It looked an awful lot like a scene from a late-90’s TV show: the type with a dysfunctional, lopsided family that was always at each other’s throats but in a way that audiences found strangely endearing.
Tony’s lab was wide open for the first time in- surprise- literally ever. The sliding glass doors were propped, the hidden garage like a covertly gaping mouth to the city, allowing fresh, late-spring air to waft in and chase the lingering smell of gasoline and metal and singed hair from the place. Light filtered in- real light, not the wretchedly blue artificial stuff- and made everything gleam painfully bright, from the chrome countertops to the steel tools to the suits stood sentinel in their cases. Coffee cups and water bottles were perched precariously at the edge of every flat surface and, on the ground, swamped in a veritable sea of cardboard boxes, sat the main characters of the program.
They were as follows: the one who everyone thought was grumpy but really gave away a piece of his bleeding, weeping heart to everyone he met; his hot, badass fiancé who could kill someone eight different ways with just her eyes and a ballpoint pen; the delightfully confused gay uncles; the cool aunt who threatened to destroy her nephews’s enemies but also regularly watched Star Wars on Friday nights; the other cool aunt who always smelled like burnt cookies but tucked them into bed and kissed their hair and called them her little menaces; and the menaces themselves, two wiry teens with more energy than they could expel in six consecutive lifetimes and a bond that was unbreakable by magic or pitfall or wildly swung baseball bat.
The plot of the episode: Tony had made a rash decision, and they were all paying for it.
Well, really, Tony was literally paying for it, but they were all roped into helping deal with the backwash because they wanted to take advantage of the perks of his irrationality.
Tony, tired of moping over having lost his Malibu house (in his chief idiot stunt of 2012 that had unintentionally given him Harley and a life just chock-gosh-darn-full of cliffhangers and nauseating plot twists), took matters into his own hands and bought a new beach house.
And by beach house, he meant island.
“A small island,” he argued.
And by small, he meant large enough to fit four Manhattans comfortably side-by-side.
“Just for a quick getaway!” he had exclaimed, startled and a bit offended by how exasperatedly everyone had reacted to his grand announcement. “Hey, stop. It’s my big dumb money going into it for your big dumb benefit. Besides, we could all use another super secret safe-house so that we can stop showing up at Clint’s farm with an artful smattering of bullet holes in our shoulders and scaring all the chickens halfway to the dining room table.”
That logic, they couldn’t exactly refute.
So now Pepper and Tony were sat on top of a lab table, ever the stereotypically incongruous couple on the show, weeding through paperwork, signing document after document in pungent cobalt ink and bickering relentlessly over what a reasonable amount of armor and lab gear to bring to their beach house was.
Pepper said one suit at most. Tony said no fewer than ten, just to be safe.
It pretty much summarized the entirety of their pre-marital disagreements in one nice little package with a crimson and gold ribbon bow.
Harley, Peter, Bucky, Steve, and Natasha had come down to the lab to offer aid once the Saturday morning cartoons had run their course and had been subsequently delegated to sort through a behemoth stack of boxes they had found in a strange hidden closet in a corner behind one Iron Man leg and three unfinished attempts at a photonic shield for Cap. The door had been passcode operated, but Peter had guessed it with a suppressed chuckle in about three seconds: imnotapackratpepper.
It had Tony slathered all over it.
And it was a complete lie.
There were so many boxes- more boxes than any of them cared to count- that it took fifteen minutes between Peter, Bucky, and Steve to remove them all to the main lab area. Another ten minutes were spent cutting through the tape that sealed them all shut. Only one minute eclipsed before they realized that the boxes were filled to overflowing with thousands upon thousands of pieces of fan mail of all things, addressed to Iron Man, Tony Stark, Mr. Iron Man Sir, Alien Killing Guy, my favorite Superhero, and all other iterations of such.
It was miraculous.
“What the everloving hell is this?” Nat whispered in horror, pulling an impressionistic crayon rendering of what seemed to be an Energizer battery jumping on top of a Big Mac out of the box between her legs.
Harley squinted from behind his glasses, shouldering them farther up onto his nose in shock as if fearing his prescription had failed him.
“Oh, that’s gotta be a scene from Space Jam,” Harley said matter-of-factly.
Bucky frowned covertly at Steve, the two of them exchanging one of their wordless conversations through eyebrow twitches and tweaks of their lips.
“I’ll bite,” said Steve. “What’s a Space Jam?”
Harley gasped so aggressively that he choked, bracing his elbows on the edges of his box and heaving with coughs that rattled in his lungs as Peter hammered on his back.
“It’s a movie about an alien theme park and the Looney Toons,” Peter explained on Harley’s behalf, “and the aliens and the Looney Toons play basketball to determine whether the aliens can kidnap them or not. It’s, like, modern art.”
“Sounds just like the Battle of New York,” said Steve thoughtfully.
“Uh, that is not how I remember it going,” called Tony from across the room.
“That is exactly how I remember it going,” vouched Natasha as she gingerly pulled a cupcake-shaped sticker from another piece of fan mail. She made a triumphant little hum when it came off cleanly before turning and delicately sticking it to the back of Bucky’s metal hand. “There. Now you’re beautiful,” she told him.
