Tony shifted with a grunt, wriggling on the spot as yet another hot spike of discomfort jabbed him in the back. The steady hum of the Quinjet’s engines rumbled soothingly beneath him, tugging at the weariness he could feel curling around his mind. His suit was battered and crumpled in so many places and he didn’t need to use a mirror to know that his face was a bit of a sight; the look Steve had given him when he’d removed his mask had been enough.
It was fine really. He’d had so much worse in the past and fortunately, everybody had managed to make it through the fight without more than a scratch and a bruise or two.
Well, everybody except Peter.
A portal opening in the skies on the outskirts of Mexico had summoned them all into a battle against a horde of reptilian creatures sporting many sharp teeth and claws. Their ability to breathe fire had been quite a nasty shock, especially for Thor who found his long locks singed beyond all recognition. The demi-god had taken great offence to what he considered the most heinous of acts and had turned the sky electric blue with his fury.
Still, hair singeing aside, it had been a somewhat simple fight with Tony and Thor competing to see who could slingshot one of the things back through the portal first, much to Steve’s frustration.
It all went to hell towards the end though.
Peter, looping back round into the fray after swinging Clint and his exploding arrows up to a higher vantage point, had managed to dodge the gaping jaws of one creature before the whirling tail of another caught him off guard, slamming fully into him and sending him plummeting out of the air. Tony watched, unable to even scream his terror as Peter hit the ground, bounced and then skidded limply through the dirt.
Tony had frozen, hovering uselessly in the air as multiple voices had yelled at him, for Peter, over the comms. As Nat had made her way to Peter, one beast seized their chance and locked their jaws around Tony, grinding its teeth into the shell of his suit so viciously that it had begun to buckle.
Blinded by an incomprehensible rage, something that seemed to propel fire in place of blood through his veins, Tony had unleashed everything he had, turning the creature before him into a mutilated mess and scorching the air with a promise of vengeance that had the rest of the beasts turning even nastier, unwilling to be beaten or intimidated.
Tony couldn’t remember much of what happened after that. It was a tangle of snarling fury and clenched teeth and an almost painful desperation to get to Peter, to get his arms around the kid and see his eyes peeking out from beneath his mask, shiny and bright as always.
What had greeted Tony when he finally managed to break away was the pale face of Peter resting in Nat’s lap, jaw trembling and hands fluttering weakly above the horrendously unnatural looking bend in his leg. There was blood oozing from between his lips and a dazed glaze to his eyes which flickered up to Tony’s face, stunning him with a look of please please make it better.
Leaving Steve, Thor and Clint to round up the stragglers, Nat and a thankfully no longer green Bruce had assisted Tony in getting an increasingly hysterical Pete on board the nearby jet. A quick rummage around in their medical supplies had revealed they had an inadequate dose to put Peter fully under whilst Bruce reset his leg, but enough to keep him calm and somewhat pain-free once it was over.
Peter hadn’t taken the news about his leg well. His rapid rate of healing made it necessary to act as soon as possible, something which Peter knew better than any of them, but that didn’t stop the sudden burst of hysterical panic that had him nearly throwing Tony into the wall in his desperation to get away. A quick jab in the neck with a sedative that could take out a fully-grown elephant had stolen enough of the fight from him for Tony and Nat to get him situated on one of the benches, holding him steady as he whimpered and writhed sluggishly, crying out every few seconds in a way that made Tony’s eyes sting. If it hadn’t been for Nat fixing him with a fierce yet oddly reassuring stare, telling him that she was there with him, Tony wasn’t sure that he would have remained standing.
Tony knew he would never forget the look in Peter’s eyes as he pinned the kid down, nor would he forget the feeling of fingers full of spider-strength digging into the arms of his suit or the muffled scream that was torn out from behind bloody teeth. The eventual crunching pop of bone sliding back into place had made Peter throw up into Nat’s lap, leading him to burst into tears.
Nat took it in her stride, though Tony expected that he’d somehow be buying a thank you gift in the near future.
Unable to do anything but mutter reassurances and meaningless platitudes that fell on deaf ears, Tony had held Peter’s shaking shoulders as tightly as he could whilst Bruce administered more painkillers into the IV he had set up, offering Tony a tired smile and the promise of the worst being over.
He’d been right in a sense. For one thing, Steve, Thor and Clint had made it back to the jet without any further complications and they were finally on their way home, weary and bruised but victorious.
