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iii. how can i hold your heart

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“i will love you if i never see you again

and

i will love you if i see you every day.”

 


 

“I don’t wanna eat the peas, they’re mushy and gross.”

 

“You wanna know what’s mushy and gross?” Tony leans down and presses kiss after kiss to Peter’s face, on his cheeks and forehead and nose, much to Peter’s apparent displeasure. “I’ll show you mushy and gross, kiddo.”

 

Peter pouts. He’s been working that look for about a week now, ever since Tony announced he’d be flying to the Middle East for the Jericho presentation. 

 

“Do you have to go?” he asks, for probably the thousandth time. 

 

Tony sighs. He pulls out the chair beside Peter’s and sits so they’re at eye level. “Yeah, I really have to.”

 

“Obie can’t do it for you?”

 

“Obie isn’t the face of the company,” Tony reminds him. “Obie is the man behind the curtain. People wanna hear from Oz, kiddo.”

 

Peter’s face twists. “I hate the Wizard of Oz.

 

“You and me both. God, what a weird movie.”

 

Peter squirms in his chair and sets his fork down. He doesn’t look very hungry anymore, and Tony can’t blame him. He feels sick just thinking about leaving yet again. It’s the fourth time this month and it’s beginning to grate on them both. 

 

“Hey, blue?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Do you feel like…”

 

Tony trails off, unable to really get the words out. After an impatient few seconds Peter prods his cheek. “Nevermind,” Tony says. He forces a smile. “It’s just two days, right? I’ll be a hop skip and a plane ride away, back before you know it.”

 

“I’ll know it,” Peter mutters. 

 

Tony sighs. He reaches out and runs his hand through Peter’s increasingly unruly curls. Peter leans into the touch. Before either of them can start crying or worse, Tony presses a kiss to his son’s forehead and rises. “Eat your peas. Be good. I love you.”

 

Peter scowls at his plate and then tilts his head to look at Tony. “I’ll throw my peas away, be bad, and miss you.”

 

Tony grins. “Yeah, well, you know what they say.” He pokes Peter’s chest. “I’m right there.”

 

“I can’t see you if you’re inside my heart.”

 

“Really? I’ll have to install a little window so you can check out your right ventricle. Best seat in the house.”

 

Peter shakes his head. “You’re a dumb.”

 

“A dumb who loves you.”

 

Peter considers that. “You’ll be back Monday?”

 

“Monday,” Tony repeats, kissing his head one last time. “Not a day later. Promise.”

 


 

Monday passes just like any other. Peter gets up at seven, brushes his teeth, sits in the back of Happy’s car and draws patterns on the condensation covered windows, pretends to be Peter Parker so well he forgets for a minute that he’s not, finishes all of his work before anyone else in his class, and comes home with two new bruises under his shirt to show for it.

 

There’s no one home. 

 

“How about lunch?” asks Happy. 

 

He doesn’t even wait for Peter to reply. Happy ducks into the kitchen and goes about making them both a grilled cheese sandwich—Happy is a really good cook, he’s learned—while Peter perches at the counter almost cautiously, ears perked for any sound of doors unlocking, keys jingling, a suitcase being set down on the floor.

 

Nothing comes. It’s just pots and pans and sizzling butter.

 

Peter sighs. Not a day later, he thinks. Of course it hadn’t been true. Dad always ends up being late, no matter how hard he tries. 

 

“Why do people make promises they can’t keep?” Peter asks somewhat testily, after about ten minutes of combing through his life science packet while Happy bustles around him.

 

Happy sets Peter’s sandwich down in front of him with a raised eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“It means I think it’s stupid to tell someone you’ll be home on a certain day when you won’t actually be home.”

 

Happy sighs. “You know he’d be here if he could.”

 

Peter doesn’t have anything to say to that. He knows it’s true. Begrudgingly he sets his pencil down and eats the grilled cheese. At least this way he won’t have to talk.

 

Happy doesn’t mind the quiet. In fact Peter thinks he prefers it, though every once in a while he sends Peter concerned glances which go ignored. 

 

“Kid…”

 

No more sandwich. No more problems in his homework packet. 

 

“...Yeah?”

 

“You wanna tell me why this is bothering you so much?”

 

“I don’t know.” Peter shrugs. Considers it. “I have a feeling.”

 

“A feeling?”

 

“Yeah. A feeling.”

 

Happy studies him. “Yeah. Me too.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really.”

 

They both look down at their empty plates. Peter traces the edge of his, frowning. It probably doesn’t mean anything, right? His dad is always leaving and coming back. 

 

It doesn’t mean anything. 

 

It definitely, definitely doesn’t mean anything at all. 

 


 

It means something.

 

Peter knows that from the second he opens his eyes the following morning. Not only is there a sickening, heavy dread rolling in his stomach; but Pepper is sitting at the end of his bed.

 

She’s holding her clipboard, flip phone, and pen. When Peter sits up, she straightens and smiles, but it’s not genuine. It’s just a mask to hide her red-rimmed eyes and ruddy cheeks. 

 

“Morning, Peter.”

 

“He’s still not home?”

 

Pepper’s smile falters. “No.”

 

“Is he…?”

 

That’s when it falls entirely, and Peter realises she doesn’t have an answer for him. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know whether his father is okay or not, if he’s alive or if he’s…

 

Pepper takes his hand. “Peter, look at me.”

 

Peter looks, even though he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to do anything but go back to sleep until the person waiting by his bed is his dad. 

 

“Rhodey is looking for him,” she says. “Everyone is trying to find him. It’s only been a day, okay? We’ll… he’ll be back soon.”

 

Peter nods even as it dawns on him that she doesn’t know that. How could she possibly know that? She can’t. He might not ever come back. He might be gone forever. 

 

But Peter can’t stomach that idea. He swallows roughly and wraps his arms around Pepper, because he thinks that might be what she’s thinking; that something really bad happened and there’s nothing they can do.

 

Pepper holds him. “I’m so sorry, Peter.”

 

“It’s not your fault.”

 

She breathes in and out. Once, twice.

 

“Do you want to stay home from school? We could watch movies and bake that cookie recipe I was telling you about.”

 

Peter considers that. It’s not that he doesn’t want to, it’s just that if he stays home, there’s no one to stick up for Mikey, the littlest kid in class who gets picked on only marginally less than Peter, simply because Peter is always taking hits for him.

 

“I should go,” he whispers.

 

Pepper nods. “Okay, kiddo.”

 


WEEK ONE


 

“There’s a video.”

 

Pepper stops in her tracks and turns, slowly, to the sound of Rhodey’s voice.

 

“From him?”

 

From him, because there is a lingering, petulant fear that maybe Tony just skipped out. Maybe he was tired of being a father, tired of heading the company. 

 

(But really, it’s the least plausible scenario out of all the ones she’s run in her head; Tony loves Peter in an incomprehensible, all-consuming, you’re my universe kind of way. He’d never leave him, never abandon him, never give up on him. Still, it is the safest one. It is the one that doesn’t end in blood. She will always take tears over blood.)

 

Rhodey corrects her. 

 

Of him.”

 

Pepper sucks in a sharp breath. She glances at the entrance to the living room, through which she can see Peter. He’s huddled up in a fort made of star-print sheets and twinkle lights and physics textbooks for weights. His eyes are on the TV, but his ears are perked.

