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When Pepper first meets Peter Parker, she loves him purely on the principal that he’s wormed his way into Tony’s heart.

Pepper has never seen someone who is able to crack Tony’s emotional armor the way the kid has. Tony will skip meals for two days until the Friday when Peter (who spends every weekend at the compound) strolls in after school and asks shyly if they can order pizza or Chinese. He has nightmares until Peter confides one night that “Nightmares can teach us the source of the fear, instead of just the fear. Then we can figure out how to process the fear.” There’s a certain stiffness to Tony’s affection until the very tactile Peter has his own nightmare about Tony dying, where he whispers, “I can’t lose you too, Mr. Stark…not after everyone else.” From then on, Tony physically assures Peter of their relationship with hair ruffles and an arm thrown around his shoulders.

The change flows into other aspects of Tony’s life and Pepper just loves the kid for it.

Over time, however, its different. She doesn’t try to intrude on the father-son dynamic. Pepper has had years for her relationship with Tony to evolve and is not jealous of the focus shifting to the teenager. So, she watches. Peter is impossible not to love. His smiles are wide and earnest, he is an adorable bubble of teenage angst, and he’s so eager to see the good in the world. He believes Tony will save the universe and that one day, Steve Rogers will come crawling back and admit how wrong he was to tear the Avengers apart. He’s optimistic and trustworthy. His heart is on his sleeve.

He loves old movies and Legos. He loves hot chocolate and prefers to eat the marshmallows on the side, while drinking the hot chocolate. He watches movies, builds Lego movie sets, or does homework, all the while drinking his chocolate and sitting in companionable silence with Pepper while she does paperwork.

She can’t place the date when she starts spending Saturdays at the compound instead of in the office, working from home just so she and Peter can spend a quiet afternoon and evening together. He asks her for help on his English papers and she willingly gives it because he’s irresistible when he collapses on the ground with a “Miss. Potts, I don’t mean to be crude, but who gives a damn about Wuthering Heights and why is it still required reading?”

She laughs, sets aside her notes from the most recent board meeting, and picks up the book. “What chapter are you on?”

“Two.” Peter’s face in hidden in the carpet, but he sounds guilty.

“You don’t have much time left,” she reminds him firmly. “How much do you need to have finished before the first test on it next Wednesday?”

“What?” he looks up then, confused. “You know my test schedule? How do you know my test schedule?”

Pepper doesn’t tell him that she has his school schedule programmed into her calendar, colored red. Everything colored red pertains to Peter. She isn’t sure when that started either. One day, Peter was there for Tony. Another day, he was a staple in the compound. Another, and he was a staple to her.

“I know everything,” she answers instead, voice steady. She smiles at him. “Now, I hate this book too, but I remember everything English professors like about it. I’ll read it, and you’ll make notes that I give you along the way. Ready?”

Peter scrambles for a notebook and finds a spot on the couch next to her. He’s attentive as she opens the novel and begins to read.

It’s hours later that Tony wonders in. He’s holding a cup of tea and a bottle of coke. The tea is placed on the side table close to Pepper, and the coke is handed to Peter—who is now leaning against a pillow that’s propped on Pepper’s lap. She nods in thanks but continues reading as the teenager laying against her wordlessly accepts the coke and keeps scribbling notes. In the last hour or so, he’s learned the kind of things to look for and doesn’t need Pepper’s pointers.

She notices, out of the corner of her eyes, that Tony is watching them fondly for a moment. Pepper ignores it and pursues the end of the chapter, though its difficult not to smile. Maybe he finds her interactions with the kid just as endearing as she finds his.

Eventually, he lifts Peter’s feet so that he can have room on the couch, and he closes his eyes while Pepper reads.

It only takes another hour before both of her boys have fallen asleep. Pepper closes the book, runs her fingers through Peter’s hair, and goes back to her own notes.

)-(

“I need you to come to a parent-teacher conference.”

