Peter had been around him those first few times. How Peter had always struggled to speak loud enough for him to hear. How he fluttered around like a little mouse. He smiled as he remembered how easily the name had come off his tongue, Topino.

Tony’s little mouse.

Now those days seemed like years ago instead of only months. The boy stood a bit taller, more confident, and generally seemed to be growing up. He was still on the quiet side, but Tony could see that he was getting more comfortable in the world around him.

Hearing the door jingle, Tony looked up to see Peter coming out of the shower still dripping wet. His clothes were clinging to his damp body.

“You’ve got to dry off, bud. You’ll catch a cold,” he said. Peter shrugged.

“Nonna don’t turn the air on. So I’ll be ok.” Tony rolled his eyes and grabbed a towel out of the bag he’d brought.

“Take your shirt off.” Sighing Peter lifted his t-shirt over his head and took the towel from Tony. He quickly ran the towel over his top half and tried to hand the towel back to Tony but the man made him do it again. Finally when he was dry enough he gave Peter his shirt back which the boy slipped over his head again. Tony took note of how how long the kid’s hair was. It was so curly and literally falling into his eyes.

“We gotta get you a haircut. I’ll set one up a couple of days after we get back.”

“Ok, Harley said I need to get a better one.” Tony raised his eyebrow.

“Did he say why?” Peter nodded and grabbed his Switch off the desk.

“I look like a nerd.” Tony couldn’t help it. He snorted before catching himself. Peter was definitely a nerd. There was no doubt about it.

“Do you think you’re a nerd, bud?”

"Yeah. I’ve always been one. Me and Tucker were and like nobody talks to me. I mean at least they didn’t used to." He looked up with a introspective look. "Is it a bad thing?”

“No, it’s not, but don’t worry too much about it. If you like who you are then that’s what’s important.” Peter pursed his lips in thought before smiling.

“I heard that on TV once.” Tony rolled his eyes and flicked the kid the cheek.

“You think you’re cute?” Peter curled his lips into a mischievous smirk. “See how cute you think you are when I melt your Switch down for spare plastic.”

“You wouldn’t do that to me. You love me,” he singsonged. Tony smiled back at the boy.

“Come here, bud.” Peter came and sat next to Tony on the bed. He wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulders. “You know how I always tell you that truth is important?” His son nodded looking up at him intently. Tony had to pause the look on Peter's face made him feel like a king. His eyes held such trust. Tony knew that Peter swallowed his words like they were gold. Peter fidgeted reminding Tony that he was on a mission. He had to make this right. “Well, it’s also just as important to admit when you’re wrong. They’re both not easy to do, but you have to.” Peter nodded at him again. “What I’m saying is I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Sometimes dads make mistakes too.” Peter looked up at him curiously, but nodded.

"Ok, I forgive you."

"You don't even know why I'm apologizing yet." Peter shrugged smiling.

"Does it matter? Eric was wrong all the time so was Mr. Steve and they like never apologized. So I'll take what I can get." Tony smiled and ruffled his son's hair.

"You're a good kid. You know that?" Peter gave him a simple smile. “I don't deserve such a sweet and kind boy like you, but that's what I got and I'm so grateful." He turned slightly so he could look Peter head on. "So I checked in with Ms. Nat and she told me something that made me take a second look at things. You were right Peter. There was a man outside of your window and I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.” Peter just blinked at him. Tony knew he'd heard him, but all the boy did was blink.

For several minutes Peter didn’t say anything. Not one sound. If Tony couldn’t see him fidgeting with his hands he might have thought the boy was asleep.

But he wasn't.

No, in fact Peter was wide awake and apparently in deep thought.

Leaving him to gather his bearings Tony stopped to think about all he'd learned in the last few hours. Not only had someone been watching them, but they were actually able to get through all of his security protocols. They'd gotten so close that they could shine a light into his son's second story window. The thought was chilling.

Just when he was about to say something, Peter did instead.

“So, someone’s watching us?”

“Looks like it.”

“I knew it,” he said turning to look up at Tony.

“What do you mean?” He turned so he could look at Peter straight ahead. “Why would you think that, Pete?”

“Eric used to have people watching Mama all the time. They were supposed to be hiding, but I always saw them.” Peter blew out a breath. “If he’s watching us then he doesn’t know where Mama is. That’s good.”

Wow.

Tony really didn’t know what to say.

His son was ten almost eleven and had more knowledge and experiences than some people twice his age.

Leaning into Tony’s side, Peter let himself melt into the man’s embrace. He ruffled the boy’s hair and wrapped his arm around him. They sat like that for awhile just enjoying the stillness of the moment.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, bud?”

“You think Mama’s ok wherever she is?” Without missing a beat he nodded.

“I’m sure she is. She’s one of the smartest women I know.”

“I wish she was here. Do you think she’ll ever come back for me?”

“I don’t know, Pete,” he sighed out. “We can hope.” Peter nodded against his side.

“Well, maybe one day, right?”

“Yeah, bud one day.”

~/~

Tony had been up practically most of the night trying to get information on this man. It was hard to do with such a blurry image to work with, but he Steve, Bucky, and Sam were all trying to figure out who he was quickly. They needed to get ahead of this before things could get any worse.

Looking up he heard footsteps getting closer to the door of the living room. “Dad! Dad! Look at the sky! It’s so pretty!” Turning around Tony saw the orange and pink littering across the skyline.

“It is really pretty bud.”

“My teacher says that this is the best time to get good shots. Can I go to that place you showed me?” The excitable boy leaned forward getting close to Tony’s face with his brown eyes shining with curiosity.

“Not today, how about tomorrow?” Peter dropped his eager look and frowned.

“Why?”

“Buddy, I’ve got to go out and handle some things right now and Nonna has a hard time going too far into the woods.”

“Can I go by myself? Please?” Without even considering it, Tony shook his head. “Why? I’m not a baby.”

“No, you’re not a baby.”

“Then why not? I’ll come right back, I promise.”

“I preferred if you didn’t go out by yourself.” Peter sighed.

“What if Nonna watches me from the balcony, then can I?” Tony leaned forward and grabbed his son’s small hands.

“I want you to stay around the house today. Play around here and we’ll do something tomorrow. I promise.”

Peter’s shoulders sagged sadly. “Cause of the men, right?” All Tony could do was give him a brief nod. Oddly though, that seemed to be enough for Peter and he let some of the sadness leave him. “Ok. I can still go on the balcony and take pictures, right?”

“I have to go out real quick, but if Nonna is with you, then yes.” Peter let out an indignant huff of frustration.

“I won’t fall. I’ll be real careful. I won’t go near the edge or nothin'.” Tony fought not to roll his eyes. Peter would go straight to the edge, he was sure of it.

“No, promise me that you will not go on that balcony alone.” Peter glared out of the window and leaned back slightly. Gently grabbing Peter’s chin he turned the boy’s face to look at him. “Promise me.”

“I promise.” Peter let out a low growl. “It’s not fair! I’ve always got to have somebody with me! When can I do stuff by myself?”

“Soon, I promise.” Peter rolled his eyes and huffed. Tony pulled the boy close hating the idea of having him so upset. Especially not after what they’d learned the day before. Reaching out he started to tickle him right under the neck and then moving to his sides.

“Don’t worry about that, you’ll be old soon enough.” Peter couldn’t stop laughing.

“Stop,” he said giggling and pulling his knees to his chest trying to protect himself. “Stop!”

“Be a good boy, not a menace,” the man said before he stopped tickling his son. Peter smiled up at him.

“You’ll be back before I go to sleep?”

“I’m going to try.”

Glancing down he looked at his phone. It was from a number he didn’t recognize. Holding his breath he picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Bayside dock, deck 18 just after dark by the rocks.” The call disconnected just as quickly as it had started.

With his heart hammering in his chest, gave his son a quick hug before he picked up his keys and took off out of the house.

He’d known who it was as soon as he’d heard the voice.

Chapter Text

Birds were squawking in the sky while Tony kept his head on a swivel. He’d been waiting for his guest for probably twenty minutes or so and he was starting to get antsy.

He blew out a breath and looked around at the various boats again.

If anyone else had called him this would look entirely different. Thank God Nat’s people had been able to get the burner phone to Pepper.

Otherwise he didn’t know if this would have been safe.

“Tony?”

Turning around he saw the tall silhouette in the moonlight. A few subtle steps closer and she was clear in his line of sight.

The woman before him looked nothing like when Tony had last seen her.

Gone was her radiant smile and playful nature. Instead her cheeks were sunken and her skin looked ashen. Standing there she lingered for a moment before reaching out to embrace him in a hug. “I’m so sorry about this.” Tony wasn’t sure why he did it, but he hugged her back.

Somehow they’re connected.

“It’s not your fault. None of this is your fault.” Pulling back Pepper wiped her eyes and nodded.

“How is he?”

“He’s doing as well as can be expected.” She looked at him with a mixture of ‘go on’ and ‘details’. “He’s had some rough days, but he’s doing much better now. I uh got him into fifth grade math and science. It’s still not a challenge, but it pushes him harder than the work he was getting.”

“That sounds nice. I bet he’s excited for fifth grade?” Tony smirked at her.

“You know how he is, he’s a nervous ball of energy.”

