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The Stark Constellation

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Peter has always had a high regard for stars and constellations.

“But Mr. Stark, think of all the stars there are! Think of all of them that have landed together and now…well, now they’re up there together forever for people to see.”

Tony hadn’t given it much attention before, had placed the kid’s gushing enthusiasm for space and stars in the box of things not to touch along with everything else that could expand and swallow him whole. Or at the very least, he had tried.

The complexity of compartmentalizing Peter’s ramblings on just about anything had dawned on him early on. The kid says a lot about nothing half of the time, but when you catch the right pieces it all adds up to something astronomically important.

Tony still figures that he’s trying to do the math with half of the equation on the outer space obsession though. He’d chalked it up to things such as Star Wars and Star Trek at first, but when they’d crashed in the upstairs living room at the compound one night and watched one of the films the kid had nothing to say of stars or space travel.

Maybe it’s the fact that he hasn’t had a proper meal in nine…no, ten days that has him nudging the kid propped up beside him and asking, “So…space huh?”

Peter sluggishly blinks his owlish gaze away from where they’re both watching Nebula tinker with parts they both know won’t help in their predicament. “What do you mean?”

There’s a tremor in Tony’s hand he can’t seem to stop even as he brings it down the side of his face to rub away boredom and the under current of anxiety he’s not sure he can keep hidden for too much longer. “I mean you spend approximately four percent of lab time professing undying love for deep space, but you strand yourself here and what? Nothing. Nada. Zip.”

The blush that rises on the kid’s sunken, ashen cheeks eases the tremors just a bit, but it’s the way Peter pops up from where he’d been leaning his head on his arms that has it completely fissuring out.

“Mr. Stark….it’s not undying love,” Peter protests with a quick and bashful side eye at Nebula who pays them no mind. “It’s just…interesting, you know?”

Tony pushes his eyebrows up to hide some of the amusement spreading his mouth into a grin. “Yeah, kid. Riveting. I mean look at you, you’re so enthralled.” The older man pulls the only spare blanket from the ship from around the kid’s shoulders up over his head and gives it a ruffle before peeling it back gently, just enough to see annoyed, round eyes blinking back at him. “You definitely don’t look like a lost puppy missing home. Not at all.”

He knows Peter won’t cop to it, but he pouts while settling back under his blanket the proper way. “You need a Snickers bar, Mr. Stark You’re more you when you’re hungry.”

That startles a laugh from somewhere in his empty belly, spilling out in the small cabin for both his shipmates to soak up. Nebula glances up over her tinkering with a curious tilt of her head, but Peter melts into it and Tony feels the warmth of the kid against his side in a matter of seconds.

——————--------

“I…I can’t stop, Mr. S-Stark. It’s just…it’s c-cold,” Peter mumbles from underneath the jacket that Tony had given him from his own back and the blanket that said man pulls tightly around him.

“I know, kiddo, but the shivering is a good thing. You’re alright,” Tony assures, while collapsing back against the side of one of the seats in the cockpit. “Come ‘ere,” he motions towards himself and the boy shuffles over to him and tucks himself under the older man’s arm.

“H-how come you’re n-not cold, Mr. Stark?”

Tony squeezes the boy to his side just a bit more in order to suppress the chills threatening to wrack his frame. “It’s your spider DNA making you more susceptible to the cold, Pete. It’s not as cold for me.”

Peter seems to accept his words, sniffling a bit and pressing the tip of his cold nose just below Tony’s armpit where there may be at least a bit of body heat sizzling between them. However, just when he lets his mind drift off to equations and probabilities he feels Peter unravel from his cocoon.

“You’ll tell me when you’re cold won’t you, Mr. Stark?”

The man in question swallows a lie that comes easily when Peter curls his skinny, quivering fingers around his wrist and offers, “I’m cold now since my Spider-kid heating blanket went away. Come back over here, kid.”

Peter tucks himself back into his side like he’s been able to fit there his entire life and whispers, “Please, don’t lie to me, sir. One way ticket or not, we gotta get to the end together. We just gotta.”

Tony thinks about admitting that he’s freezing right then and there, because then maybe Peter won’t hate him so much when he reaches the end first. There’s just no fucking way he’s watching his kid die first.

——————-----------

“Come on, Pete. Look,” Tony encourages, propping the frail boy up against his chest with Nebula’s help. It’s day twenty and Peter is fading fast. His fast metabolism is causing the side effects of starvation to settle quickly. He’s dizzy when moved too fast and he constantly clutches at his abdomen that protests its emptiness in terrible twists of discomfort.

Nebula only pulls her hands away once Peter’s head is resting on Tony’s shoulder and she knows they’re both not going to topple over from where they are settled in front of the ship’s giant window. She scoots away to give them a sense of privacy but tucks herself just on the edge of hearing range of Tony’s soft murmurs.

“You see it, Petey-pie? We’re in the middle of a giant constellation.”

Peter opens his eyes to slits and peers out at the void they’re floating in surrounded by dull stars. His lungs expand with air and wonderment, but it sounds exhausting to Tony’s ears. “It’s…it’s perfect, Mr. Stark.”

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

“No,” Peter cuts him off and he feels feeble fingers find his. “It is. We’re up here together and…and e-everyone will see.”