 

“Okay,” Pepper whispers, hands shaking, “okay—”

 

“Pepper, I haven’t even seen it. Some higher ups received it, said it was heavily embedded. They won’t let me watch it—”

 

“They won’t let you—?!” 

 

Outrage, a whiplash of Virginia fire, the spark her mother had left her (the only thing her mother had left her). 

 

Rhodey holds up a placating hand. “Listen, I get it. I mean, I… maybe I don’t. But they gathered all the relevant information, and…”

 

“And?”

 

Rhodey’s eyes flit to Peter. His face softens. His voice lowers. “He’s being held captive by a terrorist group known as the Ten Rings.”

 

It’s like the terror was only a crack away from bursting through her glass wall of denial, and then all of the sudden it is rushing at her, consuming her, drowning her.

 

Rhodey puts his hand on her shoulder. “Pepper?”

 

“Do you know?” Pepper whispers. “Where he is? How long it might take…? I mean, they demanded something, right? So just give them—”

 

“They want weapons.”

 

Oh

 

Pepper’s breathing hitches. She wrings her hands. Closes her eyes. “They’re going to have him make them anyway, aren’t they?”

 

“Probably.”

 

She’ll kill them. God, she’ll kill every last one of them with her bare hands if she has to. How dare they? 

 

“Uncle Rhodey?”

 

They both start and round on Peter, who probably hadn’t even tried to sneak up, to his credit. Pepper is just stuck in a fog, trying to discern one screaming thought from the next. 

 

Rhodey kneels. He opens his arms and Peter lurches right into them. “Hey, Boo-Boo.”

 

It doesn’t get Peter to crack a smile like always. He holds Rhodey tightly and squeezes his eyes shut like he wants to block out the rest of the room, of the world. Pepper knows the feeling.

 

“How are you holding up?”

 

Peter shrugs as he pulls back. “Is he gonna be home soon?”

 

Rhodey falters. “I… God, kiddo, I wish I knew.”

 

He’s choosing to be honest. Instead of throwing false hopes at Peter, he’s being straight with him. It’s certainly a better approach than the breezy assurances Pepper has tossed at him for the past three days. 

 

Still, better isn’t best, and Peter looks too old, the expression on his face is too grave. 

 

“Okay,” he whispers. And then, almost like he’s the adult, almost like he is the one who wants to protect them, he takes Rhodey’s hand and pulls him toward his fort. “Wanna watch movies with me?”

 

Rhodey glances at Pepper, then at Peter, and nods. “I’d love to.”

 


 

That weekend, Peter has his first nightmare.

 

Roberta is meant to be watching him, but Pepper ends up staying late. So late, in fact, that she decides to just spend the night. 

 

The respectful choice would be to take the guest room. The right, professional choice. 

 

And yet somehow Pepper finds herself hovering in the doorway to Tony’s bedroom, staring at the bed that hadn’t been made up that morning, at the tie thrown haphazardly over the back of a chair, at the dress shirt discarded on the floor. 

 

They are little beats, the aftershocks of his last moments in this house. She can picture him rushing from his bathroom to his closet and back again, his toothbrush hanging from his lips, his shirt untucked, maybe talking to Peter over his shoulder.

 

He had been here. A week ago, he had been here and he had been fine. 

 

Now he’s just gone. All that’s left are the remnants of a busy morning, a ghost of Tom Ford cologne.

 

Pepper steels herself and it’s just when she’s slipping out of her heels that she hears it: strained, muffled sobbing. 

 

She doesn’t waste any time crossing the hall. Peter’s room is dark, so Pepper rushes to the bedside and flicks on his lamp. Warm, golden light floods to every corner.

 

Peter is curled up in a ball, crying. 

 

“Peter?” Pepper shakes his shoulder. “Peter, honey, wake up.”

 

All she gets in response is a sob. The sound tugs at her heartstrings. She follows her instinct and, instead of jostling him, wraps her arms around him and pulls him closer. “Hey,” she whispers. “Everything’s okay. I’ve got you.”

 

Peter wakes himself up with his own tears. The imprint his nightmare leaves only makes him cry harder. He curls up against Pepper and it’s not until he cries, “I want Daddy,” that she lets herself break a little.

 

“God, kiddo, I’m so sorry. I wish he were here too.”

 

“Something is wrong,” Peter sobs. He turns his tearful, flushed face up to plead with her. “He’s not okay. I can feel it.

 

“Peter, it was just a dream—”

 

“It wasn’t!

 

“Okay,” Pepper assures quickly, “okay, I believe you. How about you take some deep breaths for me, alright?”

 

It takes him a minute to do as she’s asking, but soon enough he’s latching onto her every word, eyes wide and scared and open. 

 

“Better?”

 

He nods shakily. “I’m sorry.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Being stupid,” Peter whispers. “I know it was just a bad dream, but it felt so real…” 

 

Pepper tilts his face up. “You’re not stupid for being scared. I’m scared, too.”

 

Maybe it’s not the best thing to say under the circumstances; she’s supposed to be the strong one here, the solid rock for him to lean against. But Peter relaxes anyway. Maybe it helps him to know he’s not alone in the fear, that it isn’t irritational.

 

In that way, it helps Pepper, too.

 

“Are you leaving?”

 

“No,” Pepper tells him. “I’m staying right here.”

 

“Okay.” Peter nods. The next thing she knows, he’s slipping off the bed and taking her hand. Pepper lets him lead her along, slightly stupefied at the change of pace. 

 

They stop in front of Tony’s room. 

 

“Grandma Robbie always lets me sleep in here when he’s gone and I miss him,” Peter tells her. “It helps.”

 

Pepper squeezes his hand. She doesn’t know if he means help for him, for her, or for both of them, but she falls against the feather mattress with the silk sheets anyway. 

 

It smells like him. It’s oak aftershave and expensive body spray and Tony, all around them, with them, even if it’s just for a second.

 

Peter curls up next to her. He hugs a pillow to his chest and blinks at her in the darkness. “He’ll come back,” he promises her. “He always comes back.”

 


 WEEK THREE


 

“You’re getting crumbs all over my book.”

 

DUM-E stills. The handful of potato chips he’d been about to hand Peter fall limply out of his claw. 

 

Instantly, Peter feels bad. He knows his dad snaps at the bot a lot, but it’s always playful. Peter makes a point to always be nice to DUM-E just in case. His small lapse makes them both quiet.

 

“I’m sorry,” Peter whispers eventually, as he carefully picks up the chips. “It’s just…”

 

It’s been three weeks. It’s been almost a month. Peter’s never been without his father for so long and he misses him so much it aches. 

 

DUM-E’s claw lands heavily on Peter’s shoulder, falling up and down in a gentle patting motion. 

 

Peter manages the smallest, most broken smile. 

 

“He’ll be okay,” he says, because even if DUM-E doesn’t need him to be strong, it’s better than letting himself finally fall apart. 

 

DUM-E whirls like he’s trying to stay strong too. He gently prods Peter’s cheek, his metal claw cool against Peter’s skin. 

 

Peter settles back against the desk after taking the claw in his own hand. He holds it while he reads.

 


 

“You have a lot of books.”

 

Pepper’s apartment isn’t nearly the way he’d expected it to look. He’d been picturing something bigger and cleaner and open. Probably because of how she dresses, not a hair out of place ever. She’s like a real life Disney Princess.

 

Pepper pokes her head out from around the corner. She comes out carrying a basket of laundry which she sets next to Peter on the low loveseat. “I do,” she says, starting to fold her clothes. “A lot of them are old college textbooks I haven’t gotten around to donating, yet.”