“Is he still fixating and asking you a million questions about it?” Tony smirked.

“A million and one. He’ll be the only one of his friends taking sixth grade classes so he wants to know how lunch will work, what time he’ll be away from his friends, and you know a million other scenarios he can think.”

Pepper made a noise of understanding. “Was he always this way? I mean it’s cute when it’s not annoying.” She snorted. Tony smiled at her in the middle of his crazy situation.

“No, he uh used to be really care free. Then life happened.” That sobered up the moment.

That was in fact why they were here.

Life has happened and then everything changed.

“Yeah, life,” was all he could manage to say. She pulled a manilla envelope out of a ratty bag that was settled onto her hip. She bit her lip before handing Tony the packet. “What’s this?”

“It has everything you need to raise him. His birth certificate, his Social Security Card, and his immunization records. I hope you don’t mind I had his birth certificate amended. It was the only way I could ensure he could stay with you.” Tony flicked through the documents until he found it.

When he read it the words they stopped him cold.

“You listed me as his father?” Tony noticed that she was biting lip again. He smiled softly. Peter played with his hands, but Pepper but her lip. They were so much alike. “Ok. Uh great. Yeah,” he sighed out. She cleared her throat.

“I also left him some letters in case anything happens. Make sure he gets them, ok?” Tony nodded still in shock.

“Of course.”

“There’s also a um signed affidavit that you are to have custody of him.” She took a deep breath, “and a digital copy of my will.” Tony reached out to hug her and to his great surprise she let him. He tried to ignore how much her bones sticking out alarmed him. “I miss him so much,” she sobbed against his shoulder. He held her hoping that somehow she could feel a bit better.

To know that she wasn’t alone in this.

That her pain...that Peter’s pain was now own.

A pain that was all too familiar.

“It’s ok, Pep. It’s all going to be ok.” Finally, she pulled away and rubbed her eyes before offering him a watery smile.

She opened her mouth, but Tony spoke first. “You don’t have to go you know. Nat, Happy, and me plus Steve and a bunch of us are ready to help you. We’ll find him.”

She shook her head. “You know as well as I do that when he goes underground no one can find him.” Leaning forward she took a deep breath. “I have to go, it’s the only way to keep my baby safe.”

“Pepper,” he started before the woman put her hand up.

“Please, don’t. I won’t fail him again. Peter’s dad he was a sweet and so kind. He was amazing. He had this fluffy brown hair a smile that made me go weak in the knees.” Tony cleared his throat feeling that things were about to get very emotional. “His name was Riley, Riley Peter Fitzpatrick. He was everything I dreamed about when I was a little girl until he started gambling. Then it became the full gambit. Drinking, drugs, and everything. His work was slipping, bills were getting missed, but he just couldn’t stop. I got fed up. So, one day when Peter was around one I asked Riley to leave. I said don’t come back unless you’re sober. He tried to apologize, but I wouldn’t have it and then well life happened.”

“Pepper,” he tried again, but she shook her head.

“He left our apartment, climbed onto a motorcycle, and was hit by a car. If I had just listened to his apology then my son wouldn’t be scared of every noise that comes his way. I pushed his father away and I’ve failed at finding him one ever since.” She offered Tony a smile. “Until now I guess. So, this is what he needs. To be with you.” Tony shook his head violently. As much as the thought scared him before, he knew that Peter needed his mom.

Even if the pain of Peter leaving was intense, he knew that Peter would never be the same if he never got to see his mom again.

He couldn’t let that happen.

“Pepper, please hear me. All he needs is you. Everyday he wakes up asking for you or if you’ve called or if we’ve found you. He just wants you, Pepper. You.” He saw her back straighten up like she was preparing for battle.

“Tony, I want nothing more than to see him, hold him, and love him. I just can’t right now. Eric wants me and I can’t let him use Peter to do it. I’m going to be ok and so will Peter.” Tony stood there marveling at her strength. What this woman had endured was enough to overtake anyone and yet here she was standing and still ready to fight.

Out of the corner of his eye Tony saw a man in a pair of dirty shorts and a polo walked toward them. “We must leave now, if we are to make it out before sunrise,” he said in a thick accent. Pepper nodding speaking in a foreign tongue that Tony understood, but he chose not to call her on it.

He was just glad to know that where she was going she had friends and people who were dedicated to getting her to safety.

Watching Pepper make plans right in front of him was unsettling, but he had to admit that it was nice. If he couldn’t do anything else, at least he could tell Peter that his mom was ok and that she loved him.

The former he was vaguely sure of, but the latter he knew in spades.

He saw the man nod before turning away. As soon as that happened Pepper was in his immediate space. His eyes widened at the sudden loss of personal space. He was still focused on that when she spoke again.

“Please take care of him for me. Tell him that I think of him every day and that I love him more than air. When it’s safe to come back I’m going to be there immediately.” She leaned up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You’re his dad now. Tell him that you love him every day for me. Hold him when he’s scared and walk him through his fears.” With a fierce look in her eyes she gazed into his eyes. “I chose you for a reason. My son hasn’t ever connected with a man the way he did with you. That day I saw how happy he was to spend the afternoon with you and your son. I hadn’t seen him smile like that in years. I know he’s safe with me but I know that he’ll be safe with you too. Thank you, Tony Stark. Thank you for everything.” She turned around looked over her shoulder at the man on the boat. “I have to go. In that envelope is the key to my safety deposit box and a phone I recorded a bunch of messages on for Peter. Please give it to him for me.” Tony nodded. He pulled out his own phone and the pictures he’d brought for her.

“These are for you. This is him at a science convention a few weeks ago and that one is him from yesterday.”

“Who’s that woman with him?” He felt his cheeks burn slightly.

“My mom,” Tony said shyly.

“What does he call her?” Tony furrowed his brows. “Grandma? Come on, I know he calls you Dad,” she said playfully. Tony looked around. Was she spying on them? “I know my son. He probably was dreaming of you being his dad months before any of this happened. All he could talk about was your screens and computers and tools. It’s like nerd heaven for him.” She smiled widely at him. “He has a big heart and enough love to power a thousand suns. So I knew it was only a matter of time.”

“Nonna,” he said in a mixture of awe and defeat. “He calls her Nonna.” Pepper smiled and hugged him again.

“You’re my angel, Tony. Don’t ever forget that.” Tony watched her zip her small bag closed and run toward the boat. He stood there watching as she disappeared below the deck.

For what felt like the millionth time, he hoped that wasn’t the last he’d seen of Pepper Potts.

~/~

Driving up to his mother’s he felt an odd sense of relief and dread. It was great that Pepper trusted him with her son enough to give him full custody, but it was just as sad that they were in this situation.

Pepper was without her son.

Peter was without his mother.

Even if it was Tony's gain, it was birthed out of loss.

Such deep loss.

Standing up he pulled the small set of items out of the car and walked into the house. His mother was sitting at the island sipping tea out of her antique mug in her robe.

No matter how old he was she was always going to wait up for him.

“Antonio, it’s late.” Walking toward her he planted a kiss on her cheek.

“How is he, Ma?” She shook her head.

“He’s been fretful all night. Picked at his dinner and just watched tv. He went up to his room a little while ago. I think he’s scared.”

Tony picked up an errant blueberry and popped it into his mouth. “Of what?”

“He said you took a call and left in a hurry.” She leaned in. “He thinks you heard something about his mother. Did you?” Sadly he nodded.

“Is she ok?”

“Mostly.”

“Well go talk to him. We can discuss it in the morning, yeah?” Tony made a face.

"He's not asleep?" It was after eleven. His mother gave him a knowing look of her own. Right. Like Peter would be asleep. “Yeah, ma. Of course.” Standing up he set the newly claimed items down on the counter. Turning around he grabbed the phone and slid it into his pocket. Making his way upstairs he wasn’t surprised to see the door pop open revealing Peter already in shorts and a t-shirt for bed.

“Hi! When’d you get home?” He could see Peter’s anxiety coming off of him in droves. He made his way over to the bed figuring that he was going to have to talk his son down from a meltdown pretty soon.

“Just a few minutes ago, bud. I had a meeting.” Peter bit his lip.

“With my mama?” Tony nodded slowly. A look of fear mixed with betrayal covered his face. “Where? Is she ok?”

“She’s fine, baby. Please come sit down.”

“No! I’ve got to see her. Is she still there?” Tony reached out and grabbed his son’s wrists gently pulling him toward him.

“She left again.” Peter’s face started to crumple.

“No, Daddy,” he whined. “Please no,” he said starting to cry. Tony tried to fight is own tears as he saw the fat ones rolling in droves down his son’s cheeks.

“She loves you, Peter,” he said firmly as he could. “She wants nothing more than to be with you, but she can’t bud. It’s not safe.”

Peter shook his head before rushing toward him. “Why didn’t you take me? I want to see her. I need to see her!” Tony let the boy punch him in the chest repeatedly. “I want to see her!”

“Baby, it wasn’t safe. You needed to be here with Nonna.” Peter shook his head vigorously with tears falling down his cheeks.

“No! I want my mama! Please take me to her!”

“She’s gone baby,” he said gently. Peter bent his knees in anguish almost buckling under the weight of the news he was receiving.

