The mission is going well until Peter kisses Mr. Stark.
In his defense, it seemed like a good idea in the moment. And the guard who’d been seconds from catching them downloading Osborn’s files is now backing away while stammering apologies, so it got the job done.
But then the guard is gone and the kiss is over—if you can even call it a kiss when Mr. Stark was stiff and unmoving the whole time—and Peter has to deal with the consequences.
“Sorry,” he says, stepping back. “I heard him coming and I panicked.”
Mr. Stark clears his throat and nods, rubbing the back of his neck. “Which ‘really old’ movie did you steal that move from?”
The one that plays in my head every night before I fall asleep is not a good answer, but Peter blanks out on every single movie he’s ever watched. “Like, all of them? Every spy movie in existence?”
“Right.” Mr. Stark clears his throat again, which means he’s feeling really awkward. “Well, guard’s gone, so I guess congratulations are in order. Good work, kid. You saved the day. Back to the party.”
The flush of pride Peter gets at the praise sputters and dies when Mr. Stark refuses to meet his eye.
Mr. Stark doesn’t look directly at Peter for the rest of the night. Especially not when Norman Osborn corners them, thrusting a champagne glass into Peter’s hand and slinging an arm around Mr. Stark’s shoulders as he informs them they don’t need to keep their “relationship” a secret.
“Should’ve known you wouldn’t waste an invite to one of my parties on any old intern,” he tells Mr. Stark with a wink that makes Peter want to take a shower. “Nice to see you’re finally moving on.”
Based on Mr. Stark’s strained smile, he likes Mr. Osborn’s wink even less than Peter does.
“I’m trying this new thing where I keep my private life private,” he says through clenched teeth. “So if you could keep this to yourself that’d be just swell.”
“Of course, of course.” Mr. Osborn gives Mr. Stark a slap on the back. “But I hope you bring him to OsCon, Tony. What happens on the island stays on the island, right?”
Another gross wink, and then he’s gone.
“Okay,” Mr. Stark says after the silence has stretched on for too long, “I think we can ditch without drawing attention. Let’s get this data back to Fury.”
Mr. Stark strides toward the exit without waiting for Peter’s reply. As he goes, Peter hears him mutter something about how this all better be worth it.
It is worth it, so there’s that.
Too bad it’s two days later and Mr. Stark still won’t look directly at him, which is super awkward when they’re sitting across from each other at a small conference table.
“Am I boring you, Mr. Parker?”
Oh, whoops. He’s been staring into the space to the left of Mr. Stark’s head feeling sorry for himself rather than following Nick Fury’s briefing. The briefing about the highly illegal, deeply unethical, and frankly disturbing human experimentation Norman Osborn has going on.
“Um, no, not boring, Mr. Fury, sir. Sorry. I’m paying attention.”
“Good. Because this is where you come in.”
“Me?” Last time he checked, Peter’s job here was done. He helped Mr. Stark get the incriminating data. Now S.H.I.E.L.D. takes over.
“Yes, you,” Fury says with a growl that suggests Peter definitely missed something. “As I was saying, it appears Osborn plans to meet with black market dealers at OsCon next week. Seeing as you managed to secure yourself an invitation, you’re going with Tony. We’ll have agents on the scene, as well”—he nods at a grim woman in the back who Peter doesn’t know—“but since he knows Tony, you can get close. Listen for anything suspicious.”
He puts emphasis on the word listen. Fury is under the impression that Peter has super spy skills because of his enhanced senses, even though he has explained a bunch of times that it doesn’t really work like that. He hears everything, which makes it hard to focus on any one thing, especially when he doesn’t have his suit to help filter.
He opens his mouth to protest, but then realizes he’s being offered a free trip to the most exclusive scientific convention in the world. With Mr. Stark. Who, yeah, is kind of mad at him right now, but still, he’s not going to turn that down.
“Okay,” he says. “Yeah. Got it. I can do that.”
“Now that we have that settled, how about you actually pay attention to the rest of the briefing?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. Sorry. Paying attention. One-hundred percent.”
And he does. It’s better than focusing on how much Mr. Stark isn’t focusing on him, anyway.
Peter has to sprint down the S.H.I.E.L.D. hall to catch up with Mr. Stark after the meeting.
“Mr. Stark! Come on, Mr. Stark, you can’t keep ignoring me.”
Mr. Stark turns on his heels, swift and sharp, mouth pulled into a strained line. His eyes, hidden behind purple glasses, hover somewhere above Peter’s head. “I’m not ignoring you, kid.”
“That would be more believable if you would actually look me in the eyes.”
Mr. Stark whips off his glasses and finally—finally—meets Peter’s gaze. It’s a move that used to leave Peter breathless, somewhere between scared and turned on. Now it…well, now it still pretty much has the same effect.
There are some things you don’t grow out of.
“Well?” Mr. Stark says. “I’m looking at you. Happy?”
Peter’s not sure “happy” is the right word for what he’s feeling, but he nods. “Are we going to be okay? For this mission?”
“Never better.” Mr. Stark gives the most forced smile Peter has ever seen. “What could possibly be wrong?”
“Do you want to…talk about it? Like…plan how to act? Or…”
The sunglasses are back on before Peter can finish the sentence.
“Nah, Pete. You know me, improvisation or bust. Don’t want to take the sparkle out of the performance, yadda, yadda, yadda. Now, don’t you have a class to get to or something?”
“It’s spring break.” Which is definitely something Mr. Stark knows. They talked about it during the last mission, before Peter made everything weird. “Also, it’s Saturday.”
“Then you, young man, should be out enjoying yourself.” Mr. Stark turns, waving over his shoulder. “Seriously, go on, get out of here, have some fun. I’ll see you next week.”
But Peter stays where he is for a solid minute, trying very hard not to feel like he’s ruined everything.
The next time they see each other is on Mr. Stark’s private jet, en route to Osborn’s private island in the Bahamas.
Once, any one of those words would have blown Peter’s mind. Life has since recalibrated his scale for what counts as mind-blowing, but getting to go to OsCon is still really cool.
“I mean, I know we have to focus on the mission and everything, but I’m really hoping we get to go to some of the presentations,” he rambles, waving the list of speakers. He does really want to go to some of these talks, but even more than that he wants to push through the faint whiff of awkwardness that lingers in the air. Mr. Stark chose the seat across from Peter, which is a good sign, but he hasn’t touched him once since he got on the plane, not even a punch on the shoulder to say hello. “I hear people normally use OsCon to reveal their most cutting edge research, is that true?”
Mr. Stark smiles, finally, the kind that reaches his eyes and makes his entire face turn soft and fond. He takes the list from Peter, flipping through it.
“Wha…what?” Peter asks after a few beats, when no words accompany the smile. “Did I say something stupid?”
“No. Not at all.” Mr. Stark puts the list down. “There aren’t many people in my life who get as excited about science as I do.”
Peter’s cheeks heat, because that sounds like a compliment, and he can’t not blush when Mr. Stark compliments him. Another thing that hasn’t changed with time. He looks into his hands; Mr. Stark doesn’t need to know exactly how much he wishes this whole fake relationship cover wasn’t fake.
“That’s a good line,” he says, mostly to have something to say. “You should use it if anyone asks why we’re together or whatever.”
Mr. Stark scoffs. Ouch.
“Or not,” Peter corrects, glancing up. Mr. Stark’s expression has gone pointedly neutral. “Sorry, does that not sound good? I don’t really know…” Wait. Finishing the sentence, I don’t really know what sounds good to adults is going to remind Mr. Stark how young Peter is, which won’t help anything. “I thought it sounded good.”
Mr. Stark’s mouth twists into a sardonic grimace. Or maybe a sad one. Kind of hard to read.
“It does sound good, Pete.” He sighs. “It sounds great. But I’m pretty sure no one is going to need to ask why the old, recently-divorced billionaire is with the gorgeous, young college student.”
“You’re not old,” Peter says automatically, before the word gorgeous catches up with him, sending a shiver down his spine. Then the rest of it hits him, and his stomach drops in a far less pleasant way. “Wait, is that why you’re mad? Because I'm making you look bad?”
Mr. Stark raises an eyebrow. “Haven’t we been over this? I’m not mad.”
“You’re something. I’m not stupid, Mr. Stark. You’ve been acting really strange since it happened.”
Mr. Stark seems to consider this—or maybe it’s Peter he’s considering. He tilts his head, eyes searching. Then he sniffs and nods. “You got me, kid. That’s exactly it. I don’t love the idea of being the total cliché.”
As if the tabloids haven’t been filled with stories about the rotating cast of socialites, models, and actresses Mr. Stark’s gone out with in the year since his divorce. Though, to be fair to Mr. Stark, all of his dates have been over thirty. Not that Peter’s been keeping track or anything.
(Okay, he totally has. Obsessively. Whatever.)
So, yeah. Being with a twenty-year-old intern probably looks a lot worse.
