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The 12 Hugs of Christmas

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Tony? Hey, Tony. It's me, it's May, Peter's aunt. I know this is... short notice, and I wouldn't normally ask something like this of you- but I've just got a call from Peter's school saying he hasn't been registered for first period today. I'd go check for him at home myself, but I have to finish this shift at the hospital. I heard you were in the state, and... I haven't really got anyone else to call. Would you just- check on him for me? You know where our apartment- oh, of course you do- so, yeah, I'm... sorry to bother you."

 

Tony had missed the call, the festive Mariah Carey blasting through his workshop speakers drowning out his buzzing cellphone. He checked his call history: the message had been left 18 minutes ago.

 

Well, shit. He hadn't expected to end up with this kind of responsibility for Peter. Never mind the succession of ridiculous predicaments Tony now felt it his duty to extricate him from, now he had morphed into- what, some sort of spare parent?- for this kid. And yet, this was one thing he just couldn’t say no to.

 

With any other random kid, Tony'd laugh in their face, call off the whole shebang before anyone started getting attached, most likely him.

 

But, goddamnit, Peter was a good kid. Tony couldn't ignore how his heart skipped a beat just hearing the message, knowing a kid like Peter would never skip school without a really pressing excuse.

 

This kid was Tony's mess to clear up now: he'd goaded Peter into becoming the high-profile vigilante he now was, and in doing so exposed him to a world of danger which he seemed to pursue rather than run from.

 

Tony was gonna have to start taking responsibility for his own messes.

 

So he reluctantly called to FRIDAY to pause the music, which was currently recognisable as the iconic melodies of "All I Want for Christmas is You", and, in the interest of keeping a vaguely low profile, chose one of his marginally less conspicuous cars to make his way to a certain superpowered teen's apartment. 

 

With hindsight, he probably should have at least checked the tracker in Peter's suit- if there was one thing that punk'd skip school for, of course it would be to go out patrolling. Thankfully - thankfully? - Peter was in no state to go far.

 

Tony told himself how stupid he was for worrying the amount he did. He tried to out his excess adrenaline by drumming his hands on the steering wheel and yelling along to the Love Actually soundtrack (not strictly Christmas-themed but somehow it always managed to put him in a festive mood) and blocked out the blood thrumming through his ears.

 

See, Tony had become an expert on shutting stuff out. He’d been training all his life.

 

So he checked the speedometer every ten seconds, making absolutely sure he kept well below the speed limit for once, and took his time parking outside the worn-down apartment block. Keys clanking against his thigh through the material of his pants, he strode through the parking lot, coat folded loosely over the crook of his arm, having already donned a darker pair of sunglasses in a feeble attempt to avoid paparazzi cooking up some story about an accidental child left over from a one-night stand a decade ago.

 

The door to the Parker abode wasn’t locked: strange. The old battle instincts came flooding back to Tony as his hand hovered over the handle, sharpening his vision and clearing his mind. It was unnecessary, most likely, but Tony greeted it like an old friend.

 

Slowly, silently, Tony turned the handle and pushed open the door, expecting either a cloaked villain in the hallway or nothing at all.

 

Yeah, he’d never have guessed what really was there.

 

Was Peter even breathing?

 

His- shit, his lips were blue-

 

Something unexplainable in Tony switched on, and he rushed to the couch where the kid seemed to be passed out, goosebumps rising on his arms- was the heating turned off in this place?

 

He’d never seen someone look like this before.

 

What concerned Tony most was that, despite Peter's deathly-pale pallor and blue-tinted lips, he wasn't shivering. Jack Frost cosplay aside, he could have simply been sleeping on the couch.

 

He looked so vulnerable and lonely and wrong, curled up on his side there, not a hint of color in his face.

 

What the fuck?

 

Tony gently but urgently pressed the palm of his hand to the side of Peter's face, wincing a little at how cold the skin was, and, shivering a little himself (of course the apartment heating had to be broken too), rushed to remove his outer coat again to spread across the frozen teenager.

 

"Pete?"

 

Searching for every blanket in the place.

 

"Can you hear me, kid?"

 

Unearthing an ancient portable heater and propping it up right in front of the couch; cranking up the temperature to the max.

 

" - please wake up-"

 

Taking a pulse, finding it frighteningly slow but somehow still constant.

 

"C'mon bud..."

 

Wondering whether to call May, whether to phone the ambulance.

 

"Just - try to open your eyes?"

 

Calling to the kid, whispering, yelling, begging for him to wake up, watching his eyelids for the smallest flutter to attest to his consciousness and finding none, as if his lashes were glued together with the cold.

 

"Fuck it."

 

Tony lowered himself onto the couch, reached for Peter's shoulders which were still wrapped in Tony's coat and awkwardly, desperately bundled the kid up his arms, rubbing the sides of his shoulders and back furiously, running his fingers through soft hair, still calling: "I need you to wake up - if you're there, please, please wake up, kid-"

 

Tony'd expected the wake-up to be sudden, abrupt.

 

He'd never have imagined the kid to start yawning.

 

A small stirring from inside the tight, frantic ring Tony had formed around Peter, and Tony drew back slightly to see the kid himself, still too pale yet with his mouth open in a drowsy yawn, just beginning to shiver. He leaned against Tony still, jaw slack and eyes thick-lidded.

 

"Hiya, kid," murmured Tony, gently lowering his charge to rest against the back of the couch, although Peter’s arms remained loosely slung around him.

 

“Mmm… hey, mrstr strk…” It was mumbled incoherently; the kid was finally shivering now but looked less ailing than sleepy now a little color had worked its way back into his cheeks.

 

Tony let out a breath he’d been unknowingly holding. Trying to get Peter’s attention, he squeezed his shoulder, and Peter responded slowly, swiveling his gaze to look at Tony.

 

“Jesus, kid, you had me scared then.”

 

Peter’s eyes were still slitted; he barely seemed to notice his involuntary shaking. “Hmm?”

 

Tony put a hand gingerly to the kid’s forehead: still unnaturally cold, but marginally warmer than before. “Do you feel cold at all?”

 

Sluggish thought registered in the eyes that were slowly opening and gazing vacantly at the space just to the left of Tony.

 

“Uh- y’h. Wait, ‘s this your- your coat?-”

 

Peter’s voice was faint, getting fainter. Tony watched as he crumpled in on himself, giving himself over to waves of shivering, and heard the kid’s teeth audibly chattering as he made a weak effort to give Tony’s coat back to him.

 

“-It’s… y’rs…”

 

Screw that kid and his fucking martyr complex or whatever.

 

“Hey, hey, hey…”

 

At a loss for other options, Tony slung his coat back over the kid, heaped every available blanket onto Peter’s convulsing body, wrapping him up like a burrito, and resumed the embrace, rocking back and forth a little, letting the kid’s shaking head fall limply onto his shoulder as he rubbed fiercely at his arms and back.

 

It was torturous, watching the violent shivering and feeling so powerless to do anything except hold Peter in his arms and hope it ended.

 

With hindsight, Tony could totally have called in a medical team.

 

After what seemed to be hours, Peter’s body finally, slowly, relaxed, ceased the relentless shaking, and he let out a shuddering breath, near-collapsing into Tony.

 

“Oh my god.” Tony released his grip on the kid just a little. “You alright now, Pete?”

 

It was a truly tactless thing to say, but Peter responded softly: “’Think so.”

 

Instinctively, Tony reached to brush a stray lock of hair from Peter’s now-damp forehead. “What the hell happened?” It was said without bite.

 

“Why are you here?”

 

Tony wanted to ignore the kid’s obvious swerve of the subject, but he thought after everything he’d just gone through, whatever it was that really happened, the kid deserved an answer from him.

 

“May called me. You hadn’t been registered at school and she couldn’t go look for you herself. I guess you never made it out of the house.”

 

“Oh.” Slowly, the situation Peter was in seemed to dawn on him, and he slowly edged away just a little from Tony’s hold, gaze downcast. “Guess the heating went bust, then?” He extricated an arm from the bundle of blankets looped around him to gesture towards the heater set up in front of them.

 

“Kid, you scared the living daylight out of me- has this ever happened before?”

 

“Nah.” Peter’s gaze flashed around the room, looking anywhere but into Tony’s eyes. “How’d you- I mean, why- were you even free… why did you come to get me?”

 

“May called, like I said. You sure about that? Have you ever- you know- shivered for ages like that? Felt really cold? I don’t know-“

 

“I think there’s something wrong with me,” blurted Peter, letting his head drop across the back of the sofa.

 

Tony came closer to replying with “no shit” than he would have liked to admit.

 

Instead, he blew out a breath and rose from the couch. He was the adult. He was the adult here. And goddamn it, he'd micromanage the situation until the sun stopped shining.  "I'm making hot chocolate. You just - sit there and I'll get it for you, and then we can- you know, talk this out. Do you need anything else?"

 

Peter seemed a little bewildered; he stuttered, "Mister Stark, you don't have to..."

 

Cue Peter Parker's self-destructive martyr complex: Exhibit B.

 

"Kid, it's alright. Let me do this for you."

 

Two mugs of steaming hot chocolate later, Tony was back on the couch with the still-lightly-shivering Peter, Tony attempting some semblance of professionality despite having his legs tucked under him and crushed a little against Peter’s. The kid himself seemed distracted, shaken, still a little pale, and Tony wished he knew what the fuck to do.

 

Instead, he took the classic Tony Stark route and addressed his companion bluntly:

 

“Spill.”

 

Peter, who had been staring blankly off into the distance, sniffed in surprise, caught Tony’s eye for the briefest of moments before letting his gaze rest on the tops of his knees.

 

“I don’t – I don’t know… that hasn’t happened before. I mean, it’s never gone that far. It felt kinda like sleeping… except more like falling off, I don’t know, the Empire State Building or something, except really slow. Like sinking in water, in ice. And I tried to smash through- the ice, but it wouldn’t give.”

 

Tony couldn’t help his incredulity. “Steady, Walt Whitman.”

 

At this, Peter seemed to shrink a little. “I don’t know, Mister Stark…”

 

“Hey, it’s not your fault. We just gotta figure out… what happened. And being two super-human, super-smart guys, I reckon we can handle that, right?”

 

"Mister Stark, you’re - not superhuman.” Peter snorted softly into his drink as he witnessed Tony’s mock-offended reaction.

 

“What do you call this here lump of metal, then?” With the rim of his mug, Tony tapped his hidden arc reactor.

 

“I’m too tired to counter you, you win.” Huffing out a light laugh, Peter laid his head on the back of the sofa, all of a sudden looking really quite tired.

 

“Don’t fall asleep on me again, Parker.”

 

A sigh: “I’ll try.”

 

“You felt cold before?”

 

At once, Peter’s head was off the back of the sofa, addressing Tony with raised eyebrows. “No, never in my life.”

 

“Hey, I’m being serious.” Tony graced the kid with a small smile all the same. “How’ve you been feeling the last couple weeks?”

 

Peter had been partially telling the truth when he said that he didn’t know: he wasn’t sure when he’d started getting so cold, but it hadn’t been all that long, he didn’t think: it was recent enough that it was noticeable.

 

In fact, he remembered the hours he’d spent after the spider-bite reeling in pain, in dizziness, and feeling as if he was drowning in ice, ice which froze his limbs, locked them into place, which forced itself up his throat in a block and glued his eyelids shut.

 

He hadn’t told anyone. How was he supposed to? How could he tell May about something like this?  

 

To tell the truth, Peter’d been heading downhill ever since the temperature had began to drop late that October.

 

He’d never have told Mr. Stark. If Peter had his way, this all would have… just blown over and Mr. Stark would never have heard of any of this.

 

Sure, he could’ve woken himself up just then.

 

It was embarrassing, okay? Peter had never felt like such a – a sissy.

 

But he’d come close to falling asleep like he’d just done before; he’d been keeping it at bay for weeks, and he was tired.

 

It was in class, the first time he’d really experienced that sense of drowning, in World History class. The teacher had been droning on and on about nothing that Peter could remember, and all of a sudden, his vision narrowed in. He’d tensed and, forgetting himself for a moment, swept his head lightning-fast around the room, noting no danger, no prickle of his Spidey sense at the back of his head.

 

And yet, he was shivering, and he couldn’t make it stop, and his mouth felt blocked by the ice which was slowly forcing his eyelids shut-

 

But he was in World History class, so he prised his eyes back open, trying to fight the rising panic which stirred in his chest as he swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the feeling, trying to knock it off, everyone would see.

 

From then on, he’d been waking up every morning unable to feel his fingers and toes, feeling the ice pressing down on him all over, but most of all feeling so, so scared.

 

It had only gotten worse: the compulsion to sleep was constantly nagging at him, wearing him down, widening the gap between his train to school and the platform, weighing down his head in class and his feet as he walked the corridors.

 

He hadn’t slept much since that time in World History class, too afraid of what would happen if the cold finally took him in its grasp.

 

Well, this was what would happen, it seemed.

 

And it wasn’t bad, wasn’t painful. It had almost been… relieving, like letting go of a weight he’d been unknowingly carrying around. Except for the bouts of shivering that had come after… that had been awful.

 

Peter wasn’t entirely aware he’d been saying this all out loud until that moment when his eyes shifted upwards and met the concerned gaze of Tony Stark.

 

“You should’ve told someone, bud.” Peter didn’t like the way Tony seemed to look into his soul with his searching eyes, seeing things even Peter didn’t know were there.

 

He shrugged. “What am I supposed to say? “Hey, Aunt May? Would you mind turning up the heating, it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit and it costs a fortune but I’m too damn sensitive to deal with it? Oh, and by the way, I got bitten by a spider a couple months ago and I’m now the Spider-Man, do you think it might be connected to that?”

 

Impulsively, Tony reached out for Peter’s shoulder, then jerked it back in a moment of self-consciousness, finally letting his hand rest on the kid’s knee somewhat awkwardly.

 

“You could’ve told me.

 

Peter responded to this by ducking his head wordlessly, shaking it minutely.

 

The overwhelming wave of disappointment that crushed Tony then made him fight not to lurch forward. Disappointment in himself for acting exactly like his own dad, for not being there for the kid he’d chosen to take under his wing, for perpetuating the cycle of neglect and hatred.

 

And that’s why, just this once, Tony let himself lean forward, gathering Peter up in his arms once again, ignoring the awkward crush of legs and blankets as he breathed into the teenager’s hair, “It’s gonna be alright now. We can figure this out.”

 


 

 

“So you’re saying I was… hibernating just then?”

 

“Seems like you’re more similar to that spider than we thought. They can’t thermo-regulate either, apparently.”

 

Peter had curled sleepily against Tony’s side as they scrolled through Google articles together. He looked up into Tony’s eyes and said, “But it’s not dangerous, right?”

 

“Doesn’t look like it. We should get you over to the Compound all the same to give you a check-up - there’s no way I’m letting you scare me like that again.”

 

Peter chuckled guiltily. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Honestly, Pete, don’t sweat it.” Tony ruffled Peter’s hair a little and he rushed to fix it, mock-scowling. He wanted to laugh at how easily they’d become comfortable around one another. He was just beginning to scratch the surface of this kid, it turned out.

 

“Hey, Mister Stark?”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“Don’t tell May.”

 

A frown creased Tony’s forehead at this.

 

“You sure, bud?” he softened his tone a little, instinctively. “Why not?”

 

Peter shifted a little away from Tony, picking at a loose thread in a blanket. “I don’t know, she… she’s got enough on her mind right now, you know? I know she worries about me, and I worry about her worrying about me-“ he gulped a little at this, averting his gaze hastily- “and it wouldn’t do her any good to worry about me any more than she does right now, you know?”

 

Tony was growing uneasy; he wasn’t known for his prowess in dealing with emotions, and this was one conversation he did not wanna mess up.

 

“Maybe she worries for a good reason.”

 

Peter shrugged noncommittally, but the cold glimmer of worry in his eye so moved Tony that he promised not to tell the kid’s aunt.

 

“Alright, Pepper’s nagging me to get back home. You sure you’re alright here?”

 

The exhaustion in Peter’s face had not disappeared, but he nodded quietly.

 

“Got a good excuse for your aunt yet?”

 

The kid groaned. “I forgot about that…”

 

Rising from the sofa more stiffly than he would have liked to admit, Tony jested: “You… played hooky with your friends and -  and got drunk at a strip club.”

 

“Mister Stark!”

 

It was impossible not to laugh even attempting to imagine the currently blushing and blanket-wrapped Peter Parker, who was about as likely to go to a strip club as Tony was to go grocery shopping, telling this story to his aunt.

 

Peter threw a bundled-up blanket at him; it hit him with surprising force and he sobered.

 

“Alright, kiddo, I concede. I’m off. Have a nice time!” As he approached the door, Tony winked suggestively at Peter, relishing the way he cringed and buried his head in his hands.

 

“You’re a threat to my innocence, Mister Stark.”

 

“Nice to see you too!”

 

The thud of the closing door sounded like victory.

 

 

Chapter Text

If Tony had learned one thing about himself in the past week, it was that he was fucking paranoid.

 

He couldn’t get that damn kid off his mind. The harrowing image of his blue lips and ashen face had imprinted itself on Tony’s mind, and he spent a ridiculous amount of time during the day wondering if he was doing okay, if he’d had any more problems but not been able to talk to anyone again.

 

So, the next Friday, he caved and sent a text to his intern which, with hindsight, had a rather needy tone.

 

Parker, wondering if tomorrow would be a good time to come get some tests and stuff done at the compound? It’d be great if you could come. Who knows, maybe I’ll even let you play around in the lab a little…

Tony/“Mr. Stark” ;)

 

Peter replied immediately:

 

Alright sure, I’m actually free! I can websling over there if you want?

 

Tony scoffed a little.

 

Kid, I’m Tony Stark. I’ll get someone to give you a lift.

 

Okay awesome! :)

 

Tony smiled, bemused, and tried not to think on it again until the next day.

 


 

 

Secret identity aside, Peter couldn’t help spreading around the story just a little about Tony Stark inviting him over to the Tower. The knowledge gave him a little spring in his step, kept his head high as he inched through the suffocating crowds that plagued the corridors of Midtown.

 

But being associated with Tony Stark didn’t always bring people happiness.

 

Somehow, Flash caught wind of Peter’s news and decided it would be funny to follow him out of school the next day to check his story was genuine and “make sure Penis Parker wasn’t spreading fake news around”, chatting animatedly to him as if he was a close friend but leaning right into Peter so he could smell Flash’s gum and hear the sound of his trainers hitting the ground too fast and the cloud of frost erupting from his mouth as his heartbeat thrummed too fast in his ears- and Peter didn’t know what the hell to do, Ned and MJ were nowhere to be seen and he didn’t know which car was Mr. Stark’s-

 

Mr. Stark?

 

A sharp slam, and Tony Stark himself had emerged from a crazy-expensive-looking car which Peter didn’t have the heart to identify right then, wearing signature tinted sunglasses despite the gloomy weather and a paparazzi-ready smile, his arms crossed with just a touch of tension.

 

“Yeah, Penis Parker, I know how much you love to be…“

 

Flash stuttered into silence, gazing in awe at the man in front of him.

 

“Hiya, Pete.” Tony smiled warmly in Peter’s direction, paying no heed to Flash.

 

“Mr. Stark,” ventured Peter softly, making urgent eye contact with his mentor. Flash had slung his arm around him in his pretence of friendship and hadn’t relinquished it yet. Risking a quick glance to his right where the other teenager was, he saw Flash gulp.

 

Tony interjected with a disinterested tone, still gazing levelly at Peter. “And you are…?”

 

“Flash- Eugene, sir. Eugene Thompson.” Peter had never heard Flash so devoid of his usual cocky confidence.

 

Tony seemed to find the nickname amusing. “Alright, ‘Flash’, how about you run along and leave my kid alone? He’s got a lot of important work to do in my workshop and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to get in the way of that.”

 

Burning red, Flash dropped his arm from Peter’s shoulders and edged off, muttering “sorry, sir.” Tony waited until he was a good few paces away, then took Peter’s shoulders himself, gave them a reassuring squeeze and steered him briskly towards the passenger seat, opening and closing the door for him.

 

A few seconds later and Mr. Stark slid smoothly into the driver’s seat sans sunglasses. Peter had sunk a little in his seat and was fiddling with the edge of his coat.

 

“What was that?” He didn’t seem angry; Tony searched for eye contact with Peter, whose gaze remained firmly on his grubby sneakers.

 

“Just Flash being a- a dick.”

 

Peter felt dumb for how much this had affected him. Why’d he have to be so damn sensitive? And in front of Mr. Stark to boot.

 

“Thanks for saving me back there, though. That was badass, sir. Wasn’t expecting it to be- you coming to get me though.”

 

“Hey, can we drop the honorifics? Feel like we’re past that point.” One corner of Tony’s mouth quirked upwards in a grin as he started up the car, the heating immediately whirring to life and dispelling Peter’s shivering after the biting weather outside.

 

“Sure,” replied Peter, huffing out a little laugh and relaxing into the heated seat. “Sorry.”

 

“Don’t sweat it, kid. And you’re welcome. I was free, thought I’d drop by myself to see the Genius Kid in action. Hey, wanna get coffee or something?”

 

Peter couldn’t help but laugh in incredulity then. “Get - coffee?”

 

Tony shrugged, glancing across at Peter as he clicked in his seatbelt and therefore indicating that Peter should do the same. “You like Dunkin’ Donuts?”

 

The glint in Peter’s eye that coalesced as Tony spoke the words was enough of an answer for the billionaire.

 

“Alright, let’s go, kiddo.”

 

And they were off, the engine of Tony’s Lamborghini (it was a Lambourghini, turns out) purring smoothly as they pulled out of Midtown’s parking lot.

 

“So, are you in a Christmassy mood or not?”

 

Peter shifted around to face Mr. Stark. “What happens if I’m not?”

 

“We get to listen to Queen instead of Now That’s What I Call Christmas.” Tony’s face remained largely impassive but for the sly narrowing of his eyes.

 

“I see,” returned Peter. “Then I am totally not in a Christmas mood. Not right now, anyway.”

 

“Your funeral, buddy,” chuckled Tony as he tapped an image on the dashboard entitled “music”.

 

“My funeral?”

 

“You will be struck dead by my amazing singing voice.” Tony winked, over-the-top.

 

“Oh, I see.” Peter huffed out a high-pitched laugh. “I think you’ll find that you will be the one dying first, Tony.”

 

It was just a name, but it sent a spark into Tony’s chest which surprised him. He realised the kid had never called him Tony before, and almost immediately after was struck with the knowledge that he’d never called Peter his own name either.

 

What an odd pair they were.

 

But maybe, it was time to drop the pretence and call Peter by his goddamn name.

 

Screw it, it’s Christmas.

 

“You sure about that, Peter?”

 

Okay, it was clunky, but the hidden smile that worked its way across the teenager’s face was so worth it.

 

They screamed along to some well-known classics: Radio Ga Ga, Under Pressure, Killer Queen, Somebody To Love, and, most hilariously, Bohemian Rhapsody, and all of a sudden the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru was in sight. Tony put on a terrible Southern accent to speak with the ordering lady (he argued it was to protect his identity) and Peter clapped a hand over his mouth to stop himself from laughing.

 

One sharer box of donuts, an iced coffee and a milkshake later, the two returned to the compound, Tony thrusting the remainder of the donuts into Peter’s arms as they approached Stark Tower together.

 

“Oh, I forgot to mention, some people who you might wanna meet have stopped by for a couple days.”

 

Peter had been scuffing his feet a little as he walked; he looked up abruptly. “Who?”

 

“’S a surprise.” Tony grinned slyly as Peter made a show of crossing his arms and frowning petulantly. “Really, though, I’ll take you up there to see them.”

 


 

 

Peter had been trying to guess who would be upstairs in Tony's lab. 

 

To be honest, one of his first wild guesses had been Thor, and another Bruce, before he brushed them off. The two heroes had been doing - something - off in space for the past... Two years?

 

So he strode out of the ninth- floor lift not expecting anything.

 

"Hiya, Tony. And you are...?"

 

Peter choked on the donut he'd been eating, staring at Banner like he was Jesus.

 

Tony couldn't help but laugh as he clapped the teenager on his heaving back, speaking for him: "This is Peter. My... intern. He's pretty excited to meet you two."

 

Thor was watching the kid with what could only be described as a quizzical curiosity. He'd swapped out his Asgardian gear for a casual getup which made him look surprisingly... normal. Bruce wore one of his signature lilac shirts; his glasses slid a little down the bridge of his nose as he peered at the choking Peter.

 

Once Peter had finally ceased his coughing, he stood stock-still in the presence of two of his biggest heroes, arms slightly out at his side. Thor and Bruce seemed at a loss with what to do with the teenager in front of them.

 

Tony would have to give the star-struck kid a little prompting.

 

"Hey, Peter, this is Thor. You talk a lot about him, don't ya? And this is Bruce, Bruce Banner. I'm sure you know him." Tony again took Peter's shoulders and nudged him a little towards the two.

 

The movement seemed to set Peter in action: slowly, he began to stutter, hands twisting and eyes gleaming: " Mr. Th- Thor... I'm- um- Hi, Mr. Banner...sir- uh, so- um - shit- wait no -sorry..."

 

Tony fought hard to keep his composure. He remembered the first time he'd met the kid himself and he'd acted much the same: a ball of nerves and stammering. 

 

It was really fucking sweet.

 

Thor, taking the initiative, went in for what Tony would call a bro hug but might have been some ancient Asgardian custom or whatever, and Tony again fought not to snigger as he witnessed the ridiculous height difference between the two. The tip of Peter's head reached somewhere just below the top of Thor's shoulder.

 

The cuteness factor of that kid could only increase, it turned out.

 

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Peter." Thor gave Peter a  gentle pat on the back and a winning smile, prompting Peter to mirror the expression.

 

"Wow, Mister Thor- it's an honour to meet you!" Peter couldn't seem to help bouncing a little on his toes.

 

Seeming a little shy himself, Banner sidled out from behind Thor and extended his hand rather gingerly towards the kid, who was, by now, positively vibrating with excitement.

 

Peter started to speak. “You’re-“

 

“The Hulk, I know-“

 

“The most renowned scientist of the generation!” Peter cut in with unabashed awe, going in to hug Bruce.

 

Tony couldn’t catch a glimpse of the scientist’s face from where he was stood, but the smile on Thor’s face attested to a very positive response to Peter’s greeting.

 

Bruce was the first to attempt to terminate the embrace- he attempted, Tony thought, because in his excitement, Peter had managed to stick a little onto Bruce; all of a sudden flustered, the kid pulled his hands off of Banner’s back with a nervous laugh.

 

“So… where’ve you guys been all this time?” Peter cut in, sidling just a little backwards towards Tony, who was all too aware of the movement.

 

Thor seemed to trust the teen, because he replied without hesitation: “Off in space, all sorts of places. Have you ever heard of Asgard?”

 

Peter’s eyes shone. “Of course, sir! They teach us about it in World History, but none of the details or some of the smaller planets. I find out about them myself.” As he spoke the final sentence, he ducked his head a little.

 

But Thor seemed pleased. “And how about Sakaar?” He perched on the corner of a desk, shoulders set forwards as he addressed Peter with a bemused grin which Tony was pretty sure was a copy of his own face.

 

“Oh, I heard about that one a couple weeks ago, it sounds- wait, that’s where you were? In Sakaar?”

 

“Yes- it was a rather amusing trip, wasn’t it, Bruce?” This seemed to be a joke; Thor playfully punched Bruce, who didn’t seem to find the line amusing, in the arm.

 

“What sorta stuff happened?” enquired Peter, whose foot was scuffing back and forth on the lab floor in excitement now instead of anxiety.

 

Bruce had the presence of mind then to cast a glance to Tony, who had been spectating the scene with loosely crossed arms, as if to ask, just how much should this kid know about the activity of the Avengers?

 

Surely there wasn’t any more harm Tony could do to this kid?

 

So he nodded to the scientist, a small smile hopefully communicating to him that this particular intern (not that Tony had any others) was trustworthy.

 

Thor barrelled on. “Oh, you would not believe the things that happened. I’m guessing you’ve never seen a wormhole before?”

 

“…no, not in real life.”

 

“Well, on Sakaar, there’s one called the Devil’s Anus, and we basically flew right into it-”

 

Bruce cut in curtly: “-which was his idea, not mine-“

 

Peter giggled, a delightfully airy sound.

 

“-to escape from the planet. But before that, we met a real Valkyrie, and Loki, and Korg- he’s made out of rocks…”

 

As the odd pair began to build up steam on their tale, Tony retreated from the room, catching a final glimpse of the rapturous and beaming Peter as he left to get a drink.

 

He spent too long just standing over the sink on the kitchen sink, hands braced against the counter, staring blankly into space. In these moments, he always found it hard to recall the thoughts that had plagued him as he stood motionless, but he definitely remembered thinking, “holy fuck.”

 

This isn’t a joke anymore. This is… responsibility. This is everything I’ve been trying to dodge for a decade. But it’s- it’s good. It’s one of the best fucking things that’s happened to me, ever. He is.

 

But what if I’m not the right thing to happen to him? When have I ever been the right thing for anyone?

 

Alright, hotshot, pull yourself together.

 

A quick run of water over his time-roughened face, a sharp inhale through his teeth, and Tony Stark was back on.

 


 

 

“So, Pete… how much do you know about thermonuclear astrophysics?”

 

Peter snorted softly. “Probably more than you think.”

 

“Oh yeah? Why don’t you prove it, genius, and give ‘Mr. Thor sir’ a crash course? I’m sure both of these jokers have a lot to learn from you.”

 

All of a sudden, Peter seemed a little flustered, but Bruce glanced up, intrigued.

 

Tony resumed his tirade: “Mr. Parker here is somewhat of a prodigy- why do you think I let him, uh, intern for me? - And I’m sure the two of you-“ he gestured to Banner lazily- “would have a whale of a time nerding out over anomalous photodisintegration. And Thor… I have mince pies?”

 

“What exactly are mince pies?” Thor ventured.

 

If Peter’s mouth had been hanging open before, his jaw came close to dropping onto his chest like Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol at this remark.

 

“You’ve never tried a mince pie?”

 

And so a tradition was born.