“Why does she keep leaving me? I don’t get to say bye or nothing! Harley can see his mom! Why can’t I?” Peter squeezed his eyes tightly and crumpled forward into Tony’s chest. The man wasted no time pulling him onto his lap and cradling the boy in his strong arms.

“She is trying to keep you safe, baby. She’s scared for you.”

“I’m scared for her! This is all my fault! I didn’t keep her safe. I shoulda finished my security system! I’m so stupid! I could have helped her!”

“You are not stupid,” he said firmly. “None of this is your fault, Peter. You hear me? This isn’t your fault.” Peter seeming to have lost all fight just lay in Tony’s arms crying.

He kissed the frown of Peter’s head while rocking him gently. The boy was letting out anguished strangled sounds as he cried. Tony didn’t even bother to try to pull the boy’s fingers out of his mouth. He figured that was a severe coping mechanism. He gently rubbed the boy’s hair hoping to calm him down.

Tony could only imagine how much hurt the boy was feeling.

At least when he had to leave everything behind he had his mom. He couldn’t imagine having to do it by himself. Looking up he saw his mother standing in the doorway. He gave a soft smile before shaking his head. Turning she left the room quietly closing the door behind her. He knew in the morning there would be a fresh plate of cookies waiting on them.

In just a short amount of time it seemed that his mom had become as attached to Peter as he had to her.

Tony smiled to himself, Peter wasn't alone in this.

In fact he had more people than he would ever need.

~/~

After almost an hour Peter’s sobs turned into sniffles. The boy turned himself toward Tony’s chest simultaneously melting his heart and breaking it. Peter was naturally an affectionate child, but he knew this level meant the boy was distraught. “You want something to drink?”

Peter shook his head against Tony’s now damp chest. “Can I go to bed?” Tony gave him another kiss on his hair before rubbing his back.

“Of course. Do you want me to stay?”

“Please?” He smiled and slid into the bed letting Peter lay on his side. Peter wasted no time nestling himself into Tony’s side and gripped his shirt tightly. Quietly he wrapped his arm around Peter smiling when the boy in turn grabbed his hand.

The kid was going into attachment mode. One of Sam’s therapist friends had advised him that under extreme stress Peter might start to engage in actions that were similar to a leech.

In short he’d subconsciously seek physical comfort due to fear of being abandoned. Sometimes Tony saw this with the boy trying to hold his hand or wanting to be held. So far though it had never been as bad as it was right now.

He seemed hellbent on never letting Tony go.

In some ways it warmed his heart because Peter was still a baby in a way that Harley wasn’t. Yet while he loved it, the problem still devastated him.

Peter sought him out because he was afraid the man would leave him too.

What ten year old needed to carry that fear?

“Did she ask you to tell me anything?” The little voice jarred him out of his thoughts. Tony looked down at his son. “If she came back to see you she’s,” he let out a watery cough, “probably not coming back for a while.” Tony could hear a steady stream of tears forming behind the boy’s eyes.

“Yes, she did.”

Peter perked up. “Really?”

“Topino, she actually left some things for you.,One thing in particular.” he said pulling out the phone and gently handing it to the boy who sat up in the bed. Peter took the basic phone and examined it. Once he turned it on he moved through the apps quickly without a word. “She said some recordings were on there.” The boy navigated to the recordings app and gasped, turning to look at Tony with a ghost of a smile.

“Look! It’s so many!” Tony leaned forward in shock himself. Pepper had left him almost one hundred messages!

Unable to help himself Peter’s little fingers clicked on the oldest message and let it play. “Hey doodle bug,” Pepper’s voice rang out filling the room. “Mama loves you a bunch. Today was hard, but when I think of you it gets better. I know you’re having a great time with Mr. Stark. I trust him and I know you do too. He’ll keep you safe Petey so listen to him for me. Baby, I miss you so much, but I know you’re happy where you are. If all goes well, I think you’re going to get to hear these soon and I want you to know that’s great! I’m going to record a bunch of these to help me get to talk to you even though you’re not here. I want you to know that every time I think about Legos or see a toaster I always think of you.” A pause rang out into the room. Tony feared the recording had cut out, but then he heard Pepper sniff. “My little builder man. There are so many things I see that make me think of you. I hope you have something that makes you think of me. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye better, but just know that you’re always my number one guy. Remember that even though we are apart our love has an endless reach. Love Mama,” she said as the recording ended. Peter toyed with the phone in his hand for a moment before leaning back and relaxing into Tony’s arms. He turned the phone on and slipped it into his pocket of his shorts.

“She’s going to be ok. She’s strong,” Peter said. Smiling down at his son, Tony adjusted himself again so that they could both lay flat on the bed. He was exhausted and he could tell Peter was too. “Dad?”

“Yeah, bud.”

“I’m glad Mama chose you.” Tony’s smile increased.

“Me too, Topino. Me too.”

~/~

“This better be good news.”

“We found her.” Eric sat up in his bed smiling.

“How soon?”

“As early as tomorrow. We intercepted her trying to flee the country.” Laying back Eric glanced at the empty side of the bed. It’d been too long without her by his side and now that was finally coming to an end.

Chapter Text

Part Two

Two Years Later

Tony opened his eyes with a smile. The end of summer was rapidly approaching and he’d already cleared his schedule for the morning.

He climbed out of his bed and let his limbs stretch out. It took him no time at all to tidy himself up and try to make himself look less like a mountain man. Shaking his head he quietly pulled on his wetsuit. A smile crept across his face as he zipped up his zipper.

The boys would have no clue what was going on. The idea had come to him the night before during dinner. The boys had spent the better part of the evening bickering and he felt like he wanted to pull his hair out. Just when he was ready to scream at them he noticed something.

Harley seemed tense and Peter was fidgeting every five seconds.

They were nervous.

This was going to be Peter’s first year of middle school, but it was also his first year carrying the Stark name. It had been a tiring and emotionally grueling process full of technicalities, but he was now Peter Riley Stark.

It was both wonderful and heartbreaking for the boy all at once. He was officially starting a life without his mom while starting one with his dad and brother.

That alone was a recipe for extra anxiety for an already anxious kid.

Which made sense.

Plus Harley was going to the tenth grade and preparing to get his license. Over the last year he’d been working hard to become president of his class and he had hopes of becoming the captain his academic decathlon team. What changed most though was the boy’s new haircut. Gone were his curly blonde locks that made him look both like a typical surfer and the boy Tony had known since before his birth.

While to some it was just a haircut, but for Tony it meant that right before his eyes his baby was becoming a man. The teen made mostly good decisions Harley was constantly trying to tow the line of hard worker and limit pusher. He could be the most perfect kid and then turn into a demon that gnarled and complained over everything. They said it was apart of adolescence but Tony figured it was a sign of the inner turmoil his oldest felt.

The pressure to succeed mixing with the desire to fit in was tearing him apart.

That’s why Tony felt the lightbulb in his head while he chewed on a dinner roll was the perfect solution. So he’d packed the car late last night after the boy’s had passed out.

They were going on an early morning beach trip.

They hadn’t done one in over six months and he couldn’t think of a better time.

Sliding into the hall he decided to wake Peter first. Slipping into the room he could smell the funk from Peter’s laundry hamper instantly. The boy may be twelve, but he was a dirty as ever. Leaning down close to his face he started to tickle his son under his neck. The boy flinched and woke with a startled giggle before pushing Tony’s hands away and glaring.

“What?” Tony chuckled at his son. Teenage attitude was starting to come in full effect.

“Oh I dunno. I just thought we could get so early morning surfing in?” Peter jackknifed up and threw himself out of the bed. Tony had to blink trying to follow the whirling dervish around. Kid was like the Tasmanian Devil.

“Ready!”

“Brush your teeth mongrel.” Peter gave s wicked grin before charging toward his dad.

“I want to kiss you!” Tony shook his head and tried to keep the boy at length. As soon as his youngest opened his mouth he knew his son hadn’t brushed his teeth the night before.

Gross.

“Gosh your mouth is ripe. What do you do brush it once a week?”

“Twice unless I eat onions,” the boy said giggling happily as he tried desperately to get closer to Tony.

“Keep your fangs away from me! I could get rabies!” They continued for a little bit before Tony easily flipped his son over his shoulder and dropped him in his bathroom. “Water, toothpaste, every tooth in your mouth, for three minutes and mouthwash!” He didn’t need to look in the mirror to know that Peter was rolling his eyes.

“You ain’t gotta tell me that,” the boy said unamused.

“You would think not, but Sir Stinks A Lot, I kinda do.” Peter pouted and deflated. Tony sighed knowing he might have gone a bit too far. He walked behind Peter and out his hand on his head. “I’m just messing with you.” He kissed his son’s hair and to his surprise Peter turned around and wrapped his arms around him toothbrush still in his mouth. “What’s wrong?” All Peter could do was shake his head.

Tony took a deep breath and gently started to sing. Peter’s grief over his mom came in waves and at the oddest moments. He couldn’t always trace the trigger but the signs of its effect were well aware.

“I love you.”

“Love you more Petey Pop.” He saw Peter wipe his eyes and continue brushing his teeth.

“Mama used to put on a timer so I would remember how long to brush for.” Tony nodded sadly. “She’s ok, right?”