“Sorry,” Peter offers. “I didn’t think about that.”
Mr. Stark waves it off. “You can’t be expected to think about the impact to my reputation when you’re making split-second strategic decisions. I sure don’t.” Then—maybe because of the distress that is surely clear on Peter’s face—he adds, “Seriously, kid, I’ve been called worse than a cliché. It’s fine. And now it’s all out in the open and we’re fine, too. Right?”
As if to prove the point, he leans forward and pats Peter’s knee. “Right?”
“Right,” Peter repeats. “We’re fine.”
The spot where Mr. Stark’s hand landed burns long after he pulls away, but yeah, totally fine. Nothing about this is going to be difficult at all.
By the time they arrive, the welcome party is well under way. They don’t even have time to stop by their room first. Instead, they hand their luggage to one of the hassled employees staffing the giant building Osborn has erected for this conference. Like a hotel, but free.
(“He’s a giant show-off,” Mr. Stark explains, pulling a face at the massive fountain in the middle of the lobby. “With no taste.”)
The party is in a reception hall with swooping ceilings and a marble floor. Peter expected a sedate, boring affair, but half the guests are already hammered.
“I didn’t know science nerds drank this much,” he comments as they survey the scene.
“Aren’t you in college with a bunch of science nerds?”
“…Good point. I didn’t know they drank this much at professional conferences.”
Mr. Stark rolls his eyes. “This is less a professional conference and more Osborn’s yearly attempt to make himself the most popular boy at band camp. Anyway, let’s split up, see if we can spot anyone out of place.”
Peter has to physically prevent himself from doing a double take. “Split up?”
“Yeah, cover more ground that way. See you in…let’s say an hour?”
For a brief moment, Mr. Stark’s hand is on Peter’s upper arm. Then, just as suddenly, he’s melting into the crowd, waving at someone he knows. Peter’s heart sinks. He’s not sure what he expected from this mission, but being abandoned within the first five minutes wasn’t it.
Mission. Right. He has a job to do here. He doesn’t get to sulk because he’s been ditched on what is decidedly not a real date. Mr. Stark has a point: they can cover more ground this way. It’s perfectly logical. Perfectly logical, perfectly fine, and his feelings aren’t hurt even a little bit.
Forty-five minutes later Peter is in a corner, nursing a Shirley Temple and feeling useless. So far, the only thing he’s learned is Osborn has really great catering (seriously, the shrimp cocktails are amazing). It’s hard to tell if something is out of place when he’s never been to one of these things before. How would he even know?
“Stark is here. Is that going to be a problem?” someone says in a thick Jersey accent.
“Don’t worry, he’s here for the conference, comes every year. Besides, we have eyes on him.”
Oh. That’s how he knows.
He scans the room, searching for the source of the conversation. Everywhere he looks there are people in button-downs and dresses, laughing, chatting, clinking glasses together. It’s hard to focus.
No. He can do this. Think, Parker. The voices were low, whispered, not that far away…
He spots a man he vaguely remembers from the dinner party where they stole the data, bending close to a second man who bursts with muscles that don’t look at home in his blazer. That’s gotta be them.
Peter does his best to focus in on the conversation, but it’s as if the more he thinks about listening, the louder the entire room becomes. Fuck. He misses his suit. If he could just filter—
“Tony Stark abandoned you already?”
Peter starts, whipping around to discover a woman with long brown hair and piercing grey eyes has appeared next to him. He was so focused on eavesdropping he didn’t even notice.
“You are his date, right?” the woman insists. “Peter Parker?”
“I—well, yeah.” Peter takes a deep breath and forces himself to concentrate. Eavesdropping is a lost cause until he can get rid of this woman. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Julie,” she says, extending her hand. “You looked lonely.”
“No,” Peter says as he takes her hand, shaking it only briefly. “Not lonely. Not abandoned.”
Okay, totally a lie. But he’s not going to make Mr. Stark look bad.
Julie tilts her head, indicating the empty space beside him. “Really? Because I haven’t seen him with you all night.”
“I, um. Networking.” Yeah, that makes sense. Peter tries to add more confidence to his voice as he continues, “I’m a scientist, too. We, uh, we get to spend time with each other all the time, but it’s not every day you’re in a room with so many smart people.”
“Uh-huh.” She looks amused. Why does she look amused?
“Why do you care?” Speaking of… “How do you even know who I am?”
“Tony Stark’s new man? You’re the most interesting person here!”
Great. He glances back to his targets, who have started walking away. Double great. “It was nice to meet you, Julie,” he says, launching himself away from the wall. “But I just spotted—uh, someone I want to talk to. Um, yeah. Bye!”
But he doesn’t wait. He strides away, eyes trained on the two men, who are almost to one of the exits. Picking up the pace, he weaves through the crowd with a precision born of his spider-powers. He’s closing the gap when he’s pulled up short by a hand on his shoulder.
“Peter Parker!” says a familiar smarmy voice. Osborn. Frustrated, Peter spins to face their host.
“Mr. Osborn, sir. Hi!” He forces himself to smile. “Thank you so much for having me. This is amazing. Like, so amazing. I can’t wait to see the island during the day.”
Osborn smiles back, and Peter shivers. There’s something so off about him. Maybe it’s because Peter knows what he’s up to.
“Delighted to have you. But where’s your worse half? I haven’t seen him since he arrived.”
He knows when they arrived. Interesting. He could keep track of all the VIP guests, but after the conversation Peter overheard, he has a feeling that’s not it.
“He’s, um—” Peter really needs to get better at lying. “He’s around somewhere.”
“Don’t tell me he’s ditched someone so handsome.” Osborn leans in, smile turning conspiratorial. “You don’t have any idea where he ran off to?”
Suddenly a warm hand is on Peter’s neck, gripping him tightly; Mr. Stark is at his side. Their hips bump as he pulls Peter closer. “I went in search of some real food. Seriously, Norman, when are you going to learn guests need more than hors d’oeuvres after a long flight?”
Osborn snaps away, straightening. “Room service is available around the clock. But you’ve been here enough times to know that.”
“Ah, forgot.” Mr. Stark waves the hand not clutching Peter’s shoulder at his own head. “Mind’s going. Old age, you know. Good thing I have this one to keep me young. Right, baby?”
It takes Peter a moment to realize that baby is him. “R—right. That’s what I’m here for.”
“I bet you are,” Osborn says, but his focus is on Mr. Stark. His expression is not friendly.
“Speaking of long flights, it’s time for us to call it a night, don’t you think, Pete?”
“Yeah. I could really use some sleep,” Peter agrees. Anything to get away from their suspicious host.
Mr. Stark navigates them away with barely more than a goodbye nod to Osborn. As soon as they’re out of hearing distance, he leans close, lips brushing against Peter’s ear as he hisses, “Don’t say anything until we get to our room.”
Peter nods his understanding and lets Mr. Stark lead the way, trying not to focus too hard on the hand that never leaves his neck.
As soon as they get into the room—which is huge, with bright colors everywhere to go with the tropical island—Mr. Stark spins Peter, shoves him against the door, and kisses him.
Peter gasps in surprise, lips opening, confused but wanting, pressing forward—
As quickly as it began, it’s over. Mr. Stark pulls back, expression blank.
“There are cameras in the room,” he explains. “Bugged, too, but I’ve got F.R.I. running a program that masks our conversation with banal small talk. It’s harder to fool the cameras, so we might have to play it up a little.”
“Oh,” Peter says, because what else is there to say? He tries not to feel disappointed. Of course Mr. Stark hadn’t suddenly decided to kiss him for no reason. “That’s really creepy. The cameras, I mean. Not you kissing me, that was…fine.”
“Ouch.” Mr. Stark puts a hand to his heart. “I normally get better reviews thanfine.” His expression twists. “Wait. Please strike that from the record. Inappropriate.”
Peter nods even though he doesn’t think it’s inappropriate at all. “Is this where you disappeared to? Check out the room?”
“Yep. I figured spotting anything notable in that crowd was a lost cause.”
“You’d think.” Peter ducks his head, trying to hide the proud grin that threatens to burst over his face, as if he’s a kid who did a good job on a homework assignment. “But actually….”
An hour and a half later they’ve exchanged all the info they know, sketched a plan for the next day, ordered and eaten a couple of burgers—Mr. Stark was right that the hors d’oeuvres, while delicious, weren’t enough for dinner—showered, and are now faced with the daunting prospect of going to bed.
The plan had been for one of them to take the couch, but the cameras are a curveball.
“We can get away with no sex,” Mr. Stark explains before disappearing into the bathroom to put on pajamas, “but not sharing a bed would be red flag city.”
The goal is to convince whoever is surveilling them that Mr. Stark is only here in his capacity as a scientist and, failing that, to at least make sure they think Peter is nothing but his unsuspecting date.
