Tony taps his fingers on the steering wheel when they pass another rest stop sign. He’s done it every time they’ve driven by one in the past hour, and he clears his throat, tapping his fingers again.
“I don’t have to go to the bathroom,” Peter says, looking over at him.
Tony glares at him over the top of his sunglasses.
“I don’t,” Peter says, shifting a little in his seat.
“I don’t want a repeat of yesterday,” Tony says. He reaches over and grabs his mug from the cup holder, grimacing after he takes a sip. Peter knows that coffee is long cold, because it was already cold when he filled it up at the hotel this morning.
“That was too many Sunkists,” Peter says. “Like...three too many Sunkists.”
“It still happened,” Tony says. “I won’t forget the yelling. C’mon, we’ve got less than a mile. Own up.”
“I don’t have to go,” Peter says, reaching down by his feet and picking up the half-eaten bag of popcorn. Tony puts down his mug and immediately holds out his hand, staring forward at the open road. Peter gathers up a handful of popcorn and deposits it in Tony’s palm, reaching down and reclining his chair. He touches the sole of one of his new high tops with one socked-toe, cracking his neck. They’ve only been driving for two hours, and he figures, measuring the amount of liquids he’s had today, that they shouldn’t have another bathroom emergency until they get through Indiana.
Tony puts on his signal, maneuvers around the only other car that Peter can see, and gets back into his original lane. “Sure? Last chance.”
“Positive. Unless you’re using me as an excuse because you have to go.”
Tony scoffs. “Please. Gimme some more popcorn.”
He’s still got some in his hand, but he holds it back out towards Peter anyways.
“Hey, bud,” Tony’s voice says. “Pete.”
Peter shakes awake and realizes the car isn’t moving. The dream he was having sends one last shiver down his spine and promptly washes away, the details going hazy until they’re gone altogether. He blinks against new wispy daylight and looks to his left—Tony has his hand on Peter’s shoulder and he grins at him, shaking him a little again.
“Fell asleep on me,” Tony says, pulling his hand back.
“Ugh, sorry,” Peter groans, sitting up slightly. “I know you hate that.”
“Only you and Pepper get a pass,” Tony says, which Peter knows is one of the highest forms of fondness and respect Tony can pay him. “We’re stopping for gas and I didn’t wanna leave you snoozin’. Want anything from inside?”
“I’ll go look around,” Peter says, rubbing his eyes.
Tony reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of cash, leaning over and stuffing it in Peter’s hand. “Get whatever,” he says.
“I’ll get you more Starbursts,” Peter says, opening the door.
“No,” Tony says, opening his too. “No, no, don’t...encourage it.”
Peter snorts, walking around the front of the car.
He wanders around inside the gas station, grabbing a bag of pretzels, some Skittles, a couple Powerades, and a magazine covering Thor’s recent exploits in Norway. Peter knows all the details the magazine probably doesn’t, thanks to the group chat and the unexpected phone call when they were at Duke. He tucks the magazine under his arm, catching the chorus of Rubberband Man buzzing through the old speakers fixed at each ceiling corner.
The man behind the front counter is staring out the window when Peter approaches, and he jumps a little when Peter puts his stuff down.
The man stares at him. “Are you traveling with him?” he asks, in a thick southern accent. He looks out the window, then back at Peter. “The Tony Stark?”
Peter looks out the window too. Tony is the only one out there right now, scrolling through his phone as he pumps gas.
“Yeah, that’s my dad,” Peter says, fast. He’s done this about six, seven times on this trip alone. The poor lady at the first Hilton looked like she was gonna have a heart attack.
This man looks about the same, his mouth agape, not even making an attempt to start ringing up the items. “Tony Stark?” he asks. “Tony—Tony Stark’s your dad?”
