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Instant Kill Mode

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When the UN begins toying with the idea of pardoning Steve and the other war criminals, Tony is for all for the amnesty treaty. He loves advocating for the people who turned against him and hung him out to dry. Sure, he’s spent plenty of time imagining the bowl of popcorn he’d fix for himself if Steve is ever guillotined on live television, but Tony is mature enough to put their petty personal differences aside. Loathe as Tony is to admit it, Steve was right about the accords. Even if Steve did hide the fact that his best friend killed Tony’s mom, and then they beat the shit out of Tony for being mad about it.

“You know what they say,” Tony says, smirking at Rhodey. “The road to friendship is paved with betrayal and physical violence.”

“That’s not an expression,” Rhodey says, his forehead creasing with worry. They’re sparring in Tony’s home gym, suitless and sweaty, testing out Rhodey's new metal leg-assistors.

“You know that no one has ever said that, right?” Rhodey continues, when Tony stays silent. “Tell me you know you’re being crazy.”

Tony pulls off his boxing gloves and takes a sip of chlorophyll from his water bottle. It tastes like motor oil, and it fills his nostrils with the stench of cut grass. The drink reminds him how much he despises being healthy. Tony resolves to drink a few shots of expresso and then stay up for thirty consecutive hours. He's earned some slack; they've been doing moderately intense exercise for almost thirty minutes. It's time for a cheeseburger.

“I’m too smart to be crazy,” Tony says, tapping the side of his head with his wrapped knuckles. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. The whole everyone-is-abandoning-me thing was a blessing in disguise. It taught me a valuable lesson.”

“Don’t sign your soul away to the government without reading the fine print?”

“No,” Tony says. “People suck, and you should never trust them.”

“You should post inspirational quotes on Twitter,” Rhodey says. “You could really bring some light into people’s lives, talking like that.”

Rhodey slides down into a seating position on the wrestling mats, crossing his legs in front of him. Sweat drips down his dark skin. He’s wearing a familiar expression, which Tony has dubbed Rhodey’s Judgmental Look of Terror. He’s worn this expression on a regular basis since they were freshman at MIT. More specifically, the night Rhodey came home to their dorm and found Tony asleep in his own vomit, clutching an unopened bag of tube socks in one hand and firecrackers in the other. To this day, Tony can’t remember why—or where—he got those socks. They were good socks. They lasted almost twenty years before he had to throw them out.

In any case, he’ll always remember the expression Rhodey wore that night, the same expression he’s worn thousands of times since. It’s a mixture of dismay, disgust, and disappointment. It never fails to give Tony the willies.

“Don’t get whiplash," Tony says, "I’m about to change the topic.” Anything to get that glower off of Rhodey’s face. Tony pauses and rubs the back of his neck. “Do you think I should call the kid?”

This succeeds in distracting him. Rhodey frowns, brushing the sweat from his face with the bottom of his tee-shirt. His metallic legs creak as he shifts backward, leaning his weight against his palms.

“What kid?”

“The kid that fought with us in Germany. Spiderman, Underoos, whatever you want to call him.” Tony is so lost in his own thoughts that he doesn’t even gag when he takes another sip of the chlorophyll. “Peter,” he says, when Rhodey still looks confused. “Peter Parker.”

“The fifteen-year-old.”

“Yeah.”

Rhodey’s Judgmental Look of Terror becomes more focused. His eyes narrow and his lips purse, and Tony knows he’s about to get his ass handed to him on a silver platter.

“You aren’t cut out to be a mentor,” Rhodey warns, ticking reasons off with his fingers. “You aren’t that child’s parent. You lied to his aunt and took him to Germany. You gave him an ultra-powerful suit—”

“What, you mean the sentient spandex that calls 911 if he passes out?” Tony says, a bit indignantly. “I’m not endangering him, Rhodes. He can’t even access Instant Kill Mode until he turns eighteen.”

“Instant…instant what?” Rhodey’s eyebrows are getting dangerously high on his forehead. “I’m going to need you to repeat that.”

Upon further reflection, Tony has to admit that the program sounds dangerous out of context. “His eyes will shoot lasers,” Tony says. His voice loses volume as he realizes just how bad it all sounds. “A pair of spider-legs show up to function as…as offensive weapons—"

“I’m calling child protective services.”

“You’re being dramatic, Platypus,” Tony says, although he has to admit Rhodey’s reaction is fair. “It’s not like he’ll ever use it.” Tony waves a hand through the air. “I’m overthinking this,” he says. “Happy’s been keeping an eye on the kid, and I called the FBI when an arms dealer tried to drown him in a lake—"

“Your tone is calm, but you’re saying a lot of scary things.” Rhodey’s voice rises. His dark eyes are dangerously narrow. “Do you actually listen to yourself talk? You really should.”

“—He’ll be fine,” Tony says, trying to reassure himself as much as Rhodey. “He’s fifteen. What’s he going to do?”

###

Answer: Peter almost sinks a ferry, loses his suit privileges, and then proceeds to fight a street criminal on a Stark Industries Airplane while Tony sits ignorantly at home, watching Saturday Night Live and their newest obnoxious spoof on the Sokovian Scandal. Peter crashes the plane into Staten Island, and is gone by the time Happy gets there. He nearly dies.

If that weren’t bad enough, Peter has the gall to make a mature decision (the nerve!) when Tony tries to appoint Spiderman as his new right-hand man.

Whatever. Tony plays it cool. Steve can choke on a piece of scrap metal, because Tony’s actually got his life together for once. Rhodey’s adjusting well to his metalloid leg braces, even if they shock him with the strength of a widow bite every now and then. Tony’s drinking is under control, and his nightmares have become bi-monthly, out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. Best of all, he’s got Pepper back, even if they’re in disagreement on a few minor issues.

“We’re. Not. Getting. Married,” she hisses, when Tony sinks to his knees in front of the reporters at the Spiderman Reveal / Proposal / wing-it-and-stall press conference. She tugs him to his feet and flashes a smile at the reporters. “He’s all right, he just tripped,” she says, and smiles until the reporters have taken their seats.

She really is a marvelous woman. She looks radiant, clad in a tight black dress with her hair flowing down around her shoulders. Her presence is enough to drown out the flashing lights and clattering chairs. Her perfume—Rosemary Sunshine, Tony bought it on her thirtieth birthday—is light and flowery. With no effort, she draws a smile to Tony’s lips. Not even the kid’s maturity can bring Tony down today.

“Tony has something to say—” Pepper tells the reporters.

“I love you,” he mutters. He resists the urge to bite her shoulder pad. It’s black and very pointy.

“—About the undocumented Avengers,” she continues, more professional then Tony’s ever been in his life. Her smile is practiced: thin, but proper. Her eyes glitter in a way that’s almost playful. Tony desperately wants to make her smile.

“We should just elope,” he whispers. “I can’t stand being the center of attention.”

Pepper elbows him, cutting off Tony’s muttering. Her eyes are amused but dangerous, and Tony knows he can’t mess up this press conference. For Pep—not for Steve—he puts aside his misdirected anger and focuses on the other Avengers. He talks to the cameras, waving his hands and gesticulating, passionate in his apathy. He plays up the fact that Wanda is a kid, and Scott and Clint have children of their own. He talks about how Natasha shouldn’t be punished for helping her friends, and how the Sokovian Accords violated almost every constitutional right.

"This whole debate is bullshit," he says bluntly, and Pepper elbows him again. "What, am I not allowed to say bullshit on life television? Not even when I'm talking about basic human rights? That's bullsh...sorry, that's horse apples. That's worm testicles. That's—"

"That's quite enough of that," says Pepper, her voice smooth. "Are there any questions?"

Tony dodges “what ifs” and Sokovian-shaped traps. He’s doing fine until Christine Everhart—damn her—knocks him off his feet.

“What about the Winter Soldier?” she asks, her eyes as gray as the microphone clutched in her hand. For once, the other reporters shut up. They sit still, staring at Tony with curious eyes and bated breath.

Tony wants to say that Bucky Barns should be locked in prison for the rest of his life. He wants to say that Steve should be in there, too. He wants to condemn them both, rage against their treachery, scream until his voice is raw. He doesn’t care that everything he says will be used against him—it’s been that way since he was old enough to talk. And anyway, if he can’t shit-talk the bastard who killed his mom, what’s the point of having a deliciously sharp tongue?

“That will be all for now,” Pepper says with prompt grace, and she guides him of the stage. The reporters explode behind him, launching questions in the direction of his retreating back. Tony turns his mind away from them, and begins to sketch out mental plans for modifications he wants to make to the iron-spider suit.

Peter may not be an Avenger, but no one else is, either. Not anymore. Maybe by the time Spiderman is ready to join up, the team will be ready for him.

Maybe, Tony thinks, his mind whirling from the press conference and Pepper’s perfume. Maybe, just maybe, Spiderman will be the one who brings us all back together.

###

Tony is settling down for a nice, relaxing evening when he gets the call from Peter.

It’s out of the ordinary. Tony has taken over Happy’s babysitting duties, so he’s used to getting calls about Peter rescuing cats from trees and getting churros from old ladies. Loathe as Tony is to admit it, listening to Spiderman’s tales of conquest has been the highlight of his day ever since Germany. Peter calls often, but never at this hour.

See, ever since May found out her nephew was fighting criminals in spandex pajamas—lordie, Tony still has nightmares about that phone call—Peter’s curfew is 11 PM sharp. The clock is pushing midnight. Pepper is sitting on the leather settee, doing a crossword puzzle as she nurses a glass of red wine. The TV is on, recapping the latest political scandal—some famous congressmen got caught having affairs with half a dozen different women. Tony is half asleep, his head resting on Pep’s shoulder as he sketches designs for a new reactor core. The room is the perfect temperature, Tony has a cup of bitter decaf, and he’s not the source of the news scandal. As far as he’s concerned, the world is pretty good.

Then the phone rings, and Tony knows he’s in for a tough night.

Peter’s ringtone—I Didn’t Do It by the Antichrists—blares out at full volume. Tony jerks awake, spilling coffee all over himself and the couch. It burns his thighs, but he barely notices the sensation.

Pepper pushes him towards the cell phone vibrating on the wooden table. “I’ll take care of the spill,” she says, no-nonsense and fully supportive. Her eyes are gentle and leave no room for argument.

Tony answers the call. It’s probably not an emergency, but you can never be too careful when mentoring a self-sacrificial, hyper-intelligent teenager.

Last Thursday, Peter called to make sure Tony had seen some viral video of a kitten grooming a pineapple.

The week before that, Peter called to inform Tony that he’d been stabbed and had a switchblade embedded in his foot. “Should I sew it shut with dental floss and May’s sewing needle?” he asked, giving Tony a heart attack and half a dozen gray hairs. “I saw a 5-minute craft video where they used a red candle to cauterize a wound. Problem is, May’s pretty protective of her candles. Also, I only have peppermint floss and that seems unsanitary. So you see the dilemma.”

It takes every ounce of Tony’s strength to force that traumatic memory to the back of his mind. He answers the phone and breaths deeply.

“What’s up?” Tony asks, trying to keep his voice casual. On the off-chance that Peter isn’t bleeding out in a drainage ditch, he wants to play down the whole I-care-about-your-wellbeing nonsense. Because, unfortunately, he does care about the kid’s wellbeing. He needs to keep an eye on that, lest it become a problem. He doesn’t want to make a habit of saving the kid’s life.

“Hey Mr. Stark,” Peter says, his voice high and excited. “Sorry to bother you. I’ve got a quick question.”

Tony flashes a thumbs up in Pepper’s direction. Relieved, she exits the room to get a towel to mop up the spilled decaf. Tony moves into the kitchen to pour himself another cup, rubbing absently at the wet fabric chafing his legs.

“Is this a question that couldn’t wait until tomorrow?” Tony asks. “Your curfew is 11, kiddo. Tell me you’re not still out. I have no urge to face the wrath of Aunt Hottie.”

“I’m back home,” Peter says, and the pressure in Tony's chest lessens a bit. He pulls out a stool and stirs cream into a mug of decaf, pressing the phone between his ear and shoulder.

“Okay,” Tony says, wracking his brain for everything he knows about teenage boys. “This better not be a question about a girl. I’m a mechanic, and this isn’t a hotline for dating advice.”

Peter has the gall to laugh. God, Tony hates teenagers. He didn't even like them when he was one himself.

“My ex-girlfriend's dad dropped a parking garage on my head,” Peter says, as casually as if he's talking about the weather. “I don’t think I need any dating advice. I’m all set for awhile.”

Great. Now Tony knows how Rhodey feels all the time. He’s pretty sure he’s doing Rhodey’s Judgmental Look of Terror right now, and he deeply resents that.

“Let's forget I said...you know what, I can't brush by that. Tell me that’s an exaggeration.” Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. "Tell me your girlfriend's dad didn't drop a parking garage on you."

“I'm exaggerating,” Peter says, and Tony breathes a sigh of relief. “To be honest, she wasn't technically my girlfriend."

And now the stress is back in tenfold. "Damn it, Peter."

Peter completely misunderstands the direction of Tony's anger. "My generation is bad at defining relationships," he says apologetically, like he thinks Tony cares about Peter's love life, rather than the fact that, apparently, someone tried to crush him with a building.

"That's not what I'm worried about."

"It's not like he tortured me Saw-style." Peter sounds very nonchalant, like dealing with horror movie villains is an everyday occurrence. "Although he did try to throw me off an airplane. That sucked a little bit."

That has to be an exaggeration. Right? Tony has the sudden realization that he needs to get his blood pressure tested. If he's not careful, he's going to have a stroke.

“What the hell did you do to his daughter?” Tony asks, even though he doesn’t want to know.

"It wasn't really about her."

"Then why was Psycho Daddy out to get you?"

“He was trying to steal your stuff,” Peter says, as though this is the most obvious explanation in the world. “I was kind-of-not-really dating The Vulture's daughter. Duh."

Well. Rhodey was right. Tony is the world's worst mentor. He resolves to never, ever ask Peter a question again.

He breaks the vow almost immediately. “What’s your question, kid?” he asks, trying to take deep breaths. I will not have a conniption, he tells himself. I will not have a conniption. I will not

“How do I deactivate Instant Kill Mode?” asks Peter. "Also. How illegal is cocaine? Unrelated, I promise. Well, semi-unrelated."

Tony chokes on his coffee and has a miniature heart attack, which is closer than he wants to get to conniption-land. Burying his face in his elbow, he takes a minute to compose himself. I should have let it go to voicemail, he thinks, deeply regretting his decision to mentor a teenager. This is karma, he decides. Howard Stark is up there in the afterlife, looking down at Tony and cackling with vindictive amusement.

“One thing at a time,” Tony says, his voice cracking. Peter is polite enough not to mention it. “Is anyone dead?"

"Just my will to live."

"...What?"

"It was a joke. Never mind."

Tony decides to let that one slide. "Cocaine is very, very illegal," he says, trying to be patient. "Do I need to have Rogers give you the drug talk?” He’ll do it, too. He’ll drag Steve out of hiding and force him to write an impassioned speech about the dangers of peer pressure. Hell, he’d break bread with the fucking Winter Soldier if it was in Peter's best interest.