“As far as we know.” Peter nodded and continued brushing his teeth. The guilt ate at Tony because even without real proof they had reason to believe that she wasn’t ok.

The last time they’d picked up an image it had been almost a year ago and she had a very badly bruised eye that she tried to conceal with sunglasses. Peter didn’t know that and they were all working hard to make sure he didn’t. For all he knew his mama was safe somewhere in the world.

That’s what kept him going and that’s how it needed to be.

~/~

He paddled toward the imagined lineup that he, his dad, and his brother created. They had been surfing for well over two hours and he couldn’t imagine a better way to start his day.

“Alright, Pete let’s head in and get breakfast started,” his dad said. Peter sputtered.

“You said we could go for another hour,” he half whined.

“That was another hour Pete. We need to get some breakfast before the beach gets overrun. Come on,” his dad said paddling toward the shore. Obeying he followed his dad to the sand. He purposefully went slow so he could let the saltwater lap over his face. He let out a longing sigh as he climbed off his board and pulled it into his arms. Once he got up the beach where they’d left their stuff he stuck his board in the sand and ruffled his hair trying to dry it out.

His dad pulled out the cooler and some sticks he must have grabbed when Peter wasn’t looking and started to make a fire. Peter busied himself with finding a soda to drink.

“What’d you bring us,” he asked kneeling next to his dad. Silently he felt himself guided backwards away from the fire by his dad’s calloused hand on his chest.

“Tacos! Eggs, bacon, sausage, peppers, and lots of cheese!” Peter loved the sound of his dad’s breakfast tacos, but he hated that he was being treated like a little kid. Harley got to do so much Peter never got close to. That’s when he noticed it...his brother wasn’t around.

“Where’s Harley?”

“Surfing a couple more waves,” his dad said loading the tacos into the pan. Peter felt his insides churn with anger.

“What? How come I had to come in?” He couldn’t see it, but he knew his dad was rolling his eyes.

“Harley’s been surfing much longer than you and he is a much stronger swimmer.” Peter stood up kicking a clump of sand in frustration.

“So I took swimming lessons all summer last year for nothing.” Peter took note of the sharp look his dad sent him and sighed. “It’s not fair. I wanted to keep surfing but you made me come in. Harley gets to stay out though. Why couldn’t I stay with him?”

“Pete, you’re too young to surf alone, bud.”

“I wouldn’t be alone. Harley would be with me.”

“Peter, he’s skilled yes, but not enough for me to be sure he could save you both successfully. So until I’m sure you can only surf when there’s an adult around.”

“So only Harley can go alone.” His dad rolled his eyes. Peter gruffed as Harley came running up the beach. “I can surf alone. It’s not fair.”

“I’m like a way better surfer than you Mouse. You could drown or worse with those noodle arms.” Reaching his hand into the pan he swiped a burrito still wrapped in foil and instantly dropped it in the sand. “Hot!” Both Peter and his dad started laughing as Harley jumped around.

“What’d you expect? It’s from a pan over a fire!”

“So hot, Dad!” The teen kept jumping before reaching down to pluck the burrito out of the foil. It took several attempts for him to free his breakfast from the hot protective casing. Smiling when his dad handed him his own burrito Peter bit into the cheesy goodness. He didn’t even get to take a second bite before Harley was speaking again. “Oh, Dad Kris is going to the Pit. There’s this new game out. Can I go? I’ll be back for lunch.”

Peter watched their dad grumble as he leaned backward onto the sand silently adjusting himself. “Dad?”

“You’re wearing your wetsuit,” their said said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“I can borrow some of J’s clothes or Kris’. Come on please?” Peter saw his dad mumble under his breath before leaning forward to shake the pan again. “My room is clean and I did the dishes last night.” Peter watched as his dad clearly annoyed grumble again.

“Yeah, but be back by noon I have a meeting and you have to watch your brother.” Harley made an annoyed face while Peter pulled a face of his own.

He hated when they talked about him like he wasn’t there.

“Can’t you drop him off at Jordan’s? I’ll make sure he gets lunch and stuff.”

“No.” Peter knew that subtle change in tone meant the conversation was over. Harley took off down the beach and Peter continued to eat his breakfast burrito.

It was obvious that their dad was sad by Harley leaving. Peter buried his toes in sand. Sometimes he wondered if his dad preferred Harley over him. His brother was smarter, faster, stronger and just better all around.

Not to mention he was their dad’s actual son.

Although his dad never said it, Peter wanted desperately to act like them.

Like a Stark.

Peter tried to be more like Harley, but he failed every time. He was smart but Harley was always smarter. No matter how many awards Peter won Harley always had more. Peter was constantly tripping or knocking something over whereas Harley seemed to glide.

It was a constant struggle.

In the distance he could see Harley standing in a circle with almost a dozen kids around him. Like always Harley was the center of attention. Peter was never the center of attention. In fact he was lucky to get attention at all.

“What are you thinking about Topino?” Glancing up at his dad who was polishing off his second burrito Peter shrugged. “Come on, bud. Talk to me.”

“Do you think when I get older I’ll have friends like that?” His dad follows his eyes toward Harley and his group of friends.

The man shifted a bit closer toward Peter. “Maybe? Why do you ask?”

“Harls is always running off somewhere or having people over. I mean I like my friends but I don’t know if I could do that.”

“Do you know what an introvert is?” Peter shook his head. “What it means is that Harley gets energy from being around people you on the other hand get energy being by yourself. That’s why Harley loves group projects and having those game nights where you prefer to work in your room or talk to Ned via the video game.”

“Oh. So it’s not bad I don’t like that?” His dad chuckled.

“No, it’s not bad at all. It simply means that you’re different.”

“Is that why you baby me?” His dad raised his eyebrows. “I mean because I’m like quiet. Would you baby me if I was like Harley?”

“Peter believe it or not I’m probably always going to baby you.” Unable to help it he frowned. His dad let out a rumbled chuckle and ruffled Peter’s hair.

“Dad,” he whined trying to get the curls out of his eyes.

“Peter, you’re always going to be my baby. Just like Harley. He thinks I baby him.”

“Really?”

“Yep,” his dad said popping the ‘p’. I hear it all the time. Why is my curfew an hour earlier than everybody else’s? Why can’t I go here or there? Blah blah blah.” His dad turned to him smiling. “And you want to know what? I didn’t let him surf with his friends until he was thirteen almost fourteen.”

“Wait? Like when you let me? But he was always going to the beach to surf.”

“He was meeting me there or Happy was watching them.” Peter mouth dropped.

So all along the cool kid he’d been watching for months was actually just a regular kid?

A laugh erupted out of his throat.

“Shocking, huh?”

“Absolutely.”

“Come on Sport, let’s get you home and showered.”

“I took a shower last night.”

“Ugh, one day you’ll learn the fine art of personal hygiene. Until then you’ll just continue to be my stinky little man.”

“Stop, you’re so embarrassing.”

“What? It’s not like there’s anybody around.” Peter grumbled and rolled his eyes. His dad was way more embarrassing than his mom ever was.

~/~

Later that afternoon Peter stood in his room eyeing his project closely. His dad had left them for a meeting about an hour before promising he would be home in time for dinner.

About the same time his dad left, Ned and Flash has gotten dropped off. Peter hated Flash, but he hadn’t tried anything for a while.

Besides he had to focus on the task at hand. He’d spent all summer building and adjusting his theme park model so that it would be perfect for the showcase. All the seventh graders of the new High Tide Prep Academy had to do projects showcase their talents.

Ned was building computer game.

Michelle was creating a historical anthology on women’s rights.

And Peter, well he was making a working theme park out of Legos.

School started in just a couple of days and Peter felt like he was finally ready to unveil it. He’d scoured stores, thrift shops, garage sales, and every avenue to find the perfect pieces.

If you asked him it was a thing of beauty. The tracks were red, the grass was a mixture of blues and greens. He’d used Lego people as the passengers. For weeks he has been working on it and getting help from his dad to make the cart rotate and turn without prompting. Finding the appropriate degree for the angles was difficult, but he had finally gotten it.

It finally worked.

Now he just had to do the final calibrations and video shoots then he’d be all set.

“Hey, you think your dad will let you sleepover tomorrow?” Peter glanced up from behind his camera.

“Nope. My Nonna is coming. We’re all supposed to be here when she’s around.”

“The one who makes the cookies?” Peter rolled his eyes. “Dude! I’ve got to be here! Can she make some more?”

Peter shook his head smiling. Ned’s only concerns were food, games, computers, and games.

“I don’t know. You did almost knock her over last year.”

“That was an accident!”

“Yeah, sure.” Ned grumbled turning back around to the computer. Peter ran a few more tests before he continued getting short video clips to play during his project.

He was kneeling with his camera ready to take a picture when his bedroom door flew open. “Where is it?” Looking up from his spot on the floor Peter gulped at the sudden burst.

“What?” Pushing into the room Harley growled as he stomped forward.

“You know! I told you to stay out of my room!” Harley grunted when he saw the dismantled race car sitting on top of Peter’s diorama. “I paid almost a hundred dollars for that!” Peter backpedaled on his hands as Harley charged forward toward him.