Delirium began to run its course yesterday, but Tony would take Peter mistaking him for his decathlon teacher over this any day. “You’re right, buddy. I’m sorry.”

“Uncle Ben always said constellations were just people finding their families again.” Peter twists away from the window, buries his hollowed face against Tony’s neck. “I always thought I would end up in his, but Mr. Stark…I don’t think he would mind me being in yours.”

Tony hums, because maybe Peter doesn’t have an obsession with stars and galaxies and space so much as he has a desire to belong to something that won’t die out.

“He doesn’t, Pete.” And that’s not fair of him say because he never got to meet the man, but this boy in his arms, this boy that Ben Parker loved and raised to be the boy that Tony got to admire and teach deserves the world and if Tony doesn’t get the chance to give it to him, then Peter will inherit his constellation free of shame, guilt, and all the things that make Peter fearful of being happy in the absence of people that once made him so.

—————----------

“Stark.” Nebula’s voice has an urgency that neither of them have felt in days.

“Shh,” he says instead, swaying slightly where he’s cradling Peter to himself. Peter stares up at him through glassy, unfocused eyes, but Tony never once looks away. He hums softly in Italian, little excerpts of songs he remembers his mother singing him to sleep with when he was young.

“Stark.”

Tony shakes his head, squeezes Peter that much more as if he can will the kid’s heart to keep shuddering just a few more seconds, minutes, hours, forever. His inevitable failure streaks down his face in wet droplets that splash onto the evidence of it all. He wipes his tears from Peter’s face and presses his own against the damp, cold skin. “I’m here, kiddo. Together, remember?”

He feels Peter move just barely against his cheek and he leans back just enough to see the kid’s face.

“Stark!”

He jerks back away from Peter, away from what’s bound to be his final moments to see Nebula become doused in a golden light that was thought to never reach them again.

“You see that, Pete? You were right! Up here for the world to see and they did!”
Hope swells something fierce inside his chest, in a painful way that is reminiscent of the car battery he was hooked to in Afghanistan, but charging something more valuable than fear.

However, when he looks down at the boy in his arms he feels all of it fade away as he watches the brightest part of his constellation burn out.

Chapter Text

The world pulls him from the void through murky white clouds. Lights pop and fizzle in and out underneath a steady stream of noise making him feel like one single molecule caught in the eye of a thunderstorm. It’s raging all around him, threatening to leave him behind if he doesn’t get his mind working fast enough and then all at once, he’s consumed by its power. Shooting him out of the void into open space filled with color and noises once familiar, he gulps in large lungfuls of air as the rage brewing within the storm surges through his veins.

“Woah! Easy, Tones,” the military voice stripped of its brazen authority placates a man who has never listened to any. “You’re alright.”

Rhodey catches him by his shoulders, hunched thin with guilt and malnutrition, and holds him in place. “Med bay remember? The Danvers chick brought you. You’re back.”

Tony meets his friend’s gaze with less relief than he had when he’d been knees down in the sand in Afghanistan and blinks away the bleariness from his vision. “We lost.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that. In very dramatic fashion,” Rhodey deadpans and settles his weight on the bed Tony is propped up in. He feels Rhodey’s hands squeeze his arms. “Hey. You with me? After you’re display of affection towards Cap-“

“Fuck him.”

“Yeah, you’re back with me,” the Colonel determines and gently taps Tony on the shoulder. “Listen, just relax alright. You’re not in good shape right now-“

“No, shit Rhodey. We lost and I just had to watch my fucking kid die!”

“Kid-? No, no, no, Tones. You didn’t. Peter’s not…he’s not great, but he’s not gone.”

Tony doesn’t want to, but he hangs on to Rhodey’s words with desperate eyes and trembling fingers coming up to grip the man’s shirt at the chest. “Don’t-,” he has to swallow the plead in order to demand, “don’t lie to me to get me to calm down, I was there. I saw him Rhodey…he wasn’t-“

“Come on, man, give me more credit than that. I wouldn’t do that. You know that.”

And for all he’s worth, Tony does know but he’s so messed up-

“You’ve been through a lot, Tony,” Rhodey says, and shit Tony hadn’t meant to say it out loud. “But just work with me here and calm down for a bit and I’ll take you to see him, okay?”

“Now, Rhodey…I can’t-“

“Alright, but Tony just remember…he’s gonna be fine.”

—————————

He wants to be back in the eye of the storm, back in that murky place of having no control and not giving a shit, because being awake in this world left dusted by Thanos is unbearable.
Peter, for all of his monumental strength to hold the weight of the world both literally and figuratively, is small . If Bruce hadn’t reassured him that the ventilator was just to ease the stress on Peter’s frail body until he can regain consciousness, Tony would have thought it was crushing him.

Pepper seems to read his mind, because on the opposite side of the bed where she stands she fiddles with the giant tube snaking out from Peter’s mouth and gently positions it in a slightly different angle than before. Her fingers find Peter’s freshly rinsed curls and smoothes them to the side while she squats down to rest her chin on her arm lining the top of the bedrail.

“You see, Peter,” she whispers, while stealing a quick glance at Tony staring wide-eyed at her across the motionless kid. “I told you he was here. You can wake up now.”

Tony wants him to, God does he ever, but in that moment he shrinks away, sinks back against his wheelchair Rhodey maneuvered him into and shakes his head at her, because he can’t do this.