Unstated is that if anyone catches on that Peter is more than an intern with hots for the boss, that will raise questions about why exactly he’s in on the plot to bring down a black market deal. And once someone starts tugging on that thread…
“We didn’t think this through, huh?” Mr. Stark says, emerging from the bathroom in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and flannels. It’s a familiar enough sight from weekends spent at the compound, but Peter’s heart still skips a beat when he thinks about slipping into bed next to that.
“Hello? Earth to Peter? I said we didn’t think this through?”
Peter blinks and realizes he must’ve been staring. Way to make it more awkward. “Um, what?”
“This whole thing. Riskier for you than we realized.” When Peter stares at him some more, Mr. Stark sighs. “Kid, you’re an open book. Worry was all over your face.”
Fuck. Well, hopefully some of his other thoughts from the last few minutes haven’t been as obvious.
“It’s fine,” he lies. “Let’s just go to bed.”
Mr. Stark crosses the room, coming to stand in front of Peter. Gently, he takes Peter's hand. “If you want to bail, you can bail. We can fake a fight tomorrow. ‘Tony Stark is an asshole, scares off latest boyfriend’ isn’t a tough sell.”
Does he really think there’s any chance of Peter taking him up on that? “Um, no. We have a job. I’m not going to bail on a job.”
Mr. Stark’s lips twitch into a smile, and his eyes do that thing where they go soft. Fuck, Peter could look at that expression forever.
“Pete, I’m going to kiss you now,” Mr. Stark says. He clears his throat. “If that’s okay with you. Goodnight kiss for the cameras.”
Peter nods, tilting his head up in invitation. This kiss is soft, light, barely there—and unbearably sweet. Over in only a few seconds, but wow, what a few seconds.
He’s still recovering from the experience as Mr. Stark circles the bed and crawls in. Right. Bed, together. Slowly, Peter slides into his side, making sure to leave enough room that they don’t touch.
“Night, sweetheart,” Mr. Stark teases, leaning over to turn out the light.
In retaliation, Peter kicks his shin. “Night, asshole.”
Mr. Stark chuckles as the room goes black, and Peter smiles. At least they’re joking again. That’s got to count for something.
Peter is startled awake with his spider sense going wild; before he can think he’s grabbing a fist flying at his face. He almost shoves his assailant away with all his strength before his brain catches up and he realizes the wrist he’s clutching belongs to Mr. Stark.
“Shit,” he says, letting go and grasping Mr. Stark’s shoulders instead, awkwardly pulling them both to sitting. Mr. Stark stares at him with unseeing eyes, breathing heavily. “Sir? Mr. Stark—are you—?”
Peter shakes him, and Mr. Stark blinks, gaze coming into focus. He glances down, taking in Peter’s hands, then up, to his face. He blinks again. Peter can practically see his mind coming online as his breathing evens out.
“Shit,” Mr. Stark echoes. “Fuck, kid, I’m sorry.”
He tries to pull away, but Peter instinctually tightens his grip. Selfish, maybe, because he loves the feel of Mr. Stark’s shoulders, broad and strong. But also—he knows a thing or two about pulling away when you shouldn’t.
“Nightmare?” Peter asks, though he already knows the answer.
Mr. Stark purses his lips, a muscle in his jaw twitching. He takes long enough to reply that Peter’s pretty sure he’s debating whether he can get away with lying. Finally, he nods.
“Hazard of the job.”
Peter laughs softly. “Yeah, I’m aware. Wanna talk about it?”
“With you?” Mr. Stark flops backwards, landing in his pillows. “Definitely not.”
Peter’s stomach plummets. Right. They aren’t actually dating. He’s not even someone Mr. Stark can open up to, apparently. He’s still just the kid Mr. Stark scooped up in Queens. Stupid to even ask.
He sinks back to his own pillow, closing his eyes. He focuses on the steady rise and fall of Mr. Stark’s breathing, trying to let it lull him back to sleep. With the mix of adrenaline and disappointment pounding through his skull, it’s a losing battle.
Just as Peter’s seriously considering escaping to the bathroom for a change of scenery, Mr. Stark’s voice breaks the silence.
“What do you mean, you’re ‘aware’?”
It’s barely more than a whisper, but it fills the room. Peter has to play their previous conversation back to understand the question. He glances over and sees Mr. Stark staring at the ceiling.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” Peter shifts onto his side. Mr. Stark may refuse to look at him, but this feels like a conversation that deserves eye contact, and he’s going to do his part. “Obviously I get nightmares about…”
About turning to ash. About being buried under buildings, leaped on by aliens, dropped into lakes. About, more than anything, the light going out of the eyes that currently won’t look at him, the breathless weeks spent worrying they would never open again.
“…about stuff,” he finishes.
Mr. Stark’s chest expands, filling with air so he can let out a heavy sigh. “Sorry, Pete.”
“Not your fault.”
A sad smile. “It’s always my fault.”
Oh, hell no. Peter’s not quite sure how this conversation has reached this point when a minute ago he was trying to fall asleep, but he does know he’s not going to let that stand.
“No, it’s not,” he says as firmly as he can without raising his voice. “It’s really not, Mr. Stark.” When Mr. Stark quirks an eyebrow and doesn’t answer, he adds, “Will you look at me?”
Shockingly, the request works: Mr. Stark rotates his head, meeting Peter’s gaze dead on. His eyes shine with reflected moonlight from the window, and for a moment Peter loses track of what’s happening.
“I’m looking, Pete.” Mr. Stark prods.
“Right.” Right? Right. What was he going to say? Oh, yeah: “You don’t get to blame yourself for my problems, Mr. Stark.”
Those eyes get wider, moonlight sparkling across them. “I blame myself for everyone’s problems, kid. It’s kind of my thing.”
“Well, stop it.”
“Would if I could.” Slowly, he rolls over, until his body is facing Peter, too. It leaves their faces close enough that Peter can feel the heat of Mr. Stark’s breath as he continues. “Saving the universe didn’t fix it. Pep couldn’t fix it. Fuck, that stupid therapist Wilson made me see couldn’t fix it. Which was some bullshit, by the way. Who ever heard of mandatory therapy to stay on the team I fund—”
“Stop deflecting,” Peter cuts in, surprising himself with his boldness. Surprising Mr. Stark, too, apparently, because he goes quiet. “Besides, I thought Ms. Lawrence was helpful. She taught me words like deflecting.”
That gets a real laugh out of Mr. Stark.
“Of course you’re better at therapy than me.” He pauses, eyes running over Peter’s face like he’s considering something. Then, quieter, “I’m sorry you have to go through all of it alone.”
Peter almost says he isn’t alone. He has May, and Ned, and even Happy, in his way. But he can’t get the words out, because they’d be a lie, and Mr. Stark knows it. Peter has support, and they’re great, but they aren’t there when he wakes up feeling like his chest is being crushed by a pile of rubble. They aren’t haunted by the taste of dust on an alien planet.
There’s almost no one else in the world who can understand that. Almost.
“Same,” Peter says. “I mean, sorry you have to go through it alone, too.”
You don’t have to, he wants to add. You don’t have to tonight; you don’t have to ever. You can have me.
Instead, he repeats, “Sorry.”
Mr. Stark sighs again, deep, like it’s ripped from his gut, then reaches out and brushes his fingers across Peter’s forehead. Moving a strand of hair, maybe, except he lingers, touch light but insistent. Then he leans forward, placing his lips in the middle of Peter’s forehead.
“Go to sleep, Peter,” is all he says when he draws back. No explanation, just go to sleep. He rolls onto his other side, back to Peter, signaling the conversation is done.
Oh. The cameras. That was probably in case the cameras have night vision.
“Right,” Peter mutters, quiet enough that he hopes Mr. Stark doesn’t hear, and rolls over himself, so they’re back to back. Right.
It takes him a long time to drift asleep.
When he wakes up, Mr. Stark is already out of bed and dressed in jeans and a band t-shirt, sunglasses that Peter knows double as spyware perched on his nose.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” Mr. Stark says, tossing something in Peter’s direction. Peter catches it automatically. A muffin. “You missed breakfast.”
It’s totally casual, as if nothing of note happened last night. Maybe for Mr. Stark nothing had. Peter takes a deep breath. He can’t think about that. They have a mission here.
“You could’ve woken me up,” he grumbles, sliding out of bed and placing the muffin on the bedside table. He can’t even think about eating until he’s at least brushed his teeth. “Did I miss anything important?”
“Eh, not much. But our magnanimous host dropped by to say hello.”
“Yeah. He’s being very attentive. If I weren’t already onto him, the VIP treatment would probably tip me off.”
“Did you see the guys I told you about?” Peter asks as he digs into his suitcase, looking for an acceptable outfit.
“Not that I know of, but your description was a little vague. So how ‘bout you suit up so we can get this party started?”
“Suit up…?” Peter brought his suit, of course, but only for absolute emergencies. “Why…?”
“Bathing suit, Pete. We’re hitting the pool, remember?”