“I’m sorry!” Before Peter could say anything else Harley hit in him the head with his open hand before pushing him roughly to his back. Peter felt a fist right into the side of his stomach and he let out a grunt.

“I’m sick of you touching my stuff!” Another slap came to his face as he tried to push his brother off of him. A final blow to the top of his ribs connected and Peter let out a cry. “Shut up! And you better not tell Dad either,” Harley said shoving Peter back down.

“Hey Harls, where does he keep his cash?” Peter heard his brother grumbling before he pushed him back down. The familiar sound of his desk drawer opening was heard.

“In that thing there.” Peter saw the shiny aluminum Star Wars box open before Flash and started pulling money out.

“No,” he croaked out. “Been saving.” Harley rolled his eyes and put his foot on Peter’s chest shoving him back down.

“How much?”

“Like sixty-two and some coins,” Flash said.

“There’s only sixty here you still owe me twenty,” Harley said as Flashed dropped the container. The teens left his room with a slammed door. Pete could hear Flash and Harley cackling in the hallway before walking down the stairs. Rolling onto his side Peter coughed and curled into himself.

Peter desperately wanted to cry. It hurt so bad and now he didn’t have the money to go to the water park with Ned and MJ. He really wanted to cry as he rolled over but he couldn’t. Not with his friend sitting just a few feet away. He slowly pulled himself up into a sitting position and gritted his teeth.

“It’s ok if you want to cry. Sometimes I cry when Flash beats me up,” Ned said. “I won’t think of you differently.” Peter shook his head.

“N-No I’m ok. Just need a minute.” Peter held his ribs and finally managed to fall onto his bed.

“You gonna tell your dad?”

“No.”

“Really? Come on. He stole from you and beat you up.”

“What am I gonna say Ned? Dad I took Harley’s car and used it for my project after he said not to so he beat me up and took my money. Don’t ground me for starting this.” Ned shrugged before turning back to the game.

“You’ve got a point. Why did you take it if he said no?”

“It was perfect. I didn’t think he’d notice.”

“You said he kept it on his shelf in his room, right?” Peter nodded rubbing his sore ribs. “Why wouldn’t he notice it was gone? Dude you ask to get caught.”

“Thanks Ned, you’re like mud best friend ever,” he said sarcastically.

“I’m just a guy in a chair telling you the truth.”

“Whatever,” Peter said launching the pillow at Ned.

~/~

Peter’s eyes shot up darting around the room. He knew he heard a noise, but there was nothing there. Falling backward he landed in his sheets and snuggled into them. That’s when he noticed it...why were the rockets? He hadn’t had rocket sheets in years.

Sitting up he looked around. He was back in Arizona!

How’d he get here?

“Dad!” He tried to kick himself free of the sheets but it didn’t work. His legs felt like cement. “Dad! Help me!” The door flew open and he saw the harrowing silhouette appear.

“I told you to shut up with that crying!” Peter felt his breath catching.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped out. Eric shook his head. Peter gulped seeing the white towel wrapped around his hand. “Really, I’ll be quiet I swear!” The man shook his head and charged forward.

“Help!” Peter felt himself thrown to the floor.

“Shut up!” He cried out as the first blow came.

“Petey, baby wake up!” Peter’s thrashed covered his hands with his face.

“I’m sorry!” His eyes popped open and darted wildly around the room. As soon as they landed on Tony they stilled and Peter sagged with relief.

It was just a dream.

“Dad,” he sighed out leaning forward into his hold.

“What’s the matter Topino?”

“It felt so real.” He closed his eyes as he felt his dad’s hands rubbing circles on his back. His heart felt like it was coming out of his chest.

He was so glad that he was with his dad now. Nightmares were met with hugs and assurances instead of threats.

“You’re sweating buddy. Do you want to take a shower?”

“I’m ok. Just stay a second,” he said leaning forward. His dad held him close and he calmed himself with listening to the steady thrum of his dad’s heartbeat. He let out an involuntary whine when his dad broke the hug.

“Hold on just one second buddy.” He kept his eyes closed and tried to remind himself that he was at home with his dad.

He was safe.

A cool cloth was placed on the back of his neck. He leaned into the cool feeling. It was so relaxing. He felt his class arms wrap around him again and he let himself embrace the hug.

After a few quiet minutes his dad rubbed his back. “You feeling better?” Letting go he sat back and took a deep breath.

“Y-Yeah, I think so.” He closed his eyes and blinked a few times. These days couldn’t see very well in the dark without his glasses. His dad must have figured it out because the frames were slipped onto his face.

When he looked around he saw Harley standing in a pair of shorts looking guilty. He was quietly standing in the doorway looking like he’d literally rather be anywhere else.

“Ready to talk about it?” Gulping Peter shook his head. “Come on bud. You know talking about it helps you.” He let out a long sigh.

“Just happened, I guess.” He could see in his dad’s eyes that he didn’t believe him, but he still gave him a gentle squeeze anyway.

“You think you ok to go back to sleep?” Peter bit his lip. He’d really prefer not to go to sleep at least not alone anyway. “Or do you want me to stay with you until you fall asleep?” Ugh, that was a hard question. Peter didn’t want to be alone at all. But he was about to be a seventh grader. That was way too old to need his dad sleeping with him.

What would his friends say if they knew?

“I’m ok,” he said shakily. He internally groaned.

Stupid shaky voice!

His dad wasn’t going to believe him at all. Sure enough the man rolled his eyes and made a move to slide into Peter’s bed. “No, Dad, I’m ok, really,” Peter said trying again.

“You know there’s no shame in needing some help. Especially when you’re hiding something or having a hard time dealing with the things that have been inflicted on you. Isn’t that right Harley?” Peter grabbed his blanket in defeat.

Man, his dad was good.

“Oh yeah, uh sure,” his brother said. Their dad clapped his hands together.

“We’re gonna have a sleepover right here. Harley go get a blanket and a pillow. You’ll sleep up top and me and Pete will share his bed. Now scooch,” his dad said sliding him toward the wall.

“Dad, really,” he tried to get out, but was met with one of his dad’s calloused fingers pressing his lips together.

“Nope. I’ve made my judgement.” Sighing Peter allowed himself to slide back down into the bed. Peter moved to make himself comfortable while his dad did the same.

“I know you had a spat with your brother earlier.” Peter didn’t say anything. “I’m going to talk to him, but you have to talk to me too. I can’t help you if you don’t let me.”

“I’m ok, really.”

“Sure. Kid you haven’t screamed like that in years.” Peter felt his ears burning red. He was about find a response when Harley shuffled into the room carrying a pillow and a sleeping bag.

“Uh Harls, there are sheets on his bed,” their dad said.

“Peter, how many baths did you take last week?” Rolling his eyes Peter reached for his Switch. “That’s what I thought,” his brother said climbing up to the top bunk.

“Look at this, my two boys in the same room? You know I’ve been thinking about this summer,” their dad said.

“You mean this summer as in the one that’s gone or like next summer?” Peter smiled at his brother while the game flickered to life.

“Next summer, smarty pants. I was thinking we can go back to Italy with Nonna or maybe somewhere in Mexico. What do you boys think?” Peter shrugged, he’d never been out of the country.

“How about Disney?”

“Oh my God, could you be anymore of a baby? Disney? We just spent a week there over Christmas,” Harely said leaning over the side of the bunk. “What about Mexico? That sounds awesome.”

“What do you think Pete,” their dad asked looking at him. Peter thought for a moment and then shrugged.

“I don’t really care as long as we’re together,” he said thoughtfully. His dad smiled at him while Harley fake gagged.

“You’re like a Hallmark card!” Their dad used his free hand to smack the wooden side rail of the bunk effectively silencing the older boy.

“Well we’ve got some time, yeah? Why don’t we all try and get some rest? Got to soak in those last couple days of summer.”

Peter felt the game slip out of his hands followed quickly by his glasses. His dad leaned down and kissed the side of his head. “Night treasures,” their dad said.

“Has he always been this weird,” Peter asked.

“No, this is the reformed version,” Harley said snickering.

~/~

The last few days of summer had blown by. Peter didn’t get to go to the water park with his friends and that sucked, but his Uncle Jimmy surprised him by taking him to Legloand.

To a normal twelve year old that would suck, but to Peter it was like a haven.

His Uncle Jimmy was an engineer just like his dad and a pilot before he retired from the military. He was now going to be Peter’s science teacher. It was kind of odd to think about, but Peter just tried to keep his head down.

He loved science anyway and maybe having his uncle nearby could help him fly under the radar. Yawning he stretched before making sure his bag was packed.

Harley walked into his room with a yawn of his own. The door to his room was open as it typically was in the mornings. Peter was a deep sleeper and his dad liked to pop in several times to make sure that he was up.

“You ready?” Peter looked down at his clothes. He was wearing a pair of skinny blue jeans and a gray short sleeved button up. His sneakers were pale gray. He’d tried really hard to match. It was something he’d been working on for a while. Usually his dad helped him when Peter actually wanted to try, but most days he just threw on whatever. There were way too many fashion rules for him to remember.

It all sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

“I guess. Kinda nervous.” Harley let let out a soft chuckle.