The kid was still stretched out on the bench, covered in blankets with his head resting on the rolled-up leather of Steve’s jacket. The drugs coursing through him had lulled him into a dreamy state between asleep and awake, leaving him prone to fluctuating moments of lucidity and sleepiness.
They’d also made him clingy as hell.
As evidenced by the hand that had been playing with Tony’s hair for the last half an hour.
A pair of boots appeared in Tony’s line of sight and he tilted his head wearily to look up at Steve.
''How you holding up?''
Before Tony could answer, a voice from behind him slurred, ''Hi, Missa ‘merca.''
Steve’s eyes softened as they looked just above Tony’s head.
''Hi, Peter. How are you feeling?''
A grumble was his only answer. Steve chuckled and turned his attention back to Tony.
''He’s a tough kid.''
''You’re telling me,'' Tony quipped, lifting an arm to indicate the finger marks marring the metal covering his arms.
''You want some help?''
Tony desperately wanted out of the suit; wanted to wrap himself up in the soft hoodie he had stashed in an overhead compartment and find a way to sit beside Peter instead of with his back to him.
The hand on his head prevented him from doing so. Tony shifted, making to stand up, only to freeze with a knowing twitch of a smile as Peter whined and burrowed his fingers further into Tony’s hair. Steve raised a sympathetic eyebrow and he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, clearly at a loss of what to do, a look seldom seen on the man.
Tony would be lying if he said he didn’t find it oddly satisfying to know that their all wise and confident leader was prone to bouts of uncertainty like the rest of them.
''It’s fine, Cap,'' Tony sighed with a wave of his hand, ''just find me some coffee and we’ll call it even.''
''You know we don’t have coffee on board.''
''Then call ahead and get somebody to have at least six cups ready and waiting for me,'' Tony retorted, shuffling his aching shoulders and pointedly ignoring Steve's departing smirk.
Tony twisted round to look at Peter, lifting his arm as much as he was able within the crumpled confines of the suit to rest a hand on Peter’s chest. Peter immediately fumbled for it with the hand not stuck to Tony’s head, lacing their fingers together with a drunken giggle.
Tony found himself grinning. Now that the initial distress of the situation had worn off, Tony could just about see the lighter side of things. With his droopy eyes, lazy smile and sleepy voice, the kid was nothing short of adorable.
''You okay there, Underoos?''
''Mmmm,'' Peter replied, nuzzling his face into Steve’s jacket. ''We goin’ home?''
''Yeah, bud,'' Tony said, keeping his voice low and smooth in the way he only did for Peter, ''we’re going home. We’ll get you all fixed up and you can watch while hot Aunt May tells me off for not returning you in completely one piece.''
He chuckled at the thought of the feisty woman and the frustrated but harmless chewing out she would no doubt give him. His mood instantly flipped into a spiral of concern as Peter’s eyes suddenly filled with tears.
''Don’t want May to shout at you,'' he mumbled, breath hitching harshly. ''S’not your fault. S’upid lizard’s fault.''
The rush of relief Tony felt was dizzying in its force. He scooted closer, pointedly ignoring the way the suit scraped shrilly against the grating and the searing twist of knotted muscle around his spine. Peter’s eyelids flickered drowsily as he watched Tony, fingers tightening in Tony’s hair almost unbearably.
''Nobody is gonna shout, Pete,'' Tony promised, angling his head to relieve the pressure on his scalp.
''Promise,'' Tony assured, patting their joined hands against Peter’s chest.
He swore loudly in surprise when Peter shot upright a moment later.
''Whose been dancing on my chest?'' Peter shouted, beating their still-linked hands against his sternum, eyes glassy and blown wide with outrage.
''Bruce!'' Tony called, not looking away from Peter as he snapped his fingers in front of the kid’s face. ''Earth to Spider-man. Yeah, hi, you with me? Nobody danced on your chest, bud. You’re a bit bruised though so you mind lying back down for me?''
Peter went down slowly with a suspicious glare that turned dopey before his head hit the jacket again. Bruce appeared, crouching down to peer into Peter’s eyes, smiling when the kid let go of Tony’s hand to try and poke him on the nose.
''He’s fine. This will probably keep happening until we get something stronger in him.''
Right on cue, Peter’s hand dropped and he started to snore, eyes now barely open.