“Don’t listen to him, Pete,” she says, voice still soft but her gaze on Tony hard. Fuck his inability to keep his thoughts to himself. “He’s being silly. He’s in rough shape like you, but being a real piece of work about it.”

He feels slightly betrayed at not having his fiancé’s sympathy towards his own plight, but then realizes he is being silly when a smirk spreads across her face as she rounds the bed. She squats down in front of his chair and grabs his trembling hands.

“Hi.”

“Hey, Pep.”

He sits still under her gaze, drinks her in in a way he hasn’t in a long time.
She leans forwards and kisses his cheek with a gentle caress. “We’re going to be fine, honey,” she says against his temple and he hugs her tight hoping that the conviction of her words won’t get lost between them.

————————

Peter needs to eat, but it’s about as likely to happen as reversing the fucking Snap. It had taken Tony days to figure out how he was going to break the news to the kid that May had been one of the ones to vanish, but for all of his plotting and planning it was all thrown out the window the second the kid was coherent enough to ask of the woman’s whereabouts. He had meant to be gentle about it, but his own head still swims from malnutrition and there’s a dull throb beating behind his desire for a bottle of scotch.

He’d spit it out like he was telling him the weather and the kid took it like the blow to the head that it was. He hasn’t been to see the kid in the two days since.

There’s a tentative knock on his bedroom door and he knows out of the only two people in the compound that’s actually going to knock before entering only one is up and mobile enough to come requesting entrance.

“Go away, Bruce.”

The door opens anyway and Banner shuffles in with a sheepish grimace. “Tony…you really should come see him. I really think it will help him.”

“He doesn’t need me right now.”

“Oh, just the opposite, Tony,” Bruce tries to reason. “He needs you now more than ever.”

“I’m sorry…did you or did you not see how I just threw it in his face that his aunt was dead? My head is still a little swimmy so forgive me if I’m getting confused about the shit show that went down a couple of days ago.”

“Yes, but Peter understands. Truly. But…he doesn’t understand why you’re avoiding him.”

———————

“Mr. Stark!”

Peter is sitting up in what would have been his own bed in his designated room in the Compound had things turned out different. The blankets pool around his slim waist, his long-sleeved Stark Industries shirt that looks a lot like the one he’d seen Pepper digging out of the back of their closet hangs loose enough around the neck that the kid’s collar bone is on harsh display.

“Kid.”

“You look…better,” Peter offers, wiping a sleeve covered hand underneath his nose. Tony makes a mental note to never reclaim his shirt. “You know….since the last time I remember seeing you.”

“Wow. Convincing,” Tony plops himself down backwards in the desk chair along the far wall and spins to face Peter. “Which by the way…what is the last thing you remember?”

Peter hides both of his hands inside of his sleeves and tilts his head. “I think you….you were singing to me.”

“Nope. Wasn’t me,” Tony deadpans while crossing his arms along the back of the chair. “At least not real me. You started hallucinating early on. Did I at least have a good voice? Where am I landing in American Idol?”

Peter seems to bite back a smile and even though his cheekbones stick out rather harshly, Tony feels something in him start to let loose a little. “The worst, Mr. Stark. Like you’re in the montage of all the people that sucked back in the first couple of seasons where they actually told them they sucked and were mean about it.”

“Wow,” Tony says while trying to keep the corners of his mouth from lifting in amusement. And yeah, the whole conversation is a cop out of what he really came in here to say, but it’s much easier and he feels justified taking the easy route just this once. “But hey, at least I tried…I mean, chase your dreams and all that. What was their critique of me?”

Peter curls forward, wrapping his blanket around his forearms and smiling down into the folds when he brings it up against his mouth. “Disbelief. They didn’t even say anything. They just cut to all three of ‘em just staring at you with their jaws dropped and then I’m pretty sure that Simon guy just like walked out of the audition room.”

“Excellent. That’s a win in my book.”

“Good, ‘cause I’m glad you didn’t make it on there,” Peter replies in much softer tone than before, the way he always does when he tries to say something without actually saying it. “You’d get a big head and then like be gone all the time, out on tour and stuff.”

Tony practically melts at that, rests his chin on top of arms and smiles gently at the boy sitting across from him. “You’re the only person who thinks I don’t already have a big head.”

Peter shakes his head no, but it looks more like he’s wiping his mouth across the blanket. “ Tony Stark does, but you don’t. There’s a difference. You know that.”

God, he loves this kid. “Well, I would have had to be gone a lot, but you could’ve came with me when you weren't in school or we could’ve looked into homeschooling.”

Peter glances up at him, bloodshot eyes with dark circles underneath trying to keep locked on his own. “Is that….is that what’s gonna happen now?”

And Tony is the first one to look away, because even though he’d convinced himself he was going to ease into this conversation with Peter, the kid seems to have beat him to it before he was ready.

“I mean…if not…I get it and everything…but like I don’t know where…where I would go. Half the world is g-gone and M-may…and I’m just…I don’t know what I’ll do…” Peter words spiral from soft and gentle to a panicked spew of consciousness.