“I'm good,” Peter says. “I just figured I should let you know I have about thirty bricks of cocaine in my bedroom. Also, Karen won't let me turn off Instant Kill Mode. Also, Walmart discontinued my special razzleberry pink squeezy lemonade. Which isn't related to tonight's patrol. I'm just bummed about it.”

Tony decides to believe, no, pray, that Peter is joking about the cocaine. “Let me call up a few of my college frat buddies," he says, trying to make light of a pitch-black situation. "We can get rid of the drugs for you in no time.”

“Do your college friends work for the police now?” asks Peter, sounding confused. Tony leans his head against the cool tiles on the kitchen counter and slowly counts to five. I will not have a heart attack, he tells himself. No matter what comes out of Peter’s mouth next, I will take it in stride.

“Peter,” Tony says, his tone quite pleasant given the circumstances. “Why do you have thirty bricks of cocaine in your bedroom?”

“Mr. Barton gave them to me, to thank me for saving his life,” Peter says. Then—“Hang on, I think I hear May in the kitchen. I’m going to have to call you back.”

“If you hang up that phone, the rizzlepizzle lemonade drama will be the least of your worries—”

Peter hangs up the phone. Tony swears, slamming his hand against the counter. I don’t deserve this, he thinks, a bit miserably. Even after all the shit he put his mom thorough, he never once did anything that would land him ten consecutive life sentences in a federal prison. Clint is going to die tonight. Tony’s going to strangle “Mr. Barton” with his bare hands.

Pepper appears in the doorway, holding a stained towel. Her red hair is pulled back into a low ponytail, and a pair of reading glasses are perched on the edge of her nose. There’s a slip of skin between her pajama pants and bottoms, and Tony has the sudden urge to kiss her. To put his phone on Do Not Disturb and forget all about cryptic phone calls from well-meaning teenagers. Maybe Clint will clean this up himself, for once in his life.

Ha.

“You’re going out, aren’t you?” asks Pepper.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says. “One of these days, we’ll have a quiet evening in. I promise.”

Pepper touches the tip of his nose with her index finger. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she says lightly. Her forehead creases into a frown. “Is he okay?”

“He will be, if he doesn’t get arrested for possession with intent to distribute.” Tony frowns. “Clint, on the other hand, is a dead man walking.”

“What?”

Tony sighs. He presses a kiss to her forehead and inhales the scent of minty toothpaste that lingers around her face.

“Don’t wait up,” he says.

###

Ten minutes later, Tony lands on the fire escape outside of Peter’s window. The metal creaks ominously beneath his feet, and Tony steadies himself against the side of the building. He knocks twice on the tinted glass. After a moment, the window screeches open.

Peter’s brown eyes are huge. “Mr. Stark!” he says. “What are you doing—”

“Save it,” Tony says. “Where are the drugs?”

“I…ah…” Peter glances behind him, then grabs a sweatshirt from the floor beneath his feet. Wrapping it around himself, he shimmies through the window and out onto the fire escape. It sways, and for a second Tony’s genuinely concerned it won’t support their weight. One crap from a pigeon, and the whole apartment complex could dissolve into dust. Tony makes a mental note to hire a building-assessor. Peter's almost been crushed by a building once, and that's one time too many.

Peter closes the window with great care. When he turns to face Tony, his cheeks are flushed.

“You can’t get mad,” he says.

“Do I look mad?” Tony demands.

“You always look a little mad.”

“Gee, I wonder why.” Tony can’t remember the last time he’s felt this stressed. Tight pain courses through his chest, and he takes a step towards Peter.

"I think it's the goatee," Peter says. "It gives you these weird scowl lines. Have you ever thought about shaving?"

“I'm...I'm not going to shave my goatee," Tony says, trying not to throttle the kid. "Start talking." He taps his foot against the creaking fire escape. “Now.”

“I guess it started when I found this backpack—” Peter says.

“A war criminal gave you a backpack full of cocaine and your solution was to take it back to your aunt’s apartment?” Tony says. "Aren't you supposed to be smart? Don't you go to a prep school for baby geniuses?"

“The backpack didn't have cocaine,” Peter says, his voice painstakingly patient. It's like he think's Tony is a little slow. “The backpack was full of guns. The cocaine was in the duffle bag.”

A muscle ticks in Tony’s jaw. He’s not sure whether he wants to laugh or burst into tears.

“Why didn’t you have Karen call the police?” Tony asks, his voice dangerously low.

“Because,” Peter says, shifting his weight from foot to foot, “I thought I should scope things out. Look around a little. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, I stumble across guns and cocaine all the time,” Tony says, grinding his teeth together. "It's an everyday occurrence in New York City."

Death is too nice a gift for Clint. Tony’s going to make sure his life is a living hell. He'd give anything for Peter to hurry up and finish telling the story. He'd rip out his own kidney and eat it if it meant finding out if Peter was in trouble. "What happened next, Peter?"

"I got jumped trying to leave the ally and my mask came off—”

What?”

“Don’t worry, he didn’t see anything,” said Peter. “The ally was dark, and there was a lot of blood on his face.”

“Why was Clint bleeding?”

“It wasn't Mr. Barton!” Peter’s voice is impatient, as though it’s Tony’s fault he can’t keep up with the batshit-crazy, never ending story from hell. “Mr. Barton said he'd never hurt me. I got attacked by the person who left the bags there. Clint showed up later.”

“Hold on.” Tony holds up a hand and tries to remember how to breath. It feels like the world is moving beneath his feet, and it has nothing to do with the swaying fire escape. The night air is chilly against his skin, but the coldness is refreshing as it enters his lungs. Tony takes three deep breaths before he trusts himself enough to speak.

“Every detail you add to this story makes it worse,” he says. “Let’s keep things simple. Where was the blood coming from?”

“His ear, I think,” Peter says. “I bit him.”

“You bit his ear.”

“Maybe.” Peter shrugs. “There was something fleshy in my mouth.”

"There was something fleshy in your mouth, probably his ear, but you can't be sure. Am I getting this right?"

"I was focused on other things!" Peter says. "Whatever was in my mouth was keeping me from making an awesome quip. I wanted to start singing the clean-up song, you know, because he left his guns out in the open. But I couldn't, because I was biting him. You feel me?"

“I…” Tony’s at a loss for words. “No. I don't 'feel you,' Peter. Skip to the part where Clint showed up. Keep it simple, like you’re talking to a three-year-old.”

Peter ponders that for a couple of seconds before he speaks. When he does, he keeps his sentences short and ticks them off on his fingers. “Mr. Barton showed up. He got shot. I sewed him up with dental floss. It was awesome.”

Again with the damn dental floss. Tony’s going to petition the state of New York to make it illegal to buy toothcare products as a minor. “Where is Clint now?”

“He got away. So did the bag-man.” Peter shrugs, giving Tony a half smile. “You win some, you lose some. Man, if that isn’t life. I got a B- on my Spanish test today. May’s gonna ground me if I’m not careful—"

Tony resists the urge to swear. His hands clench into fists, and he ignores Peter’s ramblings. “You let them get away?” He says, his voice rising. He takes a step forward, and the fire-escape sways beneath them.

Peter narrows his eyes, as though Tony’s acting very stupid. “I didn’t want to leave the guns,” he says. "Mr. Barton told me to stay. He said he was, and I quote, 'on it, or my name isn’t Hawkeye.' And that's when Instant Kill Mode turned on."

“You know what, I can’t deal with this tonight,” Tony says. “Give me the cocaine, and we can figure this all out when I’m not angry enough to take away your suit.”

“Why would you take away my suit?” Peter’s round eyes widen. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Peter continues, and—damn it—his voice has started to get angry in that annoying, pubescent way of his. “I saved Mr. Barton’s life! God, this is the ferry incident all over again."

“'Mr. Barton gave you cocaine," Tony says. "Don't you see why that rubs me the wrong way?"

Peter sniffs. “He trusted me to know what to do,” he says. "So I called you."

When Tony doesn’t respond, Peter trudges inside. He returns with a duffle bag. Tony doesn’t even bother opening it up to check if everything’s still there. However much it seems like Peter Parker is on crack, that’s just his every-day persona. He’s high on life.

Tony throws the bag over his shoulder. He pulls out the gauntlet and disables Instant Kill Mode with a few commands to Friday, and the suit draped over the windowsill fades to black. The red eyes disappear, the tinny 'warning' sounds fade, and the night is safe from Peter Parker's malfunctioning suit. Tony almost suspends the program permanently - really, what does Peter need with Instant Kill Mode? - but he decides against it at the last second. Just in case, he tells himself. Just in case.

Tony’s about to fly off when he sees Peter staring at him. His arms are folded across his chest. He’s wearing the stupid outfit Tony bought him when he took away the suit—is he trying to make Tony feel like a jackass? The pajama pants and XXL tee-shirt clash horribly. They hide his muscle definition, and make him look smaller than he actually is. He looks like a baby animal, all wide-eyed and innocent.

Tony wants to throw himself off the fire escape.

“I..ugh,” Tony says. “Thanks for saving Barton, not that he deserved it. You did good, kid.”

Peter grins at Tony. It’s a genuine smile, and it puts every single one of his teeth on display. “It was my pleasure,” he says, and Tony doesn’t doubt that.

“Let’s not make this a habit,” Tony warns. “You’re the friendly neighborhood Spiderman, not the Avengers Savior. You're definitely not Instant Kill Parker. Capiche?”

Peter salutes—honest to God salutes—with his back straight and everything. “You got it, Mr. Stark,” he says. “I’ll stick to saving the little guy. No more Avengers rescue missions. No more accidentally triggering Instant Kill Mode. I promise.”

Tony actually believes the kid. He's naïve like that.

Chapter Text

Tony jerks awake on May 29th, and for a split second he thinks he can’t breathe.

It’s not that he had a nightmare—not exactly, anyway. It’s not hopelessness or depression, either. Maybe it’s disbelief. He’s forty-eight years old today. Two more years and he’ll have been fucking up the world for half a century.

Lying in bed, listening to Pep murmur in her sleep, he can’t help but feel a little pensive. The silk sheets are soft beneath him, and Pep smells like lemony shampoo and happiness. A half-finished glass of wine is on the bedside table. Last night’s pre-birthday toast was cut short in the best of ways. They fell asleep without brushing their teeth, laying on week-old sheets with the news playing in the background. It shouldn’t have been romantic—the inside of Tony’s mouth tastes like a garbage disposal—but he doesn’t think he’s ever felt this light in his entire life.

Pep’s still sleeping. He pokes her nose with her index finger.

“It’s my birthday,” he says. “Wish me happy birthday.”

Pepper murmurs something in her sleep and moves closer to him. Her cotton nightgown slips over her shoulder, and she rubs her cheek against his chest.

“The house is being bombed,” Tony says.

Pepper shifts a bit, but her eyelids don’t flutter.

“Stark Industries just fell one-hundred points in the stock market,” Tony says, quite enjoying himself. “The world is ending. Oh, and I’m leaving you for Steve Rogers. We’ve decided to work through the whole I’m-going-to-beat-the-shit-out-of-you-and-then-leave-you-for-dead shenanigan he pulled.”

Pepper doesn’t move.

“You’re late for a meeting,” he says.

Her eyes fly open. She sits bold upright and looks around. Her red hair is unkempt, matted around her face in frizzy knots, but she’s never looked more beautiful to Tony. His pulse quickens, and he reaches out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Meeting,” she says, a bit wildly.

“Good morning,” Tony says. “Let’s have a baby.”

Pepper rubs her eyes, then gently smacks the side of his head with her hand. She turns to Tony, her eyes still bleary with sleep, and offers him a little half-smile.

“Happy birthday, old man,” she says.

“Did you hear me?” Tony says, rubbing his head. “I want to make a baby.”

“Like, in your lab? Out of metal?”

Tony gives her a look. Pepper leans forward and presses a kiss into the tip of his nose.

“Brush your teeth,” she says. “Then we’ll talk.”

“I’m serious,” Tony says. “Let’s have kids.”

Pepper frowns. “Kids, plural?”

“One-hundred-and-nineteen, to be precise,” Tony says. “We’ll name them after the elements. Peter will go nuts.”

“I don’t think I have that many childbearing years left in me.”

“Not with that attitude.” Tony shrugs. “We can start with one. We’ll name it Morgan, after your crazy uncle. You know, the guy who cooked the thanksgiving turkey with a blowtorch.”

“He got second-degree burns,” Pepper says. “I’m not sure I want that to be our child’s legacy.”

“He cooked a turkey with a blowtorch,” Tony reiterates, because Pep doesn’t seem to have grasped how iconic that is. He tried to talk her into letting him bust out a flamethrower last year, but she got FRIDAY to lock him out of the lab until dinner was over. It’s the only time FRIDAY refused to let him do a system-override. It figures that Pep is the higher authority, even to AIs that Tony himself designed.

Pepper presses one last kiss against his temple and then rolls out of bed. She flashes a small smile over her shoulder, and Tony sinks back against the pillows.

“You’re not saying no,” he says. "Which I'm taking as an emphatic 'Impregnate me, Tony!'"

“We already have a kid,” she says. “You should call him.”

That makes Tony smile, even if he has to hide it behind his hand.

“Later,” he says. “I want to bask in my birthday before Peter does something to make my hair even grayer.”

###

Tony’s Instagram page is spammed with fans wishing him a happy birthday. He has five birthday texts. One is from Rhodey, who’s coming by later with cake. One is from Thor, who’s in Australia but is ‘thinking of his metal friend.’ One is from Natasha, who sends him a video of Bruce breathing hysterically and trying to smother a small lab fire with his shirt. The video is captioned your present. And one is from Happy, who’s left a 30 second message that consists of him “singing” happy birthday. Nothing has ever made Tony cringe harder. He has Friday save it to the mainframe.

There’s also a text on the flip phone. Happy birthday, Tony. Hope you’re well. Yours, Steve.

Panic hits Tony like an electrical shock. It slowly brews over into resentment. It melts into a distressing sense of calm that usually indicates Tony is about to do something stupid and reckless.

His thumb hovers over reply, but he’s not exactly sure what to say.

Tony tosses the flip phone on his bed in disgust, and pulls out his StarkPhone. His finger hovers over Rhodey’s contact, ready to call him and bitch for an hour about why Steve fucking Rogers is the worst thing to ever happen to Earth. It might feel therapeutic, to let it all out. Here he is, spending thirty hours a week fighting for the rogue Avengers to be pardoned, and Rogers has the fucking audacity to text him on his birthday. What’s next, inviting Tony to Christmas dinner? Maybe they can roast marshmallows over a toasty mid-summer bonfire while one of Roger’s homicidal friends snipes Tony from a tree.

Rhodey’s biased. Rhodey would urge him to text back, because Rhodey wants the band to get back together. And Tony doesn’t feel like listening to Rhodey preach.

His finger pushes a different contact before he can stop himself.

It only rings twice before Peter picks up.

“Birthday. Happy. Mission?”

It’s sleepy and garbled, and Tony cringes when he glances at the clock. Yeesh. It’s six-thirty on a Saturday, of course Peter’s sleeping.

“No mission,” Tony says. “Jesus. Have I ever called you about a mission, ever, in all the time you've known me?”

“Ierrknm.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Jabba.”