Peter does vaguely recall that being part of their plan for the day, but he hadn’t expected them to actually go swimming. “I don’t have a bathing suit.”
Mr. Stark grins, smug, and points at the hotel room dresser. “Lower left. Get changed, meet me in the lobby in five.”
He blows Peter a kiss as he leaves the room.
Cameras, Peter reminds himself. It’s for the cameras.
The bathing suit Mr. Stark brought fits perfectly, definitely bought specifically for Peter. It’s also Iron Man red, because of course it is. Peter gets half hard when he puts it on, because—well, of course he does. Mr. Stark picked out the fabric that is currently clinging to his most intimate areas. Or at least had F.R.I.D.A.Y. order it or something.
More than that, Mr. Stark knew exactly which drawer the suit was in. He’d been thinking about Peter. About dressing him. About dressing him to get soaking wet.
Okay, maybe he’s more than half hard. He’s aching with want because of something Mr. Stark did because it was practical for the mission. Like the kisses. All for the mission.
(And the whispered conversations, late at night? What was that for?)
(No, he can’t start thinking about that. It’ll drive him crazy.)
“I’m ridiculous,” Peter tells the empty room, willing his erection to die down so he can make it to the pool with his dignity intact. “I’m ridiculous, and this is going to kill me.”
It doesn’t kill him, but it comes damn close.
As soon as Peter walks into the lobby, Mr. Stark sweeps his eyes over him, appraising, and then gives a sharp nod, as if he’s pleased with what he sees. Peter has to hold his towel awkwardly over his lower half because, fuck, things are going to get embarrassing, fast. Fast, and stupidly. Mr. Stark probably just thinks he looks the part—it’s not like there’s anything impressive about his combo of swim trunks, science tee, and flip-flops.
It gets worse when Mr. Stark touches him and doesn’t stop all the way to the pool: hand on his neck, then sliding to his lower back, then around to his hip as they navigate through the crowd of brilliant minds who all seem more intent on having a good time than exchanging ideas.
“Tell me if you spot anyone suspicious,” Mr. Stark murmurs against his ear as they emerge into the bright of the island sun. He lingers, nose pressed against the side of Peter’s head until Peter gives a small nod in response. Mr. Stark kisses his hair before straightening up.
Peter bites the inside of his cheek to keep from making a sound he really shouldn’t. Maybe this was actually better back when Mr. Stark was too upset to touch him.
Fortunately, the pool provides some distraction. It’s way bigger than any pool Peter has ever seen, with curved sides, water that sparkles in the sun, even a swim-up bar.
“Whoa,” Peter says inelegantly, then grins up at Mr. Stark, who still has his arm around his waist. “Okay, I can see why people skip the lectures for this. Though I do want to go see—”
“Dr. Grayson’s talk on the applications of Vibranium to biochemistry, I know.” Mr. Stark presses another light kiss to Peter’s temple. “It’s on the schedule, don’t worry. What my man wants, my man gets.”
He winks, exaggerated.
Yep, not going to kill Peter, but it will definitely come close.
They make their way slowly around the entire pool area, weaving between lounge chairs and chatting scientists, but Peter doesn’t see either of the men from last night. He’s ninety-five percent sure that’s because they’re not here. The other five percent is that he might be too distracted by the feel of Mr. Stark’s body pressed against his side and the warmth of his breath whenever he leans in to point out this famous physicist or that “goddamn moron.”
Not that Peter’s going to say the part about being distracted out loud.
“I don’t think black market dealers hang out at the pool,” he concludes after their second rotation. “Maybe we should check somewhere else?”
Mr. Stark shakes his head, tugging Peter toward the nearest lounge chair. “Do you think they’re going to the talks, instead? Nuh-uh. If we have a chance of catching them, it’s here.”
He says it with a definiteness that does not invite debate and tops the point off by dumping his towel on the chair.
“Come on, kid,” he adds when he notices Peter hovering, unsure. “I didn’t buy you that bathing suit for nothing. We’re getting in the pool.”
“We?” Peter repeats, gesturing vaguely at Mr. Stark’s fully-clothed body. He’s more casual than usual in jeans, but jeans are not a bathing suit.
In response, Mr. Stark pulls his pants down enough to reveal what is unquestionably a speedo. A speedo the exact same color of read as the trunks he bought Peter.
Peter groans. Loudly.
“Your ego is insane,” he accuses, so Mr. Stark knows he sees what he’s done. But he also tosses his towel to the chair. “Fine. Swimming.”
Peter is half afraid they’re going to have to rub each other down with sunscreen, but either Mr. Stark doesn’t care about skin safety or he’s already decided that’s a bridge too far, because as soon as Peter agrees, Mr. Stark strips down to his suit.
“Last one in has to do the dishes for a month!” he says with a grin before racing toward the pool, leaving Peter still fully dressed and feeling like he’s been punched in the gut.
“Do the dishes for a month,” Peter repeats to himself, watching as Mr. Stark cannonballs into the water with the enthusiasm of a kid. That implies their fake relationship involves domestic chores. Living together, or at least spending enough time together that they share dishes frequently.
Is it weird that he really, really wants to share dishes?
And, wow. Now he’s getting upset over a throwaway joke. It’s probably just reflex for Mr. Stark. As far as Peter knows, he hasn’t been in anything steady since Ms. Potts. Domestic must be what his mind auto-defaults to.
None of this is about Peter. He knows none of this is about him. He digs his nail into the pad of his thumb to fight back the tightness in his throat that threatens tears. He’s not this pathetic. He’s not.
He allows himself exactly fifteen seconds to pull it together, then rips off his shirt and heads for the pool.
The water is amazing, cool but not too cold. The drinks are amazing: Peter stays away from the booze because it’s a mission, but his virgin piña colada is delicious. Having Mr. Stark next to him at the bar, hair wet and chest exposed, sipping his own piña colada and regaling Peter and an amused bartender with stories from past OsCons is beyond amazing.
If he’s being honest, Peter only follows about half the stories. Because repeat: Mr. Stark is glistening wet wearing nothing but a speedo. So, like, come on. He’s a little bit distracted by all that muscle. And the scars; some faint and small, others dark pink and gnarly. The one up the side of his stomach makes Peter a little anxious to look at. It reminds him of the metallic tang of Titan’s air, the burn in his throat when he screamed Mr. Stark’s name, watching Thanos spear him on his own weapon.
He wants to lick his way across those scars. Maybe that would transform bad memories into good, or at least show how much it pains him to see evidence of the hurt Mr. Stark has faced. Peter wants to make sure he never hurts like that again, prove that his life is full of the opposite: pleasure, and love, and all the comfort he deserves—
“Kid? Hello? Pete?”
A hand appears in front of Peter’s face. A quick glance around reveals their bartender friend has disappeared to serve someone else, which probably means that Peter’s wandering attention became a lot more obvious.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mr. Stark looks concerned. “This isn’t the first time you’ve spaced out on me.”
“Yeah. I’m just tired. Someone woke me up last night.”
He’s not sure why he says it. Instinct; an attempt to deflect from the obvious fact that he was openly staring at Mr. Stark’s naked chest. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth he realizes it was a mistake, because Mr. Stark flinches, looking away.
“About that. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“No, I didn’t mean— It wasn’t a problem—”
“It was. I was out of line—”
“No, really, it was fine—”
“Am I interrupting a lover’s quarrel?”
They both freeze and turn toward the new voice. It’s the woman from last night, the one who prevented Peter from properly eavesdropping. Julie. She’s somehow managed to sidle up to the bar beside Mr. Stark and is staring them down with an expression that can only be described as predatory.
“Ms. Miller,” Mr. Stark says, voice tight. “I thought you’d moved on from tabloid gossip.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” She flits a fake smile, then gestures at the bartender. “I’m here for Tech Weekly. Strictly above board. Only reporting on the non-confidential presentation.”
Peter’s new to this whole world, but he can tell from her tone that’s not the whole story. Tabloids, Mr. Stark said. No wonder she was so interested in him.
Mr. Stark clearly doesn’t buy it either. “I should hope so. You know how I feel about my private life making the papers.”
“Absolutely fine? Seriously, Tony, your string of post-Pepper models hasn’t exactly been on the DL.” She cranes around Mr. Stark to look at Peter. “Does that bother you?”
Peter tries hard to keep his face neutral. “Your use of ‘on the DL’? Yeah, that bothers me. I find outdated slang very offensive.”
Mr. Stark snorts; an inelegant, genuine sound of amusement. “And now you can see why I’m with him,” he tells Julie. “But if you print anything about him, or us, I will destroy you. FYI.”
Julie shrugs and slides off her stool, sinking into the water. “Must not feel nice to be a dirty little secret,” she says in Peter’s direction. “But at least he hasn’t abandoned you today.”
“He’s not my dirty little—”
But she’s swimming away before Mr. Stark can finish whatever defense he was about to launch into.
