It was an accident.
It was a really, really big accident that really could have been fixed so quickly and easily, except it wasn’t.
Because Natasha distracted them all with a devilish smile and blood in her teeth as she said, “shall we play a game?” and Peter was suddenly, horribly certain that he was going to die very soon and it would have nothing to do with his pounding concussion or rack of broken ribs.
“Nat, no,” Steve said, disgusted, nursing a disconnected shoulder that he had popped unceremoniously back into its socket while Clint watched and retched. Everyone met eyes shiftily. That was a strangely responsible thing for Steve to say. “You can’t reuse a joke like that,” he finished, and there it was. That was much more Steve. Supporting ideas like playing death games while they were actually in danger of dying. Bucky cuffed him over the back of the head.
“That is some dumbass white people shit,” Sam said, pointing at Natasha. “I’m not doin’ that. I have a will to live.”
But then the crippled husk of the Quinjet- damaged beyond repair from their scuffle with a giant fire-breathing shrimp monster off of the coast of Baffin Bay and evacuated immediately after Natasha put them down in an emergency landing as the engine overheated- exploded in a spectacular shower of sparks and glass and metal, and, suddenly, they didn’t have a choice of whether or not they were going to play Hunger Games. Because they were stranded on an island. In the Northern, Northern Atlantic. With half of an Iron Man suit, offline War Machine and Iron Spider suits, and a Falcon with a dead jet pack. And no way to call for help.
“Y’know,” said Steve, rolling his shoulder. “A little part of me always thought they were lyin’ about Iceland being green and Greenland being ice, but here we are.”
“Pranked,” agreed Clint, shaking his head under his hood. He was one of the few who had managed to grab a sweatshirt out of the jet before it- y'know- blew.
Peter sat heavily on the ground, grateful for once that Tony had insisted upon him breaking out the Iron Spider for the mission (If you aren’t wearing the nanosuit, then why do I have to? Because I’m the boss of you and I get to decide. I thought Pepper was the boss. She would want you in the nanosuit. If you tell Pepper I will literally disown you.). This way, he couldn’t feel the ice and dew as he sat. He did, however, hear the grass crackle under him like Christmas ornaments and bubble wrap. He blew out a harsh puff of air as the movement jostled his side, stinging as if a wire was looped between each individual rib and a spark of electricity was shooting along it. Though he was fairly certain none of his ribs had fully snapped- like, a good fourteen percent certain- the pain was a doozy— and that was what with feeling it through the thick haze of Concussion Brain. And, of course, no painkillers, because, oh, yeah, the entire fuckoff Quinjet blew up.
Everything smelled like rain and fog. It was a stuffy sort of smell, the kind that was sure to give Peter a headache if he breathed it in for too long. He ran his fingers through the grass as if tousling strands of hair. He could hear birds calling, but, otherwise, it was quiet. Eerily so.
His head pounded relentlessly.
He wished he could talk to Harley.
He wished he could have a snack. Some Goldfish, or something. It had been almost five hours since they had left for the mission that morning, and Peter’s metabolism was waiting rather impatiently for its next tribute. There was no way his healing would work right if he didn’t eat soon. But he also knew that there was approximately nothing in the frame of edible things around him, unless he wanted to trek a mile to the coast or eat a handful of frozen grass.
One time, he had seen Harley eating a leaf of frozen spinach like a pita chip dipped in hummus. He had laughed so hard he cried, and fully accepted the lecture he received from embarrassed Harley in response.
Now, he would willingly sacrifice his entire left nut for a frozen piece of spinach dipped in hummus.
Peter sucked in a deep breath through his nose and tried to ignore the fact that it aggravated both the pain in his head and that of his ribs. He did a very bad job of ignoring it.
“Yikes,” he mumbled, one hand coming up to probe the site of the injury. With more pressure than he intended, Peter tested his lower ribs for give. The sharp sting was so potent that spots danced in his eyes, like the insides of his eyelids had been papered over with polka dots. The choked gasp he sucked in as the pain settled into a dull ache was enough to permeate the lulled conversation of the others, however, who were now all looking at him like he was a three-legged puppy.
“I’m fine,” he said, before anyone could ask.
