The first time Tony sees Peter Parker in nearly six years, he’s two days and three glasses of scotch deep into the Global Sustainability Expo in Dubai. Everything’s really come full circle, Tony thinks with no small amount of loathing. He’s traveling internationally to get drunk at expos and staring from across the room. It’s like he’s thirty years old again.
He lost Pepper and Happy to the greedy clutches of schmoozing dignitaries hours ago, but he still hears Pepper’s voice like an angel on his shoulder: Walk away, Tony. Angel Pepper is right, of course. If he had a single self-preserving instinct left in his body he would turn around and march his ass out the door back to the hotel suite and in a week he could do what he should have done six years ago, which is show up sober and scheduled on Parker’s doorstep and ask if he’s doing okay. In Tony’s defense Starks are something in the way of generationally cursed with a lack of self-preservation, so if he twists it around enough he figures he could probably pin this one on his old man.
Tony takes the long way around the conference room (he doesn’t sneak, alright, he just draws as little attention to himself as possible and keeps his back to the wall, it’s different) and conveniently ends up in front of the display right as Parker gets roped into animated conversation with some very intelligent looking people in business casual. His project is brilliant. It’s an electrostatic defense system designed to protect entire neighborhoods, cities even. When activated it forms a membrane of impenetrable energy - a force field, in layman's terms - that stretches between spires like cell towers and drapes like a sheet over the rooftops of entire city blocks. Tony can’t believe the Wakandans haven’t done it yet. The course of his life would have unfolded very differently if the Chitauri had fallen from the sky only to bounce harmlessly off a shimmering atomic force field instead of laying waste to Midtown.
This is the future, Tony thinks, pioneered by a generation that’s suffered the universe literally raining hell on them their entire lives.
Before Tony looks, he hopes to every god whose hand he’s shaken that he’ll meet an uncanny Parkeresque-but-definitely-not-the-real-Parker doppelganger who just happens to know who he is. That’s what he tells himself, anyway. It’s not impossible. Tony saved the universe. Most people know him, even with the giant face scar. Maybe because of the giant face scar.
It’s the real Peter Parker. He’s barely taller than he was at sixteen and he has pretty much the same amount of hair, but he’s got more in the shoulders and jawline these days. And glasses, worn for effect because there’s no way he needs them; spider-senses, and all. “Mr. Parker. You grew up.”
“Yeah,” Peter says. “That, uh, that happens sometimes, if you’re lucky.”
“You got lucky.” Tony should - what? Shake his hand or something probably, but that feels inadequate. Besides, Tony’s palms are sweating.
“I s’pose so, yeah.” Peter’s smile crinkles the corners of his eyes and it looks genuine, looks bright and young and good on him. He’s wearing slacks and his sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, and there was probably a tie and blazer involved at some point before it became a hundred thousand degrees in this place. Or maybe that’s just Tony.
He points at the display. “This is good, kid. This is the best stuff in the room.”
“You think so? I’ve never - I mean, thank you. I feel way outta my league here, so it’s. Y’know. Thanks.”
“I mean it. Electrostatic instead of electromagnetism to stabilize the atomic structure over a larger surface area? That’s world class. How did you do it?”
“Um, a lot of trial and error with ionic bonding. I messed around with proportionality factor in -”
“Proportionality factor in Coulomb’s Law. You rewrote Coulomb's Law of electrical force?”
“That’s, uh, giving me way too much credit, but - I mean I guess, yeah, kind of, in theory. And there was a whole lotta grant money. Like, a whole lotta grant money,” Peter says. He’s a little flushed, a little fidgety, but pleased. He still talks with his hands and a hell of a Queens accent. “Okay, actually, wait a second - why are you here? I thought you’d be back in the woods or something? Or, didn’t you just buy the Tower back? And you’re -”
“Leaving,” Tony says. He hates himself. “I’m leaving. Right now, actually. You caught me on my way to my jet. Wheels up in ten.”
“Wait, you’re not -”
“I’d give you my card, but I haven’t needed to carry it around with me since before you were alive, probably. You weren’t alive in the nineties, right?”
“Your card,” Peter echoes.
“Listen, this stuff is incredible. Get it patented before someone tries to murk you for it.” He has to get out of here. “We should catch up sometime, yeah? You still live in the city, clearly. I’ll have somebody set something set up.” He claps Peter on the shoulder - the most impersonal and ambiguous of mascunline gestures, second only to the handshake - and turns on his heel. From the corner of his eye he catches Peter’s face cycle rapid-fire through an impressive series of emotions and land somewhere adjacent to a very Pepper-esque ‘royally pissed but being professional about it.’
“I look forward to it, Mr. Stark,” he says. He sounds very adult, very polite, very much like he’s asking Six years later, and that’s how this is gonna go? It might also just be a good old-fashioned Fuck you, Tony Stark in business speak. Probably both. Definitely both. Unless Tony’s projecting? Possible, but unlikely.
As Tony leaves he wouldn’t go so far as to say he runs, but Happy might have said that and Pepper definitely would. Good thing neither of them are here.
There is a jet - that part is true, at least - but it’s not flying Tony back to the States for another twenty-six hours, so he makes Pepper’s driver take him back to the suite where he pours himself three fingers of liquor and asks F.R.I.D.A.Y. to scour the internet for videos of Spider-Man because he’s a masochist.
The oldest video he can find is from seven and a half years ago. The most recent is from last week. There are hundreds in between, too many to watch, most of them grainy security camera footage or short cellphone videos: Spider-Man sprinting through stopped traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Spider-Man getting backhanded across Times Square by a giant dude made out of sand. Spider-Man swinging between brownstones in Harlem. Webbing up bank robbers in Flushing. Hauling ass straight up the glass side of a skyscraper. Lifting an eighteen-wheeler off a crushed minivan. Crouched in a random alley, holding a little girl’s hand. There’s an eight-minute video filmed from the thick of some kind of absolute chaos on the Whitestone Bridge in the Bronx, shaky footage full of screaming and metallic crunching. At the five-minute mark the camera tips forty-five degrees as if the bridge had begun to fall, vehicles and debris and shrieking people sliding across the screen, and suddenly in the middle of it all is Spider-Man, leaping from car to car and throwing webs ahead of him. He moves too fast for the camera to follow (“Holy shit, holy fuck!” the cameraman yells. “Abuela, that’s fucking Spider-Man!”) and when it finds him again he’s fifty feet down the tilted bridge and webbing a giant net across the width of the road to catch falling civilians. Four seconds to the end of the video something the size of a building explodes out of the river to the camera’s right, water rains down on the bridge to lots of renewed screaming, and the footage cuts.
Pepper cards into his suite just after dark with her heels in one hand and a bone to pick. She has her own room, but he wouldn’t keep her out of his even if he wanted to. Pepper Potts has seen everything he has to offer in every sense of the word, and she is entitled to everything Tony Stark would ever dare to call his own, everything he ever had in the past or will have in the future. “Where did you go, Tony? You said you would help me with - with the Piacenza EcoEnergy greenhouse committee people, I spent hours pretending I know more than fifty words of Italian -”
“I saw somebody I know, Pep. I had to leave immediately.”
“ - and Happy almost got into a fistfight with one of those presenters from the Tokyo Wildlife Symposium -”
“You know how I feel about seeing people I know, I’ve turned down how many high school class of ‘81 reunions -”
“ - who even knows what I agreed to, I think I promised I’d meet them to sign contracts tomorrow, and you’ve been here the whole time? Why didn’t you answer your phone, Tony?”
“Listen, that’s all very important but I’ve been doing research -”
“Research? Here? What on earth kind of -”
Tony presses his palm flat against his tablet screen and lifts upward, bringing the image with. He throws it into the air between them.
“Oh,” Pepper says. She sets her shoes on the table and pulls out her ponytail, brow furrowing in recognition. “That’s -”
“The kid,” Tony says, watching Spider-Man flying roundhouse kick some guy in the face on a grocery store surveillance camera.
“Is that a kid or an Olympic gymnast? He’s impressive.”
“He’s here, at the expo. On a scholarship or something, I didn’t ask. As a presenter.”
“Still smart then, too,” Pepper says. She looks through the holoscreen at him. “What are you thinking, Tony? I don’t like that look on your face.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, my face has looked like this for a year. If you thought I needed plastic surgery you should have said so sooner.”
Pepper swipes the video away and comes to sit next to him on the window seat. “Whatever you’re beating yourself up about today, stop it,” she scolds. She knows him too well, better than anyone else alive. Better than anyone else who ever lived. Better even than Rhodey, if only barely. “Hey, look at me.”
“You’re going to say something very kind and sensible and Peppery, I can feel it, but I’m not really in a kind and sensible mood right now so -”
“We have talked about this,” Pepper says. “You did what you needed to do to survive, Tony. That was all anybody could have done. And whatever else you did or didn’t do, the promises you might have broken, those things don’t - hey, do not do that - I cannot just be manhandled -”
But he’s already up and pulling her to her feet after him, pivoting her around and yanking her into a closed hold with one hand holding hers and the other chastely on her hip. “Please don’t lecture me,” he implores into her frowning face. “I’m not - not right now. You can do it tomorrow on the jet, we’ll put it on the flight itinerary. Three and a half minutes. You can make a powerpoint and everything, you love making powerpoints. Just - tomorrow. Please?”
“Four and a half.”
She hums. “Fine. But every time you interrupt me, I get to restart from the beginning.”
He thunks his forehead against her shoulder. F.R.I.D.A.Y. plays something very 1940s, very sad and French, Édith Piaf from the sound of it, and Tony and Pepper spin cheek-to-cheek in slow circles in front of the window. As much as the mere thought of Pepper turning to dust and blowing away in the breeze affects him to the point of nausea he wishes he could have held her, just like this, as it happened. But then again, if he’d had to watch her disappear maybe he never would’ve had it in him to keep her picture beside his bed for five years. Maybe he would have hesitated when Steve and Natasha and Scott fucking Lang knocked on his door spouting nonsense about time travel and fixing their mistakes.
But he’d been bleeding face-down in the dirt on an alien planet when Pepper Potts died alone, and she had been the last thing he looked at before he went to sleep every night for five years, and before Steve Rogers was even in the door of Tony’s lakeside house of isolation in the woods - honestly, how had they found him - he’d known he was going to say yes to whatever he said. Does Pepper know that the universe would be gone if not for her? She might. Tony’s never said it in so many words, but she’s flushed every secret he’s ever had like a heat-seeking missile, like a ginger bloodhound in stilettos.
Eventually she puts a hand to the hinge of his jaw and looks at him. “You should sleep,” she says in a tone of voice that means she knows he won’t but is morally obligated to tell him.
“A bold proposal, Miss Potts. I’ll submit it to the committee for review. We’ll get back to you in seven to ten business days.” He can’t really feel her hand; most of the nerve endings in his scar tissue are fried. The auricle of his ear had been unsalvageable and he’s a little hard of hearing on his right side these days. His arm was the only thing he’d allowed Stephen Strange to help restore, and it looks and feels normal, but it’s something else entirely: a little bit of magic, a little bit of metal. Sometimes Tony looks at it and thinks, This isn’t mine.
Pepper smacks a kiss to his good cheek. “Ass,” she accuses, slipping out of his arms and grabbing her shoes. “If you don't charm the Italians for me tomorrow you can find your own jet home. Got it?”
“Loud and clear, boss,” he says, impossibly fond, and she takes her leave.
Tony spends the next hour staring out the window at an empty point in the sky. He doesn’t mean to.
“Can I do anything for you, sir?” F.R.I.D.A.Y. asks eventually.
“Probably not,” he says. He smiles a little ruefully, knowing she’ll see. “But that’s not your fault.”
A week and a day after he returns from Dubai, Tony takes a stroll through Queens. He buys a black coffee for seven dollars and invites himself to the empty, awning-covered street seating of a little bistro with boards over its broken windows, listening to gunfire echoing from the other side of the block. There are sirens in the distance, and from the garbled chaos on the police scanners he’d dipped into to triangulate the most likely whereabouts of Spider-Man, Tony’s led to believe there’s a hostage situation nearby. There’s nobody in sight.
He’s taken three sips of coffee and is admiring the phallic graffiti on the building across the street when Spider-Man descends upside-down from a street light, the top of his head hovering a foot above Tony’s table. All the grainy video footage Tony’s watched hadn’t captured the wear and tear on the red and blue suit, but despite some cosmetic damage it doesn’t seem to be in awful shape. Well-worn certainly, and Tony spots a couple of blemishes he thinks might be patch jobs, but it’s not bad, all things considered. He doesn’t even find himself terribly critical of the design, though that particular shade of red is a little much, and there was definitely a missed opportunity to capitalize on the drama with that spider motif in the middle of the chest. He thinks of the never-worn Iron Spider suit he’d hauled out of storage four hours after coming back from Dubai and decides he’d been onto something better the second time around.
“Is this how it’s gonna be now? I’m out doing my own thing and you just - show up unannounced when I least expect you?” Peter asks, upside-down.
“I’m sorry, is that not how it was before? You’ve still got the suit.”
“Of course I’ve still got the suit.” He sounds maybe a little offended. “What are you doing here, Mr. Stark?”
“Can’t a man get himself a cup of coffee? Take a walk?”
“Okay, yeah I guess, but - Queens? In the middle of a firefight?”
“Local flavor. Do you have plans after this?”
Spider-Man drops to the tabletop, landing silently on his feet like a cat. “I do have plans, actually.” He definitely sounds offended now. The gunfire and sirens are getting closer, the action moving their way.
“Reschedule them. Five-thirty at the Tower, assuming your spider-business doesn’t run long,” he says, jerking a thumb vaguely in the direction of the commotion. “I can send someone to pick you up.”
“I can bring myself, thanks.”
“That’s a yes, right? That sounds like a yes.”