“Fuck,” he groans, turning back to Peter. “What did she mean about me abandoning you?”
“She talked to me yesterday. While I was scoping things out. Is that a problem? ‘Cause I haven’t warned May about any of this, so if she’s going to publish something…”
“She won’t.” Mr. Stark squeezes Peter’s knee. The movement sends a slosh of water up his side. “I promise she won’t. I’ll make sure of it.”
Peter drops his hand to cover Mr. Stark’s, squeezing back. “Okay.”
For a few moments, they stay like that, Mr. Stark’s eyes soft and reassuring, Peter’s heart dancing through his chest. Then the bartender returns, frowning at the spot Julie had been occupying.
“Where’s your friend?” he asks, gesturing at the empty seat.
“Not a friend,” Mr. Stark says. “But hey, I could use another piña colada.”
They spend another hour at the pool, to no avail, and have as little luck at lunch. The din of forks scraping against plates and the sharp rise and fall of thirty conversations at once is overwhelming.
“I wouldn’t be able to pick out what they were saying even if I did see the guys,” Peter tells Mr. Stark as they head back to their room for showers before the talk. “Honestly, I’m really useless.”
“You found them before,” Mr. Stark points out. “It’s more than I’ve done. You’re not useless.”
Okay, so maybe he’s not totally useless. But when Mr. Stark gives him a quick peck on the cheek before disappearing into his shower—for the cameras, for the cameras, for the cameras—Peter decides he’s definitely not useful enough to justify what this whole thing is doing to his heart.
“This is your own fault,” he tells his reflection in the full-length mirror that hangs near the closet. His neck is red, and not only with embarrassment. He probably should have worn sunscreen. “You did this to yourself.”
When Mr. Stark emerges from the shower fifteen minutes later, towel around his waist, Peter almost decides the pain is worth it, just to get that view.
And, hey, at least the talk is awesome. And Mr. Stark indulges Peter’s excited ramblings about it as they head out for a “walk on the beach”—that is, checking the perimeter—afterward.
It’s amazingly easy, after all the acting of the mission, to slip into their normal lab patter, bouncing ideas and implications back and forth as they trek along a winding dirt path, surrounded on either side by soaring palm trees. They walk side-by-side but don’t touch, because there’s no one to perform for. The moment would be even better if Mr. Stark reached out and took Peter’s hand, but of course he doesn’t. Even without it, Peter is relaxed for the first time since they got on that jet. The sun is warm, the air smells like the ocean; he’s with his favorite person, talking about science.
It’s not everything he wants, but it never has been. It’s still really fucking good.
“Thanks for going with me,” he says, swaying to knock Mr. Stark’s shoulder. “I know you’ve been to a million talks like that, but it was really exciting for me.”
Mr. Stark replies by knocking his shoulder back. “Told you, I appreciate anyone who appreciates science. Besides, who am I to deny the most brilliant mind of his generation?”
Peter’s stomach swoops. God, sometimes it feels like he could live off Mr. Stark’s compliments. Or maybe drown in them.
“Shut up,” he mutters. “I’m not that smart.”
“Smart enough to win Tony Stark’s heart.”
Peter snaps his head over to Mr. Stark, and is met with a teasing grin. Right. Obviously. “Oh, we’re joking about this, now?”
“I figure that’s better than being weird about it.” Mr. Stark shrugs. “Unless you don’t want me to.”
There’s no logical reason Peter shouldn’t want to joke about it. They’re two friends, pretending to date for a mission. Who wouldn’t joke about that? If he was here with Ned right now, they would think it was hilarious.
“Yeah, no, joking’s good,” he agrees. “Fantastic. Glad it’s not weir—whoa.”
A tingle down his spine snaps him into action; without a second thought he grabs Mr. Stark and whips him around the nearest tree, off the path. He presses a finger against his lips, touching their foreheads together and bringing his free arm up to block their faces.
Mr. Stark’s eyes are wide and questioning, but he’s smart enough to keep quiet and mirror Peter, using one arm to block the other side of their faces and wrapping his other around Peter’s waist, pulling them flush together. Peter can feel Mr. Stark’s heart beating rapidly and the hitch of his chest as he tries—and fails—to breath steadily.
Voices drift into hearing range from around a bend. A few seconds later, and they would’ve run smack into the speakers.
“Trust me, everyone will be at the party,” a man insists, sounding strained and a little desperate. “This party is why they’re all here. There’s no better time.”
“Fine, fine.” It’s the same gruff Jersey accent from yesterday. Definitely their guy. “But there better not be any problems. I don’t know why I agreed to do this here. Too much trouble.”
“I promise, no problems. What problems? Norman literally owns this island.”
That’s greeted with a grunt. “He better.”
The voices disappear around another corner, leaving Peter and Mr. Stark staring at each other, eyes wide for reasons that have nothing to do with being so close.
As soon as they’re sure the coast is clear, they tell Fury what they heard via what Mr. Stark assures Peter is a highly secure communicator in his watch.
“Good work,” Fury tells them, and Peter can’t help being a little proud. “Keep your eyes open, but we should have it from here. You’re off the frontlines. Try to have a good time.”
Peter is not having a good time.
Or, he is. Kind of? It’s confusing.
He’d definitely be having a good time if any of this was real. The party is objectively cool. There’s at least twice as many people as last night; the crowd spills between rooms and onto an outdoor patio, where the air is warm, the breeze gentle, and the stars gorgeous. Food and booze is everywhere, and a low thrum of dance music follows them through the halls and even outside, coming from speakers that must be hidden in the trees.
Sure, Mr. Stark only has his arm tight around Peter’s waist because of their disguise, but Peter would still be having a good time if it was just the two of them, chatting and joking and taking advantage of the view. It’s hard not to enjoy the chance to lean against Mr. Stark’s solid body, drinking in his cologne and how unbearably handsome he looks in his suit. In comparison, Peter feels like a kid playing dress-up in his slacks and scratchy button-up, but he’ll take feeling underdressed in exchange for getting to stare at Mr. Stark.
But it’s not just them. They’re swarmed by a steady stream of scientists looking to chat with Mr. Stark, transforming the night into introduction after tedious introduction. Mr. Stark always gives Peter a warm smile when he says his name, but their various companions are either completely uninterested, or muster up just enough energy to give Peter a disdainful glare.
Peter recognizes a lot of the people they talk to, of course. He’s been following some of their careers for years. But he never earns more than a weak smile when he tells someone he’s a fan, and any time he tries to join the conversation he’s brushed aside. He spends most of the evening standing silently, awkward.
“This sucks,” he complains after they escape a particularly tedious physicist by retreating to a dark corner of the outdoor area, finally alone. “They think I’m an idiot.”
Without warning, Mr. Stark pulls him into a hug, body to body. It’s so unexpected that Peter freezes, arms hanging useless as Mr. Stark presses his nose into his hair.
“Yeah, they do, and it’s unfair,” Mr. Stark says. Peter can feel his lips moving against his scalp and can’t quite repress a shiver. Mr. Stark pulls back, staring down at Peter with a sad smile. “You deserve so much better.”
Peter doesn’t have a response to that. He was just complaining, he didn’t mean much by it, but Mr. Stark is looking at him like he’s trying to convey something really important. Peter has no idea what.
“Thanks?” he tries. “They’re just kind of rude I guess.”
Somehow, Mr. Stark’s expression gets even sadder. He brings one hand to Peter’s hair, sweeping stray curls away from his forehead in a gesture that’s probably supposed to be comforting, but in practice is so intimate it hurts. “I told you there’d be assumptions.”
And then they’re staring into each other’s eyes. It really, really feels like Mr. Stark is trying to say something with his: they’re wide and penetrating, insistent, as if he wants Peter to acknowledge his point. But Peter has no idea what point that is, other than that people suck, which doesn’t seem worth all the drama.
“Mr. Stark, I—”
Peter is saved from finding something to say by the voice that is quickly becoming the bane of his existence.
“Isn’t this romantic?”
He and Mr. Stark break apart, turning to face their fate.
“Have you ever thought it’s strange your boyfriend calls you Mr. Stark?” Julie says to Mr. Stark without preamble.
“Have you ever heard of respecting privacy?” Mr. Stark snaps back, all the softness he’d shown Peter a moment before gone, replaced by bristling frustration.
“Not really, no.”
Mr. Stark glances at Peter. “Honey, why don’t you get us some drinks? I want to speak to Ms. Miller alone.”
Mr. Stark’s eyes narrow. “Peter, please. I’m parched.”
It feels like he’s a kid being sent away so the grown-ups can talk, but honestly, Peter has absolutely no idea how to handle a persistent reporter and Mr. Stark has been dealing with this his entire life. It’s probably in everyone’s best interests if Peter peaces out before his complete inability to lie gets them in trouble.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he says in Julie’s direction as he brushes past her. He means it to be threatening, but he sounds petulant even to his own ears. Fantastic. Hopefully Mr. Stark will shut her down, because if she does publish something about Peter, he’s probably going to come off like a complete loser.