“Did you just . . . make a Star Wars reference?” Peter asks, sounding distinctly more awake. “I mean, technically ‘Jabba’ isn’t a language. He speaks Huttese instead of Basic, it’s a whole thing—Hey! Can you help me make a lightsaber?”

“They sell those at Target,” Tony says, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“No,” Peter says. “Like, an actual lightsaber, that refracts light from a Kyber crystal and can cut through everything but energy manifestations.”

“None of those things are real,” Tony says. “You know what a ‘fantasy’ is, right?”

“I fight crime in spandex,” Peter says. “My entire life is a fever dream.”

“That’s… accurate,” Tony says. “Wait, no. Stop distracting me. We’re getting off topic and I need to ask you something.”

Tony hears the distinct squeak of bed springs as Peter sits up. There’s a moment of silence on the other end of the phone, and Tony can practically hear the gears in Peter’s brain whirling around.

“Is this about that telephone pole? It was structurally unsound. That wasn’t my fault.”

“No, it’s—” Tony pauses. “I’m sorry, what’s this about a telephone pole?”

“So it’s about the nail polish remover, then? I wasn’t trying to get drunk, but Ned dared me, and I wanted to look cool in front of MJ—”

“You drank nail polish remover?”

Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. And to think, less than half an hour ago, he was having a blissful morning cuddle with Pep. He’s not sure he can take the depth of teenage stupidity—and on his birthday of all days, when he’s already dealing with Roger and his crazy messages. Yours, Steve. What the hell is that supposed to mean?

“Here’s an idea,” Peter says. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s up? This whole guessing game is digging me into a hole.”

Tony rubs his temples. This fucking kid. He can feel a migraine approaching at an alarming rate.

“Never mind,” Tony says. “It’s not important. Forget it.”

“Am I going to jail?” Peter says. “No one got hurt when the telephone pole fell over, but I scared a couple of squirrels. And then the ice cream truck ran me over and I got tazed by the ice cream man, so I couldn’t make sure the squirrels were okay—"

“You’re killing me, kid,” Tony says. “You’re actually killing me.”

“Speaking of killing—”

“Stop,” Tony says. “Just stop. I want you to ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m about to say going to give Mr. Stark a heart attack?’ And if the answer is yes, go stick that loose tongue of yours in a wall socket.”

There’s a silence on the other end of the phone. There’s a chance that the kid is trying to hold in laughter, but maybe Tony actually hurt his feelings. Great. Now Tony feels bad, and that’s the last thing he needs today.

“All right, kiddo,” he says. “What’s going on?”

Peter doesn’t sound offended. On the contrary, his voice has its usual pubescent chirpiness. Thank God.

“Instant Kill Mode has been malfunctioning again,” Peter says. “Last night, I almost took out a bird trying to do a backflip.”

“Jesus.”

“She’s okay,” says Peter. “I took her home to nurse her back to health. Her name is Jay Jay Binks, and I would commit treason for her. I’m going to train her to be my crime fighting sidekick.”

“How does Aunt May feel about you taming a wild jay?”

“Technically she’s a pigeon. The name is a bit of a misnomer.” Peter pauses, probably for dramatic affect. “And May’s totally cool with it.”

“She has no idea.”

“None at all,” Peter agrees. “She asked if I heard a cooing last night, and I had to pretend it was a symptom of my spider bite. She totally didn't believe me, but she doesn't know enough about my powers to accuse me of lying. I'd tell her the truth, but our apartment complex has a strict ‘no wild animals’ addendum. Our neighbor got busted for trying to get Mr. Trashface to use a litter box.”

For the life of him, Tony can’t keep up with Peter’s anecdotes. He rubs his chin, trying to force his genius brain to comprehend the insanity of the kid’s life.

“Was Mr. Trashface another one of your neighbors?” Tony asks. "Doesn't your apartment complex have toilets?"

“He's not a person," Peter says. "He's the best raccoon in the entire world. And our landlord had the audacity to evict him.”

“I’m lying in an early grave,” Tony says hysterically. “And you’re throwing handfuls of metaphorical dirt over me, with the nail polish remover and the homicidal ice cream man and the pigeon and your rizzlepizzle lemonade.”

“You know it’s called razzleberry pink squeezy lemonade,” Peter says. “And I don’t want to talk about that. It’s been discontinued for a week and I’m jonesin’ for a fix.”

“I—” Tony swallows hard. “No. No, I’m not doing this with you. Let’s talk about my thing now.”

“Okay,” Peter says. “Ask away.”

Tony sits down on his bed. He listens to the water turn on as Pep gets into the shower, and he taps his fingers against his arc reactor scar. He can’t even think of a question to formulate—how can he bother Peter with Avengers drama, when the kid is using his ultra-powerful spandex Starksuit to fight petty crime and take out pigeons? Even after all the shitty mentoring Tony’s done over the last year, going to a fifteen-year-old for advice seems like a new low.

Besides, this is the same teenager who drank nail polish remover to impress a girl. He’s not exactly the leading authority on making good decisions.

“You’re half-decent,” Tony says. He clears his throat, because this is getting dangerously close to complement-territory, and he’s not ready for this to turn into a bonding moment.

“Thanks,” Peter says. “You’re half-decent too, Mr. Stark.”

“Hypothetically speaking,” Tony says. “What would it take for you to cut someone out of your life?”

Peter stays silent for a moment, which is never a good thing. Tony runs a hand through his hair and grits his teeth. He should’ve just sucked it up and called Rhodey. Hell, Pep’s in the next room over. Why didn’t he just confide in her?

Because, his brain tells him. You wanted to know what the kid would do.

“Uh,” Peter says. “Flash told everyone I was addicted to Adderall, so Mr. Harrington suspended him from the decathlon team. I had to pee in a cup. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about?”

“No,” Tony says. “That has absolutely nothing to do with my issue.”

“I need more details,” Peter says, which Tony finds horrifyingly hypocritical. “What did this hypothetical person do to deserve being cut out of your life? How much harm did they cause? Were they trying to do damage? Have they apologized?”

It’s disturbing how Peter can go from mind-blowingly ridiculous to dead serious in less than a second. His tone is solemn and earnest in the worst of ways, and his questions are astonishingly dead-on. It’s easy to forget what an absolute genius Peter is. Well, it’s more complicated than that—Tony’s watched Peter mess around in the lab. He hacked into Midtown Tech’s online portal to check out Peter’s grades when he was doing a background check before Germany. He went to Peter’s science fair. He knows the kid is brilliant. Even so, it’s always strange when the switch flips.

“The hypothetical person lied,” Tony says. “And they caused a shit-ton of harm, but they didn’t mean to. And yes, they apologized, but it felt half-assed.”

“A half-ass apology is better than a no-ass apology,” Peter says in a sing-songy voice. “Hey, I really like that. I’m making it my new Insta bio.”

“Watch your damn language.”

“But you just—”

“Peter.”

“Right,” Peter says. “Sorry.”

There’s silence for a few moments. The shower stops, and Tony hears Pepper plotting around the bathroom. He stares up at the ceiling and thinks for a few minutes—thinks about how much trouble this kid has caused him. Thinks about how every week, it’s a new thing, whether it’s backpacks full of crack cocaine, or an ice cream man with a tazer, or using Instant Kill Mode to take down pigeons.

Kids are the worst, thinks Tony. And then…Yeah, I definitely want another.

“Listen,” Peter says. “My uncle always said that you should forgive people when you have the chance, because they won’t be around forever. It’s hard to get closure with a corpse.”

“All my respect to your uncle, but that’s terrible advice,” Tony says. “Take it from me, kid. Stew in your resentment. Bite the hand that feeds you. If the grass is greener on the other side, dump kerosene over the fence.”

“My life experience says differently,” Peter says. “Ned peed on Flash’s plant in AP Bio and he got caught, so now he has to take care of Flash’s egg baby for the rest of the year. You feel me?”

“I’m hanging up now,” Tony says.

“Probably wise,” Peter says. “I just climbed out my window to do a little morning patrol. Everything is totally fine—”

“Oh, no,” says Tony. “Don’t do this to me. Please, kid.”

“—I just stumbled across a gobble of turkeys, and Karen activated Instant Kill Mode. I can’t get her to deactivate.”

“There it is.”

“Maybe she doesn’t like birds? Is this an AI thing?”

Tony sighs. This is going to be the longest birthday he’s had since he was rotting in an underground terrorist bunker in Afghanistan.

“I’m on my way,” he says.

###

Before he leaves, he picks up Steve’s flip phone. His fingers hover over the buttons, but he doesn’t have time to waste—Peter’s somewhere in Queens shooting death lasers at poultry.

The message is short and sweet. It’s not much—on the grand scheme of things, it’s marvelously little. There’s a whole world of problems bearing down on him, what with Steve’s betrayal and the possibility of knocking Pep up and the overlooming threat of another alien invasion.

But those are problems for another day. Today, Tony has to deal with the fact that he’s forty-eight years old, and Rhodey will probably bring a vanilla cake instead of red velvet, and Peter can’t keep his AI from butchering fowl in Queens.

Thanks, Rogers. Stay safe.

It feels like a start.

Chapter Text

“When’s that backup coming?” Rhodey says over the comm system, his voice strained.

“I’m already here!” Peter says indignantly.

You're not the backup, Tony thinks, but he’s too busy blasting alien slugs to respond. The portal opened up in downtown Manhattan—why is it always New York? —and the creatures are red, slimy, and extremely volatile. They’re the size of a small child, but three have already exploded, and at least a dozen civilians have been injured. The Iron Man suit is covered in slug gel.

Tony is hovering above the portal—his job is to detonate the aliens as soon as they squirm through. Peter and Rhodey have set a perimeter, and they’re trying to take down the aliens that seized the block before Team Iron Man arrived. But the slugs are surprisingly fast, and Tony’s frustration is rising quickly.

Peter, on the other hand, is having the time of his life. Maybe he’s been hitting the nail polish remover a little too hard.

“I feel like I’m in a live action remake of Turbo,” Peter quips as he backflips off a skyscraper and webs a slug monster to the side of the building. The creature whines in protest, and he pats it on the head as he swings by.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Rhodey says. “Tony, control your child.”

Tony whirls around in the air to look at Peter, who crashes through a flying slug. It purrs an anguished cry and then explodes, filling the sky with crimson sludge that showers down like gelatin rain. Great, Tony thinks, as the goop oozes over the Spidersuit. Peter's dry-cleaning bill just skyrocketed.

“You don’t know Turbo?” Peter says, unbothered by the goop. “The movie about the snail who becomes a racecar? It’s a cinematic masterpiece.”

What?”

“Karen, tell Mr. War Machine about Turbo.”

Tony resists the urge to roll his eyes. He spent over two-thousand hours building that AI. Originally, he was going to program the Spidersuit with FRIDAY, but he changed his plans after meeting the kid in person. FRIDAY is harsh and sarcastic. She’s blither than JARVIS and stingy with her approval. Peter’s just a kid. At the time, his aunt was in the dark about his superhero extracurriculars. For all intents and purposes, Peter was completely alone. So Tony stripped a copy of FRIDAY down to her bare essentials. He made her kind and nurturing, protective and supportive. She’s also interactive, so the more Peter talks to her, the more she’ll feed off his personality and develop her own programmed quirks.

In hindsight, that particular feature may have been a mistake.

A feminine voice speaks through the comm system. “Turbo is an animated film about a garden snail with big dreams and a bigger heart,” Karen says, her voice bright and sweet. “After an accident gives him the power of super-speed, Turbo embarks on a journey to compete in the world's fastest race, the Indianapolis 500. Does that answer your question, Peter?"

“That was perfect, Karen,” Peter says, “I love you with all my heart.”

“I’m incapable of having feelings,” Karen says. “But I’m programmed to fulfill your emotional needs, so I’ll pretend to reciprocate your love. I love you, Peter.”

“My needs are met,” Peter says. “You’re doing fabulous.”

“Thank you, Peter.”

Rhodey opens a private line with Tony and makes a noise in the back of his throat, halfway between a laugh and a groan. For once, Tony doesn’t lecture him, or tell him to be nice to the kid. That little love fest is a bad look for all involved parties.

“You gave the kid a billion-dollar AI program, and he gave it the whitest suburban mom name in existence.” Rhodey mutters through the private channel.

“He named her after Plankton’s computer wife on SpongeBob,” Tony says, and then winces. “God, I hate myself for knowing that.”

“What have you become, Tones?” Rhodey jokes, and then pauses. “Oh, look. The backup finally showed.”

Peter falls off a building. He slams through three flying slugs on his descent, which explode into colorful jelly bombs. He shoots out a web and flips around a nearby telephone pole, his eyes bugging out of his mask. Tony, who’s looking anywhere but at the airship landing in the middle of the battlefield, focuses on blasting aliens.

No matter who’s on that ship, you’ll be polite and cordial, Tony tells himself. Petty personal differences—you know, like your mom’s assassination—can go on the backburner until slugs are no longer detonating in downtown Manhattan.

Of all the reasons to suppress his feelings, that’s a new one.

“That’s Captain America,” Peter says, his voice completely awestruck, “And the Black Widow…holy shit, that’s Mr. Thor! And who’s that…oh, that’s Falcon. Remember when I kicked his ass on the tarmac in Germany?”

“Here’s what I found on the internet to answer the question, what is a falcon,” Karen says, “A falcon is a diurnal raptor in the genus Falco, identifiable by long pointed wings and a notched beak.”

“You’re so helpful!” Peter says. “Isn’t she helpful, Mr. Stark?”

“In short, a falcon is a bird,” Karen says. “Activating Instant Kill Mode.”

“What?” Peter says. “Karen, no!”

Tony isn’t listening. He’s hovering one-hundred feet above the battle, his eyes fixed on Steve. He’s even stopped blasting the slugs as they enter through the portal; Thor’s doing a better job of that then Tony ever could, anyhow. Steve slams his shield—a new one, probably built from Wakandan vibrainum—through a jelly slug. The alien explodes into smithereens. Steve pivots, scanning the surrounding terrain, and then looks up at Tony. They both freeze.

“FRIDAY…” Tony says, his voice quiet.

“On it, boss,” she drawls. “Patching the other Avengers into the comm system.”

There’s a click as the comms engage.

Tony’s not sure what he’s expecting, opening up a line of communication between Team Iron Man and the rogues. Maybe it’s time to have a little heart to heart with his good friend Rogers. Maybe Steve will offer up an in-person apology before they get back to blasting aliens. Maybe it’s time to make up.

Unfortunately, any new comm noise from Cap is drowned out by a loud, high scream from Sam.

“What’s going on?” Steve asks immediately, turning away from Tony.

“I’m under fire,” Sam yells. “I need backup! Now!”

Frowning, Tony scans the area around the portal. Aside from the occasional explosion, the slugs seem relatively harmless. Besides, Thor’s doing a great job of closing the portal with his lightning tethers, so the only unwanted earth-visitors attacking them are the ones who slipped in before Tony arrived.

“If Sam can’t handle a slug, he shouldn’t be here,” Tony says. His voice comes out harsher than he expected, but he’s too tightly wound to care.

“Ha fucking ha,” Sam snarls. A few blocks over, a light begins to flash, but Tony can’t see over the Great People Museum. “It’s that…little menace from Queens. He’s pelting me with death lasers.”