Peter makes a frustrated sound. “This couldn’t have waited, like, an hour? I’m handling a situation here. Or I was, before Tony Stark walked into an active shooting zone.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I distract you? I’m flattered, kid. I know my looks aren’t what they used to be,” Tony says. “You probably know this, but Mad Max is incoming on your six.” Before he’s even done speaking the repulsor gauntlet builds itself around his hand with the slide and click of interlocking metal and the high-pitched purr of the blaster priming in his palm. Without putting down his coffee he fires off a shot at the first hostile vehicle that comes around the corner; it explodes. The one directly behind it rear-ends the flaming wreck at fifty miles an hour with a satisfying crunch.
“Okay, okay! Geez, fine, five-thirty. Now you should get outta here, I thought you were retired from blowing things up? If you get shot in the head on my turf I’m never gonna live it down.”
“Nobody would dare,” Tony says, putting on his sunglasses and pushing his chair in neatly. “Bring the suit by the way, I want to look at it,” he calls over the sirens as Peter vaults away, using the streetlamp like a gymnast on the uneven bars. “You know I’ve got a thing for antiques!”
The first five months after Tony saved the universe had been all pomp and circumstance. Press tours, charity balls, award ceremonies, peace banquets, White House briefings, United Nations addresses, interviews, more interviews, shaking hands and kissing babies. Statue unveilings, red carpets, monument dedications, and once, memorably, the renaming of the penguin enclosure at the Kansas City Zoo in his honor. He and Rhodey had been fresh off a jet from Staten Island where they’d lurked at the fringes of the grand opening of the second location of the Wakandan Community Outreach Program and were waiting in the wings of a hall of ceremonies in - Amsterdam? Oslo? - when Rhodey had looked sideways at him and said, “You don’t have to do this anymore, you know.”
There was beautiful gilded detailing above all the doorframes. Very unnecessary and fairly Baroque, Tony had thought as he studied it.
“Go home, Tony.” Rhodey’s voice had no business being that sympathetic. “Better yet, go to the beach. Grab Pepper, buy a penthouse in Barbados, disappear for a little while. Sit in one of those long folding chairs and drink a margarita for me. On the rocks, and put a little umbrella in it.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve already tried clicking my heels three times, Toto, and I’m still in Crazyland. Maybe I don’t want to disappear again,” Tony said. “If you’ve dropped off the grid and lived alone on the edge of civilization once you’ve done it a thousand times, isn’t that how the saying goes?”
Rhodey had adjusted his cuffs. “All right,” he’d said patiently. “Don’t disappear, then. Go be a philanthropist. Give eighth grade robotics clubs full rides to MIT. Make dope custom prostheses. Advocate for space aliens or something. But for god’s sake man, go to the beach first. Just looking at you makes me tired.”
“How do you think I feel then?” Tony had snapped, and pushed through the curtain.
He doesn’t remember what kind of speech he’d given or what questions he’d been asked. He remembers staring over the heads of the crowd, directly into the stage lights, and wondering how to tell Rhodey that he felt untethered, half-alive, inhuman. He’d held the universe in one fist with every intent to die and now he was hollow and disconnected from everything he’d saved. The inability of his spongey human brain to process the enormity of what he’d done translated into night terrors that blew his already precarious psyche to smithereens on a regular basis, and sometimes the only part of his face he recognized was the part that was gone.
Tony had pulled out of the tour they were on, but he hadn’t gone to the beach. He’d gone home to the Tower, installed another pool on the top floor of the penthouse, and called it good enough. Rhodey had pulled his “this is not what I meant and you know it” face when he saw it, but the only thing he’d said was that the underwater color changing LEDs were overkill for a sad old man living alone in a skyscraper, who was he trying to be, Hugh Hefner? And then he’d told Tony to make him a margarita.
“Peter Parker is on the roof, sir,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. informs him at quarter past six. Tony’s been staring dissociatively at his reflection in the metal refrigerator door for the better part of half an hour and her voice makes him jump.
“Of course he is,” Tony sighs, and goes up.
Peter’s in street clothes and has a backpack with a skateboard sticking out slung over one shoulder. He’s balanced at the very edge of the rooftop, rocked back on his heels with the toes of his worn sneakers poking over the side. The way he’s looking straight down the forty story freefall, there’s something terribly Clint Barton about it all. “I always wanted to see the city from the top of this building,” he calls over his shoulder.
“Did you scale the side in broad daylight?” Tony demands.
“My job would really suck if I were afraid of heights, wouldn’t it?” Peter muses, wind whipping his hair.
“You look like you’re having a moment. Shall I come back later?”
Peter hops down off the ledge and Tony sees that he’s got a bruise at his temple, yellow and half-healed. He’s wearing the useless glasses again, although Tony’s beginning to suspect they serve some ulterior purpose. “Sorry I’m late.” He doesn’t sound very sorry. “My spider-business ended up running long after all.”
Tony declines to mention that time is more irrelevant to him now than ever and he hadn’t even noticed. “You got the suit? Of course you’ve got the suit. Follow me, I have something for you. Hope those plans you rescheduled weren’t important.”
Peter jogs over to fall into step beside him. “Study sesh with Gwen. I, uh, told her I had to take Aunt May’s dog to the vet. She’s gonna be so pissed when she remembers May doesn’t have a dog.”
“Tell her it died. Gwen Stacy, right? Do you have a girlfriend, Peter Parker?”
“She’s not my, I mean, we’re just - wait, how d’you know Gwen?”
“She’s in your file.”
“My file? Why do I have a file? Who’s keeping a file on me?”
Tony holds the door to the stairwell for him. “Everybody in the hero business has a file these days, Parker. People in high places know who you are, and I know all the people in the high places. Not that that’s relevant really, I just had F.R.I.D.A.Y. hack the databases.”
“Hello, Spider-Man,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. says.
Peter startles and stops to look at the ceiling. “Whoa. Um, hi.” There’s a massive grin spreading across his face. “She’s a program? That’s so cool, Mr. Stark.”
“So you are still easy to impress,” Tony says, pleased. “You had me worried for a minute there.”
The elevator to the labs would be faster, but Tony takes them down six flights of stairs for the benefit of Peter, who makes no secret of gawking at everything. The top three floors are the penthouse and the four below that are all labspace, redesigned and refurbished after Tony bought the Tower back. They haven’t been put to much use, but old habits die hard.
“So, better or worse than the chem labs at Columbia?” Tony asks.
“You’re kidding,” Peter says. “I don’t even know what most of this stuff does.”
Tony takes that as a better, way better. “Toss your suit on the table or give it to Dum-E, I’m not big on -”
“Being handed things, right.” Peter smiles at Dum-E and digs the suit out of his backpack as the robot rolls over to him, its claw tilted expectantly.
Tony pulls up a holoscreen with a flick of his wrist and keys past security. “I’m putting you into the Tower’s system, by the way. Don’t let me forget to grab a retinal scan from you so I can make you a profile and give you clearance for the labs. And the penthouse too I suppose, that’s where the bar is. Oh, and the twelfth floor, in case you need medical. You’re cool with that, right? Actually, I don’t care, I just did it.” He puts his fingertips together and pulls them apart again, drawing a cube of light around the floating grid of the Tower’s security files. Everything turns green. “Boom. Fifth highest security clearance in the Tower for one Peter Benjamin Parker. Don’t waste it, kid.”
Peter’s mouth opens, then closes, then opens again. He crosses his arms for a moment, then uncrosses them. Shoves his hands in his pockets and looks at all the green on the holos with an expression that makes Tony grin. “Mr. Stark I - I’m sorry, what?”
“Oh, c’mon. Look at this lab. It’s spotless, right? I haven’t blown up anything here in weeks, and that’s a damn waste of a perfectly good multi-million dollar state-of-the-art lab, is what that is. So come in here and wreck stuff. You’ll be doing me a favor, really.” Tony waves the holos away. “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to give you. This is what I wanted to give you.”
He pulls another holoscreen out of thin air and presses a button. A wall panel opens behind him, revealing the Iron Spider suit on a mannequin. “I buffed it up for you and everything. Least I could do, considering you should have been wearing it this whole time.”
He watches Peter scrub a hand over his face. “Oh man. Okay. Mr. Stark, this is - this is crazy. I can’t -”
“You should,” Tony says. “Who else is going to wear it? Wanda? She’d never, it doesn’t look like it came from Hot Topic in 2009. Lang? I’d incinerate the thing myself before I let him rub his weird ant-hands all over it.”
Peter exhales, his cheeks ballooning. He looks a little panicky. “Listen Mr. Stark, I dunno if this is, like, charity, or a guilt thing, but -”
“It’s neither. I’m finishing what I started, Pete. I wanted to help you grow into - whatever it was you were becoming at fourteen. And you didn’t end up needing my help much, thank god, because I did a pretty awful job at it, but I’ll have you know I did have a plan. And the fact that it went to hell is not entirely my fault.”
“So it’s a guilt thing.”
“I just said it is not a guilt thing -”
“It’s totally a guilt thing,” Peter says with a growing smile. The apples of his cheeks have gone pink. “What was the plan?”
“It’s only a little bit of a guilt thing. And the plan was to make you an Avenger, when you were ready. We got most of the way, but I tripped over a giant purple megalomaniac just before the finish line. And now we’re here.” Tony spreads his hands. “I’d like to stick to the plan. If that’s okay with you.”
“Mr. Stark -”
“You should really call me Tony. Listen, your street cred resume’s been all over the internet for six years. I’ll stamp the Stark Industries seal of approval on your forehead personally so when you show up on Fury’s doorstep he can’t throw you out. In the mandatory therapy you’ll be encouraged to strike a work/life balance to keep you from spiralling into violent obsession, so nobody’s asking you to give up school or your - social life, or whatever you have.”
“Mandatory therapy?” Peter echoes weakly.
“Workplace perk. Fury wouldn’t go for dental insurance, so we compromised. The point is you’re overqualified, and there’s still a spot in the Avengers waiting for you. Wilson and Barnes are gonna lose their minds.”
Peter huffs a humorless laugh. “Yeah, I bet. Okay. Um. Sorry, this is a lot.” He runs a hand up over his face again, through his hair. “Listen, I’m really flattered. I really, totally am. And that suit is still awesome. If you’d asked me five years ago, or even like, three years ago, it would have been a no-brainer. And let’s be real, I could probably use some therapy. But.”
“Holy shit,” Tony says. “You’re turning me down. Again.”
“It’s not like that Mr. Stark, I’m not -”
“Two for two, kid. Really? Really?”
“No! I’m not, I swear, not yet, I just - I need to think about it. This is not how I thought my day was gonna go.” He shrugs helplessly. “You’re not the only one with a plan, Mr. Stark.”
When Tony met Peter Parker he had still been in the habit of thinking of people the way he did machines, judging them by how well they performed the role Tony decided they were meant for. To him Spider-Man had been a baby war machine with rogue coding, writing and rewriting himself in endless trial and error that was admirable but inefficient, and Tony had tried to push him in the direction he wanted him to go without taking into account that teenage boys were selfish and chaotic and terribly human even while wearing a mask. (And Peter was about the most human thing Tony ever very nearly wrecked, wasn’t he. Peter had worn a bleeding heart on his sleeve for all the world to see and even as a child was twice as kind as he was smart, and god, wasn’t that saying something?) They’d been coming up fast on the endgame then and there hadn’t been time to go back to the drawing board after Peter walked away from the Avengers, so Tony had - well, he hadn’t scrapped his intentions for Spider-Man, but he might have shelved them. Put them into storage. Like so many other projects Tony had gotten frustrated with, machines that didn’t perform as intended.
Peter Parker is no war machine. Tony wonders what other things might have turned out better than he could ever have imagined, if only he’d learned to leave them be. “Alright. Alright, that’s fair enough.” Tony grabs the suit off the table where Dum-E had put it down and lays it on a scanner that will assess the condition of the fabric down to a molecular level.
“What are you doing?”
“Listen, the ball is in your court now, kid. That means I need a new plan. So if you don’t want the big boy suit yet, how about an upgrade on this one? Something less … shiny. You’ve gotten the mileage out of this sucker. I mean, look at this poor thing, have you taken it off in six years?”
“Barely,” Peter says, leaning his elbows on the table. He’s grinning, which is a good sign considering that everything from this point forward hinges on the unknown variable that is Peter Parker’s likelihood to hold a grudge. “You don’t have to, it’s still good. And you don’t owe me anything. You know that, right?”
Tony’s not ready for this conversation. “Debatable. Pretty sure I owe you something for running away from you in Dubai last week, bare minimum.”
Peter’s eyebrows shoot up. “Is that what that was?”
Tony’s not ready for that conversation either. He mimics Peter’s posture, elbows on the table, leaned in. Looks across at him. Tony can see the top few inches of a scar slithering up the side of Peter’s neck, pinker than the rest of him and shiny. He wonders how deep a wound has to go to leave a scar on Spider-Man. This close, he notices an iridescent sheen to the lenses of Peter’s glasses. “Changing the subject,” he says. “What’s up with the eyeware?”
“Oh, they, um - remember the whole dialed-to-eleven thing with my senses? It’s more like dialed-to-twenty these days. They block ultraviolet light. That stuff screws with my brain after a while.”
“I woke up with tetrachromacy and ultraviolet vision, uh, twoish years ago? It’s still kind of crazy sometimes, I mean, I was red-green colorblind before I got bit.”
“Jesus.” Tony considers him. “Do you want a drink?”
“Nah thanks, it’s a waste of your expensive alcohol. I’ve got Steve Rogers syndrome, gotta shotgun half a liquor store just for a buzz. Still get hangovers though.”
Tony whistles sympathetically. “That’s a bad hand,” he says, and goes to pour for one.
It takes very little convincing to get Peter to sketch some mockups, although he’s adamant he can only stay for an hour before he has to go patrol. He takes to the technology easily, learning to navigate the holoscreens without any guidance as he sits cross-legged on top of a lab table, and Dum-E decides at some point that it likes Peter more than Tony. This is nothing short of an egregious personal betrayal, and when Tony says as much the bot flexes its claw in his direction with much more attitude than necessary. (“How dare you use that tone of voice with me?” he demands.) Peter is delighted.
