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The Curly-Haired Boy In The Paper

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The Curly-Haired Boy In The Paper

“Steve, where’d you get this?” Tony asked, his face a blanket of withheld emotions. He was holding a slightly damp newspaper, a cheap black and white print which Steve used to lay over a table before he sketched with charcoal to avoid messes, none of the articles were worth reading.

 

“Uhm, just the paper recycling bin from one of the conference rooms…” he replied, a little tentatively as he saw the way Tony was looking at one of the blurry, pixelated photographs on the front cover. “You can have it if you want, I was just using it to stop myself from getting black fingerpri –”

 

“Yeah,” Tony choked out, his breaths coming in little pants as he squinted intensely at the front page. “I – I will, I need it,” his finger reached up almost gently, and he brushed it over the page, as if he were grazing a caring knuckle over someone’s cheek. “What year is this from? H – how old is this paper?” Tony’s voice was a whisper, his eyes never strayed from the page, not even flicking up to look at Steve when he asked the question.

 

“I’m uh – I’m not entirely sure,” he rose from his seat, letting his stick of charcoal lie flat on the table as he held out a hand for the paper. “Here, I’ll take a look and see,” he frowned slightly when he noticed the way Tony’s fingers immediately tightened on the pages, the newspaper being pulled slightly closer to his chest, not unlike a gesture of protection.

 

“No, no it’s fine, I can look,” the mechanic corrected hastily, flipping the paper over in his hands until he found the date. “This was printed over two years ago…” he murmured quietly, more to himself than to Steve. “New York Daily News, four New York Plaza; Manhattan…” Tony was muttering to himself quietly, stalking over to the door, the paper still clutched tightly in his hold, his phone being brought up to his ear as he dialled his driver. “Yeah, hey Hap, I need you to take me to this newspaper’s headquarters in Manhattan.” He paused, pulling open the door and readjusting his hold on both the phone and the paper, “no this isn’t another defamation case, it’s serious. Get me there quickly, no detours this time.”

 

----

 

By the time Happy was pulling up and opening the door for Tony, walking him in and watching for lurking paparazzi’s, the sky had begun to streak with thick, pink and vermillion clouds that were dusted with the light of sunset. “Hi, I need to speak with whoever wrote this article two years back,” he held up the paper and the desk attendant read over it, not needing to take it from the billionaire’s hands as she recognised the story.

 

“The child trafficking case, in Queens?” Tony nodded, pointing to the photo on the front page of the story.

 

“I know I don’t have clearance, but it’s really important I get as much information on this case as possible.” He watched as the woman typed something into her computer, dragged her mouse across the desktop a few times and pulled up a new tab. Happy tilted his head to catch a better glance of what exactly was in that picture which his boss seemed so fixated on.

 

When he saw the blurry, slightly pixelated figure standing in the background of the photo, surrounded by other victims, his face dropped minutely. He sighed as he saw the few strands of curly hair and the typically scrawny physique, which most young teens seemed to have.

 

“Tony, is that what this is about?” He saw as his boss clenched his jaw slightly, obviously unnerved by the discouragement he knew was about to come. “You know this is pointless, I know it’s hard, and I sound harsh… but it’s been so long, you need to start acting more realistically. Look, there’s no way tha –”

 

“Alright, I’ll buzz you in, if anyone asks just show them these.” The desk attendant smiled, unaware that she had interrupted, and handed both Tony and Happy a clearance pass, she listed off the general area the case would likely be sorted under and wished them good luck.

 

“Thank you,” Tony said as he walked through the glass door and waited for the hum which told him the second lock had been bypassed for them. He stayed silent as he sifted through filing cabinets, ignoring the way Happy wasn’t helping with much enthusiasm. “Queens child trafficking, major feds bust…” he read aloud, pulling out the large manila folder and resting it on his knee as he flicked through the pages until he found the image he was looking for. He held the original coloured print up next to the greyscale newspaper print version.

 

Tony could make out a wildly tangled mess of honey-brown curls, matted to a scrunched forehead. He could see the noticeable angle of the jawline tilted toward where a group of men, adorned with police issued handcuffs, were being loaded into the back of a police van. The boy’s hands were being held up, an EMT was removing the white zip-ties from around his wrists, from the looks of things, many of the other children in the picture seemed to be getting their restraints removed by medical personal.

 

Tony rifled through more pages in the report, searching through names, reading the passage about the fate of those who were rescued. “A large collection of those found required medical treatment from a hospital, names recorded on page eighteen…” his fingers swiped through the pages, his eyes flickering through the list, disheartened when he found nothing. “I need to go to that hospital, come on,” Tony didn’t wait for Happy to even attempt to change his mind as he made for the door.

 

He strode past the woman who had buzzed them in, sliding over his clearance pass along with a generous bill. “Thank you, keep that for yourself,” he told her, waving off her stuttered appreciation as he walked to the car.

 

----

 

“Everybody who came in that day had their names recorded, if it isn’t on that list then I’m afraid I can’t help you Sir.” The man looked apologetic, but he wasn’t willing to dig up old security footage from over two years ago.

 

“What about a John Doe, anyone who didn’t have a name to be recorded?” Tony thrummed his fingers anxiously on the counter top as the man typed in the specific date and scrolled through the list of patients treated.

 

“There were three John Doe’s and two Jane Doe’s,” the man looked up, waiting for Tony’s reaction.

 

“I need the John Doe’s, the medical records, anything you have on them, anyone who’s still working here that might have treated them that day?” The man looked sceptical, hesitant, and Tony knew he was about to open his mouth and deny access on grounds that he didn’t actually have any legal right to acquire any of that information. He held up his hand before the man in the hospital uniform could speak, “I am perfectly willing, and capable, of getting a search warrant for you. Or, we could just take a look and be out of here before your shift even ends.”

 

“No, it’s fine,” the man sighed, “just don’t take anything with you when you leave, photocopy it instead.” He was eyeing the manila folder that Tony still had tucked under his arm.

 

He followed the man to a separate office and used his key to pull out the patients from that day, flipping immediately to the John Doe’s. None of them stood out except the last one.

 

“Hair, brown, eyes, brown,” he looked up to Happy as he skimmed over the information to the actual diagnosis. “Focal retrograde amnesia…” Tony read aloud, looking up to the man who worked at the hospital and actually possessed proper medical knowledge.

 

“It means the patient experienced retrograde amnesia with little to no indications of anterograde amnesia. So, old memories were lost, but the ability to create new ones was left intact.”

 

Tony looked back down at the page, reading over the information. ‘MRI showed damage of both temporal poles and the lateral portion of the right prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal and temporal cortical damage on the right side extended deeply into the white matter while the temporal cortical damage on the left side was much smaller. There was an additional left temporo-parietal lesion.’ He couldn’t grasp majority of the scientific wording on the document, but his mind was a constant echo of old memories were lost, old memories were lost…

 

“Do you know what happened to him after he got diagnosed?” Tony asked shakily, occupying his hands by copying the pages in the photocopier next to him.

 

“It was all over the news, all of the kids who were unclaimed went into the foster system, most of them weren’t even from America in the first place.” The man watched as Tony continued to look at him as if he held the answers, “I don’t know, best guess would be he was entered into the foster care system, probably still in Queens.”

 

“Tony… come on, this isn’t going to turn into a wild goose chase, give it up before you hit a dead-end again.” The stubborn mechanic shook his head firmly, snatching up his photocopies and rubbing his face with one hand as he walked out of the room.

 

“I’ll get there myself, you can take the night off.” A part of him was trying to protect Happy from wasting his time driving him around, because there were still buried seeds of doubt in his mind. But, another part of him needed to follow everything through, because he couldn’t risk overlooking a lead that could potentially get back the most precious thing in his life.

 

“Suit yourself, call me if you need me.” Although Happy’s voice may have seemed gruff and unimpressed, Tony was familiar enough with him to recognize the understanding in his eyes.

