"Sir, do you not think it more prudent to answer some of your messages than to begin yet another project?" JARVIS asked. "Perhaps the ones marked as urgent, as they very well may be… urgent?"
"No, I do not," Tony said firmly, scowling in the general direction of the ceiling. "In fact, go ahead and send all of 'em over to Pepper. She'll know what to do."
"Very well," answered JARVIS, and Tony could almost picture the pursed lips of Edwin Jarvis, and the almost imperceptible drop of his shoulders that he used to do whenever someone around him was being particularly difficult.
Which just happened to be Tony, most of the time. Especially when he would try to insist that Tony needed to eat or get some sleep, and Tony would try—and usually fail—to convince him otherwise.
Damn, how Tony missed him!
Especially since his entire life—he and Peter's entire lives—had just been essentially turned on their heads, with none other than Steve fucking Rogers now living in their home as their SHIELD-assigned bodyguard. The very same Steve Rogers that Tony had forced himself to try and hate for stealing away his own father's love.
Tony was a father to a precocious, genius child, and so had seen quite a bit that had both shocked and surprised him over the course of Peter's short lifetime. But never in a million years could he have possibly seen that one coming.
Regardless, Tony was convinced that Mr Jarvis would still know exactly what to say. He had always been a master of diffusing tension, as working for Howard Stark for most of his adult life had forced him to become so. Mr Jarvis had seen Tony's father though some of the lowest times in his life, and Tony was convinced that he was the only reason Howard managed to survive for as long as he did with some semblance of his sanity intact.
And what Tony wouldn't give for some of Mr Jarvis' British, stiff-upper-lip, no-nonsense advice now. If anyone could've made sense of all that had happened in the last several weeks, it would've been him. But he had passed away not too long after Tony's parents were killed, and so therefore missed out on Tony's downward spirals that followed.
Tony had often wondered how different things might've been if Mr Jarvis had been around. Would Nick Fury still have been interested in Tony working for SHIELD, since he had readily admitted once Tony finally joined the organisation that one of his ulterior motives for recruiting Tony was to keep an eye on him?
Would Tony have ever met Peter's mother?
That particular thought was enough to send a hard shiver down Tony's spine. Regardless of how his relationship with Peter's mother had ended, from the very first moment that Tony laid eyes on his tiny baby son, lying there in that incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit and hooked up to more machines than Tony personally owned, there was no life of his that he could imagine without Peter in it.
"All right," Tony muttered as he began inputting commands into his custom-made keyboard, designing a quick holographic image of the armour he'd built to escape the Afghanistan cave. The suit itself had been pretty much destroyed when he and Peter crash-landed into the burning hot sand, and he had been too frantic with trying to keep Peter breathing to think about finding it once Rogers and Rhodey showed up, which probably wasn't a good thing, now that he thought about it. Tony didn't know exactly how far their landing site had been from the Ten Rings' caves, but if anyone had been left alive in that camp once he and Peter escaped, he wouldn't've put it past them to go out searching for it.
All of which meant that Tony needed to build a new one, and the sooner the better. He had some cleaning up to do.
"There. Go ahead and project that for me, J, yeah?" he said once he was done with the design specs. About three seconds later a glowing blue hologram appeared on the counter next to him, causing Tony to cringe at its crudeness.
"Wow. I really did look like some jolly ole medieval knight going to a jousting party, didn't I?" Tony muttered as he spun it around, tilting his head as he inspected the various ratios. He'd only had a limited supply of materials to work with, and time with which to build the thing, but yeesh. He was glad no one else would ever have to see him in something like that. Tony far preferred his designs to be more streamlined, like the fleet of fancy cars that lined the massive garage area behind him. No boxy corners or sharp edges for him, thank you very much.
"Am I to assume that that was a rhetorical question, sir?" JARVIS asked.
"Yes, you are," answered Tony as he spun the hologram around. He ran his fingers down his goatee, thinking. "Okay, so why don't you—"
"Pardon me, sir," JARVIS cut in. "But it appears that Master Peter is currently experiencing a nightmare."