''How long ‘til we land?'' Tony asked, sighing as the grip on his hair loosened once again.
''A while,'' Bruce said, patting Peter fondly on the head before standing up. ''Just keep him as calm as possible.''
No sooner had Bruce moved away did Peter suddenly sit upright once more, yanking Tony’s hair with sticky fingers.
''I have a meeting today!'' he announced shrilly.
Tony rubbed his head with one hand and pushed gently at Peter’s shoulder with the other. ''You’ve never had a meeting in your damn life, kiddo.''
''Oh,'' Peter said and then, to Tony’s exasperated dismay, his eyes filled with tears once again. ''D-do I not get invited?''
''Aw, Pete,'' Clint said, sitting down beside Peter’s head when it fell back onto Steve’s jacket. ''Sure you do, but we’re too cool to call them meetings.''
''Well, Mister Dad here isn’t,'' Clint smirked at Tony who glared up at him, ‘’but you and I sure are.''
''Oh,'' Peter turned his focus back to Tony, weaving his fingers more firmly into Tony’s hair again. ''...s'that okay that I’m cool?''
Tony, neck craned at yet another awkward angle to accommodate Peter’s touch, chuckled. ''Yeah, kid, it’s okay.''
Seemingly appeased, Peter settled into a dozy quietness again, fingers picking up their lazy trail through Tony’s hair, which had to be an absolute sight by now.
Tony’s suspicions were confirmed when he heard Clint chuckle.
''You look like you got left in the dryer or something.''
''Shut up, birdbrain or I’ll toss you out the airlock.''
Clint’s eyes flicked between Tony and the hand in his hair. ''Yeah, sure you will.''
''Missa S’ark?'' Peter grumbled.
''I can’t feel m’teef.''
Tony smiled as brown eyes peeked open at him. ''You’re not supposed to feel your teeth, Underoos.''
''Oh…'' Peter bent his neck to look at Clint. ''Hi, Missa Haw’eye.''
Clint laughed and ruffled his hair. ''Hey yourself, Spidey. How you doin’?''
''Missa S’tark has nice hair.''
''He does, huh?'' Clint looked positively gleeful as he glanced at Tony. ''Y’know, he gives really good hugs too.''
''Really?'' Peter gasped in wonder. ''S’that true, Missa S’ark?''
Tony rolled his eyes as Clint retreated with a triumphant chortle.
''Yeah, kid, I’ve been known to give a few good ones in my time.''
Peter should know, being the recipient of most of them.
''Can I have one?''
Peter sounded so shyly lucid that Tony paused, fearing an imminent realisation of pain that would render the kid immobile and leave him contorted under an agony fierce enough to make him scream and howl for relief.
But a swift glance revealed nothing but the sleepy face of a kid just looking for a little comfort.
''You got it, kiddo.'' Tony bobbed his head. ''You gotta stop being sticky first though.''
Peter slurred an apology and removed his hand. Tony sighed and gave his scalp a rub, wincing when he pushed too hard against the more tender areas where the skin had been pulled taught. He pushed himself into a half-standing position, hissing in discomfort.
''Need some help?''
''Cap, if you wanna undress me so bad, you don’t have to wait for an opportunity to arise,'' Tony teased, smirking up at his friend. ''You only have to ask. I’m an open-minded kinda guy.''
Steve rolled his eyes and heaved Tony to his feet. ''You’re terrible is what you are.''
''Flatterer,'' Tony pretended to swoon, throwing a hand to his forehead as Steve pried the suit away. With a satisfied groan, Tony stepped out of it, stretching slowly up onto his toes until several things clicked.
''Hope you got a replacement for this,'' Steve said, tapping a hand against the breastplate of the suit, fingers brushing the large teeth marks.
''Many,'' Tony grumbled, easing down onto the bench with a wince and closing his eyes.
As he settled against the wall, a hand reached out to touch his arm. Smiling instantly, Tony opened his eyes to look down at Peter.
''C’n I get a hug now?''
Tony didn’t need to look at Steve, who was still nearby, to know that the guy was melting.
''Sure you can, Underoos.''
With as much gentleness as he could, Tony slipped his hands under Peter’s armpits and lifted him up, sliding him back with Steve’s help until he was leaning against Tony’s chest. Steve’s jacket was moved and draped over Tony’s shoulders and all the blankets covering Peter were readjusted, tucked up high so that the only visible part of him was his head. Tony curled his arms around Peter, sinking into the warmth of the contact and resting his chin on the wild tangle of curls beneath his nose.