 

Peter scans the living room, a puzzle of antique furniture and candles and stacks upon stacks of books, papers, files. It shouldn’t all fit together, but somehow, with the TV playing softly in the background and the hum of the city beating outside, it just does.

 

Peter reaches into the basket to help her, which earns him an indulgent (if exasperated) smile. 

 

“So now that you have temporary custody of me, I’m staying here?”

 

She slows. Carefully creases the edge of a pair of slacks. Studies him. “If you’re okay with that. If not, we can always stay at your dad’s place.”

 

It’s not that he doesn’t like Pepper’s apartment, or that he’s really all that dead set on staying at home. It’s too big and white and empty. There’s not even his dad tinkering in the garage to stave off the silence anymore. It’s just… quiet, all the time. Even when Peter turns on every radio and every TV and even the stereo with the lame jazz records in the hallway, it’s not enough. 

 

“I’d still have my own room?”

 

“Of course. I have a spare next to mine. We can bring your things here, or go out and buy new things. Whatever you want.” 

 

Peter thinks on that. While he thinks, he folds. 

 

“I guess… new stuff.”

 

“Any particular reason why?”

 

It’s not him trying to be a greedy kid and get twice as many toys, and he knows that’s not what she thinks either. “It just… it would feel like I’m… leaving him behind, I guess. If I moved out all the way. But if I don’t, it’s just like…”

 

“An extra long sleepover?”

 

Peter smiles. “Yeah, that.”

 

Pepper nods like it makes sense, even though Peter thinks it might be sorta stupid. They fold in silence until the basket is half empty, at which point a black furry thing hops up onto the back of the couch with a bell-like trill.

 

Peter blinks owlishly. “You have a cat?”

 

“Peter, meet Muffin,” she says, gently scooping the cat up and handing him over. “He won’t scratch, don’t worry.”

 

Peter gingerly takes the cat. He hasn’t been around animals a whole lot. A couple times, Grandma Robbie and Uncle Rhodey took him to the zoo, so he’s seen them. But holding a cat is totally different.

 

Muffin looks up at him with blown pupils and starts to purr.

 

“Oh,” Peter says. “Uh, hi.”

 

Muffin meows again. He butts his head against Peter’s hand and arches his back, slinking around him like a very furry, very fat snake. 

 

“He likes you,” Pepper tells him.

 

Peter smiles. 

 

So maybe living here won’t be so bad, after all.

 


WEEK FIVE


 

“Remember: seeds, never bread,” Grandma Robbie says, opening the brown paper bag. “Bad for ‘em, and all.”

 

“Right.” Peter peeks into the bag and then scans the boardwalk. There are pelicans roaming, white-grey blobs against the pale blue sky. “I think I need glasses.”

 

Robbie hums in agreement. “I’ve seen you squintin’. We’ll work on that. But first: the birds.”

 

“Okay.” He waits. “Why are we feeding birds, again?”

 

“Because you needed something to do that wasn’t sticking your nose in a book or watching that damn TV until you think everything’s a cartoon.”

 

“I can distinguish between real life and television—”

 

“Don’t try to make yourself sound more mature by using big words,” Robbie says. “They don’t belong in that small mouth.”

 

“You’ll stunt my growth.”

 

Robbie scoffs. “What growth? Baby, you’re as tiny as the day I first met you.” 

 

Peter looks down at himself. That’s probably true. 

 

Still, “I meant my mental growth. Or development. I think.”

 

Robbie gives him a Look. “There’s no need to talk smart. Just be it.”

 

Peter mulls on that. Then he reaches into the bag and grabs a handful of seeds; he scatters them along the wooden planks beneath their feet. 

 

“What if people think I’m stupid?”

 

Another Look. “Do you worry about that sort of thing?”

 

Peter shrugs. He scans the horizon where the sky meets the sea. It’s all blue, but the water is darker, covered in a million golden sparks from the sun. “I don’t know.”

 

“Hmm. I think it’s better to surprise people, but that’s just me.”

 

Peter turns around and climbs back onto the bench, facing her rather than the ocean. He tucks his legs beneath his knees. “Do you think—”

 

“Don’t ask me about your daddy.”

 

“But I just—”

 

“Baby.” Robbie faces him, too. “There’s a whole horde of people looking for him. Every day, they’re looking. Every day, you ask me, and every day I don’t have an answer. I wish I did, but I don’t. I think at this point I’m just hurting us both.”

 

Peter bites his lip. “Can you tell me a story about him, though?”

 

Robbie whacks him lightly. “Well of course,” she says. “I don’t know why you didn’t ask sooner. Your daddy and uncle were always gettin’ into all colours of trouble in college. Those fools, I swear.”

 

She launches into a story about their sophomore year, when they accidentally blew up a trash can in Chem lab after hours, locked themselves in, and had to bust out of a window to avoid dying of smoke inhalation. 

 

“That was a happy story. Why you over there lookin’ sad?”

 

“I just… I hate that he’s not here.” 

 

“We all hate it, Baby. And we gonna keep hatin, and we gonna keep lookin, and keep missin’, and keep faith until the day your daddy comes home. I promise you that.” 

 

Peter nods, but it’s shaky and Robbie doesn’t miss that. She doesn’t miss anything. “Look at me.”

 

Peter looks. She grabs his chin anyway. “Life might kick you in the teeth a time or two, but that don’t mean you gotta stop smilin’, you hear?”

 

“I hear.”

 

“Good.” She lets go and smooths back his hair. “He’ll come home to you. I know it in my bones.”

 

If Peter has learned one thing in his seven years, it’s that her bones are never wrong.

 


 

“Ms Potts, what I’m telling you is that your son is exceptionally gifted,” says Principal Wiess, leaning forward to regard her seriously—almost gravely. 

 

“And that’s a bad thing because…?”

 

“Because, while I love my school, our curriculum just isn’t engaging enough for Peter. My subordinates report that he appears utterly bored in class. Sometimes he even falls asleep, and yet he manages to pull top marks out of his back pocket. Someone as bright as him, with as much potential as he has, needs to be challenged, Ms Potts.”

 

Pepper shifts in her seat. “What are you proposing, then?”

 

“That he transfer.” Principal Wiess hands over a pamphlet before she can even protest. “This is one option of several, but I believe it’s the best fit for him. St. Ophelia’s holds high standards and has a competitive, creative atmosphere.”

 

“You’re suggesting a private school?”

 

“With all due respect, Ms Potts, that may be the only way for him to receive the education he needs.”

 

Pepper takes a deep breath. Her eyes fall to the credentials on his walls, and then the placard on his desk, and the mustard stain on his tie. 

 

“I can’t just uproot him.”

 

Wiess raises his hands placatingly. “And while I understand that, I urge you to consider the benefits before you come to any final decision.”

 

It occurs to her then that this now falls on her. Sure, she’s been named as Peter’s guardian in all of his school forms for years, but it was all just a facade. Tony had been making the decisions, pulling all the strings from the shadows. Now there’s no one. It’s just her and a seven year old kid that she is fully and completely responsible for. 

 

“Peter… we’re dealing with familial issues at the moment. What’s best for him right now is a stable, familiar environment.”

 

Wiess leans back. “You know, everyone always says that. But when my parents were divorcing, all I wanted was a distraction.”