"What?" Tony exclaimed as he immediately took off for the glass doors, his heart in his throat. "Is he all right?"
"He appears to be uninjured, but he is calling for you, sir," JARVIS said as Tony rounded the first corner on the staircase, nearly crashing headlong into Rogers who was on his way down.
"Tony!" Rogers gasped, grabbing onto Tony's arms to stabilise him. "I'm so sorry, but I heard—I heard Peter screaming in his room, and I thought—!"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, damnit!" Tony snapped as he shook out of Rogers' grasp, his stomach dropping as he picked up the sound of Peter crying. That was the absolute last thing his still-healing lungs needed. "JARVIS told me and I'm on my way there now, so if you don't mind, get the hell outta my way!"
Hurt flashed across Rogers' blue eyes, just for a second before he stepped back, allowing Tony to get past him.
"Can I do anything?" he called after Tony. "Get you anything?"
Rolling his eyes, Tony paused for a second once he got to the second floor, his fist pressed right above the arc reactor. His chest felt like someone had been beating on it with a sledgehammer; he obviously wasn't yet used to the decreased lung capacity the hunk of metal imbedded in his sternum was causing.
"I'm sure Pete could use a glass of water," Tony said as he sucked in as deep a breath as he could. "If you don't mind."
Rogers' face lit up, and he nodded. "Of course. I'll be right back."
"Daddy!" Peter suddenly screamed from his room, and Tony jumped, goosebumps pebbling down his arms. He raced over to the door, bursting inside to find Peter sobbing and writhing on his bed, his skinny arms and legs all tangled up his sheets while his two tiny robots bumped repeatedly into the legs of his bed, chirping in concern.
"Pete!" Tony said sharply, startling Peter just long enough for him to grab hold of his wrists. "Pete, it's okay, buddy. Daddy's here."
Peter's eyes flew open, wide with panic as they flitted around the room, finally landing on Tony's face.
"Daddy!" he cried, the single word like an ice pick to Tony's heart. "Daddy, you're still alive! I thought—I thought they'd killed you!"
"Shh, buddy, no," Tony murmured as he climbed onto the bed, brushing Peter's sweat-dampened curls from his eyes and planting a firm kiss to his forehead. His pale round cheeks were streaked with tears and his lungs were rattling, the grating noise with each raspy inhale raising all the hair on the back of Tony's neck. He'd always hated that sound.
"I'm okay, see? I'm right here."
"Uh—uh huh," Peter stammered as Tony brushed the tears from his cheeks, gathering him into his arms and handing him his stuffed polar bear. "I'm—I'm sorry, you were probably busy."
"Oh Christ, Pete, you know I'm never too busy for you," Tony said, nearly choking on the words. "Not ever, okay? Don't you even think about it."
"Uh huh," Peter said, swiping the back of his hand across his nose. "Um… do you think—I mean, would it be okay if you stayed with me for awhile then? I don't—I don't wanna be alone."
"Of course, bud."
"Thanks," Peter said, right before erupting into a coughing fit that was so wet and junky that Tony flinched. Peter was definitely going to need another breathing treatment before he'd be able to sleep again, which meant he would need another snack so he didn't puke afterwards, which meant it was highly unlikely that Tony would be getting anymore work done for the rest of the night.
And of course the damn nebuliser was sitting on Peter's dresser, all the way across the room.
But before he could say anything else Rogers appeared in the open doorway, rapping gently on the door jamb and carrying a full glass of water.
"Um, I brought the water," he said, rather tentatively.
Tony huffed and jerked his head, indicating for Rogers to come in as Peter raised his head from Tony's side, managing to stifle another slight cough.
"Thank you, Steve," Peter said as he took the glass from him, draining over half of it in three large gulps. "I'm sorry, I probably woke you up."
"Oh no, little guy," said Rogers. He sat down on the very edge of the bed, placing a comforting hand on Peter's shoulder. "I wasn't asleep, I don't really—well… I was setting up the new art supplies that you got for me today. They're—they're really nice, I can't wait to start using them."
"Oh good," Peter said, looking up at Tony. "Steve said that he was gonna start painting some pictures for us to put up around the house."
