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Three Seemingly Small Words

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He's driving the car which was weird because he doesn't drive...

There's incoherent talking and laughter.  Whatever they're saying must be funny...

Tony's voice...

Tony's laugh...

He's laughing too because everything feels safe and right.

Then it's not...

Tony shouts a warning...

      ...maybe he grabs the wheel.  It's unclear. Everything is blurred...


                  ...nothing is clear...

                  Except that he's going to die...

                 He's shouting now. 'I love you!  I love you and I love Aunt May and...'

             ... still falling...

       ...still shouting I love you...

...falling... and falling...


Nothing but a blinding flash of white light.


Peter's eyes snapped open and he could feel a sharp breath catch in the back of his throat.  He's still in the car but he's not driving, Tony is.  Glancing beside him, he wondered if the man had heard him choke on his own breath. If he had he wasn't showing it.  His eyes were still focused on the road.  It was dark outside.  Not like in his dream.  His nightmare.  It had definitely been a nightmare.  Only he'd never had that one in particular before and he had no idea what to make of it.


Then suddenly the inside of the car felt too small, the seat belt felt too tight and the sound of the radio, despite being low was too loud.  He reached over to turn it off but he did so too quickly causing the shoulder strap hitch.  He gasped as it dug into his collar bone and chest.  That seemed to grab Tony's attention because he reached over to lower the music himself as Peter struggled with the restrictive seatbelt still locked across his midsection


"Kid?", Tony asked, reaching over to undo his passenger's seat belt, to allow the boy to stretch it out and click it back into place.  Only he didn't, he just sat there quietly staring straight ahead.  "Are you alright, Pete?"


No longer feeling bound to the seat didn't take away the general feeling of suffocation that was coming from being locked inside the car at the moment.  He needed out.  "Can we stop?", he asked quietly as he tried to find a position in the seat that didn't make him feel so overwhelmed.  So... trapped.


"Sure.", Tony replied causally.  With his attention on the road, he'd not gotten a good look at the kid and just assumed he needed to use the bathroom.  "I'll pull off at the next exit."


Unsure if he could keep himself from having a full-blown panic attack before that could happen Peter tried to take in a deep breath.  "Can we just pull over right here?  Please.". his voice sounded strangled and tight.  He almost didn't recognize it.


"Are you gonna be sick?", Tony asked with trepidation as he steered the car into the gravel lining the highway.  When Peter shook his head, Tony sighed.  "Pete... you can't just--"


"--I need out of the car for a minute.", Peter nearly shouted before the man could finish his sentence.  "I'm fine.", he added but he knew he didn't sound fine.  He was sure he didn't look fine either as he fumbled with the handle and struggled to get his feet onto the ground at a speed that deemed fast enough.  


Once he was out, he leaned heavily onto the side of the car and closed his eyes but all he could see was that bright white flash of light so he opened them up again.  When he did, Tony was in front of him and he didn't know how the man had gotten there so quickly.  He was sure he'd done little more than blink.  "I'm sorry.", he whispered out of habit more so than actual remorse.  Though once he got a good look at Tony's concerned features guilt seeped in and overtook the lingering panic.     


Reaching out and placing a hand on Peter's clammy cheek, Tony smiled reassuringly.  "Hey, What was that about, Buddy?", he asked softly.


Peter vaguely shook his head and swallowed.  He didn't know how to answer that.  Even though the man was already aware that he had the occasional nightmare this one seemed out of place and he didn't know how to explain it.   This one had nothing to do with the Vulture, the ferry or even Ben.  It seemed so... random and he couldn't put his finger on what had made this one feel so much worse than the others.  Maybe it was because he was pretty sure he'd died.  Though that too seemed odd since he was almost certain that you weren't supposed to be able to die in your dreams.  He'd always heard that you would wake up before that could happen but he hadn't.  


When Peter didn't answer, Tony started patting the boy's cheek in an attempt to regain his attention.  "Hey, Pete.  Come on, kid.  Look at me.", he said quietly adding just enough firmness to his tone to get Peter to snap back to the present.


"I'm sorry.", Peter mumbled again as he leaned into Tony's warm hand.  He was alive.  They both were.  It was fine and he was overreacting.