He held his hand out to examine it in the light. “Maybe I oughta get a real one of these,” he said thoughtfully. He turned to Steve. “Whaddya’ think, Stevie? Would it suit me?”
“A cupcake? Sure. You’re sweet as sugar and twice as hyperactive.”
Bucky cuffed him over the head, spurring a breathy little laugh and a thick red blush to pour out over Steve’s already-pinkish cheeks and over the curl of his big freckly ears. “I’m gonna beat your ass, you goddamn mook,” Bucky grumbled, digging his hands back into his box of fan mail as Steve stared at the top of his bowed head as if it had just escorted him through the gates of heaven and dropped Jesus himself onto his lap to deliver a sacrosanct lap dance to the beat of the Hallelujah Chorus.
“What would you get a tattoo of, if you got one, Bucky?” Peter asked obliviously while squinting at another drawing, rotating it between his hands to try and figure out what was meant to be the top of the image and what was the bottom.
“Maybe a little bundle of flowers,” Bucky said with a noncommittal sort of shrug, tossing a rather horrific rendering of Iron Man and the Hulk holding hands atop a ferris wheel into a pile to show to the Avengers that decided helping Tony clean was beneath their paygrade. “I like hyacinths. Those are nice. But also-” Bucky became more animated as he spoke, his eyes widening in earnest, “-maybe a skull wearing an M1 helmet with lotsa’ blood dripping everywhere and some bullets with brain matter stuck-” he paused halfway through his spirited demonstration of where exactly on his bicep he would place the tattoo and all of its parts, chancing a glance up at everyone’s expressions of mild horror, “too much?”
Steve, with a wince that hardly marred that lovesick golden retriever look he was constantly wearing nowadays, clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed. “I like the flower idea, Buck.”
Everyone voiced their vehement agreement.
A hopeful smile crept its way across Bucky’s face. “Yeah? You think? Maybe I’ll get it. That would be real-” he cut off for a moment, then frowned. “Bitchin’?” he finished, lilting up as if it were a question.
Natasha mouthed oh my god to herself before immediately clenching her jaw to mask the smile that had almost slipped forth.
“Oh, Bucky, you sweet soul,” Harley marveled. “You poor, misinformed angel. You’re getting there, but that’s right out of the 50’s. You just missed it the first time.”
Bucky’s thick eyebrows crawled to meet in the middle of his forehead. “Well, what would you say nowadays?” He let out a frustrated sigh, all drama and glamour and handsomely pouted lips. “I liked bitchin’. It’s hard to keep track, with how quickly everything changes.”
Peter gave a sympathetic hum. “You’d probably want cool, if you want to keep it simple and versatile.”
“But cool has been around as long as we have,” Bucky grumbled in disbelief, pointing a thumb at Steve and cocking one eyebrow. “That’s not new.”
Natasha shrugged, folding a surprisingly accurate likeness of herself and sticking it into her bra. “It’s one of the only bits of oldies slang that really stuck around.”
“Of all things,” Steve said in wonder, shaking his head.
“Oh my gosh,” came a tiny whisper, hardly discernible what with the rustling of paper and the continuous squabbling of Tony and Pepper across the room.
Harley’s gaze snapped towards Peter, immediately on alert. “What? What’s wrong?” he demanded, crawling over the box he was sifting through in much the same way a heavily drugged and fatally concussed panther might stalk his prey. The rustling of paper beneath his knees wrangled the attention of the other three, and then they were all leaning towards Peter and the drawing he held out to them wordlessly, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
As they read the page, he clapped his hands to his cheeks. A swirling cocktail of mortification and strange honor turned in his stomach and colored his face a blotchy mess of pink and white like peach skin.
One at a time, they looked up. Natasha had a terrifying sort of grin on her face, the type that smoldered in her eyes but barely touched her lips. “Oh, Tony?” she sang.
“Nonono,” hissed Peter, diving forward to tear the picture from her hands. He held it behind his back as Tony crossed the room, leaving behind a sighing Pepper mid-argument. He shot a seething glare at Nat, which only caused her to snort a laugh, before turning back to Tony. “It’s nothing, really, go- go back and let Pepper yell at you more, I’m sure that’s way more urgent than- this.”
“What is this?” asked Tony, squinting and folding his arms over his chest. He stood above Peter like a monolith and Peter felt terribly small. “Because if there’s a this, it implies the presence of a something, and if there’s a something and you don’t want me to see it, that means I definitely want to see it, squirt.”
“Trust me. It’s not important.” Peter was verging on begging, too distraught to notice Harley looming behind him with one of those Cheshire grins splitting his face. In one swift motion, Harley snagged the paper and held it out to Tony, who gave a triumphant shout and turned on his heel just quickly enough for Peter to wildly miss as he dove to snatch the paper back. Peter hit the ground with a resounding thud, and the lab fell silent in attention as Tony read aloud.