Pepper pauses. She’s known May Parker for a few months now, had lunch once or twice, and invited her to a party at least three times. It’s no secret that Tony and Pepper are heavily involved in Peter’s life, and that includes May getting to know the same people. She never acts threatened or looks upset, simply insists that Tony and Pepper actually do some of the less fun aspects of parenting.

(Arguing with Peter over a chore chart? Not fun.)

“Okay,” Pepper says. “Can I ask why?”

“Your fiancé has decided that Peter didn’t need to work on his robotics project, which is due tomorrow, until about five minutes ago. They’re going to be spending all night on my living room floor, so I need a conference date.”

“Not a problem,” Pepper says easily. She suddenly has an idea. “I was going to go wedding dress shopping. The store I was looking at isn’t too far from Midtown. Wanna come shopping with me, and we’ll just go from there? I’d love your opinion.”

“Oh,” May replies. “Well, sure. What time?”

And really, becoming best friends with May Parker is that easy. They start spending a lot of free time together. When May doesn’t have to work, she joins Peter for his weekends at the compounds. Pepper and she go out to lunch at least twice a week, text fairly often, and go get mani/pedis monthly. May makes everything a little more fun, the balance to Pepper’s need for a schedule and control. She’s a bit of a hippy, but she’s sassy and quick and…very Italian.

“You know, Potts,” May says one evening over popcorn and trashy television. “I think I’m a little bit in love with you.”

Pepper leans over to smack a kiss onto May’s cheek. “I feel the same, babe. Do you feel like getting married?”

“Goddammit, Parker!” Tony yells from across the room. “Not my fiancé.”

May flips Tony off and settles in like she belongs.

She does.

)-(

When Thanos comes, and Peter disappears along with the rest of the world, Pepper feels the loss in her chest, as if someone has carved out a piece of her soul. She can’t imagine what’s going through May’s mind as the woman hits Tony in the chest with a shaking fury.

“You bring him back,” she says, gripping Tony’s face while tears quietly roll down her cheeks. “You bring him back, Tony Stark, or I’ll…”

Tony’s eyes are steel, and his voice isn’t much softer. “I will. I will. I don’t care what it takes, May, I won’t lose him again. I will find a way to turn back time and Thanos will die and the kid will live. That’s all there is to it.”

May nods like she believes him. “Then get to work, Iron Man.”

 

 

Tony and Steve lead the team in fixing the universe again. Peter comes back, and all three of his parents are nearly broken with relief. They’re a family again, and nothing else matters.

)-(

“Tony didn’t listen when I told him not to go overboard,” May grumbles, taking a bite of her ice cream. She looks up at the fireworks exploding over Cinderella’s castle. “I don’t know whether to be mad he shows me up all the time or happy to see Peter so happy.”

The kid is glowing. He’s got his fingers linked with his friend Michelle while he looks at the fireworks like he’s never gotten a glimpse of color before. The teenage girl pretends she isn’t impressed, but she’s definitely as enraptured as Peter. Ned is excitedly trying to take in every detail with his arm draped across Michelle’s shoulders, the three of them reveling in each other’s company and just thrilled to be back together.

Tony, like May and Pepper, is preoccupied with watching how happy the kids look.

“Definitely happy,” May sighs then. “I never thought I would be pleased that Tony was involved in his life, but he makes it such a priority to make sure Peter is living to the fullest. How can I be mad at that?”

“Tony loves him,” Pepper says firmly. She can’t draw her eyes from Peter’s face. A tear of what she assumes is awe or contentment leaks down his cheek and he doesn’t appear to notice. “We both do. You raised an extraordinary kid.”

“I don’t even know how. All I can think about the time is what I’ve done wrong. I mean, he runs around in spandex—

“Do not let Tony hear you call it spandex.”