 

Half an hour later, Tony was perched on a desktop, wading through virtual files documenting supernovae and the like (which the reader probably wouldn’t care to know the details of) with Bruce close by him picking out the most intriguing files and Peter with Thor on his left; the two were ploughing steadily through the boxes of mince pies by their side while Peter animatedly illustrated the world of astrophysics to the Norse god.

 

It was a festive sight to behold, no doubt.

 

“Peter? Pass me a mince pie, would ya?”

 

Peter’s head whipped around from where he’d been furtively glancing at said mince pies, and he wheedled to Tony: “But it’s the last one…”

 

Tony crossed his arms in mock-offense, leaving the 3D grid of blue light representing the wealth of files him and Bruce had been searching through. “And who bought them?”

 

At this, a look of guilt clouded the kid’s face, and Tony couldn’t tell anymore if he was acting, but it unsettled him. He decided to humour Peter.

 

“Alright, I’ll make a deal. If you let me have that last pie... I’ll let you into my workshop next time.”

 

It was a spur-of-the-moment idea, and Tony almost regretted saying it in that moment - almost, but not quite. His workshop was… well, his, and sometimes the only place where he could find a semblance of sanity amidst his own thoughts, the suits and his robots. He even felt a little uneasy if Pepper decided to stay there and chat to him. Not to mention how messy and most likely dangerous it was down there.

 

But something about the quiet zeal of this kid told him that it’d be okay.

 

“Really?” Peter’s eyes did that thing again, where they glowed in such a way that Tony felt he’d never have to look at a single astrophysics file again for the constellation already present in this kid’s eyes.

 

Bruce was giving Tony odd looks.

 

Tony drew a hand across his face casually. “Yeah, sure.”

 

Seeming to forget that not everyone had his reflexes, Peter threw the mince pie rather enthusiastically towards Tony, who, mercifully, had years of battle instincts ingrained in him and managed to grab the food in mid-air all the same.

 

Tony took a bite into the spiced-fruit filling: so good. “When are you free then, kid?”

 

“School breaks up next Friday- I’m free all week from then on.”

 

Tony grinned, and Peter almost instantly mirrored the expression, which only further deepened Bruce’s frown.

 

Oh boy, this is gonna take some explaining.

 

“Sure, perfect. Saturday?”

 

Peter hummed assent, then took Thor’s shirtsleeve rather adorably and led him over to the files, walking around the swathes of electric blue light for a few seconds before dragging one towards them both and tapping to unearth an image of SN 1604, the most recent supernova to be seen in the Milky Way (a fact which Tony knew already but which FRIDAY also dictated as Peter selected the file).

 

Using his hands to manipulate and travel around the supernova, Peter pointed out certain temperature rises and falls to Thor with an infectious enthusiasm and an air of near-pompousness.

 

Bruce saw the moment as an opportunity to pull Tony aside and speak in a low tone to him:

 

“Alright, it’s clear this kid is not just your intern. What’s the deal here? You and Pepper decide to adopt? Is he a kid left over from a one-night stand?”

 

Tony stepped back a little from the scientist, a little ruffled. “Nope. Look, Bruce, it’s- it’s complicated, but it’s not what you think.”

 

Bruce pinched his brow between thumb and forefinger, glancing out at the kid, who was still with Thor.

 

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing here, Tony?”

 

“There are things I just can’t tell you, okay? Secret identity shit and all that. I- just don’t go spreading it around that we spend time together. This is important, Bruce, but I have it under control.”

 

A blatant lie.

 

“Okay, if you’re certain. I just don’t want you screwing up this one’s life, if you get what I mean.”

 

Tony knew all too well what Bruce meant.

 

But he’d sure as hell try not to.

 

He’d try.

Chapter Text

Nothing, nothing in the entire world, could ever top this.

 

Spider-Man perched on a high spire. Below him was arrayed all of New York city, and above, an endless stretch of  rapidly darkening sky, clouds coalescing and blooming darker as if stained by ink.

 

It never ceased to amaze him just how much there was of New York. Tiny, innumerable pinpricks of fluorescence glared at him from all the way down there, marking out the thousands of rooms in each building, of which there were thousands respectively.  How much life, how much vitality and love and anger and ambition and hopes and dreams, were contained within each tiny light? Each window, each tower block, each street?

 

Sometimes it was easier not to think about each life, each individual, because then his thoughts would stray to each life that he hadn’t managed to save, each individual who still suffered on or chose to make the wrong decisions.

 

When he was down on the ground, fighting bad guys, focusing on the messy details of the city, he forgot how beautiful it was up here.

 

His hearing allowed him to retreat to places like this to catch his breath, replace his web fluid (an action he now performed with an emerging deftness which came with increased patrolling over the past few weeks) and still be able to listen out for police sirens or raised voices in the nearby area.

 

And for the faraway places, well, he had Karen.

 

“Hey, Karen? Anything new?”

 

He was met with the usual level-toned female voice. “Actually, yes. A hostage situation on 23rd and 9th at the local bodega. Doesn’t sound particularly dangerous- a gang armed with zip guns and knives, and three members have been spotted so far.”

 

“Alright, cool. Haven’t had hostages in a couple weeks, but I see the criminal population likes to shake things up a little.”

 

“Want me to direct you there?”

 

Peter narrowed his eyes, scouting out the rough location, and sure enough, picked out a ragged yell echoing from the distant spot. It was probably two or three miles away.

 

“Nah, I’m good. You know what they say-“

 

He leapt all of a sudden from the high point, the sudden air resistance rippling the fabric of his suit and whistling past his ears and pinning his arms to his side, and he shot like a bullet downwards.

 

“-the best way to learn is under pressure!”

 

Letting out a long whoop, he waited until his nose seemed to brush the tarmac before releasing a web which found purchase high on the building to his right and swinging the way only Spider-Man could, pushing his whole body through the air feet-first to gain momentum and achieve the sound of the wind in his ears again.

 

Now he was down in the pits of the bustling city: lit by rows of streetlights, pedestrians stopped to marvel at him as they passed by, many taking out their phones in an attempt to get a picture and some even calling out to him:

“Where’re you going, Spidey?”

 

“Go Spider-Man!”

 

And, most amusingly, an exclamation of “Holy shit!

 

Spider-Man generally ignored the civilian attention; it made him a little antsy. So he swiftly changed his web combination in mid-air and shot one straight up where it carried him rapidly higher. Using the momentum, he pulled on the web and met it, hands splayed, on the side of the building: a towering but otherwise nondescript office block.

 

And then he was running across the wall, testing his own speed, relishing the no-longer-strange feeling of blood rushing to one side of his face as he remained on his side before lunging for the opposite side of the street with another stream of webbing as leverage.

 

Each leap between buildings brought with it a burst of adrenaline which set a fire in his veins unlike anything else, a fire which propelled him ever forward and overruled the ache in his wrists and shoulders and thighs and feet from hours of patrol.

 

But all too soon, the fun was over, the bodega in sight, and he twisted round mid-swing to grip the top of a streetlamp, letting his legs soar over him and stick to the rough metal pole underneath. He needed to get a better idea of what was going on before leaping into action.

 

“What’s it looking like, Karen?” he whispered.

 

“Four hostages: the owner and, presumably, three shoppers.”

 

“Looks like the gang is five strong, judging by the heat signatures?”

 

“Yup. Hostages are held in the storage room.”

 

“And no cops yet?”

“Not for another… eight minutes.”

 

“Okay, fun. No, sorry, not fun, this is serious stuff.” Peter composed himself and continued in what he liked to think was a cool, ominous voice: “It’s time for stealth mode.”

 

He’d immediately spotted the two guys guarding the place just inside the door. It was a difficult place to enter without being seen, but he’d have to find a way.

 

Spider-Man sighed. “If only all bodegas were corner stores.”

 

One taut string of web, and he was poised above the store, padding on his hands and feet down over the heads of the guards.

 

This is the fun part, when they have no idea what’s gonna hit them.

 

In a blur of movement, he’d dropped from the wall above and burst through the glass doors, emerging into a pleasantly heated room and the company of a pair of sloppily balaclava’d (which isn’t a word but should be, thought Spider-Man in that moment) gang members. In the half-second where his opponents processed the presence of a vigilante under their noses (quite literally, they were both a good few inches taller than Peter) he’d fired matching swathes of webbing over their mouths and lunged forward for a nice clean punch to the face.

 

Unfortunately, it turned out that these gang members were not as inexperienced as Peter had previously thought. As he lunged towards one, the other retaliated with a swift knock to his stomach, catching him off-guard and leaving the other time to kick out at his face.

 

Ouch. These guys were tough, and that would probably bruise later.

 

So Peter told them so. “Maybe go a little easy on the hits, guys,” he quipped while springing up to retreat to the ceiling for a second. “Secret identity and all that. Don’t want my friends to think I’m violent, know what I mean?”

 

All he recieved in response from the thugs were muffled grunts from behind the makeshift gags.

 

“I hope that was an agreement!” Spider-Man dropped from his vantage point on the ceiling, aiming a roundhouse kick at the shorter criminal just to be fancy and using the subsequent momentum to descend on the taller with enough force to knock him to the ground.

 

Being short was tough sometimes, but he’d get over it.

 

Eager to take this chance, Peter hurriedly strung a couple webs over the struggling gang member while still straddling him.

 

“Alright, Beefy, that’s you sorted for now,” he murmured as he worked, aware of Shorty (okay, they were kinda crappy names but he worked with what he had) coming up behind him with a knife unsheathed.

 

This time, it was a breeze to relieve Shorty of his weapon via a well-placed strand of webbing and toss it aside, giving in to the temptation of exclaiming “Yoink!” as he pulled. His opponent now unarmed, Peter planted his feet and punched him squarely in the jaw before leaping over his assailant’s head and onto his back, simply allowing Shorty to topple over with the sudden weight.

 

God, he loved physics.

 

A prickle at the back of his neck, and Peter’s head whipped around to witness Beefy attempting to free himself with his own knife.

 

“Oh no you don’t,” murmured Spider-Man, swiftly pulling the knife from the criminal’s hand and securing both of his assailants with more webbing until he was certain they wouldn’t be able to escape until the cops arrived.

 

A sharp shake of the head, and Spider-Man rose from his struggling opponents, padding softly along the aisles of food with an incongruous tranquillity. It created a strange image, the audaciously red-and-blue clad superhero strolling past tubs of ice-cream and ready meals under the tacky lights of the store.

 

Approaching the shadowed doorway to the storage room was a little more daunting for Peter than he would have liked. Hostage situations weren’t easy to deal with in more ways than one.

 

But he was Spider-Man, so he’d save them. He’d save them all. He had to.

 

All the same, his breathing was taking a turn for the worse, and this was not a good time Peter, suck it up already, there are real hostages in there who need your help.

 

“…Peter?” Karen’s voice was softer, quieter than usual.

 

“Yeah?” Peter had an arm braced heavily against the wall, his free hand poised over the doorknob and lightly trembling.

 

“Why aren’t you going in?”

 

“I, uh-“ - Peter edged towards the door, scuffing his foot rapidly on the polished floor- “-Gotta just- figure out a- um, a strategy?”

 

“All four hostages and three gang members are in there.”

 

“Yeah, thanks for reminding me.” Peter drew a hand across his face, and an image of Tony Stark doing the same thing flashed across his vision.

 

The voice softened again; Peter wondered where this new update had come from. “Try to stay calm.”

 

Turning onto his back and leaning back momentarily against the wall, Peter crossed his arms tightly and let his eyes close for a second. “I know.”

 

After a pause, he received a soft prompt from Karen. “Ready?”

 

“Ready.” Narrowing his eyes, Peter placed his hand on the spherical doorknob, twisted, and drove the door away from him.

 

Okay. The three thugs, he’d expected. It was, in many ways, a textbook hostage situation, if there was such a thing. Hostages lined up on the ground, backs against a shelving unit, and two men flanking the group with one woman standing by the door. The guard lady carried a pistol; the other two brandished wide knives and kept them aimed close to the necks of the hostages to keep them from moving.

 

It was the hostages themselves- or one of them in particular- which threw Peter off his guard.

 

The crucial moment of ambush passed by and he hadn’t moved, frozen with his arms raised in the doorway, staring at the terrified line of hostages.

 

The woman at the door, also balaclava-clad, took the opportunity then to plant a hand on his chest and shove him back against the wall, pressing the barrel of her gun painfully up under his chin. Peter cried out in surprise.

 

The guard lady growled out a sentence: “Should we get rid of him?”

 

Finally regaining his instincts, Peter twisted sharply to the side, out of her reach, and dropped into a crouch, tearing his eyes away from the civilians. Mercifully, she was thrown off by his sudden duck and lurched over him, giving him the opportunity to grab a hold of her lower leg and, in an arcing motion, flip her over his head.

 

Superhuman instincts allowed him to see the movement in slow motion: the fanning out of Guard Lady’s dark hair, the way her jaw jerked backwards as she was tossed through the air, a hand clawing at him but unable to find purchase on the well-fitted suit and the other still clutching the gun, an object he was all too aware of.

 

But the momentum of the fall was too strong: he was pulled along as Guard Lady fell heavily behind him, left leg crossing over right to bring him face-to-face with her once again. Now she was laying on her back on the floor, and he was too close, close enough for her to pistol-whip him across the face.

 

All this had happened in the space of one or two seconds, Peter was pretty certain as time spooled like an old-fashioned tape and whirred back to a normal speed, because the other two guys hadn’t made a move yet.

 

The hit was powerful, the metal biting into the skin on his cheek, and Peter tasted blood as he staggered back a little and brought himself back into a fighting stance.

 

And then a particular hostage had to go and make things complicated.

 

“Peter-“

 

“Ned!”

 

Ned lunged blindly onto his feet and made a break for Peter, but was shoved roughly back by one of the guard guys, who then decided to press his knife to his friend’s face and lock his free arm around Ned’s neck.

 

Panic.

 

Peter threw his arms out in front of him, ready to release a stream of webbing, but poised his fingers over the webshooters.

 

“Alright, buddy, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but if you could just stand down that’d be marvellous-“

 

But the guard guy just chuckled. Guard Guy 2 hadn’t moved from his position by the hostages, and Guard Lady had her gun trained on him in a precautionary gesture.

 

“You know this kid, don’t ya?” Guard Guy 1 (God, Peter needed some names, and fast) mused, indicating Peter and Ned respectively with his knife.

 

Peter didn’t grace him with an answer.

 

Covering up his blind panic with chat, he spoke, hoping the thugs would ignore the tremor in his outstretched hands: “Hey, you wanna kill somebody, kill me! I mean, I’m not really sure what your aim is here, guys. Care to explain?”

 

Something unspoken passed between the criminals; the thug with his knife to Ned’s throat inched it a little closer, and Ned struggled in his grip, eyes searching Peter’s for some sort of command.

 

All of a sudden, a memory flashed across Peter’s adrenaline-fuddled vision: him and Ned in a corner of the library, months ago, discovering their own secret code in the periodic table. They’d spent all of lunchtime picking out elements and using their symbol abbreviations to send each other coded messages.

 

So, praying that Ned remembered that day, Peter spoke urgently to him.

 

“Deuterium oxygen nitrogen tritium molybdenum vanadium. Iodine titanium sulfur oxygen potassium.”

 

Don’t move. It’s okay.

 

Just a little of the blind panic melted from Ned’s eyes.

 

But the gang didn’t seem to like that they were communicating in this way; the Guard Guy who had Ned tensed and addressed Peter with a yell.

 

“One more word and I’ll do it! I know he’s some kinda friend of yours- maybe even your fuckin’ boyfriend- and I will cut his throat!”

 

“Hey, hey, hey!” Peter raised his arms in surrender, before realising how dumb a move that was. Don’t lose your cool.  “Could we all just- chill for a second? What’s your M-O here?”

 

Tony’s voice, the first time they’d ever met: “I gotta know. What’s your M-O, what gets you outta that twin bed in the morning?”

 

Shit, I wish Tony were here.

 

Guard Lady snarled. Yeah, she actually snarled. It made Peter jump.

 

“We want you and your boyfriend-“ The word dripped with venom and disgust- “the hell out of this state. Out of this world. And if you try to stop us, we’ll kill everyone here- unless we get what we want.”

Well, shit. They had to go right for the personal issues, didn’t they?

 

“So, let me get this straight. You have a murderous vengeance towards me and my alleged boyfriend specifically? I mean, I’d totally ask him out, but now’s not really the time, is it?”

 

“Do you think we’re fucking joking around?” yelled Guard Lady. She promptly fired a shot into the ceiling, the sound deafening to Peter who stood close by her. Peter could practically feel the heat rolling off her in waves as she slammed him against the wall again, her face almost meeting his. “Can you give us what we want?”

 

Desperate to keep the tone light, Peter stalled: “Didn’t quite catch it the first time. Mind reiterating?”

 

She hissed at him. “We want the government to stop fraternising with faggots. We won’t stand with it anymore. We want their rights stripped; we want them out.”

 

Peter couldn’t help but shrink a little under her grip. But this was something he wouldn’t sit by and allow.

 

“I’m sorry,” he replied in a low tone, “but that is one thing I’ll never give to you.”

 

Immediately, the rage in Guard Lady’s eyes was renewed. Peter searched the depths of his mind for a solution to this situation and found none. None except let them do whatever they needed to him and spare the hostages, spare Ned.

 

And wasn’t that what Spider-Man was for? This whole façade, the symbol of hope- he was supposed to bear the weight of crime for everyone else, take the blows meant for them. That was why he donned the mask night after night – to take the force of hatred and turn it on himself to preserve the life of the city, to keep hope alive.

 

And he’d endure countless blows for this. He’d rather die than give up LGBT rights for these sad old thugs.

 

Suit Lady raised her gun to aim at him, but Guard Guy called out: “Save the bullets for the police.”

 

Reluctantly, she tossed the gun onto the floor and drew a knife of her own. “Fine,” she deadpanned, and lurched into action.

 

She was a ferocious fighter, but Peter didn’t want to fight, not like this.

 

He spent a few seconds dodging her, every slash of her blade straying slowly closer and closer to him. Then, all of a sudden, he didn’t duck in time, and the tip cut a jagged line down his forearm which continued across his chest, beads of blood immediately blooming along the point and a hot rush of pain jolting him backwards where he slipped on the discarded gun and thudded backwards, the impact on the back of his head sending dark spots like mould across his line of sight.

 

And then Guard Lady was looming over him, knife freshly coated in his blood. The scene slowed again- why did it always remind him of a super old-fashioned cassette tape?- and a single drop of blood separated from the blade and made its mark on the storeroom floor.

 

Peter pulled off his mask.

 

“Wait!” He gasped. Held his arms up again. “Look at me. Look at me. I don’t know your name, you don’t know mine, but look, I’m a human being. We’re both people. Don’t you realise that?”

 

The predatory snarl didn’t soften on Guard Lady’s face; she poised midair, knife still inches away from his face, but didn’t seem to be making a move just yet. The Guard Guys seemed at a loss for what to do.

 

Ned let out an audible gasp from the other end of the storeroom. Here was Peter Parker, revealed for these criminals to see. There was a fifteen-year old kid under that unsheathed knife. Ned saw his flushed face, saw the tremor in his jaw and his messy curls, and heard his ragged breathing coming through a slack mouth.

 

“I don’t know anything about you, but I could care less. I don’t wanna hurt you. I don’t want to hurt anyone, even people who think differently about stuff to me. Because we all share that one thing in common: we’re all people, and we all just wanna get by, don’t we?”

 

Everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath: the hostages didn’t dare move.

 

I’ll tell you a little about myself. I’ll turn sixteen next August.”

 

The store owner shook his head morosely.

 

“Uh- That’s my best friend over there.”

 

Ned smiled tearfully, tensely.

 

“I’m- bisexual.”

 

At this, Peter’s breath caught, and he pushed on faster.

 

“And- but what’ve I done to you? What have any of us done that’s so terrible? Have we done anything that’s worse than what you guys do?”

 

As he built up speed, his breathing became more ragged; it was clear he was passionate about this. The piercing glint in his eye was not to be ignored.

 

“My point is you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do this. We won’t take your rights, we won’t take your freedom, and we won’t cast you out. The whole point of the LGBT community is inclusion; it’s embracing who you really are.”

 

There was a pleading note in his voice.

 

“All I’m asking is that you reciprocate that. Maybe we can try just getting along together, for once? Isn’t there enough hate around?”

 

He was getting bolder.

 

“So I’m not gonna fight you. If you really want to do this, do it. But I have a family too, and a friend who’s right there, and I – actually- really wanna graduate high school first, if I’m being honest. Just remember, we’re all people. I know that. Do you?”

 

Nobody had moved through Peter’s entire tirade. Nothing had changed.

 

And then he was out of words to say, and Guard Lady still hadn’t moved from where she was, and he squeezed his eyes shut, readying himself for the hit that would inevitably come, and tried not to cry because at least he’d tried.

 

All of a sudden, a hand was at his arm, and Peter yelped, bracing himself for the pain, curling in on himself, but there wasn’t a knife there, just a hand, and it pulled at his upper arm, as if to help him up.

 

In trepidation, Peter peeled open his eyelids.

 

The knives and gun were nowhere to be seen. Guard Guy 1 was no longer holding his to Ned’s throat; in fact, he’d released his hostage entirely.

 

And the hand helping him up was Guard Lady’s.

 

Like a storm clearing, the violent tension in the room was gone, as well as the snarl on Guard Lady’s face.

 

She spoke slowly, not meeting his eye. “My parents were ardent Christians. Raised me to be one too. I hated it. I hated them, until the day they died. And then the guilt never left.”

 

What were the chances?

 

He said it almost in a whisper. “My parents are gone too.”

 

And then she relinquished her hold on his arm, stepped back into the corner of the storage room with the two other guys, and slowly, purposefully, placed her hands on her head and kneeled. The other two followed her lead.

 

The cops chose that moment to burst in, heavy-duty guns raised, just beginning to yell “Drop your weapons! Arms up!” and halting in their tracks when they witnessed the scene in front of them.

 

To the right, Spider-Man, suffering a light gash across his chest and arm, was pulling his mask over his face with shaking fingers, staring wide-eyed at the three criminals directly to their left who were all mutely arranged in positions of surrender. The four hostages on the floor were slowly beginning to help each other up, now the weapons of the thugs were no longer trained on them.

 

“What the hell is this?” faltered the chief officer.

 

Spider-Man spoke in a surprisingly quiet voice, twisting his hands a little. “All taken care of, sir. No harm done. Just don’t treat these guys too harshly, alright? They were real nice.” He gestured to the gang, who all kept eye contact with Spider-Man, an unreadable emotion passing between them.

 

Slowly, Ned Leeds took Spider-Man’s elbow and led him out of the storage room, muttering “Thank you so much, sir,” as they passed.

 

Then they were out in the brisk night air, ducking into a secluded alley, and Peter, removing his mask again, snapped sharply out of his dreamlike state.

 

“Holy shit- Peter...”

 

“Ned-“

 

The two teenagers collided in a bone-crushing, desperate hug.

 

When they finally broke apart, they were both tearful.

 

Peter looked Ned over. “Are you alright?”

 

“Am I- are you alright?”

 

Peter rubbed his palm with the fingers of his free hand, looking down. “Yeah, I deal with this stuff all the time-“

 

“But not like that?”

 

“Never like that.”

 

“I didn’t know…” Ned whispered.

 

Peter shook his head briefly. “I never told anyone.”

 

“What you said in there- holy hell, Peter- how’d you come up with all that?”

 

But Peter was distracted by the slow leeching of blood through his suit, and he suddenly felt like he needed to sit, so he did so clumsily, the world tilting a little as he went.

 

“Peter-“

 

As his back hit the brick wall, he was wide awake again, drawing his legs up and his arm inwards to conceal it. “Sorry- I’m good.”

 

Ned knelt down wordlessly, eyebrows raised.

 

“Honestly, Ned, don’t.” Peter inched back a little from his friend, bowing his head.

 

But Ned’s face softened. “Can I at least fix your hair for you?”

 

Peter let out a small, breathy laugh. “Sure.”

 

Peter loved the feeling of hands in his hair, and Ned knew it. The other kid sat beside him against the wall, looped an arm around his shoulder, and ran his hands slowly through Peter’s sweaty curls, smiling a little as Peter leaned instinctively into the touch.

 

They spent a while like that, relishing in the fact that they’d both made it out of there alive.

 

“I gotta go,” said Ned all of a sudden as he checked his phone. “I have… 5 missed calls from my mom. This is not going to go well.” He pushed off from the wall and stood again, looking back at Peter. “Are you gonna be alright there? Should I call a cab for you or something?”

 

Hoping to assuage Ned’s worry, Peter stood too, steadying himself with an arm against the grimy wall, and gave him a smile. “I’m good, trust me. I can get home.”

 

“You’re completely sure?”

 

“Yeah.”

 


 

 

“Tony?”

 

“What’s up, kid?”

 

“Uh- can you- can you come pick me up?”

 

“What, am I an Uber driver now?”

 

“I’m sorry, if you’re busy then-“

 

“No, I’m- what is it, squirt?”

 

The pet name made Peter chuckle despite everything.

 

“I- might have got myself into a bit of a mess. It’s not bad- I don’t think- I just, you know, didn’t really feel like swinging home.”

 

There was an unpleasasnt scratching noise from the other end of the line.

 

“Where are you and what happened?”

 

 “23rd and 9th, in a little alleyway beside the bodega. There was a- a hostage… thing…”

 

“Alright, I’m coming for you. Hang on in there.”

Chapter Text

 

Peter hadn’t missed the way Tony had changed around him.

 

It was good, he guessed- just – Tony kept giving him this sidelong glance when he thought Peter wouldn’t notice, with this glint of worry in the specks of light in his eyes which served to make Peter worry even more.

 

Well, it was kind of a given after Tony had been called upon to rescue Peter from the alleyway outside the local bodega-

 

“Kid.”

 

“Mr. Stark…”

 

Peter was still sitting propped up against the wall, mask off, staring listlessly into space. What the hell had come over him? Why couldn’t he snap out of it this time?

 

“Alright, where are you hurt, buddy?”

 

Tony’s hands hovered over him as if he needed some sort of permission to cross that invisible and inevitable barrier of affection.

 

As if half-asleep, Peter gestured to his bleeding arm, then the back of his head, and then let his hand sweep over his entire body vaguely.

 

Tony’s face was creased in concern; the tone of his voice was different to anything Peter had heard from the man, with a softness in the undertone which made him feel guilty. “Everywhere? I don’t understand.”

 

There was something, something – just wrong about this. Peter felt wrong, and he didn’t know how to make it right.

 

“I don’t know,” he breathed.

 

“Alright, okay. Can you stand?”

 

Peter could get up. He was sure. He always got back up- he was Spider-Man. But this time, it felt like an invisible pull, a thought, was telling him no.

 

So he reiterated his last answer to Mr. Stark - “I don’t know” – with a wavering voice.

 

Tony didn’t hesitate to pull the kid gently to his chest and sweep him off the ground, one arm under his knees and the other looped around his back.

 

And then Peter started crying.

 

Just a little bit. But it was still embarrassing as all hell, getting carried bridal-style by Iron Man and crying in his arms over a little hostage situation.

 

But he was just so tired. He’d been trying to get to every crime scene possible during his short time on patrol because May had pushed his curfew forward to 9 pm and he didn’t want to let the city down just because it got dark quicker now, and his winter finals were next week so he’d been cramming every night for as long as possible, except May had taken on a couple more shifts to make sure they’d be covered for Christmas so he’d started making meals for her and waiting up so he could see her at least once that day, and school started at 8 in the morning but the trains were usually late because of the icy weather recently so he had to catch an earlier one every morning. Couple that with the building compulsion to hibernate or whatever, and the crappy sleep he’d been getting recently, mainly because it was- the anniversary of Uncle Ben’s… you know…

 

And then this whole hostage situation which had seemed to drag on for hours. He was utterly drained, burned out, and now the adrenaline had worn off, he felt like an empty shell.

 

So he buried his head in Tony’s shoulder and tried to contain his tears, which only made it worse, of course.

 

Tony hadn’t really appreciated just how small Peter was until the kid was easily contained in his arms, shuddering with suppressed sobs.

 

He found himself rubbing his thumb in circles along Peter’s upper arm. “Hey, don’t cry. It’s alright now, it’s alright,” he murmured.

 

This version of Peter scared him.

 

But there was nothing else Tony could do, really, except carry him over to his waiting car, laying him gently down in the passenger seat, and drive the kid to Stark Tower to get him checked over by someone who might have an idea what the hell was going on with him.

 

“I’m so sorry,” was the first thing Peter said to him once he’d swung the driver’s door behind him and was fumbling to start the car, adrenaline making his hands shake.

 

The words made him sit back in his seat and glance over at the kid, curled up in his seat and leaking a little blood, staring blankly at the floor.

 

“What in the world have you got to be sorry for, Pete?” Tony rooted around in the glovebox as he spoke and unearthed a couple tissues, pressing them into Peter’s hands to use as he wished. He just stared at them.

 

“I called you and made you come here, I didn’t need to- normally it’s not like this, but…”

 

They were pulling out onto the road now, Tony contemplating whether to floor the gas and make it back to the Tower faster or to be cautious and avoid startling the shaken teenager on his right. He cranked up the temperature in the car and turned on Peter’s seat heating as an afterthought. It did a little to ease Peter’s shuddering.

 

“Peter. Sometimes this happens; you can’t always just brush off the stuff you’ve gone through in the suit. It’s hard. I get it.”

 

When he received no verbal reply, Tony cast his eyes to his right. Peter was out cold in his seat, one cheek smashed against the leather and the crush of tissues still clutched in his limp hands.

 

Well, at least he didn’t have to dig himself into a hole trying to give the kid a pep talk.

 

Tony sighed, chuckling a little in his exasperation.

 

When they’d pulled up at the Tower and Tony again slipped his hands around Peter’s back and legs, he barely stirred.

 

“Hi, May. So, long story short, Peter… he’s at the Tower with me right now. He’s alright, just pretty tired, which is actually why he’s staying overnight. Um- I hope it’s alright with you- he conked out before I could get him to call you and I don’t wanna wake him again- but… don’t blame him. This was my idea; I didn’t look at the time. Call me back if you need.”

 

Pinching the bridge of his nose between roughened fingers, Tony contemplated the again-drowsy teenager, newly patched up and showered and tucked into one of the Tower’s many spare beds, from the doorway of the room.