“Yeah,” Peter says, nonchalantly. He grabs a Snickers bar and puts it with the rest of his stuff. He walks over to the window, knocking on it to get Tony’s attention. Tony looks up and Peter waves enthusiastically. Tony waves back with two fingers, and then he puts the pump back, motioning for Peter to hurry up.
“What in the fresh hell…” the man behind the counter breathes, slowly reaching for the Powerade.
“Yup, that’s dear old Dad,” Peter says, smiling out the window as Tony gets back into the car to wait for him. “You know, the playboy image has been….greatly exaggerated.”
“Oh yeah?” the man asks.
“Yeah,” Peter says, leaning on the counter. “He’s actually a homebody. A big reader. He loves Lord of the Rings.”
“How about that?” the man says.
Peter grabs a pack of Starbursts and adds them to the pile.
He puts the bags in the backseat a couple minutes later, getting back into the front. “I got Starbursts,” he says, putting his seatbelt on.
“You are an enabler,” Tony says. He checks the rear view and pulls out into the street, rolling back over towards the highway. “Did you tell somebody else I’m your dad?” he asks.
“No,” Peter says, his voice going a little high. “Why would you think that?”
“Cows,” Tony says.
Peter looks out Tony’s window, sees a bunch of them grazing on a wide green stretch of land.
“That billboard ruins it, though,” Tony says. “The idyllic pasture is just….completely fucked by that billboard.”
Peter catches sight of it before they drive past and he nearly chokes. The word VASECTOMY is written in bold red letters, with two phone numbers and a picture of a lecherous-looking man presiding over it all.
“I would not let that man in my pants,” Tony says.
Peter covers his face, trying to stifle his laughter. He sits back and looks out his own window and he gasps, patting Tony’s arm. “Horses! Oh, and a much better billboard! Way, way better!”
Tony peers over, and Peter can see the surprise in his eyes, behind the red lenses. The billboard is simple, white, with STARK INDUSTRIES in slanting print.
“I had no idea we had billboards out here,” Tony says. “Pepper’s constantly on it. Covering all bases.”
Peter smiles to himself, watching the horses race across the plain.
“It’s nice,” Peter says, clearing his throat. “A lot of...water.”
Tony huffs, walking alongside him. “Water? Is water what you were looking for? Because if that’s the case, we could have gone to Florida. Not Gainesville, Jesus, God—but you’ve got Miami, Tallahassee, Orlando—Orlando’s got theme parks, Pete. If that’s what you’re looking for in your college experience, you’ve got theme parks minutes away from the campus. You can be a wizard on the weekends.”
Peter snorts. “You know I didn’t apply anywhere in Florida.”
“Please, kid, you know all you have to do is write a beautiful essay with my recommendation attached to it and you’re in. You’ve got the scores.”
Peter has a list. Of all the places he applied to, all the places he got into. A lot of it was encouraged by the adult role models in his life, some of it by Ned daydreaming about places like California and Colorado. Mostly, Peter just applied everywhere he could think of, because he’s known for a long time that Tony was gonna help May pay for it, and he didn’t wanna limit his options. Thinking about college has been strange for him, strange to the extent that he had a full blown panic attack about it in the middle of Avengers taco night last month. He can’t really understand it, doesn’t get why it feels like the end of the world—because he’s experienced the end of the world, and it’s not which campus has a bowling alley and which school has circus classes. But he nearly blacked out all the same, sobbed in Tony’s arms on the balcony until Tony proposed this. The road trip.
I’ll take you to all of them, bud. We’ll make a thing out of it, do it at the end of your break. May can meet us at a couple of them, but I’ll take the time out and we’ll make it a big trip. So you can see it all firsthand, figure out what you want in person. We’ll stop in dumb little roadside diners, we’ll listen to podcasts, maybe even—stay in a La Quinta, if I’m feeling particularly insane—but I’ll be with you the whole way. We’ve got this, kid. It’ll be fun.
Tony pulls out the Northwestern campus map and shakes it out to its full size, almost arm’s length on both sides. Peter snorts, stepping back and taking a picture of him.