"Oh, really?" Tony said, a lot more warily than was probably necessary. "He did, huh?"
Rogers immediately blushed, his jaw twitching. "It—it was… Peter suggested that I—"
"Nah, it's okay," said Tony. The last thing he needed right now was for Rogers to start stammering like a fool again, especially since he still needed to convince Peter that he needed another breathing treatment.
And especially since he didn't feel like admitting that a tiny, tiny part of him was a bit curious about Rogers' artistic abilities. Howard had sure raved about them enough.
"Um… do ya think you could grab Pete's nebuliser over there?" he asked, pointing to the bulky machine sitting on Peter's dresser. "He's gotta do one of his treatments before he'll be able to sleep again."
"Oh, sure," said Rogers.
"What? No!" Peter cried, ducking back under Tony's arm as he tried to stifle another cough. "I did my treatment before I went to bed, I don't wanna do another one!"
"Buddy," Tony said, his patience handing by the most threadbare of threads. "I know you don't want to do another one, but I'm pretty sure you don't feel like heading back to the hospital either, which is exactly where we're gonna end up if you don't."
"I'm pretty sure your dad is right, little guy," Rogers said. "Besides, I'm gonna need you to help show me around tomorrow, remember?"
Peter stuck out his bottom lip, his nose scrunched in frustration as he crossed his arms over his chest.
"That's better. I'm really looking forward to you being my tour guide," Rogers added, and Tony couldn't help but give a start at how soothing his voice was, like a spoonful of honey against a scratchy throat, a fact that apparently wasn't lost on Peter either when he let out a heavy sigh, taking the nebuliser from Rogers' hand.
"Uh huh," he said sadly. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Rogers said softly, giving Peter's hair a quick ruffle. "And tell you what. If it's okay with your dad, how 'bout I get some fresh sheets on your bed while you do your treatment? My ma used to say that a clean bed always helped someone sleep better, so…" He glanced over at Tony with questioning eyes. "Is that okay with you, Tony?"
"Ah, sure. Knock yourself out," Tony said, hoping like hell that he wasn't blushing. Again. He was in no mood to embarrass himself any more than he already had.
Rogers smiled, and Tony quickly looked away. He didn't need to be noticing yet again just how nice of a smile Rogers had, with those full lips and the perfect white teeth that Tony knew some people spent millions of dollars trying to get.
And it didn't help at all that Rogers didn't even seem to notice how damn good-looking he was.
After directing Rogers to Peter's extra bedding in his closet, Tony guided Peter over to his squashy armchair, piling onto it with Peter half sitting on his lap. He cuddled his boy close as he mixed up his medicine and started the treatment, stroking his fingers through Peter's messy curls and wishing over and over that he could just snap his fingers and all of this garbage would just go away.
I should've never brought him on that trip. What in the goddamn hell was I thinking?
The fact that Tony likely could've called Nick Fury and asked him or some of his lackeys at SHIELD to watch Peter for those few days had been weighing on Tony's mind ever since they were rescued. Why the hell hadn't he thought of that?
'Cause you still don't really trust Nick Fury, his mind whispered. Not after—
The loud hissing sound of Peter's nebuliser as he turned it on pulled Tony from his murky thoughts, and curled his arm around Peter's shoulders, kissing the top of his head.
"That's my boy," he whispered, earning a side-eye in return as Rogers emerged from Peter's closet with some clean sheets. Despite himself, Tony couldn't help but watch as Rogers proceeded to strip and remake Peter's bed with military-like precision, complete with such perfect hospital corners that even Mr Jarvis would've been proud.
"There," Rogers said once he was done. He crouched down in front of Peter, giving him a friendly smile. "Would you like me to go down and get you something to eat now?"
Peter gave an appreciative nod. "Some crackers with peanut butter would be good," he mumbled around the tube of the nebuliser. "JARVIS can tell you where they are."
Rogers glanced briefly over at Tony, who quirked an eyebrow in approval. How Rogers happened to know that Peter would need a snack after his treatment was beyond him, but at least it meant that he wouldn't have to leave Peter's side to go get him something, a luxury that Tony didn't often have when Peter was sick.