 

Pepper chews on that somewhat reluctantly. She studies the pamphlet, which has images of kids in blue and white uniforms, blue and white jerseys playing soccer, blue and white ties staring attentively up at an off-camera teacher. Or professor, rather.

 

“If you’re worried about tuition—”

 

“The money isn’t a concern.”

 

Wiess falters. “Well, I have to admit, that’s a first.”

 

Pepper shrugs. “My… husband is—was—from a well off family. Peter’s education will be fully funded no matter where he decides to attend.”

 

“Then, if I may ask, what exactly is it? Aside from the change of pace—”

 

“Schools like this can be rigorous,” Pepper says at last. “The last thing I want is for him to get swept up in a mountain of homework, made fun of because he doesn’t come from stock his fellow students recognise, or downgraded by biased teachers. They take one look at a kid who just transferred from public and they’ll all assume he’s some scholarship student taking some kid’s spot who actually deserves it.”

 

Wiess blinks. “While I’m sure that’s all very daunting, consider what would happen if you don’t transfer Peter now: his grades will fall because he won’t see the reward in earning good ones, his interest in academia will decrease until it simply ceases to exist. Ms Potts—”

 

“Mr Wiess,” Pepper says, rising, “I appreciate your concern for Peter, but I’m afraid there’s no way I’m going to take him out of a place where he has friends just to—”

 

“Friends?”

 

Pepper freezes. “Yes. Friends.”

 

Wiess stares. “Oh, god. Of course. They never tell, do they? I should’ve made more of an effort to—”

 

“Tell me what.”

 

Wiess shakes off his surprise at her flat, dangerous tone. “Peter is bullied, Ms Potts. He has been nearly all semester.”

 

“And you didn’t think to call?

 

“I have been calling,” Wiess insists. “The number you gave me, remember? I left several messages—”

 

Pepper stops listening. The beat of her own frantic heartbeat tunes out whatever the hell it is he says next. 

 

It’s Tony’s number. He has Tony’s number. Whatever voicemails he’s left have gone unnoticed because since February, no one has been around to check them. 

 

“What do they do?”

 

Wiess falters. “The bullies?”

 

“Yes, the bullies, Mr Wiess.”

 

“Oh, well… the usual? Name calling, ostracizing, the occasional physical incident—we’re always sure to break them up as soon as they’re noticed, but—” 

 

“Excuse me,” Pepper whispers. 

 

She tears out of the office as fast as she can manage in a pair of three inch Louis Vuitton heels and just barely makes it to the parking lot before vomiting into a poorly trimmed hedge. 

 

Physical incident physical incident physical incident

 


 WEEK SIX


 

“Do you like your school?”

 

Peter pauses, chopsticks full of chow mien halfway to his mouth. “What do you mean?”

 

Pepper looks like she’s thinking about what to say next. Slowly, Peter sets down his food. They’re eating straight from the cartons, sitting underneath Pepper’s kitchen table rather than at it because it’s storming outside, and they like it better this way.

 

“Peter, are you happy there?”

 

Peter shrugs. They’re edging far too close to territory he’s not exactly comfortable with. A part of him, deep down, super secretly, wants Pepper to keep asking. He wants someone to finally know how much it hurts, how often, why it happens. He wants someone to help him.

 

“Yeah, I guess so.”

 

“But if you had the chance to go somewhere else, somewhere… better, maybe? Somewhere you felt like you were really learning?”

 

“I feel like I’m learning.”

 

Pepper sets her carton down. “Peter, what’s the Pythagorean Theorem?”

 

“A squared plus b squared equals c squared,” Peter recites easily, and then stills.

 

“And did you learn that in Ms Jefferson’s class?”

 

“...Maybe?”

 

Pepper sighs. “Kid, level with me: how much time in that class do you actually spend doing work?”

 

Peter debates whether or not he should lie. It’s not that switching schools sounds bad, exactly (maybe scary, a little), it’s just that if he leaves, there’s no one to look out for the littler kids. 

 

But Pepper does that magic thing where she draws the truth right out of him. 

 

“I guess, like, a few minutes?”

 

Pepper nods. She reaches out and gently extracts his food from his grip. 

 

“They’re picking on you.”

 

It’s not a question.

 

Peter feels cold. 

 

“I-I mean, it’s not that much, and it’s only because Tommy likes to push Mikey around and Mikey’s like, even smaller than me, so I always make sure to make Tommy mad first and—”

 

“Hey, hey,” Pepper’s voice is soothing and level and it immediately stops him short, calms him. “I’m not mad at you, honey.”

 

“No?”

 

“Of course not.” Pepper shoots closer so their kneecaps touch. “But it’s important not to hold yourself back for things like this—”

 

“But Mikey—”

 

“I’ll speak to Tommy’s parents,” Pepper says, still even. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen anymore, okay?”

 

Peter swallows. The idea is just too good to be true. Every day except weekends for the past three months he’s had his lunch stolen, stepped on, ripped apart. He’s endured the jeering calls of Poopy Parker, gotten hit in the stomach and ribs and kicked so hard he bled and bruised… 

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“I’m sure.”

 

Peter takes a deep breath. He decides to trust her. 

 

“I think… I think maybe we could look into another school?”

 

Pepper smiles. She reaches out and strokes his cheek, something that had been a rarity before but now seems almost commonplace. 

 

“Okay, kiddo.”

 


WEEK SEVEN


 

“I bet he’s dead.”

 

It’s been four days since Pepper sat down with Tommy Lawson’s parents and told them in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t tolerate their son bullying hers. Well, bullying her fake son, anyway. 

 

(sometimes Peter wishes that weren’t the case, but he’s never told her and doesn’t plan to any time soon)

 

So for three days, Peter’s been walking the halls of his elementary school relatively unbothered. He’d only gotten a few snarky comments about his new glasses—round and golden-framed, he’s been branded Peter Potter since Tuesday—but that was all. 

 

Until now.

 

They’re sitting in the outdoor cafeteria. Peter is alone, like always, but he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t like having to talk while he eats, these days. In fact, he doesn’t really like talking at all anymore. 

 

For the first half of the meal he gets swept up in the endless drone of monotonous conversation, a dull hum like a hive of swarming bees thrumming against the walls of his skull. He pushes his practically inedible food around on his tray, and then he hears it.

 

Tommy and his best friend, Mitchel—but only his mom calls him that, everyone else calls him Mitch—huddled together with the rest of their group, laughing.

 

Laughing because they’re taking bets over whether Tony Stark is dead or not.

 

He doesn’t want to listen, but even when he tries not to, he can’t help himself. 

 

“Probably got blown into so many tiny pieces they can’t even tell it’s him,” Mitchel mutters, and Tommy laughs.

 

But it’s not funny. 

 

Peter shoots to his feet so quickly his chair topples over with a clatter. His heart is pounding so loudly, though, he can barely hear it. He also doesn’t hear what Tommy says to him, but he knows he’s speaking, can see his mouth moving, lips contorting into a smirk.

 

“W-what?”

 

“I said, is there a problem, Parker?”

 

Peter blinks once and then twice, trying to push away the mental image of his dad like that, ripped into so many pieces like a puzzle cards with the tabs torn off. You can’t fix stupid and you can’t fix dead, Robbie had told him once. 

 

“He’s not… he’s not…”

 

He’s not,” Tommy mocks, coming closer. Mitchel is right behind him and so are all the rest, and now everyone is watching and Peter is scanning for teachers but there are none. Where are they? 