Tony smiled and huffed a laugh.  "So I've heard.", he said with a smile.  He was pretty sure that the kid apologized, at minimum, fourteen times a day and more than half of them were for nothing.  "Did you... have a nightmare?", he hesitantly asked because the kid was acting strange.  He'd only been present a few of the times Peter had woken up from a nightmare but during those times the boy would stay quiet for a few moments as he seemingly processed everything and then he would slowly start talking about it.  As if he was eager to get it off his chest.  He'd never seen him wake up so unnerved.  


Peter looked at the man in the eyes and abruptly remembered the only thing he'd heard clearly throughout his dreamed up scenario. He'd told Tony he loved him.  That was something that had never been said in real life.  Even if it were true, he was pretty sure that you didn't go around telling your mentor that you love him and he wondered why he would have done so, so easily in his subconscious.  '...because you thought you were about to die', his mind provided for him.  


Instead of answering Tony's question, Peter unthinkingly dropped his head onto the man's chest and took in a long steady breath in through his nose.  He had a heightened sense of smell that allowed him to pick on on the subtleties of a person's unique blend of pheromones.  Even beneath the aftershaves, perfumes or deodorants.  Certain people, he could recognize by their scent alone.  Tony was definitely one of those people, though he'd never chanced getting close enough to breath him in so deeply.  Then realized that not only had he yet to answer the man but that there was now a hand on the back of his head. 


When Peter had first placed his forehead on his chest, Tony'd not been sure of what to make of it.  At first, all he could do was look down at the swirling crown of the boy's hair.  Then some sort of natural impulse took over and he found himself resting his hand on the back of the kids head as if to hold it in place.  He was almost disappointed when Peter seemed to notice the action and rapidly righted himself so that they were no longer so close.


As he straightened his back, Peter felt the hand slide from his head, down to his shoulder.  There was another apology right at the tip of his tongue but bit it back.  Saying he was sorry for the third time seemed excessive even to him.  So instead, he looked at Tony and said, "We can go now, Mr. Stark.  I'm fine."


Clenching his jaw because he knew the kid was not fine, Tony curtly nodded his head.  The side of the highway wasn't a good place to be having this conversation anyway and if Peter felt like he could get back in the car again then he'd find somewhere more appropriate to talk.  


Peter climbed back into the front and snapped the seat belt in place, giving it a few gentle tugs to make sure it wasn't going to strangle him.  He noticed Tony didn't turn the music back.  That left him waiting for a conversation to start.  A conversation he couldn't be sure that he wanted to have or not.   He considered lying about the whole thing but Tony always knew when he was lying. It was like the man had a sixth sense for it.  He was so lost in his own head that he didn't hear his name being called.  It wasn't until there was a hand patting his knee that he realized he'd been completely consumed by his thoughts.  "Sorry", he whispered, cringing as he did so.  "I'm listening."


"I said, I'm going to pull off up here.  Looks like, there's a twenty-four-hour diner.  You hungry?", Tony asked even though he knew the kid probably was.  They'd had dinner hours ago.  The drive was taking longer than expected.  


Taking comfort in the fact that Tony had yet to remove his hand from his knee, Peter tried to smile.  "I could eat.", he said quietly.  He wasn't sure if he was hungry or not but the time alone told him that should be.  After that, the car went quiet again.  He liked the quiet.  It left room for him to think and there was a lot to think about.  He felt rushed to decode the dream before they arrived at their destination.  He was sure Tony would ask questions.


As he allowed his thoughts to go back to the dream he shivered slightly.  Tony seemed to notice and squeezed his knee.  It was strangely reassuring.  Despite the fact that the two of them had grown close, physical contact was rare.  If anything, there was an occasional side hug or pat on the shoulder.   He absentmindedly raised his hand to touch the side of his face where Tony had rested his own minutes earlier.  Then he looked down towards his lap where Tony's had was still tethering him to the seat.  To the present.


When Tony removed his hand to turn into the parking lot, Peter could feel the place where it had been resting quickly grow cold.  It felt empty and he missed it immediately.  Decided that was probably an awkward thought he tried to refocus on something else.  The diner.  The diner was well lit and you could see the various people milling around through the windows.  It was nearly midnight.  He wondered why so many were in there, to begin with.  