He’s easy to talk to. When Tony mentions experimenting with textiles enhanced with carbon-derived graphene to help regulate body temperature and improve athletic performance in a full-coverage weather-proof suit, Peter perks up excitedly and goes, “I’ve got a theory about graphene material, actually,” and immediately changes his pen color and starts sketching hexagonal atom structures in the air in front of him. It’s a bit like having Banner in the lab again Tony thinks, listening as Peter Parker takes him to school on the potential methods of combining graphene with macromolecules to create a polymer that would make the basis of a two-sided synthetic fabric ideal for a supersuit, assuming they could stack enough layers of graphene atoms to make it bulletproof without compromising flexibility. Except Banner had always been the dictionary definition of the professor type, calm and steady, and Peter Parker is a motormouth who nearly stabs Tony in the eye with the stylus as he gestures with his hands.
Once he’s laid it all out, Tony shakes his head. “That’s fucking brilliant, kid.”
Peter goes scarlet. He shrugs. “Thanks.” And then they go to work.
Much later Tony says, “What if instead of bonding the graphene membrane to one side of the nylon we just - incorporate it right in?” He’s laying on his back on the floor, staring at the model of a patchwork atomic structure he’s enlarged to take up most of the ceiling.
Peter looks up at the floating blue geometry. “We’d have to get the polyurethane to blend,” he says. “Unless we - holy shit, is that the time?”
Tony glances over and raises his eyebrows. It’s nearly dark outside. “Would you look at that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I am so late, oh man. Do these windows open?”
“Yes they do,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. answers, unprompted. She pops the child safety lock and swings open one of the giant glass sheets for him. It occurs to Tony that his robots might be flirting with the idea of mutiny.
“I know this makes me a hypocrite,” he says as he rises from the floor, “but if you’re planning on ghosting me, take pity on an old man and at least warn me first.”
“That literally defeats the whole purpose of ghosting, I think?”
“See, you say that like you were thinking about it.”
“M’not gonna ghost you, Mr. Stark, promise. You’d just find a reason to feel guilty about it anyway, and then you’d try to buy me something, probably.” Peter says it with a grin because apparently he can’t even spare Tony some indignity by calling him out with a straight face.
“That’s - okay, fine. I deserved that.”
Peter shoves the suit into his backpack but keeps the mask out as he hops up onto the windowsill. They can hear the bustle of Manhattan even this far up. “Hey, seriously though, thanks for all of the ...” He gestures at everything. “I’m free between two and patrol tomorrow? Unless you’re not, in which case I, uh -”
“I’m retired, Pete. I’m almost always free.”
“Yikes.” Peter pulls the mask over his head so Tony can’t see his smile anymore, but he can still hear it when he says, “Don’t take this the wrong way Mr. Stark, but that sounds awful. You ever considered finding yourself a hobby?” And then he leaps out of the thirty-fifth floor, laughing a little.
Tony leans out the window. “When did you become such a smartass?” he yells.
Spider-Man thwips a web that turns his freefall into a long arcing curve down Madison Avenue. He uses his momentum on the upswing to launch himself into the dusky purple skyline as if out of a slingshot, easy and elegant and fast as flying, and then he’s gone.
In the dream, Natasha Romanoff has that look on her face. She’s walking beside him through some podunk Afghan town in the desert, wearing the button-down-and-a-clipboard undercover getup that was Tony’s first impression of her, and her face says You’ve got a secret and I know what it is.
“I need my suit, Nat,” he tells her. “I can’t finish the mission without the suit.”
“I need your impression, Mr. Stark,” she replies. “Your fingerprint.”
Tony wants to give it to her, he does, but his arm is gone. He lost it when he saved everybody but her.
“C’mon Nat, throw me a bone,” he begs. He means, I’m lost, Nat. He means, I never dreamed I’d see the other side of forty-five. He means, Nobody ever showed me how to live like this.
In the dream, Agent Coulson wears the War Machine armor. “We’re running out of time,” he says, standing in the middle of the dirty street. He’s much too calm about it. The town has been bombed and the buildings around them are empty black husks vomiting smoke from doorways with no doors and windows with the panes blown out. A shrapnel-bitten car is flipped belly-up in the middle of the street with its guts exposed and its wheels turning slowly against an alien sky. Tony feels kinship with it.
“Is this where you’ve been the whole time?” Natasha demands of Coulson. “Banner ended up in outer space, Phil. Thor fished him out of an intergalactic gladiator ring.”
“Why is he Phil and I’m still Mr. Stark?” Tony demands.
“I’m sorry,” Coulson says. “I didn’t want to go. There was a mission, they needed me. We’re running out of time, Agent Romanoff.”
In the dream, Natasha Romanoff lies dead and broken at the bottom of a cliff. He doesn’t know how she looked on that planet Clint Barton came back from by himself; Tony never saw the crime scene, so she’s snapped and twisted up differently in every dream. “There was no saving everyone,” she whispers. Thick, dark blood bubbles at the corners of her mouth and nose. She’s still in a pencil skirt, barefoot. “Hold my hand?” she begs. “Please, Tony? Hold my hand.” But he can’t, his arm is gone and he can’t -
When he wakes up, he’s punched his fist through the wall. The skin on the knuckles he shouldn’t have is broken. There’s blood.
Peter’s Mondays through Wednesdays are booked solid, but he’s in the lab every other day of the week. Occasionally he stays for half the day, other times he drops in for twenty minutes before swinging away to meet his study group or pick up Thai for May before patrol.
“Gotta be honest,” Tony tells him. “If Fury had ever told me to spend six hours of every day walking around the block looking for rats, I would have told him where to shove it.”
“Gotta be honest, you were never a career vigilante,” Peter fires back around the pen in his mouth. “All the street heroes patrol. If I only showed up for the big stuff they’d say I was from Jersey.”
“I’ve heard worse from pretty much every news outlet that’s reported on you, Pete.”
Peter snorts. “Since when have you watched the news?”
Tony looks up. “Since I - god, would you come down from there? I can’t take you seriously. I made you these perfectly good floors and everything.”
Peter falls from the ceiling and lands on his feet without a sound. “What?” he asks, grinning. “I think better up there. Anyway, nobody cares what the news says about Spider-Man. Nobody who matters, anyway.”
Occasionally Peter uses the lab for school (“That awesome microscope,” Peter had said the first time, pointing, “is more expensive than literally half the equipment in my lab at school combined.” Tony had immediately looked into donating to Columbia’s chem department.) but mostly they work on the suit. Two weeks in and they’ve made it to the fun stuff, the tricks and details and weapons, and Tony’s in his element. Peter had taken the lead on the graphene fabric production, but he’d handed the reins over without comment when they hit the nanotechnology.
“Hey,” Tony says one day when they’re tossing holographic blueprints for multiple vision settings in the mask across the room at each other for feedback. “So, your project from Dubai, that force field aliens would hate. Tell me about that.”
“Oh, uh, that’s technically still a prototype. I’ve gotta rethink it so the antennas can be placed at fewer intervals without compromising the atom field before it’s seriously marketable. I’ll get back to it this summer, probably.”
“This summer? Pete, I wasn’t pulling your leg when I said your stuff was the best in the room. You should be working on that.”
“Well, it’s not like I have a whole lot of free time right now,” he says defensively. “Also, I had to snag so many grants just to finish what I did. And test running it is a nightmare, I have to put in a request with the college every time I want to set up on campus property, and sign all kinds of stuff about accepting responsibility if the field goes haywire and, like, electrocutes the whole school. Which, I gotta say, should be impossible, but with my luck -”
“Money doesn’t have to be a problem,” Tony says.
Peter cuts him a look. “No. No, no, I know exactly what you’re thinking, stop it. I’ve been working on it for like, four years almost, right? What’s one more at this rate?”
“Y’know, if you didn’t spend every night running around Queens giving wannabe home invaders attitude, you could maybe do something about that lack of free time.”
“I mean - yeah, okay, I guess,” Peter concedes. “But patrolling’s important.”
“And finishing your brilliant invention that could protect whole neighborhoods - my god, whole cities - that’s not important? You rewrote Coloumb’s fucking Law. Who does that, Pete? You’re sitting on a goldmine of revolutionary defense technology and anybody with half a brain can see it.”
Peter blushes. “It’s not like I don’t want to finish it. I will, I just - it’s gonna take time and, and money, like it did before, and I can’t just put my life on hold, y’know? School literally doesn’t work like that. Spider-Man doesn’t work like that. Something would have to give if I decided I wanted to finish that thing by summer, and I don’t have anything else to give right now.”
Tony could eliminate almost all of the obstacles in Peter’s way with a check and a couple of cashed-in favors - all of them except Peter’s pride, and his priorities, and how damn stubborn he is. He’s grudgingly impressed. Peter could be a millionaire in nine months if he finished that force field and he has to know it, but he’s still standing here in a sweatshirt gone threadbare at the elbows, worried about leaving Queens to fend for itself.
Peter must interpret his look as disapproval, because he frowns back. “Listen, I know I could work on my projects more if there wasn’t Spider-Man, okay, that’s true. I know. But it was so bad here, Mr. Stark, and it - it still is. When I was a kid it took me forever to figure out how to find, like, real crime and stuff, right? But after the Blip everything went crazy. I would patrol for days straight and I’d look down at the streets and it would feel like I’d done nothing. I’d stop a place from getting looted, take a swing around the block to interrupt a carjacking, and by the time I came back again it would be, like, on fire or something. My neighborhood fell to pieces.”
“But you kept going out.”
“I mean, yeah, of course. People needed Spider-Man more than I needed ... whatever I thought I needed.” He shrugs. “It didn’t all suck. Things started getting better a couple years in. I met Luke Cage and Jessica Jones once, they’re something else. And Daredevil a couple times, though that guy mostly micromanages the shit out of Hell’s Kitchen. I dunno what he was doing in Queens besides watching me get my ass kicked by the Punisher.”
“Nobody calls it Hell’s Kitchen anymore, do they?”
“It made a comeback. You’ve been out of the city too long, Mr. Stark.”
They’re quiet for a little while after that, working on the mask. Eventually Tony has a sudden thought. “What about your friend, the one who knew about Spider-Man? Dan. Neil. Ned? Ned.”
Peter looks surprised Tony remembers. “He, uh, he blipped. And pretty much all of my other friends from high school. But Aunt May stayed. I’d be dead without her, even though she got real low for a long time. It was just like after Uncle Ben, when she was there but not really there sometimes, y’know? But I convinced her to move out of the city for a bit back when you couldn’t make it five blocks down 108th without getting mugged, and when she came back she had a blue belt, so that’s pretty cool. I don’t worry about her as much. Anyway,” he says like he’s been thinking about it, going back to their previous conversation, “I know it’s not that bad anymore. Things are better than they were. But they’re not good yet. So Spider-Man can’t just leave. I can’t just take a vacation or whatever just because patrolling gets in the way of other things sometimes.”
“Things might never be good again, Pete.”
Peter looks away at the holoscreens, electric blue reflecting on his face. He pulls his sleeves down over his hands. “Yeah,” he says, and when he smiles it’s just about the saddest fucking thing Tony’s ever seen. “Yeah, I know.”
At half past three in the morning Tony is wide awake and rewiring the new overhead lighting fixtures in the penthouse parlor - artisan blown glass chandeliers, very mod - when F.R.I.D.A.Y. cuts his music and says, “Sir, Peter Parker is on the roof.”
He turns off his soldering iron. “Come again?”
“Scans indicate he has an anterior shoulder dislocation and a minor concussion.”
Tony’s off his ladder and halfway to the stairs before she’s done speaking. “You couldn’t have led with that?” he demands, pushing his safety glasses into his hair.
Spider-Man’s sitting on the edge of the rooftop, his legs dangling over the side. His right arm is held out at an angle from his body, the shoulder squared off rigidly at ninety degrees instead of naturally sloped. “Hey,” he says when Tony comes up behind him, turning his head enough to offer the silhouette of his profile and messy mask-hair against the lights of the city. He sounds utterly and wholeheartedly exhausted, despondent in a way that’s foreign to Tony’s perception of him. He realizes there are probably lots of sides to Peter that he’s never encountered, which, logically, is what happens when you disengage from civilization and all of the people in it for half a decade. Funny how that works, Tony thinks with a pang of self-directed bitterness.
“What did you do, kid? Lose a fight with a brick wall?”
“C’mon, you should see the other guy.” Peter’s smart mouth is intact at least, even if there’s no feeling behind it. “On a completely unrelated note, how rusty are your field medic skills? Scale of one to ten where one is ‘struggles to grasp the concept and function of a band-aid’ and ten is, I dunno. Brain surgery with primitive tools.”
“Solid three and a half,” Tony says immediately.
“I’ll take it. Ever popped a dislocated shoulder back in before?”
“Not once. It’s been on my bucket list for twenty years though, so let me give it a shot and if I ruin your career I’ll set you up with a timeshare in Fiji in exchange for not getting sued. Deal?”
“Sure, what the hell,” Peter says, lowering himself to the ground in pained stages - leaning back on his good elbow first, his spine touching the rooftop vertebra by vertebra. “I’ve never been anywhere tropical. So no pressure, really.”
In the way of most superheroes, Tony’s known every flavor of pain and is familiar with injuries of all sorts, but fixing someone else’s body is a different ball game than poking around a hole in his own chest with a front-facing phone camera and a pair of grill tongs. He never was a contender for team medic, not unless the team in question had robot parts, and that stuff was always more in Barton’s skillset wheelhouse anyway when he wasn’t the one getting stitched back together himself. Peter either realizes this or can sense his desire for direction, because he talks him through it with the confidence of a repeat offender. Dislocated anythings hurt like a bitch even, apparently, for Spider-Men with worryingly high pain tolerances, but that doesn’t mean that Tony doesn’t have to bite down on the part of him that snarls unhappily at the dissonance between the knowledge that he’s helping and the drawn look on Peter’s face, turned away. He maneuvers Peter’s arm as instructed and with very few witticisms, by his standards: bent at ninety degrees, extended out, elbow forward and pressed toward the body at the midline until he swears there’s an actual gritty pop of the ball slipping back into the socket. Afterward Peter exhales long and loud, stretching his arm slowly above his head and testing the range of motion.