 

“Looking for your mommy to hold your hand?” Tommy asks. He shoves Peter’s shoulder. “What, are you scared of me, Parker?” 

 

Peter swallows. “I-I’m not—”

 

“I think you are.” Tommy looks down at him with all of his eight year old wisdom. There’s not much of it. “What’s got you so spooked if it’s not me, then?”

 

“He’s not dead,” Peter blurts, because he can’t think of anything else to say. He has to say it, has to toss the words out into the universe so they’re heard by whatever cosmic entity makes the choice of who lives or dies; so they can hear his desperation for the words to be true. 

 

Tommy makes a face. “What’s it to you?”

 

It’s not supposed to be anything, but it’s everything

 

“He’s not dead,” Peter repeats, firmer now. It’s decided. He won’t let anything else be the truth. 

 

Tommy smirks. “What, you got a crush on him or something? Little Peeny Porker loooves Tony Stark—”

 

The next thing Peter knows, they’re both on the ground. At first it’s Peter on top, Peter throwing a punch, his knuckles colliding with Tommy’s jaw. Then it’s the other way around. Then someone is hauling Tommy off of him, and everyone is talking, screaming, fight fight fight, but it’s all just roaring to Peter. He bounces off the chain link fence and hurtles back at Tommy, gets two more punches in, sees blood spray, and then a whistle blows.

 

The sharp sound pierces through the cresting waves of anger, through all the red. Peter is grabbed by the scruff of his neck, same with Tommy. Between them is Principal Wiess.

 

He doesn’t look at all pleased. “My office. Now.”

 


 

Pepper is already swamped when she gets the phone call. It’s the last day of the quarter and there are shipping oversights, expense reports, and a whole host of other things that have her running from floor to floor, in meeting after meeting. None of this is even her job, really, but who else is going to do it? 

 

It makes her stop dead when she answers her cellphone and hears Mr Wiess’ voice on the other end of the line. 

 

He states what happened very clearly: Peter and Tommy got into what can only be described as a brawl. There are two broken noses, a sprained wrist, and a shattered pair of glasses as a result.

 

It only takes her a few minutes to get down to the school. The hallways are empty with all the other kids tucked away in the classrooms she rushes past to get to the Principal’s office.

 

Inside, Peter is sitting on one chair with his head hanging low, while Tommy sits in another, scowling at Mr Wiess.

 

“Ms Potts.”

 

Pepper can’t tear her eyes from Peter, with his red raw knuckles and tear stained cheeks and the trail of poorly cleaned blood running from his nostrils to his chin. 

 

“Mr Wiess.”

 

“Please sit.”

 

Pepper blinks. “No thank you.”

 

“Ms Potts, I’m afraid we have a lot to discuss—”

 

“We don’t have anything to discuss,” Pepper snaps. “I’m taking Peter home.”

 

“But we haven’t even bothered to—” he cuts himself off. “Boys, please step into the hall for a moment.”

 

Once they’re gone and the door is safely closed behind them, Pepper steps forward. 

 

“With all due respect, Mr Wiess, but you were very aware of the situation between my son and Tommy Lawson. The fact that it escalated to this point is the result of extreme negligence by you and your staff.”

 

“Negligence?”

 

Yes, negligence. Did you even bother to discipline Tommy once? Was he ever suspended or threatened with expulsion?”

 

“Well, no, but—”

 

“Exactly, which is why it’s no surprise to me that it came to this.”

 

“Ms Potts, Mr Lawson’s parents are on the school board,” he tells her in a low, serious tone. “There was very little I was able to do from a disciplinary standpoint.”

 

Pepper takes a deep breath. “Peter is a good kid,” she tells him. 

 

“And yet he instigated the fight.”

 

There is a heartbeat pause, and then:

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Witnesses report that it was Peter who threw the first punch, Ms Potts.”

 

“Witnesses? You mean all of those other kids too afraid to step on Tommy’s toes? And moreover, just because Peter was physical first doesn’t mean he wasn’t instigated into doing this. And beyond that, Tommy’s been pushing him around all year! He threw the first punches and we both know it.”

 

Mr Wiess sighs. He looks tired, drawn, worn down. Pepper imagines she looks much the same way. 

 

“While that may be true—”

 

“It’s definitely true—”

 

“I’m in a very difficult situation. Mr Lawson’s parents want to expel Peter.”

 

Pepper’s blood goes cold. “They can’t do that. It’s too much of a conflict of interest.”

 

“They don’t seem to think so, and my hands are tied. The rest of the board is willing to side with them. They’re all under the Lawson’s thumbs.”

 

“This is ridiculous—”

 

“I know.” Mr Wiess lays his hands flat on the table. “Which is why I believe it would be in your best interest to transfer Peter to St. Ophelia’s.”

 

“You think they’ll take him after this?!

 

“I think if you quietly pulled Peter from the school before he could be officially expelled, I would be able to keep that and this… incident… off of his record.”

 

Pepper purses her lips. She can’t even bother to look at him, so she glares out the window instead. “And what about Tommy?”

 

“There’s very little I’m able to do beyond keeping a closer eye on him.”

 

It’s not enough. It’ll never be enough.

 

But if Peter leaves, neither of them have to worry about that kid ever again. 

 

“You’d really expunge it from his record if I withdrew him?”

 

“I would.”

 

Pepper takes a deep breath. It’s not what Tony would have wanted. He’d been adamant about sending Peter to a regular school so that he knew what it was like to be a normal kid. He’d wanted Peter to be around kids his own age, ones whose only concerns weren’t being the top of the class. He’d scrunched his face up when Pepper initially suggested somewhere private, said, Disgusting, no, absolutely not, and that had been the end of it.

 

But what if it’s what’s best? Beyond that, it’s the only option they have left.

 

“Alright. Okay. We’ll transfer him.”

 


 

Peter swallows back stomach acid as he trails after Pepper through the long halls of the office building. It’s bright and open and everyone is staring at him.

 

“Okay,” Pepper says. She sounds so tired and that makes Peter feel awful. “Stay in my office. I’ll come and get you in a little while, alright? And remember, if anyone asks you, you’re my nephew.”

 

Peter glances at her desk with the spinny chair that would normally excite him. It doesn’t so much, now. He looks back up at her, sees the frown she hasn’t dropped since they walked out of the school building he’ll never return to again, and his eyes start to burn and water. 

 

“Pepper—”

 

Her name is a choked sob falling from his lips and Pepper kneels in front of him without hesitation. She wipes away the tears as they fall. “Peter, look at me.”

 

He looks. 

 

“Why’d you do it?”

 

Peter shakes his head while he cries. He tries to breathe but he just can’t and every single one just gets shorter and shorter and—

 

“Peter?”

 

Inhaler,” he chokes.

 

Pepper scrambles to her feet. He’s barely aware of her rifling through her desk for the emergency inhaler he knows she keeps on hand. The next thing he knows it’s being held up to his mouth and his lungs are filling with albuterol.

 

“Better?” she asks, after a small pause.

 

Peter nods. The attack hadn’t been too bad, yet. He’s had worse, anyway.

 

“Tommy… he said dad was… he said he was dead.”

 

Pepper’s expression darkens. “And that’s why you hit him?”

 

“No!” Peter insists. “Well, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I hit him because he’s hit me so many times.”

 

Pepper sighs. “Violence wasn’t the answer here, Peter.”

 

“I know.”