“Dear Mister Iron Man,” he started, giving the paper a little shake to smooth out the wrinkles created by the game of hot potato. “Thank you for putting on the Stark Expo in New York. When my aunt and uncle brought me there it was my most favorite part of the year, even though the bad robots made a mess.” Tony gave a soft coo, a smile painting across his lips in a light curve. “You were so so awesome when you fought them. You saved my life. You did a real good job. Love,” Tony’s eyes paused before the name. The sound of his heart stuttering was far too loud in Peter’s ears. Tony froze mid-step, some haunted shadow crossing over his face. “Love, Peter,” he whispered, bringing the drawing closer so he could examine the crayon scrawl.
“Tell us what the drawing is of,” said Pepper softly, sliding off the lab table to pad her way over to the rest of the group, the frustration melted from the lines of her face. A knowing look gleamed in her eye as she watched Tony trail his finger over the lines of the scratchy doodle.
“Well. Well, it’s a drawing of Iron Man, standing next to a kid wearing repulsors and an Iron Man mask,” Tony breathed, finally looking up from the page. He turned to the group on the floor, a strange mix of terror and nostalgia in his eyes. “There was this absolute goofball kid at the Expo that year, all decked out in a plastic suit. Quite flattering, really. Thing was, this drone targeted his mask as a threat even though it was definitely not me wearing it. Even I was not as short as this kid. Anyway. They- the drones- came at him and I-“ Tony stopped, coming to sit on his knees beside Peter. “I almost didn’t make it in time,” he said, one hand coming up to clutch Peter’s chin. “Tell me it wasn’t you,” he begged, his voice ragged with foolish desperation. “Tell me you weren’t the dumbass idiot stupid-head kid that almost died because he thought his plastic repulsors would destroy the drone.”
Peter’s mouth flopped open and then closed again. “I won’t tell you I was that kid.”
Tony wheezed out a sigh, his forehead falling onto Peter’s shoulder and his hand sliding from Peter’s jaw to cling to his bicep. “I should’ve known,” he muttered forlornly into the fabric of Peter’s shirt. “Only a self-sacrificing idiot in plastic could grow up to be a self-sacrificing idiot in spandex.”
“Sometimes I’m a self-sacrificing idiot in gold-titanium alloy,” Peter offered weakly, tilting his head to rest his temple against Tony’s.
Tony placed the picture on the floor with the utmost gentleness manageable. With his hand now freed, he turned Peter and pulled him tight against his chest, the sound of him sniffling echoing in the reverent silence that remained among the others. Peter reached over and grabbed a fistful of Tony’s sweatpants— the closest he could get to hugging back while Tony pinned his arms to his sides.
“I didn’t die, yknow,” Peter muttered, his mind about four steps behind. “I’m right here. You saved me.”
Tony continued to, for lack of a better term, weep.
The others dutifully began to ruffle through the mail once more, offering them as much privacy as an open lab with bright lights allowed.
“You could’ve died,” Tony whispered thickly, pulsing a squeeze around Peter’s narrow shoulders. “You could’ve died before I even met you. What if I hadn’t made it on time, huh? What would I do if I didn’t know you?”
Peter didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. All he did know was that his face was burning hot with mortification at having been caught sending fan mail to Iron Man in 2011 and doubly mortified for having been exposed for owning pieces of a replica Iron Man armor.
It had been a birthday gift from Ben and May that year. It wasn’t the full suit; they hadn’t been able to swing buying the chestplate or boot covers. Even then, Peter wore it far too often to be considered healthy. Ben and May had dreaded the idea of limiting how much he could play superhero considering he had already lost so much of his childhood. Peter had always been a quiet, mature kid- since he was left to them, at least- and he seemed much closer to his age when talking about his favorite heroes— and especially, always, Iron Man. The light would come sparking back to his eyes, the bags under them seeming less burdensome. Whether it was the suit or the newest Stark tech or Peter’s own suggestions as to how the arc reactor could be improved, he could go on for hours on end. It made him gleam. It was a suitable port to plug his brilliant brain into. It kept him busy and satisfied. And smiling. So, the suit stayed.
Until he pulled that stunt at the Expo and the suit was- understandably- locked in the storage unit in the basement of their apartment building.
Peter hadn’t seen the suit since, and had come to be awfully embarrassed by how attached to it he had been.
There had been one time where some older boys had taken it from him during recess, dragging it through the dirt and kicking it until the faceplate dented, taunting him for playing pretend when they were almost eleven years old. Peter had cried and cried to Ben when he picked him up from school. In a life that was constantly forcing Peter to be grown up, his Iron Man suit was one thing he could always be young with. It was dependable and, more than anything, it made him brave.
But now, Peter thought as Tony peppered an unyielding barrage of scruffy kisses against his jaw, his nose, his forehead, Peter giggling and sputtering and swiping him away, Tony murmuring gruffly about how he ought to add some goddamn repulsors to the next Spider suit or something, he had more than he’d ever dreamed of: he had the guy inside the suit. And that was infinitely, insurmountably better.
Tony only ended up bringing one suit to the island because Pepper always won.
It was for the same reason that the majority of the Avengers plus May Parker, Harley Keener, and Pepper Potts were locked and loaded onto Tony’s largest private jet before the sun had even a passing thought of rising.