 

He’d have to program something to stop that from ever happening again.

 

But that was what he always did, wasn’t it? He built stuff. He did what he knew. He tinkered, programmed, designed, micro-engineered a solution to every problem, because he didn’t know what the fuck else to do.

 

He didn’t know what the fuck to do with this harrowed, exhausted kid in his home.

 

But he’d make damn sure that at least Peter didn’t have to sit in that alleyway alone the next time.

 

So he skipped that night’s sleep bent over the discarded Spider-Man suit in his workshop with a soldering iron and an open software tab on his computer.

 

As a second thought, he got FRIDAY to access the suit’s memory files and watched the events of that evening play out through Peter’s eyes wordlessly. When he got to the end of that incredible speech he gave at knifepoint (completely insane and irrational of him, but somehow, amazing kid that he was, he pulled it off) and he retreated to the alley in which Tony had found him, Peter must have taken off his mask, but the lenses were still active, giving Tony a skew-whiff view of half of Peter’s face as he melted into his friend’s arms then sunk to the floor, remaining there despite the friend’s offers of a lift and just sitting there numbly for at least fifteen minutes.

 

As Peter’s legs gave way and he stuttered an excuse to his friend, something primal rushed through his veins, something that screamed at him to protect the broken, selfless child in front of him.

 

But the damage was already done.

 

Thankfully, it was a Friday night, so Tony didn’t have to worry about rushing his charge off to school. Instead, he got FRIDAY to alert him when Peter awoke so he could have a little one-on-one time with him before he got too freaked out alone in Stark Tower.

 

Once Peter’s eyes were fully open again and Tony had managed to skirt almost completely around the subject of last night’s fiasco, he voiced a thought that had popped into his head sometime in the middle of last night.

 

“Hey, Natasha’s stopping by in an hour or so to- do whatever spiders do at this time of day-“ he nudged Peter gently- “So I was wondering if you’d like to tick another Avenger off of your bucket list and, I don’t know, fight each other to the death, which is what you’ll end up doing if Nat gets her way?”

 

Peter grudged a laugh. After a solid 13 hours of sleep, he looked only a smidge less wiped out, but the prospect of meeting a fellow spider-themed vigilante seemed to up his energy levels all of a sudden, setting his hands twisting again in excitement.

 

“Seriously? I could- like- spar with her, or something?”

 

“I can’t believe you actually want to do this.”

 

“Tony, it’s Black Widow. Yes, I want to do this.”

 

“Alright, you fanboy.” Tony recalled an afternoon spent in his car that seemed much longer ago than it really was. “Your funeral.”

 

Peter grinned. Did Tony note a hint of wistfulness in that grin? If he did, he didn’t comment on it.

 

Now Peter was decked out in an embarrassingly large t-shirt and sweatpants from Tony’s exorbitantly expensive collection of workout clothes (he was pretty sure the shirt was supposed to be “tight-fitting”, not “hanging halfway to your knees”) and just kinda waiting around for Natasha to arrive.

 

Tony had texted her under Peter’s command to make sure she was alright with training with him, but he was still a little antsy. He’d been left alone in the intimidatingly huge gym – Tony had to attend to some business or whatever – and now he had an empty room in front of him.

 

To negate the awkward atmosphere in the gym, he plugged his battered cellphone into the speaker system, searching until he found the soundtrack he’d been listening to a ridiculous amount over the past week: Billy Elliot. The film, not the musical: Peter was a ride-or-die movie fan (although he secretly adored the musical too).

 

The room was instantly filled with the infectiously happy synth melodies of A Town Called Malice. Every time he listened to the song, he was reminded of Billy, dancing out his frustration in the street. And when he thought of the film, all we wanted was to dance and sweat and yell his own worries away.

 

Well, nobody’s watching…

 

 

So he took a running leap onto the nearest wall, crawled up a little, then twisted around and pushed off from the height, flipping easily onto the floor, loving the sensation of blood rushing to his head and then back as he righted himself in the air and landed in a crouch.

 

He immediately sprung up again, arms outstretched, sneakered toes pointed, and attempted a shoddy pirouette, still managing to turn three or four times before leaning forward into a slow handspring to resolve back into a standing position.

 

There was a dopey grin on his face as he pretended his sneakers were tap shoes and kicked and scudded his feet for all his worth, but he could care less.

 

Scrap Billy Elliot – with his added spider powers, this was even better.

 

He didn’t have his webshooters, but it was actually nice not to rely on them for once. Instead, he put his trust in his own strength and agility and started to discover the real extent of his new physical talent.

 

He was running, tapping along the walls; he was climbing up to the ceiling and seeing how many flips he could fit in before he hit the ground in a forwards roll; he was laughing and whooping as he literally bounced off the walls.

 

And then he was freezing in his tracks, yelling to FRIDAY to turn the music down, bashfully wiping the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his t-shirt, and apologizing quietly.

 

Well, guess somebody was watching after all…

 

“Peter, right?”

 

“Uh, yeah. It’s – really cool to meet you, ma’am.” Peter wiped his hand awkwardly on his sweatpants before going to shake Natasha Romanoff’s hand.

 

“Call me Natasha.”

 

Omitting the amused smirk on her face, she looked so put-together it made Peter blush a little at his second-hand clothes, her hair straightened and pulled back in a high ponytail. There was literally not a hair out of place; Peter ran an involuntary hand through his own sleep-tangled mop.

 

“Nice dancing back there.” She set a bottle of water in the corner of the room.

 

Peter laughed nervously. “I’m- sorry?”

 

“Don’t be, it was badass.” She laughed a little along with him. “Hey, Tony told me about the hostage situation yesterday.”

 

Peter tensed; an almost imperceptible movement. “What about it?”

 

Natasha’s voice was brisk, but her eyes conveyed a sympathy that made Peter a little suspicious of how much Mr. Stark knew about last night. “Well, he thinks you should be prepared for things like that; it was a lucky chance that you managed to talk your way out of the last one.”

 

Shrugging, Peter replied: “I guess I’m just a lucky guy.” So not true.

 

“I’ll take your word for it, kiddo. But that doesn’t mean your devoted “mentor” (the air quotes were not explicitly acted out, but her tone of voice totally suggested it) is prepared to throw you onto the streets and into the path of danger if you’re not prepared for it.”

 

“And here I was hoping for an autograph.”

 

He thought that would be the killer punchline, but Natasha proceeded to toss him a marker, speaking in a deadpan: “Actually, I was gonna ask you.”

 

“Seriously?”

 

“Yeah! Don’t you have any idea how big Spider-Man is?”

 

“Dude, you’re Black freaking Widow! You got a notepad for this?”

 

“…no.”

 

Peter tried to contain his laughter as Natasha feigned nonchalance. “Guess we’ll have to just draw on each other or something?”

 

“I mean… why not?”

 

And so, somehow, Peter Parker spent the next minute or two scruffily writing his alter ego’s name on the inside of Black Widow’s wrist as she wrote hers simultaneously, the two of them chuckling along and messing up the signatures as a result.

 

"It's a masterpiece." Natasha mock-wiped away a tear, sniggering at the mess of marker on Peter's arm.

 

"Oh yeah."

 

With a little shake of her head, Natasha changed tack. "Alright, kiddo, I'm heading back out of town in a couple hours and I wanna see a complete transformation by then. Those bad guys'll be out cold on the floor before they know what's him them."

 

"A transformation? Is this America's Next Top Model?"

 

Natasha pointed to the almost incomprehensible signature on his arm: "That was the makeover, honey."

 

Peter snorted.

 


 

 

“Hey, you don’t have all the- you know, the spider powers I have, do you?”

 

Peter and Natasha were locked in a combat routine; she had a foam knife prop held to his throat, and he continued to talk near-constantly as they ran through routines.

 

She huffed out an incredulous breath as he twisted the knife to the right and away from his neck. “No…”

 

“So why’d they call you Black Widow?” Peter faked a punch to Natasha’s throat before raising his right leg to “kick” her in the stomach repeatedly, just how she had demonstrated six minutes earlier.

 

Natasha had to hand it to Tony: he’d picked a good kid to have around. Quick learner, and certainly witty, although he had the tendency to run his mouth while fighting. A lot.

 

“I guess-“-spotting a weakness in the kid’s stance, she dropped low and aimed a gentle kick to the back of his knee, sending him onto his hands and knees with a thump- “-It just sort of stuck.”

 

 Peter’s breath left him in a gasp at the sudden movement; his head whipped upwards to gaze at Natasha with an amazement she hadn’t been expecting.

 

As she reached out a hand to help Peter back up, he muttered: “Guess you don’t really need them.”

 

Natasha’s smile was fond.

 


 

 

“Alright, what we need to work on is your stance. You have the instincts, but if you don’t plant your feet right, one fall could be disastrous.”

 

Peter nodded slowly. “That makes way too much sense. You’d think because of the powers and stuff, that I’d be more- graceful, I don’t know, but I still crash into everything.” He coloured a little.

 

“You’re 15, right?” Natasha’ smirk widened as she casually spun a sword prop in her hand; Peter nodded his assent. “Well, I’m sure you’ve already been given the “So, your body’s changing” talk-“

 

“Did you just quote the Captain America PSA?” Peter pressed his lips together, a spark of glee in his eyes.

 

Natasha tilted her head, remaining largely impassive despite her obvious curiosity. “The- what?”

 

Peter blew out a breath, scanning the room for his phone. “Oh, you wanna see this.”

 


 

 

“Speaking of spider powers, I heard on the grapevine you started…“ Natasha coughed- “hibernating last week?”

 

With hindsight, the conversation starter might have been intended to throw Peter off, but if anything, chatting as he fought was more helpful. Somehow, it helped him to concentrate.

 

So, as he lunged forward over Natasha’s shoulder- she had swung her bat prop over his head- he replied: “Yeah, I did. Who’s the real spider now, huh?”

 

Growing in confidence now, Peter locked his left elbow around Natasha’s right wrist - the one holding the bat -, braced his free hand over her upper back, and aimed a few air-kicks to her stomach once again. This time, either she decided to let him win, or he’d actually beaten her for once, because she was driven back by the force of his kicks and took a couple steps back. This left her batting hand unprotected; with a swift twist, Peter prised the weapon out of her hand and skirted away from her.

 

A grin worked its way across his face. He attempted to twirl the bat like Natasha had done- “Maybe you should step up your ga-“ but was cut off as it hit him in the face.

 


 

 

“Can we please put music on now?”

 

Natasha rolled her eyes. They were halfway to perfecting Peter’s stance, but the kid was starting to get restless already without any intense combat to challenge him.

 

“Alright, as long as you promise to stop asking irrelevant questions.”

 

“What? I just wanted to know your favourite flavour! It’s a totally valid question-“

 

“No, no it isn’t. We focus on the stuff we’re doing right now.”

 

Peter ran a hand through his hair, a rare hint of annoyance in the gesture. “But- it’s hard.”

 

Natasha drew her brows together as she trekked over to her training bag, rooting around for props. “Hard in what way?”

 

Peter sighed like a true angsty teenager, flopping onto the floor to sit all of a sudden. Natasha took the cue and returned to the centre of the room to sit beside him, maintaining a distance from him.

 

“I don’t know, maybe it’s just a teenager thing- but I don’t think it’s just that. Just- you know- my senses are always dialled up to eleven, especially since the spider bite, but it- I've always felt like- like…”

 

The kid broke off with a little sound of frustration, picking at his hangnails. Eyes narrowed, Natasha decided to give him a minute.

 

“I overthink a lot of stuff… not necessarily in a – in a bad way, if you – but I’m just thinking. All the time. I’m like a- a livewire, like electricity, just thinking nonstop, and if I don’t verbalise it at least a little bit…”

 

A familiar gravelly voice intercepted his monologue. “You feel like you’ll just burst, explode, with all the information unused and unspoken.”

 

Peter’s spidey sense had helpfully not alerted him to the presence of Tony Stark, leant against the doorway of the gym, the tension in his folded arms attesting to how uncomfortable he was with what he’d just revealed.

 

“Mr. Stark- how much of that did you hear?” Peter scrambled up, suddenly aware of how dishevelled and sweaty he was. He’d been snapped out of his dream.

 

“Enough. Kid-“

 

Peter cut his mentor off for once, holding an arm out. “It’s nothing. Hormones, like Natasha said. It’s nothing.”

 

What the hell had Peter been doing? He’d just started to spill everything to Black Freaking Widow, who he met approximately ninety minutes ago. Why, endorphins?

 

Tony backed down immediately. Was that normal? “Alright, alright. I came in to break up the party, I’m afraid: Pete, Hot May wants you back.”

 

Peter put his face in his hands. “Why do you always have to be like this?”

 

“Oh, you know how I love to watch you squirm. It’s ridiculously easy.” A grin ghosted the corners of Tony’s mouth, but the eye contact he held with Peter lasted too long to be casual. “C’mon, Spider-Kid, we’ve stolen you away for long enough.” Tony beckoned him towards the door with a nod of his head.

 

Before leaving, Peter went in to hug Natasha, surprising her with his rapidity, and they bashed heads awkwardly, but Natasha broke the tension with a peal of laughter. “I see what you mean about crashing into everything,” she said with a chuckle, putting a hand across Peter’s forehead and assessing the area for damage in a disconcertingly maternal gesture which seemed to go unnoticed by the both of them.

 

That was fast, thought Tony, amused, as he pushed off from the doorway, checking his phone again just in case May had sent any more passive aggressive texts to him.

 

He guessed that was just the power of this kid. Forget super-senses, he was a freaking human magnet.

 

And, being Iron Man, it was all too fitting that he’d been drawn in to Peter like he had.

 

The world delighted to mock him with its irony, clearly.

 

But as Tony slung a casual arm around the teen’s shoulders on the way out of the gym, insisting that it was fine, he could keep some of Tony's clothes to wear back to his apartment - really, Pete, you don’t have to feel guilty about this, it’s not any skin off my back – he thought, maybe the world isn’t trying to mock me, to make life difficult. Maybe, just this once, I’ve been sent an olive branch for a change.

 


 

 

“Thanks, Mr. Stark. For - for everything.”

 

He’d bundled Peter up into a chauffeured car, freshly showered and pumped up on endorphins, with his newly repaired and washed Spider-Man suit tucked into yet another new backpack. Tony felt a strange rush of pride: he’d managed to keep this kid safe for nearly twelve hours without anything disastrous occurring (which, knowing this particular teenager, was more often than not).

 

Tony cracked a smile and ruffled Peter’s still-damp curls, eliciting a bashful laugh from the kid. “It’s all good, squirt.”

 

Peter smiled; it didn’t quite reach his eyes.

 

It brought an uncomfortable lump to his throat to say it, but Tony pressed on: “You sure you’re gonna be okay?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

The slight crack in the kid’s voice made Tony flinch.

 

“You take care of yourself, alright? Don’t freak me out like that again.”

 

“We’re going to see each other again, right? I feel like you’re shipping me off to boarding school, Mr. Stark.”

 

The change of tone put Tony off; he lost his nerve and took Peter's bait. “Yeah, of course. Unless you’re too cool for me now you’ve met Nat.”

 

“Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?” Peter grinned, and it looked genuine, unafraid.

 

Tony huffed out a fond laugh. “See ya, trouble.”

 

“Bye, Tony.”

 

And then he was shutting Peter’s car door before he realized what had just been said to him, and the car was pulling away before he could reply, and all of a sudden it really did feel like a goodbye.

 

But that doesn’t mean it has to be.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Like all other genius billionaire playboy philanthropists, Tony was a sucker for festivity. And by festivity, he meant public ice skating.

 

In case you were wondering, he’d also managed a grand total of three days and four nights without more than a few sporadic power naps and his segues were suffering as a result.

 

He liked to think that the 84 hours he’d spent awake were mostly to blame for the trip he planned that Tuesday: an excursion to the ice rink at Winter Village for him, Peter, Natasha, Thor and Bruce. Why he had picked a free rink which would most likely be crowded as all hell, the date being right up the ass of the winter holidays, he couldn’t really process at the time.

 

Nevertheless, he managed to send a vaguely coherent text to everyone he planned on inviting before crashing on the couch in his workshop and finally catching a couple hours of sleep.

 

It got… harder around this time of the year. News programmes just loved to flaunt their emotional depth by unearthing the old images of Maria and Howard Stark just like Christmas decorations and plastering them up all over the Internet on the 16th before removing them as if nothing had happened. If Tony was the sort for actually caring about his peace of mind, he might try at least switching off his social media, but when was he ever that sort?

 

So, he stuck it out. Built shit when he was mad. Let his sadness flow into anger, and his anger into alcohol, and stayed holed up down there until the day of the trip, a day which would have completely slipped his mind had it not been for FRIDAY:

 

“Boss. You told me to remind you of anything important?”

 

“What?” Tony’s voice was flat, gravelly, as he attacked a punching bag.

 

“You planned an ice-skating trip for today. It’s in just over an hour’s time.”

 

He missed the bag entirely and stumbled with the misplaced momentum. “Well, shit.”

 

Pepper was out on a business trip, which meant he’d become entirely dependent on the AI for managing social plans.

 

“Okay, okay. Who with?”

 

“I suggest you don’t back out of this one, boss. Mister Parker will be attending.”

 

With a soft groan, Tony buried his face in his hands, leaning against a wall.

 

Why is it always this kid?

 

He remained there a few seconds before rousing himself with notable effort, scrubbing at the hollowed shadows beneath his eyes as he sloped towards the door of the workshop to find some decent clothes.

 

“FRIDAY?”

 

“Yes, boss.”

 

“Play ‘My Shot’ from Hamilton, would you?”

 

“Again?”

 

“Hey, don’t sass me. It focuses me.”

 

As he took a sip of water (yes, water- possibly the first he’d had in days) from the kitchen, Tony ransacked his closet for something warm and trendy-but-not-too-trendy-because-most-likely-he'd-fall-on-his-ass-multiple-times as the familiar rousing beat of My Shot blared through his bedroom speakers.

 

Imma get a scholarship to King's college

I probably shouldn't brag but dag, I amaze and astonish

The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish

I gotta holler just to be heard, with every word I drop knowledge

I'm a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal 

Tryna reach my goal, my power of speech, unimpeachable-

 

A once-over in the mirror: for the amount of time he'd spent up, he didn't look bad at all. 

 

"Alright, we got one thing going. FRIDAY, Dr. Strange isn’t likely to be contactable before this trip, is he?"

 

"Why would you wish to contact him?"

 

"I'm wondering if there's some kind of magic which prevents me from falling on the ice. Or that makes everyone blind to every time I embarrass myself out there."

 

“I apologize, sir. Dr. Strange is currently traversing the multiverse. He won’t be contactable any time soon.

 

Tony sighed. “Guess I’ll just have to stick it out.”

 


 

 

The rink at Winter Village being public and therefore full of civilians who would be all too eager to share every moment of the group’s trip online, Tony gave Peter ‘the paparazzi talk’ before they stepped onto the rink.

 

“I'm not overly eager for your first publicity stunt to end in you going into hibernation mode and cracking your head on the ice or some crap."

 

Tony bit back an endearing smile as Peter straightened up, drawing his puffer jacket closer around him, and met Tony's eye with an attempt at intimidation. "I'm fine. I'm not gonna get cold, Tony. Trust me."

 

"You alright with all the cameras?"

 

Peter's gaze darted to rest on either side of Tony's head, where most likely dozens of reporters and fans were already gathering in the distance. 

 

Touching his top lip with the tip of his tongue, Peter steeled himself as Tony clapped his spare hand onto his shoulder. “Yeah. Just ignore them and have fun, right?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Then I’m good.”

 

To lighten the tone a little, Tony feigned a breezy grin, looping his arm round Peter’s shoulders to guide him towards the rink.

 

Crap, thought Peter. Why’d you tell him you weren’t cold? Oh my God, it’s going to be so embarrassing if you pass out on the rink.

 

I’m just going to have to… try really hard not to do that. But there’s no way I’m asking Tony for his coat. No. Way.

 

If Tony derived any confidence from the kid next to him as they approached the admittedly intimidating ice rink, around which hundreds of civilians were already skating laps, and among which were Thor and Natasha, skating like they’d come out of the womb doing it (which Thor might well have), it was entirely coincidental.

 

Please don’t be annoyingly good at this, Pete. I don’t wanna be that old, infirm guy who’s overshadowed by his more interesting apprentice yet-

 

But it was no use; it took Peter approximately three seconds to find his feet, upon which he tugged at Tony’s sleeve insistently as he clung to the wall, saying, “C’mon Mr. Stark! Let’s go fast!”

 

In that moment, Peter morphed in front of Tony’s eyes into a child much younger than himself; this was an image that stuck around for the vast majority of their time on the ice as Peter dragged Tony along behind him on the rink. There must have been some sort of role reversal between the two of them, because now it was Tony running his mouth: “Kid! Take it easy a second, I don’t- woah, woah, woah, wait! Peter… I swear, if we fall, I’m- ¡Dios mío!”

 

But the teenager at the end of his sleeve just laughed, picking up more speed towards the centre of the rink and weaving through endless swathes of open-mouthed civilians. "You need to chill, Tony!" He said with a good-natured smirk. "You're never gonna get anywhere that tense."

 

"You talking back to me, Parker?" The weight of Tony's ferocity must have been lost on Peter because Tony's eyes hadn't left his feet since he'd let go of the wall, a time which seemed now like a fond and distant memory.

 

"Try and relax. Your legs can hold you. It's just like running - the Iron Man suit is heavy, right?"

 

"No shit."

 

"The skates are heavy too, but you're actually fast in the suit-"

 

"Hey!"

 

"-so just, I don't know, pretend it's the suit instead. And instead of lifting your feet, just..." Peter proceeded to demonstrate in an exaggerated manner the way to skate, planting his right foot in front of him and letting the rented blade cut smoothly through the ice before bringing forward his other foot slowly and continuing. "... Like that."

 

Meanwhile, Tony was clinging to Peter more than he'd like to admit, his mentee snickering a little as Tony braced a heavy hand on his shoulder and attempted to lift a foot in the way he'd been instructed. 

 

"Ye- no, that's- I thought you'd be good at this, Mr. Stark!”

 

"And I thought you'd be a good kid when I first met you, but you're going out of your way to prove me wrong!"

 

"I'm just trying to bring your ego down to a level where you can realise how bad at this you are!"

 

“Tu pequeña mierda."

 

"Te estoy dejando. I wanna go see Thor and Natasha!"

 

"No can do. If you dump me here I'll never make it back to the edge."

 

"Can I leave you for thirty seconds?"

 

"Why do I feel like we've switched bodies? Now I'm the incompetent little kid. I'm Tony Stark. Would you really drop me like that?"

 

"For that comment, two minutes." With a snort that suggested that what he'd just said was a personal inside joke (Tony was all too familiar with those) Peter flounced off across the rink to join Bruce and Natasha, who were now skating hand-in-hand like the strangest Hallmark movie ever, and leaving him stranded, arms out, smack bang in the middle of the crowded rink.

 

He'd grown used to the obnoxious snapping of cameras around him, but it was moments like these when he was painfully reminded of their existence as he debated whether to attempt to move and risk a fall or just squat there like a lunatic until Peter could rescue him.

 

I'm Tony Stark. I'm the guy who learnt to fly before he could walk. How hard can this be if Peter Parker, World's Clumsiest Teen, can even do it?

 

Tony cast around for Bruce and found him still clinging to the rail in his ill-fitting rental skates and down coat. Thor, Natasha and Peter had convened in the very centre and were attempting jumps and tricks on the ice.

 

Blowing out a breath, he remembered Peter’s confident step into the air and lifted a foot before letting it glide in front of him. The natural momentum dragged his free foot a little behind him and he instinctively picked it up, remembering just in time how to place it again, and then he was moving, skating, just a little, and ridiculously slowly, but skating nonetheless.

 

In the distance, he heard a couple of bursts of applause and tamped down the urge to bow in case it brought about his demise.

 

Mission Number 2: get back to Peter.

 

Now Tony had the technique, he just needed the guts to pick up some speed; as reckless as he prided himself on being, this took a little while, mainly because he had no idea in hell how he’d stop once he got to the centre.

 

A random civilian called out to him as he shuffled on by. “Tony Stark! See you skipped out on your ice-skating lessons…”

 

“Yeah, well, I think you’ll find thermonuclear astrophysics-“ Tony smiled inwardly, remembering a recent afternoon- “- to be rather time consuming.”

 

The one-liner might have landed better if Tony had had the capability of walking purposefully away (something he’d noticed was worming its way into Peter’s repertoire recently), but it would’ve looked pretty inefficient with the skates, so he awkwardly retreated towards the safety of his friends.

 

"Peter!"

 

Now Tony had some momentum behind him and he had no idea in hell what to do about it; he dropped both his feet and braced his arms in front of him as he went barrelling towards the kid, who turned just in time to lock his arms clumsily around Tony's torso.

 

The two of them slid backwards a little, Tony stumbling in his skates, while Peter shook with laughter, gripping at Tony's coat to get a better hold of him.

 

"You... You sure tried, Mr. Stark!"

 

"Cállate."

 

Peter laughed, and it sounded like wedding bells after a funeral, an almost incongruously beaming face worlds apart from the slack, exhausted one just a few nights earlier, a pealing stream of joy which proclaimed, I'm alright. I'm happy right now.

 

Tony couldn't help but chuckle along with him, the pair still wrapped in a haphazard embrace.

 

But Tony must have been becoming attuned to the well-being of this kid because it didn't take him long to pick up the light shivers running through him.

 

Lowering his voice a little, Tony spoke. "You said you wouldn't be cold."

 

Peter groaned a little and pressed his face into Tony's coat. 

 

"Woah, woah, woah. You okay?"

 

A muffled noise of confirmation issued from his chest, and then Peter raised his head slowly.

 

"You know when you say something, and then you regret it, but you can't go back on that because than it's kind of- kind of weird and you said you'd be fine but now you're not so you seem… really incompetent and indecisive?"

 

"... I'm presuming this is about what we said before we went onto this god-awful ice rink?"

 

Peter grudged a laugh, nodding meekly. "I thought it would be alright..."

 

Tony hadn't forgotten his rather perilous situation in the ice; he gripped his mentee's arms a little frantically as he responded. "Kid. You could have just asked me. You think I'd prefer you trying to stick it out and having a miserable time to making good use of the money I paid for this and enjoying your ridiculously talented self?"

 

There was no verbal response from Peter, who blushed.

 

"Look, just take this." Keeping a free hand firmly attached to Peter, Tony shrugged off his outer coat and pressed it into his hands. "Just don't go running off to eBay with it." He winked.

 

"I... You're gonna get cold now!"

 

Tony sighed. He should have known this kid would go down fighting over a goddamn coat.

 

"Pete, I made it across Tennessee in a t-shirt and a poncho. I'm gonna be fine."

 

There was uncertainty in Peter's eyes as he put on the jacket with a reverence that made the corners of Tony's mouth twitch in fondness.

 

The coat was large on Peter, the sleeves hanging over the palms of his hands, so, without thought and in the most parental move he had ever made, Tony reached over and rolled them up to leave his gloved hands free again.

 

What the fuck, Stark? May as well tie his skate laces and wipe some fucking dirt from his face while you're at it.

 

"You two done hugging it out? We want Peter back for our routine."

 

Natasha broke the tension between them, coming to a screeching stop just by them and scaring the shit out of Tony.

 

Swallowing his pride, Tony addressed her with an attempt at his usual attitude. "Hey, teach me to stop like that?"

 

Natasha smirked. "Thought you'd never ask. C'mon, old man." Mocking his and Peter's earlier interaction, she held out her hands for Tony to take, skating backwards and facing him as he gathered speed. Peter tracked their progress on Tony's left, attempting a small spin and, unsurprisingly, executing it seamlessly.

 

"Oh, I see, you want to shatter my ego completely now you've had a taste of victory."

 

Peter crossed his arms in mock-offence, intentionally kicking a spray of ice in Tony’s direction, and Tony wanted to laugh at how petty this kid had become. “I see. If you’re gonna be mean, I may as well go over to the fun side with Thor.”

 

He was true to his word, setting a graceful course to the god and unearthing his phone from an inner pocket to show him something.

 

I gotta get him a better phone. Don’t think I’ve seen that model since the late 90s.

 

But in that moment Tony had other things to worry about, namely the woman pulling him inexorably along the ice.

 

“We need to build up some speed before you can practice stopping!”

 

Tony laughed humourlessly. “This seems like plenty of speed!”

 

“Uh… not really.” Natasha’s eyebrows quirked in amusement.

 

“You still haven’t told me what I actually do when I want to stop, Romanov.”

 

“Still on last-name terms, then? I was on your side, you know, at the airport. In case you don’t remember.”

 

“Yeah, now is not the time to be discussing that.” It was a little ridiculous, the way which Tony’s pitch climbed upwards towards the end of the sentence, but they were nearing the wall with frightening pace now.

 

“Okay, okay. Choose a foot.”

 

“Are you messing with me?”

 

“You wanted to learn to stop. Choose a foot.

 

“Okay.”

 

“And just dig in with that foot. Bring it in front of you a little and put pressure on the foot. Let it go outwards.”

 

Tony did so with an obedience he hadn’t entertained in years – this was an extenuating circumstance if he’d ever experienced one – and stopped.

 

“I stopped.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“I didn’t hit the wall.”

 

“No shit.”

 

“Thanks, I guess.”

 

Natasha just snorted derisively and turned swiftly on her heel to make a circuit of the rink.

 

With a sweeping glance at the rink, Tony located Bruce, who was making a tentative attempt to step away from the wall and put his newfound skills to use.

 

“Hey, Bruce. Not looking so hot right now, are you?”

 

Bruce frowned at him, but fondly. “Says you.”

 

“Excuse me, I just learned to stop. I got one up on you now. I’m untouchable.”

 

“You totally looked untouchable when you were clinging onto Peter’s hand and yelling Spanish profanities at him.”

 

Tony twitched a little, lips tugging in a fashion akin to both a smirk and a grimace. He braced an arm in a consciously casual manner along the wall. “That sort of… happened.”

 

“You picked a good kid, Tones.” Bruce’s tone lightened as he met Tony’s eye and he smiled fondly. “A really good one.”

 

“I know.”

 

Bruce opened his mouth to respond, but no sound issued; his jaw simply dropped and remained there as Tony searched his face for some indication of what had caused the reaction.

