Somewhere in the rear corners of his mind, Peter had been aware that corporate espionage was a thing. A distant, nebulous thing that he knew happened somewhere to someone—like car accidents or tornadoes or lightning strikes. He’d heard Happy grouse about it in passing, muttering about the incident reports and investigations that piled up on his desk because of it. With Stark Industries forever hovering near the top of all the relevant rankings and staying a firm ten years ahead in R&D, there were always attempts. Spies and attempted server hacks. Bribery and palm-greasing and insidious little coups aimed at any employees who looked even the least bit vulnerable from the outside, if Happy’s dire little warnings about Peter needing to watch his back around “sketchy business types” were to be believed. But all of it seemed so far removed from Peter’s reality that it didn’t seem truly…real.
Not, at least, until now, when Peter stood halfway between the sinks and the entrance to the convention center’s bathroom, handily blocked in by a man with a slick suit, a sharp smile too oily to be genuine, and an offer said man just wouldn’t let go of.
"You really think you can afford to pass up an opportunity like this, kid?" He—Ed, according the name on the Oscorp red badge clipped to his collar—talked too fast, too smoothly, as though too unused to not getting his way to even consider the possibility. The way “kid” rolled out of his mouth made Peter’s hackles rise. It wasn't the friendly, exasperated endearment it was when it came from Tony or Pepper or even Happy. It was a condescension. A polite little threat sugarcoated in uncomfortable familiarity.
"I—" Peter hadn’t gotten a word in edgewise in the ten minutes since he’d been cornered. Nor had there been a chance to shake off the man’s bruising grip on his shoulder without raising suspicion about how a skinny teenager had that sort of strength. It wouldn’t have taken much. Peter’s shoulder itched for one good shrug. But, Peter lamented with a weary sigh, this wasn’t the place to start flexing.
"How long's one internship going to last? Is it even a paid internship?"
"No, but that's not—"
“Then there you go! One little job, kid, that’s all it is.” The tone turned triumphant, wheedling in a way that left Peter torn between sputtery indignation that he would ever so much as contemplate smuggling one single scrap of Mr. Stark’s tech to anyone else and a growing desperation to bowl the man over and make a run for it. He realized, with a jolt that nearly sent a hysterical giggle spilling out of his chest, that the scenario wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. He and Ned had caught a rerun of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory during an exhausted lull between exam study sessions over the weekend, when their movie standards were low and the need for background noise was high. Perhaps they’d been tempting fate. It was as good an explanation as any for why he was trapped in a bathroom at a tech convention, playing the unwilling Charlie Bucket to a greasier imitation of Slugworth.
“That’s not—I can’t do that to Mr. Star—”
There was a flicker of movement at the mouth of the door, a flash of dark suit and familiar red face before Happy’s broad shoulders were filling the entrance. Peter trailed off, blowing out a relieved sigh with the knowledge that he’d never in his life been so happy to see…well…Happy.
At the beginning of the night, he’d been trailing him through the crowd—as he almost always did at big company events—but he’d lost track of him somewhere between the robotics demonstration booth and the biochemical research panel, the older man’s nondescript suit blending into a sea of identical boring business attire before Peter even realized he was gone.
It had seemed like a good thing at the time.
Happy was always twice as stressed at events like this one, with Stark Industries hosting and Tony flitting from stage to stage all night as he made a dizzying amount of speeches and moderated too many panels for Peter to keep straight while he watched from backstage. With so many other assets to manage, Peter had figured hanging out on his own for a while—and thus taking the “keep an eye on Peter” item off his to-do list (his actual, physical to-do list—Peter had seen the Post-It stuck to the back of his phone with his own two eyes)—would probably be healthier for the man’s blood pressure. He just hadn’t expected it to be this detrimental to his own.
Especially now, as he watched Happy scan the situation quizzically, his face hardening into a deep frown as realization took root. Peter gulped, wondering how much he’d heard. And what side he thought Peter had taken.
"Hey!" Happy waited to bark out the word until he’d slipped close enough to loom behind the man at close-range. Ed jumped hard at the booming echo of Happy’s voice in the odd acoustics of the restroom, his grip on Peter's shoulder dropping away as if he'd been scalded as he skittered a few feet back. "Back off the kid."
“Beg your pardon? Who exactly are y—”
“Head of security,” Happy snapped, striding forward to wedge himself between Peter and Ed. He snuck a glance Peter’s direction without turning his head, apparently too edgy to let his attention fully drift, but too concerned to ignore him completely. His voice dipped a notch softer, still taunt with a barely-contained rage Peter had become well-acquainted with after all the times his late-night phone calls and persistent chatter had driven Happy nearly to the brink…but tempered with the sort of brusque worry only Happy could pull off. “Peter? He been bothering you?”
“He followed me around the event floor for twenty minutes before this, if that counts,” Peter muttered. Ed was, evidently, a very persistent intern poacher. Despite Peter’s attempts to lose him after his first brush with the man outside the intern lounge, he’d still ended up held hostage in a bathroom. Happy stared at him for half a second, a flicker of puzzled disappointment furrowing his brow before he turned his ire back to Ed.