“No,” said Bucky matter-of-factly.
Peter looked at him, betrayed. “Dude,” he said.
“Stop being a little asshole and let someone check you over,” Sam muttered as he smothered a bandaid over the bridge of Clint’s nose. Peter knew Sam only pretended to hate him. It was Sam’s favorite game, so he went along with it. He didn’t want to spoil Sam’s fun.
Peter’s vision was refusing to clear. It wasn’t the pain spots so much as the concussion itself, now, making everything quite suddenly and quite aggressively blurry and double and nothing was real if there was two of it, right, because how would he ever know which was the real one and if he didn’t know then it didn’t exist—
“Hey, kiddo,” came a voice from Peter’s cloudy periphery. He liked that voice. He liked that one a lot. It was his favorite.
The voice snorted. “I’m touched, Pete, really, but it would mean a lot more if you could find me.”
Peter frowned. He didn’t think he had said that out loud. And what did the voice mean? Find him? Where did he go? He could hear him, he was right here. He turned his head a little to the left.
“Oh! Hi, Tony.”
Tony had a tight smile on his lips, but his eyes were soft and molten. Only the bottom half of him was in his suit, so his hands were all warm, calloused Tony as they tapped on Peter’s cheek gently. “Hi, Pete. What’s up?”
“Mm, not much. Just hangin’ out.”
“Yeah? You having a nice time?”
Peter sputtered incredulously. “Duh. You’re here.”
Tony turned over his shoulder as if saying, did you hear that? Did you hear my kid? That’s my kid. I’ve got the best kid.
Tony turned back to Peter, then, but the smile was still tight, and Peter didn’t like that. So he lifted his hands and used his thumbs to press the corners of Tony’s lips into a real smile, so wide as to almost be a grimace.
“That’s better,” Peter mumbled. “No more sad Tony.”
Tony dropped one of his hands onto Peter’s knee and squeezed. “Oh, buddy. I’m not sad. I’m just worried about you. If you’re still on the loopy stage of concussion, that means your skull is still healing. And your ribs won’t really start until that first part is done. Your healing usually does the dangerous stuff first, right?”
“Okay. Good. Can I check your ribs, Pete?”
Peter nodded dutifully and nearly keeled right over on the spot with how violently his head spun. As he lilted, Tony had a hand at the ready to catch his shoulder and push him back upright.
“You do that every time, without fail,” Tony told him mildly. “Every time you’re concussed. You literally lose brain cells. IQ goes from two-hundred to two in about five seconds.”
“My IQ is two?” demanded Peter. “That’s… wow. That’s way more than one. I’m really lucky I got two times as many as one!”
Tony squinted at Peter. Then he shook his head, as if this was nothing new- it wasn’t- and began to feel around Peter’s ribs with a much nimbler touch than Peter had used. When he pressed on a particularly tender spot, Peter’s entire body tightened in one swift motion, hands fisted and jaw clenched and knees locking so immediately that Tony could hear them crack.
“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, feeling around to Peter’s back to make sure everything was in place there. “Okay, buddy, I’m sorry. I know that sucked. But the good news is that they’re just fractured. Nothing splintered off, nothing got punctured. Yay for that, right?”
“Yay for that,” repeated Peter, increasingly blearily. He was blinking slowly, as if his eyelids weighed a ton.
Tony softened, reaching up to push Peter’s bangs off his forehead. “You want to nap for a little, bud? I’m sure we’ll figure out a course of action while you’re out. If we do, I’ll wake you.” I won’t, Tony thought, and Peter knew that, too, but his exhaustion seemed to be winning out.
Peter grumbled, “I don’t take naps.” He laid himself flat on the ground, arms cushioning his head, and closed his eyes. He was out so immediately that Tony feared for a second that his actual soul had been forcefully ejected from his body. He held a hand in front of Peter’s nose to make sure he was breathing.
He was. The snore that ripped through him in the next second was a testament to that fact.
“Well, he’s out for the count,” Tony said.
Natasha crossed over and sat down next to him. She spoke quietly. “Are you sure there’s nothing salvageable from your suit, Toshka? You can’t fix up the top half and fly out for help?”