By the time they got inside and were seated at a booth, Peter had mostly resigned himself to having the discussion that was bound to arise.  He looked at the menu, glancing at his mentor who was doing the same.  The menu held all of the same generic diner food that you would expect to find anywhere else, yet they both seemed content to stare at it for longer than nessesary.  Eventually, Tony gave in and announced that he was ready.  Making a hasty decision, Peter did the same and with the menus no longer in their vision they were left to look at each other.


"What happened, Kid?", Tony asked after a few moments of silence.  "What on Earth did you dream about?"


As much as Peter wanted to say that it was nothing he couldn't.  He couldn't seem to say anything at all.  Then he was saved by the waitress stopping by to take their orders.  It wasn't much of a reprieve but he appreciated the interruption.  When she'd finished scratching down their orders and had walked away, Tony was back to looking at him expectantly.   The concern was back on his face.  Probably because at any other time, Peter would be talking non-stop.  Even he couldn't remember a time where he'd been so quiet for so long.  Licking his lips, and taking a breath, he finally answered.  "It was just a dream"


"Do you not want to tell me about this one?", Tony asked as he began to sip at his water.  "Usually you talk to me."


"This one was weird.  I don't know.", Peter replied waveringly as he willed the waitress to come back to ask them something.  Anything.  Another interruption to get him out of talking.  Luck wasn't on his side.


Smiling gently at the clearly shaken boy before him, Tony sighed.  "I can't make you talk to me, Buddy but I'd really like to know.", he explained because he did genuinely want to know.  Quiet Peter something foreign to him and he longed to know what would do that to him.  Cause him to panic as he had before clamming up completely.  The obvious need for contact wasn't missed either. That wasn't something Peter had ever tried to seek from him before but he'd clearly needed it.  Oddly enough, he'd found himself easily able to meet that need.  He'd surprised even himself.  


Instead of elaborating, Peter shifted nervously in his seat.  "Can I go to the bathroom?", he asked.  He didn't know why he asked.  It wasn't like he needed permission.  It just came out that way.  The same way the words 'I'm sorry' had earlier.  No thought had gone into it.  It just seemed like a reasonable delay. They had been in the car for hours.  


"Sure.", Tony replied with a sigh.  He was starting to wonder if he would ever get a real explanation.  He wasn't even sure why he was so adamant to get one.  Maybe it was because the kid had never been quite so evasive with him before.  Typically if Peter was anything it was forthcoming.  With him anyway.  Well, anymore.  It had been a while since the boy had tried to get something past him but this was different.  He was omitting. 


Peter returned to the table to find the food he'd ordered waiting for him.  Sitting down he began to pick at it.  The more bites he took the hungrier he became and he was soon rapidly consuming the meal set before him.   Feeling content, he allowed his eyes to flicker towards his mentor who was still spooning his own late-night snack into his mouth.  With the attention no longer solidly on him, it seemed easier to talk.  Easier to explain.  He folded his napkin and set it beside his plate, then leaned back onto the cushioned bench.  "I died.", he said with no context but Tony looked unfazed.


That admission had been enough to put Tony on edge but he didn't show it.  He was afraid that if he did, the kid would stop talking.  So he nodded his head and kept his eyes on his bowl.  "How do you mean?", he nonchalantly questioned.  He was curious for details.


"I was driving a car.  It went over the edge of... well, I'm not sure.  It was blurry.", Peter quietly explained.  


"That must have been scary.", Tony replied.  Peter nodded his head meekly.  "Were you alone?", he asked but there was no answer this time.  It was as if the boy didn't want to answer that particular question.  There must have been someone there.   "Pete.  Who was with you?"


Swallowing, Peter allowed his eyes to flicker up.  "You."


Tony tried to weight the correct response to that.  He wasn't sure if his standard-issue sarcasm was appropriate.  Though, it seemed to be all he had.  He was good at it.  His own brand of evasiveness.  Sarcasm would allow him to ignore the fact that he'd been around Peter so much the boy dreamed about him.  "...and I let you drive?  That doesn't sound right.", he finally said with a smirk.  All Peter did was blink back at him.  He'd missed the mark.  Sighing, he took a new approach.  "Did I say anything?"