“—and I don’t know if he’s going to come back. It keeps me up at night, you know? Like that couldn’t be right. Or at least, that’s what I think until he limps in, bruised but alive, and tells me that he got a dad home to his little girl and that he reunited a family. He wants to fix the world and I think he can. Then I think…that’s right. That’s all I wanted to do for him: raise him with a desire to make the lives of those around him better. He does that.”

Pepper feels May’s eyes on her, so she turns and finds the other woman with determination across her features. “What? I agree. He’s the best kind of kid, May. So earnestly and innocently good.”

“Which is why you love him?”

“It’s one of the reasons. I don’t know if I can quantify every reason there is to love Peter.”

They stand in silence for a long time. The show continues, fireworks telling a story about the power of love and family and the strength we find in a world where life wants to fight against it. But its love that saves us all.

Pepper remembers Tony’s determination to set the universe right because of Peter. She thinks of her wedding, Peter grinning from the audience and May by her side as Maid of Honor. She thinks of their weird little family that has no blood relation between a single one of them and is somehow strong than any relationship Pepper has ever had before.

She agrees; love saves them all.

“Pepper,” May says slowly. “Tony is a superhero, always in danger. He’s more likely to die than you.”

Pepper feels her stomach twist because that isn’t something she needs to be reminded of. “Excuse me?”

“No, I just mean—” May takes a breath and pinches the bridge of her nose. “We don’t know what life is going to hand us. It’s been kind of shitty so far, and it could get worse. It’s hard to imagine worse after his parents, Ben, Thanos…I just—in the case that it gets worse for Peter, I need to know that you will always be there to look after my kid. In an emotional, physical, legal sense.”

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“If something happens to me, I want you to take care of Peter,” May plows on. “You are responsible, you’re financially set, you love Peter endlessly, and you know how to take care of a superhero. Tony’s life is too dangerous for him to be my first choice. It has to be you.”

Pepper doesn’t need any time before she says yes.

)-(

Pepper’s dream is cut off by the shrill tone of her phone. She’s grateful that her sleep was interrupted. Honestly, the memory of May demanding Peter’s life from Tony is a horror that Pepper cannot erase from her mind. She answers the phone without even looking because she’s eager to forget for a moment.

“Hello?”

A sob comes from the other end of the line. It’s a sob that has accompanied nightmares from a particular teenager who couldn’t wake up.

“Peter?"

“Miss—Miss. Potts…” Peter is whispering brokenly. “Aunt May…car accident…hospital on 14th, around the corner from—

“I know the one, we’re coming,” Pepper says softly. She kicks at Tony to wake up and points to the phone. “Stay on the phone with me, Peter, okay? Tony will fly there so it’ll take him fifteen minutes top. I’ll follow as quickly as I can. Hospital on 14th.”

Tony doesn’t question anything because it’s the kid and he’s gone from the room in a second.

Peter chokes on a sob, and Pepper’s heart cracks because hasn’t this boy been through enough? “I’m right here, Peter.”

“I’m a curse,” he moans. His voice is raspy, so he’s obviously been screaming and crying. “There’s something sick inside of me, everyone around me dies…”

“No, sweetheart, no.” Pepper hurried down the hall and attempted to stop her own tears. “This is not your fault. It’s certainly not fair that you have had so much tragedy, but it’s not your fault. You don’t deserve this. There is nothing wrong with you, do you hear me?”

Peter cries.

“There is nothing wrong with you.”

Pepper kept up her mantra as she drove, whispering into the phone.

“This isn’t your fault.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“You are good, Peter. You are so good.”

It feels like an eternity before Tony’s voice disrupts the boy’s sobs, and Pepper knows he;s arrived at the hospital. She hears Peter’s sobs renew and presses her foot harder on the gas. The kid cries and croaks out, “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?

She thinks about her conversation with May at Disney and marvels at how, even in death, May Parker will always take care of Peter.  

The kid must have hung up at some point, because her phone is ringing again. She wipes her tears away from the memory and clears her throat before answering. “Pepper Potts.”