The bar is so packed it would take at least twenty minutes to get a drink, so Peter heads to the bathroom instead. Except that’s packed, too. Everywhere is packed, full of drunk, loud people.
Which is why he finds himself wandering in the direction of their room. Maybe he’ll splash some water on his face, or lie down for a few minutes. Anything to escape the looming pressure of too much sensory input and his own disappointment about how the night is going.
But then he hears that distinctive Jersey accent coming from behind a nondescript door marked 303.
“It’s just a thumb drive,” the voice says. “How do we know it’s all here?”
“Haven’t you heard of having a little trust in people?”
“In this line of business?”
Peter freezes, staring at the door. He glances up the hall, then back down it. No sign of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Maybe they’re coming at it from another angle, or maybe they have the room bugged, gathering evidence.
Or maybe the bad guys gave them the slip. Because that sure sounds like they’re in the middle of a deal that needs to be stopped.
Okay, okay. What does he do? Not burst in there. He has no mask, and besides, he’s learned a thing or two since he was fifteen; he’s not about to fuck up whatever Fury has planned by acting too rashly. He doesn’t want to be kicked off the Avengers.
But Fury had said to let him know if they spotted anything, just in case. This is a thing. This is definitely a thing. And Mr. Stark is the one with the ability to get in contact with Fury, which means he needs to find Mr. Stark. Now.
With a burst of adrenaline, he begins sprinting down the hall, back toward the party. Room 303, Room 303, Room 303—
It’s only his powers that prevent him from running headlong into Norman Osborn as he dashes around a corner. As it is, he stumbles as he pulls himself into a sharp stop, panting.
“Whoa there, Peter. Where’re you off to so excited?”
Peter stares at their host, mind reeling by this unexpected turn of events. Osborn stares back at him, suspicion written clear across his face.
And why wouldn’t it be? He just caught Peter, Tony Stark’s guest, running through the same hall where a black market deal is taking place. The deal is probably exactly where Osborn is headed right now, because why else would he be away from his party?
We didn’t think this through. Mr. Stark said that about this whole plan. He had a point.
“I, um. Just really excited to get back to the party, Mr. Osborn. Uh, sir. It’s really good.”
“Oh, is that so?”
He doesn’t believe him. He so clearly doesn’t believe him.
Peter puts on his best wide-eyed innocent face, the one he uses when he arrives late for class or misses an assignment because he was out patrolling. “That is so.”
“Mmm.” Osborn reaches into Peter’s space, smoothing the collar on his button-up for absolutely no reason. No reason other than to prove he can, anyway. Peter feels goosebumps up his arms. “If my party is so excellent, what are you doing all the way in here?”
“I, um.” Shit, why is he so bad at lying? “I was taking a break from the crowd.” That’s basically the truth, right? Yeah. “My room is back there.” He gestures over his shoulder, in the vague direction of their room. “I get overwhelmed sometimes.”
“Overwhelmed by crowds.” Osborn’s voice drips with fake sympathy. “That must make it difficult to be with Tony Stark.”
He’s trying to strike up a conversation. He’s figured out Peter might be onto them, and he’s trying to keep him in place. And if he succeeds, that means they’ll have failed the mission and he might start asking questions about who Peter is. Double whammy.
They really, really did not think this through. At all.
“Yeah, well, you know. It’s worth it to be with him. In fact, I miss him already. That’s why I was running back. So, um, I’m just going to go now…”
“Oh, no, no, no.” Osborn slings his arm around Peter’s shoulder, a heavy weight pinning him down. “You and I haven’t had a chance to get to know each other yet. I want to know all about the man who has won Tony Stark’s heart.”
Peter strains to hear what’s going on with the deal, but he’s run too far, and besides, he can barely hear anything over the rush of blood in his ears and the pounding of his heart. His senses are fully aware of the implied threat in Osborn’s mock-friendly touch and they’re working overdrive to make sure Peter gets the message. Which he does. So, not actually helpful, senses, thanks.
Normally, he’d take a deep breath to calm himself down, but that would be super obvious, so he’s stuck like this, shiver bursting through his body and panic clouding his mind. He’s so, so bad at undercover work. Who ever thought he should be here?
“Mr. Parker?” Osborn prods.
“Um. Private.” Yeah. That’s a coherent thing to say. Great going. “We keep things private.”
“I’m not looking for your dirty little secrets,” Osborn says in a tone that suggests that’s exactly what he’s after—though Peter has a feeling he’s less interested in sexual secrets than other kinds. The kind of secrets that actually exist for him to uncover. “I just want to know about you.”
“And he clearly doesn’t want to talk to you, so how about you take your hands off my date.”
Peter has been grateful to hear Mr. Stark’s voice many times in his life, but this may be the top of the list. He’s even more grateful when Mr. Stark strides over with utter confidence, grabs Peter’s arm, and pulls him away from Osborn, into a kiss.
A deep kiss. The kind of kiss that Peter feels all the way down to his toes. When Mr. Stark breaks away what feels like minutes later—but must’ve only been a few seconds—Peter does not have to fake breathlessness.
“Missed you,” Mr. Stark says, kissing Peter’s nose before turning back to Osborn. “Do we have a problem here, or can I take my boyfriend back to our room?”
Mr. Osborn’s eyebrows are somewhere around his hairline. “I thought you wanted to go back to the party,” he says to Peter. “Isn’t that where you were quite literally running off to?”
Peter glances at Mr. Stark. Their room would be better for figuring out what the hell to do. “I mostly wanted to see—” He remembers what Julie said about how it’s weird for him to call his boyfriend Mr. Stark. Which, true. “Tony.” He wraps his hands around Mr. Stark’s arm. “And now I have him.”
“We good?” Mr. Stark adds, still glaring at their host.
Osborn clearly is not happy, but he nods. “Of course, of course. Have fun.”
Peter can feel his eyes on their backs all the way down the hall.
“The deal is going down right now,” Peter says as soon as they’re in their room. “Room 303.”
“Yeah, I know,” Mr. Stark says. He sounds worried.
“How do I think I found you? Fury has his eyes on that whole area of the building. He noticed you were in trouble. Good thing I was wearing this.” He raises his wrist to reveal his watch.
“Oh.” Well, now Peter feels really stupid. He collapses onto the bed, head falling into his hands. “Fuck.”
The bed dips next to him. There’s a slight creak of the mattress as Mr. Stark shuffles closer, and then his hand is on Peter’s back. “What were you even doing there?”
Peter groans, curling in on himself. Mr. Stark didn’t ask why he’s upset, which means he already knows, which means it’s perfectly obvious: Osborn is definitely going to ask questions about who Peter is after that little display.
“I was literally just trying to come back to the room. It was too loud at the party.”
“Ah.” Mr. Stark rubs circles on Peter’s back. “But judging by your reaction, I’m going to guess Osborn didn’t catch you having a casual stroll. Assuming he has video in that hallway—which I think we should—what will it show?”
Peter runs his hands through his hair, tugging slightly. How did he not think of that? Of course Osborn would have cameras where his deal is going down.
“Me, staring intently at the door for a minute and then sprinting back toward the party,” he admits.
“Yeah, not great.”
Mr. Stark runs his hand up Peter’s spine, resting it on his neck. It’s comforting, protective. Peter feels tears pricking at the side of his eyes.
“Hey,” Mr. Stark says. His free hand comes to Peter’s chin, tilting his head up. “Stop that. We’ve dealt with close calls before. You’ll be fine.”
Yeah. Except the tears aren’t really because he’s worried about being exposed. The tears are because it feels so good to have Mr. Stark touching him like he matters. So good but also too much, because after this weekend he can’t remember what is real and what isn’t. The protective hand is real, he’s pretty sure: comfort sincerely given.
But the way Peter wants to lean into the touch, tilt his head further, let their lips brush?
To his horror, he realizes the tears are starting to do more than build: one rolls down his cheek, cutting a hot line across his skin.
And then Mr. Stark’s thumb is brushing Peter cheek, calluses rough where he smears the tear away. It’s too much again, too tender; Peter lets out a sound that’s better kept inside, a helpless, hopeless kind of whimper.
Mr. Stark’s mouth opens, his tongue flicks out, running over his top lip for a second. If the touch was too much, that’s something else entirely.
Too much, too much, too much.
Peter kisses him.
No reason, no excuse: he just can’t sit here, so close, smelling that cologne, the ghost of the kiss from the hall dancing through his memory and not. Physically impossible.
The kiss is a mess. Peter lunges into it with so much force he knocks Mr. Stark backwards a little. Peter’s hands are a disaster, aiming for Mr. Stark’s waist but landing more around his rib cage. But that doesn’t stop him from curling his fingers into the soft fabric of Mr. Stark’s dress shirt, yanking him closer. And it doesn’t stop Mr. Stark’s hands from coming to Peters face, cupping his cheeks, holding him still so that they can fall into a rhythm, lips pressing together, opening—
He’s kissing Peter back. He’s kissing Peter back.