 

“What?”

 

Wordlessly, Bruce indicated the rink space over Tony’s shoulder with a nod of his head. Tony could feel the adrenaline building up in him as he whipped around to face the rink.

 

He found his own jaw hanging open as he witnessed the sight before him.

 

If Peter hadn’t been wearing his coat, Tony might not have even recognised him as he spun through the air horizontally at breakneck speed. Gripping his ankles was Thor, spinning himself with Peter’s frantic momentum and whooping in exhilaration. The kid was spinning so fucking fast he was a blur.

 

“Jesus Christ on a fucking bicycle.”

 

Tony was surprised he didn’t just pass out on the spot, so intense was the rush of panic that flooded him then. Instead, it propelled him unsteadily forward, pushing blindly through the crowd towards the two. “Puta madre hijo de la Santa Virgen– Thor, put him the fuck down! Peter - idiota!”

 

Thor seemed surprised at his outburst. Funnily enough, Tony couldn’t catch Peter’s reaction. But, thank God, he eventually got the memo and stuck a leg out to hit the floor, landing in an arabesque and continuing to spin as Thor gently lowered his remaining leg to the ice once again.

 

And, to Tony’s horror, they proceeded to laugh and high five each other.

 

Tony was upon Peter in a moment, the two crashing into another embrace, and Tony grasped at him shakily as he spoke: “Peter, you fucking… estúpido, idiota, estúpido!”

 

Peter didn’t return the embrace immediately. “Oh no – lo siento, I’m sorry, was that not good?”

 

In an attempt to alleviate Tony’s stress, Thor chipped in a little sheepishly. “I wouldn’t have dropped him! He sticks to me! And it was all on a video Peter showed me on his little magic light box. Incredible.”

 

Tony sucked in a breath through his teeth and wrapped an arm protectively around the back of Peter’s head, instinctively angling himself so he was between the kid and Thor. “So, this was Peter’s idea?” he asked.

 

Thor balked and stuttered a little. “Actually… it wasn’t all- I approved it, in a way... so it’s sort of my fault.”

 

“It was just a really cool move called the headbanger!” Peter interjected. “Like Thor said-“ at this, he lowered his voice in an unintentionally comical gesture- “I can stick, and if I fell it’d be alright because of the super strength and everything. And Thor is thousands of years old, it’s not like he’d drop me!”

 

“That’s not the point, Peter,” returned Tony, locking eye contact with him. “The point is, you still could’ve died doing that.” He ignored the crack in his voice and pushed on. “Don’t ever do that again.”

 

Peter had shrunk away a little from his grip. He spoke in a small voice, head bowed. “Yes, sir.”

 

Tony hated to see the kid like this, so he bundled him back in for a hug, his fingers immediately returning to the back of his head to card briefly through the hair at the nape of his neck. He just barely picked up Peter murmuring to him: “It’s alright, Mr. Stark, I’m sorry, I’m not gonna do that again, I didn’t wanna scare you.”

 

And then the ridiculousness of it all flooded back to him: the public ice-skating trip itself, the bizarre assortment of Avengers he’d dragged along with him, the lessons with Peter and Natasha, the fucking absurd move he’d just watched Peter and Thor perform like professionals, and now the teenager whispering comfort into his ear as they hugged it out on the rink.

 

He couldn’t stop the laughter from taking him over. He sunk down a little with the relief of it, wheezing and chuckling to the point of tears, still clinging to the coat he’d forced on Peter because this kid hibernated.

 

Empathetic as he was, Peter couldn’t help bursting into peals of laughter himself. His laughter was light, fast, infectious, and soon Thor was joining their chorus with his deep-throated chuckle.

 

Tony felt the gaze of the civilians heavy on him, but with Peter safe and encircled in his arms as he laughed and laughed, he could care less.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

As he’d taken out a large sheaf of squared paper late the previous night, Peter had wondered if anyone else went to the level of planning for social milestones that he did.

 

I mean, this is a big milestone.

 

At the top, he printed ASKING OUT MJ in block capitals.

 

The numbers on his computer screen increased and then decreased again, mirroring the muddying of the sky outside his window; beneath the title had bloomed a sprawling but logical flow chart detailing every move he’d make the next day.

 

To simplify: he’d enter the school like normal, wait until decathlon practice rolled around in the afternoon and take her aside afterwards somewhere quiet. Then he’d ask her to wherever she wanted to go because he knew she’d have a better idea than him.

 

He hadn’t really considered what would happen if she said no.

 

But it was nearing 3 in the morning, so he tossed the plan aside and crashed onto his bed. Sleep, for once, caught up with him easily that night. He dreamed of corridors, twisting and winding and never ending in the decathlon practice room, and the awkward squeak of shoes on the floor.

 

Of course, this easy slumber meant he forgot to set his alarm; May came banging down his door at 6:45 that morning and shoved a slice of toast into his hand as he grabbed his bag and hurried out of the apartment door.

 

Despite running to the train station, he met it just as it began to pull away.

 

Shit.

 

Peter cursed under his breath and spun on his heel, dashing towards the restroom.

 

I haven’t swung to school in months.

 

Maybe I should just postpone the plan until tomorrow…

 

No, I made the plan for today, it works. Let’s do it. I can do it.

 

In thirty seconds, he was out of his many layers and into the Spider-Man suit, shrugging on his trainers, jacket, and hoodie again over the spandex to preserve a little warmth on the way there.

 

It was surprisingly comforting to take the familiar route to school from above, the train line dwindled to a child’s playset below him and brisk winter air penetrating the suit’s fabric to sharpen his senses.

 

On any other day, I’d get some dope pictures in the fog, but I have to get on with the plan!

 

Sometimes he got wistful up here and wondered if any reporters were lapping up the content down below. He could never really predict when he’d be outshone by a trendsetter or other vigilante and when he’d be all over the news.

 


 

 

“Peter, you’re all over the news!”

 

“Wh-what?”

 

He stumbled back and braced an arm against the row of lockers behind him as MJ pounced on him in the corridor.

 

She had her phone gripped in a hand and was cycling through swathes of online articles, many of them accompanied with a picture of him with Tony. Some had captured their awkward embrace in painstaking detail; others included action shots of Tony slipping and being generally incompetent on the ice along with shots comparing him to the grace of Natasha and Thor. The vast majority of these articles, however, had titles along the lines of “Tony Stark’s Mystery Kid!” A few had gone so far as to mark his presence in each photo with a digital circle of red marker.

 

Oh no. I didn’t think about that.

 

You idiot.

 

Peter could already feel the plan slipping through his fingers, and he hadn’t even replied to Michelle yet.

 

“I- uh…”

 

Are you having an aneurysm?

 

In the most awkward move ever, he leant back fully onto the locker before pushing himself away, resulting in an awkward chin-tuck thing.

 

Michelle prompted him impatiently. “You were out with Tony Stark ice-skating? And- a couple Avengers? What the hell were you doing out there, Peter?”

 

“Wow, this- this is a lot.”

 

He’d meant the barrage of information and MJ’s accusing tone, but she misinterpreted. “Not – not really. Pretty sure you were aware of what you were doing.” Without missing a beat, she blew her fringe away from her face and swiped across to an article chronicling his and Thor’s headbanger attempt on the ice.

 

Peter dragged a hand down his face. “No, no- I meant… a lot to explain.”

 

“Well, I’m pretty sure the whole school is waiting on your explanation by now. Since when were you such good buddies with the Avengers? And why’re you going around hugging Tony Stark? And that was… the weirdest sentence I’ve ever said.”

 

Despite everything, Peter couldn’t help a snicker.

 

Michelle just raised an unamused eyebrow at him. The baggy shirt she had on was probably thrifted. There was a little speck of mud on her sneakers that hadn’t dried yet. She must’ve walked to school then; the winter mud was damp that morning. He couldn’t see the left corner of her eye- or was it her right, his left? - for the frizzy bang falling over it. And- and the tips of her fingernails were still flecked with old black nail polish- and-

 

“Hey. Nerd.” She actually snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Have you elected to become mute in the ten seconds since you last talked? Because as much as I hate the sound of your voice, it’d be a bummer to see it go forever.”

 

Ah shit, I stared. Now she thinks I’m awkward and creepy.

 

Oh my God. Talk. To. Her.

 

“It’s…” Peter twisted his hands together in front of him. “It’s a long- a long story. Very long.” His speech was cut off by his own shaky laugh.

 

What am I supposed to say?

 

Something!

 

“So…”

 

He must’ve looked as terrified as he felt because something in the lines of MJ’s cheeks softened a little and she clicked her phone off to give him her full attention.

 

Just breathe, look at her, and…

 

Tell the truth?

 

But then she’ll know!

 

And?

 

Then, I don’t know, she’ll leak it to the world – or someone will find out she knows and kidnap her or something bad and that would be the worst move ever.

 

But the warmth in the glint of her eyes, whether feigned or genuine, had pulled him under into a sense of security, of I can tell her anything.

 

“…Okay so… I’m Spider-Man – and will you go out with me? - and I hang out with Mr. Stark a lot - but not if you don’t want to?”

 

Wait, wait, wait-

 

What?

 

Michelle seemed as bewildered as he for once. She took an unconscious step back, blinking, her trademark aloof smirk wiped from her face.

 

“Shit.” Peter clapped a hand over his mouth and crashed backwards into the lockers, groaning in regret.

 

You did not. You’re fucking kidding me.

 

Michelle scanned the corridor around them and, evidently spotting a few kids around the corner or something, took his wrist in a hand he’d not expected to be so soft and pulled him towards the nearest door, one emblazoned with a brass tag reading “THEATRE”.

 


Michelle should have known. She should have known. 

 

It should have been clear when Peter ran out of school like a madman and Spider-Man emerged ten minutes later above the rooftops. She should have confronted him the time he stumbled into decathlon practice littered with bruises like he'd just been in a fight. She should have tracked down Ned and made him spill when the two of them started sharing confidential glances apart from their usual close kinship. She should have woken the fuck up when Peter was nowhere to be seen at the decathlon competition and then Spider-Man showed up out of the blue to rescue the team from that elevator shaft.

 

But it was... 

 

Of course, Peter would have done something like this, gone to such ridiculous lengths do protect utter strangers.

 

It was just... She'd always had an image of someone older under the mask. Not a high school sophomore, not someone her age.

 

Not just a kid.

 

The theatre was dimly lit but not closed up yet; on a whim, Michelle led Peter to the edge of the stage and swung herself up so they dangled over the edge into the audience, and he followed her lead.

 

So the plan is basically out the window. Time to improvise. I wish it hadn't come to this because I am terrible at improvising.

 

MJ bit the bullet, turning on him with a blazing earnestness that took him by surprise. "Did you just tell me you're Spider-Man and ask me out in the same sentence?"

 

Peter squeezed his eyes shut, wincing. "Uh... Yup. Pretty much."

 

A silence followed that wasn't wholly awkward. 

 

Peter attempted to count the theatre seats arrayed in front of him, but they were too dimly lit. He broke the peace. "I'm sorry."

 

"Don't be." 

 

"I am."

 

"I'm saying it's okay."

 

"Yeah, but I'm saying I'm still sorry."

 

She cut through their pointless back-and-forth: "Ned already knows."

 

A flat statement. A fact. Peter wondered if she'd really known all along.

 

"If I'd had any say in the matter, he wouldn't. It was... It was an accident."

 

"That sounds like a highly amusing story for another time."

 

Peter chuckled self-deprecatingly. "If I wasn't such an idiot, nobody but Mr. Stark would know."

 

Michelle ignored him and pressed on. "So- the decathlon competition... That was you saving them?"

 

A nod was Peter's only response.

 

She rolled back on her haunches. "That's..."

 

"Dangerous? Weird? A lie? Reckless?"

 

It was almost involuntary; the words forced their way out of Peter's mouth. He went on twisting his hands in his lap to the extent that it looked painful, and Michelle instinctively grabbed them to make it stop.

 

Peter snapped his head upwards to meet her eyes as she held his hands in hers.

 

It felt electric. He felt each pad of her fingers on his like a hot poker.

 

But then she was flinching away again, and a small frown passed across Peter’s face. He’d thought that the light in her eyes was… I don’t know.

 

This was a new and unfamiliar side of Michelle; she searched for her words before speaking haltingly. “I think… it’s really cool of you.”

 

Peter angled himself to face her a little more.

 

“Cool. And brave. And selfless. And you. That’s… who else would design an obnoxious spandex suit and go flying around the city stopping crime?”

 

They shared a low giggle.

 

“But seriously, only you would do this. Only you would feel so indebted to the world. Only you would go out there and actually make a difference. And that’s why…”

 

Peter found himself straightening up in anticipation.

 

“That’s why I like you.”

 

He burned. Hands twisting again in his lap, he ducked his head and laughed nervously.

 

This wasn’t on the plan. This wasn’t on the plan, and fuck, she’s pretty and smart and earnest and funny and how can that happen in someone all at the same time?

 

Finally, he forced himself into action. “I mean, thanks.”

 

She laughed. It was low and breathy and cute.

 

“I- uh…” Peter was tempted to kick himself. “Like, like like? I mean-“

 

“Yeah.” It was MJ’s turn to blush now; Peter fought not to gape at how different this behaviour was to what he knew from her.

 

She-

 

Likes me.

 

Holy shit. Holy shit. Um-

 

“Wow.”

 

Are you kidding me? Finally reaching that social milestone you planned obsessively, and you say ‘wow’?

 

The corners of Michelle’s mouth perked affectionately.

 

“Oh, do you- I mean it’s probably obvious that I – that I like you too by the fact I… asked you out.”

 

He wasn’t used to this much prolonged eye contact with anyone else. The cold quality in her irises had shifted and revealed something new and raw and precious.

 

“Yes.”

 

“What?” His tongue was sandpaper; he blinked rapidly.

 

“Yes – I wanna go somewhere with you.”

 

“Oh.” He plucked at the hair at the nape of his neck as she bit her lip; they were almost in sync.

 

C’mon, Parker. Just say what you wanna say.

 

“I’m not very good at this,” he ventured, reaching tentatively for her hand again but maintaining blistering eye contact, “But I… I like you a lot, MJ.”

 

MJ’s mouth pressed into a firm line like she was trying to physically contain something internal.

 

Peter had her hand now; he laced his fingers a little shakily through hers and shuffled towards her so the tips of their knees nudged together. “You’re… you’re sm- smart. And also really pretty. And I love your sense of humour and the way you dress and how you don’t let anyone else put you down and your hands are like really soft and that’s - weird of me to say that.”

 

“A little,” she breathed hesitantly, the ghost of a smirk lighting up her face. “But it’s sweet too.”

 

Peter laughed awkwardly, suddenly all too aware of her hand still in his as she squeezed it a little. “So… you really wanna – date me?”

 

“What makes that so hard to believe?” She replied quietly. And then, “Yeah. Yeah.”

 

The hint of a grin on his face was reflective of only the tiniest fraction of the fireworks that were going off inside him, as was hers.

 

“Awesome.”

 

The word prompted a snort from Michelle, followed swiftly by Peter, who realised how out of place the remark had been.

 

And then she was leaning into him, but it wasn’t in a way he’d ever experienced, not like when criminals leant in to whisper something ominous or press the barrel of a gun to his temples and not like when May pulled him in for a hug either. It was slow and charged and she closed her eyes gently as she went.

 

For one moment in his life, the voice in his head shut up and let him move on instinct.

 

Peter leaned into Michelle, feeling his face fall into shadow, feeling her breath gracing his upper lip before he nudged his nose into her cheek and softly closed the gap between their lips.

 

They fit together like they’d been made for each other. Peter’s free hand rose to thread upwards through her hair and rest against her jaw. There were stars bursting in his vision. The kiss was a little hesitant but earnest and delicate and how does all that come across in a kiss?

 

All of a sudden, they parted again, Michelle drawing breath and resting her forehead against Peter’s with a look in her eye of pure awe which he found hard to process.

 

“Was that okay?” he breathed. They sat cross-legged on the rim of the stage, Peter’s knees resting on top of hers.

 

She shut her eyes briefly. “Yeah, it was good.”

 

He smiled, a spark of unabashed joy passing through his eyes.

 

“You know that was my first kiss.”

 

He huffed out a quiet laugh. “Mine too.”

 

“And I’ve never dated anyone before?”

 

“Unless Homecoming with Liz counts, me neither.”

 

They shared a conspirational giggle, still inches apart and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes.

 

“I just want you to know, I might be really shit at this…” Her eyes flickered downwards briefly.

 

“Have you met me, MJ? Everything I do ends up a disaster. I’m gonna be as shit at dating as you.”

 

Their hands were still clasped together a little clammily; she curled hers around his to turn his palm upwards.  “Parker luck,” she murmured fondly.

 

“Yeah,” he whispered. “But I’m going to try.”

 

“Me too.”

 

“Do you wanna - I mean, that was- that was - nice…”

 

“C’mere, you dork,” she chuckled, slipping a cupped hand round the back of his neck to draw him into her again.

 

Their next kiss lasted longer. MJ twined her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck, smiling against his lips when it drew a small sigh of pleasure from him, and Peter edged closer across the stage until he was half in her lap.

 

When they drew back this time, they were both flushed.

 

“How about my place tomorrow? I’ll surprise you,” she said.

 

Peter grinned. “Cool.”

 

He looked at her like she’d hung the moon. She loved it.

 


 

 

“Mr Stark! Holy shit, Tony!”

 

“Kid. You alright? Not another bad patrol?”

 

“No, no, no. This is… amazing, it’s - it's like the best day of my life!”

 

An amused chuckle from Tony. Peter could almost hear him smirking. “Let’s guess. You’re lapping up all the newfound media attention?”

 

The articles had completely slipped Peter’s mind and most probably MJ’s too.

 

“You… got a new Lego set? Found a new web formula? Got another A+? Those are becoming more and more common, Pete, it doesn’t have to be the best day of your life every time you get one.”

 

“It’s…wow…” Peter let himself fall back onto the row of lockers, letting the events of the last ten minutes sink in with a shit-eating grin and a hand on the back of his neck where Michelle had held him. “I asked MJ out and she said yes and we went to the theatre and then we kissed and she’s so nice and then we kissed again and I actually told her that I’m Spider-Man which was a bad decision but hey, I have a girlfriend, and she’s really pretty and I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this but she’s great.”

 

A deep-throated laugh reverberated from the other end of the line. Peter could only laugh along with him, fighting the urge to punch the air as he pushed off the lockers again, recalling the last time he’d been there just a few minutes ago, and headed towards the exit with a ridiculously chipper spring in his step.

 

“That’s amazing, kid.”

 

Peter giggled. “I know!”

 

Tony changed tack. “Hey, mind stopping by the Tower to visit an old man? My intern’s services as a love-struck puppy are clearly required.”

 

A snort was Peter’s first response. “I mean, May’s taking the night shift today, so… it’d be nice to talk to someone, I guess.”

 

“You know what? Why don’t you pick up some stuff at your place and I’ll come pick you up? Aunt Italiano is alright with you staying overnight, right?”

 

Peter felt like he’d be incapable of not smiling after what had just happened, but the prospect of staying at the Tower only widened his grin.

 

“Okay, sure. I’m still at school… gimme half an hour.”

 

“Sure thing.”

 


 

 

“So, MJ, right?”

 

Peter hummed assent from behind the strands of hair that had fallen into his eyes where he was bent over the Spider-Man suit. Beside him was a pizza box of vast proportions that Tony had surprised him with. He’d evidently picked the right time because the kid didn’t even protest when he’d ordered. Margherita, his favourite.

 

Tony wondered when the kid would realise that every time they were together Tony attempted to get some kind of food into him. Tony had seen what Steve's appetite with his enhanced metabolism; if Peter was anywhere near the same, three meals a day just wasn't gonna cut it. Not for Tony, anyway.

 

There was an energy to his hunched stance that was infectious; he hummed along to some dopey love song as he worked alongside Tony on the dissected suit.

 

“What’s she like? Other than nice?”

 

Peter clapped a hand to his face and groaned in the way only teenagers can. “How long will you make fun of me for that?”

 

“No, I think it’s a perfectly valid descriptor. Lots of nice people are nice. And great.

 

Choosing to ignore Tony this time, Peter pressed on, turning towards the older man with an intensity that took him aback. “You know how some people are, like, super attractive and also really smart so you can have real conversations and debates with them?”

 

“Yes, I am acquainted with Pepper.”

 

This awarded a short bark of laughter. Peter turned back to the suit, squinting at the network of wires spanning from the tracker. “That’s… that’s what she’s like. You know it was my first kiss too?”

 

He promptly let his head fall onto the workbench in regret.

 

Tony could only huff out a high-pitched laugh. “That’s just great to know.”

 

He tapped on the underside of Peter’s chin to get him to look up again, reaching for a remaining slice of pizza and shoving it into his hand. “You know what, I think that’s good.”

 

“What? That my romantic life had been null and void up until now?”

 

One corner of Tony’s mouth quirked upwards. “Not only that you continue to provide me with endless teasing material, but that you don’t rush with all this stuff.”

 

Peter cocked his head, mouth full of pizza.

 

“I don’t know about you, but for me, at school, it felt like a mad rush to start dating, like it was just a badge on your belt to show off to other people rather than something that really meant something.”

 

“Please don’t give me The Talk, Mr. Stark, you are not cool or young enough.”

 

Tony cuffed the kid playfully on the back of his head, feigning offence.

 

“Seriously, kid. Every time your heart gets broke, you lose a little bit of hope in the world.” He frowned at his own words and tacked on for good measure: “I read that on Pinterest, it must be true.”

 

The kid obliged a smirk but there was something in the upturn of his mouth that made Tony think he knew something he himself was unaware of. He squinted faintly. “So you’re saying you think I’m going to get dumped?”

 

The laugh that escaped Tony then was high-pitched but sober. “No, no, no.” He rose from his stool and braced his hands heavily on the worktop, surveying the work in front of them without paying much attention to it. For once, he was having trouble conjuring the words he needed. Either it was his chronic fear of emotion, or that he was painfully aware of how impressionable the teenager currently hanging on his every word happened to be.

 

“You just… gotta be careful out there. You’re- you’re you.”

 

“Meaning?” As Peter tipped his head to one side to shake stray curls of hair from his vision, still working intently on rewiring the tracker, he provided a perfect example of what Tony was trying to articulate.

 

He grinned lopsidedly, fondly, mapping the mass of adorable waves in his mind for a time when he might not see them again. “Have you any idea of how easy it’d be to break your heart?”

 

The kid turned to face him now and threw his hands skywards in defence before turning on Tony. “Don’t you dare start talking about how I’m an ‘impressionable teen.’”

 

“Nah, I was just gonna compare you to a puppy again.”

 

The growl of frustration that escaped Peter then only served to make the image of a ruffled Labrador more potent.

 

Tony raised his hands in surrender. “I’m kidding.”

 

Peter glared at him in an attempt at intimidation. “Good.”

 

“But you’re still so passionate. About your Lego, about chemical engineering, about going on patrol – about MJ.”

 

He had Peter’s attention now; he set down his tool and thrust his hands between his thighs inquisitively.

 

“And that’s really great. It’s just gonna be really hard to get rejected- if that ever does happen. But the good thing about that passion is that whoever you end up with- they’re gonna be really lucky.”

 

He watched Peter’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed heavily; a sad smile ghosted his face.

 

“Is this getting weird?” Tony broke off, twitching his face away from the kid.

 

The reply was small. “No. I get it.”

 

“But just… don’t let that passion get so strong you’re willing to let people walk all over you.”

 

Tony wasn’t wrong; this kid was hinged on his every word, staring wide-eyed with concentration at the area just to the left of his chin.

 

Had the temperature in the room just risen?

 

He balked, turning easily to humour with an affected Steve-Rogers-esque tone. “And most importantly, always remember to use protection.”

 

Peter groaned, long-suffering. “You do know I’m not even legally allowed yet? To have- to do it?”

 

An ungraceful snort may or may not have escaped Tony’s mouth. “You’re really gonna avoid the word sex like an awkward teacher at my high school?”

 

Peter shushed him urgently, clapping his hands over his ears and grimacing in his disgust.

 

Tony could only laugh, high-pitched, breathy. He put on a stage whisper. “Oh, I’m sorry. Is it bad to mention sex around the little toddler?”

 

The childish frown on Peter’s face warred with a mischievous smile. He played along. “Toddler’s better than puppy, I guess.”

 

“Oh, so you are listening!” Tony pointed an accusing finger at his intern.

 

Peter’s tone was deadpan; he gestured to his ears. “Super hearing, Tony. Only so much my hands can do.”

 

Tony felt like an idiot when the sound of his name from the kid’s mouth sent a burst of energy coursing through him.

 

“Remember when I said, “Don’t do anything I would do”? That means you don’t get to reciprocate my quips anymore.”

 

Peter flung his hands outwards in indignation. This time, Tony was the one to shush him.

 

“But-“ he began, only for Tony to raise his volume, cutting him off.

 

Resolutely, Peter raised a hand from the stool he sat on.

 

“Can I ask a question?”

 

Tony replied with an eyebrow arched in suspicion. “Sure.”

 

“Is the reason you’ve banned me from quipping because you feel threatened by my god-level humour?”

 

Tony mimed the sign of the cross on himself, muttering, “Dios mío.”

 

“I’ll take that as a yes.” The smirk on Peter’s face was too cute to make Tony mad.

 

“You know what? It’s getting late, time for toddlers to be in bed.”

 

“You’re threatened by my humour!” It was said in a sing-song voice.

 

Tony was long past trying to win that argument. The kid was smart, perhaps even more quick-witted than him. “Glad you’re focusing on that. Wouldn’t want you to get distracted by… oh yeah, your new girlfriend.”

 

At this, Peter genuinely recoiled, blinking. “I forgot,” he breathed. “I’m a terrible boyfriend.”

 

Tony began to slowly steer the already sleepy Peter towards the door. “It’s all good. She doesn’t have to consume your every waking thought.”

 

“But still.” A long yawn escaped the kid; his pace grew sluggish as he padded along the floor, still accompanied by Tony. “Hey, Mr. Stark? I got a girlfriend.

 

“Join the club,” the older man grumbled affectionately. They’d reached the doorway to the spare room: Peter was no stranger to it, having stayed there after that last harrowing patrol.

 

Tony gave Peter a gentle push through the door until the bleary-eyed teen ground to a halt in the centre of the room.

 

“You’d better change before you fall asleep.” Tony may have been threatening the kid, but his voice chose to soften anyway.

 

Peter hummed vaguely.

 

“Night.”

 

And Tony wanted to say more. He wanted to know what it was like to crouch by your kid’s bedside and kiss them goodnight. But this was Peter. Not his kid.

 

Not his to break.

 

He never found out whether it was the kid’s sleep-fuddled brain filling in or whether he genuinely meant the response: “'night. Love you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

When Peter texted Tony to ask permission to stop by the Tower after patrol for a couple of minutes, he wanted to laugh at the painful politeness of this kid.

 

Is he British or something?

 

But he obliged his, uh, mentee, and within the next five minutes, there was a dripping wet Peter hammering at his door.

 

More specifically, a dripping wet Spider-Man. With the flu.

 

Tony heard the hacking cough before the kid’s hand even met the door and cursed under his breath as he picked up his pace to meet Peter.

 

To his credit, Peter had evidently pre-empted the rain and wore a ratty jacket over the Spider-Man suit; the hood was up and his mask in hand. His other hand was occupied in pinching his almost festively reddened nose to stop it running. He leant wearily against the doorframe.

 

“Mr. Stark...” was the mumbled greeting he received.

 

“Oh, kid.” Tony sighed, pinching the bridge of his own nose. “You’re a walking disaster, you know that?”

 

Peter only nodded sombrely, shivering.

 

Alright, sick teenager. What’s the action plan?

 

With another, long-suffering sigh, Tony bundled the kid indoors and herded him in the general direction of a shower, thanking the stars that he was coherent enough to wash himself, and made himself useful in the time before he got out, heating and hanging up fresh clothes that would hopefully fit him okay, and accumulating a range of flu-easing products. These included but were not limited to: several boxes of tissues, a bin to throw them out, a tube of throat sweets, a pile of the softest blankets he could find, a hot water bottle filled and ready to use, and a bowl of soup.

 

He’d admit the soup might have been going too far.

 

“Alright, kiddo.” He clapped his hands together as Peter emerged, bleary-eyed and pale-faced with hair half-dry, from the guest room he’d come to frequent more and more in recent days. He’d taken the hint and swapped out his soaked-through Spider-Man suit for Tony’s clothes, which hung loosely on his smaller frame.

 

Looping a steady arm around his charge’s shoulders, he steered him towards the living room, where he’d set up the abundance of products on the central couch. The kid stumbled along without any resistance, and Tony was struck by how light he was.

 

“There you go. I set up some stuff for you, just chill out there and I’ll get you anything you need.”

 

Peter stopped in his tracks as he reached the couch, twisting his head to gaze up at Tony as if he’d just rained manna down onto the floor.

 

“I…” He reached up instinctively to wipe his nose with his sleeve, despite the literal tower of tissues just feet in front of him, and Tony wondered how many grey hairs this kid would give him in his lifetime. “Mr. Stark, this is- I c- can’t-“

 

Tony met him with sternness in the set of his brow. “Yes, you can. You’re sick, okay? You gotta rest for a bit.”

 

“But…” Peter’s eyes darted around the room as if he was searching for an escape. He finished quietly. “May doesn’t know I’m here.”

 

“I’ll call her.”

 

“You- you didn’t need to do all this…” Tony watched Peter’s face war between smiling and frowning.

 

“Pete.” Tony grasped Peter’s upper arms gently. “Don’t worry about it. You always go on about ‘responsibility’, and this is my responsibility for you. You need to take a break.”

 

All at once, Peter’s breath left him in a round of painful-sounding coughing. Tony grimaced and levered the ailing kid down onto the couch, thrusting tissues into his hand and a blanket over his legs. There he sat opposite Peter, studying him as he attempted to thank Tony in between wheezes.

 

When the coughing finally subsided, he sank back weakly on the couch cushions, seeming to accept his fate. But it made Tony frown to see him so washed-out looking, so he patted the kid’s knee softly. “Hey, I know just what’ll cheer you up. If you want company, of course.”

 

Peter’s eyebrows raised infinitesimally.