“Miss. Potts,” a calm voice says on the other line. “My name is Michael Wallace, from the Department of Child Services. I’ve contacted the lawyer of May Parker, who faxed me a document stating you were to be appointed Peter’s guardian in the event of her death. I’m very sorry to say that this event has come to pass.”

Pepper swallows. “I’ve had a call from Peter. I’m currently on my way to the hospital. My fiancé, Mr. Stark, should be there with him.”

“He is, Miss. Potts, but I cannot let Peter leave the hospital without you or someone from a foster family.”

“Well the latter will not be necessary.” Pepper uses her CEO voice. “I will be there to pick them up in ten minutes time.”

“Of course, Miss. Potts,” the man answers. “There will be documents—

“My lawyers will contact you in the morning, Mr. Wallace. I will see you shortly.”

Pepper tries to forget that she’s wearing her pajama shorts and a sweater, with fuzzy boots that Peter bought her as a joke. She must look like a terror. How will Michael Wallace take her seriously? How will he look at her and think she is supposed to take care of the kid?

Rational thought, Pep, rational thought. You are the calm in the storm. You’re focus in the fuzzy. So stay calm and focus the fuck up.

She repeats this to herself as she zips through traffic and hurries to the hospital.

)-(

The first two nights, Tony sleeps on the floor of Peter’s room in the compound. The kid doesn’t have nightmares, but he cries until he can’t anymore and falls asleep. When he does wake up, he refuses food or water or affection. He simply lays in bed and hugs his pillow. Pepper keeps her distance and lets Tony decide how to proceed.

Still, she has F.R.I.D.A.Y. give her live feed so that she can listen at all times because she needs to know that even if he’s sad, he’s still sleeping with regulated huffs of breath that somehow help her get to sleep.

Tony manages to get Peter out for the funeral. Pepper has picked out a suit that’s not too over-the-top. She gives it to him by placing it silently on his dresser and giving him a sad smile. He rolls away and Tony sighs. They all get ready in silence until Happy informs them that its time to leave. The Avengers, even those who don’t know Peter too well, love and respect him. They climb into separate cars and offer silent support.

Peter doesn’t say anything at the funeral, but he plays a video of May dancing and singing with Ben. Everyone watches, everyone cries, and Peter looks almost content with his eyes trained on the video.

Pepper wonders about it but says nothing.

When the funeral ends and people are there to shake his hand and say how sorry they are, Pepper is right behind Peter in silent support. She can see his shoulders turning in on themselves the longer people give him condolences, and it worries her. He did something like this at Disney World before he started to struggle with breathing. How is she going to stop it?

But then, just like Disney World, Tony appears. He’s in Peter’s space and he’s touching his face, whispering softly. It hurts to watch him in pain, but she stands aside and lets Tony cradle Peter’s head as he cries into the older man’s neck and holds on like he’s the only real thing in the world.

Pepper hates just watching, but she does.

)-(

Pepper continues to keep her distance for a week. Tony is at Peter’s beck and call. The kid clutches his mentor and cries, falls asleep, eats enough to get by, and repeats the process. It’s heartbreaking. Pepper feels useless, unable to fix things for this sixteen-year-old who just wants to be able to live his life without some continuous tragedy happening. He’s lost his parents and his uncle; he’s been bitten by a radioactive spider; he’s died and come back to life, only to lose the aunt who raised him—when does it end?

It’s shit, is what it is.

Pepper calls the school and informs them that Peter needs to finish the fall semester from home. They understand and promise to send work home for Pepper to monitor. As long as it’s all turned in and approved by the first day of the spring semester, Peter can return to Midtown.

It’s a start.

She busies herself organizing as much of Peter’s life as she’s comfortable with. She and Rhodey clean out the Parker apartment. Whatever they don’t think Peter will need immediately goes into a storage unit for him to decide on later. Everything else goes back to his room in boxes. Pepper buys the apartment outright, hoping Peter will be able to make a decision on it later. For the moment, it collects dusts.