Tony leveled her with a look. “Nat, I may be a god, but I’m not The God. I can’t conduct miracles. I’m not perfect.”
“Spring Break of ‘eighty-seven,” Rhodey said in a monotone, “one gallon of gasoline, one can of PBR, and three strappy stilettos—“
“Honeybear,” said Tony. “I thought we very carefully, very seriously agreed to never, ever, under any circumstances bring up that moment ever again. And here you are, betraying my trust. I don’t know what I did to deserve this. Should I Henry the Eighth you? Are you technically my first wife? I forget the rhyme. Am I supposed to behead or divorce you?”
Rhodey blinked at him. “I’m waiting for the moment we need to resort to cannibalism so we can get rid of you first.”
“You know, if you wanted a piece of me all this time, I’ve always been yours.”
“I’m going to tell Pepper you said that.”
“Go ahead. She knows she’s always my second-first-love— second to you, Sourpatch.”
“Can we focus?” Clint whined from across the group. He had pulled the strings of his sweatshirt tight so only his bandaged nose was on display.
Tony’s heart panged; it reminded him of Harley.
“We’ve got a broken kid, a broken Steve, four busted suits, and no jet. What the everloving hell can we do?”
Tony shifted on the ground. “The Quinjet going full Challenger just now will have sent a distress signal to the lab,” he said. “Pep or Harley will definitely be sitting in there—” his heart stammered. “Oh, fuck. They’ve gotta be wigging out.” He ran a hand roughly through his hair. “One of them will catch the signal. Let’s pray it’s Pepper, because if it’s Harley he’ll do something dumb like not contact Fury and try to save us himself.”
By that point, Clint had already fallen asleep, and Bucky looked as if he wasn’t far behind, his face slack and soft and his chin heavy in his hand.
“Okay,” said Tony, irrational fondness flooding through his gut like beer warmth and Christmas carols. “Okay. So that’s the long-term plan. The short-term plan is to let everyone sleep their adrenaline off. I’ll wake Peter every half hour to check on his concussion. Anyone else have head trauma we need to address?”
There was a general chorus of me, and Tony allowed a self-indulgent snort at that. “Ha, ha, you’re a bunch of goddamn comedians. Go sleep. I’ll take first watch.”
“You sure, Tony?” Steve said, one of those infuriating, self-sacrificial frowns on his face.
Tony looked at him dryly. “Yes, Mother Teresa, I’m sure.”
Steve ignored the jab and grabbed Bucky’s shoulder, pulling them both backwards onto the ground. Steve stuck his arm out and Bucky curled up around it, holding it tight against his chest. They were both out within seconds.
Rhodey settled down flat on his stomach beside Sam, who laid starfished on his back. Rhodey turned his face towards Sam and murmured, “alright, Sammie?”
A heavy smile spread across Sam’s face. “Ain’t this familiar. This is more comfortable than my own goddamn bed. My back can’t take that memory foam shit anymore.”
They tapped knuckles and fell asleep smiling.
Tony mouthed Sammie to himself in awe. What a thing.
Natasha stretched out beside Tony, where she had settled during their debrief. Tony couldn’t help but feel a spark of touched surprise at the fact that she didn’t move— didn’t put yards and miles and continents of space between them as soon as she had an opportunity to.
She puzzled him. Always had. And, yet, he had an infuriatingly soft spot in his heart for her: all trodden grass and dandelion sprouts in a spot of direct afternoon sun. She was quick, and massively intelligent, and intimidating, and surprisingly gentle, and far from loathe to admit any of those things. They clicked, as if their souls were made of the same stuff.
But she left him, that one time he needed her. Double-crossed.
It would have been easier to forgive her- to trust her again- if she had been on Steve’s side from the get-go. But now? There was fear. Always fear, that she would dip out halfway through a mission, or stop staying at the tower one day under the guise of an excuse but really just to get away from Tony.
Tony knew he was partially in the wrong. Natasha had been making a quite valiant effort to be more open since the Rogues had done their court testifying, Tony at their side, snapping and spitting and damning fire and brimstone at the scum who had locked up his people. That was not in the agreement. It wasn’t. It wasn’t.
