“Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say:
these are the conditions, now what happens next?”
- Richard P. Feynman
Tony tends to wake up early, whether he wants to or not. It’s always been that way, even as a kid.
It hasn’t always been a good thing.
He’s woken up bright and early after far too many wild nights still drunk from the night before - or worse, in that liminal space between ‘still drunk’ and ‘raging hangover’; just sober enough to know what’s coming next, but too inebriated to quite manage anything that could make the transition a little easier.
In college, he was regularly the only one awake in the early hours of a given Saturday or Sunday (or Tuesday, or Thursday…) morning, or at least it had felt that way sometimes. Picking through the detritus of the previous evening to find his clothes strewn across some dorm room or frat house floor, sometimes not quite able to find everything. Walking home with his hands shoved in his pockets and his head tucked down against the too-bright sun.
After college, the habit had saved him from any number of uncomfortable mornings-after. Slipping out of whichever bed he happened to find himself in, beating an escape before his partner (or partners) could wake up enough to catch him in the act.
But on this particular morning, he's not the only one awake.
Tony cracks one eye open to find Peter sitting up in bed, back resting against the headboard, the holo display from one of his wristbands casting him in an orange glow. All he’s wearing are the wristbands and his boxers.
Tony hasn’t moved yet, but Peter must have noticed he’s awake because he glances down at Tony with a wry expression.
“The Home Alone 2 Protocol, really?”
“Lost in New York. It seemed apt,” Tony answers.
“I’m disabling it.”
Tony levers himself up on one elbow, eyes scanning over where Peter is picking apart the suit coding, line by line. “You didn’t want to maybe consult with me before you started messing around in there?”
“Like how you consulted with me before putting it in there in the first place?”
Touché. Tony settles his other arm across Peter’s hips, leaning in to press his lips to Peter’s side in apology. It’s almost impossible to miss the way Peter’s breath hitches in response.
“You’re not gonna distract me with that,” Peter says, sounding probably much less certain about it than he means to.
Tony hadn’t actually been trying to distract the kid, but hey, there’s an idea. He splays his hand out over Peter’s stomach, grinning when he feels the muscles twitch and tense under his palm. Tony lets his fingers slip down just under the waistband of Peter’s boxers, not far enough to be dirty, yet, but far enough to tease. It’s been entirely too long since he’s had this, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t remember exactly how Peter likes it, first thing in the morning.
“You’re sure we can’t just leave it in? I’ll pinky swear not to activate it unless there’s some kind of emergency.”
“I’m from the post-Twilight generation, Mr. Stark, we don’t really buy into the whole stalking-as-romantic trope.”
Tony stops in his tracks. “I swear to god, if you’re about to call Twilight a really old movie right now - ”
“Yeah because now seems like a really good time to remind you I was like seven when that movie came out - oh.” Peter cuts himself off, seeming to realize too late that’s exactly what he’s done.
“Sorry,” he adds, looking vaguely chagrined.
Tony scrubs his hand over his face. He’s not going to have a freak out first thing in the morning over fucking Twilight, of all things. He refuses.
“There need to be contingencies,” he offers instead, switching directions.
“I’m not an idiot, I don’t want to deactivate it completely. That would’ve been a lot easier. And I’m renaming it the Iron-Signal.”
“The what now?”
“You know, like the Bat-Signal. Only better.”
Tony snorts. Of course.
“Fine, whatever. Show me what you’ve got so far.”
Peter flicks a portion of the display over towards Tony. It’s a shorthand list of contingency situations that Peter must have started drawing up while Tony was still asleep.
He massages the numbers a little bit, adds a couple items to the list, then adds a few more when Peter doesn’t object too strenuously to the first round of suggestions. They spend a while bickering over the implementation; Tony not quite able to put into words why unrestricted backdoor access to Peter’s vitals are so important. But Peter is smart, he catches on anyway.
“Is it - does having access to that stuff help when you’re freaking out?”
The kid’s been listening to his heartbeat every night for a couple of weeks now; of course he fucking knows about the nightmares. Tony had almost managed to convince himself that the kid was probably sound asleep for most of them, and maybe that was even true.
But not all of them, obviously.