Tony is beside him, pulling the blanket tighter around him and then tucking him to his side, before Peter can break down into hysterics about it all. “Hush, shh, shh. It’s alright, Pete,” he whispers, tucking in reassurances better than the navy cover wrapped around him ever could. “You and me, Peter. That’s it. We’re going to…” he wants to say fix it, but he knows he doesn’t have that much hope left and doesn’t think he could survive giving false hope to the kid. “We’re going to make the best of it, kid. Together. It’s alright.”

Tony keeps up his mantra, and somewhere along the way starts gently rocking them back and forth just a bit. It reminds him of being stranded out in space, holding Peter the way he held him when he thought he’d lost him, but his boy is alive, heart running fast and heat simmering underneath the blanket. He hums a song in his head, unwilling to make it audible now that there’s a future in front of them.

“Mr. Stark?”

“Hmm?”

“That Simon guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You have a good signing voice,” Peter murmurs into Tony’s side where his face is tucked.

“Oh, just good?” Tony barely has the voice to ask.

“Well, sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the voice is as long as the song makes you feel something.”

“I thought that Simon guy didn’t know what he was talking about, sounds like something a judge would say.”

“He doesn’t, but I do.”

And if Tony leans his cheek against the soft curls on Peter’s head and sings something that gets the kid to calm down, well then, Peter is right. Simon Cowell doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

 

—————————

 

“Honey, we can’t keep doing this.”

Tony looks up around the stack of pizza boxes and other miscellaneous items on the kitchen island that he and Peter had cut up and made a replica of Tatooine with.

“If you’re referring to our small scale project-“

“I’d hardly call this small scale-“

“‘-then I’ll stop you right there because we watched Jurassic Park last night so the kid wants to go dinosaurs now so we are starting out back in the garden after lunch.”

“As much of a relief as it is to see the two of you get out of this compound and get some fresh air, this isn’t…living, Tony.”

“Well, Pep, considering we could all be a pile of ash right now, I’d say this is a close second to living,” Tony snaps, but immediately deflates at the hurt look on his fiancé’s face. “Sorry.”

“Sweetheart, I’m glad that you’re able to spend this time with Peter and help him through losing May and God, what you two went through…I know it’s more important than ever for you to be there for him. I do. That’s why I’m trying to get you to see reason, that while it is taking his mind off of May, eventually Tony, you’re both going to have to stop playing around and move on. The world is going to heal and move on in some way. You two can’t just be stuck here building replicas all day.”

Pepper comes to stand in front of him where he’s perched on the bar stool and runs her fingers through his hair. He melts into her touch and rests his head on her shoulder. “I know, but the kid just got the all clear from Bruce so no more liquid diets or multivitamins, or check ups and I just…I just wanted him to relax for just a second before going back out there. Back into a world where we lost and it can’t be fixed. I just wanted him to…be a kid, I guess, for a little while longer.”

“Tony, he can still be a kid. We can still give him that.”

He looks up at the word ‘we’ and locks onto her gaze with a desperate query. “God, what would that even look like, Honey? I mean…you and me…this isn’t a house…and Pete- he’s got no one else and I have to be here for him. I can’t-“

Pepper braces her hands on this side of his face and smiles at him despite everything. “You’re right. This isn’t a house, and I don’t think it can ever be a home. There’s too many reminders here. So…I think we need to move. Find a nice quiet place and still lay low for a little while, but start living again….as a family.”

“You, me, and the kid?” Tony checks while wrapping his fingers around her wrists at the side of his face.

“You, me, and our kid.”

 

—————————

The cabin is nestled in just the right spot to miss all the branches of the surrounding trees that sway back and forth in the summer wind easing by. The porch could use a good sweeping and the windows a bit of windex and elbow grease, but it looks like the perfect picture of home to Pepper as she steps out of the car and into the gravel driveway. She hears Tony searching for the keys in the console and feels Peter come to tentatively stand just next to her.

She turns to him, watches as he glances around nervously at the house and places a gentle hand at his elbow tugging him forward. “Now, Peter, if you don’t like it, for any reason just say so, okay? We haven’t signed anything, yet. This is a family decision and your opinion matters.”

She feels him shrug out of her grasp at the last sentence, but he nods his head all the same before trudging up the porch steps to the wrap around. He runs his fingers along the stained wood of the railing as he trails the length of the porch. Pepper watches him go until he turns the corner and waits for Tony to meet her at the base of the stairs.

“I hope he likes the house.”

“He’s gonna love it, Pep. It might take some getting use to, but I think this is going to work out.”

“Since when did you become the calm and reasonable one?”
“Oh, I pulled that off? ‘Cause honestly I think I’m one sentence away from setting the kid off. Probably not a good idea to come out here in the middle of the woods with an enhanced, moody teenager. Plenty of places to bury us when he’s done.”

Pepper giggles despite herself and wraps her arms around Tony, and they nearly take a spill on the steps when Peter suddenly appears above them saying, “You guys remember that I can hear you right?”

“Oh, shit,” Tony says, and dramatically pitches himself and Pepper forward on the steps until they are all but sprawled across the top step. “That was it, Pep. The last one. He’s done with us. Sorry, honey.”

Pepper can’t stop laughing and Tony chuckles along with her, hugging her close and looking up at Peter who rolls his eyes while trying his hardest not to laugh.