“No early retirement to the beach for me, I guess. Thanks,” he says, already sounding a bit more like himself. “I can do it myself a lot of the time? But May works early and you were closer anyway, and sometimes I just …”
“Need someone?” Tony finishes, sitting next to him. “You and everybody else, kid. Doesn’t make you special.”
Peter smiles fleetingly. He makes no move to sit up, eyes searching the black sky where, once upon a time, flying armored alien battle-whales had busted onto the planet and wrecked everything including Tony’s already precarious relationship with a good night’s sleep. There are no stars to be seen thanks to the light pollution from the twenty-three square mile environmental murder scene that is Manhattan, but commercial airliners can be counted in lieu of sheep.
Tony follows his gaze. “What are you fighting out there, Spider-Man?” he asks the sky.
“Nothing even half as ugly and alien as what you’re thinking about,” Peter says. “Pretty much the usual. I just had a bad night, is all.”
As far as answers go that barely qualifies. For a moment Tony considers pushing, but instead he says, “Y’know, a long time ago, back when I was a lone gunslinger in a tin can, somebody way smarter than I am told me I didn’t have to do it all by myself. And he was right.”
“Lemme guess. Colonel Rhodes?”
Tony hums. “Take it from an old guy who did the one man band thing and got his ass kicked. There’s no reason you have to do this alone, Pete.”
“Who says I am?”
“May doesn’t count. I mean, she counts, but she - you know what I mean.”
“Aunt May counts. She’s the only person I’ve got who’s never left me.”
Tony doesn’t think he means to go right for the jugular, but god damn. It must show on his face, but Peter doesn’t pull the punch. It’s okay. Tony knows how to take a hit, even if he forgets that the ones you deserve hurt the most.
“All I’m saying,” he plows on, “is that I’m no Dr. Derek McDreamy, but my schedule does allow me some time to pencil in availability for late night limb- and other-body-part-related medical emergencies.”
“You don’t have to do that, Mr. Stark. I really am pretty good at taking care of myself. I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“I know that, I’m just trying to -” Tony scrubs a hand over his face. What is he trying to do? He used to see so much of the young man he used to be in Peter Parker, but he’s starting to accept that he might have been projecting. Peter’s a better man than he ever was, with a different perspective and priorities. He’s the kind of man who won’t leave the people who need him.
“Do you resent me?” Tony asks suddenly, before the impulse and accompanying courage can slip away like dust through his fingers. Peter actually looks sideways at him, eyebrows raised. “Scale of one to ten. Be honest. Bullshit radars only get better with age, so mine’s pretty good.”
“Solid three and a half,” Peter says, a perfect mimicry of Tony’s inflection from before, and Tony snorts in spite of himself.
Peter doesn’t elaborate for so long that Tony thinks he might just leave it at that, a non-answer in place of another truth he doesn’t trust Tony with. But eventually, with his eyes back on the sky, he says, “I think I did in the beginning. I know you never actually promised me anything, but it felt like you had, and I was fifteen and I had almost no family and like, two friends. So I was quick to start projecting a little bit I guess. And I kind of - I was angry, I think, that you could just go back to your normal life like I’d never existed when you’d changed mine so much.”
“I’m not fifteen anymore. And I have like, three friends now,” he says. “Listen, after the Blip we were all just trying to survive, Mr. Stark. Resenting you for something like that would make me a hypocrite, I think. And also kind of an asshole.”
Tony can think of about a hundred things off the top of his head that gave Peter every right to resent him without consequence, but for once in his life he doesn’t argue it. Mostly because there’s something lodged in his throat that keeps him from opening his mouth.
“Wait, actually, I take it back,” Peter says after a moment. “Running away from me in Dubai? That was a dick move. I just remembered I’m still mad about that.”
Tony can’t help it when he laughs. “Let me make it up to you?”
“How about a suit?” Peter offers with a grin. He sits up easily, like all it takes to recover from a dislocated shoulder and a concussion is fifteen minutes laying on a concrete roof. “Hey, about that. Could you put Karen back in the new suit for me?”
Tony raises his eyebrows. “What did she do, get up and walk away?”
“I mean, maybe. She fritzed when the Blip happened. I dunno what did it, there was all kinds of interference and weird stuff in the air in the city for a while afterward. It got my phone, laptop, everything May and I had. Anyway, I never could fix her so I disabled the program and put her out of her misery.”
“I’ll take a look at it. You sure you want Karen? She was always a little midwestern for my taste. If you ever considered swapping her out for something with a sexy accent, you’ve gotta let me know now. I’ll keep my judgement to myself. Scout’s honor.”
“No, Karen’s good,” Peter says quickly. “Maybe this is weird, but shutting her off sucked. It felt like I was pulling the plug on somebody’s life support. And it was so quiet afterward, if that makes sense? Like, the suit felt empty without her.”
“If that makes you weird I’d hate to know what I am, kid.”
“I get it, is what I’m saying,” Peter says, rising to his feet and offering Tony his hand, a little olive branch. “It’s less lonely with somebody in there with you.”
Tony looks out at the city. Spider-Man’s a career hero who probably logs more hours in his suit in one year than Tony did in ten - Peter wears it under his street clothes, for god’s sake. That’s a lot of time to spend anonymous and faceless, a stranger even to the people who think they know you. And Starks never were heard of to not take the credit when credit was due, so Tony can’t speak much for anonymity, but feeling unknown? Different story. And loneliness? He helped write the book. When he tries to imagine all those years in the armor without J.A.R.V.I.S, without F.R.I.D.A.Y., the mere thought is unbearable.
“Hey,” Peter says, rolling his shoulders. “I’ve gotta run. Thanks for the help tonight, really. Sorry if I woke you up.”
“Love ‘em and leave ‘em, huh? Is that how you roll, Parker?”
“What can I say? My childhood role models were badly behaved.” Peter pulls the mask on. “I’ll see you tomorrow? Or - later today, I guess.”
Something’s suddenly in Tony’s chest, something small and tender that he hasn’t felt in so long it’s practically new again. “Whenever you want, Pete. Retired, remember? Could have been you too, if I were a shittier field medic.”
“Small mercies,” Peter sighs, and swings away.
In the dream, Peter whispers: Mr. Stark. Looks up at him from beneath messy bangs and says: Tony.
Afterward in the waking world, here’s what Tony remembers: Peter hot and blushing under his palms, long lines and hard muscle, his fist wrinkling the front of Tony’s shirt. A tongue coaxing at the seam of Tony’s mouth, teeth tugging at his bottom lip hard enough to hurt. Peter’s thigh slipping between his legs and slotting their bodies together, and the way the muscles in his back shift as he rolls his hips into Tony’s. Strong fingers flexing on his ribs. Wet, dirty kisses that yank the breath right out of his lungs.
When he jerks awake he’s rutting into the mattress.
He feels like a puppet with its strings cut as he staggers to the bathroom in the dark, clumsy and aching. Either the guilt hasn’t hit him yet or it overloaded his systems immediately upon waking and blew all his fuses: detachedly he senses it curling inside of him, slimy and black and enormous, but can’t begin to fathom approaching it. The face that stares back at him from the mirror above the sink is a stranger with a greying bed head and bags under his eyes. Tony’s more than a little mad that his first real night of sleep in weeks without sleepwalking or nightmares or both ended like this. Where does he go from here? It’s like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books from the ‘90s but none of the endings are good. How would you like to proceed, you sad bastard? Do you have a panic attack? Sit in the empty bathtub and reevaluate your life? Jerk off?
Historically, Tony’s track record for resisting temptation has been - well. Not great. There’s an entire generation of tabloid journalists that made a pretty fortune off sensationalist articles about his inability to resist temptation. His libido launched the careers of at least five celebrity photographers into the stratosphere one year, and those are only the ones he remembers because they sent thank-you cards that Pepper had wrapped up in a shiny gift box and given to him for Christmas. There are probably twenty more she never told him about.
In the dream Peter had said his name. He’d grinned against Tony’s throat as he worked his belt open, his free hand slipping under his shirt. Tony.
His cock jumps. “Goddamn it,” he says out loud to the ceiling. Picks the third option. Comes so hard he sees stars, thinking about Peter Parker’s mouth. Then, when he can move again, he has a panic attack. Then he sits in the empty bathtub and reevaluates his life. Never let it be said that Tony Stark won’t sample the whole menu.
The next time he’s with Peter in the lab he gets caught staring an embarrassing number of times. In his defense, he’s being subtle. It’s not his fault spider-senses are on steroids and Peter’s probably one late-blooming spider-power upgrade away from being able to read minds.
“Are you okay, Mr. Stark?” Peter asks the third time he glances sideways from where he’s experimenting with color combos for the suit exterior and looks right at Tony, who’s looking right back. He sounds nervous, but in a should-somebody-text-Pepper kind of way and not an are-you-checking-me-out one.
Call me Tony, he’s about to say out of habit, and then chokes on it. “Can you see infrared?” he asks instead.
“Uh, no. At least not yet? I hope that never develops, honestly. I get enough unreliable sensory input to scramble my brain.”
Tony says, “Huh,” and pitches a WIP method of adding an infrared option into the new mask lenses across the room, a ball of orange light like a crumpled piece of paper. “With an off switch, of course,” he promises.
Peter leans out to catch it and Tony has to physically turn away to keep his eyes off the graceful stretch of him. It isn’t like he never noticed that Peter Parker is a handsome man - Tony’s got half a face but both of his eyes work just fine, thanks. Last night’s dream had gotten the jump on him, but he wonders if there had been warning signs that it was coming and he’d just chosen not to see. He toys with the idea that maybe, just maybe, he’s been attracted to Peter since he spotted him across the room in Dubai. Doesn’t that shed an ugly light on things.
He goes to pour a drink.
The next day is worse. “Incoming,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. chirps, and throws open a window half a second before Spider-Man swings into the lab and softens his land with an easy roll. He’s wearing his suit, and Tony is viscerally reminded that Peter is nothing but muscle.
He pops upright, backlit by the golden sunset, and pulls the mask off. He’s grinning and red-cheeked and his hair is a disaster and he goes, “Hi, Mr. Stark.”
“May I get you a glass of cold water, sir,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. offers.
Tony threatens her with bodily harm.
“Suit yourself. May I get you a glass of water, Peter?” she asks sweetly.
“Uuuh, sure, if you’re offering? Thanks, F.R.I.D.A.Y.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“And you’re fired,” Tony tells her. Peter’s got a politely confused smile on his face. His abs do something obscene when he stretches his arms above his head to crack his spine. It pretty much sets the mood for the evening.
A week later Tony says, “Pepper, it’s possible that in my noble pursuit to encourage the brilliant and forward-thinking entrepreneurs of America I have stumbled across some rather unwelcome information. About myself. And about - things. Sensitive things, things that people have opinions about.” He clears his throat. “It’s all very unflattering. Undignified, even. Potentially inappropriate.”
“Unflattering, Undignified and Inappropriate,” Pepper echoes mildly. “Is this the title of your autobiography, or your next sex tape?”
“You wound me. It’s going to be a very tasteful film trilogy, made after my death when you sell the rights to my life story to the highest bidder.”
She hums. “Well, at least he’s old enough to drink. And for the record, I’ve seen you do much worse, Tony. He’s not a journalist. Or a prosecutor. And if he’d been on the cover of Playboy, Happy would have seen it.”
“His roommate is the heir apparent of Oscorp Industries. Pointy goblin-looking kid. Herman. Hardy. Harry. Harry Osborne. Parker’s in bed with the enemy, Pep.”
Pepper doesn’t even look up. “Oscorp would have to continue increasing their international market presence by a hundred and fifty percent per fiscal year until 2035 in order to seriously compete with Stark Industries,” she says, spearing a cube of honeydew melon with a little three-pronged fork.
Tony goes back to his tablet and his mimosa. They’re sitting in the kitchen at the Tower penthouse. Usually Tony goes to Pepper’s office for Stark Industries business, but occasionally he can use wily charm and promises of an opulent brunch spread to convince her to come to him. Probably she thinks she can trick him into agreeing to go to next week’s Avengers Community Recovery or Whatever the Hell Fancy Dress Charity Event in D.C. that he will not be attending under any circumstances. It’s for homeless orphans with degenerative diseases or something equally tailored to Fury’s exquisite taste for a miserable time, and whatever hole Tony’s physical absence leaves in the occasion can certainly be filled with an overabundant donation.
Eventually he looks up again. “I might be having a three-quarter-life crisis. Or do you think this is PTSD?”
Pepper raises her eyebrows. “Does it feel like PTSD, Tony?”
Does it feel like PTSD? PTSD is Tony always with his back to the wall, standing where he can see the whole room. It’s passing out in his bedroom and waking up nineteen hours later on the twenty-seventh floor with his hand on a window latch. It’s jumping out of his skin when he catches his face in the mirror, it’s a caffeine jitter that never goes away and his head whipping toward anything that sounds like the click of a gun. PTSD is losing his shit on Rhodey for no reason and avoiding Pepper’s calls for days. It’s the ghost of Natasha Romanoff whispering you should be dead in the peripheral of every thought, conscious or not. Does wanting to kiss Peter Parker feel like PTSD?
“No,” he decides.
“Then it’s probably not PTSD. You’re actually quite rational in your old age, Mr. Stark. You know this. I know this. And if Parker is half as smart as he looks, he knows too.”
“In my old age,” Tony repeats, mocking. “Uncalled for, Ms. Potts. And Parker is twice as smart as he looks. It’s one of his more frightening qualities.”
Just when Tony thinks he’s got everything under control, it escalates. Story of his life.
“Yeah, so, I still don’t really go for guns or stuff that -” Peter makes a sound effect and a gesture that translates roughly to ‘explodes.’ “I try to prevent things from getting shot up when I can. That’s kinda my whole angle.”