"No.", Peter said before amending.  "Nothing I could understand.  We were, we were laughing, Mr. Stark.  Then you shouted something.  I think you were warning me.  I think you tried to take over the wheel too.  I couldn't really see, though.", he said, the words coming more easily now.  "Then the car started to fall.  It fell for a really long time, Mr. Stark and I knew I was about to die.  I started talking to you and then, then there was nothing.  Everything went white.  Then I woke up.  Why would I dream that?"  He intentionally left out the part where he'd said he loved him.  It wasn't important anyway.  ...but if it wasn't important then why would his mind not let it go?


Unsure as to how to answer that, Tony sighed.  "I don't know, kid, but I can understand why it would upset you.  That had to have been hard to watch.", he replied sadly.  He meant every word.  Nightmares were something he was familiar with.  Watching your own death would be enough to rattle anyone.  He would know.  He'd had similar dreams in the past.  He'd watched himself fall from that wormhole more times than he could count, he'd always woken upon impact.  The difference was that in the back of his mind he knew that he'd survive.  Peter was certain he'd died.  


Peter nodded his head and looked at his empty plate.  The details he'd left out were nagging at him.  Regardless, he didn't dare say them.  It would be the wrong thing to do.  So he didn't.  He just sat there.


After several moments of silence, Tony finally spoke up.  He knew there was more.  He could see it in the way the Peter would occasionally look in his direction only to look away before any eye contact could be made.  "What are you not telling me, kid?"


"Nothing.", Peter quickly replied.  "There's nothing."  That seemed to end the conversation.  Tony had set his bowl aside and was pulling out his wallet.  Within ten minutes they were back in the car.  It was still quiet.  The radio was back on but there was no conversation.  No banter.  No laughing.  His brain continued to press him.  He didn't even know why.  What difference would disclosing that detail make?  Surely that revelation would only serve to make things awkward between them.  He didn't want that.  


Half an hour passed and the nagging didn't stop.  The words were in his mouth and he was having trouble keeping them there.  Several times his voice had cracked as he cut off his own words before a single syllable could be uttered.  It was surprising that Tony hadn't commented on it.  Maybe he had the radio to thank for that.  They drew closer to Peter's apartment.  The nagging was still in his head.  The words were still in his mouth.  If he was going to say it he was running out of time.  Then before he could stop himself he was making a rapid confession.  "I said I loved you.", he said so quickly that the words ran together.  Tony gave him a strange look and he wanted to be swallowed up by the seat.


"Come again?", Tony said with amusement.  He'd not been able to understand one thing that had just come out of the kid's mouth.  He wasn't even sure how many words he'd had said.  Or in what language.  By the time his brain had processed the fact that Peter was speaking at all, the kid had already clamped his mouth shut again.  


Peter closed his eyes and took several measured breaths.  "I said... I said I loved you.", he repeated slowly before rapidly clarifying.  "In my dream!  ...I knew I was going to die and I said I loved you.  ...and May.  There might have been more but I don't remember."


Suddenly it all made sense to Tony.  The sudden desire for his affection.  The general antsy behavior when came to talking about the nightmare.  Most interesting was the fact that he'd found Peter's proclamation surprisingly unsurprising.  Deep down he'd already known and it wasn't one way.  He loved Peter as well.  He'd never said it.  Saying it would solidify it.  Solidifying it would make it hurt more when the kid inevitably lost interest in spending time with him but it was out there now. "You love me?", he carefully inquired. 


There were only so many ways for Peter to answer that question.  He could say 'yes' and have the truth set free.  He could lie and say 'no', taking the option of ever saying it again off of the table. Or, he could be honest.  Completely honest.  It was complicated.  "I, uh... I don't, I don't know how to answer that.", he stammered, having decided to go with the truth.


With the air in the car having grown thick with unspoken sentiments, Tony pulled into an abandoned parking lot.  He needed to give Peter his full attention.  "Why don't know you know how to answer it?  Are you worried about what I'll think?"


"I don't want to make it weird, Mr. Stark.", Peter replied instantly.  He did love Tony and didn't want to jeopardize his time with him.  "It was a dream."