“This is going to the group chat.”
“I’m trying to maneuver your future,” Tony says. He grabs Peter’s arm, tugging him closer. “Look, here’s a little windmill. I think we should visit it.”
“That might just be on the map, but like...not in real life,” Peter says. “Like...a decoration.”
“Uh, that would be false advertisement,” Tony says, crumpling the map up in a very vague attempt at its original fold. “Unacceptable. I want a windmill, there better be a windmill.”
“Then we’ve got the science track presentation at four,” Peter says, following Tony as he starts across the green.
“Yes, yes, academics,” Tony says, looking back at him. “Certainly. What college is all about.”
“And what did you do?” Peter asks, his fork still clutched in his hand. “Don’t tell me. No.”
“Yes,” Tony says, grinning, leaning back in his chair. “You know I did. You know me. Or how I was then, anyway.”
“I went out the window,” Tony says, shrugging. He pops another piece of orange chicken into his mouth and shakes his head at Peter. “I was fine,” he says.
“Wait,” Peter says. “Is this the broken arm story? This sounds a lot like the broken arm story Rhodey told me.”
Tony’s brows furrow and he shifts his rice around angrily. “God, Rhodey is always spoiling my stories. I’m the one that’s supposed to be passing on these stories to you, not him. They are my cautionary tales.”
They’re in another Hilton, just over the Missouri border. They’re on the fifth floor, Chinese takeout between them, and there are two beams of light passing back and forth outside their window, from a new club that opened a couple streets down. Tony scowled when he heard that, muttering something about spotlights being completely unnecessary for any club in Missouri, no matter how new.
“Is this anything like the road trips you took when you were a kid?” Peter blurts out, before he can even think about the full implications of the question. He knows, in his heart, that Tony’s family didn’t go on road trips. They were rich, they didn’t have to, and even if they did—Peter knows about Tony’s relationship with his father. He knows how his mother and father were killed. Jesus, he can be an idiot sometimes. His cheeks heat up with embarrassment as he quickly wracks his mind for something to say.
“Better,” Tony says, raking some rice up onto his fork. “Because you’re here. Now hurry up and finish, we’re gonna watch Hoarders and then we’re gonna go to sleep.”
“Tony,” Peter whispers, in the darkness. He can only hear the hum of the air conditioner, can only see the red light on the TV blinking. The curtains are closed so he can’t see the club spotlights anymore, but he’s sure they’re still tracing across the sky, even though it’s after one in the morning.
Tony grunts a little bit from the other bed, closer to the door. “Pete.”
“Would you know if we were like—in the Matrix?” Peter asks, his mind still honed in on the text conversation he was having with Ned earlier.
“Like the movie?” Tony’s voice asks.
“No, like, a thing like that,” Peter says, staring at that red light. “Like, none of this is real, we’re hooked up to machines somewhere. This is a simulation.”
“If this was a simulation they wouldn’t have put those tomatoes on my sandwich yesterday at that diner,” Tony says. “And...I don’t know. I’d know it.”
“How?” Peter asks,
“Because every simulation has glitches and I’d find those glitches and figure out how to override the system and get back out into the real world. Why are you thinking about this right now? Is this Ned’s fault?”
Ned told him to ask Tony earlier, but they got to talking about the bodies on Mt. Everest somehow and the moment passed. Part of Peter had worried that he and Tony wouldn’t find enough things to talk about on this trip, but there hasn’t been one single awkward silence.
“Would you get me out if you figured out we were in a simulation?” Peter asks, tugging the comforter up a little bit more to tuck under his chin.
“You’re smart enough that you probably would have already gotten yourself out before I even realized we were in a simulation,” Tony says.
Peter smiles to himself, staring up at the ceiling.
“So you better get me out,” Tony says. “No old man left behind.”
Peter snorts. “Duh,” he says.
“Go to sleep, kid,” Tony says.