 

----

 

Tony had gone to four adoption agencies before he found the one which had taken in any of the children from the trafficking case whose parents hadn’t swooped in for the tearful reunions. The woman who had led him down the hall to a small but organised office was taking out the files of all the kids, and her and Tony began to narrow the large stacks of them down, one specification at a time.

 

“Male,” Tony said, helping the woman push aside each female. “Brown eyes…” he murmured softly, picturing the way those eyes had shined brighter than anything else he had ever seen, and the way they looked as their owner stared up at Tony widely, as if he had hung the moon. “Brown hair,” he added.

 

The softest, curliest hair that almost seemed to shift with the light. Strands of chocolate, honey, caramel, chestnut, coffee… every tawny colour with an appetising name.

 

“Short, really skinny… he had glasses too, a bit of a stutter. I read a medical report before I came here, I think he had amnesia – does any of this ring a bell?” Tony looked down at the eight remaining files, each was open, and he was looking at the photos, none of them were who he needed. He sighed, the lump in his throat constricting.

 

“Did you say he had amnesia?” The woman asked, perking up from where she was reorganising the discarded files. Tony nodded, his hope bubbling again as recognition seemed to dawn on her. “No, I remember the boy, I do.” She stood, walking back to the cabinets and opening a large green one marked ‘adopted.’ “He was taken in after only a few months, I can find him here…” Her eyes scanned the list until her face fell slightly, something sympathetic flashing as she looked up to Tony. “I uh… he was dropped back off here at Christmas last year, I’m sorry.” Her apology was a blaringly concerning red flag for Tony.

 

“Why are you sorry? Is he still here?” She shook her head and pulled a second file.

 

“He was rehomed… we don’t keep the police files on premises anymore, but I do have his new guardian’s information.” Tony swallowed, the lump enlarging as he read the red lettering stamped across the first file, ‘unsuitable for adoption, currently residing in correctional facility.’

 

“No, why was his first foster family unsuitable? Why is the first foster parent in jail?” The woman shook her head, trying to draw Tony’s attention back to the boy’s new guardian.

 

“May and Ben Parker are lovely, they warmed to him from the first visit, now he has a stable home life and –” Tony moved the Parker’s file aside to read the first one, the name was at the top, Skip Westcott, but the rest of the information had been nullified – especially the paragraph outlining why he had been originally deemed fit to adopt a child.

 

“Thank you,” Tony nodded appreciatively, now clutching the Parker’s file, the photocopy of the John Doe’s medical records, the manila folder and the newspaper.

 

----

 

“Skip Westcott, I need his police records.” The police officer had his jaw slightly open as he gawked at Tony, but after a moment, his apparent shock faded enough for him to type the name into the computer’s database. The officers nose wrinkled as his eyes darted while he read, Tony didn’t like the look of disgust that crossed his face. “What was he convicted of?” The officer shook his head in sympathy before answering.

 

“Sexually assaulting a minor, and truancy.” Tony’s fist clenched so hard he felt the newspaper bending and creasing in his grip, his teeth ground together and blew out a breath through his nose. “He was sentenced to fourteen years and fined three hundred dollars for the truancy.” Tony knew what kinds of things got people in jail for fourteen years, and he felt like breaking something when he thought of the exact act which the officer was clearly disgusted by.

 

“Do you have the minor’s name?” The officer shook his head and didn’t question as Tony proceeded to walk out of the station, only to punch the steering wheel of his car.

 

----

 

“Hi, I’m sorry for not calling you directly, but I left your husband a message yesterday evening.”

 

“Oh, right… I’m sorry we didn’t actually get that, he uh – he passed away about a month ago.” Tony swallowed, and his tongue felt dry, but he wasn’t stopping now. “Can I help you with anything?”

 

“The boy, the child you adopted about a year ago… he’s – is he… can I speak to him?” The woman’s posture stiffened slightly, her hands tightening at her sides.

 

“Benjamin’s name was never supposed to be released, the trial was privatised, and he has no comment on the Queens trafficking case either, I’m sorry and I know you reporters are just trying to do your jobs. He’s a child who’s already been through so much, I’m just trying to give him a normal life, alright?”

 

Tony stiffened at the mention of the trials the poor boy must have had to attend, but he immediately softened when he recognised how much May Parker clearly cared for him.

 

“I’m not a reporter, I don’t care about anything he’s been involved with, I knew him long before the trafficking and I know about his retrograde amnesia.” May loosened her posture slightly and quirked an eyebrow at Tony.

 

“Who are you and why do you know so much about Benjamin?” Tony nearly bit through his own lip with an emotion he couldn’t pick apart when he heard the new name.

 

“Peter,” he breathed, “his name was Peter.” May stared at him impassively, “he was – he is my son.”

 

“He’s your son?” She repeated, still not moving from the doorway, yet not slamming the door in his face either.

 

“Yes, he was with me at a press conference… I – I just – god, I turned away for a minute and he was just… he was gone. I couldn’t – it wasn’t… I just kept looking and he never showed up, they interviewed everyone who attended that stupid press event, and nobody knew anything, nobody saw anything.”

 

“Oh god, you – you’re Tony Stark…” May pushed the door open and led him inside, Tony could see a child’s school bag spilling homework across the table, his throat tightened.

 

“I should never have taken him, I lost him and I – I just, I couldn’t not have him in my life anymore. So, when I saw the paper and the boy looked like him I went everywhere trying to trace him back and then I went to the adoption agency and thought he’d been adopted by Ski –”

 

“We don’t talk about that,” May interrupted suddenly, her eyes flicking to a door down the hall. “He gets… he gets panic attacks, so just don’t bring that up, okay? Same with the trafficking, he can’t remember all of it, but he still gets… uncomfortable…” Tony nodded in understanding, his eyes on the door May had looked at before.

 

“Is he… home?” May stood up and motioned for him to stay seated.

 

----

 

Peter was nine years old, his Dad was chatting to a crowd of interviewers, a smile on his face only for the press, and the scouter paid attention to every little detail.

 

The boy was sweet looking, all wide eyes, dark lashes, curly hair the perfect length for fingers to grip at, slightly parted lips and an innocence that was yet to be fractured by the realities of the world. In one hand he was holding a cup of water, completely enraptured in listening to his father answer questions, large doe eyes sparkling as he watched with interest.

 

Pretty boys always got the best paying customers.

 

The scouter took out his phone and snapped a discreet photo, sending it off to the people who decided whether or not the child would attract enough attention from paying clientele.

 

Perfect, he shouldn’t prove to be much of a struggle for you.

 

And with the go-ahead, he approached the child.

 

It was almost too easy sometimes, if he put on a nice face and spoke kindly, most of them came easy, not realising why parents’ speeches about stranger danger had been right until it was far too late.

 

“So, you want to come with me until Dad’s done with the press?” The boy shook his head politely, murmuring a ‘no thank you.’ “That’s okay buddy,” the scouter said, reaching over to pat the child on the shoulder, a small white pill falling from his fingertips and landing in the water the boy still clutched. “We can wait together,” he smiled, and the darkness behind the façade was lost on Peter, who was still eagerly waiting for his Father.

 

After that, it didn’t take much effort on the man’s part to take the small hand in his own, brushing a curl from the scrunched forehead which had begun to sweat feverishly as the drug took its toll, and walk the boy to the parking lot. Once they hit the empty carpark, he lifted the wilting child into a bridesmaid carry, cooing gently and hushing the small whines and whimpers when there was any fussing.

 

He ignored the small mewls for ‘home,’ and ‘Dad,’ or occasionally a defiant ‘no, stop it.’ From back at the gala, the man could hear Tony Stark’s panicked voice rising above the crowd, calling for his son, yelling as his distress grew to intolerable levels.

 

“Pretty boys don’t do science, they go on their knees for clients,” he reprimanded lightly, laying the now unresponsive child down across the backseat and checking his pulse before climbing into the front seat and driving away, leaving zero evidence of his newest find, besides a distraught father and a discarded, overlooked cup of water with a long since dissolved fast-acting drug tainting the drink.

