You see, the thing about Peter Benjamin Parker is that for someone seemingly incapable of keeping his secret identity, well, secret, he's pretty good at lying about everything else.
'Everything else,' consisting of injuries of the non- and life-threatening variety, how bad the bad guys really are (and yes, Peter, serial killing wizards are definitely above your paygrade, and where were these weirdos coming from anyway? He needed to have a talk with Strange soon), the amount of schoolwork he brushed off in favor of helping a cat down from a tree, and literally everything else Tony needed to know for the sake of his sanity (and safety because he still didn't fully trust May to not murder him in his sleep, yet) but Peter refused to tell him because he was a little shit like that and was obviously planning to come into his inheritance early by giving Tony a stress-induced heart attack.
("He kind of reminds me of you."
"Shut up, Rhodey.")
You see, the thing is, Tony is fully aware that there is a dangerously, fine line between the benevolent protectiveness that comes with suiting up a hero and taking him on as a protégé—and yeah, Tony can deal with that, it's all business when it comes down to it, really, and he excels at that—and actually caring about what happens to the kid.
It is that side of the line that scares him the most because already he feels something warm and soft curl in his chest whenever he sees Peter and it's so sickeningly sweet that Tony swears he developed a cavity the first time he felt it.
Which was just. Ugh.
(Insert full-body shudder here.)
Tony Stark tries not to get too attached, he really does.
Attachment leads to caring about people. Caring about people leads to loving them. And loving them leads to the inescapable conclusion that they will one day leave you alone and hollowed out.
And most likely trapped in a wormhole in space.
(Okay, so maybe Tony's being a little dramatic, but still. It's the truth.)
He's read all the fairytales and watched all the Disney movies about love saving the day or a passionate lip-lock somehow curing the prince of a fatal poison. (Which is completely, scientifically impossible, by the way. If anything, the kisser would probably end up contracting the poison themselves. But who's he to ruin someone's childhood?)
The moral of the story being that love wasn't a weakness, but something that empowered you, enabling mothers to lift trucks off their babies and whatnot. (Most likely trucks that he probably dropped on them while trying to "save" the world but that was neither here nor there.)
But, like all things in life, love was a double-edged sword.
Loving people made you weak because when they leave, (and trust him they always do, be it by choice or not) they take pieces of you with them.
So the plan had been to keep Peter at an arm's distance and out of harm's way, but of course nothing ever goes his way, so here he is in his workshop at four-thirty in the morning re-watching footage of Peter's latest skirmishes while reminding himself that everything he's doing is utterly and perfectly normal and in the no way has he crossed that imaginary line in his head.
(On a completely unrelated note, Tony is the king of self-denial.)
In the video, the kid talks way too much, but it's cute how much pure joy he gleans from taking down muggers and bank robbers in a skin-tight spandex suit in the middle of the day.
Weird, but cute.
The smile tugging on the corner of his mouth promptly disappears when someone gets a lucky shot in and it's only through pure luck that Peter manages to avoid being shot in the chest, dodging at the last possible second, and it skims his side instead.
Peter stumbles but regains his footing easily enough to web up both thugs and leave post-it notes on their foreheads.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Tony massages the spot on his forehead that feels like drums are being pounded into his skull.
This kid is going to be the death of him.
He mutes the sound on the screen and moves it aside, colors flashing out of the corner of his eye as he brings up a holographic display of what may or may not have been an illegally obtained email about one Harley Keener to the Rose Hill County School Board. He reads it for what must have the eightieth time since he'd gotten the notification in the middle of a meeting.
(Enter Problem Child #2.)
...Mr. Harley Keener, despite his notable test scores, is aggressive, defiant, and utterly incapable of showing his teachers or peers respect...
...has on several occasions caused explosions in the chemistry lab and started small fires in shop class...
...dismantled the engines of several students and administrators for what he claimed to be "an investigation in human stupidity and ingenuity"...
...broke several windows with prototypes of his so-called "potato gun"...
...after multiple attempts of disciplinary action, the school believes it is in the best interest of the students for Mr. Keener to be expelled from Rose Hill High School...
"What the actual fuck, Keener?" Tony murmurs under his breath.