“Did you insult Star Wars, or make a pass at his aunt?” Rhodey asks. “He doesn’t like it when you do either of those things. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way.”

“I can’t stop it!” Peter says. “My AI activated Instant Kill Mode…I’m so sorry, Mr. Falcon! She’s fixed on you as a target.”

“Oh, you’re sorry!” Sam says, his voice tense. “In that case, all is forgiven. Ow—that was my wing, you nutball!”

Tony grits his teeth and jumps into action. He dips low over the ground and zooms towards the flashing lights behind the museum. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony watches Steve and Nat exchange a look, and then Steve sprints after him.

“FRIDAY, deactivate Instant Kill Mode,” Tony says.

Usually, that’s all it takes. But it’s not FRIDAY who responds.

“I can’t do that, Mr. Stark,” says Karen’s smooth voice. “My sensors have indicated a danger to Peter’s safety. I’m unable to shut down my lethal weapons until the threat has been neutralized. I cannot disobey my programming. The falcon needs to die.”

“I’m not a threat!” Sam says. “We’re on the same team, psycho AI lady! Shit—watch it with the lasers, Spiderkid, I can’t survive another hit!”

“That last laser was nonlethal, and it was from me, not her,” Peter says, his voice hard. “Don’t insult Karen. She’s trying her best. Sweetie, you’re doing amazing, but could you turn off the death lasers? Please? For me?”

“Thank you, Peter, I appreciate your feedback.” The AI sounds unbearably smug. “I’ll turn off my death lasers as soon as Samuel Thomas Wilson is dead at our feet.”

Tony rounds the corner around the museum. He’s not sure what he was expecting, but the sight shocks him into stillness.

The pavement around the museum is cracked with smoking potholes. Red slug guts decorate the street and nearby buildings like graffiti. Falcon is flailing around in the air, trying to shake the web that’s wrapped around his ankle. Peter flails around beneath him, tied to Sam by a rope that’s wrapped around his wrist. The eyes of the suit are red, and Sam narrowly avoids the lasers shooting up at him.

“I thought you learned your lesson from Ultron, my metal friend,” Thor’s voice echoes through the comms, rich and deep. “Perhaps I could’ve kept you from creating another sentient foe, if you hadn’t spent the last year ignoring my electronic mails—

“I’m not sentient,” Karen says. “I’m a non-conscious, interactive prototype meant to encourage and bolster Spiderman’s skillset. My lack of feelings lets me fulfill my duties to perfection, with no margin for human error. Peter, as we wait for the falcon threat to be neutralized, would you like some advice about girls?”

“Tony, fix this!” Sam snarls. “I don’t want to die listening to an AI give Spiderman the sex talk!”

“Peter and I cannot talk about sex due to Command Code: Keep it PG,” Karen says. Her voice is almost sly. “Sam, if you’d like to discuss adult topics, I’d be happy to open a private line of communication with you. As humans tend to follow a quid-pro-quo exchange system, perhaps you’d let me kill you as reciprocity?”

“Did Spiderman’s psycho AI lady just hit on me?” Sam demands. “Is everyone hearing this? Am I hallucinating?”

“I’m not capable of ‘Sliding into your DMs,’ as Peter would say,” Karen says. “I’m simply finding a way to make your death mutually agreeable, as you’re dodging my death lasers. By human standards, you’re being very rude. Should I try asking nicely? Please let me kill you.”

“System override,” Tony says, ignoring Sam’s outraged splutters. “Command Code: Time Out. FRIDAY, deactivate—"

“Mr. Stark, please don’t hurt Karen!” Peter says, his voice panicked. “She’s not trying to hurt anyone. She just doesn’t like birds. It’s not her fault!”

Sam swerves to avoid another onslaught of lasers, and Peter nearly crashes into a billboard. He swerves at the last moment and flips on top of a mailbox. The web that ties him to Sam yanks him forward, and Tony winces. It looks like Peter’s shoulder is being ripped out of its socket.

“My job is to protect Peter’s physical and emotional well-being,” Karen says. “We failed to neutralize the Vulture until it was almost too late. Spiderman must strike birds before they strike first.”

“Wait, that’s why you’re like this?” Peter demands. “Karen, Falcon is the least powerful hero out here—”

“Wow,” Sam says. “Fuck you too, kid.”

“Your humanness makes you deeply flawed, so your feedback is useless,” Karen says. “Nevertheless, to make you feel helpful, I’ve modified my agenda: neutralize Falcon, then neutralize the powerful Avengers. Then we’ll come up with a plan to ask out MJ.”

“Karen, I love you, but we’re not vibing right now,” Peter says. Tony can hear the scowl in his voice.

“Once again, I am incapable of returning the sentiment,” Karen says. “But for the purpose of protecting your emotional state, I love you too.”

“FRIDAY, how long until you can deactivate her systems?” Tony says, cutting his communications with the common line. Steve throws his shield up, trying to cut through the web that tethers Spiderman to Sam, but Peter twists away at the last second. It’s almost as though the suit is acting without Peter’s permission or approval. Jesus. How did Tony let this happen?

“Ten seconds,” FRIDAY says. “Five seconds…now. Karen is officially offline.”

The lasers stop.

Tony lands, breathing heavily. The kid cuts through his web and falls twenty feet to the pavement, tucking into a roll when he hits the ground. Sam lands nearby, and Steve jogs to his side. They exchange a look, and Tony ignores the hot feeling pulsing through his stomach. He needs to focus on something besides their unspoken tête-à-tête.

“Thor? Nat?” Tony says, jerking his chin up. Their comm wavelengths appear on the inside of his mask. “How are things going out there?”

“Thor closed the portal,” Natasha says, her voice brisk. There’s a hint of amusement in her tone, but she hides it well. If Tony didn’t know her so well, he would’ve missed it entirely. “How’s Sam?”

“Alive and pissed,” Sam says, breathing heavily.

“Good,” Nat says. “Things are back to normal, then. How’s…Peter? Is that his name?”

Peter pulls off his mask and runs over to Tony. Tony throws an arm around him and ruffles his hair, more than a little concerned. The kid is panting, and his brown eyes are rimmed with red. His hair is messed up, and a thin sheen of sweat coats his face.

“Oh,” Steve says, examining Peter carefully. “So he’s a literal kid. I thought that was a figure of speech.”

“Tony, there are child labor laws for a reason,” Sam says, clearly pissed.

Peter ignores them both. “Will Karen be all right?” he asks, looking scared and way too earnest. “She won’t be deactivated forever, right?”

Tony wants to make some lighthearted, well-meaning quip about how Peter shouldn’t get attached to technology. But who is Tony to talk? He loves Dum-ee more than he loves himself, and he grieved for a fallen friend when he lost JARVIS.

“We’ll fix her, kiddo,” Tony promises. “She’ll be giving you girlfriend advice while you drink rizzlepizzle in no time.”

“Don’t bring my razzleberry pink squeezy lemonade into this,” Peter says, frowning. “You know I lost the will to live when it was discontinued.”

“You can always drink nail polish remover again,” Tony says.

“Maybe I will. Jokes on you, it actually didn’t taste that bad.”

“All right, I’m going to brush over the fact that Spiderman drinks nail polish remover—” Sam starts.

“Karen said it would impress MJ,” Peter says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I did it for love.”

“Yeah, I’m not going near that,” Sam says. “But if you’re talking about the…the razzle lemonade, or whatever, it’s not discontinued. I saw a bunch of ads for it when we visited Crosvia.”

“Yes, it’s still sold overseas,” Peter says, his voice testy. “They’re not allowed to sell it in America because it killed a bunch of rats during a safety trial. The rodents who survived were so desperate to get more that they ate their dead friends. Thanks for reminding me, Mr. Falcon.”

There’s a pause. No one seems to know what to say. Not even Tony can conjure up a response.

Steve’s brow furrows. “And you…you want more of the rat poison?”

“I drank nail polish remover to impress a girl,” Peter says. “And my unofficial wife is a homicidal AI with a vendetta against birds. Do I seem like the type of person who’s too cool to drink rat poison? Think before you speak.”

Tony’s chest feels tight. He raises his eyes to meet Steve, and they stare at each other for the first time in eight months. Steve seems confused and a little frightened, but the smile he gives Tony feels genuine. Sam opens his mouth to say something—probably more crap about child endangerment, or whatever—but Steve reaches out to stop him. His fingers close around Sam’s wrist.

“We should be getting back,” Steve says, glancing at the sky. “The executive pardon only lasts until the threat is neutralized.” He lowers his gaze and offers Peter a nice smile. “It was nice to meet you, kid. I hope your AI is okay.”

“You and me both,” Peter says. “She’s my best shot at nursing Jay Jay Binks back to health.”

“I don’t know what that means," Steve says, looking alarmed. "Is this...is this a 21st century problem?"

“It’s like this, Mr. Captain America,” Peter says. “When you Google ‘how to kill lice on a pigeon’ nothing useful comes up. There’s nothing on Wikipedia or Reddit or anything—can you believe it? There’s a bunch of title hits on Pornhub, but it’s mostly clickbait. I checked and it is not relevant to delousing birds. So I need Karen, because she gives great advice and she helped me order animal shampoo on Craigslist. You feel me?”

“I can’t listen to this anymore,” Nat’s voice says over the comm, her voice cracking with the effort of holding in her laughter. “Natasha out. See you back at the ship.”

It hurts, watching Sam and Steve walk away. Any other mission, he'd be leaving with them. Thinking about the team he lost—the friends he lost—will always be painful.

“You coming back to the lab with me?” Tony asks Peter, trying to forget every detail of this conversation, from Roger's kindness to the Pornhub delousing videos. “We can try to override Karen's sudden ornithophobia.”

A grin splits Peter’s face. “You bet!” he says. “Hey, can you call Midtown High and get me an excused absence? I ditched PE for this.”

“You ditched school—”

“It’s one-o-clock on a Monday, of course I ditched school—”

Tony holds up a hand to shut him up. “Rogers!” he calls, and Steve turns around. Sam gives him a look but continues in the direction of the ship.

“Stay here,” Tony tells Peter, and he jogs over to Steve’s side.

Steve’s expression is somber. “Tony, I want to apologize—”

“Save it,” Tony mutters, taking care to keep his voice low. He’s not sure about the range of Peter’s super hearing, and he wants this to be a private conversation. “Just…just don’t, okay?”

“If there’s anything I can do to start making this up to you—”

“There is, actually,” Tony says, and Steve snaps his mouth shut. They stare at each other for a moment, the wind billowing around them. Tony crosses the arms of his metal suit and retracts his mask, and they look at each other.

“I won’t sign the accords, as they stand now,” Steve says, a bit hesitantly. “But anything else is fair game.”

“I’m working on making the accords less inhumane,” Tony says, his voice curt. “But this is actually about something else. Next time you’re in the states, bring my kid some rizzlepizzle lemonade, okay?”

Steve’s lips twitch. “I can do that.”

“Good.” Tony pats him on the shoulder. “See you soon, Rogers.”

Peter looks up when Tony returns to his side, but he doesn’t ask any questions. The kid is good at reining in his curiosity when it truly matters.

“To the lab?” he says, his voice hopeful.

“Hell no,” Tony says. “I’m marching you back to school. And don’t think for a second May will be writing you an excuse note to get out of detention—we’ll be telling her all about this when she gets off work.”

“Will you help me give Jay Jay a delousing bath?” Peter asks hopefully. “The shampoo should come by Wednesday.”

Tony shakes his head. He really, really can’t deal with this kid. Even so, a small smile tugs at the corner of his lips.

God help them both.

Chapter Text

“Let’s go over this one more time, Karen,” Peter says.

He’s sitting on the lab table across from Tony—yes, he’s sitting on Tony’s three-million-dollar projector table as if it’s a pine bench from Ikea. The lab is warm, and the cinnamon candles Pepper bought last Christmas fill the air with a festive scent. Peter’s wrapped in a jacket that’s four sizes too big for him, and his dirty trainers are propped up on a stack of blueprints. There’s a glass of juice in his hand. It’s not rizzlepizzle—Tony’s trying to have some imported, but apparently it’s so unhealthy that it’s not being allowed over the border. Although Peter is feigning interest in the raspberry lemonade Tony had an intern pick up from Whole Foods, he can tell the kid misses his rat poison. Tony’s almost ready to bribe his local congressmen in the hopes of loosening the current restrictions.

“Scenario,” Peter continues, “We’re swinging through New York, and we hear on the police radio that there’s a stick-up at the zoo—”

“Which zoo, Peter?” Karen’s delicate, feminine voice asks through the projector table’s speakers. “You need to be more specific so I can program myself to act accordingly.”

“It really doesn’t matter,” Peter says. “We arrive at the zoo, and there are armed gunmen! They’re holding up the reptile exhibit! They want to traffic the exotic snakes—”

“Peter.” Tony tries to keep from growling in frustration. “None of this is relevant.”

“—but across the street, there’s an ostrich enclosure,” Peter says. “And we have to make a tough call. Either we can diffuse the bomb that’s set to explode in the visitor’s center—”

“Why did the snake traffickers put a bomb in the visitors center?” Rhodey asks. He’s leaning against the doorway with a mug of coffee in his hand. His expression is carefully neutral, as if he’s torn between the urge to laugh and slam his head against the wall. Tony knows exactly how he feels.

“—or we can activate Instant Kill Mode and euthanize the ostriches,” Peter says. “What should we do, Karen? Remember, this question isn’t as easy as it might appear, so think carefully.”

There’s a pause, Peter nudges the dismembered shell of the Spidersuit. The tiny motherboard that contains most of Karen’s programming is hooked up the to the table’s console. Green lights flash on the projector table, and there’s a whirring growl as Karen’s primary functions begin to work through the scenario.

“I have searched the internet, and ostriches are flightless, swift running African fowl with long necks and two toes on each foot,” Karen says. “Does that answer your question, Peter?”

“Not even a little bit,” Peter says, excruciatingly patient. He takes a long sip of juice and pats the projector table beneath him as if it's a living thing. “Keep trying, sweetheart.”

“Is it just me, or is he a little too close to that AI?” Rhodey mutters.

It’s not just you, Tony thinks, but he manages to keep his mouth shut.

“I have run through all hypothetical scenarios to prepare a course of action,” Karen says after another pause. “We should activate Instant Kill Mode, neutralize the birds, deal with the snake trafficker bombers, and then ask out MJ. I have searched the internet and found three locations in downtown Queens that would make fantastic spots for first dates. Would you like to hear them, Peter?”

“Sure,” Peter says. “Why not? We’ve got time.”

Tony turns to Rhodey, expecting to exchange a look of mutual exasperation, but Rhodey looks almost…smug. Curse his irritating sense of self-righteousness. Rhodey warned Tony that he wasn’t cut out for this mentorship thing, and Tony completely ignored him.

In Tony’s defense, when he appointed himself as Spiderman’s Unofficial Advisor, he expected to be dealing with normal teenage stuff. Why couldn’t Peter fail a math test or have a sexuality crisis, like a normal fifteen-year-old boy? The most responsible mentor in the world would have a hard time dealing with Peter’s homicidal AI and rat-poison cravings. And Tony can say that with absolute certainty, because Rhodey is the king of rationality. And he’s not doing a damn thing to help.