Peter lets out a gasp of surprise and slows down, morphing desperation into something more elegant. In a fit of boldness, he slips his tongue between Mr. Stark’s parted lips.
Mr. Stark makes a noise like he’s been punched and jerks back.
“What are we doing?” he murmurs. He sounds upset.
No, more than upset. Deeper.
Kissing back was probably an instinct. Autopilot. And then he realized what was happening, who he was kissing, and he pulled away. Give him another second, and he’ll start to wonder why Peter was kissing him in the first place. He’ll realize. He’ll know how Peter feels, and then he’s not going to want to be around him.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. No, that can’t happen, it can’t, he has to—
“For the cameras!” Peter says in a burst of inspiration.
Mr. Stark stares at him, dumbfounded.
“The cameras,” Peter repeats. “If we, like, hook up, that’ll make it look like we’re really together. Make it less suspicious. Maybe he’ll really believe I just happened to be there…”
Mr. Stark snatches his hands away from Peter’s face as if he burns. “You want to have sex for the cameras?”
Um, okay. Based on his reaction, maybe this wasn’t the best lie. But it’s too late to back out now, so Peter flails onward. “I mean, sure? Or like, it doesn’t have to be sex. We could like…handjobs? I could give you a blowjob?”
“You could give me a blowjob,” Mr. Stark repeats, tone flat. He does not sound intrigued at all. “For the cameras.”
And fine, that’s pretty weird, but does he have to sound that uninterested? It’s insulting. Also a knife to the gut, a hand reaching into Peter’s core and twisting his heart out, proof of the rejection he always knew was waiting if he ever made a move, a move he was stupid enough to actually—
Yeah, it’s easier to focus on the insult.
“Ouch, Mr. Stark.” Peter tries to make it sound light, as if he isn’t sinking into a well of self-recrimination and embarrassment. “I’m not that bad. Think of me as one of your models or something.”
“One of my what?”
“The people you’ve been dating? Like, I mean, no offense Mr. Stark, but it’s not exactly a secret that you’re fine with casual sex.” Wait, why would that cause offense? “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Obviously. It’s cool. Which is my point. It’s totally cool, and we could be totally cool, and…”
And Mr. Stark is slowly recoiling from Peter, leaning so far back it would be comical if it weren’t painful.
“…Or not,” Peter concludes dumbly.
“Yeah, or not. Jesus, kid, you think you’re somebody I could take for a casual roll in the sack?” He physically scoots away, manifesting the chasm Peter feels opening between them. “No way.”
Message received. Message so received. Peter nods, trying not to feel despondent as they lapse into silence. He picks at his nails as he waits for…he’s not even sure. Instructions on what the hell they’re supposed to do from here.
“I don’t sleep with the models either, for the record.”
It’s such whiplash Peter takes a second to internalize what he just heard. When he looks over, Mr. Stark is staring at his feet.
“The models. And the actresses. All of that. It’s for show. I haven’t actually…that’s not my speed anymore.”
“Oh.” What’s he supposed to do with that? Is it an attempt to make him feel better?
Pathetically, it does actually make him feel a bit better, but not for the right reasons. It loosens a jealous little ball he hadn’t realized was knotted in his gut. But that’s stupid, because if models aren’t Mr. Stark’s speed, Peter is even less so, as he’s made perfectly clear. He probably wants someone like Ms. Potts—someone closer to his age, mature, who knows how to relate to him.
(Except who can relate to him better than Peter? Who else understands the nightmares? The science? Titan?)
This is not helping anything. With determined cool that’s totally fake, Peter springs to standing. “We should probably get back out there, then. If we sit in here all night not talking it’s definitely going to look suspicious.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Mr. Stark agrees, standing and straightening his jacket, which makes him look like James Bond. Unfair. “I guess it would be hypocritical of me to kiss you now. For the cameras.”
“Yeah,” Peter agrees, resisting the urge to tell him to do it anyway. He’s not that much of a masochist.
(But it’s a very close call.)
They split up as soon as they get to the party, because it’s too awkward. Besides, Peter is so not in the mood to stand around looking pretty while people fawn over his fake boyfriend who just for-real rejected him. Instead he finds his way to the pool, where he can lie on a deck chair and scroll listlessly through stupid social media posts on his phone.
That’s where Julie finds him, because of-fucking-course his night keeps getting worse.
“Taking a break from the crowd?” she asks as she slips into the chair beside his.
“What, no jab about Tony abandoning me again?”
She raises a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. “Has he?”
It is about as unconvincing as the time he tried to tell Ned he isn’t Spider-Man.
“Of course he has.” Julie reaches over and pats Peter’s knee. He can’t tell if it’s condescending or actually kind of nice. “He’s an asshole, and you can probably do better.”
“He’s not an asshole.” And isn’t it pathetic that the guy kind of just broke his heart, and he’s still here defending him? “Please don’t print anything bad about him because of me.”
Julie laughs at that. A real laugh, not some put-on reporter thing. “Oh, don’t worry, honey. Tony and I came to a very satisfactory arrangement. I will not be publishing a word until you want me to.”
“Until I want you to?” Peter echoes. He has no idea what that means.
“Yeah. He promised me the exclusive when you decide to go public. But until then…” She mimes zipping her lips.
“Oh.” Smart thinking on Mr. Stark’s part. Promise her a story that will never happen. Except… “What happens if we never go public?”
“You’ll have to at some point.” He can practically see the money signs behind her eyes. “No relationship can stay secret forever.”
“Not if…” Not if the whole thing’s a lie. But he can’t test the waters with that. “Not if we break up first.”
“True.” Julie tilts her head, considering him. Then she smiles again, and there’s nothing fake about it. “I don’t think you will. Enough to bet on it, anyway.”
Peter runs his fingers over the mesh of the chair, feeling ridiculous. How did his life come to talking to a tabloid reporter about a relationship that will never happen? “You don’t even know us.”
“No,” Julie concedes, “but I see the way you look at him. And I’ve heard the way he talks about you.”
“The way he what?”
Wait. He shouldn’t sound surprised about that. People aren’t normally surprised to hear their boyfriends say nice things about them. But…too late. Damn. He really should never go undercover again.
Julie is staring at him with something between pity and amusement on her face.
“Wow. I’m going to repeat: you can do better. But…” She ruffles through a purse that seems to materialize out of thin air, emerging with her phone. She taps a few buttons and then leans over, shoving it under Peter’s nose. “He promised I can use this with my story. I probably shouldn’t show you, but hey. It’s in my best interest for you to stay together, right?”
Peter blinks down at the phone. Mr. Stark is staring up at him, impossibly handsome in his suit, glowing slightly against a dark sky. This must be from earlier in the night.
“Hit play,” Julie prods.
Peter hits play. The Mr. Stark on screen flashes a canned smile. “What can I say? I mean, have you seen his ass?” He turns up his hands in an exaggerated shrug. “I’m helpless.”
Before Peter can point out that a flippant joke about his butt isn’t exactly the stuff of grand romances—though it’s good it’s dark, because he does blush—Julie’s voice comes on the video.
“Come on, Tony. You want me to play this your way, you need to give me something real.”
Mr. Stark’s smile fades, mouth retreating into a displeased frown. Peter can just make out the muscle along his jaw twitch, which means he’s really annoyed. For a moment, his eyes gaze off, beyond the camera. Then they snap back into focus.
“Fine,” he says, voice sharp. “You want real? Here’s real. I know what people would say about us.”
A curious sound from Julie on the video.
“Wait, sorry, that’s not right. I forgot, this is for when we’re going public. Right. You can edit it, yeah?” He clears his throat. “Let me start again. I know what people will say about us. Probably already are, at this shindig. Best and the brightest minds in the world, and they’re more interested in gossip. It’s pathetic, really.”
“Sorry, sorry, getting off track. Point is, I know. He’s a gold-digger, I’m a pathetic old man who wants a hot piece of ass. And he is a very hot piece of ass, don’t get me wrong.”
Peter has to bite down on his lip from squeaking. It’s just an act.
“But that’s not what this is,” Mr. Stark continues on screen. “He’s never been interested in my money. It’s actually kind of difficult to get him to accept extravagant gifts. Annoying, really.” Mr. Stark grins, and it looks sincere. “Anyway. I can’t possibly tell you what he sees in me, but it’s not my money, I know that for sure. And me?”
Mr. Stark takes a deep breath. His fingers twitch a little, as if he’s working hard to keep himself under control.
“I may be a pathetic old man, but I’m in love with him because he’s worth being in love with, not because he’s young. That was kind of a hang-up, actually. But he’s smart. So smart. He keeps up with me. Not to toot my own horn, but that’s rare. And he’s brave, and funny, and nerdy, but he makes it work. Most importantly, he’s good. Good in this bone-deep way that I don’t understand at all. Totally outside my entire life experience. Blows my mind every time.”