Eventually, they make it inside and Pepper walks through the door first, unable to hold back a gasp of amazement at the layout. Tony looks over at Peter to judge his initial reaction to the house, but finds the kid watching Pepper instead. Tony reaches out to nudge the kid into the cabin, but Peter locks his knees and leans closer to Tony to whisper, “You should get this one, Mr. Stark. Miss Potts loves it.”

 

—————————

 

They had officially moved in two weeks ago at the very beginning of June.

It had been a simple move. They hadn’t brought much with them, in the grand scheme of things nothing much mattered unless it was sentimental which left Pepper and Peter with the heaviest bags. Peter had carried them all in and dropped them where they needed to go and when the furniture arrived he helped move it to the exact right centimeter that Pepper had wanted after a solid hour of changing her mind.

Peter swept the porch and washed the windows and never left his sneakers lying anywhere except his closet or by the front door.

It was driving Tony and Pepper mad.

“I’ll talk to him, just go relax and leave us the kitchen for awhile okay?” Pepper offers, while ushering Tony upstairs.

“Are you sure? I could-“

“Look, he’s..my kid, too, ya know. I want him to know that from me.”

Tony leans down from where he’s on the step above her and kisses her head. “He loves you, Pep. I do, too.”

“I know. I’ll call you down for dinner, okay?”

“Yep!” Tony calls over his shoulder while bouncing up the steps.

Pepper turns and makes her way out onto the porch and calls for Peter where he’s sitting down by the lake reading a book. He saves his place in his reading and makes his way back to the house.

“Want to help me with dinner?”

“Of course, Miss Potts,” he says, smiling timidly and removing his shoes by the door. He goes to the kitchen sink to wash his hands while asking, “What are we making?”

“I’m thinking lasagna, if that sounds good to you?”

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

Pepper pulls a pot from the cabinet by the oven and hands it to Peter to fill from the sink. They fall into an easy rhythm moving around the kitchen pulling out the ingredients and laying it out. They’re ready to start making Pepper’s Grandmother’s famous sauce and Peter moves himself out of the way and around the island to sit on a bar stool to watch except Pepper shakes her head.

“Nope. Nanny wouldn’t have anybody in the kitchen just watching while she made her sauce. If you’re in the kitchen you have to help, but you also get to taste, so back over here, bud.”

Peter only hesitates for a few seconds before he’s back to standing at her side, fingers drumming along the island top unsure of what to do.

“I’ll get the tomatoes chopped, if you mix the seasonings,” she says thinking that his lab work ethic of measuring things out will translate to cooking unlike Tony. She passes over a copy of the recipe on a folded piece of notebook paper and then gathers the tomatoes for prepping. She almost asks F.R.I.D.A.Y. to play some music, but realizes just before that Tony had uncharacteristically not installed her throughout the house yet. So instead, she reaches for a Stark Pad over on the counter and plays some soft rock from the seventies, glancing fondly at Peter when the boy starts to bob his head up and down while measuring out oregano.

She finishes with the tomatoes and tells Peter to dump his seasoning mix in. Once they’ve both test tasted and agreed for a little bit more garlic, she turns to check on the boiling noodles.
It’s calm and quiet and everything she’s always wanted except the metaphorical space that’s in between her and boy she’s started to consider her son and she feels it’s the right time to start a discussion, but is nervous to break what peace they’ve settled into. However, it’s done for her when there’s a loud thud from upstairs followed by a muffled holler of “My bad. Sorry,” from Tony.

She rolls her eyes with a chuckle at the man, and looks over at Peter to make a comment about how clumsy her fiancé can be, except Peter is frozen stiff over the sauce bowl they’ve been preparing for the last ten minutes. Garlic powder held upside down over the bowl.

“Pete, honey?”

“I, um…..sorry. Like so sorry, Miss Potts! But I…I jumped when Mr. Stark made that noise and I just….I dumped like half the can of garlic powder in and now…now it’s gonna be ruined ‘cause nobody can eat that much garlic and I’m just really sorry…”

She laughs while moving over to stand next to the bowl and peer in at the pile of garlic powder on the top and gently pries the bottle from Peter’s hand to set it on the counter. “Relax, sweetheart. It’s just sauce, besides we can scrape most of it out and then I’ll add another tomato to even out the rest.”

“O-okay. That’s…that’s good. Sorry.”

Pepper deflates a little at the apology and pushes the sauce back a little to be dealt with in a moment. After wiping her hands on a dish towel, she holds Peter at arm’s length, only letting go to hook a finger under his chin to make him look at her.

“Peter…you know this is your home, don’t you?”

“Well…I guess so. I mean, yeah, I stay here.”

“No, see. This isn’t where you stay, Peter,” she says, and has to resist the urge to hug him tight.”This is where you live.”

She feels him tense much in the same way he does anytime she refers to them as family.

“This is where you sleep and eat meals. This is where you read books and watch movies. Leave your shoes lying around a couple of times for Tony to trip on or stay up way too late putting lego sets together with him.”

Peter’s shoulders sag just a little bit at that so she keeps going.

“Honey, this is where you can make messes and mistakes. This is where you can talk to Tony…or me about anything and everything and we will always listen. This is where you can laugh or you can cry. Where you can be sad for all the things you’ve lost, we’ve lost, but still be happy about the future without feeling guilty.”