"You thought you were going to die, Pete.", Tony said softly and again there was heavy silence between them.  Tony wondered if he should say more.  He was certain the right words existed he just didn't know if he had what it took to find them.  He fell back to sarcasm.  "...and things are already weird, kid.  I've spent the better part of the last eight months mentoring a radioactive spider child. I'm not sure it gets much weirder than that."  The kid flinched.  Tony swallowed.  When was he going to learn?   "I didn't mean it like that.", he sighed.  Relief washed over him when Peter smiled at him.  He hadn't screwed it up.  Not completely, anyway.


"When you put it like that, I guess it does sound pretty weird.", Peter replied. 


It was then that Tony realized he inadvertently changed the subject.  He needed to get it back on track.  for some reason, it felt important that he do so.  He turned the key.  The engine stilled and the silence went from thick to deafening.  He quickly undid his seat belt and exited the car.  He could feel Peter's eyes on him.  "Come on, kid.", he beckoned when the boy remained fixed to his seat.


Peter did as he was asked and climbed out of the car.  He hesitated by his door waiting for further instructions.  When none came the embarrassment of the last five minutes of conversation hit him with full force.  He was starting to think he'd said far too much.  He closed his eyes and tried not to fall into a mild panic.  At some point, he heard his name.  Then he felt strong arms wrap around him.  His nose was filled with Tony and he melted into the embrace.  It was nice. 


Now that the kid was in his arms, Tony didn't know what to do.  Hugging him had been an impulse.  He didn't know where it came from but now Peter was hugging him back.  He didn't know what was supposed to happen next.  Was he supposed to pull away first?  Was he supposed to wait for the boy to relinquish his hold?  As he was sorting through his options he heard a small noise.  Was Peter crying now?  Had he hurt him?  He considered rapidly pulling away but the kid had the back of his shirt in his fists.  


Being held so tightly in Tony's arms had brought on a rediscovered feeling.  One Peter hadn't realized he been missing until that moment.  It felt so paternal that his eyes had begun to water.  The last man to hold him in such a way had been his uncle Ben.  That had been years ago.  He'd forgotten what it felt like to be comforted by such a firm grasp.  May's hugs were gentle and loving.  This was different.  It was sturdy and safe.  Like his uncle's had been.  Like his father's had been before him.  Then the words came with unexpected ease.  He pulled away just enough to look into Tony's eyes.  "I love you.", he whispered with the weight of a hundred unspoken affections packed into it. 


The world didn't still.  Tony didn't stiffen or detach.  He held the boy more tightly and he allowed those three seemingly small words to wash over him.  It seemed incomprehensible that such a simple phrase could penetrate so deeply.  It made him feel needed.  Human, even.  There was no denying it.  There was no reason to.  "I love you too, kiddo.", he returned, allowing his cheek to fall against the side of Peter's head. 


They stood there for what felt like an eternity before Peter let go.  There was no lingering embarrassment as he'd imagined there would be.  Rather, he felt contented.  Everything was out in the open now.   It was freeing and the remainder of the ride home was pleasant.  Neither of them said much but this time, the lack of conversation was comfortable.  Maybe because there was something else between them now.  Something even silence couldn't overtake.  Something like mutual respect, fondness, and ease.  


As they came to a halt in front of the small apartment building, Tony smiled.  "It's late, kid.  You should go get some sleep."


Peter agreed and gathered his things.  "Can I see you tomorrow?"


"It is tomorrow...", Tony laughed.  It was well past one in the morning.  They should have been back earlier but there were things that needed to be said.  Despite his tired eyes and exhausted body, he was content with the way the evening had turned out.  "...but sure.  How about you and your aunt come by for dinner?"  


After nodding his head and opening his door, Peter paused.  He looked at the man beside him and smiled gently.  "Hey, Mr. Stark?"


"Yeah, kiddo?"


"Good-night.", Peter breathed out quietly.  Then there was a breath of pause before the next words easily left him.  "I love you."


Tony looked fondly at the kid beside him.  He reached over to rest his hand on Peter's cheek as he had earlier that evening.  It felt right and he was rewarded when Peter leaned into his palm.  Running his thumb tenderly across the boy's cheekbone, he smiled, "I love you too, kiddo.  I love you too."