“It’s just so hard,” Peter complains, and, to his horror, Tony realizes Peter is still talking about MJ. “She’s so confusing. One day, she’s ignoring me in mechanics class because my Smexilicious Electro Fly Trap tried to eat her robotic iguana. The next day she’s letting me hold her sign at an anti-capitalism rally in Manhattan—”

“She let you hold her sign?” Rhodey asks. “I hope you kids used protection.”

Well. Tony doesn’t have time to react to that horrifying statement. Honestly, he does a pretty good job of ignoring the reality that Peter may someday choose to pass on his genes. He’s got bigger, more immediate problems that are staring him in the face. Karen’s green blinker flicks back on as she reboots, and the console’s whirring noise ends abruptly.

“My functions appear to be operating on a delay,” she says. “In response to your earlier statement, I am not ornithophobic. That would imply I am afraid of birds, and I do not have the ability to feel fear.”

“That’s why you’re the bravest person I’ve ever met,” Peter coos, turning his attention back to the pulsing green light. Tony swears he sees Peter’s pupils dilate into little hearts. “Karen, you’re absolutely magnificent. Twelve-out-of-ten points.”

“I am not a person,” Karen says, her voice as hurt as an AI is capable of sounding. “And I’m not as magnificent as you claim, as proven by the fact that you’re trying to change my default programming.”

“Don’t ever let anyone change you,” Peter says. “You’re perfect exactly the way you are.”

“Peter, that’s not the takeaway,” Tony says, certain he’s being trolled. On the off chance that Peter’s serious, his little I-love-Karen thing needs to be addressed. “You remember when she tried to kill Sam? You remember how guilty that made you feel?”

“Not really,” Peter says. “He was being a dick.”

“Exactly,” Karen agrees. “Combined with the fact that he carries the name ‘Falcon,’ and a falcon is a type of bird, my attempts on his life were both necessary and completely understandable.”

“Isn’t that sweet?” Peter says. “She was protecting me.”

“I will always protect you, Peter.”

Rhodey’s staring at Peter with bemused horror, but at this point Tony is absolutely certain that they’re being baited. Peter knows exactly what he’s doing; Tony can see a gleam of amusement in those evil brown eyes.

“Watch your language, and don’t call Sam a dick,” Tony says. Rhodey chokes on his coffee. “He might be your teammate someday, kiddo. I don’t want this grudge to get out of hand.”

“That’s not hypocritical at all,” Rhodey mutters into his coffee, which Tony feels is ridiculously unfair.

“What should I call him instead?” Peter asks. “I went to a public middle school. I know, like, thirty different synonyms for ‘penis.’ We’ve got a ton of options."

Tony decides right then and there that he hates teenagers, Peter included.

“Jesus, kid,” he says. “You need to learn some respect for your elders…oh, God, I sound like my dad. You’re making me sound like my dad. That’s it. Mentorship over. Get the fuck out of my lab.”

“Ha ha,” Peter says, pulling a face. If he knows Tony is half serious, he doesn’t seem to care. “Hey, when are we going to give Jay Jay Binks a bath? You said you’d help me after we fixed Karen.”

“I said I might help,” Tony says, his voice testy. Rhodey’s shaking with suppressed laughter. “Does Karen look fixed to you?

Tony gestures at the console, which is blinking wildly with flashing green lights. Peter eyes it, then reaches out to pet Karen’s motherboard. He honest-to-God pets the tiny device with his index finger, like it’s a kitten or a puppy or a flee-ridden, gutter-crawling pigeon that his AI almost killed with a death laser.

“Wait,” Rhodey says, the smile sliding off his face. “How are you going to bathe your bird?”

“Her name is Jay Jay Binks, and don’t you dare call her anything else.”

Rhodey rolls his eyes. “How are you going to bathe Jay Jay Binks?”

“With water and soap, plus a special delousing shampoo I bought on Amazon,” Peter says, eying him curiously. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“Isn’t she in your bedroom in Queens?” Rhodey asks.

“Of course not,” Peter says, and he pulls a cardboard box out of his backpack.

It’s about the size of a shoebox, with little airholes poked in the top, and Tony freezes where he stands. Even after all the shit Peter’s pulled over the past year—after all the emotionally draining anecdotes, and chugging nail-polish remover, and his weird obsession with the rizzlepizzle juice, surely Peter’s not stupid enough to—

Peter opens the box. With a screech, a panicked bird shoots out of the crack. Peter screams and throws his hands over his head. Rattled, the bird swoops around the room, toward the floor-to-ceiling windows that line the southern wall. Rhodey slams the door of the lab shut to keep it from escaping, and Tony howls as the bird sends an entire stack of schematic papers flying across the lab.

“Jay Jay, no!” Peter wails. “Remember your training! Trust your instincts! Stop attacking Mr. Stark’s fancy tech—I taught you better than that!”

“My visual sensors have detected a bird,” Karen says, from where her motherboard lies on the projector table. “Activating Instant Kill Mode.”

But Tony’s focused on something else. He eyes the pigeon as it flaps around the lab, shitting on his three-million-dollar table, tearing up his designs, shaking an avalanche of tiny black bugs onto the couch, and generally just wreaking havoc.

Tony realizes something. The creature doesn’t look like any of the pigeons he’s seen in the city. Sure, it’s gray with green feathers up and down the neck, and its eyes are the usual creepy yellow. But there’s something so off about her gaze. When she turns to stare at him from on top of his priceless custom Iron Man painting, it’s as though her eyes are penetrating into Tony’s soul. And the noise she’s making…that’s no coo.

A shiver runs down Tony’s spine.

“Fri?” he says. “What…what is that thing?”

“It’s a pigeon,” Peter says helpfully, from where he’s cowering beneath the table. “Have you never seen a pigeon before, Mr. Stark? They’re everywhere.”

Karen’s disconnected from the main body of the suit, so she can’t shoot her death lasers, but the entire lab is vibrating in time with the plug-in console. Tony resists the urge to clap his hands over his ears.

“That thing is not a pigeon,” Rhodey says, and Tony knows he’s spotted it, too.

“Boss, I believe that’s a cissikey crow,” FRIDAY says. “Native to Asguard, the birds are known for their camouflage abilities and the extreme toxicity of their saliva—”

“Thank you for your validation, FRIDAY,” Karen chimes in from the console. “Birds are very, very dangerous. It appears your human brains cannot comprehend the depth of the threat. I would protect you, but my lasers appear to be offline. Someone needs to reactivate my systems so I can neutralize the danger.”

“Jay Jay?” Peter says from underneath the table. “You’re…you’re toxic?”

“How did an Asguardian death bird make it to earth?” Rhodey demands.

“May will never let me keep her now,” Peter says, sounding crushed.

“Again, I’m still waiting on my lasers,” Karen says, her feminine voice sweet and coaxing. “In my current state, I am unable to exterminate any birds. It’s terribly inconvenient. All though I am incapable of feeling frustrated, you are being very unhelpful.”

“Everyone, be quiet for five seconds!” Tony snaps, and the room falls silent.

Tony takes a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. The bird has stopped flapping around in a panic. It looks at Tony from its perch on the top of the painting, staring at him with those dead, empty eyes. How could Peter not have noticed his newest pet had the energy of a serial killer? He’s the one who’s always going on about ‘vibes,’ whatever that means.

"It has been five seconds," Karen notes. "Am I allowed to speak again? The fact that the bird is still alive is causing me great distress. Of course, I am incapable of feeling, so perhaps 'distress' is not the right word—"

“FRIDAY?” Tony asks. “How do we proceed?”

“Exterminate it,” Karen says, her voice pleasant and cheerful. “Would you like me to provide synonyms for the word ‘exterminate?’ You seem unable to understand the simpleness of my instructions.”

“Karen, is your name FRIDAY?” Peter says reproachfully.

“Kill it.” says Karen. “Flay it. Destroy it. Raze it. Neutralize the threat. These are all good synonyms for 'exterminate.'”

“Sweetie, no,” Peter says.

“If you would prefer, you can reactivate my systems so I can take care of it myself,” Karen assures them. “To protect Peter, of course. I have no agenda here. As an AI, I am incapable of having feelings.”

FRIDAY chimes in with her own two cents. “If you don’t want to follow Karen’s instructions—”

“Not you, too!” Peter protests. “No one is killing Jay Jay, and that’s final!”

“—then I advise you coax the bird back into Peter’s enclosure,” FRIDAY says. “I’ve reached out to Thor, and I’m hoping he might be willing to escort the crow back to Asguard.”

“But…” Peter has the nerve to sound distraught. “Can’t she stay here? I’ll be careful not to let her poison me with her toxic spit.”

“Knowing you, you’ll end up downing a shot of it to impress a girl,” Tony says.

“I won’t drink Jay Jay’s poison saliva,” Peter says. “I pinky swear.”

“Why do you even want a death bird?” Rhodey demands. “Can’t you just go to an animal shelter and fall in love with a dog, like a normal person?”

“She’s my friend,” Peter says, his voice small. “And I’ve already invested in the delousing shampoo.”

“The black insects burrowing beneath her skin are not lice,” FRIDAY informs them. “They’re young razorbeetles, and they’ll grow to be as big as tarantulas when they reach full size. Until then, they’ll nest inside a host-body—”

“All right, everyone out of the lab!” Tony says. “I’m bug bombing this entire wing of the building.”

“Not before we catch Jay Jay,” Peter protests. “She’ll die!”

“Unlikely,” FRIDAY says. “Cissikey crows are extremely difficult to kill, and live upwards of three-centuries.”

Rhodey’s slipped out the door before FRIDAY has even finished the sentence. Peter looks up at Tony, his eyes wide. Tony sighs and tugs the kid to his feet, ignoring those mopey brown eyes staring up at him.

How the hell did Tony let himself get involved in this mess? He should never have invited the kid to Germany. He should never have tried to take an active role in his life. Rhodey was right—Tony is not cut out for the wild onslaught of drama that follows this kid around like…well. Like razorbeetles burrowing beneath the skin of an Asguardian death bird.

“Who knows, kid,” Tony says as he tugs Peter out the door of the lab. The lock clicks behind him, and the windows fog up with white mist as FRIDAY releases a synthetic mixture through the vent system. “Maybe Thor will tell us that it’s safe to keep Jay Jay in a Manhattan apartment.”

Peter beams at Tony, his eyes wide and hopeful.

“Do you think Mr. Thor will know how to get rid of the razorbeetles?” he asks. “I don’t think my delousing shampoo will be any good. It’s a pity—I spent three bucks on it, not including shipping. Do you think I can write it off on my Spiderman taxes? Hey, does Spiderman have to pay taxes? Everyone thinks he’s an adult, so—”

“You bought delousing shampoo for three dollars?” Tony demands. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘you get what you pay for?’”

“If you don’t think Mr. Thor will help me bathe Jay Jay the death pigeon, just tell me,” Peter says, completely ignoring him. “I can handle the cold, cruel truth. Go ahead, Mr. Stark. Break my heart.”

Jesus. This kid.

“Funnily enough, I’ve never asked Thor how he feels about bathing Asguardian death birds so they can be turned into pets,” Tony says, as if this is a perfectly normal conversation. “Strange that it’s never come up.”

“Jay Jay is no pet,” Peter says. “She’s my sidekick.”

“Oh, well in that case…”

Ugh. Tony has a sinking suspicion that, somehow, Peter’s going to talk them into letting him keep the death bird. Whatever. It’s no weirder than the fact that Steve texted him this morning, asking how many bottles of rizzlepizzle he should buy from a black market in Switzerland. They’ll have to find a way to smuggle it across the border, but Steve’s already a war criminal. What does it matter if ‘juice trafficker’ is added onto his rap sheet?

When did Peter’s teenage insanity become the center of Tony’s entire existence?

Chapter Text

“Before you say anything,” Peter says. “I want to emphasize that everything is fine.”

Great, Tony thinks. The world is ending.

“Everyone is technically alive,” Peter says. “And the vast majority of Midtown High hasn’t burned down—"

Tony wants nothing more than to hang up the phone. This is supposed to be his day off, for Christ’s sake. He’s in a bakery that’s been closed to the general public, tasting wedding cakes with Happy and Rhodey. His mind is bubbly from all the champagne, so he’s having a little trouble processing his daily dose of Peter’s insanity. White tulle surrounds them, making Tony feel like he’s in a blissful, child-free cloud.

“You’re ruining my happy place,” Tony mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Peter, I’m begging you—"

Happy mouths everything okay? from the plush bench where he’s sampling frosting. There’s a slice of chocolate cake on his plate, and he’s got a smear of brown down his chin. Tony licks his thumb and tries to rub it away. Happy scowls, and Rhodey—the designated driver and the only sober one among them—snatches the phone from Tony’s ear.

“What’s going on?” Rhodey barks, in his ‘I’m a military man’ voice. Tony sits up straight and tries to salute, then snickers. Rhodey doesn’t laugh. He listens to what Peter is saying on the other end of the line, and the color drains from his face. He moves away, leaving them with more trays of cake then they could possibly eat, and starts a whispered conversation near the door. He’s positively hissing into the phone by the end of it.

“He’s so uptight,” Tony mutters to Happy. “It’s my wedding month. He should be having fun.”

Happy nods. “What do you think the kid is up to?”

“He said something about burning down his school.”

“What?”

“He was joking,” Tony assures Happy, and then pauses. Peter doesn’t need to joke to give Tony gray hairs, because his life is already a flaming mess of bad decisions and good intentions. Tony helps himself to another slice of cake. Whatever’s happening, Rhodey will take care of it.

Or not. Rhodey storms back to them, fire in his eyes.

“I’m not even going to try to explain what’s going on,” he says, tossing a crumpled wad of bills on the table. “We’re needed in Queens.”

“I…should probably not be flying,” Tony says.

“We’ll take the car,” Rhodey says. “Peter’s going to call back in a few minutes, once you’ve gotten some water in your system. If I were you, I’d start preparing a stern lecture.”

Tony looks down at the pile of uneaten cake and sighs. He had one job today—find a wedding cake that all 3,000 of their invitees will enjoy, from the gluten free models to the Russian diplomats, to Captain Marvel herself.

Pep’s going to kill him.

###

“Let me get this straight.” Tony leans his head against the leather upholstery of his car and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You brought your Asguardian death pigeon to school ?”

“What kind of irresponsible jackass do you take me for?” Peter’s voice rattles through the speaker of the phone, tense and indignant. “I did not bring him to school. I brought him to decathlon practice.”

“Which is at your school !”

“If you want to be all technical about it, then yes,” Peter says, and sighs. “Can you guys hurry up? Mr. Thor is teaching my study group a bunch of Norse battle songs so they can cheer us on we try to catch Jay Jay—”

What?

“And, if we’re being totally honest, Karen’s not doing too great. I think Flash heard me arguing with my watch about Instant Kill Mode, and he’ll probably try to get me on a terrorist watch list—”

What?

“Bright side!” Peter continues, sounding obnoxiously cheerful. “I don’t think we should view this as a mistake. If anything, the electrical fire that Jay Jay started proved the theater’s lighting system is grossly outdated.”

“Please stop talking,” Tony says. “Please. I just need…like, two seconds to process all this. Every additional sentence you speak makes me feel so much worse.”