She buys an obscene amount of Christmas decorations and recruits the team to decorate every inch of the compound they can manage. In the Stark suite, she gets candles lit and a tree up and the fireplace always going. Pepper buys as many gifts as she can manage and lets the board of SI know that she and Tony will not be participating in the usual Christmas Eve gala, but that they will make an appearance for New Year’s.

She sits outside Peter’s room, and she waits.

)-(

Tony’s method isn’t working.

Pepper decides its time to intervene.

She walks into his room the week before Christmas and climbs into the bed, leaning against the headboard. “Peter, sweetheart, I need you to compromise.”

The teenager doesn’t say anything. He only rolls over, so his face gets buried into Pepper’s stomach. She sighs, finding it impossible to not give him that. So, she runs fingers through his hair (which is stressfully greasy) and lightens her tone. “Really, honey, I need you to get up. It’s been three weeks and staying holed up in your room is not fair to how May wanted you to live.”

“How do you know?” he mumbles. She feels his tears quickly seeping through her shirt.

“May and I talked a lot about the future,” Pepper explains. “She made her wishes clear, usually over pedicures and mimosas.”

He doesn’t respond.

“I’m not asking for you to pop out of your room for milk and cookies and caroling. I’m just asking for you to meet me somewhere in the middle, so I know you’re more than a zombie.”

“Like what?” Peter is still mumbling, but he’s holding tightly to Pepper now. She knows he’s holding back his strength, because his limbs are shaking from a kind of resistance. There’s a twinge in her chest where she wishes she had let the Extremis stay just so he can hold as tightly as he needs. Regardless, Pepper bites back her emotion and surges confidently forward.

“Regular showers, the proper amount of food for your spider metabolism, maybe something intellectually stimulating…” Pepper trails off. “I’m almost willing to let you pick the compromise, but I need something from you. Otherwise, I will seek professional help.”

Peter doesn’t run screaming at the idea, still holding tightly. There is a long, stretched moment where she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Peter takes his shaky breaths and stays with his face in her stomach for that time before he nods slowly. “I’ll go shower.”

“Thank you,” Pepper whispers. They ease out of the bed. He grabs clean clothes and mopes off to his bathroom.

Pepper and Tony waist no time in putting fresh sheets on the bed, cracking a window, and taking out the trash. By the time Peter walks back in, it feels less oppressive and no longer smells like stale boy. Peter notices the difference as well and looks at Pepper with something grateful in his eyes.

“Compromise,” he mumbles.

She brushes hair off his forehead and presses a kiss there. “Compromise.”

Compromise, he does. Peter still spends his days in bed, but he spends an awful lot of time doing school work. Over the next few days, he eats three, appropriately sized meals a day (plus snacks). He watches a little TV and does a small exercise routine in his room. He showers every night, brushes his teeth twice a day, and spends at least three hours every evening talking to MJ and Ned on a three-way call.

Pepper thinks it’s a really, really good start.  

)-(

Christmas Eve comes, and Stark Industries is not happy.

“One of you has to be there,” Pepper’s assistant presses. “I can only field responses for so long. I barely had enough time to visit you in person. One of you must make an appearance.”

“Well that may be, but we have a kid now,” Tony snaps. “We can’t leave him on Christmas Eve. We won’t.”

“They’ll settle for one!” Lily groans. “Especially you, Mr. Stark. You’re the face of the company.”

“Absolutely not,” Pepper snaps. “Peter is closer to Tony, he has to stay nearby. I’ll… I’ll go. Peter will barely notice I’m gone.”

“That’s not true.”

The trio jumps. Turning, they find Peter looking guiltily at his feet. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I was coming around the corner and…I’ll notice if you’re gone. Especially now.”

“There you have it.” Tony folds his arms. “No party, Lily.”

Lily looks like she wants to melt with frustration and honestly, Pepper understands.

Peter speaks up again. “You could go, Mr. Stark.”

That is the exact opposite of what Pepper is expecting.