"So, how'd Rogers know you'd need a snack afterwards?" Tony asked Peter once Rogers was out of earshot. "You guys talk about it or something?"
"Uh huh," answered Peter. "Back in the hospital, that time when you were sleeping?"
"Oh. Yeah," Tony muttered. "That time."
The time that he had obviously felt comfortable enough with Rogers to allow him to watch over Peter while he took a nap, and then proceeded to sleep for almost six hours.
He didn't particularly like thinking about that either.
"And I'm pretty sure Steve would appreciate it if you stopped calling him by his last name," Peter added. "It just sounds so… impersonal. Like you're trying to keep your distance or something."
"And I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be talking this much when you're using your meds," Tony retorted, softening his words with another kiss on Peter's head. "As far as I'm concerned, Rogers is only here until Fury comes up with something else for him to do, so… there's really no sense in trying to get too personal."
"Uh huh. Sure," Peter said warily, causing Tony to scowl behind his back. The kid had always been too damn perceptive for his own good, and on many occasions had demonstrated a remarkable ability to see right though Tony.
As if on cue Rogers reappeared in the doorway, carrying a plateful of crackers smeared with what looked like at least half a jar of peanut butter. He handed the plate to Tony, then stepped back, his thumbs hooked into the front belt loops of his jeans.
"Do you think you'll need anything else?" he asked.
"Nah, I think we're good," Tony said as Peter shut off his machine, stuffing a cracker into his mouth before he even put it down.
So you can go away now, you and your broad shoulders and perfectly-fitting jeans.
"Well, all right. If you're sure," Rogers said. "I'll just head back to my room then." He stepped back, his blue eyes flitting between Peter and Tony. "See you both in the morning."
"Goodnight, Steve," Peter said through a mouthful of peanut butter cracker. He laid his head on Tony's shoulder, his eyelids already starting to droop. Hopefully it wouldn't be too hard for Tony to get him back to sleep.
And it wasn't. Because as soon as Peter finished his snack and brushed his teeth, he cuddled right up to Tony on his freshly made bed and was out about three seconds later.
Unfortunately, getting Peter to actually stay asleep turned out to be the hard part, because every fifteen to twenty minutes or so he would jerk awake again, shuddering and whimpering and tugging on Tony's shirt, his tears wetting it through as the images of the explosion that had nearly killed them both played through his mind like a horror movie. Peter was no stranger to nightmares, having had enough illnesses and hospital visits to last three lifetimes, but these were on a whole new level of nasty.
And it wasn't until he was trying to calm Peter for the third time that it finally hit Tony as to why.
"I can't hear your heartbeat anymore, Daddy," Peter sobbed into Tony's side. "The sound is all covered up, and I can't hear it anymore!"
The words hit Tony like a punch to the gut, nearly knocking him flat. He gasped, pressing his fist to his chest just above the arc reactor, trying to pretend that he couldn't feel every last tiny piece of razor-sharp shrapnel still stuck in his body.
Why in the hell hadn't he thought of that? Peter had loved resting his head on Tony's chest since the very first time that Tony had ever held him, back when he was six weeks old, and ever since then had been one of the few things that he could count on to help soothe him. Whether it was surviving through his colicky phase as a baby to soothing him through yet another one of his illnesses or hospital stays, the sound of Tony's heartbeat had always been there. It had been Peter's anchor.
And now, it was gone, replaced by the low-pitched electronic hum of the arc reactor that was keeping Tony alive, which meant that now not only was Tony responsible for Peter's horrible nightmares in the first place, he could no longer even provide the comfort from them that Peter needed.
"Oh Christ, Pete," Tony choked past the golf ball-sized lump in his throat. He buried his fingers into Peter's hair, pressing the pads of his fingers into his scalp as he blinked back tears. "Buddy, I—I am so, so sorry."
Peter sniffed, his long, piano-player fingers curling around a handful of Tony's shirt as he laid his head down on Tony's chest, careful to avoid pressing directly on the arc reactor. Tony bit down hard on his bottom lip, trying to keep from crying at his son's thoughtfulness. Tony hadn't said anything to him about his chest being sore or the skin around the arc reactor being sensitive as it continued to heal, but Peter still somehow knew.