"That counts." Happy fastened a brittle smile on the man in question, all teeth and menace as he clamped a heavy hand on the back of the man's suit coat. Peter knew it wasn't often that he got the chance to revisit the job he'd originally been hired for. His responsibilities had long ago shifted from bouncing unruly party guests and shutting down hecklers to supervising the young bucks Tony paid to handle that kind of physical labor. In the long run, that was probably a good thing—according to the things Tony fretted about when Happy was safely out of earshot, he was never quite as hearty as he had been before the theater explosion and, loathe as he was to admit it, he wasn't getting any younger.
But given the warning finger he held up when Peter shoved up the sleeves of his dress shirt and stepped forward to help, this wasn’t exactly an unwelcome opportunity.
"Stay put—I'm gonna take care of this. Don't you go wandering off again in the meantime."
With that, he was gone, frogmarching the guy to the nearest exit and propelling him out onto the street with very clear instructions not to return to this or any future Stark event. Very clear. And very loud. Happy didn’t exactly yell as he went over the many unpleasant things in store for any future Oscorp contacts caught hassling Stark interns…but it was a near thing. Peter winced as he slunk out of the bathroom to sag against the adjoining wall. He suspected he would’ve been able to hear the scolding even without enhanced hearing.
It only left him wondering what Happy would have to say when he got ahold of Peter.
His head came up like a shot when he finally caught sight of Happy stalking back through the crowd to get to him. He straightened, his throat bobbing in an uneasy gulp as the gap between them closed.
"Look, Happy, I'm really, really sorry—I should've handled him without all the drama, I just didn't want to make a scene, and he wouldn't stop talking about his stupid offer—which, by the way, I would never—"
"I know you wouldn't, kid."
"Oh." Peter deflated, slumping back against the nearest wall in relief. There was a spark of satisfaction in his chest with the knowledge that Happy apparently didn’t even doubt him for a moment And yet, the more he actually looked at Happy, at the veins still standing out at his throat, the face still red with temper, the less it felt like being out of the danger zone. "You're still mad, though..."
"Yeah, I'm mad! You just let that grabby little asshole harass you without even trying to—" Happy cut himself off as his voice begin to rise again. He took a measured breath, clenched his jaw as if bite back anything too harsh before he started again. “Why didn't you come get me when that guy started bugging you?"
Peter shrugged. "I... figured I could handle it."
"Oh, yeah? You figured you could handle the guy who followed you around the building for twenty minutes?"
"Happy, I'm..."Peter raised his brows pointedly, his wrists jumping in a subtle thwip-thwip. "...you know. I should be able to handle one pushy corporate dude."
"Not here you're not," Happy shot back, a whiff of the same desperation that usually came with his testy comments about self-preservation sneaking into his voice. "You're a junior intern—a kid. And if someone's giving you trouble, you come find me. That's how security works."
Peter huffed and jammed his hands into his pockets to keep them from fidgeting. As if he didn’t know how Happy’s job worked. He did. It just…didn’t seem like the sort of protection that should apply to him when there when there were people like Tony and Pepper walking around with much bigger targets on their backs and a much stronger claim to any spare time Happy—and the rest of the security team—had. "You're busy! You've got actually important stuff to do and important people to keep an eye on and I’m just—"
"Kid." Happy interrupted softly, his voice tinged with an incredulous sincerity—gruff and blunt, but sincerity nonetheless—Peter couldn’t quite believe. "You're important, too, you know."
Peter started to shake his head, a million reasons why he shouldn’t be the priority here springing to mind, but Happy cut him off with a sharp grunt of disapproval. He stabbed a stern finger in Peter’s direction. “Don’t make me say it twice, kid—you’re too smart for that.”
Peter clamped his mouth shut again and blinked. It wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Once upon a time, he was pretty sure Happy would’ve agreed with him, back when he was still brushing off patrol reports and dodging Peter’s phone calls. Yet here he was now, rating Peter as much a priority as the rest of the people he hoarded close. Peter ducked his head to hide the smile sneaking across his face.
"You okay?" Happy broke the uneasy silence and nodded at Peter's shoulder, where the fabric of his coat remained rumpled from Ed’s grip. "Looks like he had a pretty good grip there—"
"So, I hear I've been missing all the fun," Tony's voice broke through the murmur of the crowd, calm and inquisitive and even a smidge amused, if Peter recognized the twist of that smirk correctly, as he sauntered up from the panel he was due to have finished five minutes earlier. "Apparently, there's a very disgruntled Oscorp rep throwing a hissy fit on the front steps…"
"He was bothering the kid." Happy bristled.
"He tried to Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory me," Peter piped up in the same instant, still a little sheepish and fidgety with the admission, but not as nervous as he had been. If Happy, of all people, thought he was too important to doubt…Tony just might, too.