And then they were pardoned, and nothing was fixed. Not right away. It was two months before Tony met with Bucky, another handful of weeks before he met Steve for pizza and beers and some stiff stalemate was reached. The wall was thick, bricks and concrete. Couldn’t go through it. Too deep to go under. They had to climb, but climbing was hard. Even now, Tony’s footholds were often unsteady. He slipped. So did Steve. But they were learning how to be around each other again.
Natasha was an anomaly.
She had showed up at the tower, barely hours after the court order, and marched her way into his lab with a passcode he forgot he had ever given her, climbing up onto his counter and saying, quite plainly, that Tony had his head up his ass but she loved him anyway.
“I know what happened in Siberia,” she said, gaze intense and unwavering.
Tony had started to choke, his heart stuttering violently in his chest. Not shattered under Steve’s shield, not anymore.
She had grabbed his hands, still staring straight into his eyes, but there was something manic to her now. “If I had known, I would have told you. I would have come to you. Stopped it all before it happened. I will not let them touch you, Toshka,” she said. “I will not let anything like that happen to you. Not again.”
And then she wept.
And that had set Tony off, and they had to have DUM-E bring them tissues while they crumpled to the cold floor and cried into each other’s shoulders like they were mourning and rejoicing all in one.
She had been bouncing between the tower and the compound ever since. Not a day passed that she didn’t text him a massive block of smiley-faces and emoji hearts. He didn’t always answer. But, even when he didn’t, his eyes burned with gratitude and something a lot fiercer when he looked at her name on his phone.
Now, she reached out one of her tiny hands and wrapped it around his suited ankle. He scooted closer to her, let her wrap the full breadth of her arms tight around his nearer thigh and sleep with her cheek pressed against him.
Peter on one side, Natasha on the other.
There were worse ways to be.
And, after all, it wasn’t long until someone else was jerking awake as if they’d been shocked. This time, it was Clint, only an hour after everyone had settled down. Tony had wiggled Peter out of sleep twice just to make sure the poor kid wasn’t dead, and he had nodded right back off both times like a damn rock.
Clint stood when he awoke, disappeared for five minutes, and then returned. “I just pissed in a bush,” he announced. Then, “go to sleep, Stark. I’ve got my eyes open now.”
“You only got an hour, Clint,” Tony argued. “Get more. We all know I go the longest without sleeping usually.”
“Okay, now who’s Mother Teresa?” Clint said. “You’re gonna have to put up with the little putz when he wakes up all sickly so you could use some rest.”
Tony opened his mouth to argue, then shut it.
Raised a finger, then dropped it.
“I’m right,” gloated Clint.
“Shut up,” Tony said as he reclined stiffly, moving minimally as to not stir Natasha from her sleep.
Tony did not expect to be able to sleep— not with injured Peter and broken Cap and no way off of a literal deserted portion of Greenland. But he was out within minutes, a light but fitless sleep weighing him down into the stiff grass.
When Peter awoke, Tony was asleep next to him, one of his arms reached out towards Peter’s hand and the other lying loosely on his chest. On Tony’s other side was Natasha, wrapped bodily around one of Tony’s legs, so thoroughly assed out that she was drooling onto the icy grass, the patch right under her head softened from her warm breath.
Rhodey and Sam were still laying in the dirt, Clint wrapped in his hoodie and digging through the top layer of soil with a stick like a child might. Steve and Bucky were hibernating, Bucky splayed out flat like a carpet and Steve curled cat-like around his waist, nose all squashed against Bucky’s neck.
Peter spent a long time just laying there, enjoying the heat of his suit- as long as the charge lasted- and listening to the symphony of heartbeats thumping around him. It was nice, having all of them there. So close that they were louder than the chittering birds, or the wind bustling through the tips of the sparse, bare-limbed trees.
The pounding in his head had somewhat subsided, the goose-egg bump behind his ear almost smoothed down. His ribs still ached something terrible with every breath, every slight movement, but he’d had much worse. This was manageable.