Tony clears his throat. “Yeah, it helps.”
“Okay. We can leave that in, then.”
That was... surprisingly easy.
“But I get notified anytime you use it,” Peter adds, tapping out a few quick commands on the display.
Ah, there it is. Tony isn’t thrilled with the prospect, but it’s better than the alternative. Plus, maybe he can figure out a way to discreetly redirect those notifications. Or at least delay them by a few minutes, give him enough time to scrape together some shreds of his composure and dignity before Peter inevitably calls to check in.
They spend a good chunk of the morning rewriting the suit code, generally bickering over what constitutes an emergency situation and where to draw the red alert line for Peter’s baseline vitals. Tony refuses to call the updated protocol the Iron-Signal. Peter refuses to refer to it as anything else.
Negotiations are ongoing.
The easy early morning peace is interrupted by FRIDAY’s voice over the intercom.
“Boss, we’ve got a problem.”
“Gonna have to be more specific there, FRI.”
“I believe you most recently categorized this situation as a UFO.”
“Wha - as in aliens? Here, now?” Peter interjects.
“In this instance, UFO stands for Unbelievably - ” FRIDAY starts.
“Not important, FRIDAY. How far out?”
“- Fatuous Officeholder, otherwise known as Secretary Ross. He is at the gate now, approximate time of arrival at the residential sector of the compound is five minutes.”
Fuck fuck fuck.
“Pete, I’m gonna need you to get dressed and get to the hangar bay, now. You know what’s in there. FRIDAY will talk you through wiping the memory drives.”
“What, why?” Peter is already out of bed, hopping around a bit as he pulls on his jeans.
Tony hadn’t wanted the kid to find out this way - actually, he’d been trying to figure out a way to rationalize never telling him at all. He hasn't quite managed it yet.
And now the choice is out of his hands.
“Ross is gonna try to take the ship. It’s the Grandmaster’s ship, and you know how much he likes to watch.” Tony throws perhaps a bit too much emphasis on those last few words, but based on the way Peter’s mouth falls open in disbelief, the kid gets the implication loud and clear.
“Go, I’ll buy you some time,” Tony says.
Peter nods, his mouth snapping shut, already heading for the window.
“And kid? Get rid of the sheets too.”
Peter only pauses for a split second before nodding again, throwing open the window and swinging outside. Thank god Tony’s bedroom suite faces the water and not the front drive so Peter can swing over to the hangar bay unseen.
He’s had weeks now to take care of this shit, and over and over again he’s found some excuse to put it off. He could’ve hidden the ship away, contrived some sort of regrettable accident and blown the fucking thing up, hell, pretended to straight up lose it somehow. Weirder things have been known to happen, after all - both at SHIELD and the DODC.
One of those weird things was Peter, come to think of it.
Tony pulls on some clothes while he continues alternately mentally berating himself and praying that Peter can get everything done in time. He grabs his tablet off the nightstand and orders FRIDAY to get some coffee going. He’s going to need it.
By the time Ross pulls up out front Tony is lounging on the couch with his feet propped up on the coffee table, idly scrolling through his email with the tablet in one hand and a mug of steaming hot coffee in the other.
FRIDAY lets Ross in and Tony puts on his best surprised face.
“Hi honey, didn’t expect to see you home so early. Slow day at the office?” he says.
“Don’t get cute with me, Stark, I could have you arrested.”
“Could you? For what exactly?”
Ross ignores him. “Where’s the ship?”
“I’d love to help, I really would. But you’re gonna have to be a little more specific. SI has a fleet of all kinds of ships - fuel efficient prototypes we’re gonna show off at the next Expo, air transport carriers, commuter planes, private jets, and that’s not even going into the quinjet fleet we also run out this base for the world-saving stuff.”
“You know which one I mean.”
“Do they actually write warrants like that? Or is it sort of like with porn, ‘I know it when I see it'?” Tony does his best to suppress a wince. He’s straying a little too close to the truth there.
It’s a weak defense anyway; Ross doesn’t need a warrant. All he needs to do is mutter the words ‘national security’ - or worse, ‘global security’ - and half of Congress will be beating their chests in a rage. If Pepper were here, she probably could’ve negotiated some workable compromise, but she’s not. She has a company to run, and this isn’t company business, anyway. Then again, Pepper probably wouldn’t have spent the past few weeks dodging Ross’ calls. In retrospect, Tony really should have seen this coming.
