Tony loved Peter Parker.
Not that he would ever put it to him that way, but he did. A lot. Deep inside where he kept his feelings, Tony was fond of every version of Peter, from the surly, angry little kid he’d been when they first met to the sweeter-yet-snarkier grown person he was now.
And he was perfectly happy with their relationship. Or he had been.
He wasn’t sure what had changed, what made it nag at his brain a little every time Peter called him a Walking Trash Bag or asked him why he enjoyed failing so much. Where normally he would have fired back with a vastly superior retort to anything the Boy Arachnid came up with, recently he found that it bothered him. Stuck with him.
It was those goddamn dumb dreams that Wade had told him about. Yes, they were terrifying. When Tony thought of them as he was trying to go to sleep, they made him go back over close calls, for him and for his ridiculous little Friend Family, and he’d feel scared and grateful and rest his head against Pepper’s sleeping back.
He did not prefer the Peter Parker in Wade’s dreams to their Peter Parker. It wasn’t that. But hard as he tried to shake it, there was something about his and Peter’s relationship in Wade’s dream that pulled at him. That Peter loved Tony Stark. He knew his Peter didn’t not love him, but the dream Peter -- he admired Tony. Respected him. Definitely way too much, it sounded like, but -- still. He thought about it, what it would be like to mean all of that to Peter.
And he knew this was just his conglomeration of Daddy Issues talking, and knowing was truly half the battle, so he tried to be patient with himself and let his psyche work through whatever it needed to work through.
But then he almost died.
Not like it was the first time, of course. This one was on the mildly-disturbing end of the scale, though, because as far as Tony knew before he blacked out, he’d just taken an international espionage agent to the face. No biggie. He didn’t appreciate the closeness of this close call until his eyes blinked open and he saw Spider-man in his face, white eyes big with what couldn’t be anything but concern. And he was calling Tony’s name.
“There he is,” Clint laughed, reaching past Spidey to roughly clap Tony on the shoulder. “Way to make the day less boring, Metallica.”
Spider-man did not join Hawkeye in laughing off Ironman’s brush with death. He stood up abruptly and turned away, hands on his hips, shoulders rising and falling with a big exhale.
“You were scared,” Tony said, voice weak, vision a little foggy, and yeah his brain may not have been functioning at peak capacity. “You didn’t want me to die.”
“Aw,” Clint laughed some more, turning in Peter’s direction, “just like in Wade’s dream!”
Wrong mood, as it turned out.
“I could not care less about your dumb ass,” Spider-man said, whipping around to face Tony. “Like if I was brain-dead, even -- could not. Care. Less.”
And Clint laughed even harder, and Spidey scooped Tony up and carried him all the way back to the jet and didn’t even grouse about it, and that should have told Tony all he needed to know and reset their rapport and he shouldn’t have thought about it again.
But he did. It had stung. He tried to be patient with himself and feel his feelings.
“Of course he would care if you died,” Pepper reassured him later, and it gave Tony a teensy bit of satisfaction that she actually seemed irritated at the Nerd Wonder. “He’s just terrible at handling big feelings, kind of like someone else I know.”
Tony felt that little call-out was roundly unnecessary, but still - she’d made him feel better. She always did. But he didn’t stop thinking about it.
“Spidey’s a little shit,” Ben Grimm said jovially as he threw Electro and a gentleman dressed as a Kangaroo into the Hudson river. “Always has been. ‘s why we love him, right?”
Tony half-heartedly shot what appeared to be a giant glue gun (Seriously? Glue? Just regular glue?) out of a baddie’s hands.
“You’d know better than me, Dante’s Peak,” he attempted to snark. “He’s had a crush on your Foursome a lot longer than he’s given two shits about the Avengers.”
And ooh, that was some truth coming out, Tony realized. The Peter in Wade’s whacky dream universe didn’t have a Ben Grimm to watch his back, or a Sue Storm to be his sister-mom, or a Johnny Storm to have uncomfortable erotic urges towards. Dream Peter just had Tony to look up to, while real Peter had Reed Motherfucking Richards to be his Science Dumbledore.
“Just tell him to quit being an asshole,” Ben suggested, casually conking a dude wearing a wizard robe on the asphalt. “The kid’s got a good heart, he’s just terrible at feelings. Kinda like somebody else I know.”
Tony had not come here to be called out by an anthropomorphic rock-climbing wall, but he begrudgingly thanked Ben for his advice. And he tried to ignore the fact that the prospect of actually going up to Peter and telling him to quit being an asshole made him feel distinctly nervous.