 

----

 

A month later and the same boy learnt the consequences of his struggling and screaming whenever there was a new client who looked along the lines of other teens and selected him, one of the youngest in the bunch.

 

One of the clients had lashed out when he nearly lost his finger trying to stroke the child’s lower lip and had sent his skull cracking down into the edge of a table. The boy had woken, two days later, without any memories of his previous life, including his name. Without the knowledge that there was a loving father out there looking for him and a warm home waiting, the child’s urges to escape back to his life faded.

 

----

 

Only when the feds raided the underground operation and released the boy did he really feel hope sparking in his chest, the snip of the scissors cutting his zip-ties away was the sound of freedom. There was a surprisingly short wait for the child until he was adopted, and a very nice man told him he would be a lot happier living with him from then on.

 

But when Peter walked out of the foster system with Skip, his hip and collarbone wasn’t adorned with possessive bite marks, and he wasn’t scared of people with white-blonde hair.

 

Despite the not yet shattered innocence that the scouter had first noticed in him, the boy was still a fighter. And that point was illustrated when he ran into the emergency room one evening, blood having soaked through the back of his pants, and padded his way up to the reception desk, tears streaming down his face as he asked for the nice doctors to figure out what was wrong with him, much like how they did when he had escaped the trafficking case.

 

Skip went away, and Peter was now afraid of courtrooms, but he held his new adoptive guardians’ hands as they walked him back to their apartment and let him call them Aunt and Uncle. Of course, Peter was upset when Ben didn’t come back from his walk one evening, but he had inherited his name, and he would never forget the first male figure in his life – that he remembered – who hadn’t hurt him.

 

----

 

Tony’s breath caught somewhere in his windpipe when May walked out into the living room, a teen at her side looking at Tony warily.

 

“Peter…” Tony whispered, standing from the couch and dropping the manila folders and multiple files onto the floor when he was met with the sight of his son, now five years older and lifetimes more scarred, but still his son. “Pete, I… please,” Tony’s voice broke and his fingers stretched out, everything in him was screaming to hold onto his child and never let go again, but the slight flinch held him back, he couldn’t expect a hug from someone who had been forced into so much more. “I missed you so much.”

 

“I – I’m sorry… I don’t know you.” Peter said uncertainly, staying at the other side of the room, clearly uncomfortable.

 

“You used to… you used to know me, and I still know you… god I missed you Bambi.”

Chapter Text

“B – Bambi?” Peter repeated confusedly. Tony stared at him, taking in every part of the person his baby had grown to be.

 

“I called you Bambi,” he explained softly, “because of your eyes.” Peter nodded timidly, and it took every ounce of willpower Tony had, to not cross the room and wrap his child in a hug and make sure he was really there. “You were nine, I took you with me to a gala for the press… y – you were sitting right there, barely ten feet behind me.” He took a small breath and tried not to break down as he watched the way absolutely no recognition filled Peter’s eyes. “I turned around and then… nothing. You were just – you were gone,” his voice broke slightly but he ploughed forward. “I tried to find you, I was yelling, they interviewed everyone and put out an amber alert but you just… you weren’t there, and I couldn’t – I was destroyed. I needed you. I – I still need you Peter, you mean everything to me, I can’t lose you again.”

 

By the end of his explanation, his eyes had welled up and his hand was tremoring where it was still awkwardly stretched out in Peter’s direction. “Please, give me a chance… I – I want to get your memories back, I want you back.”

 

“I don’t… I can’t get them back, I’ve tried all the things the doctors suggested, nothing worked.” May squeezed Peter’s shoulder and he seemed to curl in on himself slightly.

 

“Let me help, please, I’m not going to hurt you – I know that bad people have hurt you, I’m not one of them. I just want my kid back.” He took a hesitant step forward, watching carefully to see if Peter would skitter away from him in fright, but he stood still, watching warily. “Can I – can I h – hold you?” His voice was almost gone, raw and cracked from emotion as he neared his son for the first time in years.

 

“O – okay,” Peter whispered almost silently. Tony moved slowly, his fingers brushing Peter’s shoulders, waiting patiently in case the boy pulled away, before wrapping them around his back and cradling his head against his own chest.

 

The teen’s breath was soft against Tony’s neck, and he nestled his nose into the fluffy curls that he hadn’t felt in over five years. Peter’s body was tense, but when Tony rubbed his thumb against the nape of his neck, he felt the coiled tension beginning to melt. “M’ sorry I don’t remember anything,” Peter murmured quietly.

 

“It’s not your fault, none of this was ever your fault Bambi. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there, I couldn’t protect you, but I just missed you so fucking much.” Peter pulled back and Tony tried not to let the sharp, tangy taste of rejection show on his face as his son took a small step backward, making his fingers fall back to his sides as they slipped from the boy’s faded school sweater.

 

“I uh…” Peter balled his fists up in the extra fabric of his shirt, his lip twitching as he gnawed at it, seemingly deep in thought. “I don’t really… know how to ask this, but uhm, are – are we related? I mean, you said you knew me, but I don’t remember… how exactly you would.” The look of hurt must have been too apparent to hide, because Peter’s eyes flickered over Tony’s face before it dropped into guilt and he reached out with both hands, a placating gesture. “No, no, I didn’t mean to – I don’t… I don’t want to come across like – like I don’t remember, I just don’t know how else to ask you how we knew each oth –”

 

“You’re my son,” Tony injected plainly, ignoring the stinging reminder that his child doesn’t know who he is anymore. “Biologically, and – and legally n’ stuff too. You’re my kid and I should’ve kept a closer eye on what was happening to you, where you were, who had taken you away from me… I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, f – for you to get – to lose your memories.” Tony wanted to ask so many things, his head was over stuffed with questions to the point where they were fighting to escape his lips as they jammed up his throat, so he held his tongue.

 

Do you remember anything at all? Who took you from me and what the hell did they do to you in that child trafficking ring? How could anyone hurt you?

 

Why didn’t I find you sooner – why couldn’t I have seen the news report sooner, so I could have saved you from that disgusting monster that the foster system let you walk away with? How much did he take from you – do you have any innocence left?

 

Is there any way you can remember me? Will you ever be my child again? Can you even find your way back for me?

 

“I – is there anything at all you can remember from the gala? Anything?” Tony asked shakily, feeling like he was walking the tripwire to a minefield of triggers surrounding everything that Peter had been through.

 

“No,” Peter lied timidly, averting his gaze and shuffling uncomfortably as the same odd flashes of feelings and memories flickered back to him.

 

The sensation of swaying, someone carrying him, shushing him…

 

The cool leather of a car that felt like ice against his flushed and sweaty face.

 

The fuzzy feeling in his toes and fingertips as his body slowly, tediously, worked the drug in his system away.

 

The same someone pulling a car onto the side of a road and unbuckling their seatbelt while things slowly grew clearer as his hand weakly fumbled with the door handle, his vision blurring when he blinked back tears and babbled incomprehensibly about wanting to go back to Dad… to his Dad – Dad?

 

Dad…

 

Dad?

 

Peter jerked in surprise when he blinked and the reality of his and May’s apartment flurried like snowfall in front of him.

 

“N – no, nothing…” He repeated, phantom touches lingering on his jawline and hip bone. A door tearing open and the light of outside blinding him as he was dragged out of the car and pushed somewhere else, dark and small.

 

His nails bending back and snapping completely as he hysterically scratched at the inside of the new car’s trunk, screaming and begging for over an hour as it drove over gravelly roads, praying that he wouldn’t die alone and scared.

 

“That’s okay… that – that’s actually really good Bam – uh, Peter.” The teen in front of him blinked with a blank look on his face, before his head tilted to the side and his eyebrow peaked. Tony would have smiled sadly if he wasn’t as in check with masking his emotions, because that was the same look Peter had given the advanced high-school level mechanics homework as he sat at the kitchen table with his Dad at age six.