He licks his lips, eyes darting sideways and then back to the camera, contemplating.
“It blows my mind even more that someone so good thinks I’m worth spending time with. It’s humbling, honestly. Confusing. Like I said, no idea what he sees in me. It would make more sense if he were after my money. But him? You want real? This is real: Not many people leave me speechless. He’s one of them.”
The video ends. Peter realizes he isn’t breathing; his heart is so high in his throat he’s practically choking on it. His hands tremble—his whole body is trembling.
If that was only for the cameras, it was one hell of an act.
He knows he must look insane as he shoves the phone back into Julie’s hands: eyes wild, face so flushed it’s probably obvious despite the dark. He doesn’t care.
“I’ve gotta go,” he tells her. “Um, thanks. For showing me. And being cool. And…yeah. Thanks.”
He’s out of his chair and running back to the party so fast he doesn’t hear her reply.
He physically drags Mr. Stark away from a crowd of gathered scientists, hand tight on his sleeve as he guides him to the beach. He’s scared that if he lets up for even a moment he’s going to lose his certainty and, with it, his nerve.
He really doesn’t want to lose his nerve.
“Kid, I love an excuse to get away from that tedious conversation, but can you slow down and tell me what’s happening?” Mr. Stark babbles at his side. “Is everything okay? Did you overhear another secret plot? Do I need to call Popeye? He’s in the middle of taking down one black market deal, but he’s good at multitasking…”
Peter doesn’t respond until they reach the edge of the ocean. Far enough from the party that the noise of it is drowned out by the waves, away from the tree line where curious eyes—organic or camera—might be watching. He turns so they’re facing each other.
“It wasn’t for the cameras,” he says.
That shuts Mr. Stark up. He blinks several times. “What?”
“That kiss. It wasn’t for the cameras. It was because I wanted to. You were being so comforting, and I was so upset and…” No, that’s not right, that makes it sound situational. “I always want to kiss you, Mr. Stark. It was because I always want to kiss you.”
Mr. Stark gapes, saying nothing.
(Not many people leave me speechless.)
“No cameras out here,” Peter adds. He bites his lip, aiming for coy, and then immediately un-bites it because he feels ridiculous.
There’s protest in his tone, and it’s almost enough to make Peter crumble.
(Blows my mind every time.)
Almost, but not quite.
“I saw the video you made for Julie. I’m sorry, but you’re not that good an actor, Mr. Stark.”
“You…fuck.” Mr. Stark sighs, running a hand across his face. “I’m going to kill her.”
“Please don’t. I’m glad she showed me.” On instinct, Peter reaches out and grabs Mr. Stark’s hand away from his face, then the other for good measure. He keeps his hold light, breakable, but Mr. Stark doesn’t pull away. “For the record, what I see in you is the bravest, smartest, most incredible person I’ve ever met.”
Mr. Stark’s grip tightens.
“Peter,” he repeats, but this time there’s no protest. It’s more like a broken gasp, as if he’s begging for something.
Emboldened, Peter steps closer, and closer again, until there’s so little space between them he can make out the tears catching in Mr. Stark’s lashes. “No cameras, like I said.”
“We can’t,” Mr. Stark replies, but he leans in, the words brushing hot against Peter’s cheeks. “You deserve better.”
Peter remembers Mr. Stark saying that earlier in the evening, and suddenly the insistence he’d had in his eyes makes sense. He’s worried about what this will do to Peter. As if he can’t see what not having it is doing to him now.
“I don’t care what people think,” Peter says, firm and confident, because that’s one thing he’s sure of. “I don’t. So what if they think I’m an idiot gold-digger? I’ll prove them wrong. I’ll have my own talk here in under five years, and then—”
The thought is cut off by Mr. Stark’s lips on his.
It’s nothing like any of the fake kisses, not even the deep ones, because it goes on and on, until the scrape of Mr. Stark’s beard starts to hurt, until Peter is dizzy with it, until he’s hard and leaking in his pants. Until he stumbles and nearly drags them into the sand, giggling, disbelieving.
Until Mr. Stark says, “My jet, now.” When Peter gives him a quizzical look, he explains, “No cameras.”
The jet has a foldout bed, because of course it does.
“You’re ridiculous,” Peter tells him as he flops onto it, pulling his shirt off as he goes. “You know that, right?”
Mr. Stark shucks his jacket, his shirt, his undershirt, before joining Peter on the bed with far more elegance, crawling up his body, planting a warm kiss on the side of his neck. “True, but you love it.”
It’s tossed off, a joke, but Peter answers with complete earnestness. “I do. I love everything about you.”
Mr. Stark freezes, then raises himself onto his elbows, allowing their eyes to meet.
“Don’t say things like that if you don’t mean it, Pete.” His voice is barely more than a whisper, like last night, when they talked about nightmares. “I can’t handle it. I really can’t.”
He sounds serious. He looks serious. When he dips down to brush his lips across Peter’s cheeks, he even feels serious.
For the first time, Peter understands: Mr. Stark has as much to lose here as he does.
And as much to gain.
He wraps his arms around Mr. Stark’s neck, kissing him as fiercely as he knows how.
“I mean it,” he whispers between kisses. “I mean it, I mean it, I mean it.”
Mr. Stark’s body is a mass of muscles and scars, solid and tantalizing under Peter’s hands. Mr. Stark’s tongue is warm and rough and feels like heaven as it dips into Peter’s collarbone, licks around his nipple, teases his balls, his thighs, his ass. Mr. Stark’s cock is thick, stretching Peter open with just the right kind of burn, filling him to bursting, going deeper and deeper with every thrust, until he can’t tell where he ends and Mr. Stark begins.
But what overwhelms him is Mr. Stark’s eyes, large and brown and sparkling with tears as he rocks into Peter; tears Peter knows, without asking, are good. Tears he can feel reflected in his own eyes.
They don’t talk. Peter thinks they probably will when they do this again. They’re talkative people, and there’s so much he wants to say. How good Mr. Stark feels, how long he’s wanted this, all the other things he can’t wait to do: suck him off, eat him out, get pounded until he’s screaming in pleasure.
But here, now, there are no words that are enough. No words that can say more than those eyes, the hitch of Mr. Stark’s breath, the rising tide of their moans as they rush toward ecstasy together.
“So, was this weekend torture for you, too?” Peter muses after, nuzzling against Mr. Stark’s chest, enjoying the scent of him, musk and the salt of sweat. “Because I basically wanted to die the whole time.”
Mr. Stark chuckles. His fingers twist into Peter’s hair. “Why do you think I was so mad about it? I knew it would be blue balls city.”
Peter laughs, a little hysterical. This whole thing is absurd. “I knew you were mad!”
“Yeah, yeah.” He kisses the top of Peter’s head. “I couldn’t exactly tell you why, now could I?”
“Actually, it would have saved us a lot of trouble.”
He feels Mr. Stark’s laugh throughout his body. “I was trying to do the right thing.”
“You were being dumb, you mean.”
Mr. Stark hums to himself, running his fingers through Peter’s hair.
“Maybe,” he finally agrees. He sounds pensive. “I guess we’ll find out.”
They lapse into silence, but the comfortable kind. The kind that lasts so long, it slips into sleep.
Peter wakes up the next day with Mr. Stark curled around him, eyes open, smiling softly.
Peter blinks the sleep away, not daring to speak until he’s sure this isn’t a dream. He glances around. Nope, definitely in the jet. That definitely happened.
He returns the smile.
“So I’ve got some bad news,” Mr. Stark says, with a mock seriousness that prevents Peter from getting worried.
“Mmm.” Peter rubs their noses together before nodding. “Yeah, okay, hit me.”
“You’re going to have to come up with a new plan for convincing the scientific world you’re more than my arm candy, because there are definitely not going to be any OsCons for you to give talks at in the next five years.”
That can only be good news. Peter lets himself sound excited as he says, “Yeah?”
“Yeah, Osborn’s going to be a little busy in jail. He was arrested this morning.” Mr. Stark kisses his forehead. “Which also means he’s not going to have time to go digging into the backstory of any suspiciously observant young lovers of mine.”
Peter cringes. “Please never call me your lover again.”
“I heard it, and I regretted it immediately.” Mr. Stark draws him into a kiss. “The word, to be clear. Not the fact. The fact is good.”
Peter returns the kiss. “Yeah, the fact is really, really good.”
An hour later—after they prove exactly how good the fact is—Mr. Stark turns to Peter with a grin. “The news of the arrest should be breaking any minute. Want to watch the chaos unfold?”
Laughing, Peter says he very much does.
“You know,” he reflects as they head across the beach, back to the hotel, “this weekend turned out a lot better than expected.”
Mr. Stark takes his hand.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “It really did.”