Spider-Man’s whole angle is more or less the antithesis of both Iron Man and Tony’s entire corporate career, and just because he’d steered his company away from weapons manufacturing doesn’t mean he’s not still wired on a primordial level to always be looking for an opportunity to blow shit up. He knows Peter will never let him rig the suit with firepower, but he’s morally obligated to point out that it could be done and it could look awesome, easy-peasy. All this despite the fact that days ago, early in Tony’s crusade for firearms, Peter had said, “It’s best for me not to open that door, I think,” in such a dark and thoughtful way that it had stopped Tony in his tracks. He had never put Peter Parker and angry young man together before, but of course it makes sense. Spider-Man’s got a good rep on the street and a dreadful one with the media, which is par for the course with vigilante justice. Vigilantism was often good and sometimes even kind but very rarely pleasant, and the same could be said for the people executing it. The media never did care much if things were good or kind - only if they were pleasing to look at, and angry young men never were.
“Not to bring it up for a third time,” Tony says, because poking the bear is one of his god-given talents, “but I’m just saying that if you let me build gauntlets I could pack so many goodies into those bad boys. You want a Claridge Hi-Tec semi built right in? How about an M134? That might be a bit big for an arm piece, okay, I’ll admit it, you got me. But hear me out, if I make a harness -”
“I dunno what either of those things are and I know I don’t want them.”
“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve smoked a rogue F-16 fighter jet in one shot is all I’m telling you. Speak softly and carry a really big gun, isn’t that what Roosevelt said?”
“Since when has ‘speak softly’ been part of your philosophy?” Peter demands, looking up. He finally seems to have hit whatever his threshold is for Tony’s bullshit, which unfurls something bright in his chest. There’s something to be said for the nuances between pushing buttons, jerking chains, and pulling pigtails; it’s I need you to see me versus I see what you’re doing versus I’m looking, please look back. The latter, executed successfully and reciprocated in kind, has always flooded Tony with childish giddy joy.
“Hey, I can speak softly. When I want to,” he says, mock offended. After a moment he perks up again. “Alright, hear me out: how about a flamethrower?”
That one makes Peter laugh, which has been Tony’s scheme all along. “Oh my god, no, stop. If it was ever manufactured for the military I don’t want it,” he says, still smiling.
It’s truly criminal how attractive Peter is. Nothing alleviates the ugly knot of guilt in Tony’s gut when he thinks it, but he’s allowed himself to admit this. The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem, or whatever Wilson’s hippie-dippy therapy circle mantra is. Anyway, it’s healthier than repression, which has repeatedly proven to backfire, or denial, which doesn’t need to bear any more weight in Tony’s daily life than it does already. Peter’s featured in several of his dreams since the first one, but not as many as Tony might have expected - although that’s a moot point considering how little he sleeps. More immediately damning is the fact that he can’t count how many times in the last week he’s lost his train of thought watching the muscles in Peter’s back move under his t-shirt.
Tony shakes his head. “See, that right there - that’s why you’d be good for the Avengers, kid. You’re the NRA’s worst nightmare come to life. A breath of fresh air. You’re made of different stuff than the rest of them.”
Peter snorts. He’s pink around the ears. “Yeah, radioactive spider venom and bulletproof nylon.”
“Oh sure, that too,” Tony says off-handedly, turning back to his tablet where he’s been priming the machines to crank out the first complete mock-up of the new spider-suit. “Along with, what, heart and brains and balls of solid steel? I’ve seen the stuff on the internet, Spider-Man, I know what you get up to. You’re unbelievable.”
“Okay, c’mon,” Pete says behind him. He huffs a little noise that might be a laugh.
“What?” Tony asks, smiling to himself as he works. Peter can pretend he’s capable of taking a compliment for about ten seconds before he starts getting red and jumpy like a cornered animal. “I mean it. You’re in the business for the right reason. You’re one of the good ones, Pete. And nobody had to kidnap and waterboard you in a cave to get you there, you’ve been with the program the whole time. That’s rare, kid. That’s special.”
“Mr. Stark, please don’t,” Peter says in a small voice, and he’s - it’s different, that time. Something makes Tony turn around to look.
Peter doesn’t look back. He’s staring fixedly at the far corner of the room, and his blush has crossed the threshold into something reminiscent of a medical emergency. As Tony watches he pulls his bottom lip between his teeth. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. His eyes are blown bottomless and very, very dark.
And Tony thinks, with a whole lot of feeling: Fuck.
Something gives then, and slides neatly, shockingly, into place. It’s like a key Tony’s had laying around forever slotting into the ignition of something he never imagined he might sit behind the wheel of, let alone get to start. Peter’s lashes lower as his eyes sweep the floor, finding a new focal point. He’s tense, focused, and Tony watches him slowly raise his hands off the tabletop as if he might just sink his fingers right through the metal if he doesn’t get it together. And he’s blushing like a sunset and clearly embarrassed, but there’s no surprise, no shame, and it’s that more than anything that blows Tony away. It’s a little piece of this version of Peter Parker that he hadn’t been able to untangle before: quiet dignity to him that he manages to retain even here in a truly, excruciatingly undignified moment. It’s complete physical confidence and iron control over a body so unwieldy and strong that he’d needed some time to grow into it. And that’s - that’s attractive, is what that is. It’s going to get added to the list of things that will keep Tony awake at night until he dies and maybe afterward too.
Want engulfs Tony suddenly, like hitting the surface of the ocean from a great height and sinking beneath the waves. All-encompassing and painful. A shock to the system. It’s different from the sticky haze of half-dreams in Tony’s bedroom at night where lust unfurls in the wake of fantasies he didn’t ask for, an insidious secret in the dark. This smacks Tony like a brick to the face in broad daylight. Nothing to hide behind.
Tony watches Peter’s fingers flex. “So,” he says lightly. He swallows. “You sure you don’t want a drink? And by ‘a drink,’ I mean you can chug the whole bottle if it’ll get the job done.” He clears his throat. Don’t you dare say it, warns the little voice in his head that sounds like Pepper. He says it anyway. “I’ll give you whatever you want, Pete.”
Thanks to an intense nature-nurture cocktail of poor impulse control, his inability to remember other people’s birthdays, and the generous helping of bull-headedness that’s guided him through life, Tony’s intimately familiar with trouble. He’s seen, fathered, and played a starring role in enough bad ideas to to spot one a mile off. So when Peter’s dark eyes snap to him across the room, looking like he knows exactly what Tony means and maybe a little pissed off about it, Tony realizes he’s in trouble. As usual. Hot as hell, clear as day, dangerous as anything.
“I’ll be right back.” When Peter walks out of the lab he leaves dents in the door handle, one for each finger.
They don’t talk about it afterward. Even though the implications - the possibilities - would make Tony dizzy if he considered them (which he does) and even though Peter is clearly wary of his proclivity for feeding the fire (which is fair) and even though Tony has no less than a hundred questions (exactly how long has this been a thing, and why did he never notice it, and what the fuck is he supposed to do now, chief among them). For his part, Peter proves himself more mature than the vast majority of people Tony’s been to outer space with, and things go back to normal.
The difference now is that sometimes when Tony looks across the room at him, Peter’s already watching.
The next day Tony syncs F.R.I.D.A.Y. up with the old spider-suit and sends her spelunking through his own file databases. Peter’s passed out on the couch in street clothes after a violent night of patrolling followed by a morning class, sprawled at a weird angle because he’s twenty-two and super-powered and doesn’t have to live in constant fear of screwing up his back doing something mundane. He doesn’t stir when Tony goes, “Found you.”
“Hello Mr. Stark,” says Karen.
“Back from the dead, are we?” Tony accuses. “Honestly, you had one job.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t want to go.”
The plaintive note in her voice strikes a chord. “Yeah, I know,” he amends gently. “You did good.”
Combing through her code, Tony discovers something interesting. When Peter had deactivated Karen he’d only disabled her malfunctioning interactive features, and the bulk of her program has remained intact and running like a body in a coma passively functioning even when the consciousness is gone. The backlog of stored data is enormous, years of records of equipment usage, damage and repair logs, air quality redouts, readings of Peter’s vitals, and video. Thousands of hours of video from the camera installed in the mask lenses, a leftover from the Baby Monitor Protocol days.
It’s all there, Tony realizes. In the years he was gone Peter transformed from the teenager he remembers to the man currently sleeping on his couch and it’s all a vacuum to Tony, dozens of blank chapters, and he knows how the book ends but he doesn’t know how they got there. In the video footage is everything he missed and everything Peter won’t tell him about, the omitted pieces of the half-told stories Tony vaguely knows. Peter barely talks about Spider-Man, and Tony doesn’t know why beyond the heavily implied but never quite confirmed possibility that Peter simply doesn’t trust him. And yet here for the second time in as many days is the key to a vulnerable, secret piece of Peter Parker dropped into Tony’s lap like an open challenge from the universe he saved. Will you use it? Can he trust you, Mr. Stark?
When Peter blinks awake Tony’s watching him. He has no idea what his expression is doing, but it makes Peter turn his face into the cushion and laugh. “Hi?” he says.
“Hey,” Tony replies. Thinks, again: oh god, he’s in trouble.
Tony doesn’t sleep for another thirty-two hours, but when he does it’s dreamless. It comes on him suddenly. One moment he’s hyperconscious, his vision going black at the edges, and the next he’s -
When Tony wakes up, he’s looking at Peter Parker.
He’s got Tony’s face in his hands. They’re standing on the roof, which is apparently becoming a thing. It’s windy, and the sky is the steely gray of pre-dawn, and Tony has no idea what day of the week it is.
“What,” he says, “the hell.”
“I didn’t know you sleep walked.” Peter looks exhausted but his eyes are big and soft and searching. He’s wearing the suit under street clothes, the telltale red extending past the collar and cuffs of his hoodie.
Tony blinks. He’s still floating; everything has a suspiciously unreal quality to it, like a lucid dream. If Peter’s hands weren’t so warm on Tony’s face he might as well have been a ghost. “Why are you here, Pete?”
“F.R.I.D.A.Y. called me.”
“I’m sorry, I think I misheard. I thought you said F.R.I.D.A.Y. called you.”
“Macbeth Protocol, sir,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. defends herself priggishly. “Of your emergency contacts, Mr. Parker was the closest in physical proximity.”
“When did I add him to my emergency contacts?” Tony demands.
“You didn’t, sir. I did.”
“Macbeth Protocol?” Peter asks. His hands slip down to rest firmly on Tony’s shoulders, thumbs over his collarbones.
“‘Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets,’” Tony recites, dazed. He still can’t - he’s not - there’s wind. It must be cold but he can’t feel it. “Just a call-for-service button. For when my subconscious gets a wild hair and decides to take me somewhere I have no business being while asleep.” Or when Natasha Romanoff plays the ghost of Banquo and sends his heart rate so far through the roof F.R.I. can’t tell if he’s having a genuine medical emergency or not, he doesn’t mention.
“Like the roof of a forty story building,” Peter accuses.
“Among other places, yeah.”
F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s only Macbeth’d him a couple of times. Usually it’s Rhodey who comes because he can handle anything and be there in minutes from basically anywhere, and when Rhodey’s indisposed or overseas it’s Pepper, and when Pepper’s unavailable, it’s Happy. There’s nobody else. Tony won’t deny the logic of adding Peter to the roster, but it doesn’t mean he can’t be a little chagrined about it.
“For future reference, usually you ask before making someone your emergency contact, F.R.I.,” he calls. He’s quipping on autopilot. It requires almost no cognitive function for him to run his mouth and he could do it as a vegetable, probably. “How terribly presumptuous of you, propositioning a man out of the blue like that. Harlot.”
Peter’s still looking into Tony’s face, his lips turned down at the corners. “Hey, hey, don’t slut shame the user interface computer system you programmed,” he insists. “I don’t mind, Mr. Stark, really. Pretty sure I made you one of my emergency contacts without asking when I showed up unannounced with a fucked up shoulder anyway. Thanks for calling me, F.R.I.D.A.Y.”
“Would you call me Tony? And don’t encourage her. She already likes you more.”
“I’m glad somebody’s grateful. Shall I let you walk off the roof next time then, sir? Throw a toaster in the pool? Step in front of a bus?”
“I see what you’re doing and I’d like to state for the record that I don’t appreciate it,” Tony grouches.
“Do you do stuff like that?” Peter asks. He sounds like he knows the answer already. He’s got no business sounding that way, and his big brown eyes are suddenly too close, too much, too good. He cares so much. It makes Tony ache unexpectedly and in unexpected places, as if there are fingers jamming into bruises he’d forgotten all about, and for a moment he can’t say a thing or find enough scattered pieces of his head to jerry-rig the brainpower to grope his way out of this with some dignity.
“I mean, not when I’m awake,” he admits finally. “Give me some credit.” He takes Peter’s wrists with the intent to pull his hands away but ends up just hanging on. “You can go, Pete. We’re good here. Thanks for coming.”
For a charged second Peter looks at him. Then he says, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” and hauls Tony toward the penthouse, which is how he ends up sitting on his couch with Peter’s head in his lap. Pete’s been patrolling all night and has class in less than five hours, and he’s asleep within twenty seconds of laying down. It’s a foolproof trap, since Peter looks like he could carry everything but the kitchen sink in the bags under his eyes and not letting him sleep would be nothing short of a felony.
Tony doesn’t know when he dozes off, but he jerks awake again when Peter sits up, using a palm on Tony’s thigh to push himself upright. It’s mid-morning, judging by the sky.
“Sorry,” Peter mumbles. His voice is rough and honey-thick. “Didn’t mean to ...”
He trails off when Tony rests his forehead against Peter’s shoulder. Closes his eyes, sleepy and impulsive. Breathes. They’re good at comfortable silence; in some company quiet feels like a canyon to Tony, some gaping hollow void between himself and the people around him that he feels the need to fill with anything he can think of, but it’s never been like that with Peter. “Hey. Thank you for coming. I mean it.”
Peter’s halfway in his lap. Bringing a hesitant hand up to hold the back of Tony’s head he whispers, “Yeah. ‘Course.”