"Hey, Tony," The kid in question calls as he descends the steps into his workshop, his telltale drawl slipping through the frosted glass. Friday simultaneously closes the Spider-Man video screen and opens the screen door, letting him in.
Harley, for the most part, hasn't noticed the email, too busy tinkering with something that Tony has a sneaking suspicion once belonged to his microwave.
"Did you take my microwave apart?" He asks, turning around in his seat.
Harley continues as if he hadn't heard him. "Quick question: do you think it's possible to isolate the ionized particles of electricity using a high voltage transformer and then channel that energy into a potato?"
Tony stares. And blinks. Does it again.
"Well?" Harley insists, impatient as always.
"Nuh, uh. Me first. Did you take my microwave apart?"
"Look at me." Tony orders. "Answer again."
Harley does, baby blues glinting mischeviously even as he repeats himself, "No."
"You're an absolute menace," Tony says. "I hope you know that."
"But I'm your menace, right?" Harley's smile is pure, concentrated evil and damn it if Tony can't feel himself starting to smile back because he's weak like that and this is not the best way to start an important conversation and potential grounding.
He adopts a more serious expression, trying his hardest to look stern and disappointed but also open and understanding. (These parenting books obviously have no idea how the human face works but Tony decides he might as well give it a shot.)
Harley notices and frowns, drawing his eyebrows together in concern. "Are you having a stroke?"
"Oh. What's up with the face then?"
"This is what's up, Keener." He turns in his chair slightly to pull the hologram around, key points of the email already highlighted and circled in bright red.
Harley frowns, then pales considerably, his hands finally stilling on the machinery in his hands.
"What do you mean, 'Oh. That.' Harley, did you know about this?"
Harley shrugs, avoiding his gaze. "Mr. Anderson may or may not have mentioned something in passing at my last disciplinary meeting."
"Wha-? And you didn't think to tell me?" Tony splutters.
"I didn't think it mattered!" Harley replies, suddenly on the defensive.
"You're being expelled from the only high school in your town, Keener. Of course, it matters." Tony swipes the screen away so he can see Harley more clearly. "And what's with all these infractions? Kid, I knew you were a delinquent in the making but this seems a little excessive. Even for you."
Harley says nothing, his hands moving over the gadget in his hands.
"Talk to me?" He pleads.
Harley rolls his eyes, exuding the kind of world-weariness that only an angsty teenager can perfect. "You're making a big deal out of nothing. I'll just apply for college this fall. Problem solved."
Tony scoffs. "You're kidding, right? You're a seventeen-year-old high school junior with a rap sheet."
Harley points his screwdriver at him. "Hey, I'm a seventeen-year-old high school junior with a rap sheet who's a fucking genius–"
"–And besides, you went to MIT when you were only sixteen. How is this any different?"
"Because I wasn't expelled, Keener. You were and according to this email," he threw a thumb over his shoulder. "You gave them plenty of ammo to do it. I mean, programming the school intercom to play 'Baby Shark' at all times of the school day. Really?"
"That was pure comedic gold. I was being funny."
"What about when you released twenty frogs from the Biology lab?"
Harley sniffs. "I was doing my part as a PETA ambassador, no more and no less."
Tony raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms. "And the schoolwide blackout?"
"That had nothing to do with me."
"Allegedly," Tony drawls. "But I distinctly remember you asking me about circuitry and wiring that week; something about wanting to test a new invention that needed a sufficient power source."
"Oh?" Harley's leaning back on the table now, aiming for nonchalant and almost succeeding. "I don't remember having that conversation."
"Really, because Friday does, should I have her play it back or–?"
"No, no, no!" Harley exclaims, eyes wide. "Fine. Yes, I admit it. I have been more...difficult lately." He looks pained to admit it.
Tony snorts. "That's one word for it."
"But what kind of teenager doesn't act out every once in a while? I'm only fulfilling the stereotypes put in place by society." Harley makes a motion as if to say, 'You didn't think of that, did you?'
"Yeah, well, society also tells us it's okay to be ourselves but I don't go out wearing socks and sandals, do I?"
"Do you want to?"
"What? Ew, don't be stupid! Of course not." Tony shakes his head. "The point is, you're not leaving school. I won't allow it."
"You can't do that," Harley says but he sounds unsure.