They’re both singing at the top of their lungs, the wind whipping in through the open windows.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough! Ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough—to keep me from gettin to you, babe—”
“Oh shit, Pete,” Tony says, wincing.
“What?” Peter says, stopping his singing while the radio keeps on without them.
“Fly in here,” Tony says. “There’s a fly in the car, get it.”
Peter puts the pair of Tony’s glasses that he’s wearing on top of his head and he sees it—one of those big ones, that almost looks like a horse fly. Tony grits his teeth and Peter swats at it, gets it to come towards him, and after a brief battle set to Marvin Gaye, he ushers it out the window.
“Oh, I thought spiders ate flies.”
Peter looks over at Tony, glaring. “Uh huh. You could have totally gotten that,” he says.
“Nope,” Tony says. “Hands at ten and two with precious cargo in the car, and you’re precious cargo, Mr. Parker, like it or not.”
Peter grins and puts the sunglasses back on. He leans forward, changing the radio station a couple of times, rolling through static and loud preaching and too many commercials.
“Oh, leave it,” Tony says.
They both start singing again.
“Sweet Caroline! Ba ba bum! Good times never felt so good!”
“Are you serious?” Tony asks, coming around the corner, the McDonalds bags hanging off his arms. There are sirens in the distance, and they don’t sound far away. “Are you serious?”
Peter is standing there, in his Spider-Man suit, the robber knocked out at his feet. He throws out his arms. “What?” he asks. “He was robbing the gas station, he had a gun!”
“The police station in this podunk town is literally right down the street, kid, we passed it on the way here—”
“I couldn’t just stand there!”
“How did you even change that fast?” Tony asks, gesturing wildly, the bags swaying like pendulums.
“Never mind,” Tony says, shaking his head. He walks over, grabs Peter’s arm, tugging him away from the guy’s sprawled out body. “Just—c’mon. People are gonna think Spider-Man can teleport around the goddamn country, why the hell would he be in—fucking—Concordia—c’mon, boys in blue are coming, thanks Spidey—”
“Alright,” Peter says, blowing out a breath. He lets Tony pull him away, towards the plaza with the McDonalds. The sirens are getting closer. “Did you get me the hashbrowns?” he asks.
“Double order, Crockett. Let’s go.”
Peter likes the mountains in Colorado, but, for some reason, that’s where everything hits him. All of it, everything that he’s been doubting and thinking and worrying about since his life started back up again, since he reappeared in a world that he was cast out of well before his time. Everything he’s been trying to keep down, because he’s back, because it’s all over. Because it’s supposed to be normal again.
They’re sitting on the hood of Tony’s car with tacos between them, the Styrofoam containers peppered with hot sauce and too much sour cream. It felt nice outside and Peter wanted to watch the sunset, but now he can’t eat because his heart is stuck in his throat. He wonders how long it’ll take Tony to notice. There are kids screaming and yelling and rushing around in a playground behind their hotel, and Peter wonders when it stopped being strange seeing Tony out in the real world. Away from his suit, away from his gilded towers and high tech labs. Probably sometime after he realized that Tony had taken up the mantle of father in Peter’s mind, and it didn’t bother either one of them.
He can talk to Tony about anything, he knows that, he knows it, but right now he feels like his own silence is suffocating.
“Hey,” Tony says. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry for making you do this,” Peter blurts out, his voice stripped with tears. “I mean, God, we know it’s probably MIT, like, why wouldn’t it be? Of course I’m gonna go there. Of course.”
“Yeah?” Tony asks, softly. “You think so? That’s what you’re leaning towards?”
“Yeah, which is bullshit,” Peter says. “I’ve made you do this whole looping stupid cross-country trip when I’m leaning towards one of our very first stops, three hours away from our home—”
“I’m sorry,” Peter says, picking at the edge of his takeout container, ripping it. “I’m sorry, I don’t wanna—waste your time, okay? You know I don’t.”