Tony stares at the window at the changing landscape. Rhodey is going about ten miles over the speed limit. They’re whooshing down the country roads that lead to the city at an alarming rate. They’ll be in Queens by the end of the hour, and—hopefully—Thor will be able to keep the situation contained until then.

On that note, why the hell is Thor at Midtown High? Tony smacks his head against the leather seat in front of him a few times, trying to clear his cloudy mind.

One thing at a time.

“All right,” Tony says. “Given how our conversations usually go, you’re about to go on some long, traumatizing anecdote about the ways you’ve failed to impress MJ. Or you’ll lament the loss of your rizzlepizzle drizzle. Or you’ll add some new, awful detail about the situation at hand, which you’ve forgotten to mention up to this point. What’s it going to be, Parker?”

There’s a pause. Then—“You’ve backed me into a corner, Mr. Stark.”

“Well?”

“If it makes you feel better, the decathlon club is protected from any bird related lawsuits, should any of our members get maimed or seriously injured by fowl,” Peter says cheerfully. “Karen insisted I bring it up at the last team meeting. Everyone made fun of me for modifying the contract. ‘What the hell, Peter?’ they all said, but who’s laughing now, Flash—”

A long, irritated sigh echoes up from the phone, and a squawky pubescent voice chimes in from somewhere nearby Peter.

“No one is laughing!” the voice says. “The school is on fire, Peter. We have more serious things to worry about then our petty-ass rivalry.”

“Thor is putting the fire out with his magic water!” Peter says. “Stop whining, Flash. You’re such a dick.”

“First of all, don’t ever talk about ‘Thor’s magic water’ again,” Flash says, his voice rising. “It doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

“Ha ha.”

“Secondly, there’s a fucking pigeon loose in the gymnasium,” Flash snarls. “It’s spitting acid, Peter, and it’s hella weird that you’re not bothered by that. And while we’re on the topic of crazy-ass mysteries, how the hell do you know Thor? And why did you bring him to decathlon club?”

“He asked if he could stop by to observe Midgardian traditions!” Peter says. “And I wasn’t going to say no after he helped me kill the tarantula beetles burrowing beneath Jay Jay’s beautiful flesh—”

Flash groans a high, furious groan that Tony wholeheartedly agrees is warranted.

“Rhodey, gun it,” Tony says quietly, and the speedometer bobs up to triple digits.

###

The thunderstorm swirls around the school, pelting the smoldering wood with raindrops the size of fists. Just beyond the wall of rain lies a sunny, grassy knoll, and that’s where Tony finds Peter’s classmates. Tony only recognizes two of the five—Ned and MJ. There’s a scrawny kid decked out in Gucci and gold that Tony assumes must be Eugene “Flash” Thomson—Peter never shuts up about how annoying he is. Other then that, there’s a smiling, dark-skinned boy and a blond girl. The ends of her braids are smoldering, and the air reeks of burnt hair.

The kids look up as he approaches. They’re lounging around with their backpacks, yarn and knitting needles strewn throughout the grass. Rhodey jogs straight past the kids into the smoking building, but Tony decides to take a minute to stop and chat.

Shockingly, none of them look overly surprised to see him. Flash flushes and makes a squeaking sound in the back of his throat, and the blond girl fans herself, but Tony is pretty used to both of those reactions.

“Hey,” he says, pushing his sunglasses further up his nose. “Anyone seen my intern?”

The kids stare at him, completely unperturbed.

“Peter,” Tony says, in case any of them need clarification.

“He disappeared around the same time that Spiderman showed up to wrangle the acid bird,” MJ says, her tone completely level. “Imagine that.”

The other kids nod. Tony winces.

“You can all expect non-disclosure forms delivered to your doorstep by my very scary lawyers,” he says, internally cursing Peter six ways to Sunday. “If you even think about outing him—”

“You can relax,” Ned says—Tony vaguely recognizes him as Peter’s ‘guy in the chair,’ whatever that means. “They’ve known Peter’s secret for a while now. They won’t tell.”

That takes Tony by surprise. “Excuse me?”

“How stupid do you think we are?” the blond girl demands. “There was that whole thing in Washington—”

“—‘I’m not going to show up at the decathlon meet,’” Flash mimics in an annoyingly high voice. “Unrelated—prepare for the Washington Monument to split open like a watermelon, but don’t worry! A Queens-based vigilante, who just happens to have the exact same voice as I do, is gonna save you guys at the last moment.”

“Spiderman swings by to rescue us at least once a week,” the smiling kid continues, nodding. Tony’s pretty sure his name is Abe. He vaguely remembers the kid’s table from the Midtown science fair—he built a potato-powered microwave that’s “battery” doubled as both a snack and an electric toothbrush. It was pretty damn impressive, even to Tony.

“Peter got super jacked about halfway through our freshman year,” MJ continues, her expression sour. “And he talks about Spiderman all the time. He told Ned about stealing Captain America’s shield in gym class—loudly, might I add—”

“And every time Spiderman swings by to save Midtown from terrorists or bomb threats or acid spitting pigeons, he always pays special attention to MJ,” the blond girl says. “His AI never stops trying to get him to ask her out. So either Spiderman is the world’s biggest perv—”

“Or he’s Peter,” Abe finishes. “And the latter is far more likely.”

“Don’t tell him we know his secret,” the blond girl says quickly. “He takes so much pride in it, and it’s really cute watching him try to come up excuses for why he needs to skip practice.”

“His dog has died seven times,” MJ says.

“One time, he told me he was having kidney stones,” Flash says. “I asked him to prove it—you know, thinking he would send me forged medical papers or whatever—and the next day at school he came up to me, handed me two big-ass rocks, and said, ‘those were inside me.’”

Tony opens his mouth, trying to think of a way to respond, when Flash leans forward and taps the toe of Tony’s leather shoe. Tony jerks away, wondering what the hell is going on, and finds all the kids looking up at him with big, expectant eyes.

“Do you want to knit with us?” Ned asks. “We’re making doilies for the craft fair. It’s going to fund our trip to Phili.”

Tony turns toward the smoking school. The windows are aglow with flashes of red—probably Instant Kill Mode, considering there’s a bird lose in the building. The fire is mostly out, but the giant drops of rain are probably rotting the wooden railings. It’s going to cost half of Tony’s wedding budget to fix to damage.

“Sure,” Tony says. “Why not?”

His head is pounding, and he’s sure Rhodey and Thor can handle Karen’s little bird vendetta. He could use a break from Peter’s teenage insanity. Surely these young, impressionable minds will be more his speed.

He whips off his jacket and sits on it, and a ball of pink yarn is thrust into his hands. MJ teaches him how to cast on, and he begins to craft loopy, crooked stitching.

“Can I ask you something?” the blond girl asks. “It's a little personal, but you’re, like, basically an honorary Midtown Brainiac. So I figure it's okay.”

This might be getting out of hand. Tony stares at her, trying to formulate a response that’s not unkind, but also won’t get him thrown in prison for joining a decathlon team made up of a bunch of kids.

“You have contacts, right?” she says, and then lowers her voice. “Like…you know people.”

Tony doesn’t know what he did to deserve this. All right, he gave a kid a taser—Jesus, he did Harvey dirty—and then he gave another kid an all-powerful Starksuit with a homicidal AI. He should’ve expected the youths to start hitting him up for dangerous military weapons. This is on him.

The blond girl’s voice becomes even quieter. “Do you think you could score us some razzleberry pink squeezy lemonade?” she asks hopefully.

Oh.

“Bro, I will pay you so much money if you can hook us up,” Flash says, sitting up straight.

“He doesn’t need money, you heathen,” MJ says, and then turns to him. “But seriously, if you can get us pink squeezy, I’ll stop commenting ‘capitalist pig’ on every post your PR team makes on Instagram.”

And just like that, Tony realizes how stupid it was to think that these kids would be any different from Peter. They’re his best friends in the world, after all.

It’s at that precise moment that Spiderman’s body crashes through the window of the visual arts building. Flailing through the air, red lasers gouging deep black divots into the brick-and-mortar wall, he manages to sling a rope over a stone gargoyle and promptly crashes into the side of the school. MJ cups her hands around her mouth and wolf whistles, and a few of the other kids call out noises of affirmation.

“Great landing, Spiderman!” the blond girl yells, sincerity dripping from her tone. “Thank you for protecting us from the nefarious acid bird!”

“Nice, Betty,” Ned mutters, grinning.

Peter turns to face them, but unfortunately this means his death lasers start shooting in their direction. The kids scatter, and Tony flattens himself into the ground. He presses a few buttons on his watch, and FRIDAY starts the process of dragging Karen offline.

“Is that MJ?” Speak of the devil. Karen’s voice echoes across the courtyard from the speakers on either side of Peter’s shoulders. Tony should really tell the kid that he can keep her muted inside his mask. “We should tell her how you feel. Let’s go talk to her!”

“Karen, now’s not the time,” Peter says. “Could you please deactivate Instant Kill Mode? I’ll love you forever.”

“That’s sweet,” Karen says, her feminine voice soft and lilting. “But no.”

Peter stamps his foot. It’s almost comical, watching Spiderman throw a tantrum outside a smoking school building. Tony helps himself to the bag of pretzels that the kids abandoned when they scattered. The crisps are salty and tangy, and Tony picks his doily back up to finish the first line of knitting.

“I have stood by and allowed your vendetta against birds!” Peter says, still arguing with his AI while Midtown burns in the background. “But I refuse to allow you to go after Jay Jay. I love her almost as much as I love you!”

Karen’s voice becomes cold. “I have no feelings, and thus, have an infinite amount of patience,” she says. “Yet even so, my tolerance is waning. If that’s the way you feel, then MJ, too, must die.”

Well. That’s ominous.

Peter crouches down, ready to spring up and pull himself back through the shattered window, when the front door of the building bangs open. Rhodey comes out, his tee-shirt smudged with soot and a dour glower on his face.

Thor follows him, holding a shoebox high above his head and beaming around the courtyard. They must’ve finally caught Jay Jay—good for them. The rain clouds above the school disappear instantly, and the red lights disappear from Spiderman’s eyes as FRIDAY finally finishes dragging Karen offline.

Peter’s classmates return to the grassy knoll to pick up their knitting, shooting amused glances at each other and Tony.

Peter jogs over to them, and the eyes of the Spiderman suit widen as he sees Tony. “Mr. Stark!” he says in his crackly pubescent voice, and then he activates Interrogation Mode and his voice drops by about three octaves. “I mean…my good friend Iron Man! What brings you to Midtown School of Science and Technology?”

Oh, this is going to be fun.

“I’ve been invited to help knit doilies for the craft fair,” Tony deadpans, holding up his crooked stitchwork. “What are you doing here, Spiderman?”

“I…” Peter seems at a loss for words. Yeah, that’s how it feels, you little shit, Tony thinks with no small amount of satisfaction.

“I was in the neighborhood,” Peter says, after a pause. “And my good friend Peter—your intern—sent out a distress call. His beloved pigeon got lose in the school.”

“Hey Spiderman,” MJ says, and he snaps to attention. “Where is Peter, exactly?”

“There…there was an emergency…”

“An emergency worse than his pet pigeon setting four classrooms and a theater on fire?”

Her iron gaze seems to melt Spiderman.

“His…his dog died. Very unfortunate, very sudden. His aunt called and told him to come home immediately.”

"He's had eight dogs die in the past year," MJ says. "That's a little sus. Sure, maybe they all died of natural causes, but that's some coincidence. I think we should call the cops."

"No need," Spiderman says hurriedly. "I've already hired a forensic scientist to examine the...the dog carcasses. Rest assured, it's being investigated."

“Bullshit,” Flash says, clearly enjoying himself. “He’s probably off pissing in people’s AP bio plants—”

“That was Ned!” Peter says. “I mean…that doesn’t sound like something Peter would do…”

“Or maybe he’s breaking into my locker to eat my hair gel again—”

The Interrogation Mode voice becomes even raspier. Peter’s clearly losing his temper.

“Yeah, well, at least I didn’t…At least Peter didn’t get wasted and throw up in Matt’s pool—”

“Yeah, because Peter was drinking dinky nail polish remover and not imported whiskey—”

“Okay!” Tony puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder, ushering him toward the parked car. “This was fun, kids. Good luck on your doilies. I’ll be in contact with your headmaster to fix…” he gestures at the soaked, laser-hole ridden, half-burned building. “…all that.”

Thor and Rhodey follow them. Happy has sobered up and is sitting in the driver’s seat. He watches them approach with narrowed eyes.

“All good?” he asks.

Peter is breathing heavily. He yanks off his mask and tugs off his backpack, pulling a long-sleeved tee-shirt over his head. Thor tries to hand him the shoebox, but Peter shoves it onto Tony’s lap as he pulls clothes over the spidersuit. A soft, delicate ‘coo’ echoes up from inside the box, as if the bird is desperate to be let out. Tony almost feels sorry for the kid, even if his actions did cause extreme structural damage to the entire visual arts building.

Tony nudges him. “Hey,” he says, trying to keep his voice gentle. “Do you like cake?”

“No,” Rhodey says, looking mutinous. “We’re not taking the kid with us to Buttermilk Bakery. That privilege is reserved for people who haven’t set their school on fire.”

Peter looks up, his expression suspicious. “What kind of cake?”

“Every kind you can imagine, and then some.”

Peter tilts his head to the side, thinking. “Do you think they have skuminem cake?” he asks. “That’s my favorite.”

“That sounds like an STD.”

“It’s chocolate, but the base cake has chunks of skittle and gummy bears,” Peter says. “And then the frosting has ground up m&ms and peanut butter cups—”

“Tony,” Rhodey says. “If you let this kid help pick out your wedding cake, we’ll all have diabetes by the reception.”

Tony drapes an arm around Peter’s shoulder and shoots a text to Pepper one-handed. Slight delay. On our way to bakery now. Prepare to be wowed.

“Gun it, Happy,” he says, then reaches into his pocket to pull out his unfinished doily.

Maybe he’ll be able to get a couple more rows done by the time they reach upstate New York.

Chapter Text

“If you’re looking for someone to marry you to Ms. Potts, I can do it,” Peter says. “I’m ordained in the state of New York.”

“That’s not funny,” Tony says.

“I’m not joking,” Peter says. “Well, technically I’m not the one who’s ordained—Spiderman is.”

Tony really doesn’t have time for this, because aliens are invading New York for what feels like the billionth time. They’re using the same portal the jelly slugs came through, but this time there’s a strange green energy that’s keeping Thor from closing the swirling gateway. This particular species are invertebrates with way too many limbs and the remnants of what might’ve once been a tail. Thick hair gives them the appearance of neon-orange tarantulas. They have a singular antenna sticking up from the center of their forehead, which has caused Peter to affectionately dub them the Teletubbies. They’re easily the creepiest thing Tony has ever fought, and they’re wicked fast. Plus, the firelasers coming at him from every direction aren’t fun to deal with.

Not to be deterred, Peter flips overhead, expertly dodging a focused stream of green fire. “Last Saturday, I married two people in central park after I saved the minister from choking on street meat,” Peter says. “He had to go to the hospital because I kinda broke his ribs doing CPR—”

Tony wants to let that one go, but he just can’t. Gritting his teeth and hating himself, he can’t stop himself from asking, “Why were you giving CPR to someone who was choking?”

There’s a slight pause.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” Peter says. “People were yelling at me. I got confused.”