The sky was like thick tar, heavy and swirling and speckled with white spots like the reflection of two thousand winking flashlights. It was both mesmerizing and a bit scary, as if the weight of indefinability was precarious; as if the breadth of space could tip forward onto their unsuspecting shoulders and bury them like Atlas.
Harley pushed the shade to cover the window beside his seat. It was easier not to daydream about being plastered into the ground like an errant beetle if he couldn’t see the proverbial boot.
With a long-suffering sort of sigh, Harley pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin upon them, looking out and watching the rest of the crew settling themselves down for a long ride, juggling neck pillows and headphones and all sorts of sleeping pills.
Pepper shot him a covert wink from across the aisle. She always knew what he needed.
Spirit slightly bolstered, he turned towards Peter, who was— wow, okay. He shouldn’t be surprised, really.
With his head hanging low, his chin resting against his chest, Peter was already completely and entirely unconscious. A little trail of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth onto the neck of his sweatshirt. Sleep erased the lines from the corners of his lips, lowered the sharp contrast between the dark bruises of the bags beneath his eyes and the pale gold of his skin. His hands, always fidgeting, were not still, even in sleep: his fingers twitched as if he were tinkering with something imaginary.
Affection swelled in his chest in a wave so strong that Harley almost swayed in his seat. The inexplicable urge to reach out and hold Peter against his chest, shield him from the world, was too much to bear. With a gentle hand, he tipped Peter’s chin back and maneuvered his deadweight until it was pressed along his side, Peter’s temple against his shoulder and his fuzzy curls tickling the skin of his neck.
The rustling of the adjustments must have been louder than Harley thought. Over the seat in front of him peeked a pair of devious eyes, blue like the mischievous, rolling sea, and a puff of blond hair so wild that it suggested either electrocution or a very, very vengeful hairdresser had been in his recent past. Clint waggled his eyebrows at the scene: Peter pressed so close to Harley that his nose was all squished, Harley gripping the sleeve of Peter’s sweatshirt to hold him in place.
Harley let out a scoff to hide his chagrin. So Peter and he were physically close to each other. So what? If sisters could kiss each other on the cheek and cuddle and shave each other’s legs then why couldn’t he and Peter do the same— or, the equivalent, at least, since they decidedly did not shave each other’s legs? They were brothers in all but blood. That was indisputable.
They were probably even closer than a couple. Last week, Peter found a sock that Harley really didn’t want him to find while collecting their dirty laundry and had slingshotted it at him instead of commenting. Rather than greeting each other with normal phrases like hey or what’s up, they had progressed to either calling each other by stereotypical soccer mom names (Sandra, did you remember the orange slices? Of course I did, Jenny, who do you think I am?) or full-send pterodactyl screeching at each other. Sometimes they left the bathroom door open while they pooped so they could continue their conversation. That was how close they were.
When people got all suggestive about it- hem hem, Clint- it made Harley’s skin crawl. There was a mutual, unspoken understanding between him and Peter that they simply didn’t feel that way about each other. They were kin. That was that. Their blood wasn’t the same, but their brains were printed in parallel winding paths, and their hearts beat like a bold drum duet. Their atoms yearned to be closer to the other’s. They loved each other. They loved each other so much.
Sometimes Harley wished he loved Peter romantically just because it would make things a lot easier. They already spent eighty percent of their time glued to the other’s hip. Everything that interested one interested the other. Their banter could go on for hours unchecked. They got on like glitter on glue and Christ Harley was so indefinitely grateful for it.
But it was so easy for people to misunderstand. Especially in a society that refused to let men show love for fear of taking a big, stinky shit on their masculinity, it was inconceivable that two boys could walk arm-in-arm or go out for pizza alone together or share a fucking chair in the auditorium when there weren’t enough seats without being called something ungracious.
Peter let out a little whine in his sleep, his face scrunching. Every ounce of embarrassment melted from Harley’s mind and turned into something nauseatingly soft as Peter turned his body closer into Harley’s, knowing exactly where to find comfort even while dead to the world.
Harley slipped his hand from Peter’s back up to the nape of his neck, letting his fingers run through the ends of his curls in the way he knew always soothed Peter when he woke up trembling and panting from a nightmare.
“You’re good, Pete,” he found himself whispering into the top of Peter’s head. “I’m here and you’re safe.”
One of Peter’s hands reached up and closed around Harley’s wrist in his half-consciousness, sliding against the smooth skin until coming to settle like a cuff right over Harley’s pulse point.
Harley huffed a laugh. “Want to make sure I’m still breathing? Well, I am. Nothing to worry about, buddy. You and me, we’re indestructible.”
“H’rley,” Peter mumbled, his voice hushed but husky with sleep.
Harley hummed, his heart alight. “Right here, Petey. You comfortable? Can you sleep now?”
“Sleep,” Peter sighed, all of the vague awareness he had maintained seeping from him until he was boneless and heavy against Harley’s side once more.
A satisfied smile quirked Harley’s lip. “You big dumb dope,” he whispered, a little awed.
“You guys are good for each other,” whispered Clint from where he was still peering, startling Harley from his momentary lapse into the world that only included Peter and him.