Even while wallowing in the depths of his own misery, Peter was always thinking of others first.
I don't deserve this kid. I have never deserved this kid.
But damn if I'd ever be able to live without him.
Tony had meant what he'd told Rogers earlier that afternoon about there being no currently available surgical method or tool that could successfully remove the shrapnel from Tony's heart without killing him in the process. And since Tony wasn't about to let that happen, until something else got invented he was going to be stuck with the arc reactor.
Or, at least until its palladium core decided to poison him to death, as Peter had so succinctly pointed out during that very same conversation, but Tony didn't really want to think about that at the moment either.
All he wanted to do was help his sweet boy, the literal definition of the innocent bystander in this whole fucking mess.
I should've called Fury, or told Obie to go screw himself and just cancelled the whole goddamn trip.
You'd think I'd've learned not to let him bully me into this stuff, but nooo…
"I love you, Daddy," Peter suddenly mumbled, his fingers tightening around Tony's shirt. "And I think I can get used to the hum, so maybe tomorrow will be better."
"Oh, God," Tony rasped as he looked down at his precious boy, with his mop of messy curls and his mile-long eyelashes resting against his round, tear-streaked cheeks.
"That sounds good, buddy," he whispered. "Try and sleep now, yeah?"
"Uh huh. You too."
"Yeah, we'll see," Tony replied. At the moment he highly doubted he'd ever be able to sleep again, but he wasn't about to say that to Peter.
Peter was quiet for a few minutes, and Tony had just tipped his head back, thinking that he'd finally managed to fall asleep when his fingers twitched and he breathed in, rubbing his nose on Tony's side.
"Dad?" he said, so softly that Tony could barely hear him.
"You should give Steve a chance. He's really nice, I really like him. We had a lot of fun together today."
Tony immediately rolled his eyes, grateful that Peter couldn't see his face. He was already in Rogers' debt for saving Peter's life out there in that awful desert, but that didn't mean that Tony had to like it. Or him.
And yet, he couldn't help but notice just how much Peter had already latched on to the super soldier, and Rogers to him.
The tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed super soldier with the nice broad shoulders and a smile that could light up a room. Oh, and who also liked to draw and paint and apparently knew his way around a kitchen, since he'd asked Tony just earlier that evening if he could take Peter out grocery shopping the next day.
Tony cleared his throat, giving his head a quick shake. What the hell am I doing?
"Yeah, we'll see, bud, okay?" he said. "Sleep now. Pretty sure you and Rogers have some errands to run in the morning."
"Steve." Peter murmured. "His name is Steve, Dad. And he is really nice, you'll see once you get to know him better. I think he's just lonely. Kinda like you."
Yeah. Kinda like me.
"All right, bud. If you say so."
Tony shifted slightly, trying to get more comfortable as he closed his eyes. Maybe Peter was right; maybe having someone like Steve Rogers around wouldn't be as bad as he originally thought. He certainly was easy on the eyes, if nothing else, and Tony knew that he would guard Peter with his life if it came down to it. Tony had already witnessed enough of their interactions to be sure of it.
And with what Tony was preparing to do, if something were to happen to him, he would at least know that Peter would be well taken care of.
And while that thought should've by its very nature frightened the hell out of Tony, he found that he actually had a measure of peace about it, very similar to how he'd felt back in the hospital when Rogers had offered to watch over Peter so Tony could sleep. As much as he hated to admit it, he and Rogers did seem to work pretty well together, at least where Peter was concerned.
Maybe we can try some sort of co-parenting thing, Tony thought. Isn't that all the rage now anyway?
Next to him, Peter let out a soft sigh in his sleep, his fingers tightening their hold on Tony's shirt as his arm instinctively tightened around him. Peter was beyond a doubt the most important person in the world to Tony, and he would do whatever it took to make sure that he was kept safe.
And if that meant learning to get along with Steve Rogers, then… that's what Tony was prepared to do.