She feels Peter shake underneath her hands, sees the tears welling up in his downcast eyes. She tugs him close to her, hugs him like he’s fit there his entire life. “Baby, this is our home, our family and you’re a part of it. You’ll always be May’s kid, but you’re Tony’s kid, too. You’re my kid, Peter.”

He sobs into her shoulder, fingers gripping her just below the point of using his enhanced strength and though it hurts just enough she thinks she’ll bruise, she knows her boy is hurting so much more. “We love you, Peter. We love you being here. We love you when you’re sad, when you’re quiet, when you don’t clean the house, or when you track mud in from outside. We love you when you don’t eat much at dinner, or refuse to come down for breakfast. We love you no matter what, Peter.”

Peter tucks his forehead against her shoulder and cries and cries and cries while she runs her fingers through his curls and across his back and she remembers what Tony had said, when he’d woken up crying that first night and muttering things about stars and constellations.

“You’re in our constellation, Peter. Always and forever,” she kisses into his hair. “You’re our brightest part even when you don’t want to shine at all.”

Chapter Text

The toasted oranges and burnt reds of fall have finally finished seeping into the tree leaves standing tall around their lake house. Very few have lost their cling to branches, but it’s late September so leaf raking is a task soon to come. Although a layer of leaves might look better than the current yard of pebbles from the lake shore and mud from heavy summer rains, Tony’s already made sure Peter knows where the rake is stored in the shed out back.

Stepping out of her car, Pepper gazes at their house sitting in the autumn season for the first time and feels the slightest bit silly at the way moisture gathers at the corners of her eyes. Though not the life she imagined, it’s far prettier than it should be and some nights she sits on the couch pretending to read old magazines just so that the weight of it doesn’t suffocate her in her sleep. Tony and Peter have caught her a few times to which she always said that the tree branch tapping against their bedroom window kept her up at night.

That is, until a week ago when Peter crawled up on the roof and cut it down himself. She and Tony hadn’t been home at the time. They’d gone out for a once in a blue moon date night just up the road a ways to a hole in the wall diner and topped off their evening by coming home to their kid attempting to nurse a broken ankle with the kitchen hand towel and a plastic bag of ice. Pepper hadn’t slept that night regardless of the missing branch because Tony kept demanding to know how a kid that can stick to things falls off the roof.

The evidence of that night now lays thick around Peter’s ankle dangling from the porch banister as she makes her way up the steps. Bruce had come fairly quickly and had assured them that with Peter’s healing abilities, a walking boot for a few weeks should help him recover fully.

“I thought Tony banned you from taking both feet off the floor unless you were on the couch or your bed,” she says playfully as she comes to a stop beside Peter sitting on the porch railing.

Peter pulls an adorably rueful expression and replies, “But you said that was ridiculous and Tony always claims you wear the pants in the family-“

“Ah,ah,ah, Pete. I said she wears the pants in the family when I’m not wearing any and considering how absolutely stunning you look, honey, in this current little number, “ Tony cuts in while emerging from the front door to look his fiancé up and down, “I don’t expect either of us to be covered with that particular item of clothing for very much longer. So looks like it’s you wearing the pants, kid. Climb the highest mountain for all I care.”

“Can I jump off when I get to the top because I have no desire to live past this horrifying moment right now,” Peter deadpans with a slight grimace at the sight of his two guardians playfully kissing with exaggeration for the sole purpose of mortifying him even more.

It’s Pepper, of course, that takes pity on him and pushes Tony away. “Alright, Tony, not in front of the kid.” Tony makes to groan at her for ruining his fun, but she smirks in Peter’s direction as she heads into the house. “I know you’ve been trying to find a way to have the birds and the bees talk with Peter, but I don’t think this is the right way to go about it.”
So much for pity.

“This is why you didn’t ground me for the roof thing? Because you wanted to be literally the most embarrassing people on the planet?” she hears Peter ask her fiancé followed by him gently hoping down from the railing, boot clicking every other step against the hardwood.
“No, remember…I did ground you…literally. Two feet on the ground. All times.” Tony enforces as they step into the kitchen behind Pepper.

“You’re hilarious.” Peter mocks while hopping up onto the counter top by the sink. Grimacing at Pepper just a bit when his boot clangs against the lower cabinets.

She gives him a playful warning while motioning Tony over to them. “Come on, you two. Get to stringing these green beans while I wash up for dinner, please.” Tony perches himself on the island across from Peter with a little less grace than the teen had done moments earlier, but kicks at the boy when he snickers at his efforts.

“Honey, can we really trust these beans? He could’ve scientifically engineered these to make us age rapidly or turn green like Banner.”

“You think I spent half the summer outside with our kid planting magic beans?”

“Don’t be silly, Pepper. Our kid can do more with that big brain of his than magic.”

“Wow, as far as compliments go, you could use some work,” Peter offers while tossing a green bean at Tony’s head.

Pepper holds her hands up to stop any more flying vegetables. “So could these beans, now get to stringing. And for once, please behave while I’m gone.”

“Don’t worry, Pep. I’ll keep Boot Scootin’ Boogie in line.”

Tony dodges another soaring veggie as Pepper calls over her shoulder, “I was talking to you, Tony.”

Tony huffs just loud enough to be heard by Peter who mindfully begins their designated task. He picks up a few beans in his hands and fiddles with the ends, glancing across at Peter to watch the kid peel the strings with slow, slender fingers.