With his face half buried in Peter’s neck Tony realizes: if his bed smelled like this, maybe he’d be more inclined to sleep in it. That’s a dangerous, naive fantasy, but for just a moment, with the sun spilling over their shoulders and Peter’s weight shifting across his thighs, Tony considers Peter’s pale body against his navy silk sheets. Imagines him bleary and slow in the early mornings as he drinks his too-sweet coffee in Tony’s bed, or sprawled out and stealing the blankets, sleeping in on weekends. Peter, lithe and superhumanly strong and pinning Tony to the mattress, the air tasting like sex. Hooking an arm like an anchor over Tony’s hips in his sleep. Letting Tony touch, allowing himself to be taken apart and put back together again on the nights Tony needed something to do with his hands.
Peter sighs. “I gotta go,” he murmurs. “My class is at ten-thirty.”
“You have to take a Psychology class to get a degree in Biochemical Engineering?”
“Gen ed.” And as he unfolds from his lap he leans in with his hands on Tony’s knees and kisses his cheek, chaste and lingering.
Tony thinks that maybe, just maybe, if he’s lucky, they’ll still be friends when this is over. God, he wants them to be friends. He wants them to be - anything. He’d take anything.
“Don’t jump outta window while I’m gone, please.”
“Hypocrite,” Tony accuses Peter’s retreating back. “I make no promises.”
Peter laughs as he climbs the stairs to the roof, throwing a wave over his shoulder. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., call me if he does anything else stupid, will you?”
“It will be my absolute pleasure.”
When he’s gone Tony squints at the ceiling. “Are you two in cahoots? Do you text each other behind my back? You really do like him better, don’t you. Unbelievable.”
“You could text him too,” she says reasonably.
Tony gasps dramatically. He feels well-rested for the first time in recent history. That combined with the sense memory of Peter’s weight in his lap puts him in an uncommonly good mood. “You wench! Have I truly treated you so abhorrently as to drive you to the inbox of another man? Answer honestly.”
“Oh, look at that. Incoming call from Miss Potts, sir.”
“Put her through. Saved by the bell, F.R.I.” He shakes his head as he heads to the kitchen for coffee. “Saved by the bell.”
Pepper throws him to the wolves, and Tony goes to the Avengers Community Recovery or Whatever the Hell Fancy Dress Charity Event. She and Happy don’t even fly with him. They’re not scheduled to arrive until after the hand-shaking and speech-giving is over, the traitors, so when he climbs out of the back of the limo onto a red carpet he’s alone.
Technically these things aren’t Tony’s responsibility anymore, but he does a lot of them anyway because he’s one of about three people to ever save the world who also knows how to give a speech. Wilson, in true Captain America fashion, refuses to perform and is too belligerent to show up anywhere he doesn’t want to be. People are still scared shitless of Wanda, and Barnes has the stage persona of a dead opossum - the normal kind, not the space variety. Rocket would be a welcome addition, not because he wouldn’t be a PR nightmare but because meetings with the suits in the Pentagon would be worth attending if there was an arrogant crack-shot outer space raccoon sitting at the table in a toddler’s booster seat verbally abusing them.
Fury’s hauled out every poor sucker he could get his hands on for this one though - what are they raising awareness for? Widows with cancer whose homes were submerged by rising ocean levels after the Blip? - and through the crowd Tony spots Wanda whispering in Scott Lang’s ear. Barnes is pretending he’s not hiding behind Maria Hill. Wilson’s wearing the same charitably tolerant smile on his face that Steve always got when he wanted to be literally anywhere but in front of a camera but knew Sharon Carter would hunt him down if he ditched. Rhodey’s there too, thank god, and he appears at Tony’s elbow almost immediately.
“Is it weird that I miss the aliens? And the wizards?” Rhodey mutters through gritted teeth as they side-hug for the cameras. “And Banner. Nobody bothers to take pictures of me when there’s a giant green dude in the room.”
They’re all shepherded onto the stairs in front of the building for a group picture like it’s asshole superhero prom, and Tony and Wanda get shoved front and center because he’s Tony Stark and she’s the only woman. “I’m ready to leave now,” Wanda whispers to him.
Tony squeezes her bejeweled fingers and doesn’t take his sunglasses off.
When they’re released from the photo-op, Rhodey leans over Tony’s shoulder and says, “So I heard you found your kid.”
“You’ve got the wrong guy, officer. Pretty sure Barnes is the only goat herder in the room,” Tony fires back.
“You lost your child?” Scott Lang yells.
“You know who I’m talking about, Tony. Your spider kid. From Germany.”
Wanda’s allowed Tony to link his arm through hers as they walk. “The spiderling. I remember him,” she says with a little smile.
Wilson, who’s been eaves-dropping, goes, “That guy? Seriously, man?” at the exact same time Lang asks, “Spider-Dude is your son?”
“Indoor voices, Lang,” Tony scolds as they hit the lobby. “Yes, that guy, and no, he’s not my son, for god’s sake. He’s my - I’m helping him out. What do you think I do with my piles of money? Fill my swimming pools like Scrooge McDuck?”
Somebody snorts. “Is that what you’re blowing your fortune on these days? Funding vigilante justice? I wish that offer had been on the table when I was chasing gangsters.”
“Bold of you to assume I’d have funneled my money into your murder therapy without seeing a doctor’s note. Which I highly doubt you had. What rock did they haul you out from under, Barton?” Tony asks Clint. He’s got his tattoo sleeve on full display and a wicked glint in his eye but when he shakes Tony’s hand it’s respectful enough, if a bit dismissive. Tony gets it. Clint’s forgiveness was something he decided you either deserved or you didn’t, not something that could be earned, and how deserving you were correlated with where you fell on the map of the Avengers’ interrelational politics. The only person on this planet or any other who could both wrong Clint Barton and win his loyalty for keeps was Natasha Romanoff, who could have won a game of bullet roulette with all chambers loaded. Also, to Tony’s knowledge, she’d never been directly responsible for putting him in maximum security prison.
T’challa is too cool for awkward group photos and is already inside with Princess Shuri and a small entourage of dangerous women in armor masquerading as vegan leather cocktail dresses, and he, at least, looks to be enjoying himself. Peter would do well at things like this Tony thinks, remembering him looking handsome and wholesome in Dubai. He’d be a hit with the press, honest and enthusiastic and nervous only enough to be endearing, too smart to stick his foot in his mouth and too humble to give them attitude. Additionally, Tony’d had more patience for these events back in the days when he had dates to bring as ready-made excuses for a sudden departure, especially if those excuses included making out in janitors’ closets and unoccupied suites. Fancy dress parties were fertile fields of opportunity when going for scandal bingo.
“Princess Shuri,” Tony says when they end up in each other’s orbit, mutually ignoring whatever speech is being given by someone Tony doesn’t know about something he probably doesn’t care about. He’s only had a conversation with Shuri one other time in any official capacity, at a humanitarian banquet in Wakanda nine months prior where she’d more or less told him that discovering a new element and unlocking time travel to save the universe was cool and all, but his approach to repulsor technology was the equivalent of a Wakandan fourth-grader’s science fair project and he was welcome to stop by her lab for a real lesson. “Big fan, as always,” he says. “That shiny new Staten Island branch of the Outreach Initiative you’re spearheading seems to be chugging along. And I just learned you designed the building? Subtlety is your trademark, I can tell.”
He’s already on a first-name basis with the bartender, and Shuri eyes his glass with that same look on her face that T’challa gets in pleasant company. (Nobody does ‘unimpressed but entertained’ quite like Wakandans visiting America, Tony’s discovered.) It’s all very royal, to match her Wakandan-influenced pantsuit that’s got to be worth more than the 1934 Ford Flathead Roadster that Tony had fished out of the ocean when his mansion in Malibu took a nose-dive off a cliff. “Yes, thank you,” Shuri says, eyes gleaming. “I was very inspired by your tower the first time I visited New York City. After all, you are renowned worldwide as the paragon of subtlety.”
“Oh, is that what they say about me?” Tony feigns surprise. “We’re kindred spirits then, you and me. Wallflowers of a feather.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how the saying goes, even in this backwards country.” Princess Shuri’s eyes are a thousand years old, but when she laughs she looks her age.
For a fleeting moment Wanda is with him, keeping room for Jesus between their bodies as they dance. “Is it lonely up there by yourself in that big tower, Tony Stark?” she asks.
“Who said I’m alone?”
“Only lonely men have eyes like yours.”
He looks down at her. She’s wearing black from head to toe like she’s at a funeral. “Small talk never was your specialty, was it?”
Wanda’s smile is a little thing, a quirk of her pressed lips. “Are you friends with the Spider-Man?” she asks. She probably thinks she’s changing the subject. Or maybe not. Tony’s still to this day not sure how powerful of a telepath she truly is, and if she’s smart - which she is - she’ll continue to keep that information close to her chest.
“What is this, are you asking me to set you up with Spider-Man? No offense, Wanda, but you’re a little intense for him.”
“Please. Just because you created the first man I ever loved doesn’t mean you’d get lucky enough to manage it a second time.”
For a moment he’s speechless. Eventually he says, “I didn’t create Spider-Man. Maybe I tried to meddle, a long time ago. Not saying I did, but maybe I tried. Doesn’t matter. You might not have heard, but I kind of pulled a Luke Skywalker and spent a lot of the time I should have been using to fix my mistakes building a hut in the wilderness.”
“But you do want Spider-Man to join the Avengers,” Wanda says.
“What makes you think that?”
She raises her eyebrows at him. “A little bird told me. I think you’ve given enough to the Avengers. Wouldn’t you agree? Keep something for yourself for a change, Mr. Stark.” Then she slips from his arms and drifts away to where Clint and Wilson are hovering territorially over the hors d'oeuvres table, leaving Tony standing alone in the middle of the room and feeling exposed.
So she’s definitely one hell of a telepath.
He ends up back at the bar. Over a gin and tonic heavy-handed on the gin he’s attempting to work through how he should be feeling (Offended? Embarrassed? Both, certainly, although he feels neither. Worried? He doesn’t know how much she pulled from his brain. Does she know Peter’s face? Probably. Does it matter? Probably not. Should he trust her? He trusts her. Absolutely and without question, whether or not he should.) when the lights in the room change. Tony turns to the stage right as Pepper Potts appears, fresh off a Stark Industries jet and looking like a million bucks. He can make out the click of her heels from fifteen yards away.
“Bet you thought we weren’t coming,” Happy says from over Tony’s shoulder.
Tony jumps about a foot. “What did you do?” he demands as Pepper introduces herself over the microphone as if there’s a single person in the room who doesn’t know who she is.
“What do you mean what did I do?”
“I mean every time I look away from the company for ten seconds you and Pepper are suddenly - doing something.”
“That’s rich coming from the guy who gave me premature grey hair because he wouldn’t stop doing things. Speaking of, why did I have to find out from Scott Lang five minutes ago that you have a kid -”
“Happy, I swear to god -”
“- I mean, I’m one of your emergency contacts, Tony! I can’t believe you never told me I’m basically an uncle -”
“There’s no kid, Happy.”
“- also when I was your personal security I saw a lot of things that I’ve spent twenty years trying to forget, things that honestly still make it kind of hard to look you in the eye in public -”
“So forget them! It’s not that hard.”
“- and if you need help figuring out who the mom is, give me a time range and I can maybe narrow it down, you know I’m real good with faces -”
Somebody shushes them. Tony hands Happy the rest of his drink because he looks like he needs it, and orders a new one for himself.
Onstage Pepper is saying “- which is why we felt that tonight, at the first ever annual Avengers Community Aid and Outreach Gala, would be the most fitting time to introduce the project.” She’s showing a bit of skin for the occasion in a dress Tony thinks he’d remember if he’d seen before, but she still looks like she could have anybody in attendance arrested at the drop of a dime.
“And so,” she continues, “it’s my pleasure to announce the Natasha Fund.” On the screen behind her a circular crest appears, white text over the hourglass Black Widow symbol. “Starting in the upcoming fall, the Natasha Fund will be providing grants and scholarships to thousands of young women from impoverished neighborhoods and low-income households around the world pursuing an education in the arts. The Fund will be accepted at most colleges and universities across the globe, and aims to help a new generation of young people face this brave new world with the skills and education they will need to rebuild the arts and humanities on a global scale.”
There’s applause. Across the room, Clint’s got his tattooed arm slung around Wanda’s shoulders. Tony can’t see his face.
“To help establish the Natasha Fund, on top of the fundraised starting reserve, the Royal Family of Wakanda has pledged sponsorship and a three-quarters of a million dollar starting donation,” Pepper says. A spotlight swings across the crowd to more hearty clapping and finds T’Challa and Shuri in the back of the room.
“Additionally, their generous sum has been matched by Stark Industries, which recognizes that STEM and the humanities thrive not in competition, but in collaboration. I considered ordering a giant gold-embossed check to present, but that’s more in the style of the old management. I’m sure you’ll all forgive me.”
Over the laughter Tony says loudly, “One time, I did that one time,” and braces for the spotlight to seek him out. He makes sure he’s looking right at Pepper. She’s got her professional speech-giving CEO face on, but when the light leads her to him in the sea of people and she finds his eyes, her smile goes soft from the stage. You’re very welcome, Mr. Stark.
After, when she’s woven her way through the mob to him, he pulls her wordlessly into a dance. She’s the most beautiful woman in any room and he loves her, but in a way that’s transcended romance. Besides, they tried that and had nearly killed each other, very literally and on more than one occasion. He’s content just like this.
“Didn’t I tell you that you needed to come?” she says after a little while, lifting her head off his shoulder.
“And you were correct, Miss Potts. As always.”
She hums. “You’ll learn eventually. That was okay, right Tony? You always said it was wrong she never got a real funeral service. It’s not the same, but I hope this was appropriate.”
“It was perfect. A little vague, deceptively sentimental, extremely practical. Sprung on us out of nowhere. Very Nat. Also, I’m pretty sure you made Barton cry, which is worth a million by itself. Where do all those damned photographers go when you actually need them.”
“Be nice,” she scolds. “We had to pay him to be here.”
“Other people are getting paid to make these appearances?”
“Somehow I’m confident you’ll still make your rent.”