"Funny," Tony tilts his head. "It almost sounded like you were telling me, the head of a multi-billion dollar company and former Avenger, what I can and can't do."
Harley rolls his eyes but leans into Tony's touch when he swings an arm around his shoulders, leading him out of the room.
"You're being unnecessarily pushy right now. Metaphorically and figuratively."
"And you're being unnecessarily difficult," Tony retorts. "Why can't you be more like my intern?"
Friday closes the door behind them, lighting the way to the elevators which also opens as they approach.
"Kitchen, Fri," Tony says.
"You know I'm starting to think that this intern of yours is nothing but a ploy to get me to think that I have competition," Harley says, picking up the threads of the conversation.
"What competition? There's no competition." The elevator brings them to the kitchen where a steaming pizza sits, most likely delivered by Happy before he went off on his date with May.
"Really? Because I haven't seen or met this mysterious intern. How do I know he isn't a figment of your imagination? Or some kind of reverse psychology technique to get me to behave?"
"He's not," Tony insists, flipping the box open. "I've had him for almost a year now, you just haven’t bothered to come see me in ages. Peter is a real boy just like you."
Harley snorts. "Then why haven't I seen him yet?"
"He's on a school trip for the weekend. When he gets back, I'll introduce you."
"Yippee." Harley rolls his eyes and when Tony glares he adopts an innocent expression. "What?"
"Be nice, Harley."
"When am I not nice?"
"When you're being an ass, coincidentally. The two correspond worryingly well. Peter's a good kid. He doesn't need your sarcasm."
"Everyone needs a dose of Keener sarcasm. They just don't know it yet."
"I'm sure. You know, nowhere in your criminal record did they mention the reason for this." He touched the black mark underneath Harley's eye briefly, changing the subject. "Do I want to know the story?"
Harley shrugs, picking the olives off of his pizza even though he was the one to ask for them. "Lost a fight with a door frame. There isn't much to tell."
Tony hums. "How's your sister?"
"Good. She loves the boarding school she's in, made loads of friends."
"And your mom?"
Something flickers across Harley's expression, too fast for Tony to catch.
"Rehab. Again." His voice is too smooth, too casual, and Tony frowns.
Harley catches his expression and waves a hand at him. "Don't stroke out on me yet, old man, it's fine. I'm staying with my aunt and her boyfriend until she's back."
"Oh. Good." Tony clears his throat and hates himself a little because emotions have never been his strong suit and for the briefest moment, he wishes Cap was here, which, weird.
"Well, until I figure out how to get you back in school," Harley smirks sheepishly and Tony resists the urge to tousle already mused locks. "Maybe you can stay here for the week. Think your aunt would be good with that?"
"Yeah, of course." Harley nods enthusiastically.
"Great." Tony claps. "You may actually get to meet Peter."
"If he exists."
"Maybe I'll meet Spider-Man, too."
Tony almost chokes and quickly covers it up by popping the cap on his root beer and swigging it down. "Yeah. Maybe."
"So what's Patrick like?"
"Peter." Tony corrects.
"If you say so."
"I do say so. So does his birth certificate. Because he was born, you know, like a real person." Tony snarks before getting the conversation back on track. "He's a lot like you, actually; scary smart for his age. He's more of a biochemist than anything else but he isn't lacking in any other departments either."
"I'm failing to hear the part where he's better than me and I thought replacements were supposed to be that," Harley interjects, expression curiously innocent, and this time Tony really does mess with his hair.
"For starters, he isn't as much of a little shit–"
"And second, neither of you are replacements for the other, ok? I want you guys to be friends. Is it too much to ask for you to be civil?"
Harley levels him with a deadpan stare that reminds him so much of himself it's almost terrifying.
"Fine. Fake it if you have to. Just don't make him cry. I will not be held liable for your death if his scary friend and aunt attempt to dismember you."
"I will. Scout's Honor." Harley raises his hand and Tony pushes it back down.
"Please. You've never been a scout for a single day in your life."
"Pinky promise then?" Harley holds out the digit and grins, wiggling it.
Tony rolls his eyes but acquiesces. "You're fucking weird, kid."
"You missed me though." Harley's smile is wicked and this time Tony does smile back.
He really did.