 

“Am I Peter?” Tony dropped his head and turned around in acquiescence, using the excuse of picking up the folders he had previously dropped, to hide his face for a moment as he bit his lower lip and looked up at the ceiling, trying to hold back tears.

 

Tony didn’t want to give up and leave, he knew logically that there had to be some way of helping Peter’s memory, but inside was an internal void, screaming back at him. He’s gone, he isn’t your son anymore. That teenager standing there is so much more scarred than you could imagine, and even if he did remember, how in the hell could you make anything better? How could you make up for the fact that while your back was turned, he was being ripped away from his life and dumped in a child trafficking ring, only to be discarded like waste to a rapist who had legal guardianship until Christmas? Why would he even want to come back to you, when the last thing you did for him was turn away and let people take advantage of that young, innocent child with no decent protection from the dangers that you knew were out there?

 

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a hollow shell of voided emotion. “Yes, you’re Peter and yes you’re my kid. I know you don’t remember anything, and I also know that it isn’t your fault… but can you just – can we just try to fix things? I would do anything to get you back, and I don’t care how much money or time or effort it takes.”

 

“Y – yeah, okay. I trust you.”

 

Tony looked up, his eyes peering over the edge of the armful of folders he was holding. Peter was looking back at him, holding the eye contact instead of looking to the floor and the faintest hint of a trusting smile tracing the curves of his lips.

 

“I wanna remember you,” he said confidently, his eyes still trained on his fathers.

 

“You will,” Tony promised, his gaze still locked onto Peter’s matching hazel ones. “I have B.A.R.F.”

 

“Uh… I’m sorry, you have what now?” The beginnings of a smile were breaking on Peter’s face, and the purely raw emotion was making Tony’s heart ache, because Peter was always such a sarcastic pain in the ass growing up, just like his father.

 

And Tony loved it.

 

Yeah, yeah, I know – changing the name, working on the acronym or whatever.” He returned the grin, hesitantly to say the least, but it was almost… domestic, in a way. It reminded Tony of the usual nature of his and Peter’s relationship, before that stupid, goddamned gala.

 

Casual, lax, loose, sarcastic and witty, but brimming with adoration and fondness for his child.

 

“Yep, change the acronym and I’ll considering tagging along,” Peter replied, the smirk now evident on his face, so similar to how he had been as a child. Tony was still watching him, but he could feel his throat closing up.

 

Sarcasm is a sign of trust, he trusts you, for whatever reason – he does…

 

Peter’s still in there. Buried under layers of trauma, sure, but still there.

 

You don’t know it yet, but I would change every acronym in the world for you Bambi, and so much more.

 

----

 

“Woah…” Peter murmured as he trailed after Tony, his head tilted back to watch the displays floating around the lab. F.R.I.D.A.Y was presented as a holographic projection as Tony fiddled with a few settings before pulling a case out of one of the draws in the workbench. He unzipped it and Peter stood on his toes only a few steps away, to try and catch a glimpse of the pair of glasses that he was now holding.

 

“F.R.I, I need to recalibrate these and make adjustments so that they don’t alter memories anymore, they just need to project the original.” A female voice responded with an affirmative before the projection changed angles and brought up a display of the glasses, which Tony began to edit.

 

“So, this is… your lab?” Peter asked curiously, his finger dusting over a cluttered bench in the corner, equations and notes with no meaning scrawled out in handwriting that felt vaguely familiar.

 

“Uh, yeah.” Tony answered, biting back his thoughts. But it was supposed to be our lab. “This will only take a few minutes, but I was thinking… maybe I could take you back to where the gala was, just – just to see if it brought anything back, y’know?” He looked up from where he was soldering part of the glasses, his eyes checking Peter over, looking for discomfort. “Is… do you think that sounds okay?”

 

“Yeah, I mean, if it’s something I haven’t tried yet, may as well.” Peter didn’t know why he had lied about the memories, it wasn’t like they meant anything. Half the time he didn’t even understand what was happening. Maybe it was the humiliation from what he could remember, starting from the day he woke up with bandages around his head and an angered boss, telling him to accept the fact that, ‘you’re owned by me now! No more biting clients or trying to run, because I can promise you that whatever life you had before, whoever you’re trying to get back to, they won’t want you anymore. Not after the men you’ve been whored out to.’

 

Or maybe it was just the fact that the small flashes he would sometimes see, clearly didn’t serve any meaningful purpose. Because none of them were from before the gala, none of them were of his father, or the life he had tried so hard to escape back to. And, in the end, those were the memories that mattered the most.

 

----

 

“This… this is it. This is the same spot we parked last time too.” Peter could hear the way Tony’s voice wavered and crackled on some words, and it was clear how hard it was for him too.

 

The grounds were closed, there wasn’t any scheduled booking for another event that used the land, much like how the press gala had all those years ago. The parking lot was empty, aside from old, empty fast food litter being picked apart by pigeons. “You’ll tell me if anything looks familiar?” Tony asked as Peter slipped out of his seatbelt and stepped out of the car, shivering slightly in the breeze.

 

“Uh y – yeah, probably,” Peter winced internally as Tony looked at him with an emotion he couldn’t describe, possibly a mix of worry and supplication. “I will, I promise,” he corrected himself.

 

“It was barely an hour in, you loved watching me talk to the reporters, you were just standing there with a – a little cup of water, waiting for me to walk you back to the car.” Tony stopped speaking for a moment, squeezing his eyes shut and taking a breath before continuing. “I – I didn’t even know how long you were gone for before I noticed you weren’t there… I just – I just hate everything about that stupid gala, about not knowing anything.” Tony froze when he felt Peter’s small hand curling into his, the teen’s long and almost too-skinny fingers clasping between his. He turned to look down at the boy, surprised to find that he was looking ahead, seemingly unbothered by the fact that he was hand-in-hand with his father turned practical stranger.

 

“My Aunt May says that small acts of physical affection make people you care about feel better,” Peter explained evenly after a few moments of the two walking in silence. “So, I don’t want you to feel… bad, or – or uh, guilty.” Tony couldn’t help but instinctually squeeze Peter’s hand a bit tighter, he smiled lightly as he felt the smaller hand squeezing back. “Because it wasn’t your fault, and I don’t even need to remember what happened to know that.”

 

“What is the last thing you remember? Or well, I guess the first thing you remember?” Tony may have been holding Peter’s hands, but that didn’t mean he felt the way Peter’s body stiffened.

 

Something was brushing his cheek softly, and unlike usual, he didn’t lean into it. Blinking wearily, his lashes fluttered open. He was laid out in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, surrounded by unfamiliar men.

 

‘You almost cost us one of the best paying clients, and you wasted half of your next week’s meals on all the medical bills you managed to rack up on top of that. I’m disappointed in you. I had high hopes, you’re the most enticing out of the bunch, at least from the clients’ point of view.’ The man’s thumb pulled away from Peter’s cheek and he shuddered. ‘You’ve been booked four times while you were passed out. They didn’t even need to see you, just looked at the photo album and asked for the full package, if you know what I mean.’

 

‘I – I don’t know… who are you a – and where am I?’ The man sighed but helped Peter out of the bed, his knees shaking under his own weight as his feet pressed against the dirty floor.

 

‘You don’t need to worry about any of that right now. Just focus on satisfying the clients and nothing else.’ Peter didn’t know it, but the life he had left behind, the one he had forgotten, was something he definitely should have been worrying about.

 

“Uh… jus – just waking up, w – with the bandages and stuff, being really confused, that’s mostly it.” Peter looked at the ground and Tony let their fingers slip apart as they slowed to a stop. He picked up on the way Peter’s hands balled up into the sleeves of his hoodie, and the way his shoulders hunched a bit more, as if he were shrinking in on himself again.