Something similar to dread pooled in Harley’s stomach. “We’re not- we don’t- together. You know,” Harley said eloquently.
“Don’t give yourself a hemorrhage, kid,” Clint snorted. “I know you’re not. I was just teasing earlier.” He quirked one shoulder in a shrug as if trying to downplay the weight of his words. “Besides, that’s not how I meant it. I knew Peter before, but I never saw him this comfortable with anyone other than Tony and his Aunt. You’re, like,” Clint cut off, frowning as if trying to think of a good analogy. “Like two things that are meant to be together in some way,” he ceded to his lack of wit, “whatever way that may be. What I’m trying to say is that it’s cool you guys found each other.”
The more Clint talked, Harley found himself being simultaneously pulled towards wanting to forgive him for his heckling and becoming infinitely angrier at him for even making judgements on a relationship that had less than nothing to do with him.
Rather than straining any harder to come up with an answer, Harley did what any sane person would do.
He pulled his hood up and yanked on the strings so it closed over his face.
If I can’t see him then I can pretend he isn’t there, Harley thought, satisfied, finally turning closer towards Peter and trying to slip off into dreams with the gentle prod from the warmth and weight of his brother’s presence.
Hours later, he was wrenched quite ungracefully from unconsciousness by a yank upon the strings of his hood so powerful that he bonked his head into Peter’s, which had somehow ended up in his lap as they slept.
“Jinkies,” muttered Peter blearily, rubbing at the spot where Harley’s forehead smashed into his temple. Harley pulled at the hoodie opening to free his face, flushed from heat and hair sticky with sweat.
Tony stood before them with a bemused smile. “I am a lot stronger than I thought I was. That’s on me; didn’t mean to injure the kids. We’re here, by the way. On an island. That I own. Hey, should I name it Starklandia? Pepper says that would be egotistical and regressive of me but, frankly,” Tony raised his hands wide in that classic I am Tony Stark fear my money gesture, “‘tis my isle and her disapproval just makes me want to do it more.”
Harley blinked twice, slowly.
“Stop abusing the babies, Tony,” Nat said as she walked down the aisle with her one-quarter clothes, three-quarters guns bag on her shoulder and a sleep mask pushed up onto her forehead. She hip-checked Tony as she passed. “They just woke up from their nappies. They need time to recoup.”
Tony balked. “They’re not babies, they’re very important descendants in the great Stark bloodline and I’m trying to keep them in the loop so that they’re not wildly caught off guard when the Will leaves them the company and the island and the Mariachi Band and they have no clue how they ended up with these things.”
“We’re in the Will?” Peter yelped, so startled that he slipped right off of his seat and fell hard onto the floor.
“When did you buy a Mariachi Band?” groaned Pepper from across the aisle. “How many times, Tony, you can’t buy people.”
Harley looked at Tony with wide, almost uncomprehending eyes. “Bold of you to assume we’ll ever let you die,” he said.
A soft smile quirked Tony’s lips. He leaned over and pulled Peter off the floor, summoning Harley with his other hand and grabbing them both round the neck, holding them tight against his chest. “You’re right. My mistake. No dying for me, not ‘til I’m a hundred and three and have twenty-six little great-grandkids scurrying around your labs like rats. I think I’ll be a silver fox. Not even age could marr my stellar good looks.”
“What stellar good looks?” Harley chirped against Tony’s shirt.
Tony gave him a real forceful noogie (ew, Harley, sweaty head) before leading them both off of the jet. The difference in brightness between the body of the plane and the landing strip upon which they were parked was nearly painful, the light flaring in Harley’s eyes brilliantly. He winced against it, blinking until his vision cleared and he began to worry that what he was seeing was a mirage rather than a real sight.
Spread before him was an undefinable stretch of lush verdancy, rich green leaves speckling trees and stout bushes and great stripes of moss curling around slate grey cliffs. Bird calls echoed and layered like a rousing symphony, like the chorus of the song of the universe and the voices of all living things had joined in. The slapping, wet writhing of water surrounded them. Upon one of the cliffs, a house perched. Well, a house was underselling it. It was a mansion, undeniably, with white columns and clementine orange walls and a large plot of trim land around it, the grass short and studded with wild blossoms and great, sky-brushing trees casting their shadows like stains.
And before them, in an awe-stricken crowd, stood all of their friends. Their big, strange crew, with all of their curvy edges and weird quirks and their ugly parts that somehow fit together in one hideous, lopsided puzzle and that that was what made them beautiful.
Peter smiled, blinding and sweet. Harley looked at Tony as if he had just made manna rain down from the sky.
Tony just looked satisfied, as if he was staring upon his great creation and found himself pleased.
“Pete- Pete! It’s the ocean!” Harley crowed, unrepentantly breaking the peaceful silence, scrambling clumsily towards it, his shoes flinging sand all around him.
“Yeah, I can see, Harls,” Peter said dryly, watching Harley run towards the water like a starved man to a Golden Corral buffet.
Tony took the bags out of Peter’s arms and gave him a little push. “Go. Have fun.”
Peter turned to look at him, a horrible, heartbreaking hopefulness on his face. “Yeah?”