Steve smiled fondly as Peter snuggled into Tony, head pressed into the crook of his neck.
''Careful, Cap,'' Tony said with a smirk, ''people will start to think there’s a heart underneath all those stars and stripes.''
''I’m not the one called Tin Man around these parts,'' Steve replied, fixing Tony with a knowing look before walking away.
Everything was quiet for a while. Tony focused on the steady beat of Peter’s heart as it thudded against his ribs and rested his palm on the kid's chest, watching it lift and fall with each tired breath that he took. The kid felt so slight and small in his arms. Tony knew that Peter had more strength in one leg than Tony had in his whole body, and yet that knowledge never did a thing to dull the ferocity of the protectiveness that he felt for Peter.
He'd never told the kid in explicit terms how much he cared, but then again, Peter hadn't either. It had started with the mentoring and somehow blossomed in a way that Tony never expected or planned for.
It was a funny sort of unspoken agreement between them. Tony knew that Peter loved him. The kid radiated it like sunshine, in every look and every grin and every shy headbutt against Tony’s chest that would happen whenever Tony threw an arm around the kid’s shoulders.
Tony wasn’t even sure how he knew to recognise such little intricacies as love. It was only after he met Peter that he began to realise with true certainty just how much the people in his life loved him.
He knew that Rhodey loved him from the exasperated way his best friend would smack him on the arm before grabbing him in a bear hug. He knew that Pepper loved him from the way her eyes would soften the second she saw him. He knew that Happy loved him from the long-suffering grumbling that filled the car nearly every day. He knew that the team loved him, for better or for worse, enough to save his ass a thousand times and let him return the favour just as much if not more.
So yeah, he knew love; knew how to recognise it from the obvious, triangulate and configure it so that he could feel it in the quietness of everyday life without a moment of second guessing.
He knew himself to be capable of it too. Rhodey had been a surprising kind of love full of warmth and brotherhood; Pepper had been a slow steady burn of denial and want that burst into a blazing fire that grew larger by the day; Happy was steady and secure, and the team had been reluctant, wary but so very rewarding when he accepted it.
With Peter though, it wasn’t a startling awareness or a terrifying shock.
It simply was.
Tony loved Peter. Loved him in that unfathomable, willing to go to the edge of the universe and back kind of way that should terrify him, should make him dig his heels in and shove it away out of fear and doubt.
They’d never voiced it out loud though. Tony hoped that Peter knew that he felt the same, but after today, he’d try to find a way to say it, just to make sure.
Peter wiggled a little in his embrace, clucking his tongue and pressing his face into Tony’s chest with an incoherent burble. Tony adjusted his hold, cradling him just that bit closer.
Tony knew that when they reached home, there would likely be more moments of discomfort for the kid, that it would definitely get worse before it got better.
He pushed the thought away for now though. Soon enough Peter would be driving him mad by jumping out at him from hiding places on the ceiling or chatting his ear off about some new movie he wanted to see or convincing him to blow something up in the lab.
Tony couldn’t wait and the excitement for those future moments smoothed over his dread just enough to numb it for the time being.
Right now, Peter was fine, calm enough and soothed enough to not feel any pain or fear. Right now, all that he needed, aside from the steady pulse of painkillers in his veins, was to feel safe and secure, something that Tony knew how to do.
After all, it was hardly his first rodeo.
Tony lifted a hand and swept it through Peter’s hair, feeling for knots and loosening them gently, smiling to himself as Peter sighed sleepily, pushing slightly into the contact.
''Yeah, kiddo?'' Tony whispered, heart lifting sharply at the sound of his voice.
Peter’s reply was a snore.
''Good talk, bud.'' Tony yawned, smiling as he felt the tell-tale tingle of love for Peter skip through him all over again. ''Ground-breaking stuff for sure.''
''Tony?'' Steve called from somewhere nearby. ''Go to sleep.''
He couldn’t even bring himself to argue. ''Aye aye, Cap.''
Tony tilted his head to rest on Peter’s, moving his fingers to pull softly at the locks by Peter’s ear. With one final yawn and an unconscious squeeze of his arms that had the kid huddling further into him with another little sigh, Tony closed his eyes and let himself drift off.