 

“Hey, you don’t have to… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked… you don’t need to answer me if you’re uncomfortable about anyth –”

 

“No, it’s um, it’s fine. Really, it is. Sorry, I just get… I go off in my head sometimes, w – with the memories.” Peter looked so much smaller now, and it worried Tony that such small changes drastically changed how submissive and meagre the teen came across, especially when he thought about why Peter had to learn how to make himself that much smaller.

 

That much less of a target for child predators…

 

The two had walked in a full circle, and were staring back at the empty parking lot, not any closer to the goal Tony wanted, needed to achieve. Peter blew out a breath as he followed Tony back to the car, his eyes still roaming around the empty space. “I mean… everything kinda looks familiar, but nothing any more specific than that.”

 

“You still willing to try the Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing?” Peter huffed a soft, almost forced, laugh.

 

“S’ long as you change the acronym,” Tony smiled sadly. They stood at the front of the car, his arms were folded, and Peter’s were still tucked in his hoodie. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder.

 

“I’ll get you back kid, I’m not giving up ‘till you’re okay,” his smile was longing, and it ached in Peter’s heart to see someone he knew he should recognise, looking so hurt. “I won’t give up until you’re happy,” Tony added, watching Peter’s eyes before they parted to climb in the respective doors of the car.

 

“I know, I believe that,” the teen admitted quietly as the engine started up and Tony reversed out of their park, his arm resting on the back of Peter’s seat as he watched for anything in his blind spot. They drove in silence, Peter’s thoughts drifted off as he mindlessly stared out of the cars window, scenery rolling past as they got closer to the city.

 

Tony’s head was ablaze with the options he had. Peter could go back to May’s, pretend like Tony didn’t exist and live a hopefully normal life, or the closest to normal he could get after being abused so horribly. He could try the tech back at the lab, Tony hoped it would be able to dig up the memories shrouded by the amnesia and project them, because if he saw them, Peter would be able to as well.

 

----

 

“Stop the car!” Peter screamed, his fingers grabbing Tony’s arm as the brakes slammed and they were both caught painfully by their seatbelts. Tony instinctively pushed Peter back against his seat with one arm, both of them breathing raggedly as Peter’s fingers twisted in the fabric of his father’s sleeve.

 

“Peter?” He asked, peering out the windscreen to check the road for some sort of animal or sign he had missed which would explain away the wide look in his son’s eyes and how he still hadn’t let go of his arm yet.

 

“I – is that – can you see that?” The teen asked shakily, his free hand moving underneath Tony’s to unbuckle his seatbelt and move for the door.

 

“No! Wait – are you kidding me? You aren’t going out there until you tell me what the hell you just saw.” Tony reached out again, his hand gripping Peter’s as the horribly familiar feeling from the gala piled up in his throat until he felt like suffocating on the realisation that Peter could be taken away from him again… nothing was stopping anyone from ripping him away.

 

“Th – that…” Peter murmured softly, his finger raising slowly to point at something several strides behind the car on the side of the road, partially shrouded by shrubbery which had overgrown in weedy bundles. “The car,” he whispered, his fingers still trying to pull at the door handle as déjà vu began to press down on his chest like a heavy weight.

 

“Peter! Stop, you have to wait!” Tony scrambled out of the driver’s side and stumbled after the kid, he slipped and almost hit the ground when he got to the edge of the miniature, mossy clearing. It was obviously only meant to be used as a pit stop for families on long drives with carsick children, but the car looked to have been abandoned years ago, judging by the vines that had snuck from the forest into the wheels and bonnet. “Don’t, please don’t go off on your own like that, do you know what would happen if I lost you again?” Peter didn’t answer him, he was staring with his face turned towards the back-left window, his eyes transfixed on something in the back seat.

 

Hands tearing at him and what he was wearing.

 

His nails desperately catching the door handle, the lock in its place as he screamed and kicked out at the offending limbs attempting to wrap around him.

 

Someone whispering about things Peter didn’t know, he only caught a few words in-between his struggling. ‘Ditch… car… not worth… risk… take him… go.’

 

More hands, too many hands underneath him, holding his arms, his legs, lifting him, transferring him somewhere too small, too hot… too dark.

 

Peter took a few steps backward after almost a minute of blankly looking through the stained window. He backed up into Tony, but the man caught him, his hand wrapping around his chest protectively as he took an extra step in the same direction. “Peter?” He breathed quietly, feeling the way the boy’s chest was expanding each time he sucked in lungful’s of air.

 

“This is… this – the – the car… this is the car.” Tony snapped his hand out and grabbed Peter’s, leaning them further away.

 

“What car? Kid, you know what? It doesn’t matter, come on,” he gently tugged Peter in the direction of their car. “Peter, I don’t want you out here anymore…” Tony wasn’t sure why, but he felt sick, his gut churned as the teen, who’s hand he still held, moved forward again.

 

“No, no, no… I – I remember this car, they – he put me in here… that – that’s mine.” Peter pressed his hand against the glass and Tony pulled his hand away, his fear boiling over. He leaned between the boy and the glass, looking through the thick layer of dust and cobwebs until he could make out a mass of faded maroon, bundled up in the back seat.

 

That was ours,” Tony echoed hollowly. He gripped the handle and tugged, it was locked. “I’m breaking the window, stay behind me and cover your eyes just in case.” Peter’s hand tangled in the tail of Tony’s shirt, and he pressed his forehead between the man’s shoulder blades, simultaneously shielding his eyes from the possible spray of glass, while also gaining comfort as his hands trembled from the onslaught of clearer memories.

 

Tony picked up a stone and only needed three hits to break the glass. The first, he misjudged the strength he would need, but the second he created a spider-web fracture in the centre, and the final blow shattered the entire window.

 

“Is it –” Peter began to ask, before Tony answered abruptly.

 

“Yes… god Pete.” He finished, winding his arm through the open window and unlocking the door carefully, avoiding the jagged threats of the glass shards. His hand touched soft fabric, it was warm from the sunlight streaming through the trees and into the car. He bundled the mass up and slipped it back out through the door, his eyes dampening as it unfolded on its own and unfurled completely, two long sleeves bouncing from the movement as a small cloud of dust flicked up and was blown away by the wind.

 

“I – I – I…” Tony shushed Peter gently, pulling him closer to his side as the first tear slipped out and ran down his cheek. “That’s what I… that’s what I lost, th – the day of the gala.”

 

An adult’s hoodie, deep red and adorned with the M.I.T logo and crest.

 

----

 

Peter had never been a difficult child. He was sweet, kind, empathetic and caring. He didn’t struggle with much, the only problem that seemed to arise, was the separation anxiety.

 

As a baby, he would cry if his cot was moved to a separate room for the night. As a toddler, he clutched at his father’s ties and whimpered if he was set down on the couch to watch T.V while his Dad went to make lunch. As a young child, getting past the hours of school five days a week was what put a dent in the boy’s confidence, which seemed to dissolve without his father.

 

By age six, Tony had figured out a solution. As long as Peter had something of his to hold onto, he could make it through the day with the knowledge that his Dad would be pulling up to take him home at the end of it.

 

For that particular press event, it had been the hoodie. It fell past his hands and hung just above his knees, but if he squeezed his eyes shut as his father spoke to all the flashing cameras and microphones, he could imagine he was being swaddled in a comforting hug.

 

But it also happened to be why the usually observant child had missed the white pill falling into his drink.

 

And it was why there were finger nails marks etched into the door that his older self and Tony were staring at now. Because he had tried to fight, he had, but no matter how much he screamed and begged for the sweatshirt back as the men pulled him backwards, away from the car and into a second one’s trunk, they refused to give him that singular breath of comfort that he needed more than anything.

 

----

 

“This was where they changed over…” Peter admitted quietly, his fingers grasping at the fabric which made his head hurt from the overload of new memories. “They took me out of this one and put me in the trunk of another car, so the vehicle couldn’t be tracked or linked back to the gala, or at least that’s what I assume.”