Something in Tony ached. “Heck yeah. Go be a kid,” he said, struggling to keep his voice light instead of dropping to his knees and pleading with him to stay a child as long as he could.
And Peter looked, for a moment, so young. He turned to go, but hesitated. Knotting his fist in Tony’s shirt, he leaned in and brushed a kiss against his scruffy cheek, so gentle and quick that it could have been a wonderful dream. “Thank you,” he whispered, the emotion in it so true and heartfelt that it made tears prick in Tony’s eyes.
Peter pulled away and shoved his hands into his pockets, shooting one last grin over his shoulder as he walked to where Harley was stripping down to his Captain America underwear at the edge of the water.
Tony gave him a little wave.
A light pressure on his back drew his attention from where Peter had shoved an unsuspecting Harley headfirst into the surf. He turned and met the gaze of one May Parker.
“You did good, Mister Stark,” she told him with a half-smile.
“Yeah?” he asked, something about her ever-calming presence making him honest about his disbelief. “Because Pepper would disagree, as would most of the bozos hiking up towards the house over there.”
“Since when did the things that other people say matter to you?”
Tony barked out a laugh. “Since the moment a camera flashed into my three-year-old eyes and told me that those things mattered.”
A sad look crossed May’s face, but it was clear of pity, and for that Tony was grateful.
“Well,” said May, squeezing Tony’s shoulder. “Sometimes you should listen to what you say instead of what other people say. What do you say, Iron Man?”
Tony gnawed on his lip. “I say,” he broke off and frowned. God, something about her unwavering gaze chafed, wore away his edges and made him always candid. So, more forcefully, “I say that I care a lot more than people think I do. I care a lot more about these people than they think I do, because I have a stupid way of showing it, like- like making Cap three new shields when he has one perfectly good one, or bringing Peter and Harley to ice cream so often that they’re gonna become actually obese- I’m sorry for making your son obese in advance- or. Or, most recently,” he gave a hard laugh. “Buying them an island as an excuse to spend more time together, or, or as a peace offering for Steve and Bucky and the rest of them because even when they’re around, I can’t be near them, I have to sit across entire fucking rooms from them, May, because I’m scared and guilty and I know that everything that went wrong between us was my fault. I want to fix it. I just want to fix it, May, tell me how to fix it?” Tony turned to her, feeling himself crumble under her observation.
“Oh, Nino,” she said softly, moving her hand from his back to his opposite shoulder, pulling him tight against her side. “Did you ever think that maybe the world wanted all of this to happen? That the bad things weren’t your fault, but some bigger plan? Something purposely set in your path to- to help you learn?”
“May,” he begged, raking a hand through his hair.
“I’m serious,” she said crossly. “This isn’t some religious hooey, Nino, it’s fact. You change things and they change you, and that isn’t some- random happenstance. To have an impact, there must be things for you to bounce off of, things to knock over. But do you know what I know about you, Mister Stark?” she said, serious and staring into Tony’s eyes so firmly that he was pinned to the spot. “I know that no matter what you have knocked over, you always work to pick it back up— to fix it, and then make it even better than it was. You can make all of the mistakes you want. We all mess up. But you are an engineer, a scientist: a fixer. You and your tool belt. You make things better, always. Do you see how they’re smiling?” She pointed one delicate hand to where Peter was hanging off Harley piggy-back style, their faces slipping under the surf and then emerging, sputtering and cackling and so goddamn beautiful that it hurt, Pepper watching them and calling out half-hearted warnings. She pointed to where Natasha stood, amusement dancing in her sharp eyes as she watched Clint try to extract himself from a tangled mess of duffel bag straps, one of his hearing aids hanging loose out of his ear. Steve and Bucky sat on the edge of one of the cliffs, pointing at the birds that circled above them, attracted to the gleam of Bucky’s arm. Somewhere out of their sightline, Bruce and Thor were shouldering their way into the house with bags in tow, eyes wide with awe. “That, Mister Stark, seems like a success. An improvement. Something broken that you patched up and fixed. And, even if it wasn’t completely fixed, we both know that you did your goddamn best. You tried so hard, and that is because you love them. All of them. You’ve come so far. Sometimes the universe has to take care of the last few steps for you. Yeah?”
Tony was silent for a long moment. He watched. He listened. And something in him started- very hesitantly- to stitch itself back together. “You know,” he said, turning to meet May’s unwaveringly certain gaze once more. “You do always know what to say.”
“I’ve been told,” she answered breezily, bumping Tony with her hip.
“Thank you,” he said, open and real and a little bit ragged. “You are an excellent mother, Miss Parker.”
May softened, shrugging closer into their embrace. “And fatherhood looks wonderful on you, Mister Stark.”
Fatherhood. The word settled warm in the pit of his stomach. A father.
Some of the old fear was gone. He knew that now, while he watched as his boys tempted their mortality and lung capacity, wrestling in the waves. Him, and May, and Pepper, and those two boys. The strangest, most horrifically awkward amalgam of lives drawn together by some centrifugal force to form their- family. Their family. They’re family.
He leaned over and planted a kiss on the top of May’s head, then rested his chin there.