“It’s just—” Peter stutters over his words for a second. “I know that this is really important. And if you do this for Christmas Eve, you can tell them to suck it for Christmas day. Pepper and I will be okay, you know?”

And that’s how that night brings Pepper sitting in her bed, papers in her hands and a hallmark movie playing in the background. She’s deciding whether or not she’s going to wait up for Tony when a knock comes at her door. She calls for whoever it is to enter.

Peter shuffles in, looking almost nervous. “Hey, Pepper.”

“Hi Peter,” she says gently. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I mean, kind of, I just can’t really—get to sleep?” he fumbles with his words. He’s wearing his Christmas pajama pants, his hair is sticking up in a million different ways, and he looks almost fearful. “I guess I just wanted to see—to see what you were doing.”

Pepper smiles. She closes her folders and tosses them on the floor. “What do you say to hot chocolate, kid?”

He beams for the first time in a long time and Pepper falls in love for the millionth time.

They make hot chocolate in silence. As Pepper cooks it over the stove, Peter gets mugs, whipped cream, and the bag of marshmallows. It’s a familiar routine that she adores, especially when the smell draws some of the Avengers in, Clint’s kids leading the way. They giggle and laugh as Peter tosses marshmallows at their mouths in wait. It’s a good atmosphere, one Pepper thinks has to be good for Peter.

When the hot chocolate is done, Pepper and Peter take sugar cookies and settle into her and Tony’s massive bed. The kid picks out a cheesy Netflix Christmas special to watch. They make fun of the movie for the first half while snacking on cookies and drinking hot chocolate. The second half, however, Peter has his head on Pepper’s shoulder as they watch in earnest while the baker falls in love with the prince and the duchess falls in love with the baker’s best friend. When its over, Pepper can’t deny that she might have enjoyed it.

Its in the quiet of the credits that Peter speaks.

“Tony smells like motor oil and the lab,” he says randomly. “Like, all the time. Whenever he’s around, I smell it. I know he’s alive and the scent brings something centered to me, but its overpowering. Its stronger than any scent I’ve smelled besides cleaning products.”

Pepper isn’t sure where this is going, so she waits patiently for him to continue.

“You smell like flowers, though. It’s in the special shampoo Tony buys you and the perfume you have made special. They’re the same scents, and they kind of stick to you like they’re part of you. Whether you’re actually wearing perfume or not, its there. The thing is, it doesn’t overpower. Like, right now, I smell traces of hot chocolate and your perfume. I smell my own detergent and your perfume. When we’re outside, I smell traces of everything around me and your perfume. It’s always there, to make me feel relaxed and comfortable, but never…too much. Like, I can always pick out the scent in a room. I always know where you are because of it.”

He pauses here.

"It’s kind of like you, Pepper. You’re never overbearing or too much. You’re like the perfect amount of present, always in the background but never invasive. Like a…halfway standpoint.”

She loves the quirky way that Peter’s mind works. “Like a compromise?”

The corners of his mouth tilt up. “Yeah, like a compromise.”

“Well,” she chuckles. “Hopefully you’re not calling me average.”

What? No! Never. Just…kinda the perfect mom. I know I don’t always single you out, but you’re like, exactly right.”

Pepper is touched. She wraps her arms around him and presses a kiss to his hair. Peter smells like clean laundry and pencil erasers on any given day, and somehow, it’s the most endearing smell in the world. She thinks she understands what he means by all of his babbling. “If its okay to say, sweetheart, I love you. So much.”

“I love you too,” he whispers back. “This past week, I’ve been wondering if looking at you like a mom is wronging Aunt May’s memory, but I don’t think it is. She’s always been Aunt May. Never mom. She raised me and she loved me, but I never wanted to call her Mom. I barely remember my own mom. But you’re, like, what a mom is. What I want my mom to be.”

Another pause.

“I think she would have been okay with that.”

Pepper blinks away tears. “Me too, kid. Me too.”