 

“Remember Bruce and Thor? And Natasha?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Peter had been staring uncertainly at the pile of blankets alongside Tony for so long he just took the lot and spread each one across the dumb kid. “They’re actually in the building right now. I… you could always watch a movie with them or something?”

 

To his relief, the kid perked up at the suggestion, reaching for a tissue of his own accord at last. “That’d be awesome.”

 

This was all the confirmation Tony needed. He called out, “FRIDAY? Get Bruce, Natasha, and Thor down here, would ya?”

 

Peter interrupted him haltingly: “But- but only if they want to!”

 

“Peter, it’s you.” The words were out of Tony’s mouth before he could think. “They love spending time with you.”

 

Peter ducked his head briefly. Tony wondered if the sound that escaped him then was one of embarrassment or of congestion.

 

Then his head lifted slowly to meet Tony’s eye once again. “What films do you have?” he asked with a small voice.

 

“Anything you could dream of.”

 

Peter’s face cracked open in a smile.

 


 

 

“When I said anything you could dream of, I didn’t mean for you to dream up the most far-fetched movie on earth.”

 

“It’s not far-fetched, okay, I grew up with Happy Feet!”

 

“Kid, I think you underestimate my age. I did not grow up with this. Neither have I heard of it.”

 

Peter made a half-hearted stab at a quip: “Oh yeah, I forgot you were old.”

 

“Hey, only the old person gets permission to call themselves old.” Tony almost felt bad when he shoved the kid playfully.

 

“Hey, little guy!”

 

“Bruce, it’s Peter!”

 

“Yeah, I can see, Thor.”

 

A veritable cacophony of voices after the one-sided conversation Tony had been leading burst into the living room. Peter craned his neck to take in the sight of Bruce, Thor, and Natasha, all in casual clothes.

 

“Hey guys,” replied Peter from underneath the mountain of blankets, a little weakly, but mustering a grin all the same. The three took seats on either side of him and Tony.

 

“So, Peter wants to watch this crazy-looking film called Happy Feet…” Tony raised his eyebrows sceptically at the three Avengers around him, hoping they’d mimic his disapproval, but, to his horror, all three of them, including Thor, gasped collectively.

 

Natasha was the first to respond, leaning back on the couch in recollection. “I haven’t watched that in too long. I’m in! Take me back to childhood!” She thrust an arm skywards like a schoolkid asking a question.

 

Bruce and Thor shared a grin; Thor commented, “That’s one of my new favourites. I mean, it’s not like I have many to choose from yet…”

 

“That’s valid,” chipped in Peter, a little of his usual energy returned to him again. I guess bringing him company was a good call, then. “It is a timeless classic. Although movies clearly hadn’t been invented yet when Mr. Stark was a kid.”

 

“Hey!”

 

Bruce turned accusingly on Tony. “We’ve known each other for this long and you still haven’t seen Happy Feet?”

 

Tony draped an arm over the back of the couch, subconsciously establishing his power. “Funnily enough, I don’t think you ever mentioned it.”

 

He’s pretending it’s his favourite film to get in Peter’s favour. They all are.

 

Are they… fighting to be his favourite?

 

“It’s all good, you can watch it now, right?” Peter laughed furtively, waving a hand at Bruce to get him to back down. “Let’s introduce Tony Stark officially to the world of Happy Feet!”

 

If it had been anyone else, Tony would tell them to fuck off, but the beam on the kid’s face made him mushy.

 

Peter reached for another wad of tissues as Natasha hopped up. “Drinks, anyone?” She asked, tucking a lock of hair swiftly behind her ear.

 

Tony narrowed his eyes. “I’ll have some cranberry juice, please.” He said the words pointedly, just in case Nat had been considering a more adult option.

 

She caught his eye and glanced back at Peter briefly, twisting her head sharply. Thankfully, Peter was so occupied with furiously blowing his nose to notice Natasha as she indicated him to Tony with a slow wash of remembrance making its way across her face. She held her face in her hands briefly in her embarrassment before conferring subtly with Bruce and Thor.

 

Oh my God. She forgot he was underage.

 

Never let her alone with him again.

 

Abruptly, Peter crumpled up his final tissue, now red-faced, and immediately said to Natasha: “I’m good, thanks.”

 

Tony glanced sidelong at him, remembering the recent trip to the ice rink and the shivers he'd felt running through a slight frame. “You sure?”

 

Peter’s eyes flicked upwards and back down again before he reprised: “Actually, can I just get a water?”

 

Tony nudged the kid encouragingly, prompting him further. “You up for that soup at all?”

 

“Oh!” Scrubbing a hand over his pasty face, Peter took in the substance on the coffee table. “Uh…”

 

“I won’t be offended.” Tony winked.

 

Bruce and Thor had commandeered a blanket between them, which Bruce was currently hogging the majority of – “I’m the cold one of us two” he argued – and Nat was banging around the kitchen behind them.

 

“Yeah, I think I’m good for now, thanks.” The tension on the kid’s face dissipated as he met Tony’s eyes once again, but the light crease across his brow remained.

 

Tony felt like a goddamn therapist, but he thought, as he nodded, replying with “that’s fine,” that maybe, maybe, he was someone who could help Peter with that sort of stuff, just by giving him affirmation as he’d just hopefully done.

 

But probably not.

 

Who was he kidding? He was Tony Stark; if he cared to share his sleep schedule with the public, he’d probably clock up another World Record, not to mention a laundry list of other defects which would prove him unfit to influence a teenager in any way, least not this one.

 

“Tony?”

 

It was Natasha, waving his juice around in front of him to snap him out of his stupor.

 

“Thanks.” He took it from her, picking up the remote simultaneously to access the movie.

 

Tony got too close to making an awful dad joke and pretending not to know the name of the film. Too damn close. 

 

As he flicked through the enormous wealth of movies on his server, Peter reacted to every title he saw: “You have the Star Wars spinoffs on here? Who are you? I mean, who doesn’t love Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Oh, I loved that one! It was- uh... James McAvoy, he- No. Way. You have Stranger Things? Can I come here more often?”

 

Tony chuckled through it all.

 


 

 

“Right, here we go. I hope you’re happy, kids.” Tony spoke sarcastically, just hanging onto a façade of annoyance.

 

Natasha scoffed: “Give him ten minutes, he’ll be singing along.”

 

This knowledge prompted a dramatic groan from Tony. “You didn’t tell me it had songs in it too.”

 

“There’s a Queen song.” Peter seemed to surprise himself as the words escaped his mouth. Already, as the group settled down, a lethargy had fallen over him which was a trademark of the flu.

 

Tony spread his arms in a declaration. “Alright, my disbelief is officially suspended. Count me unbiased.”

 

Peter giggled. With a flourish, Tony pressed play and encountered a movie he would, with hindsight, enjoy a ridiculous amount, although his opinion might, after all, have been biased by the teenager curled up on his right.

 

And Peter certainly made himself heard all through the movie, commenting nonstop on not only the actions of the penguins it centred around but also the animation, the lighting, the voice acting, and the choice of music and songs.

 

He reminded Tony of himself so much it scared him a little.

 

When the aforementioned Queen song came about, Peter gripped Tony’s arm and tugged it to make sure he was paying attention, eliciting a defeated chuckle from the man. He was jarred to find it was not, in fact, the original, beautiful version by the band themselves, but a cover from one of the goddam singing penguins. But he had to admit that she sang it annoyingly well. “It’s Brittany Murphy,” Peter added to no-one in particular.

 

Peter and Natasha were both word-perfect and broke into fits of giggles imitating the dramatic slides and breathing of the singer.

 

Peter attempted harmonising above the tune but with his strained throat could only wheeze out a cracking tune; this only added to the hilarity of the kid, bathed in deep blue light from the TV, lip synching like a professional yet also accompanying the song with his flu-ridden voice.

 

The pair’s infectious enthusiasm had all five of them joining in by the end. Tony forgot his grudge and played along for once.

 

The longer he spent with this movie, the more he understood why it was so important to Peter. The main character, Mumble (a name which reminded Tony glaringly that he was watching a kid’s movie, but whatever) had this quality about him which somehow reflected Peter’s own personality. The stumbling over words, the compulsion to be different and the misunderstanding of society that inevitably came with that.

 

And also the way Mumble, like Peter, seemed way younger and cuter than everyone else his age.

 

Scrap Tony’s mental puppy image, this kid was a baby penguin now. But he’d lay off the teasing until the end of the movie at least.

 

He’d been under the impression that Peter would stay coherent the entire movie, given his excitement through the entire first act, and he wasn’t aware of his misjudgement until a warm weight slowly lowered itself onto his shoulder and he twisted his head round to find a familiar mop of curls nestled there.

 

All at once, Tony tensed.

 

The casual hair ruffles, the frantic embraces on the ice rink, they’d all been something apart from this. At least excluding the patrol incident, which Tony had decided not to acknowledge on account of Peter’s... incoherency at the time.

 

There was a compulsion swelling within him, something locked in his muscle memory, but he pushed it down for fear of what it might entail and simply allowed Peter’s head to rest heavily on his shoulder. 

 

Not a minute later, the breaths gracing his neck evened out and the body beside him relaxed. He glimpsed Bruce from across the room mock-wiping away a tear at the scene he saw and, careful not to jog the sleeping kid, raised a silent middle finger to him.

 

The movie came to its triumphant and poignant ending, and Thor clapped quietly, his eye on Peter.

 

“Should we leave you two?” stage-whispered Natasha, winking obnoxiously at Tony.

 

“Oh, fuck off.” He made a gentle shooing sound in her direction.

 

She feigned shock. “Not in front of the child!”

 

Thor, taking initiative, herded her away with Bruce in tow.

 

And then Tony was alone with a kid asleep in his arms.

 

He sat there for a good few minutes, motionless in his indecision, before pushing out a breath and slowly looping his arms around the backs of Peter’s legs and back. Peter's head lolled forward gently, his face resting in the curve of Tony's collarbone.

 

Fuck it, he was getting flashbacks to the night in the alleyway.

 

Tony made it about halfway to the door of Peter’s room before the unthinkable happened: he woke up.

 

With a start and without prompt, Peter’s head jerked up from Tony’s shoulder. “Oh!” he stuttered as the sudden movement came close to toppling Tony off balance. Instinctively, Tony loosened his grip but had the presence of mind to bring his arms back up underneath the kid’s shoulders before he fell completely.

 

Peter’s socked feet skidded across the floor; his pupils were blown wide after the sharp wake-up call. All the same, an almost-delirious sounding laugh worked its way out of his mouth, a laugh which Tony mirrored as he righted the teenager again.

 

“I’m sorry,” Tony breathed between bursts of soft laughter, keeping a hand on Peter’s shoulder in an instinctual and protective gesture.

 

“I was asleep, right?” Peter's gravelly voice attested to his current medical condition.

 

"Yeah," replied Tony fondly. "I didn't wanna wake you, but I guess you did that yourself."

 

Peter hissed out an amused breath. Now the shock was over, his eyes had started to droop once again, and Tony was eager for the kid to get as much sleep as he could, so he beckoned the teenager over to the spare bedroom where he made his own way, shuffling a little.

 

"Damn," he mused as he crossed the threshold of the bedroom. "I m'ssed 'the end 'f Ha'y Feet!"

 

Tony chuckled at his slurred speech and guided unsteady steps towards the immaculately-made bed. "You can rewatch it any time. Now you gotta sleep."

 

Peter slumped onto the bed, sighing contentedly as he smashed his face into the pillows.

 

Fuck was he cute when he was sleepy.

 

Tony would later pretend that was the only reason that he was compelled to press a kiss to the back of his curls before easing the comforter around him and dimming the lights.

 

“’night, Underoos,” Tony murmured fondly as he eased the bedroom door shut, catching a final glimpse at the curled-up Peter. What he didn’t expect was a quiet response: “’night T’ny."

 

Super hearing. Of course.

 

He couldn't help but smile as the door clicked shut.

 


 

"Boss."

 

Tony's eyes flew open as FRIDAY's automated voice jerked him out of his sleep.

 

"What's the time?" He whispered blearily.

 

"Forty-eight past two in the morning."

 

A long, low groan escaped him. "Why the fuck did you wake me up, FRI?"

 

The tone of FRIDAY's voice was annoyingly nonchalant. "I received an alert from Mister Parker's room. He seems to be in distress."

 

"Wait, wait- what?"

 

Danger. Danger. Danger.

 

Tony imagined the tingling sensation in his spine wasn't far off Peter's Spidey sense, as he dubbed it.

 

Sucking in a lungfull of air, Tony pushed aside his comforter and made a beeline across the hallway and towards the kid's room, not even bothering to ask the AI what the cause of the alert had been.

 

Danger. Danger. Danger.

 

He was all too familiar with the saga of ridiculous predicaments the kid found himself in on patrol but never had he encountered anything of the sort when Peter was out of the suit.

 

He guessed this was an evening of new experiences.

 

Had someone figured out his identity? Had Nat and Thor done a stupid prank on him? Had he hurt himself?

 

No sign of anyone else around the kid's bedroom door; that ruled out a prank.

 

He should never have let Peter stay in such a high-profile building. People would put two and two together. How stupid was he to put this kid's safety in jeopardy?

 

The door was under his fingertips now; he pressed his ear briefly to the door instinctively, wary of bursting in unarmed.

 

Tony drew back sharply when the muffled sound of sobs reached his ears.

 

Danger. Danger. Danger. Protect. Protect. Protect.

 

All of a sudden, his tactics and reflexes failed him as he burst into the room without a second thought.

 

No intruders. Thank God.

 

Just Peter, half-kneeling on the bed and curled in on himself, cradling his head in shaking hands.

 

The way he carded his hands through his hair seemed both a comfort and a reprimand. Tony could clearly hear shuddering, harsh breaths coming from him, punctuated with heart-shattering sobs. He muttered frantically to himself: “Okay, o- okay, don’t do this again, don’t do this again, please- why does this always have to h-happen - you dumb fuck, they're fine, they're not dead-“

 

Tony had been lingering in the doorway, shaken, for a good few seconds without Peter’s spider-sense detecting his presence, but they chose that moment to narrow in on the man standing behind him. Peter’s head snapped upwards and he met Tony’s eye with pupils blown wide.

 

Tony was in turmoil. The trembling kid in front of him brought back the night in the alleyway all too vividly, except at least that time he had some semblance of logic in him. Now he felt the cold of shock pulling at his fingertips, a compulsion to run, to yell, to get the feeling out in any way he could muster if it meant he had to tear it out with bare hands.

 

He couldn’t imagine what Peter himself was going through.

 

But the compulsion to protect protect protect had not ceased screaming in his ear yet, so he followed it.

 

Already, Peter was swinging his legs woodenly over the side of the bed, facing Tony with a bowed head and attempting to muster up an excuse and a shaky smile. “I’m… you’re here - I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, did you- you…”

 

“Kid.”

 

The word was enough to level Peter, who thrust a hand back through his mussed curls.

 

Tony couldn’t stand back any longer; he crossed the distance to the bed, where Peter flinched back from him involuntarily, gaze darting to rest unsteadily on the other side of the room, and spoke in a low tone: “What’s going on?”

 

Up close, he noticed the tears streaking the kid’s face. “Nothi – hey, sorry I woke you up, you – I’m good-“

 

At that moment, Peter’s speech was cut off by a desperate intake of breath which seemed to stick in his throat. The sheer panic that crossed his face then compelled Tony’s hands to grip the kid’s upper arms with gentle force. He’d shifted uncertainly to kneel in front of Peter and gazed up at him.

 

“Hey, hey, hey,” he soothed, his outward tone laughably juxtaposed to his hammering heart. “C’mon, Pete, you gotta breathe.”

 

Since when did this kid get panic attacks?

 

Who are you kidding? When you put a teenager in the path of danger that often – what did you think would happen, idiot?

 

Peter gritted his teeth, hands balling into fists around handfuls of his comforter. Without thinking, Tony prised them slowly apart and let them close around his own hands, joining the kid sitting on the edge of the bed. He hadn’t considered the superhuman strength in those wiry fingers and fought back a wince as Peter clenched his fists to drag in another half-breath.

 

Every intake of air brought an onslaught of tears which brought Tony closer to crying along with him. He hadn’t witnessed an attack this severe in years. But he was there to be the composed one of the two of them, and he would play his part until they both got through this.

 

“I’m… did you get – sorry, I’m- I’m so sorry…” Peter whispered the words breathlessly.

 

The corners of Tony’s mouth pulled down. “It’s okay. Honestly. What do you want me to do?”

 

It took the kid a couple laboured breaths to answer. Tony picked up on the sheen of sweat forming on his palms which still enclosed Tony’s own hands. “When this… I hav- haven’t-“

 

The stammering was coming out full force. 

 

“Lay it out. Make it simple,” Tony prompted.

 

A feverish nod from Peter, who persisted through his sobs of distress. “Face the window,” he breathed.

 

Tony’s hands hovered over the kid nervously. Peter met his eyes and nodded once again, and Tony shifted his hands under his armpits to shuffle him unceremoniously towards the other side of the bed. Once they were there, he leapt up and opened the blackout curtains to reveal a picturesque view of the city skyline bathed in the light of a crescent moon.

 

But in the two seconds he’d been away from the kid, he’d already lost all control of his breathing again, bowing in on himself with a curled spine visible through the fabric of his pyjama shirt.

 

Biting his tongue, Tony voiced his unspoken question: “Are you good with me touching you?”

 

This, to his horror, prompted a wave of repressed sobs from the kid in front of him.

 

“What is it?”

 

“I’m – sorry, it’s just… never h-had someone with me.” 

 

Peter scrubbed a palm angrily over his face, leaving a trail of tears and snot there, and Tony dived for a pack of tissues.

 

"Okay, uh..." ventured Tony.

 

Goddamn it, Stark, you're the adult, do something.

 

He'd been ignoring the pull in his gut for too long: giving in and pulling Peter into a gentle hug felt like letting go. 

 

He let his hands drift upwards towards the kid's hair and began to thread his fingers through, hesitantly at first, waiting for Peter to flinch away from the touch but instead finding the teenager leaning heavily into him with a hiccup.

 

A thought, a hazy memory of Rhodey repeating a comforting phrase, came to him. "C'mon, Tones, breathe with me, breathe with me."

 

"Let's try breathing together, okay?"

 

There was no audible reply from Peter, who had nudged his head fiercely into Tony's neck as he traced curls with a calming hand. Now they were pressed together in an embrace, he could feel a rapidly fluttering heartbeat against his.

 

"Let's go. In..."

 

As he attempted to suck in a breath, Peter slid his arms tightly around Tony's torso. The effort drew a strangled sound from his throat.

 

"... And out. Okay, you're good, it's okay." Tony found himself repeating the same words over and over, as much out of reassurance to himself as comfort to the kid currently clinging to him like a lifeline. "And in... Try to hold it..."

 

The words, the circles he traced on Peter's back and in his hair, all repeated, washing in and out like the waves or the wash of gentle moonlight over the city below them, and slowly, slowly, Peter's breaths started to lengthen and even out. The hands around his middle retreated and a crumpled face emerged from his shoulder.

 

The two shared an exhale of relief, Tony running his hands down the kid's arms a final time with a quiet enquiry of: "You good now?" 

 

Peter nodded, not meeting his eye. "I'm sor-"

 

Tony cut him off with a look. Despite himself, Peter let out a short laugh.

 

Then he thrust his hands between his thighs and continued. "I... didn't mean for you to see that. Did you - FRIDAY told me you were coming and I - you know - if she hadn't alerted you it would've been..."

 

He tailed off with a sniff.

 

"What would it have been like?" Tony prompted him.

 

Oh boy. Get ready for emotions.

 

"...Scary," Peter admitted. "But - but I've handled these before."

 

Running the backs of his hands together, Tony bit the bullet. "Yeah, speaking of that. Pete, that was a serious....a really serious panic attack. Do you get this often?"

 

"I didn't mean for you to be here." The kid was like a broken record, head still bowed.

 

"Peter."

 

The teenager met his eye tentatively, mouth pressed in a firm line.

 

The words Tony had caught the kid saying as he stood in the doorway flashed through his mind: "you dumb fuck, they're fine, they're not dead".

 

"Nightmare?" 

 

Peter exhaled loudly. "They're kinda stupid," he murmured.

 

Tony, not eager to shoot him down before he exorcised his demons, sat silently and let him continue.

 

"It was... Everyone died. That's what I dreamt, I mean." A humourless laugh escaped him. "And I know - see, you're here, and you're not dead, so that was good that you were there right after the dream where you died. That helped.

 

But May, and MJ, and Ned, and- Natasha, and Bruce, and Thor, and even goddamn Flash..." Peter waved a hand through the air. "This time, I don't know what happened, but I- just saw everyone's bodies around me. And I was the only one left."

 

Tony shut his eyes briefly.

 

"And, you know, I'm never sure when I wake up if it's not true."

 

Swallowing heavily, Tony laid a hand on Peter's knee. "I'm so sorry, kid-"

 

"Mr. Stark."

 

The sternness in the teenager's eye was partly a parody of Tony's own and partly serious. Tony's mouth twitched upwards and he tweaked the kid's shoulder affectionately.

 

He had no goddamn idea how to approach this. No qualification or mental capacity could solve this, no logic or brute force could iron out the horror this fifteen-year-old kid went through on the daily. 

 

Should I get him therapy? Does therapy even work for other people?

 

So he did what Tony Stark did best and changed the subject, although only minutely. "You never answered my question. How common are these?"

 

Fresh tears sprung to the corner of Peter's eyes. He spoke in a small voice. "Normally? Like, uh - a couple every month. They're... they're getting worse."

 

There was a child staring up at Tony with a fathomless, inconsolable gaze.

 

"And nobody knows yet?"

 

"Nobody."

 

"Why not?" 

 

"I didn't know what to say. And when it's over, it's almost normal again, and I always think that it was the last one... but- but it never is." The pitch of Peter's voice strayed upwards as he fought to keep his composure.

 

"Oh, Peter," breathed Tony, the kid in front of him so forlorn he eased him back into another hug. 

 

He found his tone softening as he spoke, words partly muffled by the top of the kid's hair. "I'm gonna get you some help, okay? You don't have to go through that again."

 

Peter dragged in a breath. "Seriously?"

 

"What do you think?" A low chuckle escaped Tony.

 

"Okay." It was quiet, tentative. And then Peter pressed himself further into the older man, letting himself go, enveloped in the warmth of someone who could fix everything for him. "Thank you so much, Tony."

 

For everything.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Studying the heaps of tacky Christmas products around him as he sat disconsolately on the floor, Peter tried to find interest in the manufacturing company of each product, the difference between replaced and original bulbs in the lights, anything but the swirling pit of dread within him.

 

His phone was clenched in a clammy hand. He clicked it on for the 93rd time since his aunt had left the apartment for her date (of course he’d been counting) and reread the text message he’d sent a half hour ago (which she still hadn’t even read).

 

Make sure to message when you’ll get home if you’re late!

 

She hadn’t contacted Peter the entire evening. Needless to say, he was a little bit worked up.

 

Abruptly, he rose and shook his hands out, trying to dispel the adrenaline, and took a restless walk around the room. The deep breaths Tony had mentioned to him last night were becoming less and less effective. He was slipping, scrabbling ineffectually for purchase at the edge of a hole which he couldn’t fathom the depth of.

 

What is your problem? She’s fine. She’s fine. She’s not dead.

 

How do you know that? The odds are really not in your favour.

 

I thought she- maybe she didn’t remember about decorating for Christmas…

 

You dumbass, you could’ve told her if it was that important. Which it isn’t.

 

Maybe you should lay off. Maybe she doesn’t want to think about it anymore after Ben-

 

You had to bring that up.

 

She said she’d be home. She hasn’t answered you. She’s 17 minutes late.

 

Could you stop counting?

 

I gotta stop – what if she walks in on me like this?

 

What if she doesn’t walk in at all?

 

Okay. If being around someone else helped last night, maybe… I could talk to MJ?

 

Peter sunk down onto the couch again and clicked his phone on, grudging a smirk at the Spider-Man meme she’d sent him earlier that day.

 

Hey, you’ll probably have no idea what to do about this but-

 

He deleted the message, blinking fast.

 

So idk how to say this but crazy things have been going on recently like right now I feel-

 

Deleted again. Peter bit his nails furiously.

 

Do you ever feel like you’re just losing control of everything and I know that sounds kinda deep but I can’t stop-

 

A small noise of frustration sounded at the back of Peter’s throat. He tried a new tactic, texting Tony.

 

Hi Mr. Stark so I don’t wanna bother you but I’m not feeling so good right now panic-wise-

 

When he felt tears prick the corners of his eyes, he closed his phone and threw it onto the nearby armchair, pressing his eyes into his drawn-up knees.

 

Goddamnit.

 

A small rattle of keys on the other side of the door, and part of Peter knew it was May but a smaller, less rational thought screamed danger danger danger at the base of his skull and kept him glued, buzzing with adrenaline, to the couch. Nevertheless, a familiar shape emerged from the doorway, a beaming smile on her face.

 

He leapt up, pushing out a breath of relief. “May!”

 

“Hiya, Peter! Sorry I was a little late, we both completely lost track of the time, you have-“

 

“Why didn’t you-“

 

“-no idea what happened, I can’t wait until you meet this guy, we spent hours just-“

 

“-call me, or text, or something- I mean I’m glad you had-“

 

“-talking and talking and he’s so smart, you’d love him, and such a charming-“

 

“-a good time and all but, I don’t know, I got worried and I th-thought we were- we were gonna decorate… for Christmas or-“

 

“-man and- oh, were you worried? You didn’t need to stress, I was in good-“

 

“-something like we… like we used to and oh my God, May, I got so worried about you, you - you didn’t text back, you didn’t- you weren’t- I thought something bad happened and you didn’t text back and I th- I don’t know what I thought…“

 

“-hands and it was wonderful… hey, honey, it’s okay now- are you alright?”

 

“You didn’t call me… I thought- I- oh no…”

 

“Woah, woah, woah - take a breath. What’s going on?”

 

Peter covered his face with his hands, torn between trapping May in a fierce hug and running from the room.

 

Not now. Not now, please, not now.

 

Fucking breathe. Breathe.

 

May was dropping her handbag and advancing towards him, worry written all over her face.

 

No, she can’t see me like this.

 

So, Peter dropped heavily onto the couch and twisted away from her until his drawn-up knees bumped the armrest, curling up smaller, swallowing himself, trying to reach a place outside the world where this would stop.

 

He jumped at the feeling of a hand light on his shoulder. There was no escape now.

 

Peter turned and faced May. She noted trepidation clear in his gaze, a tremble in his chin, a gasping quality to his breath.

 

“What’s going on, hon?” she reprised, a steady hand still anchoring him.

 

He buried his face in his hands once again, at an utter loss. His worst dreams were playing out.

 

“Just wait a second. Take your time. Don’t- just breathe, okay? Breathe.

 

Peter could only spectate on his own life; his grating breaths were ethereal, removed from that speck of dust on the corner of the coffee table and the speck of a tear in May’s eye and the mountain pressing on his heart.

 

He rocked back and forth gently. This isn’t happening. Why is this happening?

 

“Do you need… should I get you something?”

 

She’s trying so hard. Could she stop trying?

 

“I…no,” he croaked. “Sorry, I’m sorry, please- I’m so sorry.”

 

But she pressed a palm to the side of his face, letting the tips of her fingers angle in stray strands of his hair, and he couldn’t help but turn his cheek into the touch, exhaling with a shudder. “What are you sorry for this time?”

 

“I’m ruining your night…”

 

May only sighed; she seemed older than she was in that moment. “You didn’t ruin my night, alright? It’s okay.”

 

With a sob, Peter curled further into himself.

 

She’s being so nice. Why does she have to be so nice?

 

“Hey, hey,” murmured May, gracing a hand over the tension in his back and another over the front of his shoulder. “Did I do something wrong? I love you, honey, you know that?”

 

The bittersweetness of the words only fuelled Peter's panic; he shoved his face into the couch cushion, taking a harsh comfort in its musty smell.

 

“Just... give me a minute,” he replied breathlessly. “Don’t- don't talk. Please.”

 

May seemed at a loss. “Can you show me something? What do I do?”

 

So, with shaking and uncertain hands, Peter took May's own hands and guided them to his hair and round his upper back, mimicking the embrace he’d shared with Tony the night before.

 

May as well give it a shot.

 

He felt his aunt's hammering heart almost matching his in pace as he leaned into her. Once Peter had placed her hands, May relaxed a little, the crescents of her nails cutting reassuring paths through his hair.

 

And, thank the Lord, it worked. The two matching heartbeats began to ease off and slow to a natural rate; May planted a kiss of relief in her kid’s hair.

 

Her change from comforting to questioning was abrupt. She righted herself and looked him almost sternly in the eye. “Okay, I don’t know what that was, but we need to talk, Peter.”

 

Peter bit his lip. “Yeah, yeah, we do.”

 

Tony’s words of last night were still burned into his mind. After he’d promised to help Peter out, he’d insisted he talk to May: “She’ll understand. I’m telling you, kid.”  But something, a black coil of dread, a possible scenario he’d envisioned over and over and over and over and never once found a happy ending to, had the reins to his vocal cords and wouldn’t let go.

 

May took initiative, shuffling back into his space a little. “I’m sorry that I didn’t call or text- with hindsight, that was kind of irresponsible of me… but you could’ve called me if it was worrying you that much. I had no idea.”

 

“I know. I kn- it's just hard, sometimes.”

 

“Calling me?” May tilted her head slightly, still plumbing the depths of Peter's eyes.

 

“Yeah. And...”

 

She'll understand. I’m telling you, kid. It’s hard, but once it’s over, it’s so much better.

 

“...And a lot of things. Of other – things.” He finished lamely.

 

May sat back a little, inviting him to speak. “What like?”

 

Sucking a strained breath through his nose, Peter focused intently on the distant front door as he began to list.

 

He'd made lists ever since he could remember. To do lists, homework lists, birthday lists, lists of ideas he didn’t want to forget, lists of possible suit improvements, lists of his favourite words and phrases, lists of what lists he kept. They were a way of coping with the overwhelming torrent of thoughts he cycled through, an attempt to compartmentalize each one and discard the unimportant ones.

 

This was a list he’d been adding to for a few months now and knew mostly off by heart. It was stored on his phone under the title Triggers.