 

“I’m sorry, I should have known they would try to –”

 

“No, don’t say sorry. It isn’t your fault, just… let’s just go – I don’t wanna be here anymore.” Tony relented his hold, so he could watch Peter bury his face in the hoodie as they walked solemnly back to the car. He started the engine and before long, the abandoned car holding dark memories and the beginning of his child’s trauma, was in the distance.

 

After not long, Peter asked a timid question. “C – can I still wear it please?” Tony smiled out at the road and nodded, his throat too constricted from the bubbling hope to actually speak the affirmative.

 

He remembers the hoodie, he remembers something, and he still wants to be connected… he’s still there, I know my son is still there.

Chapter Text

“So, um… what do I do?” Peter fidgeted with the glasses in his hand, a nervous twitch he had never really been able to shake. Tony was flitting around the lab, connecting cables and clearing a space for the projection to show up.

 

“You put them on and I’ll enter a date that you want to remember.” He twisted a table around and pushed it back with his foot, walking back to stand before Peter. “But you don’t have to relive… certain things if you don’t want to, okay? Just say ‘stop’ and I’ll shut it down.” Peter was wearing the hoodie, his fingers hidden away in the sleeves. He looked tiny, it made Tony’s heart churn.

 

“I don’t know what day to remember… what do you want me to do?” Tony crouched in front of the chair Peter was sitting in, he held out his hand and smiled warmly when the boy took it timidly. “I – I don’t want to scare you,” he said softly. Tony squeezed his hand encouragingly.

 

“Kid, you used to climb up the stairwell banisters as a baby, I don’t think you’re going to scare me.” Peter gave a weak laugh, looking down at his hand in Tony’s.

 

“Did… were you scared after I went missing, and up until you found me at May’s apartment?” The teen looked up, his wide hazel eyes shining.

 

“Yeah, of course. I was terrified, I thought you’d been hurt, or killed. I thought I had lost you.” Tony pressed his lips in a line, looking grimly at his feet. God, he had been petrified, he didn’t know if he would ever see his child again, he thought he had lost the best thing in his life. “I didn’t stop looking. I hope you know that… I never gave up, I needed to get you back and I’m not quitting now.”

 

“I know, I believed you when you said you’re going to help me.” Peter smiled, he looked so trusting and it hurt Tony to know that there were people who took advantage of the fact that his son was the most open, naïve and precious kid.

 

“Okay buddy, when to first?” Tony asked adjusting the glasses and brushing a stray curl to tuck it behind Peter’s ear.

 

“Uh… th – the day they found me, is that good?” Tony nodded, flipping through the file he had from the hospital until he found the date and punched it in. Blue strips of a grid highlighted the middle of the room, making Peter blink. Tony gave his hand a final squeeze and stepped backward, out of the simulation.

 

----

 

There was a dark room, the floor was covered in mattresses. The quiet sounds of sleep rustled every now and then, the shapes of small bodies hidden under thin blankets.

 

There was a creak, a figure sat up in the darkness, much smaller than the rest of the teens in the room. The boy had a nest of dark curls, unbrushed and in desperate need of a haircut. He rubbed his scalp and temples, sniffling softly every few minutes. The boy hand his hands zip tied together, making the movement awkward and strained.

 

The room stayed that way until light began leaking in from under the door. It was early morning when the door opened and woke most of the teens.

 

“We have two walk-ins, they liked your profile, go sort them out,” the large man in the doorway called, waving an uninterested hand in the boy’s direction.

 

“Yes Sir,” the child mumbled, picking himself up from the floor and trailing after the man.

 

“How many hours?” The large man asked, pointing to a chart which had prices correlating to the amount of time a client could choose to stay.

 

“Just one will be enough,” someone answered. The boy could see two pairs of shoes, his head was bent downward in submission.

 

“Right, you have an hour then.” The larger man, who was obviously in charge, walked out and closed the door behind him.

 

“Okay, kid. We work for the government, we aren’t here to hurt you or any of the other boys. We have a team outside, so we can get you out of here, okay?” The small boy nodded, shuffling uncomfortably.

 

“You can skip past the rescue,” Peter said softly, his voice unsure. “You already saw the paper, I don’t really want to watch it all again.”

 

“Okay, that’s perfectly fine,” Tony assured, winding past the rescue and slowing back down again as he saw an ambulance pulling up. “You tell me if you want to skip anything else, kay bud?” Peter nodded, watching the hologram projecting the inside of a hospital hallway.

 

Now that the light was even and sterile, it was clear that the boy was Peter. He had a red mark from where the zip ties had cut in, and a doctor was opening an examination room for him.

 

“Right, and you’re the John Doe, head injury that we need to check out…” The doctor trailed off, reaching forward and pushing back the curls covering Peter’s head. “Okay, this looks like you’ve dama – aa – aaaa – ag – a – a – a.”

 

The projection glitched, the doctor jumping back and forth, his structure warping oddly. The younger version of Peter fizzling.

 

“Uh, did I break it?” Peter asked worriedly, watching as the entire projection shifted around, the glitching increased until an entirely new setup faded into place.

 

“The date’s changing… I think, oh shit, I think… something in the last projection triggered another memory?” Tony looked up from the controls and watched as the doctor’s room was replaced by his own bedroom. “Pete…” he said hopefully.

 

Tony was sprawled out across his bed, head leaned against the headboard and a Stark Pad in his hand. He had less lines beneath his eyes, he seemed younger, happier.

 

Peter was lounging beside him, he looked much younger, at least seven.

 

“M’ tired,” he mumbled, nudging his head forward until it was rested against Tony’s hip, his cheek against the covers. Tony’s hand stretched out and tangled in his curls, rubbing gently in slow circles. Peter hummed happily, stretching out and nuzzling closer into his father’s hand. “L’ve you, Dad,” Peter whispered.

 

Tony watched Peter as he shakily removed the glasses. He looked up and Tony wasn’t surprised to see the tears threatening to spill.

 

“I – I’m sorry,” he mumbled, wiping his cheek with the sleeve of the sweatshirt. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean to break it, I – I just –”

 

“No, hey –” Tony protested, rushing forward to console him. “You didn’t, it worked perfectly. Buddy, that’s what I wanted, seeing the memories triggered another. You did great, Peter.” The boy curled towards Tony, reaching out for the hug before it could be offered.

 

“I didn’t know, I – I never knew you played with my hair.” Tony laughed softly, leaning his chin against Peter’s head and gently pulling him closer.

 

“I did, a lot actually. I used to hate it when you’d get your hair cut, but you always told me it got too itchy.” Tony hesitantly shifted his hand, “you have my hair, when I was younger of course.” Peter touched his hair shyly.

 

“I do?” He asked, a small smile on his face as he twirled a curl around his finger. “My hair isn’t very even, it hasn’t grown all the way back yet.” Tony looked at the patch on the side of Peter’s head which he was running his hand over self-consciously.

 

“Did you cut it?” He asked, gently moving Peter’s hand to the side so he could look at the side of his head. The hair was much shorter there, it looked like it was barely even beginning to curl up. The look resembled that of a cat after a vet visit, when the doctor shaves a patch off to insert an IV.

 

“No, it w – it was from the hospital, when they tried to figure out why I lost my memories.” Peter looked down to the floor and shrugged unsurely.

 

“Do you remember what was projected just then?” Tony asked, hoping that Peter would have.

 

“Yeah, I do. I remember that moment, but nothing else.” The teen shuffled, biting his lip before speaking. “Maybe we can look for other things that might trigger another memory.” Tony nodded, because he was willing to try anything to get his son back.

 

“Can I…?” He asked, reaching his hand out and hovering it above Peter’s head. When the boy nodded, he gently tangled his fingers in the soft curls, wishing he could just ruffle his son’s hair without having to pause because he had been hurt in the past.