“Stop,” Tony says, reaching out and putting his hand on Peter’s arm. “You’re not wasting my time. This was my idea. And it’s been fun, aren’t you having fun? I’m having fun.”
“I feel like I ask too much of you,” Peter says. “I mean. After everything. Everything you, uh, went through, everything you had to do—for—for me, all that, and now that I’m back and I—I’ve been dragging you across the whole fucking lower forty-eight states—”
“Peter,” Tony says, still quiet and soft. “Relax. Take a breath. Eat a chip.”
Peter takes a breath. He fishes one of the chips out from under his taco, raking it through the hot sauce before putting the whole thing in his mouth.
“I know it’s hard as all hell to come back from what you came back from,” Tony says. “And to be expected to—go on with your life? Like nothing happened? Ridiculous. Impossible. Shouldn’t be allowed, but somehow—the world keeps spinning.”
Peter chews, sighing.
“And college is a pain in the ass, but you’re a smart cookie and you got into a whole lot of ‘em. Which I was expecting. And you wanna visit all of them? That does not bother me. I love that. No matter which one you pick.”
Peter looks up and meets his eyes.
“I love you, kid,” Tony says, full of honesty. “Full stop, you know that. We can look at every city college along the way if you want to. We can go tour universities in Europe. Wherever you wanna go, I’ll take you, okay? And I don’t want you to worry about it.”
Peter nods, his eyes welling up.
“And I know it’s more than just college and this trip, I know that,” Tony says. “Everything feels weird, and off, and it should.”
“It’s strange, to...try and be normal again,” Peter says, focusing on his breathing. “I don’t know if any decisions I’m making are...right.”
“They’re your decisions, so they’re right,” Tony says. “And if you don’t like them, you can decide something else. Whatever it is, I’ll help you.”
Peter blows out a breath, nodding.
“Hey,” Tony says, patting Peter’s shoulder. “We can drop down a little bit on our way to Cali—you wanna go to the Grand Canyon?”
Peter’s seen the Grand Canyon in pictures before, but he’s never been here. They had plans to go, but then Ben died and everything changed, everything was different. But now he’s sitting on one of the rock formations in the South Rim, far enough from the edge that Tony feels secure in the fact that Peter won’t fall.
Peter’s seen other worlds, he’s seen space, but somehow, right now, this feels bigger than all that.
“You know I’ve only been here once?” Tony asks, looking at him. He hands him a strawberry Starburst and Peter takes it, peeling the wrapping off and slipping the pieces into his pocket. “I was like...God, I think I was like nine years old. Apparently I tried to jump in, Mom pulled me back, good times all around. Coulda left this world before I spent a decade in it.”
“Glad you didn’t,” Peter says, chewing. More glad than he can even say.
The sunset ripples across the rock walls and a soft wind rolls in. Peter doesn’t think about college, or what he’s dealt with up until now. He doesn’t think about any of it, and he doesn’t have to stop himself, either. For a minute, it just feels like peace.
“Can you imagine what it would be like to swing down there?” Peter asks, knocking into Tony’s shoulder a little bit. “Like. Whoa. Karen’s footage would be so cool.”
“Yeah, but then I’d wanna go flying with you and some of your little spider tracker followers on Twitter would figure out our location and link it to Spider-Man’s location and the cat would be out of the bag. Spidey already got his picture taken in Concordia, somehow.”
“You’re right,” Peter says, smiling to himself.
“I’ll bring you back, kid,” Tony says, throwing an arm around Peter’s shoulders. “Whenever you want. We’ll get out here with the other guys and do a whole Avengers take over the Grand Canyon deal—or we can just do me and you. Whatever you want.”
Peter leans into him a little bit, nodding.
“Unless you get too cool for me somewhere along the line,” Tony says. “Which I expect, you know—”
“No way,” Peter says, looking at him. “No way. Can’t be cooler than the coolest.”