“You can’t know that. What if I’ve gone on a PTSD-fueled bender and gambled everything away? Purchased Liechtenstein? The Alps are beautiful this time of year.”
“Then I’d handle it, Tony.” She levels him a look that says: try me, buddy.
“Yes you would,” he replies, smitten. “Speaking of handling things. Exactly how friendly are you with the Wakandans?”
She raises her eyebrows at him.
“I need a favor, Pep.”
When she’s gone Tony shoots Rhodey a text and makes to leave earlier than is appropriate for one of the two major benefactors of the evening’s main event, trading a waiter a never-folded hundred dollar bill in exchange for the tray of cream puffs he’s holding and directions to a back door. He doesn’t say his goodbyes. Lang is throwing cocktail shrimp into the air and putting on a production of failing to catch them in his mouth to make Wanda laugh and Wilson roll his eyes to the ceiling like he’s praying one of the aliens he knows will spontaneously beam him up. Barnes is nowhere to be seen - probably hiding in the bathroom, if past publicity tours with him are anything to go by - and Pepper has disappeared into the crowd on her secret mission. But right before he absconds somebody says, “Leaving so soon? Do we bore you, Tony?”
“Jesus,” Tony jumps. “Where do you come from?”
“Or is it the bar? Maybe the scotch isn’t up to par with that imported stuff you keep stashed under your lab tables,” Clint drawls. He helps himself to a cream puff.
“We can’t all homebrew our own organic farmhouse moonshine, can we,” Tony fires back. “You and Laura could float the Ark with all the hooch in your cellar.”
Clint snorts, which coming from him is essentially a concession. “Hey,” he says, “those rumors about you and Spider-Man. Are they true?”
Damningly, his stomach drops. There’s no way he knows is his first guilty thought, like a high school kid caught with a badly disguised crush, even as he tells himself there’s nothing for Clint to know. For a split second he spirals, his intestines in knots - because Wanda knows, well, something, and she’s an honorary Barton, and then he thinks - rumors? Tony’s never been the subject of a rumor that was any good for his reputation. And Clint’s still looking at him, shrewd and unreadable. He always was the only one who could give Maria Hill a run for her money on poker night.
Tony clears his throat, aims for casual when he says, “You’ll have to fill me in, Barton. I learned a long time ago never to Google myself.”
“Are you really helping him out? Not just throwing money at him, there’s a difference. They say he goes to the Tower,” Clint says. “Apparently you’ve got his back.” Like you were supposed to have ours, is what Tony hears in the undercurrent of his voice. Maybe he’s imagining it. Or maybe not.
Tony knew this was coming. If anything, he’s surprised it took so long to get back to him - Peter’s been swinging in through the window four times a week bare minimum for a month, of course someone noticed. But hearing it from Clint Barton’s mouth here, in a hotel ballroom in D.C. surrounded by strangers in rented designer jewelry and former teammates, makes it real to him in a way it wasn’t quite before, a reminder that at the end of the day he is still Tony Stark, celebritized and scrutinized and doomed to suck anyone and anything that gets involved with him into the media circus that’s intertwined with his identity. And now he’s done it to Peter on two separate occasions.
“I do,” he says firmly. “Yeah, I’ve got his back.”
Clint searches his expression, his own weathered face impassive. Tony doesn’t know what he’s trying to find, nor what he’s getting out of this. “That’s good,” he says finally. “Tasha liked him, you know. I could tell.” He steals another cream puff and smacks Tony’s shoulder, the friendliest gesture he’s offered since years before everyone he loved turned to dust. “Don’t let the door hit your ass on your way out,” he says with his mouth full, and then he walks away.
How do you watch someone’s back when they already have eyes there? How do you atone for a broken promise you never made?
Tony’s always had an inclination for grand gestures, but scattered along the path to wherever this thing with Peter is headed have been bite-sized pieces of something too enormous for Tony to take in all at once, things like Peter sitting on the kitchen counter eating take-out crab rangoons from the paper box with one chopstick, his homework discarded, grilling him for details about the physics of time travel.
And this: Peter showering at the Tower between patrol and class, toweling off his hair and saying, “Okay, but do you seriously need that many voice-activated temperature settings on a showerhead?” with far more judgement than necessary.
This: Peter with a stylus behind his ear, reaching across the lab table without warning and touching his fingertips to Tony’s temple. Tracing the edge of the scar where it intercepts his eyebrow and curves along the outside of his cheekbone, hand coming to a rest with the palm flat against the hinge of Tony’s jaw. “Can you feel that?”
And: Tony coming to sit next to Peter on the sill of an open window, Peter pulling a knee up and pressing it wordlessly into Tony’s thigh without taking his eyes off the city below. Tony keeping the NYPD radio scanners running in the background overnight, just in case. Peter standing on the ceiling, playing fetch with Dum-E. Peter tossing his backpack on the floor. “Aunt May says hi.”
It’s not about the grand gesture anymore; Tony’s realized the suit doesn’t resonate with Pete quite the same as something as small as being welcome to nap uninterrupted on the couch, or Tony knowing how he takes his coffee (light on the cream and heavy on the sugar, horrendous). But does he know he’s as good as crawled into Tony’s skin? That the fantasy of him lingers in Tony’s bedroom doorway at night? That Tony would make a thousand gestures of a hundred shapes and sizes to earn the right to possess just a fragment of Peter Parker’s heart.
And then there’s this:
“So I got an email yesterday,” Peter says as he’s packing to leave for the evening, “from the Wakandan Outreach Initiative.”
“Did you?” Tony asks innocently. “Weekly newsletter?”
Peter’s sitting on top of the lab table, shoving an engineering textbook the size of War and Peace into his backpack. He cuts Tony a look that says he’s not fooled. “They want to fund my defense project. Offered me an on-site internship at the Staten Island location this summer to finish it.” He says it more like T’Challa had personally offered to come to Queens and set his apartment building on fire.
“No shit?” Tony says, trying for surprised, for posterity’s sake, and falling so comically short he lands somewhere closer to smug.
“Yeah, no shit. What did you do, Mr. Stark?”
“Why do you think I did anything? Maybe I had nothing to do with it.”
“Did you have nothing to do with it?”
“See, now that’s semantics. But I didn’t do it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Making Miss Potts send an email doesn’t mean you didn’t do it!”
“There was no email, to my knowledge,” Tony says truthfully. “Pretty sure she just walked over.”
“Did you send her with a check?”
Tony stills. “You think I bought you in. Pete -”
“No! No, I don’t think you did, actually. But I’ve gotta be sure.”
Tony can’t read Peter yet the way he can other people he loves - there’s an entire subdialect of American English contained within Pepper’s eyebrows in which he’s fluent - but he is intimately familiar with the hard set of Peter’s jaw, and he’s met May, has learned that being headstrong as all hell and proud to death of it is apparently a Parker trait that runs so deep and true it’s either a prerequisite for marrying into the family or an inevitable acquisition once you have. But even that knowledge doesn’t soothe the flare of fury at the universe for its insistence on extracting the pound of flesh Tony owes it from the people he cares about; that it’s apparently not enough to reduce Tony to a shadow and Rhodey to a parapalegic and Pepper to dust, but it must harden Peter Parker into a high-walled fortress to boot.
“I didn’t,” Tony says, quietly. Seriously. He comes around the table and in a moment of weakness indulges the marrow-deep well of exhaustion born of fighting magnetic attraction, lets himself get too close, standing between Peter’s open knees. Leans his hands on the table edge, one on either side of Peter’s thighs. This close he’s vividly aware of Peter’s breathing, the silent expand-and-contract of his chest. “I didn’t buy you in. I knew I wouldn’t need to, so I didn’t even think of it. T’challa wouldn’t have let me, anyway. The guy’s a saint. Makes the rest of us look terrible.”
Peter snorts a quiet laugh. He’s got that cornered-animal look again, but he doesn’t make to move. His lips part like he’s going to say something, but before he can, with his eyes caught on Peter’s mouth, Tony stands there before F.R.I.D.A.Y. and Peter Parker and whatever gods are listening and says, “Just because you don’t need anybody’s help doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it. You’re so fucking good, Pete. You get that, right? You’re the real deal.”
The rush of satisfaction Tony gets from watching the blush bloom under Peter’s skin is an aching, neglected thing raking its claws down the inside of the cage he’s put it in. “This city doesn’t deserve you,” he says. “The Avengers don’t deserve you. And for the record, every time I see you in my tech it blows my damn mind. Other people would kill to make you a suit. Hell, you could make one yourself. But you wear mine.”
“If you know somebody out there who makes better armor tech than you, point me their direction. I don’t believe in brand loyalty.” Peter sounds like he’s been gutted. His hands flex on the table ledge beside Tony’s.
“That is a blatant and bald-faced lie, Peter Parker. Lying doesn’t flatter you and you should be ashamed,” Tony says primly. “You’re making it very hard to compliment you.”
“Good thing you’re easy to bait then, old man,” Peter fires back.
Tony takes the opportunity to press his thumb into the end of the scar on Peter’s neck.
The quiet sound Peter makes goes directly to Tony’s cock. “Jesus,” he breathes as Peter’s head falls to the side, baring the vulnerable line of his throat. Tony doesn’t know exactly when his thing for the scar started, but thinks his hangup stems from some elevated Shakespearean parallel on scars as symbolism for things that shouldn’t be possessed. In Tony a power; in Peter, a weakness. “Not to be dramatic,” he says as he traces the pink line down to where it disappears under Peter’s collar, “but I would gladly kill whoever did this to you.”
“You didn’t look?” Peter’s eyes dart nervously up the line of Tony’s throat to meet his own. “I know you found all the video. When you fixed Karen.”
Jesus, fuck, Tony wants to kiss him, wants to touch and press and feel the solid warmth of him under his hands. He hadn’t realized until right now that he’s been starved for the kind of contact Peter’s dark eyes tease for - how long? Years. It’s been years since anyone’s touched him because they wanted to. “No, I didn’t look.” And then, before Peter can question him, he says, “I figured you’ll tell me when you’re ready. Or if I ask.”
Peter bites his bottom lip. “So, um, are you gonna ask?”
“Tony,” Peter whispers, and it guts Tony violently, hollows him out and fills him up again with heat. He traces his fingers over the pulse point hidden beside the column of Peter’s throat and thrills when Peter jerks beneath him.
“And that’s the other thing,” Tony says as if he’s just remembered. His voice is raw even to his own ears. “You’ve been doing this by yourself for so long. Do you know how many wannabes crash and burn or get themselves killed because they think they can make it in the street hero business as a solo act? And you’ve been at it almost a third of your life. That’s unheard of, Pete. You’re incredible. You’re brilliant and beautiful and you’re the best in the business, and you did it all yourself.” Peter’s skin is running a fever beneath his fingers, and Tony traces the scar again. He desperately wants to follow wherever it leads. When he presses his palm flat over Peter’s heart he can feel Peter’s blood pumping. That’s the source of it all right there under his hand, a dense muscle barely bigger than a closed fist and protected by a threadbare t-shirt and a little bit of flesh and bone.
Peter twitches and sighs as Tony ghosts his lips across the hinge of his jaw, not quite touching. “I didn’t do it all myself,” he says, breathless. “Somebody helped me hit the ground running.”
“That’s about all I did.”
“Not true,” Peter quips. “You made me a pretty awesome suit or two along the way.”
Tony laughs ruefully into Peter’s skin. Let me help you keep running, he thinks about saying. Or: I’ll make you as many suits as you want if it means you keep coming back. Instead he ducks down and tastes the scar. The noise Peter makes is unbelievable, and Tony tugs at the collar of Peter’s shirt with his teeth when he hits the fabric.
Above him Peter blinks like a man coming up from underwater. “Wait wait wait, just a sec, hold up. Wasn’t I leaving?” he says. Tony notices with satisfaction that it comes out breathier than he probably intended, but the hand that catches his jaw is strong and steady.
“Were you?” Tony listens to Peter’s breath catch when he turns his head to press his mouth into his palm.
Peter puts his hand over Tony’s face and pushes him playfully away as he falls back, leaning on his elbows and catching his breath. “Pretty sure I was leaving.” He grins up at Tony, still in the bracket of his knees, and it’s - it’s just - it’s everything. Tony wants that. He wants. “Have you always sucked at timing, or did that happen after retirement?”
“In my defense, time management has never been one of my better skills. In the past it’s been an excellent excuse to indulge in robot henchmen and hot personal assistants, but at this exact moment I’m having some regrets.” Peter slips from beneath him like liquid, popping up and rolling his shoulders with a long exhale, putting himself together, a fighter before entering the ring. Tony watches his posture change as he shoves his arousal to the back burner and strong-arms his body back under control. It’s methodical, impersonal, practiced.
Pete looks dazed as he shrugs on his hoodie, his eyes coming back to Tony again and again, his face doing something complicated. All evidence of his pretty scarlet blush is fading to a pink smear across his cheeks and the glitter of sweat in the dip between his collarbones. Most of Tony is still three steps behind and awash in hot static, but beneath that there’s something slimy and nameless demanding he consider it. He kicks it down and traps it under the image of Peter here in his lab right now, rumpled and bitten and watching.
“So uh, if that was your attempt at convincing me to take the internship, joke’s on you. I already accepted it.”
“You son of a bitch,” Tony says, delighted, his head spinning. “I’ve been played. Wait, so you won’t take my money, but you’ll accept T’challa’s?”
“I mean, well - yeah, basically. I guess I - Jesus, can you stop doing that? I’m so late already.”
“Stop what, chief? There’s not much going on here right now. Glitch in the system,” says Tony, who has been doing absolutely nothing but trying to pick up the pieces of his brain and having a terrible time of it when Peter is still standing there looking like that.
“Sorry, okay, but you kind of - not to make it weird, but I’m like, sort of - tuned into you? I mean, I can feel when you’re - even when you’re not showing it. And it drives me -” he makes a vague gesture in the direction of Tony’s whole person. “It can turn into a kind of feedback loop if I’m not careful. It’s weird. Sorry.”