Just as Peter was wondering where he should go to spring a leak in the middle of a clearing in frickin’ Greenland of all places, Tony jolted out of sleep, a sharp gasp and one hand flying out for something no one else could see. Both hands clapped down over his eyes and he sighed, scrubbing hard at his cheekbones with shaky fingers.
A frowning Peter crawled closer to his side, sitting on his knees by Tony’s elbow. “Hey,” he said softly.
Tony reached out a hand and waved it around until it clipped Peter’s knee, which he grabbed and held onto like an anchor. His other hand slipped off his face like melted wax. “Hey yourself,” Tony said, and pulsed three squeezes around Peter’s knee.
“You good?” Peter asked.
“Got all I need right here,” Tony said quietly.
An embarrassed little smile lifted the corners of Peter’s lips, the apples of his cheeks stained rose like wildflower fields at dusk. “You big sap,” he said.
Tony shrugged, the fabric of his jacket dragging against the stiff ground. He sucked a deep breath in from between his teeth and, when he blew out, his breath condensed in the air in a silvery cloud. A smile had barely quirked the crinkles in his forehead before he was blowing a lungful of mist right into Peter’s face.
Peter scrunched up his nose and fell backwards onto his heels to avoid it. “Nasty,” he said. “You’re immature. Rhodey, come collect your manchild.”
“Keep him,” said Rhodey, voice muffled, from where he was starfished face-down in the dirt.
“Ugh,” Peter said, as if he were being asked to scoop poop for a puppy with a bad case of food poisoning.
Tony bit down on a smile, rubbing his thumb in figure-eights over Peter’s knee. Peter was sitting awkwardly, a heavy tension hunching his shoulders and rounding the curve of his back. Most likely to alleviate the stress on his ribs. Well, Tony hated that.
“Hey, bud,” Tony said, and pushed himself up so he was sitting, not moving his hand from Peter’s knee. “I think I oughta get a full check-in on those ribs now, while the sun is still up. Make sure they’re not healing wrong. Don’t want you to end up with a twisty skeleton.”
“Spooky scary skeletons,” Peter sang under his breath.
“No,” said Clint from across the clearing, not looking up from whatever he was intently prying out of the mud with his stick.
“Sorry,” said Peter, disengaging the top half of the Iron Spider to reveal his ribs to Tony.
As the suit retracted and his second-skin of body warmth and electric heaters melted away, the cold air hit him in a wave so startling that it burned. Like, if he were a marshmallow and got dipped into one of those molten chocolate fountain things that rich people had at weddings and birthday parties. Peter was the marshmallow. He had never so sympathized with a food.
His arms came up to wrap around his torso of their own accord. His subconscious had done a poor job of remembering the whole be careful, your insides are like what the mummies have left after their tombs are looted thing, however, and the grinding of his partially-healed ribs was the reminder of that. A sharp gasp filled his lungs and then pressure was coming from the inside and the outside and the chill was such that his breath was snatched straight from his mouth and he was like an empty, aching wardrobe with spintered shelves. He found himself leaning his elbows on the ground, sucking breaths that stung his sinuses and his throat, and trying to remember what a fully functioning human body felt like.
Breathing hadn’t been this difficult since his asthma days. When he thought hard about it, he could almost remember the rattle in his lungs. The way it felt as if he would never taste air like a necessity in surplus rather than a commodity again.
But then Tony dropped a hand on his back, rubbing circles and murmuring in his ear like a lullaby, like a secret for only them to share. Peter struggled to breathe more quietly, because he wanted to hear it all. He always wanted to hear Tony.
“- you’ve got it, Pete, easy breaths now. As soon as you’ve got this, I can check how you’re healing. And when that’s done, you can put the suit back on and blast those heaters the way you always put the butt-warmers up real high in the car. Oh, Pete. I know, baby, I know. I’m sorry. Just breathe slow.”
One breath that felt more like vomiting than breathing in.
Another, clearer, but blisteringly cold.
One more, and it was almost easy. Swirling in his lungs. The pain in his ribs a dull ache.
Peter dropped his forehead onto Tony’s shoulder, exhausted.
Tony’s hand slid up Peter’s back, catching along the knobs of his spine, and settled at the base of his neck, scratching lightly at the ends of his hair. “There you go,” he hummed. “That’s it, Pete. That feel any better?”