 

She tucks her hand underneath his chin and raises his hanging head. “You can’t do things like this. We got lucky this time, but it could’ve been a lot worse, understand?”

 

Peter nods. He feels a little better, a little more assured that she doesn’t hate him, when Pepper runs her fingers through his hair. “It’ll be okay, sweetie.”

 

He wants to believe her, but a part of him is too scared to even process the words. He’s stuck in a rut of fear and guilt, and all he can think is probably got blown to so many pieces they can’t even tell it’s him and you can’t fix dead and I’ll be a hop skip and a plane ride away, okay? 

 

Peter hugs Pepper. It’s all he can think to do. He needs someone to hold. He needs someone to hold him. If he doesn’t have that, he’ll just keep floating higher and higher with the inflating bubble of anxiety in his stomach.

 

But he doesn’t. Pepper wraps her arms around him and keeps him safe, secure, grounded. She runs one hand up and down his back and cradles his head with the other. 

 

“I don’t want him to be dead.”

 

“I know,” Pepper whispers. “It’ll be okay, baby. I’ve got you.” 

 

He lets himself believe her.

 


 

“Hey, Pepper, these forms you signed—”

 

Obediah Stane stops short. He looks at Peter. Peter looks at him. He’s never much liked Mr Stane. Something about him always puts Peter off in a way he just can’t explain. It’s like whatever’s hiding behind his bright eyes and wide smiles is something dark and twisted and wrong.

 

“Kid,” Obie says, folding his arms over his chest as he scans Peter up and down. “You’re looking pretty rough.”

 

Peter glances down at his knuckles. “Um…”

 

“Street fight?” Obie smiles. It doesn’t do much to reassure Peter. “Well, I was just looking for your, uh, godmother. She forgot to initial a few of these forms. Don’t suppose you could do it for me?”

 

Peter does his best to smile because he knows Obie doesn’t like it when his jokes fall flat. 

 

The older man comes over and sets the files in a basket on Pepper’s desk. He puts his hands in his pockets and scrutinises Peter. “Listen, sporto, about your old man—”

 

“He’s fine,” Peter says. It’s the only thing he’ll allow himself to think now, despite the fact that it’s been almost two months with no word, and no one can find him, and there’s a cold hard rock of dread in Peter’s stomach that flips whenever he remembers 

 

(because sometimes, if even for five minutes, he forgets. he forgets and he calls out for his dad to tell him a joke or ask him a question and he is always, without fail, met with silence). 

 

Obie hums. “We’re all hoping so. And listen, we’ve got our best guys on this—”

 

“Why weren’t you with him?”

 

Obie stops. “Excuse me?”

 

“At the demonstration? You always go to them, right? Why not this time?”

 

It’s a question that’s been grating on Peter because despite it all, he can’t help wishing it were Obie missing instead of his had. He can’t help wondering why Obie wasn’t there, why his dad was all alone, why there was no one to protect him.

 

Obie sighs. “I uh, had to do this conference in Tahiti—”

 

“Where’s that?”

 

“Uh, Polynesia—”

 

“Where’s that?”

 

“It’s, uh—listen, how about I hook you up with a globe, alright? I gotta get back, though, so just hang tight. Don’t scruff up anyone else, huh?”

 

The door shuts behind him.

 

Peter smiles. 

 

Asking too many questions always gets Obie to leave.

 


WEEK EIGHT


 

 

Peter straightens his tie for the millionth time.

 

“Do I look stupid?”

 

Pepper smiles. She brushes nonexistent lint off of his stupid sport coat. “You look adorable.”

 

“So I look stupid?”

 

Peter.”

 

Pepper.”

 

She pushes his hair from his eyes. It’s been trimmed a little because it was getting so unruly. She’d done it herself; whipped out a pair of barber scissors and sat him down at the kitchen table, shearing off the edges of his curls while an episode of Friends played in the background.

 

“You’re gonna do great,” she says. “I know it.”

 

“No. I’m gonna get my own name wrong when I have to introduce myself and then I’m gonna trip on my shoelace or attract another bully because I’m a magnet for bullies, or I’ll get shoved into my locker or hit with a dodgeball or—”

 

“Peter, it’s the first day. Take a deep breath.” He does as she asks and Pepper smiles. “You’re gonna be just fine.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“Because you’re a good, smart kiddo and if anyone can handle a day in a boring brick building with a bunch of stuffy nerds, it’s you.”

 

Peter nods grimly. “You’re right. I can do this. I can show the stuffy nerds who’s boss.” He pauses. “Do you think I could keep Honeybear Jr in the bottom of my backpack?”

 


 

“So? How did it go?”

 

Peter slips into the back of Happy’s car with a grin he can’t keep off his face. Pepper’s smile widens in turn.

 

“It was good,” he chirps. “Can we get cheeseburgers?”

 


WEEK NINE


 

 

“It needs more glitter.”

 

Rhodey rolls his eyes. “Kid, it’s half glitter already.”

 

“She deserves all glitter,” Peter argues. “And flowers. And more hearts.”

 

He reaches for the stickers and promptly presses a half dozen more against the pink paper. Rhodey hands him the glitter when he’s done with that, and Peter bunches over the card to sprinkle it with purple and silver dust. 

 

“Okay,” he breathes, leaning back to soak in his masterpiece. “What do you think?”

 

Rhodey’s smile is big. “I think it looks great, kiddo.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Definitely.” He reaches over and ruffle’s Peter’s hair.

 

“You don’t think it’s, like, dumb for me to give her one? Because I know she’s not, like, actually my—”

 

“She’s gonna love it,” Rhodey cuts in. “Take a chill pill, Petey-Pie.”

 

Peter nods. He’s definitely wound up. But he should be, shouldn't he? Pepper’s given him so much, done so many things for him. It’s only right he does something back.

 

“Okay.” Peter takes a deep breath and shakes the loose glitter off the card. He then places it on the tray with Pepper’s breakfast: French toast (made by Rhodey), eggs (made by Rhodey), and bacon (also made by Rhodey). Peter had put the flower in the vase, though, and he thinks it looks pretty good.

 

“You wanna carry it, or should I?”

 

Peter considers the question. The tray does look sort of heavy. “Probably you.”

 

Rhodey nods. “Smart choice.”

 

They start down the hall. Peter trails after his uncle, nervously tugging at the sleeves of his shirt. It’s huge on him. He’s pretty sure at one point it had belonged to his dad, but it’s just one of those things that he’s had for so long, it’s impossible to know. 

 

Pepper’s room is dark. Peter scrambles over and flicks on her bedside lamp, which immediately makes her groan. “Not yet.”

 

“Come on, Pepper, you know you miss me.”

 

Pepper cracks an eye. She scowls, grabs her pillow, and whacks him. “S’too early.”

 

“Rhodey’s here.”

 

“Ask him why he’s not watching you,” Pepper mumbles sleepily.

 

Rhodey laughs. “So I guess that’s a no on the breakfast in bed?”

 

Pepper sits up a little. “Breakfast in bed?”

 

“For you,” Peter tacks on, like it’s not the most obvious thing in the world. 

 

“Why? What did you do? What did you break?”

 

“I didn’t break anything, I promise!”

 

“Did you let Muffin get loose again?!”

 

“No!” Peter grins and clambers onto her bed as Rhodey sets the tray down. “It’s, um… it’s Sunday.”

 

Pepper squints suspiciously. “It is.”

 

“It’s the tenth of May.”