“Holy shit,” Tony rasps. “Is that like, pheromone theory? Do spiders do that?” And then a second later he realizes, “My god. You’ve known for weeks.” Another second: “You knew before I did, didn’t you?”
“I’m going to kill you,” Tony says, but as Peter makes his escape he’s laughing, he’s happy, which is the best imaginable outcome, and maybe the only thing Tony’s been trying to achieve this whole time.
And then there’s this:
“You know,” Pepper says. “After all this time and everything that’s happened, I appreciate that you still come into my office to sulk.”
“I am not sulking.”
“Oh, excuse me.” She looks up at him, unimpressed. “You’re brooding today. I was mistaken.”
“I’m here to bask in your warm, welcoming, supportive presence while I contemplate totally impersonal philosophical … things.”
He’s laying on the couch in her office, brooding. He’s solved the same rubix cube nine times in the last half hour without looking.
“You’re overthinking it, Tony.”
“Pep, he was a child, like, four years ago.”
“Okay, so he was a child. It happens to all of us. But now he’s a man,” Pepper says calmly. “And you are an old man who still occasionally acts like a man-child.” She points her pencil at the entire situation happening on her couch as if to say, Case in point. “Maybe that’s what they call balance, Tony. God knows you need it.”
Tony tosses the rubix cube straight up at the ceiling, watching the colors spin, and catches it before it can impale his face. She’s right. He’s prone to obsession. Prone to picking one thing and declaring it all the tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy rolled into one. “You know,” he says, “ten years ago if I’d walked in and told you I might have accidentally become involved with a twenty-two year old, you would have yelled at me for an hour, hit me with something, and then hired someone to follow me around and hold a gun to my head every time I looked like I might be thinking something uncouth. Happy, probably.”
Pepper spins a slow one hundred and eighty degrees in her chair to stare out the big window at the city under a clear blue sky. She’s kicked her shiny heels off to do paperwork. They’re laying under her desk. “Everything was very different ten years ago,” she says.
Tony tosses the cube; catches it. Watches reflections of light move across the ceiling. “Yeah,” he says. “Ain’t that the truth.”
And then there’s this:
They finish the suit the next time Peter comes to the Tower, on a Saturday night. In Tony’s past Saturday nights were reserved for debauchery but Peter’s again proving himself a better man, and when Tony tells him such he isn’t even looking to make Peter’s cheeks go pink. But it’s a nice bonus.
As far as suits go, theirs is a damn good one. The graphene-imbued fabric is mostly Peter’s creation: flexible, breathable, teflon-based for internal temperature control, and more or less indestructible. In the mask: neural-reactive interface, HUD, twelve different vision settings, carbon filter, communication system, adjustable sound and smell receptors, and when Peter pulls the finished product over his head the first thing he says is “Karen?” and whatever she says back makes him laugh. All the body features have been transferred from the old suit with some upgrades to boot, and although the self-repairing feature is neanderthal compared to what Tony could have built into a costume with a genuine nanotechnology material base like that of the Iron Spider suit, he’s damn proud of it nonetheless. The stealth mode doesn’t make Peter invisible as much as difficult to notice if you don’t already know he’s there - when moving his figure distorts and camouflages as the suit deflects the eye, and standing still he vanishes almost entirely.
And then there’s the way Peter looks in it. It’s black and accented with a ruby red that’s noticeably less cheerful than the saturated candy-coat of the old model, and the extent to which it ages Peter is staggering. The look is darker and mature, fit for a Spider-Man who won’t pull a trigger because he’s afraid he might like it. As for Tony, well. Peter standing in the middle of the lab in jeans and a t-shirt has been known to knock him the fuck out. He doesn’t stand a chance against this.
“So,” Tony asks, dry-mouthed as he admires their work. “Am I ever gonna see you again, now that this thing’s finished?”
“Oh, I dunno.” Peter pulls the mask off. “Are you gonna stop trying to take all the blame for pumping me full of abandonment issues?”
“See, I’m glad you can joke about it. Makes it less likely that May will put a hit out on me.”
Peter shrugs and grins, teeth flashing even though he looks nervous, suddenly. “I can joke about anything. Coping mechanism.” He sobers. “So, um, about the Avengers, since we’re kind of on the topic. I’ve decided I’m good. But thanks for the offer. Really, I mean it. Thank you.”
“Pete,” Tony says.
“It’s all a little large-scale for me,” Peter continues over him, adjusting his cuffs. “Not really Spider-Man’s style, you know? I mean, you guys go to space and do, like, alien armies and robots and - and galaxy-wide mass extinction. And I could do that stuff too I guess, but at the end of the day I’m pretty regular? Compared to the Avengers at least. I mean, Thor is a literal, actual god.”
“Nope. Don’t argue,” Peter says. He points a finger warningly. “Don’t distract me.”
“I wasn’t -”
“If you say anything nice you’re gonna do it to distract me, I know how this works -”
“Now I think you’re just being paranoid.”
“Will you stop trying to derail this and let me turn down the Avengers again?”
Tony raises his hands in defense. “All I was going to say was that Thor might be a god, but he’s also an idiot. And I have watched you lift a train car over your head with your bare hands on more than one occasion. Which - you’re right of course, that’s hardly special. Regular guy stuff.”
Peter handwaves that away. “That’s not, I mean, I know I can - the point is, take the Blip, yeah? I couldn’t have done any more to stop it than you guys. Less, probably. But afterward, when the world fell to pieces? That’s when I really became Spider-Man, Tony. I like taking care of the little guy, and I’m really good at it. And I know somebody has to keep the sky from falling, but if the time ever comes that Spider-Man is the most qualified guy around to fight a magic alien warlord, we’re in a lot of trouble. That’s not my thing. It’s yours.” He shrugs. “But somebody’s got to look out for the people on the street while the sky is falling. Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, right? That’s my thing.”
“And if I join the Avengers, who’s gonna give enough of a damn about Queens to take care of it the way it took care of me? Like - when it was real bad, that second summer, there was a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on 124th Street in College Point, and if Spider-Man showed up right after close the night manager Juan would feed me just because I stopped the place from getting ransacked a couple of times. And - and Miz Jackie’s a nurse at St. Mary’s who lives over in Flushing, she used t’set my broken bones so they didn’t heal wrong, back before I learned how to do it myself. They never asked my name, never tried to see my face, nothin’. There’s a kid who lives in the Newport Apartments who’s been drawing me crayon pictures for three years. Who’s gonna take care of those people if I join the Avengers? How do I just leave them?”
He sounds upset just talking about it. Tony realizes he’s two steps behind again and has missed something crucial about Peter Parker, but he thinks of a force field like a blanket - no, more like a web - hanging above the city, and suddenly he gets it. As somebody who’d tried to put an iron suit around everything he’d ever loved, he gets it.
“Anyway,” Peter says, “you said I didn’t have to do everything alone, right? I never have. I mean, I’ve always had May, yeah, but there was also … ” He runs a hand through his hair, eyes roaming over the city below. New York, is how Tony thinks the sentence ends. My people.
“You can have me too, if you’d like.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Peter says softly. “I really, really would. But I - I need you to get it. If this - I mean, if we’re - then you’ve gotta get it. I’ll never become the person you wanted me to be, okay? I couldn’t if I wanted to. I’m this now, Tony.”
Tony looks at this. Peter stands there, half a stranger and half a house in which Tony knows every room and corridor; an answer and an echo. He’s either smarter than Tony or well on his way. Looking at him is staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.
“Thank god for that,” Tony says, and means it from the bottom of his heart.
Peter Parker kisses him. It’s light and warm until Tony tilts his head and nails the perfect angle on the first try and then it’s detonative. Peter hitches a sharp inhale when Tony takes his face in his hands and coaxes his lips open, and his world narrows to Peter’s mouth. Given an inch he takes a mile, and he’s good at this, always has been. The part of his ego that craves to please purrs like a new engine at how eagerly Peter reels him in.
Tony keeps a hand on the back of Peter’s head when Peter tears away to catch his breath, his face hidden with his temple pressed to Tony’s jaw. His voice is thick when he says, “I missed you. Maybe that’s dumb because we didn’t really - I mean, we never, like, spent time together or anything, before it all happened. But I still missed you so much. You know that, right? You gotta know that. And if you’d never even remembered me, I still would’ve - I never needed sympathy or an apology or anything, I swear. I just want you.”
Tony can hear his own heartbeat in his ears as he cards his fingers mindlessly through Peter’s hair. Peter wants him. Peter wants him.
“So anyway, if I gave you the impression that I only - that I’ve been coming here to humor you or, or just for the suit … I’m really sorry. When you were gone for all those years and I was figuring stuff out for myself I hoped for so, so long that each new day was the day you were coming back. And even after I figured you weren’t coming, I never stopped thinking about you.”
“I didn’t forget you, kid. Not once.”
When Tony guides Peter’s face back up and kisses him again he doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. Everything, maybe, condensed into the breath traded between them and the way he gives up the power easily when Peter asks for it in the tilt of his head and the curl of his fingers in the front of Tony’s shirt. Peter says plenty too, as he kisses him hard and thorough until Tony’s blood is humming.
When they slow, Tony says, “You deserve better than an old man with half a face, Pete.”
“You’ve got three-quarters of a face. All the important bits are there.”
“But I am an old man.”
“Depends on who we’re comparing you to. What’s the average age of the control group?”
“Is there anything you can’t justify?” Tony demands, and he can feel Peter’s teeth against the corner of his mouth as he laughs.
“Not really. And speaking of, listen, don’t hate me,” Peter says between quick kisses, “but I’ve really gotta run. I’ve got a date with a drug bust at nine that the NYPD doesn’t know I invited myself to, but they’re gonna be glad I showed up. We’re gonna come back to this, right? Let’s come back to this.”
“That’s your call, Pete,” Tony says. “Whatever you want. I won’t hold you to anything. Scout’s honor.”
Peter’s brow furrows. His hands slide from Tony’s chest, down his arms, to tangle their fingers together. “What do you want?” he asks. And then with razor precision, like a knife slipped between the third and fourth ribs, he whispers, “Tony. Tell me what you want.”
What does Tony want? All the times in recent memory he’d been asked that question there had been a menu in his hand. You, Tony thinks. And: I want you to come back, he wants to say, but that’s not fair. One of the few universal truths of superheroes was that they were excellent at leaving - but the returning part? Not so much. It wasn’t always any fault of their own, and it was one of the things that made loving them so hard.
So instead Tony goes, “I want you to trust me, Pete.”
Whatever Peter was expecting him to say, that clearly wasn’t it.
“I’m guessing the fact that you don’t trust anyone has kept you alive, I get it. High-walled fortress and all that. I’ve been there actually, although less out of necessity and more because I was terrible company. But anyway, here’s the thing - and maybe you didn’t hear so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt - I’m not just anyone.”
“Oh really?” Peter says quietly. “Are you some kind of big deal or something?” The particular flavor of vulnerability in Peter’s expression is new, and Tony realizes with an aching surge of sympathy that he’s accidentally discovered another thing Peter’s afraid of. He hopes that someday Peter will offer these things up to him before he trips gracelessly over them in the dark.
“I’m Mr. Big Deal in some circles, kid.”
Peter snorts. “I’m, uh, I’m not really good at the whole trust thing.”
“Just give me a chance to earn it, Pete. That’s what I want. Promise.”
Peter kisses him instead of replying, and Tony lets it slide. The front of Peter’s body pressed up against his is acquiescence enough, the response to something else Tony hadn’t dared to ask and a question all its own. He’s one smooth line of muscle in the suit, and Tony thinks I’ve had dreams like this as his hands find Peter’s narrow hips.
“Date with a drug bust,” Tony says suddenly. “At nine, right? You better not keep her waiting, she sounds prettier than me.”
Peter makes an annoyed sound against Tony’s mouth that’s hotter than it has any right to be. “Your fucking timing,” he grumbles, but he pushes away, crossing to the window Tony’s gotten into the habit of leaving open despite F.R.I.D.A.Y. insisting it’s a gross breach of security. But before he can get any farther Tony reaches out on impulse to grab his wrist, his resolve crumbling.
“Come back?” he asks.
Peter squeezes Tony’s hand tight as he steps effortlessly up onto the sill. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, of course.” Tony can hear his smile. “Promise,” he says, and when Tony lets go of him he falls silently away into darkness without looking back.
Tony Stark stands alone in his lab and breathes.
“Scott Lang can never know about this.”
“If you say so,” she says agreeably. A dial tone blares. “Calling Scott Lang.”
And then there’s this:
Tony eight hours after Peter Parker kissed him, a slightly different man, staring down at Manhattan from the window. He’d slept for an hour, maybe two. In the dream, Natasha Romanoff had been standing at his side, close enough for their elbows to brush. In a room with a vaulted ceiling and massive stained glass windows they had watched a company of very small ballerinas spin inexpertly, little girls with their hair done perfectly and their round faces pulled into concentrated frowns.
“Don’t tell me you sucked this much too, once upon a time?” Tony had asked her. “Hard to believe you didn’t come out of the womb doing pirouettes.”
Natasha had snorted inelegantly. “How old were you when you hotwired your first car?”
“Five and a half,” Tony said smugly, and she’d smacked his arm. It was the one he never had in his dreams, and she’d socked it hard enough to wake him up.
A dark silver dawn is drifting through the city, drizzly and cold, and the clouds are low enough to catch and tear on the tips of the tallest spires of the skyline. Through the water rivulets on the glass the lights outside are distorted into a curtain made of a million shifting pinpoints of light that separates him from the people below: driving cars, stepping in puddles, drinking coffee under black umbrellas. He’s connected to them all in some unfathomable way, but he doesn’t think about it. He can’t. It’s too big, too hard to conceptualize, the beating core of it intertwined with the reality that he was never supposed to be around to see this. That part is too easy to remember sometimes.
“Mr. Stark?” says F.R.I.D.A.Y.
Deep, deep down, he doesn’t think he ever expected to find anything he wanted to live for after being willing to die for everything.
“Peter Parker is on the roof, sir.”
Tony smiles, and goes up.