It seems to be one of the kid’s good days, one where his laughter comes easy and his smiles just the same. Over the summer, the sun had set on too many afternoons where Peter couldn’t be bothered to offer words much less a cackle at Tony’s jovial banter lofted in his direction.

Peter seems to notice him staring and Tony offers a sheepish smile at being caught but he feels it melt into something more akin to fondness when Peter nearly tucks his lips between his teeth and grins.

 

“Is this the last batch then?” Tony asks, gesturing towards his meager mound of strung beans beside himself on the counter, a bit dishearten at how far along the kid has gotten on his own portion.

“Yeah, there’s a few banana peppers left, but Pepper said we could wait and pick them next week.”

“Is that it, then? The “Peter and Pepper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers” garden is out of business until Summer?” Tony asks, already knowing the answer but wants to hear Peter talk about his side project with Pepper.

Tony had spent endless hours in the lab with Peter over the summer just trying to keep his mind focused and hands busy, but that had left a lot of time on Pepper’s hands without her husband and soon to be adopted son. She’d said as much to him one night when they were laying in bed.

“What you two have…it’s makes me happy to see you with him. Knowing how far the both of you have come because of each other.”

“But?”

“No but. Just…he’s going to be…he is my kid, too. I just wish there was something we could connect with, you know? So we could spend more time together. The two of us.”

She rolled over on her side to face him, hair pushed back behind her shoulder. She had trouble meeting his eyes, but he didn't think it was because of the darkness surrounding them.

“Ms. Potts…are you- are you jealous?”

“”Come on, Tony! You know I’m not,” she protested, hand coming up to squeeze her pillow. He thought about taking her hand, but decided to push a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She chanced looking him in the eye and he was surprised to find hers slightly misty. “But it’s hard being a mo-…a guardian to a kid who only needs your husband.”

“Honey,” he breathed their silent ‘I love you’ out in between them. He rolled forward just a bit to kiss her forehead before catching her gaze again. “He needs you, Pep. Just in a different way than he needs me.”

“How?”

That one question dumped Pepper’s inner turmoil out into the open in a way she rarely ever does. Tony pulled the covers around them tighter to keep it right there between them, to show her that whatever she gives him he will take and bear the weight of for all eternity.

“I keep him busy. I keep his mind from wandering off and going down the rabbit hole, but I can’t…” He trailed off, but felt Pepper tug the covers just a bit more reciprocating his silent vow to her. “I can’t heal what’s going on in his heart, Pep. I couldn’t…I couldn’t even do that for myself. You know that. If it hadn’t been for you, for Rhodey, Happy….Peter… I’d still be doing everything wrong instead of only fifty percent of it.”

“I’ll give you thirty percent. You should give yourself more credit. You’re doing just about everything right except putting a new role of toilet paper on the dispenser when you use the last of it,” she teased, but then sobered. “I don’t know how to reach him…if he even wants me to. I don’t think he does. Sometimes…I think he avoids me.”

“He loves you.” He said it with as much conviction as he could because he knows that you can’t prove someone else’s love. “Spend more time with him. Just ask him to do something with you, honey. I promise you, he will say yes.” She hugs him tight like she believes him, he just wishes he could believe it about himself, too.

She had taken his advice and asked Peter if he wanted to go grocery shopping with her the following day and if Tony shot her a smug little smile when Peter agreed immediately…well, Pepper was on the other side of kitchen island and couldn’t do anything about it.

They’d been gone for hours that day, long enough for Tony to start getting a bit worried. However, just as the sun started settling down behind the tree tops surrounding the lake, the sound of tires crushing loose gravel signaled their arrival. He’d stepped out onto the wrap around porch, wiping his hands on a dishrag he threw over his shoulder when Peter jumped from the car. He practically bounced up the steps to meet Tony while carrying three brown bags of groceries while Pepper, lagging slightly behind, only carried one.

“Hey, Tony! Guess what!”

Tony smiled at his surprising enthusiasm and glanced back at his fiancé coming up the steps to see her failing to hide a grin herself.

“Hmm, the cashier at the store mistook you for a ten year old boy and gave you a lollipop?” He teased, ruffling the mop of curls on the kid’s head.

“Ha. Ha. You really missed your calling of becoming an unsuccessful comedian,” Peter groaned, but then straightened back up with an excited, “No, but really! Pepper said that we could start a garden together. You know, grow our own vegetables and such.”

“Yes, I’m fairly certain of what a garden is, bud,” Tony chuckled and took a peak in one of the bags in Peter’s arms to see an abundance of seed packets. “What, pray tell, will you be growing for my consumption?”

“Lots of things!” Peter remarked while jostling the bags in his arms as if he needed a reminder of what they had bought. “Okra, green beans, tomatoes, jalapeños, banana peppers….um….”

“So,” Tony interrupted while Peter quickly scanned his bags. “Pepper decided she could never take you in the grocery store ever again and decided to start one in the backyard. Got it.”

“Actually,” Pepper butted in while shuffling them into the house. “ Peter and I had a great time.”

Tony moved to get the door for them. “Of course, he did. He’s got enough stuff to play live action FarmVille.”

Peter snorted as he passed under Tony’s arm holding the door. “Mr. Stark! Nobody plays FarmVille anymore! Besides, Pepper promised that we could cook more of her Grandmother’s recipes!”