“You’re starting at a brand new school, you should be nervous. If you weren’t I’d wonder who traded you in for a more normal model,” he said, smirking. “Come on, let me help you tame this mop.”

Peter followed Harley into his bathroom and stood by the sink while his brother started the process of gelling Peter’s hair. “I thought you were mad at me.”

“Oh, I am, but I can’t have you looking like a fool on your first day. You’re a Stark now, gotta show them who’s in charge.”

Peter took a deep breath, over the summer he’d officially become a Stark legally getting his name changed. He wasn’t sure of the legal part, but he knew that by law he was now his dad’s son just as much as Harley was.

Turning to look up at his much taller brother Peter felt a rush of insecurity. Harley was tan, fit, and so confident. Peter was none of those things. He was just under five feet tall and weighed a bit over eighty pounds. His pediatrician told his dad that he should eat more vegetables and suggested that he continue to drink Pediasure, the vitamin supplement daily.

In short, Peter was a runt.

And apparently he always would be.

Harley’s hair was perfect and even with his brother’s help Peter still looked like a cheap copy of him. “I’m never gonna be cool like you,” Peter said sadly looking back at the mirror.

“Of course not, I’m an original.” Peter’s shoulders slouched. “ All you can hope to be is Peter. Because he’s pretty cool too.” Peter stood just a bit taller at the words.

“If anybody messes with you let me know.”

Peter winced slightly as the comb ran through one of his knotted curls. “I’ll be ok,” he said recovering.

“Yeah, little brother you will.” Looking up, he smiled at his brother.

No matter their differences Peter knew he could always count on Harley.

~/~

“Alright Petey Pop,” his dad said pulling Peter’s bike off of the Jeep and setting it down in front of him.

“Remember how to get to Happy’s?”

“Yes. I’ve got it. We’ve practiced and you put a map on my phone. I promise I remember.”

“If you get tired or you don’t feel good remember just text Uncle Jimmy and he’ll take you home. Ok?” Peter put his hand on dad’s shoulder.

“I’ve got it. No worries.” His dad chuckled.

“Ok, I’m hovering, right?”

“Full on helicopter, but I get it.” His dad stood up before leaning down to give Peter a kiss. Quickly he backed away and put his hands on his dad’s chest pushing him away. “Dad! Stop! No!”

“Oh, sorry Topino. I forgot middle school means no more hugs and kisses for me. Ugh, my baby is turning into a teenager. You were my last hope.” His dad gave a melodramatic moan before falling playfully backward. “Go on become a man while I go cry over your baby pictures.” Peter rolled his eyes.

“You don’t have my baby pictures.”

“Oh but my bouncy baby boy, I do. I sure do. I have my Petey Pop from birth until now, so play with it.” His dad gave him a smile. “Go and do great, Pete. I’ll see you after school at Happy’s ok?”

“Yes, Dad. I’ll be there waiting on you. Can we go see a movie?”

“I tell you what, you finish your homework and we’ll call it a deal.”

“Sounds like a plan.” He saw his dad lingering there not knowing what to do and Peter made an executive decision. He wasn’t going to be cool anyway. He gave his dad a hug knowing a slew of kids were still standing around outside the front doors. “I love you dad.”

“I love you too buddy. Go rock their socks off!”

“Ugh, Dad you’re so corny!” He watched his dad get in the Jeep and pull off. Out of nowhere Ned appeared with a stupid grin on his face.

“Your dad got you, huh? My mom tried to snot all over me. I had to tuck and roll before the van stopped.” Peter rolled his eyes.

“Being the youngest kinda sucks.”

“Totally.” As they walked in the door they caught up on the crazy last day of summer they had. Things seemed pretty awesome as they headed to their homeroom.

“If it is isn’t Penis and his friend the Buffet Killer.” Peter groaned.

“How’d he get in here,” Peter hissed. Barrett Malone hadn’t been a real issue for them in two years. After the last day of school incident he’d left them alone. Never uttering a word to them.

Now though it seemed at a new school he felt a freedom he didn’t know he had before which was bad for Peter.

Very bad.

The now extremely lanky boy approached them with his new crew of followers. Peter glanced at Ned who looked just as shell-shocked as him.

“What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Peter whispered to his best friend. “I’m too young to die.”

“So, looks like we’ll be seeing a lot of each other with this school being a consolidation and all. Five wonderful years together. Isn’t it great?” Peter gulped and felt his neck prickle with sweat. “Don’t think I forgot about our last rendezvous Penis. Big brother isn’t here now, is he?”

“Shouldn’t you boys be headed to class?” Peter sighed with relief at the voice.

“Sure, we were just leaving,” Barrett said smiling. “I just wanted to say hi to these guys. I hadn’t seen them all summer.”

“Is that so? Well, I guess you’ll have to catch up another time. If my memory serves me correctly, and it always does you boys should be in the green hall with the eighth graders, am I right?”

“Yes, sir.” Barett and his friends went off toward the opposite hall. Turning around Peter let out a big sigh of relief.

“Thanks Uncle Jimmy,” Peter said. The man smiled and put a gentle hand on Peter’s shoulder. He was wearing a pair of firmly pressed khaki pants and a blue polo.

“It’s Mr. Rhodes, here Pete.” He gave a nod.

“Right. Definitely going to work on that.” His uncle gave them a smile.

“Get to class ok? Don’t want to have to give my baby nephew detention his first day,” he said walking off to continue monitoring the hall.

“Peter thank God your uncle works here otherwise we’d be roadkill,” Ned said smiling and looking at the wall of lockers.

“Oh trust me, I know.”

The rest of the day passed by without incident. Just as expected, he shared four of his six classes with Ned and three with Michelle. Things seemed to be working well for him and he was excited for the new year.

He and Ned found themselves sitting in the back of Mr. Rhodes science class learning expectations of being a seventh grader in a streamlined science program. Most of the information he’d already been prepped for by his dad, but he still tried to pay attention fearing an end of the class pop quiz.

Glancing to his right he saw a navy blue car sitting on the street across from the school. It looked nice enough, but what caught his eye was the bright reddish blonde hair peering out of the windshield. Leaning forward, he tried to get a better look at the driver. The face was concealed pretty good by the big wrap sunglasses, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of the person.

Trying to get a better look he cleaned his new glasses frantically before putting them back on his face.

A million thoughts whizzed through his mind.

....It couldn’t be.

“Ned,” he said quietly poking his friend. “Do you see that car?” His friend glanced over.

“Yeah, what about it?” Peter wanted to tell Ned everything, but he heard the front of the room go silent.

“Mr. Stark? Mr. Leeds?” Shaking himself free he turned back to see his scowling uncle.

“Sorry, Mr. Rhodes.”

“Sorry Uncle Jimmy,” the man’s frown deepened. “I mean Mr. Rhodes.”

“This is very detailed stuff, you need to stay focused Peter. You too Ned.” They nodded.

“Yes, sir. Won’t happen again,” he said drastically trying to not stare at the car that seemed to be taunting him. Just his luck though, it drove away just moments later.

As hard as he tried he couldn’t focus.

Had that been who he thought it was?

~/~

Tony was sitting in his desk at his office trying to relax a bit. It’d been a long morning of meetings and back to school craziness. Things were finally settled and he was beyond excited to get his brats out his hair.

Did he love them? Of course.

Was he over them fighting, eating him out of house and home, and generally being loud for fourteen hours everyday? Absolutely!

If he could have he would have dropped them off at three in the morning.

His phone started to beep on his desk. That was a bit odd, most people called his cell phone. “Steve? What’s up?”

“We’re coming up right now and we’ve got to talk. Are you alone?” Tony instantly tensed.

“Is it about her?” Just as he finished asking the question the door to his office opened revealing Steve and Bucky with solemn looks on their faces.

“You’ve checked this place for bugs, right?” Tony nodded at Bucky’s question.

“Did a sweep this morning, why?” Silently he was handed a set of photos. “What is this?” Steve and Bucky kept their faces firm.

He took a deep breath fearing for the worst, but when he got a good look at the picture his heart stopped cold in his chest.

Chapter Text

Tony would have fallen out of his chair if he wasn’t already sitting down.

It couldn’t be.

The more he stared the more freaked out he became.

It just couldn’t be.

On his desk were three photos taunting him. Calling him a fool….Saying he’d been played.

Each one was like a punch to the face.

A woman with distinguishable hair was staring at him in every picture.

Her sitting with a very determined look on her face making phone calls.

Another was of the woman handing an envelope to a man in a bar.

The last one was the one that made him question everything he thought he knew was true…the woman was sitting in a car outside of Happy’s restaurant looking inside.

A marble wedged itself deep in the back of his throat as sweat formed against his neck.

What gripped him with fear wasn’t what was in the picture, but who.

“Is this her,” he gasped out still staring at the desk.

Bucky took a step forward but Tony didn’t look up. He couldn’t stop staring at the photos in front of him. “Virginia Laurent? Pepper Potts? No, this is Ellen Brandt, wife of Royal Brandt.” That shocked him making his head snap up to look at the dark haired man.

His throat felt like it was closing up. Leaning forward he shook his head in disbelief. He looked down at the pictures then up again before back down at the images.

None of this was making any sense.