 

Peter closed his eyes and leaned forward into the touch until his forehead rested against Tony’s shoulder. “Did you leave the glasses on?” Peter nodded, shivering slightly when Tony’s fingers ran over the crown of his head. He felt safe.

 

“Peter?” Tony said quietly.

 

Hm?” Peter leaned further into the mechanic, his nose shifting, so he was nuzzled close into Tony’s chest.

 

“It’s starting to project…” Peter tilted his head, turning to see what the projection was. He felt Tony’s fingers tightening slightly in his hair and he froze up, tensing and not noticing as the projection fizzled.

 

“D – d – d – d…”

 

A deep, male voice warped, glitching slightly before the full projection booted up at the same time that Peter stumbled back, reaching to hold his arms out defensively, covering his face and head, shaking slightly.

 

“D – d - down on your knees.” A male was stood in the centre of the projection, his round, protruding stomach matching his thick, square jaw. Despite the threat in his tone, he was grinning excitedly. “Go on, fucking do what I paid you to do, filthy brat.”

 

A younger Peter stood before him, his hair long and curly. He looked nine, it couldn’t have been more than a month after he had gone missing.

 

He was crying.

 

“P – please, please. S – stop it, I – I don’t want to do th –”

 

“Knees,” the man hissed, his hand shooting out to grip Peter’s curls tightly, his fist clenching taught as he pulled the boy’s hair with brutal force. “I paid, so you better do what the hell you were hired to do, bitch!” The younger Peter choked on a sob, wailing as the man wrenched his head back and forth before shoving him to the floor.

 

“I wasn’t hired! Please – th – they took me, f – from my Dad! I want my Dad, please Sir, please… I want my Dad, I want to go home, I – I – I don’t w – want to do this!” The man glared, his hand still buried deep in the young boy’s curls.

 

“I don’t give a shit how you got here, or who you wanna go home to. All I fucking want, is what I god damn paid for!” The man’s free hand moved for his belt, Peter began sobbing even harder. His arms lifting to struggle with the hand in his hair, weakly slapping and scratching as the man before him continued to tug. He was hysterical, screaming and wailing as he was moved around like a toy doll, being manipulated any way the man wanted.

 

“No! No, no – no! Dad! PLEASE, help me! S – S – ST – STOP IT! Please, please DAD!” The boy’s hand hit the man’s thighs and hips, trying to push back at the grip pulling his head forward.

 

“Peter! Hey, come on, you’re okay!” Tony was shaking his son’s shoulders, breathing quickly and worriedly as he watched all the tears pouring down his face as he stared blankly at the projection. “It’s not real, look at me!” Peter stared ahead, trembling and hiccupping on sobs.

 

He stepped away, hitting the desk and paying no attention to the multiple things which fell to the floor, ignoring the clattering as he stumbled over to the glasses as he angrily ripped the switch to turn them off.

 

The display changed to a blue outline before the entire projection shut off and Peter was left staring at the opposite wall in the lab, squeezing his nails into his palm and gasping for air between each guttural sob. “Kid,” Tony whispered, slowly walking around the side of the bench and through to where the display had been.

 

Peter barely even blinked. His chest was rising and falling rapidly, too quickly for Tony not to worry. “Hey, breathe. Peter, take a breath.” He was torn, he wanted to reach out and squeeze the boy’s shoulder, to let him know he was there, but he knew that it would probably only make things worse, considering what he had just seen from the projection of Peter’s memories.

 

He sighed, his fingers twitching at his side. He wanted to be there for his kid so badly. “Pete, c’mon. You need to breathe.” Tony swallowed dryly, clenching his own fists. He didn’t want to know what had happened, he didn’t want to think about what people had done to his son.

 

He didn’t want to know how bad of a father he was. “Peter,” he choked out, “kid, please. Focus on me.” He couldn’t help it, he reached out and laid a gentle hand against Peter’s chest. “That’s your heart. You need to slow it down for me.”

 

Please,” Peter whispered suddenly. “Please, sir I don’t want to.”

 

“Peter,” Tony snapped. I don’t want to hear that, I don’t want to know. Don’t beg, don’t plead, I can’t. Kid, I fucked up. I royally fucked up my life and yours. You’re hurt, and it’s my fault. “Stop it,” he rested a second hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s not happening anymore, okay?” Peter’s chest stuttered worryingly.

 

Dad.” Peter blinked. “Please, Dad. I – I can’t, I can’t.” Tony opened his mouth, his mind blank on what to say. “Dad, please, I need you.”

 

That was all he really needed, Peter asking for him. Tony nodded, murmuring a soft ‘okay.’ He pulled Peter into his chest, tucking the boy’s chin over his shoulder and lifting his hand up.

 

“That’s my chest, you feel it rising? Match your breathing, in and out.” He watched Peter stuttering as he sucked in, squeezing his eyes shut and hunching his shoulders up to his neck before dropping them back down on an exhale. “There you go, buddy. You’re doing good.”

 

“Dad?” Peter took another shaky breath. “I’m sorry,” he dropped his head against Tony’s shoulder. He hid his face away; his fingers were trembling when he reached up and curled his arms around himself. He was obviously holding back tears.

 

“Don’t say you’re sorry, you didn’t do anything wrong. I did. I’m the reason you got taken in the first place, I’m the reason you were… that you were hurt like that.” Peter shuddered, his fingers clenching around his own midsection.

 

“I – it… it wasn’t ever… I – I don’t know,” Peter cast his eyes downward, his shoelaces infinitely more appealing to stare at then his father’s worried eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me anymore,” he muttered. Tony straightened out.

 

“Yeah, well I do.” He tensed his jaw, looking right at Peter, waiting for him to look up. “What’s wrong with you is the missing memories and the resulting loss of your identity. You don’t know who you are, you were isolated and alone in that place, so of course you’re going to have some issues surrounding that.” Tony paused, taking a breath and scuffing his shoe as he stepped forward. “But that doesn’t mean you won’t ever be okay again, and it doesn’t mean any of this is your fault. There wasn’t anything you could have done.”

 

“I could have fought harder,” Peter said angrily. “I should have fought harder, but… I – I just, I – I couldn’t.” Tony could see the teen pressing his nails into his sides, he saw the way the light caught his tears and highlighted them like a spotlight. “I felt so helpless, I didn’t even remember the home I wanted to go back to…” Peter lifted a shaky hand to smear one of the falling tears across his cheek.

 

“Peter,” Tony said evenly, resting a hand over his shoulder and looking at him with an unreadable emotion. “You were nine.” Peter sniffled miserably, wiping his face with the sleeves of his sweater. “You’re home now, okay? I’m not gonna let anybody else come near you.”

 

“I want to remember more of you,” Peter admitted quietly. “All I remember is you playing with my hair, and that’s it.” He shuffled forwards, his fingers curling out to hook around Tony’s belt loop as he gently rested his cheek against his father’s chest. “I know that I loved you, I can tell you made me happy, but I can’t recall anything specific. I just want you back – I want to come back to you, Dad.”

 

“I know kiddo, but I don’t want you using this tech anymore, not when it’s this unreliable.” Peter huffed indignantly.

 

“Can I stay here? W – with you tonight, I mean.” A slight flush was tinting Peter’s cheeks, but he didn’t stray away when Tony rested his chins against the crown of his head. “M’ not ready to give up yet,” Peter murmured.

 

“Your room’s still the same, just how you left it.” Tony smiled sadly as if he hadn’t spent the months following the press gala standing in the doorway to his son’s bedroom and desperately holding back the lump in his throat. “Just… just call your… call May, okay? Let her know you’re safe.”

 

----

 

It had taken convincing, but after Peter explained how he felt, May was alright to trust Tony with Peter for the night.

 

Peter felt like he was living a poorly written movie plot. He knew Tony was his Dad, he felt safe around him, and there was a nagging feeling of clinginess, but he didn’t have any of the memories to prove that. He couldn’t justify the blanket of affection and safety he felt when he was around Tony.