That day had been the first day Peter really started opening up to the both of them, living in their space and finding enjoyment in things. It’s why he loves to see Peter talk about it, because it reminds him of how far they’ve come.

Now, with Peter sitting across from him reminding him that they are one hundred percent without a doubt not calling it the “Peter and Pepper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers” garden and telling him how they are going to plant radishes, cabbage, and such next week, Tony feels such a rush of pride run through him for this kid.

Unfortunately, it spills out of him in a soft, “I’m proud of you, kid,” as soon as Peter stops talking and the kid pulls a funny face at it.

“For planting radishes?”

Tony shakes his head and hops down off the counter and sets his unstrung beans next to the few left in Peter’s bowl. “Nah, for giving us a chance….you know, to be your family. To take care of ya.”

Peter makes a weird little sniffle while focusing all his attention on the vegetable in his hand. “Y-yeah. Sure. I mean, thanks. I…I like it. Like it here.”

“Good,” Tony nods and suddenly feels strung out like the beans in the pot next to Peter. He turns to step away, wash his hands and maybe set the dinning table to give himself distance from the feeling floating around the room, but he feels fingers bunch the sleeve of his shirt preventing him from moving away.

Peter looks at him, eyes bright with an acceptance they’ve yet to see and it spreads across his face. “I…you know I…l-love you guys, right?”

Tony suddenly hates the doubt that clawed its way into his chest at night, hates the way he ever disbelieved this kid’s love for them and their life nestled in the cabin.

Thinking back, he knows now that Peter’s attention in the lab, the way he hangs onto his every word, his every direction is Peter’s I love you . The quiet way he sits with him while putting a puzzle together at the coffee table and the way he smiles at him before heading off to bed is Peter’s I love you.

And it isn’t fair to Peter for Tony of all people to miss that, to not understand that actions speak louder than words and for a moment he doesn’t understand why he could never hear his kid saying the most important things. But Peter squeezes just a bit more on his sleeve, makes the cuff pull snug around his wrist and in that split second, that desperate I need you to know I love you , Tony realizes that it isn’t the love Peter has for him that he’s uncertain of. It’s whether or not Peter understands the love Tony has for him.

He flips his hand over, wraps his warm calloused fingers around Peter’s cold ones and places his other hand at the side of the kid’s face. “I know that no matter how much you love us or how much you hate us, despise us, claim us, or care for us, Pete….” He swallows hard because every emotion he’s chalked up to something else has him bursting at the seams. “No matter what, we’ll always love you.”

The thing about having a kid, having this kid, is that Tony knows love is unconditional. Perhaps it would be romantic to say he’d known that with Pepper, but it isn’t true. He loves her in a way he could love no one else, sure, but he loves Peter so much that there isn’t a single thing that this kid could do that would ever make him stop.

Peter falls forward, still perched on the counter top but his head leaning against Tony’s shoulder. He wraps his arms around his kid, holding him up when all of the pent up emotions curve his spine on release.

“But if you could string my portions of the green beans, I’ll take you out on the boat tomorrow and love ya just a little bit more than Pep.”

He feels more than hears Peter’s laugh, but it warms him all the same. He sees Pepper slowly turn the corner of the kitchen, reappearing with unshed tears in her eyes. She holds a questioning thumbs up to him, first making sure that Peter is okay. When he nods the affirmative she walks towards them, tilting her head towards the cabinet above the sink, the one with all her grandmother’s recipes and cookbooks.

“Now?” She mouths.

Tony tightens his arms around Peter just a bit, unsure if what they’re about to do will change the way Peter fits in them. But he nods all the same, ready to prove to Peter and himself that actions really do speak louder than words.

Pepper reaches up and opens the cabinet, causing Peter to pull away from Tony to look at her.

“What recipe are we gonna make tonight?” He asks as Pepper brings an old, worn leather bound book to her chest before glancing at Tony.

“Well, bud….we thought….we’d let you decide,” he replies while watching Pepper hand him the book. “Start at that page sticking out though…I seem to remember Pepper telling me that was the best one in that particular book.”

Peter takes it from her, casting only a split second suspicious glance in their direction before doing as instructed. Tony reaches for Pepper’s hand and feels her squeeze back just on the wrong side of painful as the watch Peter scan the page in front of him.

“What….I don’t…this isn’t… a recipe.”

“Well…no,” Pepper finds her voice first, though it shakes. “But Tony and I, well we…we want you to know that if you’re ever ready…well…”

“We want to make you an official part of the constellation, kid. Parker Stark has a nice ring to it, I think.” Tony tacts on, “But only if and when you’re ready. It’s…”

Peter looks up at them sharply, tears dripping down pale cheeks and staining the adoption papers in his hands. “It’s what?”

Tony squeezes Peppers hand and says, “It’s our loudest We love you and we just want to make sure you hear us.”

Peter eyes both of them with an expression they can’t read, before glancing back down to the papers in his hands. They think they hear a faint, “Peter Benjamin Parker Stark” and the boy trails his finger along the proposed name, but aren’t for certain until he looks back up at them.

“I hear you,” he mumbles before hopping down off the counter, his boot giving a little scuff to the floor at how fast he moves to cling to them.

He chokes around his next words, but holds them just shy of super strength so that they can feel their son’s loudest I love you .