 

“That’s the date, yes.”

 

Rhodey sighs. “You’re both killing me. Pep, it’s Mother’s Day.

 

Pepper freezes. With wide eyes she looks from the tray of steaming breakfast to him and back again. Then without warning she just melts, pulling him into her arms with a whispered oh my god.

 

“Is it corny?”

 

“No,” Pepper shakes her head. “It’s amazing. Thank you so much, sweetie.”

 

Peter leans against her, tucking his head into the crook of her neck. She smells like lemons and rosemary. “Cool.”

 

“Kid made you a card, by the way,” Rhodey says. “I helped.”

 

Pepper picks up the messy, glittery, still-soggy-with-glue paper and grins. I know you’re not my mom, but if you were, I’d say you were doing a super great job! Happy Sunday, Pep! I love you! - Peter

 

Pepper wipes her eyes and sniffs. “You’re too sweet, you know that?”

 

Peter shrugs. “I learned it from you.”

 

Pepper laughs. She ends up pulling Rhodey onto the bed with them and they share the food. Peter stays tucked against her until Rhodey has to leave. He’s never able to stay for very long these days, but since he’s always off looking for Peter’s dad, he can’t say he’s upset about it exactly.

 

Peter hugs him before he goes. “Bye, Yogi.”

 

“Bye, Boo-Boo,” Rhodey says. “Don’t drive her too crazy, alright?”

 

“I’ll do my best.”

 


 WEEK TEN


 

 

“Peter, we’re thinking maybe it’s time to have a funeral.”

 

Peter stills. His legs stop swinging. He suddenly realises why May and Ben and Pepper had decided it would be a good idea to take him for ice cream after school, even though he hasn’t had dinner yet and dessert after dinner is Pepper’s first rule.

 

“You remember Uncle Rich’s funeral, right, sweetie?” asks May, who’s the closest to him. 

 

Peter nods slowly. 

 

“But if there’s no…”

 

“No body?” Pepper prods gently. “It would be more like a… celebration of him. Remembering him. And it would just be us, and Rhodey, and Happy.”

 

“But he’s not dead.

 

May and Pepper shift uneasily, exchanging a glance over the top of Peter’s head. “Honey,” May puts her hand on his shoulder, “I know this is hard for you to accept, but it’s been almost three months with no word—”

 

“I don’t need word,” Peter snaps, scrambling out of the booth. “He’s not dead, okay? He’s not.”

 

Pepper reaches out. He skirts away from her touch, feeling more betrayed than he ever has in his whole life, even when DUM-E told his dad about how he’d stayed up past his bedtime by showing security cam footage of Peter eating ice cream in the kitchen. 

 

“Peter,” Pepper tries, “honey, I don’t wanna believe it just as much as you don’t—”

 

“Then don’t.” Peter shakes his head. This doesn’t make any sense. Rhodey is still looking for him, so why would they have some stupid fake funeral for his dad? “I wanna go home.”

 

“Okay,” Pepper says, and starts to rise.

 

“No,” Peter looks at Ben, who has been the most silent, who has been sitting with a sick sort of look on his face like he knows exactly how Peter feels. “Ben, I wanna go home.”

 

Home, to the mansion that overlooks the ocean, not Pepper’s mid-city apartment. 

 

Ben blinks, seemingly startled. He looks at Pepper who nods, and Peter doesn’t miss the way her features are twisted with pain. “Alright, kiddo. I’ll take you.”

 


 

Peter runs straight for his father’s bedroom and burrows deep under the comforter. He clutches the sheets that still smell faintly of his father but now, these days, mostly hold the scent of lemon and rosemary. 

 

He stays under there and he cries. He cries out all the bad stuff: the fear that his father will never come home, the anger that he’s been gone so long and no one can find him, the guilt about hitting Tommy and sometimes forgetting for a little bit that his father is gone. It feels wrong when he does that. It feels like he should always be missing him, always be aching.

 

Because he knows, somewhere out there, his dad is hurting for him.

 

The mattress dips with a new weight. Peter stiffens and sniffles, but doesn’t emerge from his safe bubble of Pepper and his dad. 

 

After a few minutes, Ben pokes his shoulder. “You still alive under there or did you die of carbon monoxide poisoning?”

 

Peter makes a face even though Ben can’t see it. “Takes longer than that,” he mumbles.

 

“Do you know how disturbing it is that you even know what carbon monoxide is? You’re six. You’re supposed to be learning about shapes and shit.”

 

“M’almost seven.”

 

“Well, pardon me.” Ben sighs, shifts, and then he’s under the covers with Peter, rolled onto his side so they face each other. “Do you wanna know something?”

 

“What?”

 

“My dad died when I was your age. He owned this little convenience store in Queens, and I was helping him restock for the night when these two men came in to rob us. They shot him right in front of me.”

 

Reaching immediately for Ben’s hand, he whispers, “I’m really sorry.”

 

“That’s okay, kiddo. It was a real long time ago. But even if I was there when it happened, there was still a part of me that didn’t want to believe it was true. For a long time, actually.”

 

Peter scoots closer. “Really?”

 

“Really.”

 

“But this isn’t the same,” Peter whispers. “Everyone is just saying he’s gone when they don’t know, but I know. He’s not dead, Ben. I can feel it.”

 

He’s begging, pleading with Ben to believe him. And Ben nods, wrapping his arms around Peter and pulling him close. “Okay, kiddo. I’ll take your heart over anything else.” 

 

Peter curls into him and, for a horrible and selfish second, lets himself pretend that it is his father holding him, that he’s back and safe and here.

 

Ben kisses his cheek. “We’ll hold off on the funeral, okay?”

 


WEEK ELEVEN


 

 

“Pepper?”

 

“Hey, Rhodey. Listen, I’m just about to pick Peter up from school, but—”

 

“Pepper, we got him.”

 

The phone falls out of her grip and clatters against the sidewalk. Pepper stops dead halfway to her car and struggles, truly struggles, to breathe.

 

Fifteen seconds later and she’s fumbling, on her knees, a hand over her heart.

 

“Pepper? Are you there?”

 

“I’m… I’m here,” Pepper manages. “He’s—?”

 

“He’s alive. He’s banged up real bad, but he’s alive.”

 

Two things happen to Pepper Potts in the space of half a heartbeat: the first is the realisation that she can tell Peter, finally, that his dad is coming home. That everything will be okay. That they can see each other again and be together again, despite how much the prospect of living without him hurts. 

 

The second is the softer but no-less all consuming realisation that she loves Tony Stark more than she had ever planned to.

 

“Pepper?”

 

Standing, she says, “I’m here. Tell me where to go.”

 


 

The plane touches down on the tarmac and it’s like Pepper’s heart settles back into her chest after weeks of being suspended. She hadn’t even realised how tightly she was wound until all of the tension floods out of her the minute the ramp descends and he comes walking—on his own two feet, dressed in a suit and tie, arm in a sling, face covered in healing scrapes.

 

“Your eyes are red,” he observes, and it’s too casual, too detached. It doesn’t match the tone of the absolutely agonising hell she’s been living in for the past two months. He’s hiding behind a wall, she thinks. “A few tears for your long lost boss?”

 

Pepper is smiling. She knows she’s smiling even if it hurts. “Tears of joy. I hate job hunting.”

 

Tony studies her for a moment with a little more care, more concern. “Vacation’s over,” he says, and walks past her to make for the car. “Where’s my baby?”