He was not intimidated by Peter Parker. The Tony Stark in Wade’s dream was not intimidated by Peter Parker, and neither was he. He was much older than Peter. Wiser. More mature. He definitely did not weirdly look up to Peter and care very much about Peter’s opinion of him and oh god here it all came. How had this happened to him?
Unfortunately, he was still very much stuck in this mental place when Peter walked right up to him the next day, right in the middle of the damn compound, and confronted him.
“Why are you telling people I’m being an asshole to you?”
He didn’t sound angry, or not exactly angry, but Tony’s stomach did a perfect flip. He didn’t fire off a smart comeback to destroy his friend’s confidence, didn’t flatly deny the accusation. He didn’t even backpedal.
He stammered. An. Excuse. He wasn’t even sure what it was, something about the lab and Dum E and avocados, and he turned around and ran. The other. Direction.
The stunned look on Peter’s face that Tony saw over his shoulder as he fled should have at least made him feel a little better. It did not.
He decided to give up being patient with his feelings. Healthy processing was clearly not the answer here - he needed to forget it. He avoided Peter for the rest of the week, and when Wade tried to gently broach the subject with him, Tony started avoiding Wade, too. That one hurt, but he was at a loss. He’d make it up to them later, but right now he clearly needed some space.
A few days later, he had not forgotten about it but he was not thinking about it as much, enough that he was considering surprising Wade for brunch by way of apology. Then, he got the greeting card.
It was one of those uber-sentimental deals with a painting of a butterfly on a blade of grass on the front and glittery lettering that said, “You Are Special To Me.” Tony became suddenly afraid that the card was filled with anthrax and ran several diagnostics before opening it to find a handwritten message.
Dear Shell Head - I’m sorry I said I wouldn’t care if you died. I found this thing and we should go to it together.
Tony then noticed two paper tickets stuck in the middle of the card -- to a robotics show.
To a “Dad and Me” robotics show.
Tony’s brain shook his fist at his relentlessly smart-assed friend, but his heart -- well. Melted was a strong word, but possibly appropriate in this instance.
I just want you to always remember, the handwritten message continued, that I will always, always…
The writing stopped at the edge of the card. He turned it over to the back side where he was excited to see that it continued.
…. be better than you at everything.
Love - PBP
Tony nearly shoved the tickets -- the paper tickets, because they were evidently in 1995 -- up Peter’s nose. It would have been too much effort, though, because his friend was convulsing too hard with silent, hysterical laughter for him to get a clear shot.
Tony had borrowed one of Wade’s image-changing gizmos, and at the moment he looked about fifteen years older than he was, old enough to easily be Peter’s dad. He’d been pretty impressed with his look when he’d left the house in disguise -- a good approximation of his older self, he’d thought, and it had made him feel optimistic about aging. Peter evidently thought he was hilarious.
“Are we seriously about to beat children and their dads,” Tony asked as they entered the gymnasium, “at a competitive robot-building event?”
“For charity,” Peter corrected, weaving through the mass of excited kids and their equally-excited parents (not only dads, Tony was happy to see). “We are going to beat children and their dads at robot-building for charity.”
Peter patted Tony on the back as they reached their assigned station, which was bedecked with robot-parts aplenty. Tony tried to be patient and let himself register how very very happy the casual, totally-not-a-big-deal gesture made him.
“I think we should call him Desmond,” Peter announced, looking fondly at their robot (who had not actually won a single prize in any category, as it turned out).
“He looks more like an Arthur to me,” Tony contradicted as they walked to Peter’s train stop together.
Peter rolled his eyes. “Well, when he’s at your house, he can be Arthur, but when he’s at my house, he’s Desmond.”
Tony shrugged, taking the doll-sized robot (who could do some really cool shit that the adjudicators of that competition did not seem to appreciate). He briefly imagined what this scene would have been like in Wade’s dream universe -- good-natured ribbing, possibly a half-hug filled with emotions that neither of them could quite bring themselves to say out loud.
“I love you,” he said, and Peter’s eyebrows went halfway up his forehead but he smiled. “And I love our robot love child,” Tony went on, “and I hope we can resolve this custody battle amiably.”
“You’re much sexier as an old guy,” Peter said, pulling him in for a hug.
Tony returned the hug -- not a half-hug but a full, shoulders-to-shoulders hug. “Well -- you’re very short.”
The sting of Peter’s kick to his shin lasted for about a block and a half (and he wasn’t sure why no one had noticed a young hoodlum kicking an older, distinguished gentleman and rushed to his aid). He tucked Arthur the Child Bot under his arm more securely and tried to be present and enjoy the new lightness in his chest.
Dream Peter had probably never kicked Dream Tony in the shin. Poor bastards, he thought -- they didn’t know what they were missing.