Fatherhood. He would never quite get used to that.
Noon took the boys from the water and, once the boys left the water, brought them to the realization that it was royally asinine to go into the water without sunscreen, in their boxer shorts.
They sported identical, rosy noses, and shoulders so red that it looked as if they had been grabbed by the sun and tenderly petted. Their shorts were stiff and faded from salt. But their muscles felt relaxed, their eyes unburdened by wrinkles or bags. They were one with the sky, with the sea.
Never would they let something so trivial as sunburn dampen their spirits. Easy smiles were sketched upon both of their faces, arms loose around the other’s shoulders as they made their way up to the house to change and slather on some sunscreen.
“And eat,” said Peter.
“And eat,” agreed Harley.
After which they raced back into the water immediately, swimming out across the surface- flat like oil and green as glass- until they could hardly reach to dig their toes into the soft sand without being submerged.
Harley, as a kid who had grown up in a landlocked town in a landlocked state, was still becoming accustomed to the ways of the sea. It became clear rather quickly that he had a bad sense of how deep he was really diving under the short but frothy waves, always ending up much deeper than intended and running out of air before he could resurface. Peter couldn’t help but chuckle as Harley would sputter and blow water from his wrinkled nose, grinning like a madman all the while.
“This is the best thing ever,” said Harley once he had tuckered himself out with the diving and attempted handstands and flips. He was floating flat on his back like a piece of driftwood, his arms and legs splayed and slightly sore, but in a satisfying way— as if his body was recognizing that it had worked, and was now resetting itself the same way Harley imagined his brain was, calmed by the lack of noise and stressors.
The sun beat down warm but the water was cool and Harley was having a time of just breathing in the salty scent.
It had been longer than he could remember since he felt alive enough to smell things this strongly, to taste the salt in the back of his throat and feel it stinging his tongue.
He savored it for all it was worth.
“I’ve never been to a real beach like this,” Peter said quietly, running his arms across the surface of the water where he stood.
“Me neither,” said Harley, his eyelashes fluttering with exhaustion. A yawn tore from him, his jaw cracking against its breadth.
“How about we don’t fall asleep in the water,” Peter offered as if it were a choice for Harley to make rather than a command to get out of the water now before you drown wearing a disguise as solid as a fake mustache and hat.
“Yeah,” said Harley letting himself dip beneath the surface as he refound his feet. He flicked his sopping hair out of his eyes as he emerged. “Nap time now.”
They pulled their beach towels side by side beneath an outcropping of gnarled trees, sighing as the shade gave them relief from the heat.
Harley rummaged through his bag and pulled out a terrible bucket hat made of denim, mashing it down on top of his curls. His eyes were lost under the shadow of the rim, and when he peered over at Peter, Peter couldn’t help but snort at the look of Harley’s pink, freckly nose and serene smile— the rare kind that made his lip catch on that ever so slightly twisted front tooth. That was Peter’s favorite smile of Harley’s. (Mostly because he had never seen him give it to anyone else.)
Harley next buried his slightly shaky, horrifically pruny hands into his beach bag (what are you, Mary Poppins?) in order to extract a massive bag of cherries. He dug into it and pulled one from its stem with his teeth, grinning up at Peter with juice coloring his smile a gory crimson.
“Yuck,” Peter said.
“Thanks,” said Harley, before spitting the pit at Peter like a paint pellet. They snacked together for five minutes, until Harley’s head started to loll on his neck. Harley would snap himself out of it every time, fighting valiantly to stay awake. The last time, Harley tipped forward and startled himself so badly when he caught himself that he whacked Peter in the chest as he twitched.
Peter shoved Harley’s shoulder until he laid back flat. It seemed like only seconds later that Harley was out. Peter closed the bag of cherries and stowed it back in Harley’s- really excessively large and seemingly bottomless- beach bag.
Rather all of a sudden, Peter felt the energy drain from him as if it were sap from a tree. He gave a sigh and bent forward towards his knees, leaning his chin in his hand.
For a long while, he sat and watched the rest of their motley crew run amok. The smile that Tony gave Nat when she chose to plop down on his towel beside him was heartbreakingly reverent. When Clint poked Bucky in the stomach to ask him a question and Bucky signed his answer in ASL, Clint burst into tears that he insisted had everything to do with the fact that he had just eaten six cubes of the vodka-infused watermelon May, Sam, and Pepper were preparing inside. Even Cap was smiling— not his usual I am Captain America and I know the best way to handle this situation smile, but his big goofy Steve Rogers smile that tore his face into squinty pieces and passed like an infectious disease between them until they were all grinning like fools.
The cool evening cross-breeze came before Harley woke up, and Peter found himself tucking himself into Harley’s sweatshirt for warmth. It swamped him, but in a way that was comforting. It made him feel childish, like he was being taken care of. And he was, he knew it as he looked down at Harley, lips pouted in sleep and legs pulled up into his chest, hat balled beneath his head like a pillow. Harley always took care of him, even when he wasn’t there. Or wasn’t awake.
Peter laid back, finally, and pulled out a book that MJ insisted he read: The Handmaid’s Tale. She and Harley had both read it already and she, especially, was itching for Peter to read it so that they could debate it to her heart’s content.