“I’ll find it myself,” Ross says.
“I’m happy to help you look. Always glad to be of service.”
The ship just so happens to be parked in the farthest hangar bay, for which Tony is eminently grateful.
Ross might be a blowhard politician now, but he’s a military man first and foremost. And Tony knows how to handle military brass. Maybe he couldn’t put Ross off the scent entirely, but he sure as hell could distract the guy with shiny new tech as they made their way through the intervening hangar bays. Stark Industries may have bowed out of the weapons manufacturing business, but they still had a number of contracts with the DOD for strictly non-offensive tech.
Ross is grudgingly impressed with some of the stealth tech and repulsor engine enhancements - side projects that Tony hadn’t technically been planning to share with the government just yet, but will now almost definitely find their way onto the bargaining table in the next round of contract negotiations.
Tony knows he’s bought the kid some extra time, hopefully it’s enough. It doesn’t stop his heart from pounding in his chest as they walk towards the final hangar, the bay doors cranking open with what feels like agonizing slowness.
He almost trips mid-step as they head inside, does his best to cover the slip by taking a massive gulp of coffee -
Because the ship isn’t there.
There’s a ship there, alright, but it doesn't look anything like the Rear Admiral.
It’s half covered in a giant tarp, but based on the general silhouette Tony would guess it’s meant to be something like an early quinjet prototype. Ross seems to come to the same conclusion, dismissing it out of hand - more interested in the empty space immediately next to it. Tony is still so caught up in trying to work out what the hell Peter is pulling that it takes him an extra second or two to realize why Ross is walking around the empty side of the bay, reaching out with his hands.
Right. The stealth tech Tony had literally just shown him.
Tony has to bite back a half-hysterical giggle that bubbles up in his throat. Ross is walking right past the real thing because he thinks Tony is hiding an invisible ship in the empty space just next to it.
But he can’t laugh it off just yet. For all that Tony might enjoy treating Ross like he’s an idiot, he isn’t. Not completely. He would’ve had men watching the hangar bays since before he arrived, either on the ground with high-powered scopes or by satellite - probably both. Tony is willing to bet that whatever ass-pull Peter had managed to create the fake-quinjet wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny for more than a few seconds.
And Ross is watching him. Assessing.
Tony lets his expression settle into his very best approximation of helpful ignorance and waits it out. As much as he’s itching to rush the man out of here, it would only give the game away.
“I hope you realize what’s at stake here,” Ross says. “Maybe that ship wasn’t weaponized, but you know just as well as I do that the next one could be. If we can’t study their tech, we can’t effectively defend against it.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s kind of why I’m here.” Tony spreads his hands, gesturing around at both the hangar and compound at large. “You know, Iron Man, Earth’s greatest defender - ringing any bells?”
“Oh it’s ringing a bell alright. You’ll have to forgive me if I’d rather not rely on your massive ego to protect the world from what’s out there.”
Tony’s jaw clenches. He knows what’s out there; some tiny fraction of it, at least. Ross isn’t wrong, is the worst part.
But handing over the ship isn’t going to change any of that. True, maybe with access to the ship the US military could engineer some kind of early warning or defense system - but these are some of the same organizational structures, hell, some of the same people who had been a-okay with ordering a nuclear strike on Manhattan not so long ago. Who’d greenlit Project Insight without the slightest inkling of the men behind the proverbial curtain.
Much as Tony hates to acknowledge it, Rogers might have been right. Tony was far from infallible, but the safest hands were his own. Peter clearly thought so.
Tony doesn’t want to leave Ross with the last word, but he bites his tongue. Let the man think he’s won the argument, maybe he’ll fuck off a little faster.
“That ship - or anything like it - turns up again, I expect you to turn it over to the Council immediately.”
Ross collects his people, who have doubtless been poking around the compound’s security systems, and leaves. Tony stays in the hangar bay, idly sipping his coffee - at least until FRIDAY confirms that all unauthorized personnel have vacated the property and no little spying presents have been left behind.