 

Peter padded into the kitchen, rubbing his eye and trying not to think about the only two memories he had gained from the tech.

 

His father running gentle fingers through his hair lovingly, relaxed and content on a lazy evening.

 

And one of the first clients he was forced into a room with only to be shoved to the ground as the man reached for his belt and –

 

“Pete?”

 

He blinked. Tony was calling him.

 

Peter walked around the corner and saw Tony at the table, two plates in front of him next to an array of takeaways.

 

“What’s this?” He asked, taking a seat on the chair that Tony had scooted out for him.

 

“Thai, your favourite,” Tony’s face scrunched. “Well, I mean… It was, I don’t know if it still is.” Peter scratched at a stain on the table and smiled to himself.

 

“No, uh… I – it is. Aunt May figured that out pretty quickly, we go out every Thursday.” Tony nodded, looking happy as he slid a container of rice closer to Peter’s plate. “Um, I just wanted to say thanks… I – just… thank you, for everything. I really appreciate it.”

 

“Kid, you don’t need to, okay? I’m your Dad, I’d do anything for you.” He pushed more containers in Peter’s direction, laughing softly as the kid timidly scooped the dinner onto his plate. “You’re still so tiny, but somehow you just seem… a lot more grown up then the last time I saw you.” Peter nodded slowly, taking a forkful of rice and vegetables.

 

“Are you subtly trying to tell me I should eat more?” Peter asked, one corner of his lips tilting upward as Tony shook his head an exhaled from his nose in amusement.

 

“If you keep acting like a child, I’ll give you a bedtime, mister.” Peter snorted and flicked a stray piece of rice in Tony’s direction.

 

“Sure, as if you could bear in the workshop on your own.” Tony tilted his head, challenge flickering in his brown eyes which Peter was noticing more and more similarities to his own in.

 

“Alright, we’re playing that game then,” he paused, pondering through a mouthful of Thai. “I’ll go to bed the same time as you, no excuses.” Peter nodded, looking satisfied.

 

----

 

He had been satisfied at dinner, but now the teen found himself silently creeping out of his bedroom doorway and slinking past the master bedroom where his father was asleep. “FRI? Lab, please? A – am I allowed to head down there?”

 

“Of course, Peter. You have full access to every room in the tower at any hour of day. Only a select amount of people have the same access as you.” The A.I must have measured Peter’s whisper and responded in the same volume, considering how quiet she had become.

 

“Thank you,” he murmured into the empty elevator as it moved to the lab without much sound. As soon as the doors parted, he stepped out into the room while the lights turned on one by one. He saw the glasses immediately, discarded on the surface they had been taken off since Peter’s last go with them.

 

He took a deep breath and tried to prepare himself for what he might see when he slipped them on. Would it be memories of his time with the trafficking ring? Even earlier and more important recollections of his time living happily with his father?

 

He was almost scared as he rested them over his eyes and nose, but he sucked in even more air, blew it out, imagining Tony’s heartbeat under his fingers, guiding his breathing. “I’ve got this,” he told himself as his finger brushed past the switch and flipped it on.

 

The blue screen hovered across the wall, Peter shuddered slightly but focused on the last date he could remember.

 

He was ready.

 

Peter was ready and willing to relive every single trauma he endured as long as it meant he would remember his real life. His Dad.

 

And… so he did.

 

----

 

“Sir, Peter seems to require you in the labs.” Tony rolled over, blinking a few times as his sluggish mind processed FRIDAY’s statement.

 

“Wha’s he need help with?” He sat up, yawning exhaustedly. “Is he okay?” He rubbed a piece of sleep from the corner of his eyes and swing his legs over the side of the bed, his feet hitting the rug and curling closer into the soft, shaggy texture.

 

“He appears to be in emotional distress and continues to ask for you.” Tony stood bolt upright, already ten times as alert while he jogged to the elevator and impatiently shifted from foot to foot. The doors binged, and Tony blinked against the harsh lighting of the glasses sitting against the desk.

 

“Pete?” Tony wandered into the room, he could see frames of the projection playing.

 

Peter looked barely six years old. He was tiny, still holding Tony’s hand as he followed along beside him, clutching his sleeve and babbling about something science related. He was laughing, his cheeks and nose were rosy from the cold, it looked like winter and the wind was taking that fact in stride, judging by the curls whipping around Peter’s young face in the projection.

 

Peter was wrapped in a large jacket which seemed to be zipped up over a hoodie. He looked warm and content at his father’s side, despite the weather. His young face lit up in a bright smile when Tony reached down to ruffle his hair and drape an arm around his shoulder, pulling him a little closer to shelter the small boy from the wind.

 

“And then, the teacher put vinegar in and it went all fizzy!” Tony laughed when Peter jumped slightly to emphasise his point. “It was so cool, Dad. We should totally make one but… supersize it!” Tony softened, opening his car door and helping Peter clamber up and clipping his seatbelt on.

 

“Absolutely buddy, I’m sure we could figure something out.” Peter grinned up at Tony from his seat, his hair still unruly thanks to the winter winds. “You a little chilly, bud? We can stop for some hot chocolate to warm you up on the way home.”

 

“That’d be awesome, Dad! Thank you so much, you’re the best. I love you!”

 

Tony hurried forward, noting the small silhouette of Peter sitting on the floor, staring up at the projection. All he was worrying about was how bad it went last time, how quickly the projection switched to something he would never get out of his nightmares, and Peter probably wouldn’t either.

 

Peter flinched when Tony stepped too close, startling him slightly. The boy turned, the light from the projector illuminating his face softly and making his tears glimmer.

 

“Dad,” he whispered.

 

Tony opened his mouth to reply and ask if he was alright, but Peter was already scrambling up onto his feet and throwing himself into his father’s arms, clinging tighter than before. “Dad!” He cried louder, pressing his face deep into Tony’s shoulder and tightening his arms.

 

Their hug now, unlike the first, was desperate as opposed to shy and unknowing. It was the kind of hug you would expect from two people who had been separated, finally seeing each other again.

 

“Are you okay?” Tony asked unsurely, not wanting to allow himself to believe that Peter’s hug meant what he thought it could have. The realisation in May’s apartment that Peter had no clue who he was, stung a lot more than Tony would have liked to admit.

 

“Dad! Dad, I – I – I remember.” Peter sobbed, gasping and clutching as tight as possible.

 

It felt as though every single aspect of his existence had just fallen back into place. Peter knew what he had missed for all that time, and knowing he was really, truly home… it made him feel like squeezing close to his father and never letting go. “I missed, I missed you so much, Dad! I didn’t know who you were, or what I was missing, but I know what I was fighting for up until I lost everything.”

 

Tony pulled away shakily, his hands staying on Peter’s shoulders as he looked at his son closely. There were tears staining his cheeks, he was holding his hoodie even closer, his eyes stayed locked on Tony because he knew that as long as he was beside his father, he couldn’t be lost again.

 

“Everything?” Tony choked out, wondering how long Peter had been down in the lab watching his old memories.

 

“E – everything, it all came back, all at once. It hit me a – and I… I need you, Dad.” Tony pulled his son into his chest, tears welling in his eyes as he leaned down and pressed a kiss into the teen’s hairline.

 

“You’re back, Pete… you remember everything.” Peter gave a noise of confirmation and Tony tugged him closer, the two Stark’s softly hiding their tears in each other’s shoulders. “I thought you’d be gone forever. I can’t believe you’re with me, Bambi.”

 

“I’m here, I’m here, Dad. I’m not ever leaving you again. I love you so much, I love you.” Peter sniffled, nudging his face closer and gasping when Tony brushed the curls at the base of his neck. “You saved me,” Peter mumbled, still burying his tears in his father’s pyjama shirt.

 

“I love you too. Peter, you’re back, I have you back.” Peter’s cries hitched on a sob and he nodded, tears pouring down his cheeks in relief.

 

He was home.