 

“Um- calling people- anyone- on the phone...  Going to and from school; when you – when I think something's happened to you, or Ned, or MJ, or Mr. Stark, or anyone; loud... places; people dying; getting too cold and feeling like I might just… shut down; when some of the kids at school- you know, push me around a little; going out alone; watching the news and seeing all the bad stuff going on; people arguing and g-getting mad at each other; leaving the apartment because maybe someone will come and- I don’t know, burgle it or kidnap you or- or- and planes, definitely planes; small spaces and getting trapped...”

 

For the second time, Peter trailed off, hot tears streaming down his face.

 

This is why I didn’t want to tell her, Mr. Stark. Now I’m losing it in front of her and she’s gonna hate me.

 

Now Peter had begun, he needed to get it all off his chest. “And then... then I cry, all the time-“ he swiped a tear away as he spoke- “And then I c-can't breathe again, and it never ends. And that’s just it.”

 

“Sorry,” he tacked on weakly.

 

Finally tearing his eyes away from the far end of the apartment, he jolted back a little to find May crying along with him, hands twisting in her lap in indecision. Peter could recognize that habit all too well in himself. He stilled, watching tears run down her face and feeling them on his own cheeks.

 

When May noticed Peter’s gaze, she tried to compose herself, thumbing away her tears and spreading her hands. “Okay,” she ventured. “Is there… anything else? I mean- it’s great that you told me, baby.”

 

The tone was not a prying one but one of uncertainty, the tone of an aunt who was trying her best to help him but who never asked to be a mum to anyone and least not an anxiety-ridden superkid, and all of a sudden Peter wished he could take back every word of what he’d just revealed and lift the weight back onto his own shoulders to spare hers.

 

He’d borne it long enough. He could take it for longer.

 

But maybe he couldn’t live with this torment for as long as he thought he could. Maybe May had been aware of his nervous habits and thought patterns for months but had waited for him to come to her instead of pressuring him. Maybe she hadn’t asked to be a parent but now she was, her priority was to do that job to the best of her ability. Maybe it was okay, even healthy, to open up, to let someone else take the weight for a little while.

 

Peter just couldn’t see that yet.

 

Nevertheless, he decided that now he was being honest, he might as well continue.

 

“Yeah, but- I don’t want to bother you at all. You know how I worry when you worry, and… I’m scared if you get worried about me, I’ll just worry more.”

 

May chuckled sadly, prompting a frown from Peter. “Peter, it’s my job to worry about you. I worry about you every day. Always staying out at Stark Tower… running around the city at all hours… But that doesn’t mean to say I can’t take a little more. I wanna hear what’s going on.”

 

She rubbed his upper arm reassuringly.

 

“Okay.” The word left Peter in a rush. “Well, speaking of worrying… I worry. I worry about everything, all the time. I think it’s always been there- the worry, I mean- but it’s getting worse and – oh, Mr. Stark knows – but not because I wanted to tell him first! Actually, I wasn’t planning on telling anyone, but… last night at the Tower I kind of freaked out and he h-helped a little. He said he could- he could get some help for this… I don’t know. Yeah.”

 

“Oh, c’mere, baby,” whispered May, pulling him into a tight, almost desperate hug. She rocked him slowly back and forth as if he was much younger than he was; her words of comfort only drew louder sobs from him. It wasn’t a bad thing; like opening floodgates after holding back a river for far too long.

 

Peter allowed her to share his burden, and in those few seconds, as May rambled on to him (“I can talk to Tony and we can sort something out – you’re so brave for telling me, hon-“), he felt lighter than air yet still tethered to the earth by the faces in his mind’s eye of everyone who supported him.

 

Abruptly, he broke away from their embrace.  “Hey, how was your date?”

 

May laughed incredulously, sniffing a little. “Peter.”

 

“I’m serious, May!”

 

It was clear she was still eager to confide in him about her own night. “Okay, if you’re that desperate…”

 


 

 

“I can’t believe I forgot today’s Decorating Day!”

 

“I mean, I thought maybe because this year… you know…”

 

“What are you talking about? It’s a tradition.”

 

May leant over the kitchen counter, squinting down at two hot chocolate mountains, each swirled through with warm milk, topped with a mountain of whipped cream, dusted with sprinkles and decorated with a festive candy cane. If May Parker was a bad cook, the same could not be said in her skills as a hot-chocolate-maker. Peter wished that were a real word; with the artistry with which his aunt whipped them up, it deserved to be.

 

The ever-familiar Now That’s What I Call Christmas played in the background; in sudden remembrance, May dove into the supply closet and emerged with two well-loved Christmas sweaters.

 

This was the tradition: one day which brought the family together and got Christmas preparations out of the way. The three of them always listened to Christmas tunes, brought out the ugly sweaters, and brightened up the house over hot chocolate.

 

Peter used to spend half the year looking forward to the day, Christmas itself falling into the shadow of the family tradition. But times had changed, and now there were only two hot chocolates on the counter, two sweaters in May’s hands.

 

He raised a cautionary hand. “Hold on. That one’s Ben’s.”

 

“I know.” The navy garment dangled a little pathetically from her grip. “I thought… maybe you’d like it anyway?”

 

All of a sudden, the tears were no longer so far out at bay. All the same, Peter nodded slowly, reaching to pull it on over his button-down.

 

“It smells like him,” supplied May thickly. Peter pressed his nose to the fabric and hummed assent, a sad smile gracing his lips.

 

“Okay.” May clapped her hands briskly together, blinking. “Let’s get the tree up first, right?”

 

“Always the tree first.”

 

She grinned fondly at him.

 


 

 

“You’re really okay with him?”

“I haven’t met him yet! I mean, if he makes you happy, then yes. That’s perfect.”

 

The pair moved leisurely about the apartment, winding tinsel and strands of lights about the place as they talked about May’s new partner.

 

“Great. You know, I was a little scared when I got back that you’d gotten worked up because of him. And I totally get that – it’s pretty soon after- after Ben, and it’s always weird to have parents who are going out on dates just like you- “

 

“I promise, I’m fine with him. From what you’ve said, he sounds great.”

 

“You know what else he is?” May raised an eyebrow.

 

Peter took the bait, but not without suspicion. “What?”

 

Nice.”

 

Peter let out a sustained groan, tempted to lay face-down on the floor. “You know about that too?”

 

“What did I tell you? Tony and I, we’re a team now. Which means we get to share in taking the piss out of you.”

 

He spluttered, hanging a piece of dingy red tinsel over the doorway. “Did you hear me taking the piss out of you when you gushed about your date?”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, honey.” The words dripped with sticky-sweet sarcasm. “You’re just so easy to wind up.”

 

She crossed the hallway to ruffle his hair; Peter rushed to smooth it back down in mock-annoyance.

 

“I’m glad you’re dating MJ. Okay?” May raised her hands in surrender, and Peter’s façade melted away into puppy love, just as she’d expected.

 

“Yeah. Me too.” Peter sighed happily; May couldn’t hold back a laugh.

 

Peter wagged a finger at her in warning. “Remember what I said about taking the piss?”

 

Okay. But you’re ridiculously easy to tease, hon.”

 


 

 

Peter and his aunt stood, arms entwined, and surveyed their work. The Christmas playlist was still playing in the background; a small but cheerful tree had been shoved into the corner of the living room where there was most floor space and was decked out in lights and baubles; and the entire apartment was draped in hanging decorations, tinsel, the lot.

 

May broke the peaceful silence. “Ben would like it.”

 

“Yeah.” It was a half-hearted response.

 

“No, seriously. He’d want us to move on with our lives, not stray away from anything attached to his memory, if you get what I mean?”

 

Peter reprised his previous answer, a little louder.

 

“Hey, how’re you feeling right now?” Changing tack, May placed her hands on Peter’s shoulders and seemed to give him a once-over. “Because if you want to talk any more, or go see someone right now, we can do that- “

 

“No, really- I’m good. Better than before. This was – this was… really good.”

 

The beam that crossed May’s face then brought a lump to Peter’s throat. “That’s great.”

 

“Thanks, May. Thanks for understanding, and – for everything.”

 

“Don’t worry about it.”

 

Realising the unintentional double meaning behind her words, May let out a derisive snicker, followed closely by Peter.

 

“Not like that.”

 

“I know.” Peter bumped her shoulder lightly. “Are we done here?”

 

“Looks like. You wanna get an early night in?”

 

“Can I call someone first?”

 


 

 

“What’s shakin’, Prince Charming?”

 

“You won’t believe.”

 

Tony groaned. He was evidently in his workshop, judging by the various bots slaving away in the background and the dim blue lighting that illuminated his face. He appeared admittedly haggard. ”C’mon, don’t make me guess again.”

 

“I told May.” A corner of Peter’s mouth twitched upwards in a bashful grin.

 

“You’re pulling my leg.” The pride in Tony’s voice was unmistakable. “No way.”

 

“It just sort of came out… and you were right, Tony. It does get better. She did understand. In fact, I feel kinda stupid for keeping it from you both for so long.”

 

Tony grinned. “I’m always right. When will you learn?”

 

“Guess the ice skating wasn’t enough to bring you down a peg.” Peter hummed thoughtfully. “I’ll have to organize something else.”

 

“Don’t you dare.”

 

“I thought so.”

 

Smugness was written all over Peter’s face, and Tony didn’t have the heart to counter him when he was smiling. Better than the tears that had streamed down his face less than a day ago.

 

“You should be getting off to bed, right? You probably didn’t get the best sleep last night.”

 

“Oh. Yeah, I guess.” All at once, the beam faded from the kid’s face, and Tony wanted to take it back.

 

“Before you go- I need your help.”

 

“What with?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas celebrations of the rich and famous were not all they were cracked up to be. At least, not to Tony, who’d lived and breathed them since before he was born (quite literally- he’d seen his mum’s press shoots on the steps of countless galas and balls while she was pregnant with him). And clearly not to Pepper, who had been planning fervently for the huge New Year’s party and the smaller Christmas event they would be hosting for weeks, the latter of which happened to be occurring tomorrow.

 

She’d sent him away to get the groceries the instant he got up the morning of Christmas Eve, thrusting a long, handwritten shopping list at him.

 

He dangled the perplexing thing between thumb and forefinger. “What is this- a- a paper list? Why aren’t we getting all this delivered?”

 

Pepper didn’t even raise her head from the stack of scrawled plans she was poring over. “Because I need you out of the house and out of trouble.” She gestured vaguely in his direction, pen in hand.

 

“Okay, this is going too far. What- I’ve been denoted to Layabout Teen Who Can now? I am Tony St-“

 

“Oh, shut up. We both know you are a proven hindrance to preparations of any kind. Think of it as lending a helping hand in the least annoying way possible.”

 

“And you know that this stunt will increase the length of my inevitable sulk after the party by at least 42%.” In an attempt at intimidation, Tony crossed his arms tightly, only achieving the appearance of a toddler throwing a tantrum.

 

Pepper dropped her pen and sat back in her chair. “Oh my God, Tony, how extra do you get?”

 

“The kid taught you that, didn’t he?” Tony pointed an accusing finger at Pepper, seething. “Goddamn it, I knew he’d be biased towards you.”

 

“Finally, paranoid for the right reasons.”

 

“I’m wounded, Pep. Wounded.

 

“Well, be a dear and drag your wounded ass to the store and get the stuff for Christmas, won’t you?” Pepper’s voice dripped with sugary sarcasm.

 

Tony raised his volume surreptitiously to respond. “You know I can fire you?”

 

“No, you can’t. I’m your boss now.” Nonchalantly, Pepper tapped the small badge pinned to the lapel of her suit jacket reading ‘Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries’.

 

“Damn. Wish you’d forget that.”

 

“I win this time, Schmony Schmark. Go on, bring your friends if it’s gonna be that much of a chore for you.”

 

Tony shoved the list vehemently into his pocket and attempted a teenager-esque slouch as he headed out the door.

 


 

 

Peter had latched onto the group shopping idea like a charm. Rhodey, however, had been a pain in the ass to convince.

 

Over the phone, too. The trials Tony endured.

 

“I’ll already be spending Christmas Day with you and the kid. Don’t make me look at your face any longer than that. Plus, I guarantee you I will be legally deaf by Boxing Day if you make me sit in the backseat with that infant.”

 

“Good. That’ll finally get you to stop complaining about the ‘whirring noises in the suit that’re driving me crazy, Tones’. Ever heard of mechanics?”

 

“Yeah, I heard there was a really shitty one called Tony Stark.” Rhodey couldn’t help but snort at his own joke.

 

“Rhodey, I’m begging you. I haven’t set foot in a grocery store all year. I invited the kid for some reason, and he is the biggest cheapskate I ever met, he might die just looking at the Trader Joe’s sign.” He changed tack before he could start on a tangent about said kid. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to be your sidekick instead. How about it?”

 

“I don’t know. I’m good with remaining the Quippy Black Best Friend. Don’t think you’d quite fit that quota if role reversal is what we’re going for.”

 

“Don’t sweet-talk me, honey bear. ‘I need you’ and all that jazz.”

 

“Boy, do I feel needed.” Rhodey’s sarcasm was plainly evident.

 

So Tony tried a new route: blackmail. “Wanna watch me publicly placing the blame on you when I set the store on fire?”

 

The next words were muffled as Rhodey let his head drop into his hands. “Oh God, my public favour is not gonna withstand any more of your pranks.”

 

“So do we have a deal?”

 

“No.”

 

By which he meant yes.

 

And so, just over an hour later, he found himself chaperoning not one, but two infants in his backseat.

 

“What are you doing with the seatbelt? Tony, we need to get this toddler a car seat. He can’t reach the belt.”

 

“It isn’t my fault this car is built like some sort of time machine! And I’m gonna be old enough to get one of these for myself in 8 months, Mr. Rhodes.” Peter's voice cracked unintentionally as he spoke; Rhodey's short bark of laughter prompted a deep blush from the kid.

 

“Give it a couple years, kid,” said Tony flippantly, “One day you can compete with our 'god-level humour'.

 

Peter's mouth dropped open. “Tu perra.”

 

Tony twisted round in the driver’s seat to pull his tinted sunglasses off briefly and wink deviously at the mock-fuming teenager.

 

But the fun could only last so long, and before long the dreaded Trader Joe’s sign appeared in front of them. Tony pulled into the car park, already regretting his decision to go along with this.

 

Oh, lord. The press will have another field day.

 

Sure enough, as they exited the car and Tony lectured Rhodey for picking on Peter, gaggles of civilians and press had already begun to gather at the corners of the car park.

 

Tony rested a hand on Peter's shoulder and leaned in to speak in a low voice. “You see them?”

 

“I didn’t need to. I felt them.”

 

Spidey sense. Of course.

 

“Are you gonna be okay?” 

 

And this time, Peter did seem a little uneasy, hands twisting and eyes locked on the floor. “...think so.”

 

“That’s not a yes.” Tony hoped there was no menace in his tone.

 

Peter amended his answer hurriedly. “Okay, yes, then.”

 

“No – Peter.” The older man took Peter's shoulders lightly and swivelled the kid around so he faced him. “The point of asking you is that we can head right back home if you’re not okay.”

 

Tony. I’m good. I’m good now.”

 

“You sure?” Tony narrowed his eyes.

 

“Yes!” The word was punctuated by a defensive spread of Peter's arms.

 

Tony couldn’t help but chuckle. “You are an enigma, kiddo.”

 

Peter grinned bashfully.

 

“You know what?” Tony reached to open the driver's seat door once again and retrieved a spare pair of tints from the glove box, struck with a sudden inspiration, and thrust them into Peter's hands. “Try these on.”

 

The glasses were blue-tinted, a direct contrast to Tony's red shades. He liked to have a selection.

 

As Peter cradled the tints motionlessly, Tony couldn’t help but recall a similar reverence with which the kid had worn his coat on the ice rink.

 

“Go on.” He nudged the teenager, prompting him.

 

Oh God. I broke him already.

 

Peter let out a short hiss of breath; Tony couldn’t make out whether it was out of amusement or suppressed annoyance. With a sudden jolt, he slid the glasses onto his face, the frames a little large for his baby face but partially concealing the expression in his eyes.

 

With the signature shades on, Peter looked like Tony’s mini-me.

 

That was not intended.

 

“Better?”

 

“Yeah. Awesome.” Peter grinned lopsidedly up at his mentor, compelling Tony to press him against his side as they strolled towards the store together.

  

Now, witnessing the hordes of press and fans closing in on them through a blue lens which gave the world an impression of being underwater, a strange air of tranquillity settled over Peter.  

 

“Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark, sir!”  

 

“Mr. Rhodes?”  

 

“What brought you to the store? You’ve been pretty absent from the public-“  

 

“Oh my God- Tony Stark! James Rhodes! Why-“  

 

“You wouldn’t be able to spare a few words for-“  

 

“What’s up with the Avengers, then?”  

 

“It’s them, and the teenager too-“  

 

“Who’s the kid, Mr. Stark?”  

 

“Hey, I saw him in those pictures- the ice rink, yeah-“  

 

“-Sure knows how to keep a secret-“  

 

“How old is he? Fourteen?”  

 

Cute.”  

 

Peter flicked his gaze upwards to rest firmly on Tony, who sailed through the crowds, simply rolling his eyes in response to the intrusive questions, and instinctively grabbed hold of the hem of his shirt.  Tony glanced down at him and smiled slowly.  

 

And then they were inside the store, guards at the door shooing the crowds away, and Tony patted the small of Peter’s back a final time before withdrawing to unearth a scrawled list from his pocket.  

 

Rhodey snickered incredulously. “Is that... A paper list? Where have you been, Tones?”  

 

Sure enough, Peter peeked over Tony's shoulder and skim-read the list of ingredients and decorations.   

 

“Pepper gave it to me! I had no say in any of this!”  

 

“Ever heard of the Internet?”  

 

“Don’t do this. We just got accosted by press, don’t follow suit.”  

 

“I am never letting this go. ‘”Tech genius” Tony Stark uses paper list to grocery shop'.”  

 

Peter giggled. “Can we – actually go in, please?”  

 

This gave Tony an excuse to turn his back on Rhodey as he placed his full attention on Peter. “Sure thing, kiddo.”      

 


 

 "Mister Stark..."  

 

"What's up?"  

 

"I don't... which - which one is..."  

 

Peter's foot skittered awkwardly across the spotless floor as he surveyed the tidy stacks of food, where there were thousands of different brands for each vegan noodle alternative.  Does he have a budget? Do I... What is all this stuff?   

 

He was lost for words, avoiding Tony’s questioning gaze. “I… don’t know… where – which…”  

 

Tony caught his drift and saved him. “Oh. I have no idea, Pepper just wrote ‘noodles and also vegan ones for Coulson’.” 

 

“Why…” Peter laughed airily. “Why is she making noodles for a Christmas meal?”  

 

“Never question Pepper’s ways, kid.” Tony feigned solemnity. “They’re beyond us.”  

 

“So… which ones?”  Tony shrugged, then leaned forward and, in a move that made Peter flinch in horror, knocked the entire row into the shopping cart.  

 

“Mister Stark.”  

 

The older man turned slowly on his heel to face Peter, whose mouth hung open. “What?”  

 

“Oh my God – you can’t just do…”  

 

“Well, I just did. C’mon, Pete, loosen up a little. I can spare the expense. Why don’t you go get some stuff for yourself while you’re at it?”  

 

Peter half-choked. “Seriously?” 

 

Yes. As much as you want. We’ll need something to keep you going over Christmas while you hang around the Compound anyway. Go on.”  

 

The half-rejected dream left over from childhood of wandering a store and taking whatever he wished lurched back into effervescent motion. The world was his oyster; the long-barred floodgates concealing branded products from his conscious mind was torn apart and with it his-  

 

“Hello?”  

 

“Thankyou, Mister Stark. This is-“



 “Peter. Just go.”  

 

He was off, maintaining a pace that was just barely socially acceptable, a course plotted in his mind which allowed him to get all the god-awful processed snacks he could dream of.   

 

First stop: Ben and Jerry’s.      

 


 

Peter was bent double, wheezing with laughter as he whizzed through a deserted freezer aisle.  

 

The contents of their shopping cart looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss novel, with a layer of noodle packets lining the bottom like a layer of oxidised rock in a cliffside.   Peter sat crouched in the very front of the metal cart; Rhodey lay awkwardly on his left, legs hooked over the rim, and snorted along with him as Tony, who was steering the thing, picked up speed along the aisle with a whoop of exhilaration.  Peter thought he heard Rhodey say, “How is this scarier than flying in the War Machine suit?”  

 

The anxious part of Peter’s brain was yelling, You’ll hit something! The staff will catch you! This is so stupid, something awful is going to happen, you never should have gone along with this-  But with Tony’s voice full of joy behind him, that voice held less power.  

 

“Faster!” he shrieked.  

 

“I wasn’t ready – ow!” whined Rhodey, still ill-positioned beside him, as his legs were jerked to the side with the momentum of the cart.  Tony only cackled and bent low to the floor to reach peak speed, face reddening.  

 

“Who’re the kids now?” Peter thrust his hands in the air like he was on a roller coaster ride; his remark held no bite.  

 

This is what adult life is like, Pete!” replied Tony, laughing.  

 

“Yeah, sure!”

 


 

“Do we need beer?”  

 

“Is it on the list?”  

 

The shopping cart race to the booze aisle at the very back corner of the store had been accident-free (somehow), and now they puzzled over Pepper’s specifications for alcohol.  

 

Rhodey inhaled sharply as he surveyed the rows of bottles. “Remember this one?”  He slid a lurid purple monstrosity from the row and waved it in front of Tony’s face, a sly grin ghosting his face.  

 

“Oh, Lord. I remember. I wish I didn’t.”  

 

Rhodey clearly had an ulterior motive; this was revealed as he pivoted to face Peter and beamed widely. “Peter! Did Tony ever tell you about the time in college – it was actually Christmas Eve – when he got his hands on-“  

 

But Tony interrupted him urgently. “No, because he’s too innocent to be scarred by that for life.”  

 

“What’s this?” Peter’s eyebrow quirked.  

 

Tony rounded on him, tone falsely bright. “Nothing.”  

 

“Sure.”

 

Rhodey was on a roll; Tony rushed to find the next item on the list and away from Rhodey’s tantalising stories of their adolescence which he remembered all too well. He reckoned Peter hadn’t even heard of the sort of stuff they got up to, and today would not be the day he found out.  

 

“Peanut butter… has to be around here-“  

 

“You know that one time in third year when you put peanut butter-“  

 

Tony’s mouth slackened. “Rhodey.”  

 

“Go on, Mr. Rhodes!” Peter delighted in the banter between the two older men.  

 

“It’s- Rhodey, if you want, kid.”  

 

“Oh.”  

 

Rhodey blinked and continued. “Well, it all started one day in August and I’d just got back from-“  

 

“Don’t you dare.”  

 

“He has a right to know!"

 

“Since when?”  

 

“I want to hear!”



 “Trust me, Underoos, you do not.”  

 

“What about the time by the lake in Malibu right before you-“  

 

“I swear, I’ll bash your face in.”  

 

Peter’s voice picked up suddenly; he tapped the side of Rhodey’s arm gleefully. “Hey, Rhodey, did he tell you about the time he was texting and walking and just walked right into a lamppost?”  

 

Rhodey’s eyes lit up. “No, he did not.”  

 

Tony could only groan. “And that makes two.”      

 


 

They’d loaded the shopping onto the conveyor belt and as they waited for it to scan through Rhodey’s eyes had taken on a glint that Peter already felt he knew.   

 

“Should I see the kid out?” he suggested to Tony, who’d flipped his wallet open and was absent-mindedly tapping a rhythm onto the leather.  Playing along, Peter ducked his head a little and let his gaze rest on the seam where the wall met the floor.  

 

“Oh, sure,” replied Tony. “See you around, peanut butter-“ he winked at Rhodey- “- Mumble.” He nudged Peter, who couldn’t help but smile.  

 

“We’ll wait in the car.”   

 

The smile on Rhodey’s face seemed just a little too wide to be genuine, but Tony was scanning in shopping and nodded vaguely in response. 

 

As they walked in the direction of the door, Rhodey placed a hand across Peter's shoulders and leaned in to whisper.  “I have a plan,” he breathed.  

 

Peter's brow puckered.  

 

“The perfect prank.”  

 

At this, Peter drew back a little. “I can’t prank Tony!” 

 

“Why not?”  

 

Peter fell silent in indecision; this prompted Rhodey to break down the plan.  “We buy a can each and wait for him to come out. It won’t hurt him or anything. You in?”  

 

Despite himself, Peter couldn’t help but snicker. “You’re such a bad influence, Mr. Rhodes!”  

 

“Kid – it’s Rhodey. I think you’ve earned the right. And I’m taking that as a yes.”  

 

Peter let out a breath.  “Sure.”      

 


 

Rhodey and Peter stood poised at the doors to the supermarket. The press had lost interest and dispersed, allowing the prank to take place uninterrupted.  

 

“No chickening out, alright? We’ve come this far.”  

 

“Are you sure Mr. Stark won’t get mad?” Peter studied his can, unassuming but possessing a deadly power.  

 

“Are you kidding? He’s done worse to me. This is just another battle in the wider scheme of the Rhodes-Stark Prank War.”  

 

“You’re as extra as him,” muttered Peter. Before Rhodey could question his words, he added, “Why did you involve me then?”  

 

“He likes you. Trusts you, even. We need to show him that he can't trust anyone.”  

 

“But- I want him to trust me! That wasn’t-“  He was cut off by the sound of the automatic doors sliding open; Tony stepped out of them, laden with bags.  He just barely registered their presence before they attacked, running on pure instinct.  

 

Rhodey pressed down on the trigger to his can first, a herald to Peter’s overpowering dual wield, and neither missed their mark. The image of a flurry of white like a snowdrift coating Tony was strangely festive.  “Whipped cream ambush!” yelled Rhodey in a rush of adrenaline.    

 

There seemed no end to the capacity of the cans. Tony had dropped the bags at this point and held up his arms, disoriented, to shield his already-covered face. A muffled cry of shock from Peter’s victim made his trigger fingers falter but the damage had already been done and there was no harm in a little more cream.  

 

Peter let out a triumphant whoop as his cans ran out of juice and he threw them twelve feet away into the nearest bin without thinking. As Rhodey’s can sputtered similarly, the two stepped back to admire their work.   

 

Tony stood crumpled in front of them; Peter could just barely make out the form of his face under a veritable mountain of whipped cream. Rhodey exchanged a gleeful high-five with the kid, who had pressed his lips tightly together in suppressed laughter and a touch of guilt.  

 

Finally, Tony collected himself and wiped a smudged trail of cream from his eyes, still otherwise motionless.  

 

And then, without warning, he pounced upon Peter, wrapping the unwitting teenager in a tight bear hug and cackling as he squealed.  

 

Peter gasped, pummelling Tony’s unrelenting arms as they both fell about with whipped-cream-muffled laughter. “¡Mierda! Mister Stark- ¿Por qué, Tony?”  

 

Tony responded by wiping the backs of his messy hands furtively on Peter’s hair. “You asked for it, niño!”   

 

Peter ducked away from Tony’s advances, but there was no genuine fear in his attempts to break away from the embrace, only playfulness; the cream-covered beam on his face was a testament to that.  

 

After he was sure there was more whipped cream on Peter than on him, he finally released his captive, who stood with his arms stuck out on either side of him so as not to cause any further mess.  

 

“That backfired.”  

 

“This prank war has been going on for years. I know all this guy’s tricks.” Tony nudged Rhodey, who stood smothering his shit-eating grin with a cream-flecked hand.  

 

“Ew, it’s getting sticky!” Peter had put a hesitant hand to his hair and pulled a face as he tentatively pulled it back, repulsed.   

 

But Tony had his attention on Rhodey, who wouldn’t meet his eye and shook with silent snickers.  “What did you do?” He asked, pointing a white-tipped finger at his friend.  

 

Rhodey responded by unlocking his phone and playing the new footage there to him and Peter. There was the apparently-snow-covered Tony, stock-still and then a flurry of motion, lunging toward the shrieking Peter.  

 

Taking initiative, Peter lunged toward Rhodey and swiped the phone with his least messy hand. With a few deft taps to the screen, he handed it back to Rhodey.  

 

“Thank God.” Tony let out a high-pitched laugh. That video would never see the light of day.  

 

But the kid had other plans.   

 

"I know. Imagine if he’d deleted it!”  

 

What?” 

 

“I sent it to myself. This is going straight to Snapchat!”  

 

Tony was murderous. “Tu pequeña mierda.”  

 

“Don’t know all my tricks yet, do you?” Peter batted his eyelashes innocently up at his mentor.  

 

Rhodey whistled, impressed. “You picked the wrong kid. Don’t mess with him.”

 

“Oh, I’ve got in some good messing already.” Tony grinned. “C’mon, squirt, we’d better get home and clean up.”

 

He went to muss Peter’s hair fondly but found his fingers sticking in the half-dried cream there and groaned, repulsed.

 

“That was your fault!” protested Peter. “If you wanna play with my hair, you’d better take me home to get this stuff out of it.”

 

Rhodey, who was still free of any cream, grinned smugly.

 


 

 

As Rhodey took a smooth right turn towards the compound, hands purposefully steady on the wheel so as to not freak Tony out any more than necessary, he smiled to himself at the calming influence the kid had on his best friend.

 

He could recall all too clearly the times when Tony had refused point-blank to be driven anywhere and couldn’t cope driving himself for longer than a few minutes. But with Peter tucked into his side, he seemed visibly more relaxed, or at least distracted.

 

He feigned sternness as he addressed his protégé, tapping his shoulder to ease it away from the headrest. “Don’t go smearing your hair all over the seats, Parker- do you have any idea how much this cost?”

 

Peter spread his arms. “You’re a billionaire, Tony. I think you can spare the expense.”

 

“Hey! That’s not the point. You’re getting a lift in this car, you respect this car.”

 

“Is that what they told you in the 20s?” Peter couldn’t help but snigger.

 

The older man sighed, deadpan. “Oh wow, I’m old, so original.”

 

Peter mimicked Tony’s voice as he parodied his words: “Oh wow, I’m a puppy, so original.”

 

“Nope. It’s a baby penguin now.” Crossing his arms, Tony challenged Peter with a look.

 

“I… actually can’t argue with that.”