 

“School,” Pepper replies shakily. “I called the admin to let them know I wouldn’t make it in time to pick him up—”

 

“Perfect, we’ll make a pit stop on the way to the press conference, then.”

 

Pepper halts. “The press conference?”

 

“Yes. I did say that clearly, didn’t I? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Think I might be partially deaf in one ear now after the explosions.”

 

Pepper’s stomach lurches. Explosions.

 

“You need to go to the hospital.”

 

“No.”

 

“Mr Stark, you need to be given a clean bill of health by a doctor—”

 

He snorts. “Clean bill of health. Yeah, that’s not really in the cards anymore. But enough about that. No is a complete answer.”

 

“Mr Stark—”

 

Ms Potts.” 

 

Pepper glances between him and Happy, who’s holding the car door open for Tony. She purses her lips. “You can’t go to a press conference looking like this.”

 

“What’s wrong with my look? This is a three piece Tom Ford suit, if you hadn’t noticed. My ass is killing, I saw you looking, Hogan, don’t deny it.”

 

Happy sputters while Pepper rolls her eyes. “God, it hasn’t even been five minutes and you’re already making comments that could get you sued for sexual harassment.”

 

“It’s good natured fun. If he’d really looked at my ass he’d be passed out on the ground.”

 

“You can’t see Peter looking like this. You need a proper cast for your arm, you need to be examined for other injuries—”

 

“Don’t.” Tony holds up a hand and his eyes are hard, broken, fractured like shattered glass. He’s not the same, not even in the way that she’s not. He’s seen things, done things. “It’s been three months since I’ve seen my son. I don’t care if one of us is wearing a damn garbage bag, I’m gonna hold him and tell him I love him and that I’m sorry—”

 

His voice breaks and he grips Happy, who immediately catches him before he can stumble. 

 

“Get in the car,” Pepper urges, because she’s just spotted the press vehicle approaching. “Quickly, come on.”

 

Less than a minute later and they’re inside, safely hidden behind tinted windows. 

 

Tony is clutching his chest. Pepper watches him, and while she does she thinks. “Alright,” she says after a second, “I’ll send Rhodey to go pick up Peter. He can meet us at your house—”

 

“Pepper, I swear to god—”

 

“He will not be anywhere near the press, Tony,” she snaps, and it’s definitely over the line, definitely not her place, he’s not her son but god these days it feels like it and it’s hard to remember a time when it didn’t. “They’re vultures and you know it. We don’t need them getting ideas about some kid showing up at a conference he has no business being at.”

 

Tony studies her, with her chest rising and falling and the probably fierce look in her eyes, the fire that ignites always on Peter’s behalf.

 

“You’re right,” he nods. “After the conference. We’ll make it snappy. But cheeseburgers first.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s been three months since I’ve eaten anything that has taste,” he snaps. “I want an American cheeseburger and then I want to see my son, okay?”

 

Pepper sighs. She can accept that. “Alright.”

 

“Alright? Amazing. Drive, Hogan.”

 


 

The minute he’s home, Peter runs to his father’s workshop. 

 

“DUM-E! DUM-E!” He skids to a halt in front of the robot, who whirs and snaps his claw at Peter’s excited tone. “He’s coming!

 

DUM-E beeps loudly, all his lights flashing at once. Peter grins. He can’t help wrapping his arms around the bot’s arm. “I can’t believe he’s really coming back. I mean, I can. I knew he wasn’t dead. Nobody believed me, but I knew. I could feel it.”

 

DUM-E pokes Peter’s cheek like he wants to reassure that he believed Peter even when no one else did.

 

Peter grins and sits down on the floor in front of the bot. While he waits, he tells him about his day at school, because there’s really nothing better to do. 

 

“It was really stupid. Mrs Davis called on Nathan and he didn’t know the answer, so Amy said it for him, but then Mrs Davis got mad at her for taking Nathan’s turn even though he literally said he didn’t wanna answer. I don’t know. I think she’s just a crotchety old crone.”

 

DUM-E gives his best nod. Peter rambles on, and then finally works up the courage to ask the question that’s been plaguing him since Rhodey told him his dad had come back. 

 

“Do you think…” he trails off, picking at a loose thread on his uniform sweater vest. “Do you think he missed me? I mean, I know he missed me, he’s my dad, he has to. But do you think he missed me as much as I missed him?”

 

The bot, predictably, doesn’t answer. 

 

Someone else does instead.

 

“Well, I mean, I can’t say I can measure the exact amount of ‘missing’ you had for me, but I sure had a ton for you, bubble butt.”

 

It’s like the sun is rising in his chest, like snow thawing after a long winter; Peter hadn’t even realised how cold he was until he’s just not anymore. His dad’s voice washes over him and wraps him up in the warmest blanket. Peter whips around so quickly he gets whiplash, but he doesn’t care.

 

Daddy.” 

 

His dad’s smile is soft and gentle and his eyes are full of everything Peter had missed so much. A tear falls and it’s like he doesn’t even notice. “Hey, blue.”

 

Peter sobs, but he’s smiling, smiling so much that it hurts, and he’s running across the workshop into his dad’s awaiting arms. 

 

Well, arm. The other is tied back in a sling, pressed between them. But his good one wraps around Peter and pulls him close, and his beard scratches Peter’s cheek when he kisses him there, and again on his forehead, and again on his other cheek. 

 

“Oh my god,” Peter is saying. “Oh my god, you’re really here. You’re here, right?”

 

“Of course,” his dad leans back to look at him, smiling too, crying too. “I’m so sorry I was gone for so long, Bambi. I wanted to be with you so badly.

 

Peter sniffs. “S’okay,” he says. “I know.”

 

His dad puts his hand on the side of Peter’s face and thumbs away the tears. “God, look at you. You’ve gotta be, what, five inches taller? Ten?” Peter snorts, which makes his dad grin. “And what are these? Glasses? Since when do you need glasses?” He holds them up and squints through them. “How can you even see outta these, squirt?”

 

Peter takes them back. He doesn’t put them on again, though, because he doesn’t need them to see up close and showering his dad’s face with kisses is awkward with the frames. 

 

He makes sure to kiss the cuts double.

 

“Are you hurt?”

 

His dad’s face goes all soft. “A little bit, baby, but I’ll manage. What about you? Are you okay?”

 

“I am,” Peter nods. “Now, I mean.”

 

“I came back as soon as I could, I want you to know that. Every second I was gone, I wanted to be with you.”

 

“It’s okay, daddy, it wasn’t your fault. Uncle Rhodey already told me about how the bad guys got you.”

 

His dad nods slowly, still soaking him in. His fingers card through Peter’s hair and trail along the back of his neck soothingly. “You really are taller.”

 

“Only by two inches.”

 

“But you’re still six?”

 

“Still six,” Peter affirms.

 

“And you still love me?”

 

“Five hundred parsecs.”

 

His dad grins softly. He strokes Peter’s cheek. “Wow. That’s a whole lot.”

 

“I know. I think it grew while you were gone.”

 

“That’s crazy.” He shakes his head and then leans forward to press his lips against Peter’s forehead again. “Do me a favour and latch on? My knees are killing me. I think we should get somewhere more comfortable so you can tell me all about your new glasses and this business with Amy and Nathan.”

 

“You were listening?

 

“Of course. I’m everywhere, always.”

 

“Like in my heart?”

 

His dad smiles. “Especially in your heart.”