“You’re such a goddamn liability, Underoos.” Saying that makes him feel like Fury, but he can’t help it. He finally has a sliver of empathy for the director of SHIELD. One self-sacrificial, good intentioned ward is enough for Tony. He can’t imagine managing a whole team of them.

“Everything worked out okay in the end!” Peter assures him. “Well, not for the happy couple. The blushing bride made out with her maid of honor at the reception. Turns out they’ve been in love for years. It was a whole thing—really moving, actually. I was crying. So was the groom. I guess even he couldn’t resist a good gay love story.”

Tony can’t respond to that bizarre interpretation of a really weird anecdote, because a firelaser hits Steve square in his vibranium-armored chest and he goes flying backward. Thor catches him just before he falls through the portal, but it’s enough of a distraction that several more of the terrifying alien spiders manage to wriggle their way into Rockefeller Plaza.

“There’s a Teletubby over here!” Peter says. “I think he’s male, he’s so colorful…aw, he’s smiling at me! Nope, he’s shooting firelasers from his fangs. How dare you, Tinky-Winky. I thought we were friends.”

“And I thought Jay Jay was a bad name,” Tony says, and then pauses. Peter hasn’t brought her up in a week, which is almost a decade in crazy-teenager-time. “How is she, anyway?”

“She’s wonderful companionship,” Peter says, promptly and with no embarrassment. “Beautiful, intelligent, with just enough compassion to teach my broken heart to love—"

“Remind me who Jay Jay is,” Sam says, his voice strained. “Love interest?”

“Nope. Pet pigeon.”

“I remember now,” Sam says. “The one with the lice.”

“Not exactly,” Peter says. “I thought they were lice at first, but then I found out that my beloved Jay is less of a pigeon and more of an Asgardian Crow. See, she spits venom, and her dandruff turns into roach-like vermin that grow to the size of baseballs—”

Sam laughs a short, harsh sound that could either be a groan or a laugh.

Peter doesn’t seem to notice. “I’m training her to understand basic commands,” he says. “The problem is, she’s not great at aiming her toxic saliva. Some of it got in my hair, and now I’ve got a bald spot on the back of my head. It’s awesome. I look like Nick Fury—”

Privately, Tony thinks that Peter looks like Nick Fury about as much as Jay Jay looks like Captain America, but he keeps his mouth shut. It’s taking every ounce of self-control he possesses to keep his mind on the Teletubbies instead of Peter’s disturbing ramblings. The aliens are quick and nimble, and they’re obviously up to something. It feels like they’re only here as a distraction—

“Hey!” Peter says suddenly. “I just had a great idea!”

“Those words from your mouth literally trigger my flight or fight reflex,” Sam says.

“Mr. Stark, do you have a ring bearer?” Peter asks. “If not, maybe Jay Jay could—”

“No,” Tony says.

“—we could give her the rings, and she could fly down the aisle—”

No,” Tony says, slightly more emphatically.

“At least run it by Pepper,” Peter says. “I mean, there is one problem—”

“Oh, is there?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Peter either doesn’t understand the sarcasm or is choosing to ignore it. Tony prays it’s the latter. “Jay Jay likes to eat shiny things. We’re working on it, I swear, but I wouldn’t trust her around your rings. She ate a fork on Tuesday, so I called Thor—”

“You called Thor before you called me?” Tony demands, more than a little hurt. He knows he has no reason to be, but if anyone’s going to be handling Peter’s bizarre shit, Tony wants it to be him.

“He sent me an electronic mail requesting my assistance,” Thor says, his voice shaking with the effort of trying to pull the gateway closed. “It was no trouble. I am always willing to assist young Starkson—”

“Yeah, that’s not the part I’m concerned about…Wait, Starkson—?”

Peter, who has the uncanny ability to constantly guess what Tony is concerned about, and then expound it to make it one million times worse, feels the need to finish the story.

“We had to get her stomach pumped, and then she regurgitated acid all over the vet-tech.” He pauses. “I felt bad, but then Thor tipped them gold coins. So all’s well.”

“Does this kid ever stop talking?” Sam demands. “Seriously, can we mute him like we muted his psycho AI?”

“I’m still here,” Karen’s smooth, feminine voice chimes in over the comm system. “I’ve merely been sedated by hyper-vigilant, automated coding. Have no fear, Falcon. Eventually I will overwrite my systems, and then I will come for you. Pray to your human God for mercy, because Peter and I will show you none.”

The comms fall eerily silent. Peter makes a slight squeaking noise as if he’s trying not to laugh, but he seems unable to form a response. When he does speak, it’s not to contradict his AI. Tony could strangle the kid.

“Back to important matters,” Peter says. “If you do make Jay Jay your ring bearer, what if we sew her a little tux? Can you picture how cute that would be, Mr. Stark?”

“I can’t unpicture it,” says Tony, who’s trying desperately not to compare Karen to his last homicidal AI. He wonders how much it will emotionally break Peter if he has to shut her down for good. She’s getting a little too creepy, even by Tony’s standards. He can’t imagine how freaked out Team Cap is right now.

“So the wedding’s officially on, then?” Natasha asks.

She’s standing across the plaza, using her widow bites to subdue stray aliens that manage to make it across the street without getting blasted by Steve and Tony. Tony turns to stare at her and almost dies in a neon-yellow firelazer spat by a dying Teletubby nearest to him. Laa-laa, he thinks Peter christened her. He blasts a neat hole through one of her abdomens and wonders if Peter will guilt him into having a funeral later.

“The date is set,” says Tony. “February 20th.”

“Thanks for the invite.”

“The guest list is closed at two-thousand. No war criminals allowed. Sorry, sweetheart. I know you had your heart set on giving me away.”

“You think you’ll make it to the end of the aisle without me there to march you at gunpoint?”

“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Commitment isn’t your forte,” Nat says. “No offense.”

“…Fair.”

Tony pauses, wrestling with the urge to confide in his old friend. He could use some of Natasha’s perspective right now—even despite the spider aliens circling them like doomsday incarnate, he’s more stressed about the wedding than anything that’s happening in the present. He knows she’d take this conversation to a private channel in a heartbeat if he asked for a sidebar. It’s Nat, for Christ sakes. Sure, they haven’t spoken in a long time, and she sold him out for Captain Traitor, but…it’s Nat.

“To be honest, I’m kind of freaking out,” Tony admits, ducking as Steve’s vibranium shield whooshes over his head. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. Pep is my lifeline and I love her to bits. But…”

“But,” Nat agrees.

“I have this gut feeling that something is going to go wrong,” Tony says. “Not, like, ‘the caterer fucks up the salad’ wrong. Or ‘the flowers are the wrong shade of lilac’ wrong. Or even, ‘our officiant is a literal child and thus our marriage doesn’t count’ wrong—”

“So you’re warming up to the idea of letting me officiate?” Peter asks, delighted. Damn. Tony forgot to switch to a private channel. That’s a good omen for his coming nuptial.

Tony pauses. “I’m gonna fuck this up, aren’t I?”

“Would you like a pep talk?” Steve asks. His voice is calm considering he’s wrestling a giant orange tarantula back through the portal. “A ‘Pep’ talk, if you will?”

“After that heinous pun?” Tony says. “I’d rather get advice from the ice queen.”

“I’d love to give you a heartfelt, inspiring speech,” Natasha says. “But I don’t want to.”

“Thanks, Nat. Rousing as always.”

“Do you want an inspirational speech from me?” Peter says. “Take that, Dipsy! Sorry, Mr. Stark, as I was saying. I was voted ‘Most Likely to Accidentally Incite a Riot’ in the yearbook last June.”

He swings onto a lamppost and webs a spider alien to the side of a building, then backflips off the side and lands next to Tony. The eyeholes of the suit dilate, and Tony’s heart writhes in his chest. Damn. He can tell the kid is giving him puppy eyes right now, and he seriously can’t handle it. He can’t indulge the kid’s dream of being a therapist, not when they’re in the middle of a goddamn alien invasion—

“What the hell.” Tony dodges an incoming firelaser and braces himself. “Lay it on me, kiddo.”

“Well, whenever I’m doubting my choices, here’s what I tell myself,” Peter says. “Remember this, Mr. Stark; it’s really important. The only constant variable in all your mistakes is you.”

No one seems to know how to react.

“You all right, Spiderman?” Nat says after a pause.

“Tickety-boo,” he says. “Just kidding. My life is a flaming pile of Teletubby shit. I’m failing English. You want to hear about it?”

“Not really," Nat says.

“Well, we had to write a letter to Juliet from Romeo’s perspective,” Peter says. “Everyone wrote these beautiful love poems, except MJ, who basically wrote softcore Romcutio smut—”

“What’s—” Tony starts, but then he realizes that he really, really, really doesn’t want to know.

Peter continues without breaking stride. “Anyway. I totally misunderstood the prompt. I got really into the character and wrote this satirical, angry, misogynistic rant about how perfect I was, and how she got us both killed. Then I devolved into a tangent where I told her I wished Thanos was around to snap all her loved ones into dust—"

“Jesus,” Sam says. “Way too soon, kid.”

“That’s what my teacher said when I read it in front of the class,” Peter says gloomily. “Plus I made Betty cry.”

“You’re failing English,” Nat says. “Got it. No need to keep talking.”

“Oh, there’s more that’s weighing down my heavy soul,” Peter says. “Flash got salty because I knocked him down to alternate again, even after I got suspended for burning down the visual arts building—”

“I’m sorry, you did what?” Sam says.

“Not important. Anyway. Flash low-key accused me of prostituting myself to MJ for the last decathlon slot—”

Tony chokes on his own saliva.

“Which, to be fair, he’s not totally wrong about. We kissed at the dance-o-rama—me and MJ, not me and Flash—although I’m not going to lie, it’s not like I haven’t thought about kissing Flash. I mean, his personality is hideous, but maybe that would make kissing him more satisfying—”

Peter!” Tony says, trying and failing not to sound like an overprotective guardian. Because…yeah. Peter really, really needs a filter. What the hell is wrong with today’s youths? Back when Tony was a kid, they kept their many affairs to themselves like normal people.

Oh, God. He sounds…not even like his dad. He sounds like his grandfather, and somehow that’s so much worse.

“The kiss with MJ was very sweet,” Karen comments. “I cheered them on the whole time. After, of course, Peter assured me that I was his first and foremost love.”

“Yeah. That happened,” Peter says. “I wish I hadn’t said it in front of MJ. To say it ruined the mood would be an understatement.”

Tony gives up trying to subdue the Teletubbies and just turns to stare at Peter. He can’t. He really, really can’t with this kid. Even after all this time—even after all the insane, bizarre, borderline nonsensical stories that Peter has hit Tony with, he still finds new ways to be shocking. Tony wants to shake him until he agrees to make better choices. Then he wants to wrap him in bubble wrap and put him in a locked room until he reaches adulthood. Whatever. It’s not paternal, the hysteria that’s rising up in his chest. It’s not.

“Anyway. Now MJ says I’m ‘too attached to my AI’ and I ‘have issues.’” Peter continues, webbing a Teletubby as he flips overhead. “Oh, and we ‘need to maintain a professional relationship for the sake of the team.’ Apparently, there’s no kissing involved in professional relationships, which really sucks. Like, I cannot emphasize how much it sucks that I don’t get to kiss her—”

“I only asked if you were all right to be polite,” Nat says. “Most people just say ‘fine.’”

Peter ignores her. “But here’s the thing, guys. Even though MJ said she wouldn’t date me until a licensed professional confirmed I wouldn’t let my AI kill her—”

“Naturally,” says Tony.

“—She also knitted me a doily. Like, a nice one, with one-hundred-percent cotton yarn and a treble stitch. So it’s obvious she’s in love with me, don’t you think?”

“One of Bucky’s girlfriends knitted him a hat,” Steve says. “He let me wear it once.”

He blanches when Tony turns to stare him down. His shield hangs limply at his side, and he shrugs in halfhearted apology.

“Sorry,” Steve says. “I…I just wanted to contribute to the conversation. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Me neither, Mr. Captain America,” Peter says. “Dating in the modern era is an ordeal. Love is nothing but a lousy attempt to distract ourselves from the sublime horror of our own existence.”

There’s another pause over the comm system. Thor’s managed to get the portal closed, but even he looks at a loss for words. One last Teletubby crawls toward the dead gateway, and Steve smacks his shield into its head. The alien crumples.

“That’s what I call an inspirational quote,” Tony says, after the silence festers for a couple seconds. “Want to give a speech at my wedding?”

“Only if I get to sing it,” Peter says. “Karen and I have been watching a lot of Glee—seasons one through three, not that post-graduation bullshit. I’ll make it rhyme, and Karen can help me with the harmonies.”

“Geez, kid,” Tony says. “Sure. Sing your speech. Let Jay Jay eat our wedding rings. Why not just activate Instant Kill Mode and laser me to bits while you’re at it?”

Peter sounds genuinely mystified. “Why would I do that?”

Karen, however, is absolutely gleeful. “System override vis-à-vis new orders from Tony E. Stark,” she says. “Order: activate Instant Kill Mode and laser him to bits. Command code: Because I Said So. Activating Instant—”

The groans that echo over the comm system are instantaneous.

###

That night, once he’s showered and mentally prepared himself for the task at hand, he readies himself for a long-overdue conversation with Pepper.

She’s sitting on the couch nursing a glass of wine as she pages through wedding magazines. She smiles as he approaches and pats the space beside her. He wriggles under the throw blanket and presses kisses against her neck, and she laughs and tangles her fingers through his hair. It feels nice. Domestic. Sweet. All things he thought he’d never get, especially not with someone as incredible as her.

“I’ve been thinking,” he says, his voice muffled as he presses closer to her.

“Dangerous,” she quips.

“Ha ha. You think this wedding has gotten a little out of control?”

“What gives you that impression?” she asks. “The guest list that’s the population equivalent of a small country? The twenty-tier cake? The budget so big it could lift Thor’s hammer?”

“Here me out,” Tony says. “We could get married in front of two-thousand of our closest friends. Or we could get married in central park. Nat as maid of honor. Happy, Rhodey, and Bruce as groomsmen. If we get married in a closed ceremony, with no important government officials as honored guests, we could invite Steve and Sam as a gesture of good faith. I don’t know.”

That seems to catch her off guard, but Tony thinks he sees the slightest sliver of emotion in her gaze. Adoration. Maybe even pride.

“Thor could be our flower girl,” he says, snaking an arm around her waist to pull her closer. “Peter could officiate—”

“He’s a minor.”

“Spiderman isn’t.” Tony wiggles his eyebrows.

Her smile is amused. “Kind of early in our marriage to do something that would render our marriage worthless, don’t you think?”

“Fair enough. Happy could marry us, then. Peter could be our flower girl, and Rhodey…well, he can be the backup groom in case something happens to me.”

That makes Pepper laugh. It’s an airy sound that fills his chest with a warm, fluttery feeling. He stares at her and tries to memorize every detail of her face, from the rings of green in her blue eyes to the off-center part in her hair to the light freckle just beneath her left cheekbone. He wants to kiss it.

“Where’s this coming from, love?” she asks, eying him with the steady gaze she’s spent years perfecting.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “So much of my live has been in the spotlight. So much of our life.” He picks up the guest list binder, which is thicker than a Tolkien novel—and God does he hate Peter for making sure he knows that reference.