They stay in a firm hug for a long time before Peter scoots down and rests his head against her stomach. He picks up the remote and finds another Christmas movie for them to watch. Pepper gets comfortable and runs her fingers through his hair until she hears his breathing even out and it makes her eyes droop.

When Tony comes home, he changes into pajamas and slides into the bed next to Peter. For one night, they can indulge him.

)-(

Christmas morning.

Peter has always loved Christmas. Whether its for familial reasons (traditions of hot chocolate and cookies) or commercial reasons (like cheesy decorations and fundraising Santas), he loves it.

So, when he wakes up the Christmas after he’s lost May, he allows himself to feel a little joy. He realizes he’s in Pepper and Tony’s bed, plopped in the middle and totally alone. He recalls snuggling against Pepper until falling asleep. There’s a brief memory of Tony being there too, holding Pepper’s hand with his arm draped over Peter. He feels like he’s too old for that but can’t bring himself to be too embarrassed. It’s the best he’s slept in years.

When he’s fully awake, he realizes that he smells bacon and smiles. He jumps from the bed and walks through the compound to find everyone in the kitchen and dining room area. Steve, Pepper, and Laura are in the kitchen. Steve stands at the griddle with pancakes and bacon, Pepper is making grits for Sam and oatmeal for Bucky. Laura is making a massive amount of eggs, while Clint cuts fruit. Nat and Scott are entertaining the kids and Rhodey is holding baby Nathaniel. Tony is trying to steal Clint’s fruit. Wanda leans against Vision’s chest and watches everyone with mild interest while the android reads a book. Bruce is sitting on the couch watching Nat play with the kids and Thor is laughing with Bucky over something Peter can’t focus on.

Everything is so warm and domestic that Peter doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Peter!” Pepper calls happily. “Merry Christmas sweetheart!”

Everyone else throws up a loud cheer to greet Peter. Tony comes forward and envelops Peter in a firm hug. “Merry Christmas, kid.”

“Merry Christmas,” he mumbles into Tony’s shoulder. Pepper is there next, wrapping her arms around Peter and kissing his hair. “Merry Christmas, Pepper.”

“We have a surprise for you,” Tony says casually. There’s something slightly strained in his voice, though. Is Tony nervous? “Why don’t you go look in your stocking?”

Peter turns from the hug. Over by the mantle is a stocking with his name on it. He gives them his confused look before walking over (dodging three children under the age of ten) and reaching inside his stocking. There are a few random gifts like an ornament, his favorite candy, a Starkphone, some new earbuds, and an envelope. He swiftly opens the envelope, sliding out…state papers? Wait, no.

Adoption papers.

It says, right there, that with Tony and Pepper’s signatures, they’re petitioning to adopt him. They aren’t just his guardians; they could be his parents. He feels something sting in his eyes and tries to blink the tears away but there they are. Across the room, arms around each other and waiting tentatively to see his response. He makes a note of how the entire Avengers crew has quieted, watching him process the papers he realizes they probably already know about.

Tony, who slept on his floor for three weeks to chase away nightmares. Tony, who says that the universe is put back together because he can’t live a life where Peter doesn’t exist. Tony, who protects him in the suit and tells him that he’s going to take over the world. The same Tony that comes to science fairs and took him to Disney World and wants to take him to Italy. Tony, who is trying to show him what it means to be a good man and a good superhero.

And Pepper. Pepper, who runs her fingers through his hair because she likes to show him affection and who smells like flowers all the time. Pepper, who doesn’t take shit from Avengers and runs an entire company while still making time to help him with English. Pepper, who pulled him back into the land of the living with gentle words and compromises. Pepper, who knows how he takes his hot chocolate and reads to him when he’s bored with a book. Pepper, who openly says she loves him and is now looking at him with a kind of fearful hope.

They’re his parents.

 He runs over to them, arms around their necks and face buried in Tony’s shoulder, trying to hide his tears.

“Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad.”