Peter, though still studying Harley’s vocabulary flashcards, was decidedly less proficient than them in literature studies. Sure, he was in AP Lang and all, so he wasn’t exactly a shlump, but among his friends, Jeeesus, he could feel like a real life illiterate.
He was almost four chapters in when Harley stirred, letting out a little whine before his arms pulled tight to his chest. His eyes crinkled further shut, another whine tumbling from his lips— this one more obviously frightened. Peter put his book down and reached a hand to rest on Harley’s shoulder, chest squirming with something sour. He hated waking Harley from nightmares.
Where Peter tossed and shouted in his sleep, Harley froze, coming to paralyzed and sweaty and millions of miles away. That shattered, distant look always made Peter ache. Harley was the last person to deserve that sort of pain.
“Harley,” he muttered, leaning over so that he was only inches away from the face of the other. “Hey, buddy. It’s just a dream,” he squeezed Harley’s shoulder in three quick pulses. “Just a dream, Harls. I’m right here waiting for you when you wake up.”
Harley’s eyes shot open, pupils dilated so wide as to swallow the blue around them. With a gasp, Harley clapped his hand against his chest, massaging at it to try and slow the racing of his heart.
Peter slowly reached out as to not startle him and grabbed the hand. Harley’s gaze snapped onto Peter, his fear palpable, but relaxed infinitesimally when he realized it was Peter he was looking at.
With the relaxing came the metaphorical retreat, however, and Harley’s eyes visibly slipped out of focus.
“Hey, no, please stay,” Peter found himself whispering. “Everything is fine. It’s just you and me on the beach. Here,” Peter shifted to hide Harley from the view of everyone else, in case someone saw Peter’s position- like Juliet over Romeo’s corpse, frankly- and got nosy. “Look. It’s you, you’re Harley, and I’m Peter, and we’re the bestest friends in the whole world. And we’re on the island that Tony bought because he wasn’t already enough of a stereotypical rich person. And- and I’m reading that book, finally,” he said, groping on the towel to find it without looking away from Harley. “The Handmaid’s Tale, like MJ wanted me to.”
Harley’s eyes fell closed and he reached out his arms, wrapping them firmly around one of Peter’s thighs and then pressing his face into the stiff, salty fabric of his board shorts.
“Okay,” said Peter. “You can- you can have- my leg. Hey, want me to read to you? I’ll read to you for a while.”
And he did, until the sun fell low in the sky and the colors were so mystifying that he had to rouse Harley to see it for himself.
Harley peeked up around Peter’s thigh, all sweet shyness, and his eyes fell immediately wide with awe. It was as if some great painter had dipped his dirty brush in the blue expanse thinking it was water, and the pigment now swirled, crimson and gold and apricot all dancing together soft like the sky was flushing.
As if pulled by some outstanding force, Harley rose to his feet, his lips parted, the light painting his skin the color of honey.
Peter, still sitting in the sand, reached up and grabbed a small fistful of Harley’s shorts. He tugged twice upon it, gentle as could be, and Harley dropped a hand onto Peter’s head in response. Harley’s long fingers arched and he ruffled Peter’s curls between them, staring up at the sky like it had made him.
They watched like that until the sky was grey and Tony padded out from the house, hair wet from a shower, to urge them in for dinner.
“A family affair,” he said casually, but the words made something in Peter swell until he felt he couldn’t contain it without bursting at every seam. It fell forth in the form of a smile so wide as to be painful, and he pressed his nose into Harley’s calf where he stood above him so that he could hide it.
Family family family this is my family we all have family, finally.
And it certainly felt like it, all crowded around the dining table elbow to elbow, watching Thor eat a salad out of a bowl the size of a watermelon and laughing at May’s jokes until Clint’s drink came streaming out of his nose.
At some point in the night, the adults had gotten their hands on a large amount of very old wine. This was important to note, as it directly resulted in Tony serenading Pepper with the song Ain’t That a Kick in the Head and that lead to everyone having an infuriated meltdown over the fact that Tony had never told them he could sing like Dean goddamn Martin.
They learned, too, that, as collected as Sam was, when defeated in Monopoly, he was not above threatening to smother Harley in his sleep.
Harley didn’t take the threat too seriously. In fact, his response was, “I’m not worried. Peter would never let you do that to me.” And the collective aww that everyone had to swallow when Peter crowed “damn straight!” and locked his ankle around Harley’s was as palpable as it was silent.
It was a surprise to no one when, one by one, they started to drop into sleep right where they sat. Bucky, Sam, and Steve were in some awkward dog pile on the hardwood, Clint with his head in Natasha’s lap, May and Pepper side-to-side with their heads leaning against the other’s, Bruce and Tony squished together in an armchair meant for one, Thor laid out across an entire couch by himself, and Peter beneath the coffee table, Harley’s head on his shoulder and arm wrapped firmly around his waist.
A family, Peter thought as he drifted, unable to wipe the smile from his lips. I look at all I have and I am so lucky. He dropped a hand onto Harley’s hair, buried his nose in it. I am so lucky.