“Sorry,” Peter whispered, blinking against the sudden burning in his eyes.
Tony’s hand stilled on his neck. “No. No, what do we always say about this sorry shit you pull? Say it with me, class: we don’t apologize for things that aren’t our fault.”
Peter intoned right along with him.
Tony slipped his hand around to settle against the side of Peter’s head, lifting it off his shoulder so he could meet Peter’s eyes. His ear was cold as sin against his palm.
“Good, bud,” Tony said, and tapped his fist against Peter’s chin, giving him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Now let me check your ribs before anything else happens to ‘em.”
Peter raised his arms to give Tony better access.
Tony couldn’t help the sympathetic wince that crossed his face as he took in the hyper-purple mottling all along Peter’s side, and he certainly couldn’t help the savage satisfaction that filled his gut at the memory of having delivered a humdinger of a laser shot at the shrimp monster, as if it balanced out the damage it had done unto Peter.
Not that anything could ever balance Peter’s pain. Tony could set fire to the earth’s very crust, raze it, ashes to ashes, and it still wouldn’t be enough to compensate for even a papercut on Peter Parker’s littlest finger.
Peter had locked his hands tight together to vent some of the frenzied energy his anxiety was sending through him. The cold was making his skin sting, and Tony’s fingers pressing around made it all the worse. With the effort not to cry out as the probing reached the more painful breaks, Peter bit down on his lip, only stopping when the skin- dry from the cold air- split and blood seeped into his mouth. He ran over the spot with his tongue, trying to distract his brain from the bigger pain by causing a smaller, more focused one. A baby ouch, thought Peter deliriously. A little one. The bill from the I’m Just a Bill song before it becomes a law.
Tony’s fingers glided over the worst of it as if they were scalpels cutting crosshatch across Peter’s stomach. Peter struggled to stop the twitching of his muscles at the pain, for jostling the breaks only caused him more pain, and that was not at all it, chief, as Harley would say.
“Talk to me, buddy,” Tony said softly. “Gimme something. Tell me about your next plans for suit upgrades. Have you tried out those toxified webs yet?”
Peter hissed at a jolt of pain as Tony pressed directly over a fracture. “I, uh. I haven’t used them yet. No one big and bad enough this week.”
“Saving ‘em for the worst guys?”
“Uh-huh. Don’t want to hurt anyone that much. If I can handle it another way.”
“I know, squirt,” Tony said, sparing a glance up at Peter as he brushed his thumbs over the back of Peter’s ribs, from where they sprung from his spine all the way to their pointed ends. “You’re too good for that.”
Peter frowned. “Not too good.” Tony grabbed his shoulders and began to gently twist him side-to-side, gauging his range of motion. “Just too soft.”
“Hey,” Natasha said, startling Peter. He hadn’t noticed her wake up. “Soft is a good thing. We like you soft.”
“Fat lotta good me being soft is gonna do us all out here,” Peter said, clenching his jaw against the chattering of his teeth.
“It’s like that sadistic show you only watch when MJ is around because she likes it and you’re too scared to watch it alone,” said Tony, snapping his fingers as the title evaded him.
“That is exactly what I am referring to.”
Peter huffed a sigh, blowing the air onto his hands to try and warm them. “This stopped being Survivor ten minutes ago,” he mumbled. “Now it’s Naked and Afraid.”
“We could make it into Bizarre Foods if you want to try one of these bugs,” offered Clint, gesturing to a horrific yellow-shelled crawler he had dug out of the topsoil.
“Clint,” said Peter calmly. “I’m going to fucking end you if you come any closer to me with that.”
Tony snorted a laugh and rubbed his hands over Peter’s shoulders. “Alright, bud. You’re good. Suit back up.”
Peter did without further ado, going boneless with relief as the warmth of his suit defrosted his stiff muscles.
Tony frowned at him. “Pete, your lips are blue. Okay. Bad job, Tony. Here,” he said, and shucked his jacket, thrusting it into Peter’s grasp.