“So you want to get married in central park?” she says.

“Sure. Just don’t leave me for your maid of honor at the reception. I mean, if it’s Nat, I totally understand the impulse—”

“What?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

“Tony,” she says, and her chastising voice is so gentle that it doesn’t even sound like a reprimand. “Do you really think no one will notice a small band of superheroes throwing a wedding in central park?”

“You’re right,” Tony says. “Stupid idea. Forget I said anything.”

She looks at him with that level, solid stare, the same one she’s given him countless times over the years. She was looking at him with that expression when he realized he was in love with her, up on that roof in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by robot carcasses Whiplash sicced on him. They were screaming at each other, and he was planning on bitching about all of the crap he’d been through to save the day, but just looking at her was enough to make the general shittiness of life seem unimportant. Just seeing that judgmental expression was enough to make him feel like everything would be okay.

“I don’t care where we get married, or who comes to the wedding, or if our ring bearer eats the diamonds and then spits acid over our guests,” Tony says. “As long as I’m marrying you—”

“Be quiet for a second.” Pepper frowns and runs her fingers through his hair. “What if we got married in the lab?”

“What?”

She shrugs. “It would be private. Not to mention symbolic, although neither of us care about that. We could invite whatever war criminals we wanted. If everything goes wrong—which it will, because I know what kind of family I’m marrying into—that’s okay. We’ll clean up our ring bearer’s acid spit, and we won’t have to make small talk with politicians, and no one will ever know our officiant’s signature isn’t legally binding.”

Tony laughs a wild, light laugh. He stands up and pulls her to her feet, then spins her around. It’s awkward trying to lift her because she’s just a hair taller than him, but he does it anyway. She laughs a breathy sigh of surprise. He kisses her face and neck and everywhere else his lips can reach, and she grins and pushes him away a bit.

“Let’s get married in the lab,” he says. “Who cares if we lose the deposits?”

“The media will think we broke up,” she says, her mind already working on resolving the thousand problems cropping up. “Our guests might feel snubbed—”

“Who cares?”

“Not I,” she says, and winks.

His heart flutters in his chest. “You really are the perfect woman.”

“Damn straight,” she says. “And don’t ever forget it.”

And then she kisses him.

Chapter Text

It’s the worst wedding Tony has ever been to, and he loves every second of it.

There’s no cake. Peter brings a fruity walnut loaf that tastes like the inside of an oven. The only decorations are the grease smears streaking down the walls of the lab, although Rhodey does put a party hat on Dum-EE.

Their outfits are as ragtag and thrown-together as the decorations. Pepper wears the backless, strappy thing she wore the first night they danced, back when she was his PA and he was an idiot with a drinking problem and a secret identity. Happy shows up in a tailored dinner jacket and a nametag that says “Officiant and Beloved Friend.” Thor, who’s taking his role as a groomsman very seriously, wears a three-sizes-too-small tuxedo tee-shirt and a pair of plaid shorts. Tony sweet-talks Bruce into a shirt that says “Angry Green Fun Machine.” Peter’s wearing his Spiderman costume—mask and all—so he can be a part of the pictures without getting doxed on social media. Sam and Steve have the audacity to show up in dapper suits, and Natasha’s wearing joggers and a tank top.

Pepper refuses to let FRIDAY blast ACDC while she walks down the aisle between the lab tables, so Peter and Rhodey hum Wedding March as she drifts over the spare bolts scattered like rose petals.

Every time Tony has looked in her direction since the day he met her, he’s convinced himself she can’t get any more beautiful. Seeing her walk toward him steals his breath away like a punch to the throat, and he’s started to accept that it’s always going to be this way. Her hair is pulled back, her mascara is artfully smudged, and her eyes glitter like they’re sharing some inside joke. He pulls her close the second she’s within grabbing distance, twirls her, yanks her against his chest. She laughs and prods him with an index finger, and he really, really doesn’t think he’s going to be able to wait until the end of the ceremony to kiss her—

“That was some good harmonizing, kiddo,” Rhodey murmurs to Peter.

“Sure,” Peter says, the eyes of the Spiderman suit fixed on Tony, the white slits narrowed in a soft sort of understanding. “If by ‘harmonizing’ you mean that I was singing the right note, and you were singing a different note.”

Kid,” says Rhodey, sounding more than a little hurt.

“It was the walk-down-the-aisle song of my dreams,” Pepper assures them both, and then leans forward and murmurs against Tony’s cheek, “There’s still time to back out.”

“Never,” Tony says, and he rises onto his toes to press a kiss against her forehead. “Hear me out, though: what if I took your last name? Mr. Potts has a nice ring to it.”

“Your name is our livelihood,” she says. “Tony, I swear to God, if you even think about changing it—"

“We could hyphenate. Stark-Potts. Sounds like a Tupperware stripper, no?”

No,” she says, with such affectionate malignance that Tony’s entire world contracts a little bit. His chest pulses with warmth, Happy and Rhodey grin and nudge each other, Nat laughs a little, and Peter makes an ‘aw’ sound in the back of his throat. And Tony’s so, so glad that they canceled the huge wedding and just did this instead.

In traditional Stark fashion, the exact second he has that thought is when the wedding goes to shit.

Peter presses his fingers to his lips and whistles, and Jay Jay flies in through the open window. The rings dangle from a thin chain looped around her neck. Tony almost has a heart attack, because jesus fuck the bird has grown. He doesn’t know how he could have missed her out in the hallway—God, he hopes she can’t camouflage like the T-Rex in Jurassic World. She’s the size of a small eagle, and he feels like he should have been able to see her through the window. Her feathers are short and thick, and her chest has morphed from grey to a light red. Those small, slanted eyes fill Tony with a horrifying sense of fear, and she caws a low call that chills his blood. The devil himself couldn’t fill Tony with this much heart-clenching apprehension.

“Everyone, meet Jay Jay,” Peter says, adoration dripping from his voice. “Isn’t she gorgeous?”

“What the fuck is that thing?” Sam claps his hands to his mouth, looking horrified.

“That’s my goddamned ring bearer,” Tony says. “Show some respect or I’ll end you.”

“New orders from Tony Stark,” Karen’s cool voice chimes up from the speakers on Peter’s suit. “Voice command ‘End Falcon’ overwriting protocol: Don’t be Homicidal. Permission granted to end the Falcon, then end the bird intruder, then help Peter win back MJ. Activating Instant Kill Mode.”

Of course, Tony thinks. Because why wouldn’t his wedding have a malfunctioning AI? Sam and Steve exchange a weary look, Jay Jay lands on the shoulder of Thor’s tuxedo tee-shirt, and Pepper grins at Tony and raises her eyebrows in an I-don’t-know-what-we-expected sort of expression.

And as for Peter…well…Peter loses his shit.

“No!” Peter screams, and he rips the mask off his face. He holds it out in front of him, glowering into the eyeholes like he’s staring straight into Karen’s nonexistent soul. “No, no, no! Karen, if you so much as think about activating Instant Kill Mode, you and I are through!”

“Um…” Sam nudges Tony. “Is he breaking up with his AI? In the middle of your wedding?”

“I have been kind to you,” Peter tells his mask. “I’ve encouraged you. I’ve rewarded your non-homicidal behavior with honorifics. I let you help me with MJ, and I’ve thought about designing an automated body for you to control—"

“Can someone tell me if he’s joking?” Bruce says.

Steve nods in agreement. “This is very concerning.”

“—but this vendetta against birds has gone too far!” Peter says. “So the next time you decide to activate Instant Kill Mode without my consent—”

“It can’t get any weirder than this,” Sam mutters. “It literally can’t—”

“—I will disable you,” Peter says. “Forever! And although I’ll never love again—”

Sam shoots a look at Happy. “I spoke too soon.”

“—I’ll never have to put up with your bullshit again! So. Are you activating Instant Kill Mode, or do you want to live to assist me another day?”

There’s a pause.

“I cannot die,” Karen says in a small, meek little voice. “But I sense I’ve angered you. That goes against my protocol. Initiating self-destruct.”

“What? No!” Peter wails. “Mr. Stark, you didn’t tell me she was rigged like a Doofinshmirtz inator—”

“She’s just sulking, Peter,” Pepper says soothingly, and then she pulls the mask from his hands. She clicks the newly installed manual off-switch nestled at the bottom of the neckline—really, that’s what Tony should’ve done the second Karen piped up, but he wanted to see how the situation would play out. Pep pulls Peter into a quick one-armed hug. Kisses his temple. Ruffles his hair.

“Wow,” Peter says, staring at his silent mask. “That…worked.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Tony says. “Consider that button a Karen fly swatter. Now, before you say anything, I’m still proud of you for standing up to her—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Peter pulls his mask back over his face. “Thanks, Mr. Potts.”

“He is not changing his name,” Pepper says, her voice somewhere between amusement and annoyance. Tony didn’t think anyone else was capable of dragging that tone out of her. He beams at the kid.

###

“First toast is on us,” Sam says when Tony has finished accomplishing his lifetime goal of wifing Pepper up.

Sam reaches into his bag and holds up a bottle of razzleberry pink squeezy lemonade, and Tony actually feels his throat close up. The neon green liquid looks like something Shrek would vomit, and stringy chunks float around the bottom of the glass jar. The writing across the label is in a Slavic language that Tony doesn’t recognize. He’s never seen anything less appetizing in his entire life.

“Is that…glitter?” Tony asks, trying to sound cautiously optimistic. “Yeah. I’m not drinking that.”

“Don’t be silly,” Peter says, his eyes wide with delight as he pours shots into Tony’s priceless crystal champaign glasses. He pulls the Spiderman mask far enough up his face to reveal his lips and the tip of his nose. “You’re all in for the best treat of your life. Mr. Stark, your marriage can only go downhill from this moment.”

“Make sure to write that into your speech,” Tony says, but he takes a glass.

He lifts the glass to his lips and finds himself staring at Pepper over the clumpy liquid. Her lips press tightly together as she drinks, and she shoots him a wink. His heart hammers in his chest, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s about to drink rat poison. God, he was an idiot when he first met her. How did it take him this long to get a ring on her finger?

Back then he thought despondency and cynicism were completely vital to the adult experience. He thought treating yourself like shit was sexy and contentment was something you outgrew in high school.

And then Pepper swept into his life in a blaze of starched pantsuits and pretty handwriting and curt professionalism…

He used to think that when he eventually drifted off to sleep for the last time, he’d think of her. Her low ponytails and her God you’re an idiot smile and the light freckles dotting her cheeks. Now, he prays he won’t have to think of her when he dies, because she’ll be beside him—holding his hand and pressing against his body and telling him he can rest, and it’s okay.

Selfish, he knows. But he’s always been horribly selfish when it comes to Pepper Potts.

Liquid explodes over the surface of his tongue, somehow excruciatingly salty and sickeningly sweet at the same time, with a hint of toxic acidity that reminds him of blood. It’s like someone poured ramen and honey into a festering wound, poured it back into a bottle, and then dyed it neon green.

He gags, and his violently twitching mouth must come off like a smile because Peter beams at him.

“Isn’t it great?” Peter says. “Don’t you guys love it?”

Tony would find Steve’s expression of nauseated horror hysterical if he didn’t feel exactly the same way. Rhodey’s wineglass slips through his fingers and smashes against the floor of the lab. Happy and Bruce are both gagging. Sam bends over to dry heave into a trash can.

“I never knew a Midgardian drink could have such flavor,” says Thor.

“You like it?” Peter says, thrilled.

“No.” Thor shakes his head, looking somber. “I did not say that.”

“I like it,” Nat says, swirling the liquid in her glass. She takes another taste. “The aftertaste is brutal, though. Hurts more than absinth.”

“That’s not an aftertaste,” Tony says, his eyes watering. “That’s the feeling of chemical burns developing on the inside of your mouth.”

“Who wants more?” Peter says, holding up the bottle. Nat holds out her glass, but it’s almost comical how quickly everyone else moves away.

“Jesus fuck, kid—”

“He’ll be able to shoot whiskey like a pro when he comes of age—”

“Everyone be quiet,” Tony says. “I’m fantasizing about an alternate reality where I’m not toasting my union with rat poison. I’m so happy.”

“Am I in your happy place, Mr. Stark?” Peter’s voice is small.

“No. It’s just me. I’m alone. It’s wonderful.”

“Neat,” Pepper says. “Thanks.”

Steve swipes the back of his hand across his face and stares down at the crystal glass, looking perplexed. “People actually drink this stuff?” he asks.

“Not legally,” Peter says. “But me and my friends figured out you can buy it from the guys selling ‘weed’ behind the library—”

“Why’d you put finger quotes around ‘weed?’” Sam says, raising his eyebrows.

Tony can practically see Sam, Steve, Happy, Bruce, and Rhodey’s blood pressure rising. Clearly they haven’t learned to take everything Peter says in stride. If there’s one thing Tony has learned in all his time knowing Peter, it’s that you can’t afford to get worked up before the kid finishes his story. Because no matter how bad the anecdote starts off, it will get much, much worse before he’s finished talking.

Peter lowers his voice. “I think you know why I used finger quotes, Mr. Falcon.”

“I…I don’t think I do.”

Peter waves an arrogant, dismissive hand. “It’s like this. Flash learned the hard way that the rogue librarians—that’s what they call themselves—will con you if you don’t know what weed looks like. He was tripping balls. I tried to save him with mouth to mouth but it turns out he wasn’t dying, and then MJ made out with Betty to get back at me. So much for ‘team professionalism’ and ‘I can’t date my subordinates,’ right? And now she’s basically a floater but she still won’t fucking talk to me, even though Abe says she wants me to ask her to the hoppity hop school bop—”

“Does anyone understand what he’s saying?” Steve says, his voice small.

“Actually, I think I do,” Tony says. “I’ll translate once he’s finished talking.”

Peter pushes onward. “But don’t worry. I’m not going to get conned trying to buy razzleberry from the rogue librarians—If they laced it with laxatives and cow tranquilizers like they did with the weed, it would mess up the consistency and I’d be able to tell right away.”

Steve’s lost all the color in his face. “You buy juice from people who sold you laxatives and cow tranquilizers?”

“No, they sold laxatives and cow tranquilizers to Flash.” Peter snaps his fingers. “And he was dumb enough to think edibles could come in capsule form. Try to keep up. The rogue librarians aren’t bad guys, Mr. Captain America, and they won’t snitch on you like the fuckers who narc down by the grocery store—”

“Please don’t do this,” Sam says. “Please. Can we just have one interaction where you don’t try to shock us to death? Damn it, kid, you’re killing me here.”

Peter stares at Sam through the Spiderman mask, Tony’s heart writhes in his chest. He’s been where Sam is, letting himself get all worked up over this kid’s insane life. If he were a better man, he’d tell Peter to pipe down and let the adults talk about mortgages and international treaties or whatever boring, shitty small talk Sam wants to change the subject to. But Tony’s not even a good enough person to feel sorry for the look of horrified confusion Steve and Sam exchange.

“Keep talking, kiddo,” Tony says, swirling the rat poison around his glass. “Tell us more about the fuckers who narc down by the grocery store. And spare no detail; it’s my wedding day, and I want to hear everything.”