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“You’re being an idiot.”

Tony pauses in the middle of the hall, twisting toward the kitchen, a frown on his face. Because that voice--that’s not his son’s voice. That’s sharp and cutting, a little rough, young--but nothing like Peter.

He backtracks a few steps down the hall, anger boiling in his chest because whoever the hell it is, they’ve got no call to be insulting Peter.

He pauses in the doorway, watching.

“Stop. It’s not gonna go anywhere if you just stop and eat something, Pete,” the boy says, exasperated.

Peter is hunched over a notebook, nibbling on his pen, shoulders rounded in that way he gets when he’s absorbed in something and forgets the world around him.

The boy with him--he’s a bit older than Peter, with dirty blond hair that hangs in messy curls in his eyes.

His eyes, which are hard and trained on Peter, murky blue with a hint of--pleading.

Tony pauses.

The kid is holding an apple, sliced and peeled, just the way Peter likes it, and staring at his son, and there’s no denying the exasperated affection in his eyes.

“Please, sweetheart,” the boy murmurs, his voice a low rumble, and Peter sighs, dropping his pen to take the apples.

“Cheating,” he accuses lightly and the boy huffs a laugh into Peter’s hair.

Interesting.

 

~*~

 

The boy is named Harley Keener. He’s a year ahead of Peter at Midtown, a scholarship student with a brilliant mind and a chip on his shoulder.

He’s sharp tongued and abrasive and he looks at Tony like he’s a challenge instead of like he should be respected, and Tony doesn’t like him.

He doesn’t like the way Peter curls into Harley’s side on the couch, the way Harley’s hand wraps around Peter’s ankle while they sprawl across the living room doing homework. He doesn’t like the way Harley’s all sharp affection and demands, the way he pushes and presses and needles until Peter is snarling and snapping, but always doing what Harley wanted.

He doesn’t like Harley.

But he can’t deny that Harley is devoted to Peter, that he dotes on him and protects him.

He doesn’t like Harley. But Harley is good for Peter.

 

~*~

 

Peter forgets to eat, and Tony watches Harley nudge food at him, teases and needles him until the boy is eating without really realizing he is.

He works, too long and too hard, in the lab, and Harley pulls him away, nuzzling into his throat, voice pitched too low for Tony to hear, completely uncaring that he’s all but making out with Tony’s son in front of him.

He is drug from his studying to collapse in front of a movie, held in place by Harley sprawling across his belly and between his legs, and Peter sighs and pets his hair and lets the ever-present stress slip away.

Harley, Tony realizes, cares, cares so goddamn much.

He doesn’t quite know what to do with that.

 

~*~

 

Peter is all that Tony has left of Mary and Richard and Pepper, the dream he built and watched die, and he knows he’s overprotective. But he grew up with people who constantly wanted things from him, grew up being taken advantage of, and the idea of the same thing happening to Peter, of him losing the innocence he has to become jaded and cynical--it makes him ache, makes his whole heart hurt.

So he’s overprotective, drives away Rogers and Barnes, drives away the Odinson boys. Wade Wilson lingers, and Ned Leeds does, both good for Peter in ways Tony isn’t, can’t be, and neither interested in his massive wealth. Wade, when Tony cornered him about it, flashed a dangerous smile and pushed him away. “I’ve got my own money, old man. And burritos aren’t that expensive.”

He never did corner Ned. He was too much like Peter for Tony to truly think he was a threat.

No one else stuck around, really--only them and the dark hair scowling MJ who stiffly informed him that everything he paid for was soaked in blood and she wanted nothing to do with it.

Tony liked her.

Harley, though.

Harley came for a science project and he never really left, and Tony watches him with his scruffy boots and worn jeans, his tshirts that are old and tight across the shoulders and worn thin--and he worries.

 

~*~

 

Peter comes home one Saturday, a scowl already on his face, throws himself down next to Tony with a huff and Tony watches him as he burrows into the pillows and give a tiny scream.

“Something bothering you, kid?” he asks.

Peter peers up at him, and his scowl deepens. “You don’t even like him, you won’t care,” he huffs, and that.

That isn’t ok.

“Hey, hey, no. Come on. Talk to me, Pete.”

“Dad--”

“I do care,” he says, softly. “You know I do. Everything I do is because I care. So please. Talk to me.”

Peter bites his lip, nibbles it red and then sighs. “Harley won’t lemme help him.”

It comes out in a rush, after that. About Harley and his mom and sister, how she’s sick and they’re behind on bills, and there’s enough, but barely and Harley always puts himself last, always turns what little they have to them.

“I get it,” Peter says, and there’s frustration in his voice and tears in his eyes, “but Dad, he just--he’s just a kid like me, and I want to help him and--”

“And he won’t let you,” Tony says, softly, and Peter stares at him, miserably.

“Oh, kid,” he sighs and pulls his son close.

 

~*~

 

He wants to protect him, from anything that could hurt him, from becoming the jaded cynical thing Tony is.

But he wants to protect him from this, too--this hopeless, helpless fury at the world and it’s inequalities.

 

~*~

 

He comes home one night to find them on the couch. Peter is asleep against Harley’s chest and Harley--Harley is holding him, the volume on the TV lowered to almost silent, seemingly content to be Peter’s pillow. There are shadows, dark bruise like bags under Peter’s eyes, and it’s the first time in over a week he’s seen his son resting.

And Harley is letting him.

Holding him and watching Tony like he’s going to ruin it.

Tony stares back and something clicks for him.

“You love him,” he says, a soft exhalation.