 

“Damn right you can’t. What a cute little-“

 

“No, Tony—" At this, Peter shoved Tony away from him playfully.

 

But Tony inched closer. “-tiny baby-“

 

Peter clapped his hands over his ears, sticking out his bottom lip. “Tony!”

 

“Okay, okay!”

 

Rhodey whistled, long and low. It wasn’t often that Tony conceded in verbal battles like these.

 

Either this kid has some kind of magic influence on Tony, or I missed something big.

 

“I will climb out and stick to the top for the rest of the drive.”

 

Tony spluttered. “I stopped! What do you want me to do?”

 

“Stop threatening me.”

 

“I called you cute. That’s supposed to be a compliment, Pete.”

 

Peter just sighed, shaking his head as if to say you don’t get it.

 

“Trouble in paradise?” interjected Rhodey, addressing Tony.

 

“Don’t you start, Bionic Boy.”

 

And Rhodey, for once, sat back in his seat and let the dialogue pass him by, a lucid grin settling over his face.

 

This kid is doing him a world of good.

 

One final sweeping turn and the Compound swung into view before them.

 

“Alright, should I roll out a red carpet for you, T-star?”

 

“Guessing we’re back home- I can’t quite tell through the cream. That must have been money well spent.”

 

“Oh yeah. 2 for the price of 1.”

  

Peter sniggered, unaware initially that the joke had been made at his expense, and Rhodey rolled his eyes at Tony, who scrunched up his nose in amusement at the teenager now clumsily exiting the car in an attempt to keep it free from whipped cream stains.

 

Tony and Rhodey followed him out onto the expansive driveway that led to the Compound, sharing a confidential smile.

 


 

 

“Wait a sec – let’s get you some clean clothes, squirt.”

 

Peter nodded obediently, waiting only a few seconds before Tony re-emerged from the closet with some brand-new folded garments. The tag read Small; Peter was puzzled. He’d borrowed his mentor’s clothes when he was sick but they’d been in the older man’s size and therefore too big.

 

“Who’s are these?”

 

Tony glanced at the floor, a gesture of disconcerting insecurity. “They’re… they’re yours.”

 

Peter’s voice was quiet. “Mine?”

 

“Yeah. I thought—” he tossed the pile from hand to hand, abruptly resuming his comedic persona. “Seeing as you’ve practically moved in here—” then he seemed to think better of it and spoke haltingly but truthfully. “—you may as well have some things here too. I don’t know, it was on a whim.”

 

“No, that’s—“ the laugh that escaped Peter then was followed by a sniff. “These are great. Th- thanks.”

 

Peter was lit up from the inside out. The shirt and jeans were simple, neutral, but warm and soft on his palms and probably so expensive - but Tony had made the choice to get them for him, had thought about him and worked to make him feel more comfortable in the Compound, and the thrill of gratitude and wonder running through him easily overrode his nagging worries.

 

The two stood, stretching the moment out for as long as possible, Peter forcing his eyes to meet Tony’s and cracking a self-contained smile at the searching gaze he found as if Tony was looking for validation.

 

He never identified what force of spontaneity compelled his next move; he barely remembered taking the steps toward Tony but was jolted back to reality as he went in for a hug, his nose fitting gently into the well-accustomed hollow of Tony’s collarbone.

 

Peter felt Tony’s breath catch in surprise before he hesitantly drew his arms around Peter’s back, reciprocating the embrace. The younger boy exhaled in a sigh and murmured, muffled against Tony’s shirt; “They’re perfect. Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” replied Tony, humouring him, tone slightly gruff.

 

Work-roughened fingers sought the curls of his hair before drawing back abruptly with an exclamation of disgust.

 

“Augh, the cream’s dried!”

 

Peter’s laugh was high-pitched, near-delirious.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Peter wasn’t entirely sure why he’d chosen to make the long trip to the Compound via public transport instead of calling Mister Stark or Happy or someone and getting a lift.

 

That’s not true. You just don’t want to bother them.

 

All the same, there was something endearingly nostalgic about the crowds of New Yorkers heading home for Christmas. Peter found himself scrutinising each stranger around him, wondering if they had anyone to go home to.

 

It took three buses to get upstate and then a fifteen-minute walk to the Compound, all carrying a large zip-loc bag of Christmas-themed cards. Thank God for Google Maps was all he could say. The sun had sunken low in the sky, ensconced in a bed of clouds that threatened snow, and Peter cursed himself for forgetting a coat as he shook his hands out to clear the feeling of ice creeping up them.

 

It’ll be okay - once I get in Mister Stark will be there and he’ll- he’ll understand…

 

But entering the Compound alone proved more eventful than he’d thought.

 


 

 

“Hey! Stop right there.”

 

Peter felt panic rise in his throat, though he’d done nothing wrong. Did I do something wrong?

 

The first thing he sensed about the advancing security guards, even with a cold-fuddled brain, was the sleek tasers at their belts. If he’d had more presence of mind, he might have noticed the matching expressions of boredom on the team’s faces which attested to the level of threat they assumed a shivering, scruffy-looking teenager posed to the building.

 

Do I put my hands up, or…?

 

“Who are you?” drawled a lanky woman to his right. She stood with hands loosely braced on her hips, inspecting her spotless nails out of the corner of her eye.

 

And, of course, Peter’s damn stammering chose that moment to kick in. “I… the- I- I’m…”

 

He swore internally, hands gathering cold sweat by the second, and grimaced nervously up at the woman in some sort of clumsy appeal to her sympathy which was utterly wasted.

 

“Spit it out, kid.”

 

“Um-“

 

Like an avenging angel (pun intended, cut in the unhelpful voice in Peter’s head), a voice cut in and blocked out his stutters. “Peter?”

 

Happy.” Peter winced slightly at how his voice cracked in relief.

 

He’d never been so glad to see the guy in his life. Happy seemed… ticked off – but that was practically his natural state. If Peter squinted, he might say he looked less ticked off than usual.

 

“Getting yourself into trouble again?” Happy’s face remained stony but his tone exposed a hint of fondness as he held up a hand just a little smugly to pacify the ring of security guards. “Lay off, guys, he has Level 8 clearance. None of your business.”

 

At once, the guards turned on their heels and resumed their previous posts. Peter studied the group as they exchanged quizzical glances, probably wondering how he’d managed to bag such a high level of clearance.

 

“I- thanks, Happy, you-“

 

“What were you doing? Why didn’t you get someone to take you here?” prompted Happy, the familiar whine of annoyance returned to his tone as he escorted Peter down the expansive hallway.

 

“I was- I didn’t do anything! I just… turned up to talk to- to Mister Stark and they just, like, accosted me!”

 

“Yeah, yeah, saw it happen, kid.” Happy pointedly fixed his gaze away from Peter. “Did Tony not do your clearance scans?”

 

“I dunno. I always go in with him, or you, so… hey, I haven’t seen you around in a long time. What’s up? Like, in your life?” He peered up at the impassive face, scouring the features for recognition.

 

“Why do you need to know?”

 

“He’s just shy because he got a date,” a sing-song voice behind them proclaimed.

 

It was Tony, as Peter discovered upon craning his neck backwards. Happy coughed uncomfortably.

 

“Really?” Peter worked to iron out every inch of disbelief from his tone.

 

“Ha, ha,” retorted Happy, deadpan, almost childish. “Don’t suppose you’ve got one?”

 

Time to pull the girlfriend card.

 

“A date?” replied Peter, overly innocent. “Oh yeah, I got one of those.”

 

Tony snorted from behind them. “You’re learning from the master, Underoos. Did you come to see me?”

 

The man looked only vaguely surprised to see him, but then again Peter couldn’t recall a time when he’d ever been truly surprised. He guessed it came with being an Avenger or something.

 

He nodded in confirmation, then tucked his fingers, which were getting number by the second, surreptitiously under his armpits.

 

Tony, hyper-vigilant as always, clocked this movement at once and motioned Happy away. He maintained a casual veneer as he draped his jacket over the kid, but spoke under his breath, wary of security: “Did you walk through the cold in that?”

 

By that, Tony meant the customary science pun t-shirt and pitifully thin zip-up hoodie Peter was sporting.

 

Peter hung his head, avoiding Tony’s gaze. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay. Just – get me to pick you up next time. It’s like you get pleasure out of scaring me.”

 

Peter stumbled slightly as his vision distorted. “Woah,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry-“

 

In response, Tony looped the kid’s spare arm around his shoulders and supported him as they hurried towards the elevator that would take them to Tony’s rooms.

 

Peter kept up a chorus of slurred apologies the entire way there. Tony was tempted to count.

 

But after Tony had dug out one of the spare Spider-Man suits, instructed the kid to get it on, and tweaked a small button above the hip to manually activate the heater, Peter’s shivering finally began to abate and they both let out a breath.

 

He didn’t stop there. He didn’t stop until every blanket in the house was piled on the poor kid, the thermostat turned up past 70.

 

When Tony was satisfied, he sunk with an exhale onto the couch beside his charge.

 

“Is this what it was like when I hibernated the last time?” asked Peter in a small voice. He certainly looked small, swallowed by the excess of blankets.

 

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing at the tension slowly leaving his body. “Pretty much.”

 

Peter worried at his lip. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t wanna make you worry, but – I- I mean… I came to ask a favour?”

 

The older man couldn’t help but smile at Peter’s lingering and endearing shyness.

 

“Go on.”

 

A hand emerged from the mound of blankets, clutching a crumpled zip-loc bag stuffed to the brim with Christmas cards. “I- um- so May works at the hospital, and I normally go over there every Christmas Eve to just- to hang out with the kids, and everything. And… I brought cookies last year, but some of them couldn’t take solid food, so that was…”

 

The kid cut himself off with a twitch and resumed his rambling tirade.

 

“Maybe… maybe you could come too? Just because – I know the kids will love it, and we could hand out the cards and stuff and cheer them up and- I don’t know.”

 

Tony’s face softened. He edged a little closer to the swaddled teenager and placed a hand over the exposed one which still clutched the cards as if his life depended on it.

 

“Sure thing.”

 

Peter’s face lit up.

 


 

 

Peter!

 

A chorus of lisping voices bombarded the pair as Peter led Tony into the long-term children’s ward of the city hospital.

 

After a quarter of an hour was spent peeling blankets slowly off Peter layer by layer, Tony had driven the idiot back towards Forest Hills to arrive at their clumsily-decorated destination.

 

A couple of weary-looking nurses attended the ward and widened their eyes at the sight of Tony.

 

He held out a hand to one, a young Hispanic man whose jaw hung open in a reaction that was all too familiar to Tony. “Hi,” he said. “Tony Stark. Sorry for the surprise appearance.”

 

“I thought the kids would want to see him,” beamed Peter.

 

The nurse, who evidently knew the kid, raised his eyebrows in approval. “Just a pinch of that hand sanitiser by the wall and you’re good to go, Mr. Stark. Alright if I take a coffee break, Peter?”

 

“Oh, yeah, sure.”

 

All of a sudden, Peter pitched forward a little with the impact of a spindly young girl who wrapped herself around his knees. She was almost immediately joined by a younger boy, dark-skinned and rosy-cheeked. And another boy, glasses askew, who looked to be around eleven. And a pallid-looing girl who buried her cheek into Peter’s jeans. And a small toddler with wisps of hair who appeared no older than six. And-

 

Soon Peter was staggering under the weight of more kids than Tony could count, and Tony’s heart rate ramped up for a reason he couldn’t identify.

 

Peter chuckled. “Hey, guys! Are you all good?”

 

A resounding “yes!” was the answer.

 

Peter reached down into the mass of kids around his knees and hefted a small girl wearing a Spider-Man costume, fake Iron Man repulsors, and a pink furry cape onto his hip.

 

“Now, I brought someone very special to see you all… say hi to Tony!”

 

A multitude of bulging eyes turned to meet him.

 

To make a long story short, Tony’s relationship with kids was… love-hate. Mainly hate. Teenagers were different. Peter was different. And there, in the centre of the room and surrounded by a sea of thigh-high safety hazards, was living proof that he didn’t always fuck them up on sight. But the little ones… one second, they were made of broken glass; the next, they were screaming tyrants.

 

And yet, surveying the eyes... eyeing him, Tony could find no trace of whatever supposedly malevolent quality he’d come to expect from kids. There was awe there, and trust, glinting in the fractals of light in each pupil, but in the intensity of their gaze was something harrowing. It had to be something about these kids, who’d had so much denied them, who’d had to grow up so fast.

 

His gaze swept over Peter, and he found the same spark.

 

Oh.

 

In a blink of the eye, the swathes of kids rushed to him, some squealing with joy, some clamouring to be picked up, one smaller boy pressing his face into Tony’s pants leg and whispering reverently, “Iron Man.”

 

A few of the clingier kids remained by Peter’s side, a fact which he was grateful for as he was overwhelmed by the swarm.

 

“Whoa,” Tony chuckled tightly. “Hiya.”

 

Peter’s focus was already diverted; a toddler on each hip now, he ventured to the clump of small beds which had been wheeled in, presumably to prevent bed-ridden kids from being left out, and chatted to someone Tony couldn’t yet catch a glimpse of.

 

Suck it up, Stark. If the kid can handle this, you can. They’re kids. They’re alright.

 

So, Tony kneeled down to confront the crowd with a smile.

 


 

 

“Peter, Peter, Peter! Can you draw the Avengers again for me? I lost the last one.”

 

Tony raised an eyebrow at Peter, who remained oblivious.

 

Poppy, who still proudly sported the Iron Man/Spider-Man/pink cape combo, pummelled at Peter’s hands to get his attention; the teenager spread his palms like boxing pads and let her try her luck at a few punches before rising obligingly for a pencil and pad. “Sure thing.”

 

After Overworked Nurses Central returned from their coffee break to lure some of the kids unwillingly into bed or a neighbouring room, Peter and Tony had again been left to their own devices with a slightly more manageable group of children.

 

They really trust Pete with these guys.

 

No shit, the kids treat him like he’s Jesus.

 

Tony had found an unlikely companion in Little Tony, a spindly, olive-skinned boy who preferred to sit solemnly in Tony’s lap than play with the other kids. He had a small portable oxygen cylinder which sat beside them both now with a tube running into his nose; he near-constantly but gently played with the dangling tube.

 

Little Tony startled Big Tony just slightly when he spoke up to say: “I want a drawing too.”

 

Peter caught Tony’s gaze with a crafty gleam in his eye. “You’re already so great at drawing, Little Tony! But I happen to know that Big Tony isn’t bad, either. Maybe you could do something together?”

 

He settled himself triumphantly on his stomach on the rainbow-patterned foam floor among many other kids already drawing, spreading out an array of colours in preparation for his drawing.

 

Tony met the challenge. “Oh, sure. Wanna pass me some paper, Pete?” He leaned in towards Little Tony confidentially to continue: “Our drawing is gonna be way better than his, though.”

 

Little Tony giggled quietly.

 

Super hearing or not, the remark would have been audible to Peter. But the boy simply shrugged, beckoning Poppy over to ‘help’ him.

 

“What did you wanna draw, then, champ?” Shifting the kid a little in his lap, Tony slid the pad onto Little Tony’s knees.

 

Wordlessly, the boy grabbed a red marker in a fist and began to mark out a haphazard image.

 

There was a girl tapping at Peter’s ribs; he twisted round to talk to her. “What’s up?”

 

“If you’re doing the Avengers, can you do Spider-Man for me?” She smiled furtively, brandishing another sheet of paper and two markers: pink and purple. Her hair had only just begun to grow back after surgery, with the result of a few cute wisps flying about her head.

 

“Of course, Angie.” Peter returned her smile warmly. “In pink and purple?”

 

The girl nodded. “Of course.”

 

Angie was up in an instant, whispering into Big Tony’s ear: “He’s really good at drawing Spider-Man.”

 

“Is that so?” Tony feigned surprise at this evidence. He’d seen the reams of suit sketches that kid kept ‘hidden’ among his textbooks. “Hey, you wanna know something?”

 

Angie’s eyes gleamed.

 

He stage-whispered again to ensure his words would be heard. “Spider-Man is my favourite.”

 

Peter blushed, ducking his head.

 

She nodded fervently. “Mine too. I want to meet him so bad!”

 

At this, Tony could practically feel Peter’s ears prick up.

 

“Hmm, I like the pink and purple look. Maybe Spider-Man should take tips,” chipped in Peter, pen cap in the corner of his mouth.

 

“How are we doing?” Tony tipped his head to one side in an attempt to identify the wild scribbles rapidly appearing on the pad in his lap and flowing from Little Tony like they were extensions of his arm.

 

In response, Little Tony gripped Big Tony’s palm and pulled it onto the paper to point at each area. “That’s me, and Mommy, and Tam up in the clouds. Oh, and Spider-Man is protecting me and Mommy, but Iron Man can go to space, so he protects Tam.”

 

Tony chose to ignore the mention of space. “What’s Tam doing all the way up there?”

 

As the words left his mouth, Little Tony stilled in his lap.

 

In the silence that followed, Peter finished his drawings with a flourish and, upon standing, was accosted by kids begging for piggybacks. With a furtive glance around the room to check it was clear, he effortlessly lifted Angie onto one shoulder and Poppy onto another before crouching to allow a pale-haired boy to hitch a piggyback. Tony shook his head disbelievingly at the ridiculous image of the lanky teenager romping about the room with so many kids clinging to him.

 

Little Tony’s next words were quiet, quieter than usual. “Mommy said that’s where she is. Up in heaven. In the sky. But they put her in the ground.”

 

A small “oh,” escaped Big Tony’s mouth. His limbs were iron-clad.

 

But Little Tony wasn’t finished yet. “Mommy says a lot of stuff that isn’t true,” he whispered, turning to Tony with impossibly wide eyes.

 

Big Tony was at a loss.

 

“Mommy says she’s not hungry. But she is. And she says that Daddy is nice to her. But…”

 

Shit.

 

What the hell am I supposed to do?

 

“I almost forgot!”

 

Startled by the sudden ringing out of Peter’s voice from across the room, Little Tony slipped down from Big Tony’s lap, not quite running away but maintaining a guarded distance.

 

Tony caged his right hand tightly in his left and smiled tightly. “Forgot what?”

 

Peter tapped the side of his head goofily. “It’s Christmas Eve! Remember what we always do on Christmas Eve?”

 

A tight knot of boys broke apart from where they’d been fighting over washed-out Disney Princess costumes and yelled, “Christmas songs!”

 


 

 

Okay, since when did this kid know how to play the guitar too?

 

Peter sat with a crowd of smaller children clustered around him like the animals in that weird picture of Jesus.

 

He addressed his disciples: “What next?”

 

“All I Want for Christmas Is You!” cried a girl gleefully.

 

The teenager grinned. “Who doesn’t love that one? I’ll count in.”

 

Peter had unearthed a battered guitar from some magic corner of this clearly underfunded hospital and, to Tony’s surprise, seemed to be a natural at playing it, letting the kids choose any Christmas song they liked for him to play and them all to sing along to.

 

Little Tony had snuck back onto Big Tony’s lap over the course of the first few songs, slumping backwards into his chest to feel the vibrations of his voice as he sang softly along with the kids.

 

And Peter would catch Tony’s eye every few seconds, something new and wistful brought out in his eyes that Tony hadn’t seen before.

 

I don't want a lot for Christmas

There is just one thing I need

I don't care about the presents

Underneath the Christmas tree

I just want you for my own

More than you could ever know

Make my wish come true

All I want for Christmas is you

 

Peter wouldn’t meet his gaze anymore; he swept his gaze across the adoring, singing, broken kids around him and couldn’t see so well anymore.

 

Tony watched his eyes fill with tears which he immediately blinked away with a smile.

 

Instinct begged him to cross the room and envelop Peter in his arms and rock him like he was as young as the poor kids hanging on his every word, tell him it’d be okay, but he would be lying if he did. It might not be okay for these kids.

 

He glanced at Little Tony, small and vulnerable in his lap.

 

It already isn’t okay.

 

The best they could do was sing a few dumb songs with them, and draw pictures, and paper over, with bright colour and sound, the internal cracks these kids shouldered day by day.

 

Peter’s foot tapped along to the beat, nose scrunched up in concentration as he played and softly sang.

 

He’s a good kid.

 

The best.

 


 

 

“Would you look at the time! It’s past bedtime, guys.”

 

May, who’d arrived just a few minutes before, winced as she caught sight of the overhead clock, raising her eyebrows at the staff around her.

 

Peter stashed the guitar on top of a storage cabinet and began to usher the unwilling kids out of the room, Tony hot on his heels. Little Tony gripped his hand silently, tightly, and Tony dreaded the moment when he’d have to pry it away.

 

Poppy, Brian, Angie, and Luke, with their hive minds, all grabbed fistfuls of Peter’s jeans at once, crying, “Don’t go, Peter! Stay!”

 

“Hey, don’t worry.” Peter crouched down to address the four, eyebrows lifted sincerely. “I’ll be back before you know it, okay? And besides, you have the lovely nurses to play with you the rest of the time.”

 

“When's 'before you know it'?” Angie’s voice was muffled; her face was glued to Peter’s shirt as she squeezed him in a hug.

 

He chuckled and graced his hands over her hair. “How about January? Is that soon enough?”

 

She sighed. “I guess.”

 

Big Tony hefted Little Tony into the air and spun him round, grinning at the shriek of excitement it drew from him. “Alright, champ. It’s bedtime for you, too.”

 

“What about Tony?” piped up Luke, hands twisting in a fashion so similar to Peter Tony blinked.

 

Tony hesitated.

 

“Well, maybe I could come by with Peter next time… if that’s alright with you?”

 

The sun beamed across Luke’s face. “Yes!”

 

Breaking through the disorderly clump, May tapped Peter on the shoulder. “Grace wants to see you before you go, hon.”

 

When Peter exhaled, it was a sigh, steeling himself. “Sure.”

 

Evidently, he knew who Grace was, because he made a beeline for the remaining bed in the corner that hadn’t been wheeled back to the ward.

 

Feet moving before his brain, Tony tagged along.

 

Grace was attached to so many drips and tubes Tony didn’t want to count them. The green wooly hat she wore was almost pulled over her eyes to hide an absence of hair and keep her warm; the lurid colour turned her skin, by contrast, impossibly pale. A plastic tube neatly punctured her throat; a small coloured board lay on her lap, evidently to help her communicate. Fragile, the hand that reached out for Peter’s.

 

In a thin, rasping voice, she asked, “Can you come after my op?”

 

Tony could tell Peter’s smile had been plastered on.

 

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Grace.” He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “It’s gonna go great, I promise!”

 

The smile that lit up Grace’s face then would be imprinted in the backs of Tony’s eyes for the rest of his life.

 

“Alright, kiddo, time to head off.” Tony placed a hand on the small of Peter’s back to guide him out of the ward, hoping the contact would communicate something he couldn’t yet force out in words. You’re doing amazing things. I’m so proud of you.

 

The last words they heard as the door swung shut behind them were, “I don’t wanna go to sleep! What if Santa comes? Or Spider-Man?”

 

Peter froze in his tracks, mind working faster than Tony could keep up with.

 

The teenager was already ducking out of the hallway to change discreetly; Tony stilled him by grabbing his wrist.

 

“Hey, isn’t that enough excitement for one night?” Tony didn’t just mean for the younger kids through the door. “We’ve done our bit.”

 

But then Peter gazed up at him with those goddamn puppy eyes and melted Tony’s brain instantly.

 

“Please,” he implored.

 


 

 

“Hi, kids!”

The screams that followed Spider-Man’s entry to the ward made Tony jump a foot in the air.

 

I mean, he did just double-backflip in there.

 

Peter just laughed. “I had a little break from catching bad guys and heard some of you wanted to see me?”

 

A cascade of kids again engulfed the superhero, not one of them aware that their role model was no more than a kid himself.

 

This kid.

 


 

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Peter and Tony had left the hospital after as much whining from Peter as the kids; now Tony watched the way the streetlights spread across each car in turn as he drove down the freeway.

 

A song Peter hadn’t heard of before was playing, something soulful and swelling and bittersweet.

 

How did I find you?

Did I remind you of the boy at the Louvre?

Watching you move

Behind oil

For five hundred years

 

Peter twisted in his seat in surprise at Tony’s words. It was always him who apologized excessively. This was…out of the blue.

 

“Why?”

 

Tony ran his tongue over his teeth. “You…” As crappy as he was at emotions, something about this night had loosened his tongue. “Look, you’re – you’re an amazing kid. I’m sorry everything had to turn out this way for you.”

 

Peter’s brow puckered, and Tony’s too in response. “I’m not. I’m not sorry.”

 

Tony dragged his eyes back to the road before them.

 

“If the spider bite hadn’t happened, and… and my parents – and Ben – and…everything else, it would be different, sure. But it might not be this good. I wouldn’t…”

 

Peter swallowed; Tony felt the kid’s eyes on him. He continued softly. “I wouldn’t have you.”

 

Out of the furnace

Into the forest

The harvest of my youth

Tell me the truth

Do you?

Does anyone, anymore?

 

Tony had lost the ability to speak; he was unwilling to move for fear of shattering the moment.

 

“You shouldn’t be sorry for me, anyway.” Peter twisted his hands in his lap in that ever-familiar way. “What about the kids in there? That’s who you should be sorry for. That’s – they’re who you should be doing something about.”

 

He cut himself off with a sniff; Tony turned his head to find a single glistening tear track making progress down Peter’s cheekbone, gentle as if it didn’t want to frighten him.

 

An unusual gut instinct told him to keep his mouth shut and let the kid say his piece.

 

He was working himself up by the minute, mouth downturned. “I gotta do something. We gotta do something, Tony. In that ward – they don’t have enough- the nurses, they- they- they’re working so hard, and the kids, the…”

 

Struck with inspiration, Tony flipped the car onto auto-drive and let the AI take the wheel while he slipped a hand round the base of Peter’s neck to get the boy, who was getting younger by the second, to meet his eye.

 

But my fear and my pride

Left a shadow inside

With a note on the door

And a card on the floor

Like a hundred times before

 

“Pete, you’ve done so much.

 

The kid turned his cheek greedily into Tony’s touch, but couldn’t seem to accept his words. “But I could do more. Maybe… we could do – I dunno, something with Stark Industries?”

 

And then, muttered so Tony almost didn’t catch it: “I can always do more.”

 

Tony inhaled sharply as Steve’s choked voice echoed through his mind, a product of Wanda’s manipulative dream, but nevertheless words that would never leave Tony’s mind: “Why didn’t you do more?”

 

And Tony would be damned if he let this kid fall into the same trap he himself already had.

 

Peter. We can do something. I can do something. I promise you, those kids will get their Christmas. But did you ever consider that it’s not your responsibility to give that to them?”

 

Peter, like a broken record with his unachievable ideals, nudged his head into the hollow over Tony’s collarbone, still breathing, “I could do more.”

 

Tony had to fix this.

 

He allowed his hand to snake upwards into the hair at the nape of Peter’s neck, relishing in the tension that leeched out from them both simultaneously, and struck when Peter was at his most mushy. “Did you see yourself in there? You were incredible. Where did all that come from, huh? Guitar playing… piggyback giving… drawing… Spider-Manning-“

 

Peter sniggered at the nonsensical word.

 

“You were a superstar, squirt.”

 

First, it was nearly

Then it was barely

Now it seems pretty far

When you were tipsy

I was a wizard with a silver star

 

Peter’s sniff was accompanied by a blush; Tony felt rather than saw it. “Thanks.”

 

“You gave those kids happiness. Can’t that be enough?”

 

The intensity of Peter’s gaze, even through a haze of tears, as he lifted his head from Tony’s shoulder was a force to be reckoned with. “You promise you’ll help them out?”

 

Tony cupped Peter’s elbow sincerely. “Promise.”

 

With a sad sigh, Peter fell back into Tony, the two melding together easily.

 

“Thank you so much,” he muttered into Tony’s shirt.

 

Tony eased them both backwards to rest against the seat, rocking his kid gently back and forth like he’d yearned to do earlier.

 

“Merry Christmas, Peter.”

 

“Merry Christmas, Tony.”

 

I will spare the details

Of the rocks and the nails

The times that I’ve lied

Can't lay down tonight

I've already tried

A hundred times…

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

No amount of preparation, mental or otherwise, could have prepared Tony for the madness that was the Christmas celebration that took place at the Compound.

 

I mean, with a guest list like that, what can you expect?

 

Pepper dragged him to the door to welcome the visitors.

 

First, half an hour early, was Rhodey, a worn-out IKEA bag of shoddily-wrapped presents in hand and a shit-eating grin on his face as if he’d just seen someone fall on their face on the way in. Bang on the invitation time was Steve with Bucky and Sam in tow, Steve looking at the end of his tether already with the squabbling pair behind him.

 

Natasha was next through the door, sporting a new blonde bob that made Pepper squeal and Tony hum noncommittally. Bruce, wearing one of his ubiquitous purple shirts, arrived with Thor close behind. The god seemed to have finally acquired a fashion sense and wore a casual suit which prompted an approving nod from Tony.

 

And last but certainly not least was Peter and his entourage. The girl he’d seen in countless low-quality photos Peter had thrust under his nose to enthuse about their dates with. Ned featured a ridiculous amount on the kid's Instagram (not that Tony had stalked his social media or anything).

 

But the most baffling thing about the group was the way May and Happy, who Tony had sent to drive them in, were behaving. The way Peter kept stealing glances at the pair, who held hands as they crossed the threshold, and then caught Tony's eye with an expression just short of horror, was indicative that he felt the same way Tony did about this... complication.

 

Tony tapped Peter on the shoulder and pulled him aside. “Are they…”

 

“Uh huh.” Peter had gone pale.

 

“So she was…”

 

“I know.”

 

Tony rested a hand on the edge of his goatee. “Well.”

 

Before he could make an inadvisable comment on the unlikely pairing, Ned stepped in as if in a trance, a hand woodenly extended towards him.

 

“Tony Stark.”

 

“Don’t wear it out,” was Tony’s blasé reply as he shook Ned’s now limp hand.

 

Peter nudged his friend. “Dude. You said you’d play it cool.”

 

Ned spluttered, not taking his eyes off Tony. “But it’s him!”