Pepper’s name is Ellen? “I’m confused. They weren’t married. Are you sure this is her? I mean she ran from him like disappeared into thin air twice just to get away from him. They’re married? No, that doesn't make any sense.”

Steve sighed as he crossed his arms over his chest in the corner of the room. Tony could tell by the firm look on his face that Steve was getting ready to say something he’d want to punch him for. Letting out a tense breath he tried to brace himself for whatever was coming next. “Looks like they changed their identities again,” Steve said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

The words hung in the air, making the whole situation that much more real. This wasn’t a dream or a hallucination.

This was reality.

And reality was hell right now.

Then he realized what he had just said. Tony leaned forward before speaking. “Stop. Wait? What do you mean, again?” Bucky glanced at Steve as if they were having a silent conversation between them. The silent interaction made Tony’s heart pound rapidly in his chest.

They were hiding something.

“This involves my son, so just tell me what’s going on!” Yet again he saw Bucky urging Steve silently to speak. He started to grind his teeth. “What is it, Rogers?”

The blonde haired man took a step forward and squared his shoulders. “Tony, I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I was working undercover,” Steve said quietly.

“And? You do that a lot. It’s part of being a private investigator, right?” Steve only shrugged and that was when Tony realized what he meant.

What!

Tony’s face must have turned red or something because Steve suddenly looked very scared and very apologetic. “Let me explain. See, I’m retired from the military, but I do some freelance on the side. The Rangers they don’t pay so great. You know how that goes. Well, I got an assignment to get close to Pepper.” Inside his chest Tony’s heart was hammering. “I got close to her, but I didn’t think we’d actually get that close, I guess.” The man sighed and ran a hand through his hair before continuing. “Anyway, I found out pretty early on that Pepper wasn’t in fact her real name and that she knew more than she was letting on. She’s got a history, Tony.” Biting his lip Tony was desperately trying not to wail on Steve. “She was definitely battered, but she wasn’t innocent.” That was it. Charging forward Tony was going to rip Steve’s head off.

“You bastard! How could you do that to them? They were running for their lives and you were living among them like a snake in the grass!” Bucky stepped in to restrain him but Tony was having none of it.

“That’s the point Tony! You have to infiltrate in order to break a case!”

“You didn’t infiltrate or the case! You were dating her!” Tony continued to try and shove his way past Bucky. So many thoughts were swirling through his mind. “You treated Peter like you cared for him when he was just a ploy! Who does that?” Another thought crossed his mind and he saw red. “When she first left you wanted Peter. You raised such an issue over it.” He scoffed. “I actually thought about letting him go with you too. Glad I went with my gut.” Just when he thought he had no fight left another thought crossed his mind and he lunged at Steve again. “You just wanted to continue your assignment so you could get paid! He’s a child! Not your meal ticket!”

“Tony calm down! Hear him out,” Bucky urged.

He was frantically trying to break free of Bucky's hardened grip. “No! My son was devastated and he had information that could help and he didn’t say anything! I should kill you now Rogers!” Steve moved across the room out of the reach of Tony who was now actually in striking distance. “How could you do that to him?”

“He had no choice, Tony,” Bucky said tightening his grip as Tony tried to pull away. “He was bound by law not to say anything. The case was still open. It wasn’t just the local authorities Tony, this was the FBI.” Tony stopped struggling and took a deep breath.

“What,” he managed to push out.

“The FBI. They came to us a couple of days after Pepper arrived,” Bucky said. “We had next to nothing to go off of. We just knew she had a kid and was probably hiding something. I know what you’re thinking. We weren’t trying to keep this all from you, but we have obligations and court ordered gags. Don’t blame Nat. She didn’t know at the time, but she found out later. We all had to work together toward the end.” He moved back toward his desk and glared at Steve. Dropping into his chair he landed like a sack of potatoes.

Some friends he had.

“I didn’t know much going in Tony, really. I mean yes I knew she was probably on the run, but I had to put the pieces together. We didn’t know what level of involvement she had or if we even had the right person. I promise if I had known that she was going to run or that she would go missing I would have said something, but once she did, I was just as lost as you. As for Peter, I’m ashamed that you’re right. I wasn’t thinking of him, just of what he could do for me.” Leaning forward he buried his face into his hands.

God, he was tired. So very tied. Completely over Steve he skipped pleasantries and leveled him with a tired question, “You kept investigating her? Knowing she was running for her life. You kept investigating her?”

“It’s not just her Tony, it’s their company,” Bucky said. Tony turned to look at the man who looked just as shell-shocked as Tony felt. “All along we knew that Eric or whoever had used multiple names or aliases. We never considered that Pepper or Virginia or whoever had been using them as well. She’s no amateur Tony. There was a reason we couldn’t find her.” Bucky took a deep breath. “That’s why you had such a hard time changing Peter’s documents. Peter Potts never existed, his name is Peter Benjamin Laurent II.”

The world felt like it was shaking all around him. Had anything she told him been true? Had his friends ever really given him any information that could help him find Pepper, for real?

Steve stepped forward cautiously as he spoke, “This team is known on the underground circuits as masters of disguise with very ruthless practices.”

There were so many thoughts whirling around in his head, but he’d lost the ability to be surprised. Almost he or held close knew had betrayed him. He felt so very numb.

“Tony, we don’t know if it’s really her even though Buck’s pretty sure it is, but you’ve got to know that if it is her she is very dangerous,” Steve said. “They call her ‘The Phoenix’. She specializes in making people disappear only their assets reappear in her possession.”

Tony was still in a daze. “And what do you think that means,” he said with his eyes falling onto the pictures yet again.

“They could have left to regroup.”

“Ok, and?”

“She could be coming for Peter,” Bucky said finally. “Last year they were in Chicago, but for some reason they set up nearby in Long Beach a couple months ago.” Tony shook his head.

“And you think she’s after Peter?”

Bucky gave a non committed shrug. “It makes sense. I mean why else would they move back to an area where people are actively looking for them?”

“It’s got to be Peter, Tony,” Steve said. He heard the words, but his heart was beating too fast to make sense of it. “And if she comes, I’m afraid you won’t stand a chance.”

“What? No, she gave me full custody and changed his birth certificate. He’s my son now,” Tony said trying to calm himself down. He could tell though that neither Steve nor Bucky agreed.

“Maybe she doesn’t see it that way,” Bucky tried. As a response, Tony glared at the dark haired man.

Steve’s ever present rationale decided to shine through. “You know Tony if she comes for him at best you’ll get joint custody. At best. That is if she choose the court system.” Tony gripped his desk tightly and shook his head.

“She’s not coming for him,” he demanded.

Steve glared back. “What if she does?” Tony sucked in s deep breath.

“Then I’ll tell the judge she abandoned her son,” he said almost choking on the words.

This wasn’t some tv show. This was their lives and if destroying Pepper meant saving his son then that’s what he would do.

This would not destroy Peter.

A tense silence fell over the room as all of the men gathered in their thoughts. He thought back to that night on the beach. How desperate Pepper had been. How she’d held him when she cried for her son. How could this be the same woman?

The striking chime of the grandfather clock in the corner of the room slammed him back into reality.

Pepper was back and so was Eric. Did they just want to scare him? Was there a reason they were so close to him and his family? Was Pepper watching them to take Peter? His brain sputtered again.

What was he going to tell Peter?

The thoughts flew at lightning speed. The family he’d worked so hard to knit together may be on the verge of falling apart.

He lifted his head briefly to take a deep breath. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Steve and Bucky leaving the small room. “We’ll keep an eye on things, but be careful. Keep the kid close to you,” Steve said. “If she’s really here, we have to assume there’s a reason.”

As Tony watched the door close, a feeling settled in his chest. For the first time since the day she’d left their lives he wished that Pepper Potts would have never come back.

~/~

The final bell rang and Peter and Ned were so happy to be free. They’d gotten out of the day with minimal homework and he was sure his dad would let him go to Ned’s house to hang out with MJ and some of their friends. It would be safer than riding to Happy’s. His dad would probably do a dance. He’d been none too excited when Peter mentioned he wanted to ride his bike home after school. It took weeks of pleading and begging but they came up with a compromise. He could ride to Happy’s and not an inch further.

He was fine with that.

His dad was a textbook helicopter parent. So any inch of freedom Peter could get he would happily take.

“Come on, let’s go ask your mom. I’m sure my dad will say it’s ok,” Peter said as they shuffled out of the door. They were headed toward their lockers when Peter heard the door to the room they’d just left open.

“Peter?” He turned around and saw his Uncle Jimmy looking at him with a serious face.

“Yes? Did I forget something?” His uncle shook his head and motioned for Peter to come closer. As he approached the man he started to get a little scared.

“Is everything ok?”

“Yeah Mouse, your dad just called me. He wants you to ride home with me today. He’ll pick you up from my house.” Peter groaned not caring how whiny he sounded.

“I was going to ask to go home with Ned.”

“Sorry kid,” his uncle said laying his hand on his shoulder. Peter glanced at Ned who looked like he’d heard everything.

Peter adjusted the straps on his backpack and bit his lip. Maybe he could ask Uncle Jimmy to just drop him off at Ned’s. “Did he say why?”

“No, and I don’t think you should ask. He seemed pretty stressed out.” His uncle pulled him in for a quick side hug. “Hey, I’ll let you order that gross Hawaiian pizza you like, what do you say?”