Harley nods, lips brushing Peter’s hair. “I do.”

There’s no evasion, no lies, no apology in his voice. It’s a baseline fact, a truth so deep in Harley he expects others to bend to it and accommodate it.

It’s everything Tony has ever wanted for his son, and it’s coming from a boy with anger in his eyes and cuts on his hands and a sharp tongue--

Tony nods, once, and turns to grab a blanket. Drapes it over them and turns off the lights as he goes. “Get some sleep, Harls.”

 

~*~

 

It’s not acceptance, really.

He doesn’t like Harley.

But it’s something close to acceptance. It’s something related.

 

~*~

 

Tony wakes up, and for a moment, he isn’t sure what wakes him, only remembers drifting off to the sound of a movie Peter and Harley were watching. The TV is off now, and he’s alone and disorientated.

Then he hears a cry, soft and high, a noise that’s unmistakably Peter.

He flushes, shifts on the couch, because he adores his son, but he never wanted to hear Pete sound like that.

There’s another noise, a deep groan, and Peter almost sobbing, and the rythmic sound of sex, and Tony bolts off the couch, face burning as he almost runs to his lab.

He hates Harley, he decides, as he swallows coffee and waits for Pepper to answer her phone.

He hates him.

 

~*~

 

The money is a problem. Peter doesn’t bring it up often, but sometimes he comes back from Harley’s, tight lipped and angry and Tony knows. Sometimes, they argue about it in the penthouse, loud and messy and Harley storms out and Tony wants to tell FRIDAY to make sure he can’t come back.

But mostly, he leaves it alone.

“What should I do?” Peter asks him one night, miserable.

Tony watches him for a long moment, and then, “Do you love him, baby?”

Peter nods, even as he bites his lip and gives his father a guilty look.

“Then you need to meet him on his level. Harley is proud--and he’s not going to ever just let you take care of him.”

“But I can,” Peter says, all the innocence and arrogance of the obscenely rich behind his declaration.

“But he doesn’t want you to. Give him a way that he can keep his pride and take your help, kid.”

Peter chews that over for a long minute and then he brightens. Leans over and kisses Tony’s hair. “Thanks, Dad,” he says, softly. “I know this is hard for you.”

 Tony waves him away and Peter grins as he goes, already texting his boyfriend.

He could have ruined it for Peter, so easily--he sighs and calls Rhodey. “I’m getting soft, sourbear.”

Rhodey laughs and laughs and laughs.

 

~*~

 

That summer--after Harley graduates and Tony bullies him into a graduation dinner with his mom and sister and besotted Peter, after he starts his new position at Oscorp because Peter could use his connections but it didn’t guarantee anything and Peter’s name wasn't on his paycheck, after he takes Peter camping for a week in the Catskills--Peter gets a cold.

It’s nothing, really, not even worth worrying about, except that Peter is a miserable patient, whining about dying, needy and weepy, and bitchy in turns.

After a day, Tony is exhausted and ready to strangle his precious only child.

Harley though--Harley handles it. He sits with Peter, patient as he whimpers and whines, steady as he clings and shivers and kicks off all the blankets. He feeds Peter chicken noodle soup and crumbled saltines and ignores Peter’s complaints, and doses him with medicine so regularly, Tony suspects he actually set a timer.

For four days, he doesn’t leave Peter’s side for anything longer than a pee break, and when it’s over, and Peter is apologetic and kissing him, Harley smiles.

It’s soft, tender, a smile Tony feels uncomfortable seeing because he knows it’s not meant for him. It’s a smile for Peter, for the boy Harley loves.

He slips away and leaves them to themselves.

 

~*~

 

One night, Harley brings Peter home, and the boy is shaking. He’s dressed in skin tight pants and a sheer top that shows off a nipple ring that Tony will definitely be discussing later--but Peter is shaking and Harley has a split lip and a black eye and Tony shoves unapproved body piercings aside to draw them both inside.

“Get some ice, baby,” he orders Peter, and the boy flits away as Tony focuses on Harley.

“What happened?” he murmurs, low and quick. Harley’s eyes track Peter behind him, but he answers.

“Guy got handsy with Pete. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. I made sure he did.” He shrugs, lightly, and Tony--Tony tries to breathe through the fury and relief and guilt that flood him.

 

~*~

 

He knows this about Harley Keener:

He is older than Peter, and harder.

He has a sister he adores and a mother he dotes on.

He has an attitude bigger than Tony’s tower, and a sharp mouth and he pushes, needles, bullies Peter into taking care of himself.

He loves Tony’s son, more than words can say.

 

~*~

 

Tony waits until school has resumed and on a day Harley gets to the tower a few minutes before Peter, he says, “C’mere.”

He leads the angry, cautious young man to his bedroom and carefully opens his safe, pulls out two thin bands of gold.

“These were his biological parents. And this,” his fingers shake a little, “was going to be Pepper’s. When you’re ready to ask him--they’re yours” He thinks of all the afternoons, watching Harley take something and remake it into something better, the way Peter watched him with eyes bright with pride. He clears his throat, “Make him the ring he deserves.”

From the front of the house he can hear Pete coming in, and his heartbeat kicks up.

Harley’s eyes are wide and shocked and Tony can’t say it, can’t put into words what this means--what he’s giving Harley.

But he doesn’t have to.

Harley nods, and gives him a small smile, and goes to the kitchen to greet Peter, with a kiss and a sharp tongued scolding and Tony smiles and follows, slower, content to give his boys their time and space.