 

Peter rolled his eyes (a gesture so out of place on the perpetually earnest countenance that Tony snorted under his breath) and took over from his starstruck friend in a deadpan. “Yeah, I know. Mister Stark, Ned wants you to know he’s a huge fan and has your Lego minifigure as well as a poster of you above his bed. Although he has individual posters of every Avenger above his bed, so…”

 

Despite the awkward encounter, Tony couldn’t help but laugh. “Is that so?”

 

Ned nodded dumbly.

 

MJ nosed her way into the circle; Peter immediately sought her hand, adoration overriding his features, and Tony smirked at the mushiness of it.

 

“Hi,” she breezed, barely flinching at Tony’s presence. I like this one.

 

“You must be Michelle,” he prompted. “Peter’s told me so much about you.”

 

Peter laughed nervously, shooting Tony a look that said please don’t ruin this for me.

 

Tony yielded for the moment, but something told him that once this relationship got out to the crowd there’d be no end of teasing.

 

In his life, Tony had found himself in a variety of strange circumstances ranging from the slightly odd to the out-of-this-world insane – all these, and yet this Christmas party would have to top them all.

 

The sight of Pepper, MJ, Peter, Steve, Bucky, Bruce, MJ, May, Sam, Thor, Natasha, Ned and Happy all milling around the serving table and piling their plates was one that would surely remain imprinted upon his mind’s eye for the rest of his life.

 

Ned had approached Steve now; Tony looked on with amusement as he got a clap on the shoulder from the super soldier and his eyes popped out of his head. Peter was close behind his friend, swooping in to save him from embarrassing himself, and Tony hid a laugh behind his hand as Steve’s eyebrows furrowed: “I swear I recognise you… something about the voice?” and Peter balked into a fit of stuttering.

 

He could already sense the mischief radiating from Sam, Bucky, and now Thor, who were lingering by the champagne. If he had to stand in the way of other adults getting the kid drunk one more time-

 

 Spotting Natasha in the distance, said kid ducked away from the still-puzzling Steve and into her arms. She let out a short cry of shock before realising the person that had gently tackled her was friendly. “Peter!”

 

“Good to see you again, Nat! Your hair is so cool!”

 

“I’d been waiting for your opinion. Future America’s Next Top Model judge and all that…”

 

“You know it.”

 

The two fell into one another in fits of giggles and- was that jealousy that panged through Tony’s sternum?

 

He quirked an eyebrow as MJ approached him alone with a handful of blueberries that Tony was at least 70% sure weren’t laid out on the table.

 

“Hey again,” she began conversationally, but her confrontational stance convinced Tony that she had intentions beyond small talk.

 

Tony sipped his cranberry juice and sent a cool stare her way.

 

Taking this as her cue, she stepped just close enough to him that it was uncomfortable. “Peter says you’re a really great… mentor, whatever, I don’t care – I don’t care as long as you’re treating him right. He gets enough crap at school. And if I find out you’re making life harder for him, I will punch you hard enough that you lose at least two teeth.”

 

Tony twitched.

 

“Is that clear?” she raised a finger to point at him, and Tony felt genuinely threatened by a teenage girl.

 

“What makes you think I wouldn’t be treating him right?” he replied, falling stupidly to the bait.

 

“The time when you took away his suit and he got all upset for days. He got a B on his Chemistry paper. Do you know how awful that is by his standards?”

 

It took too long for Tony’s brain to catch up to the smart-mouthed girl encroaching on his personal space. He sighed. “You know about Spider-Man, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah, and I’m not overly thrilled to have you encouraging my boyfriend to risk his life on the daily.”

 

“Look, MJ…” Tony was rapidly digging himself into a hole and breathed a sigh of relief when Peter himself found his way back to his girlfriend and intercepted the conversation. “There you are! You haven’t threatened Tony yet, have you?”

 

“She’s scary,” stage-whispered Tony, confidence returned with the mediating presence of the kid.

 

Peter laughed lightly, nudging Michelle fondly. “’Stand down’, remember? He’s great.” He beamed up at Tony, who melted.

 

“Affection. Yuck.” MJ pulled a face, but Peter’s infectious light had already spread to her eyes.

 

Peter smirked. “You love it really.”

 

“Don’t ruin my reputation!”

 

A look of pure puppy-love came over Peter then; he leaned in to peck her on the cheek.

 

As if the kiss had emitted a signal to the testosterone-radiating group by the wine, their heads whipped up at the same time and all three emitted a long, low call of “Ohhhhhhh!”

 

Oh, boy.

 

But, unlike Peter, who immediately shrank away with a furious blush, Michelle was not deterred by the outburst. She simply shot a murderous glare in the direction of the noise, which immediately quelled. Tony noticed Natasha’s eyes widen approvingly from across the room.

 

And so the evening continued.

 

Tony spent a while observing the ebbs and flows of interaction, finding no end of entertainment with such an oddball group.

 

Ned spent the evening making his gobsmacked way about the room, weaning handshakes from every superhero he approached and enthusing with wildly gesturing hands. MJ and Natasha had been huddled on the couch for some time, connecting on a spiritual level, and had been joined by Pepper. In the centre of the room, Bruce and Happy made awkward small talk; Happy kept stealing wistful glances over to May, who held her ground impressively among Thor, Steve and Bucky, laughing and with mulled wine to hand. And, just as Tony had dreaded, Sam had already started a heated argument with Peter over which Avenger had the coolest suit. Sam’s brash voice and Peter’s high-pitched one carried above the volume of the rest of the room; Tony could pick out the two (unsurprisingly) arguing for their own suits.

 

Abruptly, Sam turned on his heel, delight written all over his face, and left Peter calling “Sam, no-“ after him.

 

Tony was torn between a snort of derision and a groan of oh shit when he saw Sam re-emerge with a sprig of mistletoe in hand.

 

There is no version of reality in which this ends well.

 

Why did you invite him again?

 

With a booming call, Sam called the attention of the room. “Everybody!”

 

Once he had the floor, Sam flashed a shit-eating grin in Peter’s direction and proceeded, waving the mistletoe about. “I’m sure you all know the significance of this thing. I believe…“ he paused to swallow a chuckle- “That traditions are one of the most important ways to keep Christmas alive. And there’s no better Christmas tradition than a good ol’ kiss under the mistletoe! So who wants to go first?”

 

The whole room stifled a nervous giggle.

 

At the rim of the small crowd was Peter, jaw hanging open. “I’ll buy you some time,” hissed Tony in his direction.

 

“What?”

 

Tony nosed towards the mistletoe and grabbed Pepper’s hand.

 

No other reason for kissing the most amazing woman in the world in front of a bunch of superheroes.

 

“Challenge accepted, Sam-I-Am. Pep- c’mere.”

 

Pepper, to her credit, took the sudden and public gesture of romanticism in her stride, smiling against his lips as a round of applause broke out around them.

 

Sam began to tout for more kissers as soon as Tony and Pepper had finished their moment, glancing Peter and MJ’s way multiple times. “Who’s up?”

 

With a giggle that sounded jarringly young coming from her, May took Happy’s hand and tugged him towards the sprig. Peter barely managed to contain his cringe, an action mirrored involuntarily by Tony.

 

He had to give them credit, they did look a pretty picture pressed gently together in their smart Christmas attire and under the festive mistletoe. Peter evidently hadn’t noticed this; he’d covered his face with his hands in embarrassment.

 

May’s first word as she broke apart from her kiss with Happy was “You gave me your blessing, Peter- get used to this!”

 

“I didn’t think…” he protested weakly, a noise somewhere between a laugh and a groan escaping him.

 

May was all too eager to join Sam in teasing her nephew. “I’ve had my turn, now go have yours,” she insisted, poking him playfully in the arm.

 

Peter warred with the notion. Something about the curve of his mouth told Tony he wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but it wasn’t until Michelle took initiative and grabbed his shirt to pull him under the mistletoe that a decision was made.

 

Tony couldn’t help but grin at the sight of the kid’s eyes widening and a self-conscious blush creeping up his cheeks as Michelle drew a hand around the back of his neck and kissed him.

 

Their audience let out a collective sigh, followed by a loud cheer from Ned.  Peter slowly let his eyes close. Tony smiled fondly at the sight.

 

The two broke apart laughing confidentially.

 

“Is that all?” prompted Sam. “Or can anyone top that?”

 

A short and uncomfortable silence followed. Sam began to slowly lower the sprig and back out.

 

At the corner of his vision, Tony caught a sudden flurry of motion and turned his head to witness a truly unexpected turn of events: Bucky had taken both of Steve’s hands and dragged him into the opening, proceeding to clash his lips against the soldier’s with something close to ferocity.

 

Steve tensed visibly, but within seconds had melted into the embrace, slipping an arm around the small of Bucky’s back to draw him closer; the familiarity of the kiss made it clear that this wasn’t their first together.

 

Tony’s brain was buffering. That happened. That… that’s a thing now. He’d missed more than he thought.

 

Ned, stood to his right, started a round of enthusiastic applause, followed closely by a shocked but beaming Peter. Tony couldn’t help but grin at the pair of them fitting so well together under the mistletoe.

 

When Steve and Bucky finally broke apart, both looking a little surprised at their own behaviour, Sam tossed the mistletoe away: “Alright, I think that tops off the evening! Have… a nice night?”

 

Thor was the first to break away from the mistletoe drama, heading straight for the alcohol and rooting around his suit pockets. Better keep an eye on him.

 

May and Happy, who’d been conspiring with one another ever since their kiss, called Peter and Tony over respectively, hands still entwined. Feeling like a kid about to be scolded, Tony approached the happy (har har) couple just as Peter did the same.

 

“So…” began May, “I know you two might have already figured this one out, but we thought we’d announce it officially to you now. Happy and I are dating.”

 

Peter coughed convulsively; Tony offered him a few pats on the back, fixing Happy with a confrontational stare.

 

May continued. “Peter, you knew Happy a little before this, right?”

 

Peter’s mouth opened and closed multiple times before any sound came out. “uh… yeah. A little.”

 

“well... We’re both overjoyed for you guys.” Tony jumped in to save the kid’s honour. 

 

May, ever the hawk-eyed helicopter parent, paid no heed to Tony’s clumsy cover this time, too busy gazing into Happy’s eyes.

 

“Hey, Happy, could I have a word real quick? You know, mano-a-mano?” Tony feigned insignificance, and May was quick to sweep Peter away.

 

Immediately, Tony pounced. “The hell? When you said you had a date, I didn’t figure it’d be the kid’s aunt of all people!”

 

Happy was indignant, replying in an aggravated whisper. “Well, you don’t get to choose who you fall in love with, Tony!”

 

Tony dragged an exasperated hand down his face. “Don’t tell me this is going to last.”

 

“Don’t you insult my choice in dating!”

 

“I can’t believe you’re dating the kid’s aunt.”

 

“I said-

 

And so forth.

 

Tony still hadn’t fully gotten over the new couple five hours later as they sat on the couch, asleep together with Downtown Abbey playing on the TV. Peter sat a good few feet away, blue light from his phone spilling onto his face.

 

MJ and Ned had been chauffeured home an hour ago, and any Avengers staying overnight had ended up either in bed (only for the people like Bruce who had the sleep schedules of kindergartners) or in the other lounge a floor up. Tony had spent some time reconnecting with old friends before seeking the kid out.

 

He called quietly to the vacant-eyed teenager from across the room. “Hey. Peter.”

 

Peter blinked a few times, peering into the dark to make Tony out. “Hi?”

 

“C’mon, I’ve got something for you.”

 

He’d ruminated on the kid’s Christmas present for a good few weeks now. Something that would hopefully lower his chance of getting into serious danger but wouldn’t be too obvious or controlling. Something that showed how much Tony cared without being sappy.

 

He beckoned Peter out of the lounge and through hallways bathed in moonlight to reach the balcony. Having seen countless scraps of footage involving Spider-Man at the top of some perilously high monument gazing out at the sky, he thought the kid might like it out here, with a gorgeous view of the whole city around them and the expansive, moody velvet sky above them.

 

Once they’d arrived, Peter’s jaw tightened; he prompted Tony with a raise of his eyebrows. “So… what have you - what have you got for me?”

 

Huh. Stuttering normally means he's nervous.

 

With a flourish, Tony produced a small band-shaped piece of tech, sleek, silver and unassuming.

 

Peter hesitated. “What is it?”

 

“It’s what I like to call the panic button – pun intended.” Tony smirked, reaching forward to slip it onto Peter’s wrist. “It’ll connect to your webshooters if you’re wearing them. Any time you’re in trouble – if you need help, or just want it – just give this a tap and I’ll be there. You can record a message if you’re in the right place or just send the signal and it’ll patch straight through to-“

 

Tony was cut off by the sudden impact of Peter colliding with him in a hug.

 

He glowed.

 

At a loss for how to react to the teenager clinging to him like his life depended on it, Tony emitted a low chuckle, blowing out his breath across Peter’s hair, and a habitual hand strayed upwards to muss the hair at the nape of the kid’s neck. Peter ducked his head to burrow into Tony’s collarbone in that now-well-accustomed hollow.

 

“Like it?”

 

“It’s awesome - thank you,” was the muffled yet fervent reply.

 

Score,” Tony hissed under his breath, drawing a giggle from Peter.

 

All at once, the kid was pulling back away from him with arms rising at his sides. “Hey, could you- wait here a minute? I’ve got something too, it might… it might take a minute. I’ll be right back!”

 

Tony quirked an eyebrow.

 

Sure enough, before Tony had even finished pouring a drink (the whole Happy Feet thing just under a week ago had inadvertently gotten him into cranberry juice and now he lived and breathed the stuff), he heard Peter racing back towards him, a low whirring noise following him.

 

Peter indicated the knee-high contraption with a beam. “Meet- uh… I don’t actually have a name yet. Partly because I thought you could name him and… I’m gonna admit it, I didn’t really think about it.”

 

Meeting the eye of the small robot at Peter’s side was an out-of-body experience for Tony, although only the creases at the edge of his eyes betrayed it. It looked to be constructed out of repurposed scrap metal, standing a little off-kilter on mechanical legs. The shape of eyes had been suggested in two rounds of black paint ringing prominent screws on the front.

 

“It’s a little AI. Kinda… wonky, I know, but… you know Baymax?”

 

When Tony laughed, it sounded a little choked. “From the Disney movie?” He squatted down to the height of the ingenious thing, running a careful thumb along the front panel.

 

“Yeah. That was kinda the basis of this little guy. You’re always reminding me to do basic stuff - going to sleep, drinking water, you know – so I thought I could get you something that reminds you when I’m not around. If I programmed it right, it should hook up to FRIDAY and monitor your levels and stuff…”

Tony came to a slow realisation that he’d been crouched motionlessly in front of the robot for too long and rose back to his feet.

 

“Wait, I’ll get it to say something,” Peter interjected into the silence, the pride at his work clearly pervading his tone. “Bot?”

 

So attentive was the way the robot’s head swivelled towards Peter that Tony wanted to laugh.

 

“Can you check Tony’s heart rate for me?”

 

With a soft clunk, the chunky arms lifted from their sides and extended slowly, calmly towards Tony’s wrist, pausing first.

 

And then a lump rose in Tony’s throat as he heard a tinny voice that was unmistakeably Peter’s coming from the speaker: “Is this alright?”

 

The real-life Peter blushed a little, shifting a foot. “I didn’t have enough time to synthesize a different voice, so I just… used mine.”

 

Tony gazed down at the kid, head tilted, eyes glistening. “Pete.”

 

The single syllable was a shard of coloured glass.

 

Peter continued to meet Tony’s eye, his own eyes searching, as Bot delicately encircled Tony’s wrist and took a reading of his heart rate. He’s waiting. Waiting for the praise Howard never gave to him, hope so blindingly clear in his eyes.

 

“It’s…he’s… incredible, Pete,” breathed Tony. “You’re incredible. You really pushed the boat out. You made this by yourself? And it’s all salvaged?”

 

“Well…” breezed Peter, coughing. “I may have… taken a few screws and stuff from your workshop… but mostly, yeah. You got a name yet?”

 

Tony laughed: open, a release.

 

“Spid-E?”

 

His laugh was met with Peter’s gleeful cackle.

 


 

 

Hours later, Peter and Tony sat up still on the balcony overlooking the stars as the moon slowly lost dominion over the sky.

 

Peter had started guiding conversation inexorably into deeper and deeper territory; Tony wouldn’t have been surprised if the kid had started pouring his heart out to Tony like a therapy session.

 

But he’d welcomed it all the same.

 

“What are you thinking about?” he prompted the kid, who now stared off into the distance at the millions of pinpricks of fluorescent light beneath them and the fathomless number of burning gas balls above.

 

Peter broke out of his contemplation but continued to face the scenery as he spoke. “Well… every time I look out at the whole city, I remember how - how beautiful it is as one… vessel. When you’re down there, in the pits, the whole time, you can only see the details… so when you’re the one dealing with the messiest parts, sometimes- it seems like an ugly place – a place you could hate, even.”

 

Tony tilted his head to watch Peter’s hands twisting in concentration out of the corner of his eye.

 

“So – it’s good to see the entire city like this – watch all the crazy life going on down there – and remember what all the superhero stuff it’s for. It’s to preserve…” here Peter thrust an arm towards the glowing entity beneath them- “All of this. The bigger… the bigger picture, you know?”

 

This kid had the world contained in his palm and daily marvelled at its working all the same.

 

Tony’s face softened. He pushed out a breath. “Anyone ever tell you what an idealist you are?”

 

“I- uh…“ Peter broke out of his philosophical haze.

 

But Tony smiled fondly. “It’s a good thing, you know. I’ll miss your giddy optimism, Parker.”

 

Peter chose that moment to turn away from the city, rounding on Tony. “You’ll miss it? When?”

 

“I don’t know…” and Tony didn’t know. Not only why I said that; how could he possibly divine what the future would have in store? He regained himself, nudging Peter. “If you ever decide you’re too cool to hang out with an old man anymore.”

 

“Well, you’re the coolest old man I ever met, for sure.”

 

“Aw. You flatter me, Pete.”

 

“Hey, Mister – Tony – “ here, Peter cut himself off with a low laugh, mirrored by Tony at his side. “I never asked… do you believe in God?”

 

The stars dimmed.

 

Dragging a hand across his face, Tony replied haltingly. “Not really. Not after Afghanistan.”

 

Peter was persistent. “Was there, like, one moment in there where you stopped?”

 

Try as he might, Tony’s defensive guard was a force of habit. He evaded: “Why is this so important for you to find out?”

 

The kid beside him responded only with a shrug, still gazing up into his mentor’s eyes with something intense and undecipherable to Tony.

 

“I thought it would’ve been when I first woke up with that car battery strapped to my chest, but it wasn’t until…” the force of the memories was already clenching Tony’s hand into fists; Peter, ever attentive, enclosed them in his own hands. “Until I refused to do what they wanted - build the missile – and they stuck my head in a pail of water…”

 

Too much. His hands were shaking, arm numb, and it was 10 years ago you’re so weak, but he was dragged back to the land of the living by Peter’s moonlit face, written all over with worry, as he pushed his thumbs into the tight circle of Tony’s fisted hands and slowly eased the fingers apart.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

 

“Hey, remember what we said about that? It’s not your fault.”

 

Peter smiled softly.

 

Bot’s voice jerked them both out of the moment. “Tony’s heart rate is elevated. Try calling a friend. How about Peter? Peter can help!”

 

Tony’s face crumpled in a breathy laugh of endearment. Peter’s head flopped briefly onto his shoulder in his embarrassment.

 

Maybe it was to fill the silence that the kid spoke next; maybe it was some innate gauge of Tony’s stress levels and how to bring them down. “I’m not sure if I do yet. Believe in God, I mean. Maybe I do. It’s just…” Peter craned his neck to view the bafflingly vast scenery around them again. “There’s gotta be something out there, right? The complexity of biology and atomic structure, all fitting together and co-existing, co-dependent… Something – someone – that loves us, I hope.”

 

Tony pleaded silently for the Bot not to comment on the elevation in his heart rate as he rested an arm across Peter’s shoulders.

 

“Who couldn’t love you, kiddo?”

 

That searching look returned to Peter’s eyes as he met Tony’s. “Do - do you?”

 

If he doesn’t know that by now, one of us has got it all wrong.

 

Tony squeezed Peter’s shoulder. “Yes. Of course.”

 

“And… and I love you too, Tony.”

 

Only now did it dawn on Tony what that look in Peter’s eyes was. Love.

 

“Peter, you’re the best.”

 

With a sharp exhale, Peter leaned his head onto Tony’s shoulder, snaking an arm around his torso.

 

Together, they watched the sky.

 

Peter faced New York city below him, the void of space above him, and the year coming, but the prospect didn’t scare him nearly so much now. Tony’s arm was warm and all-encompassing, drawn around his shoulders, warm breath rustling his hair. He could only hope he’d have this forever. For a short time, blissfully naïve, he even believed it might stay like this.

 

People don’t always get what they believe – or deserve.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

For Peter, he’d been away for the blink of an eye before Doctor Strange was shaking him awake, leading him through the crazy yellow sparkly portal and into the wasteland that was the Compound. Back into the land of the living.

 

For Tony, it had been five years.

 

The battle was well underway before Peter got a chance to see him properly again. It was of a magnitude he’d probably never witness again. If he thought he’d experienced sensory overload before, he was mistaken. But the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the voice ringing in his ears that yelled find Tony find Tony find Tony propelled him ever faster across the battlefield.

 

A sudden, inexplicable twinge in his Spidey sense alerted him to Tony’s presence just in time; with dual strings of web attached to the monster’s back, he yanked his arms backward and sent it flying a little too far in his haste.

 

Undeterred, Peter took a flying leap off the rock ledge and towards Tony.

 

Tony Tony Tony Tony-

 

Tony was propped up on his elbows on the ground, in a new Iron Man suit Peter didn’t recognize. He looked somehow both younger and older than Peter had ever seen him; something had frozen him momentarily in place.

 

Peter couldn’t divine in those next two seconds if he or time had slowed, but either way, the distance between him and Tony was achingly wide, and it was taking too long to cross it. And then-

 

He faintly heard Tony mumbling, “Kid, you’re here – hold me.”

 

And then, with a clink of metal suit against metal suit, the two collided and melded into one. Peter stumbled back a little with the force of Tony’s embrace. He let out a shaky exhale.

 

Tony’s heart beat worryingly fast against his Iron Spider suit; now would be a good time to get a heart rate reading from Spid-E - oh my God, what happened in those five years?

 

He began to ramble, eyes wide and still clinging to Tony as he gently rocked him back and forth. “Hi- hey! Holy cow, you would not believe what’s been going on. Do you remember when we were in space - and I got all dusty and sorta vanished - and I must’ve passed out because I woke up and you were gone, but Doctor Strange was there, right, and he was like, “It’s been 5 years, c’mon, they need us!””

 

Tony twisted to plant a kiss on the side of his neck, warmth blossoming inside Peter, and clasped his wrists together around Peter’s back. He felt safe.

 

“And then he started doing the yellow sparkly thing that he does- all the time…I must’ve been gone a really long time, huh?”

 

Abruptly, Tony gripped Peter’s shoulders and held him out at arm’s length. His eyes scanned Peter up and down as if checking he was real.

 

Inhaling loudly, Tony kept his hands on Peter’s shoulders and his tears at bay as he spoke the words he never got to say, words he wasn’t sure Peter would ever hear. “You know, I never told you I loved you. Never said it straight. I love you, Peter. So much. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” was the tearful answer, and Peter was looking up at Tony like he’d hung the moon and damn it, don’t cry, so he pulled the kid in for another frantic hug, letting the nanotech in his hands melt away so he could card his fingers through hair he’d missed every day of those five years.

 

“This is nice,” breathed Peter in that irrepressibly dorky way of his, prompting Tony to press another kiss to those long-missed curls in exultation. He mocked the world: here I am, still alive, and I’ve got two kids now. You tried to take them away from me, but look. I win this time.

 

I win.

 

I win.

 

I-

 

“-am… Iron Man.”

 

Peter yelped as a blinding flash of light enveloped him.

 

Can’t see, not good-

 

He’d been tackling a host of Chitauri warriors, but just as soon as they’d swarmed him, they were all gone. Peter blinked the light out of his eyes and started as he saw the settling piles of dust around him, the invaders collapsing into thin air all around.

 

Only with his superhuman vision could he make out the shape of Thanos across the wasteland, sitting heavily then swallowed by the dust just like Peter had been what felt like minutes ago.

 

Peter’s head spun.

 

How… five years… who did it? Tony?

 

He scoured the battle ground in sudden panic.

 

What had he been thinking? Who else to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good?

 

When he finally laid eyes on Tony, he wished he hadn’t. He wished he could take it back.

 

“Mister Stark?”

 

Rhodey straightened, backing away to allow him room. He barely registered his presence. All he could see was Tony, eyes open and vacant, skin void of colour, and the marred blackness running up his side, like ash, like dust, like death.

 

Peter’s breath hitched. This couldn’t happen. This wasn’t happening

 

“Mister Stark? Hey…” hating how the pitch of his voice peaked, dreading that he’d get no answer at all from his pleading, Peter crouched shakily in front of Tony.

 

 Peter paid no heed to the sharp, catching breaths that had taken over him. “Mister Stark… can you hear me? It’s Peter.” Gently, desperately, he laid a hand on Tony’s undamaged forearm and shook it, hoping to get a reaction out of him, something.

 

Just barely, he watched Tony’s mouth stir.

 

“Hey.” Peter’s eyebrows drew together in an effort to hold back tears.

 

As if it would draw a response from the hauntingly unresponsive man across from him, he spoke the obvious. Sometimes, when the world itself had seemed to busy to listen to Peter’s incoherent ramblings, Tony was the one who’d sat down and listened and understood. “We won. Mister Stark- we won, Mister Stark. We won, you did it, sir, you did it.”

 

The primal part of him screamed wrong wrong wrong when you talk he listens he isn’t listening-

 

And yet, against all the odds, against Peter’s heart which was blackening like the side of Tony’s face by the second, Tony spoke.

 

“Pe’r.”

 

It was slurred, rasping speech, barely discernible, but speech all the same, words, that’s my name, he’s talking to me.

 

All at once, Peter juddered into action. What do I do? “T-Tony?”

 

“You’re g’na be… th’ best of – ‘f all of us, kid.”

 

Peter knew these words all too well. These were the words of someone who knew they were breathing their last.

 

“Nope. No. No. No,” Peter whispered, adrenaline the only thing keeping his face from crumpling.

 

Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed Tony’s unharmed fingers straying upwards and, running on pure instinct, lifted the hand upwards to the back of his neck so Tony could thread his fingers through. One last time.

 

“Y’re the best ‘f us. You were – y’were always… better th’n… me.” The muscles in Tony’s cheek twitched but wouldn’t allow him to smile. “Keep… savin’ people, ‘lright? But d’n f’get… t’ save yourself, t-too.”

 

Peter’s mind’s eye was a kaleidoscope of glowing memories warring with the picture of death before him. A contradiction that, even after so many losses, Peter still couldn’t wrap his head around.

 

“I won’t – I will,” he blundered, rushing to say something meaningful, feeling the first of many tears cutting a path down his face. “I… I love you. I love you, Tony.”

 

The weight of the words pushed a sob from his throat. He watched in horror as Tony attempted to form a response, the hand at Peter’s neck spasming slightly in his effort, but produced no sound.

 

Tony.” The word was choked, primal, desperate.

 

No reply.

 

A metal-clad hand rested gently on his arm, slowly tugging him away, but the touch was foreign, and in his single-mindedness, Peter shook it off.

 

“I’m sorry… don’t go, Tony.”

 

No words could solve this, and yet Peter was still searching for the right ones.

 

He was jerked out of his head by Rhodey’s quiet call. “Peter.”

 

Peter bowed his head and stood. He stumbled away from Tony, where Rhodey encircled his upper arms with his metal gauntlets in a gesture both comforting and restraining.

 

Inside the hold was a kid falling apart.

 

Pepper had stepped in towards Tony and spoke softly to him. “We’re gonna be okay. You can rest now.”

 

He wanted to scream his dissent. They wouldn’t be okay. Tony was the core that kept the world spinning. Peter couldn’t bear to imagine living a moment with the image of that massacred face imprinted in his mind’s eye, nor could he face a lifetime without the man it belonged to.

 

Mom. Dad. Ben.

 

Peter wouldn’t add Tony to the list, because it’s not true, he’s not dead, that didn’t happen.

 

But he couldn’t disobey Tony’s dying words if he tried. Not after he’d so let down Uncle Ben. Not after every answered call for aid and word of encouragement and wise correction and snarky quip and helping hand and loving touch that had just been snatched away from him.

 

The loss of those moments and that constant made the memories all the more precious.

 

He looked on, tears hot against his face, as Tony’s arc reactor flickered and died.

 

Iron Man might be gone - might have slipped away beneath Peter’s very fingers in a tragically poetic mirror of the way he’d faded away into dust in Tony’s arms before – but Spider-Man was alive and ready to pick up the pieces of the war.

 

Whether Peter would be the same, only time could tell.

 

Part of the journey is the end.

 

Nonetheless, the words that had surrounded him ever since the time his hero had been there to wake him up from hibernation were ringing in his ears and couldn’t be ignored:

 

"Kid, it's alright. Let me do this for you."

 

“Mr. Parker here is somewhat of a prodigy…”

 

“Alright, I’m coming for you. Hang on in there.”

 

 “Hey, don’t cry. It’s alright now, it’s alright… what in the world have you got to be sorry for, Pete?”

 

"Woah, woah, woah. You okay?"

 

“That’s amazing, kid… but don’t let that passion get so strong you’re willing to let people walk all over you.”

 

"I'm gonna get you some help, okay? You don't have to go through that again."

 

“What’s shakin’, Prince Charming?”

 

“Wait a sec – let’s get you some clean clothes, squirt… These are yours.”

 

“You’re an amazing kid. I’m sorry everything had to turn out this way for you.”

 

“Who couldn’t love you, kiddo?... Peter, you’re the best.”

 

“Keep on saving people, alright? But don’t forget to save yourself, too.”

 

“I love you, Peter. So much.”

 

I love you too, Tony. Always will.

 

Though in that moment, Peter felt he would never be able to put himself back together again, he would find a way. He would. Because that’s what heroes do. They get back up. They leave a legacy in their wake. They save as many people as they can.

 

And, when they can, they make sure to save themselves too.

 


 

 

Tony Stark will not return.