“Sure, Uncle Jimmy,” he said defeated. Peter glanced back at Ned who gave him a sad wave. He mouthed ‘tonight’ and turned back around.

So much for middle school freedom.

He took a deep breath and followed his uncle back inside his classroom where the man closed the door before pulling down the shade. It struck Peter as odd, but he didn’t think too much of it.

This was literally the exact opposite of how he wanted to spend the first day of seventh grade. His friends were at an impromptu party and here he was stuck inside the stupid science class.

He let himself lean forward on the desk and sighed, maybe he’d get another look at that car from before.

~/~

Tony climbed up the steps toward his boys’ rooms and did his best not to collapse. His whole day had gotten wrecked by that news. Instead of working on his proposals he was trying to uncover as much as he could about Ellen Brandt. He realized that Happy and Jimmy were the only ones he could really trust. The rest of them had been self serving turncoats. Between the three of them they’d been able to find out more than they wanted to know.

None of it had been good. Between the Brandts they’d stolen millions of dollars and were wanted for money laundering, fraud, and more crimes than anyone could count.

Maybe she was like a Black Widow.

He scrubbed his hand down his face. There was going to be no easy way to tell his son that his mom was a criminal.

How did things end up this way? This morning his biggest worry was his little mouse getting off to middle school and now he was dealing with an international criminal.

Fabulous.

Before he could finish processing his very pissed off twelve year old opened his bedroom door. The glare that met him was enough to drop a herd of elephants. He could see that Peter had been toying with an old tablet. He must have been trying to fix something else up for Michelle. A smile crossed his lips; his little boy had a crush. “Come to tuck me in,” Peter snarled. Shaking his head and following Peter into the room Tony whistled.

“You kiss your Nonna with that mouth,” he asked as he kicked a pair of dirty shorts out of his path. All he got in response was a glare. “You’re real mad, huh?”

“I’m not a baby just so you know,” he grumbled. “Even though you treat me like one I’m not.”

Tony was so not in the mood for this. “Ok? What is your problem?”

“You made Uncle Jimmy take me home after you promised I could ride my bike. It’s not fair. You didn’t even let me try,” Peter half whined.

Oh, that.

In all of the craziness he’d completely forgotten about that.

“It’s fine, Peter,” he said gruffly. “Something came up, ok?”

“No, it’s not ok! You made me look like a baby in front of Ned and MJ! We were going to go to his house and have a party and play games. They all had fun without me. I wanted to go but no once again Peter the baby can’t because he has to go home. You make me miss everything!”

“Mouse, come on. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“Can I ride my bike tomorrow?” Obviously Peter was ignoring him. He really didn’t want to scare Peter or give him anything else to worry about. Not yet anyway. For now, he had to lie. Tony took a deep breath. This was going to suck.

“No. I’ll drop you off and Uncle Jimmy or Happy will take you home.” Pete’s mouth hung open in shock before forming into a deadly scowl.

“You let Harley walk home when he was my age. Why am I so different?”

“Peter. Sometimes you have to just trust me. I promise one day I’ll let you ride to school. I’m just not ready yet.”

“So you lied? Just great. All summer I was so excited and you lied to me. Hypocrite.”

Tony was caught off guard. He should have expected Peter to be snappish, but he drew a very bold line at insults. “What did you just call me?” Peter seemed to realize his error.

“Nothing. Sorry.”

“How about you come help me with dinner? It’s chicken carbonara,” he said trying to salvage the situation. Today had been a big day for Peter. He wanted happy memories, not these awful ones Tony had to carry. “You’re my favorite helper. Nonna and I fight over you all the time.” Peter gave an obvious eye roll.

“I’ve got homework,” he said coldly. Tony knew that was a lie. Jimmy has already told him Peter had done it when he was waiting for them to leave the school earlier. Tony felt a sudden sense of anger flash up. Pepper and Eric didn’t get to ruin this day for them. He stood up. Peter started middle school today. That was a big deal and Tony would go to his grave before he let anyone ruin this day for his son.

No, Peter Stark was going to remember this day forever.

“Come on,” he urged motioning Peter to follow him.

Peter sighed loudly before answering him.“Where are we going?”

“I think we can get some burgers and ride the four wheelers for a bit. What do you think?” He watched the curly haired boy bite his lip in deep thought before speaking.

“Can I ride by myself?” Tony really wanted to say no. The kid was weak and had noodles for arms, but as he looked into the hopeful little face who’d had so much disappointment that day he just couldn’t.

“Yeah, bud. Let’s go.”

~/~

Tony carried his drugged up baby in his arms as he walked down the long hallway where Dr. Bruce Banner was finishing up his rounds.

His long day had gotten even worse. After piling into the Jeep he took Peter for an impromptu dinner of burgers, fries, and shakes. Once that was over he took Peter to the shed and pulled out the smaller and less powerful four wheeler. He plopped the helmet on Peter’s head with a strong reminder to stay in the trail and to not push the device. As soon as he turned around Peter had already taken off going faster than Tony would have liked. He took off on his own up the hill. Things were going well for about fifteen minutes. Then he heard the sound no parent wants to hear...their child screaming. He’d climbed off his four wheeler and ran up toward the sound. His stomach plummeted as he saw the small boy clutching his arm and crying out for him.

This had really turned into the day from hell.

Now almost two hours later, Peter, had a left wrist casted in red plaster and was sleeping soundly on his shoulder.

If the boy has been awake he would have pitched a fit about being babied, but with those heavy duty painkillers he got to carry his baby for a little bit. Plus it gave him added privacy while discussing a very sensitive topic.

“Hi Tony! It’s been a long time. How are you and Maya?” Tony winced and held up his empty hand. No wedding ring.

“Divorced.”

“Oh, uh sorry. Things get crazy around here. Sometimes I lose days while other times I lose years,” the eccentric doctor said between bites of his sandwich. “So what can I do for you?”

“I uh need you to look at these pictures,” Tony said handing Bruce the pictures he’d been carrying in his pocket. “I know you see a lot of patients, but can you remember this lady?” Bruce looked at the pictures and stopped instantly.

“Oh yeah! This is Ellen I think. Names are fuzzy for me, but I remember her case well. She came into the hospital as a Jane Doe early last year.” Bruce tapped his lip in thought.

“Ok.”

“If I remember correctly she was found wandering around barefoot off some highway I can’t remember That's all I can tell you. Even that's probably too much.” Tony felt his heart clench at the thought. He had to know exactly what had happened. It could be the only way to save Peter.

"Do you know anything else? This case is really riding on the smallest of details." The doctor stared at him hard with pursed lips. For a moment Tony thought for sure the man would tell him to beat it, but instead the man sighed.

“It was bad. She was malnourished, had a bunch of bruises like she’d been beat up.” Peter started to stir before Tony bounced gently and rubbed his head a couple of times. This would be the absolute worst time for Peter to wake up.

“Wan’ go home,” the boy murmured.

“Real soon, bud. Get some sleep,” Tony said quietly praying the drugs worked like they should. In seconds Peter was out again slumped completely dead weigh against his chest. He gave a few more pats to seal the deal and smiled when the boy didn't stir again. When Tony looked up the doctor was smiling at him. “Sorry, uh please go on. Is there anything else you can remember about her? I’m trying to figure some things out.” He noticed the funny look on Bruce’s face before the man shrugged.

“Well, she had some broken bones that hadn’t healed correctly. For a while there she jumped every time I came in the room. The biggest thing was for the longest time she kept muttering about her baby. She said it over and over, my baby. My baby. I remember trying to see if she knew his name or how old he was but all she would do is cry and shake her head.” Bruce perked up. “Oh uh one time she said he was with his dad.” Tony felt his stomach twist in his chest. “I can’t remember much else, sorry.”

“No, that helps a lot Bruce. Thanks.” Tony took a deep breath as he readjusted Peter before turning to leave.

“Oh Tony, one more thing, uh she was picked up by her husband. Bald scary looking guy who was so happy to see her, but she didn’t recognize him I don’t think.” Tony narrowed his eyes.

“Why do you say that?”

“Well he said his name was Royal, but she called him Eric a bunch.” Tony sighed. It was definitely Pepper. “If that’s who I think that I is then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why?”

“The guy she was with wanted nothing to do with her child. She asked about him when she was leaving and he said leave the brat where he is.” Tony tried to shake it off. You know, play it real cool.

“It’s for a case. That’s all.” Bruce looked around before leaning in.

“I may not be a detective, but I know a battered woman Tony. Plus, I can do math. Harley’s probably fifteen almost sixteen. I know I miss alot, but I would have remembered Maya having another child.” The man gestured at Peter. “They have the same freckles on their elbows. Weirdest thing.” The man smirked. “Must be some genetics, huh?” Tony felt himself starting to panic. No one could know about this. Not right now. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul. Doctor patient privilege. All that jazz. Besides, who’d come find me in this place?” As Tony watched the man leave, he clutched his son and turned to go home.

~/~

As Tony was carrying Peter out of the Emergency Room, he never saw the car parked right across from his.

Before he even could think he was being watched, the driver pulled out of the parking lot knowing it was time to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.