“All clear,” she announces.
Tony walks over to the quinjet, reaching out to brush his fingertips over the paper-thin shell of nanites. He lets out a deep sigh of relief; no way Peter’s little trick would’ve held up if Ross had gotten close enough to touch.
He circles around to the back and yanks the tarp off of the ship, revealing the back half of it is undisguised, save for a couple pieces of cardboard Peter must have webbed in place to help approximate the right silhouette.
“FRIDAY, tell Peter he can drop the mask.”
Moments later the nanites drop to the floor like a shimmering curtain, molding themselves back into two very familiar hyper-dense wristbands. Tony picks them up off the ground. They're heavy, or at least they are to Tony. To Peter they probably feel like nothing.
He finds Peter inside the ship, sitting on the bed with his elbows braced against his knees, hands folded together between them.
“For someone who sucks at poker, that was a pretty impressive bluff, kid.”
Peter shrugs, taking the wristbands from Tony's open palm and slipping them back in his arms.
“Seemed like a better idea than just handing it over.”
“And if it hadn’t worked?”
“You would’ve figured something out. I haven’t deleted anything yet, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Peter shakes his head. "Didn't have time, once I decided to do this instead."
He wants to ask, why? but can't figure out how to phrase it without sounding accusatory. If anything, Peter is the only one with a right to be accusatory here.
"...why didn't you?" Peter asks, after a minute.
"I've been messing around with the nav data, didn't want to give it up unless I had to, in case there was something I missed backing up."
It's a flimsy excuse, and they both know it.
"I should've deleted it all weeks ago," he admits. "I was going to. But I was trying my best to give you space, and I think you know self control isn't historically one of my strong points."
Peter's eyebrows go up at that last bit; the barest hint of a confession. "You were watching them?"
Tony shrugs. On the list of all his myriad sins, watching porn (of himself, even - how narcissistic is that?) seems somewhat trivial in comparison. It probably says something about how much time they've spent together that Peter already seems to have cottoned onto his train of thought.
"Were you watching yourself, or… um, me?"
In any other context, that might have been flattering. Instead, Peter looks frustrated.
"I was right here. I - "
"You were supposed to be home, safe, hanging out with your friends and your aunt, and hopefully forgetting everything that happened on that planet."
"Yeah? And what am I supposed to be doing now?"
Tony steps forward, reaching up to cup Peter's head in both hands. Peter tips his head back to look up at him, his chin digging into Tony's stomach.
"Anything you want."
"I want you to delete the recordings."
Peter grins. "I meant like, now."
"I'm right here. You still want them when you can have me instead?"
"You make a compelling argument," Tony has to concede. He tugs lightly at Peter's hair. "C'mon, let's get it over with, then. We can make a bonfire and burn the sheets after."
Tony steps back to give Peter room to stand up.
"I kinda like the sheets," Peter says.
"Please tell me you're joking."
Peter puts on his best wide-eyed innocent expression.
Tony snorts. The kid's poker face still sucks.
"We've gotta work on that," Tony says, tapping just underneath Peter's chin.
For all the time he's spent putting it off, actually deleting the recordings is so obnoxiously boring and simple that it's anticlimactic. It takes a while, mostly because wants to do a damn thorough job of it, and it takes time to repeatedly overwrite and then erase the entire database. Peter watches in rapt attention, until Tony realizes that with the new translation program in place, it's the first time the kid has been able to actually read the HUD.
"I did spend some time down here actually working on universe-saving stuff," Tony says, by way of explanation. It seems important to point out that not all of his time on the ship was entirely recreational.
Peter looks over at him, one eyebrow quirked. "Uh huh."
They do end up burning the sheets, although they use the lab incinerator instead of making a bonfire, somewhat to Tony's dismay. The bonfire idea had a certain panache that the eminently practical incinerator lacks. It is, however, much faster than building a bonfire, which is the argument Peter uses that wins out -
"We could do, you know, other stuff with that time."
"Yeah? What kind of stuff?"
Peter purses his lips together, his eyes going momentarily unfocused the way they sometimes do when the wheels are turning. "You said anything I wanted, right?"
"I've got some ideas."