“No!” Peter said immediately, pushing it back towards Tony. “No, Tony, then you’ll be too cold, and then I’ll feel really guilty, and then I’ll get all sad and nervous and you’ll get annoyed at the universe and snippy and everyone will fight and I don’t want to be stuck in the middle of Greenland with you all fighting!” This was all said quite quickly and without breath in between words, in true Peter fashion.
Tony scowled. “Please take the jacket.”
“Per favore, angelo.”
“I’ll raise your allowance.”
“You don’t give me an allowance.”
“Because you told me not to!”
Peter squinted at Tony, entire body stiff to stave off the shivers that were close to overtaking him.
Tony squinted right back.
Peter caved first, groaning as a shudder racked through him. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Okay. Compromise.”
He crawled over to Tony, plopped down in front of him unceremoniously, and grabbed one of Tony’s arms, looping it around his body so that he was clutched against Tony’s chest.
It took Tony a moment to catch up with the thought process, but, when he did, he let out a soft little “oh,” and pulled Peter closer to him, sitting so that one of his legs was on either side of Peter, and Peter’s spine was curled over to match against his stomach. The overwhelming warmth in Tony’s chest was too sweet, too much, almost nauseating with how potent it was, and he filtered it out in a solid kiss against Peter’s temple.
Peter sighed and settled into the embrace more fully, enjoying the warmth of Tony’s breath as it hit his cheek.
It was just a matter of waiting.
“Okay honestly, where the fuck is Harley.” Peter was tugging on his own curls, frowning, still bundled against Tony’s chest. His stomach had been growling something fierce for almost two hours at that point, his head was starting to ache and his hands to shake with lightheadedness, and his ass was asleep but he was too scared to get up and move for it was more likely that he would faint on the spot than it was that he would be able to do any good for them.
Though the general course of action agreed upon was just wait for help to show up, they were all growing restless.
Sam had collected a pile of unfrosted leaves and was currently cuddling down onto it like a cat.
Clint had sketched out a very complicated parody of the Last Supper painting in the dirt, with the shrimp monster mid-table as Jesus.
Natasha had, at some point, perched herself in a tree, beaming like a psychopath.
Bucky was tossing rocks at her from below. If it were anyone else, it would be a problem. But, where Bucky’s aim was impeccable and each projectile was tossed forcefully enough to take off an average person’s finger, Natasha had both the speed and balance to weave through the branches like a spidermonkey and avoid the attacks.
The sun was setting.
“What if I come up with a plan,” said Steve, laying flat on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, looking an awful lot like a buried pharaoh. “What if I do something crazy. And it works.”
“None of us trust you, Steve-o,” said Sam from his leaf bed.
“I trust you,” Peter interjected.
“No you don’t,” said Steve. “When we realized we had’ta put the Quinjet down, you said- out loud, mind you- oh, God, can literally anyone other than Steve do this, and then Natasha shoved me out of the pilot seat and onto the ground. She is the one who dislocated my shoulder.”
“Okay, but, like, can you blame me?”
“I can’t,” said Bucky emphatically from Steve’s other side.
“Rat,” said Steve. “Ugly rat.”
Bucky scrunched up nose and made kissy faces at Steve until Steve yielded, sat up, and grabbed him in a headlock. All of the rocks Bucky had collected to throw at Nat tumbled to the ground beside them.
“Thought you were s’posed to be on my side, Buck,” Steve grumbled, mussing Bucky’s hair.
Bucky paused in his swatting of Steve’s hands to send him a surprisingly heartfelt look. “Womb to tomb, babydoll,” he said.
“Birth to Earth,” said Steve thickly, knowing it was a goddamn miracle he had been able to squeeze the words out from around the lump of emotion in his throat.
“Sperm to worm,” Clint murmured as if no one was meant to hear it but him. He giggled manically. Steve shot him an incredulous glance.
Bucky used the distraction as an opportunity to kick the shit out of Steve’s shin, startling him into releasing his hold around Bucky’s neck. When he straightened, Steve took the opportunity to wrap both arms tight around Bucky’s waist and pull him against his chest. With a downright paranormal eye roll, Bucky sighed, but leaned back into the embrace nonetheless, dropping a quick kiss onto the skin of Steve’s hand, then settling his chin where his lips had been.
“I hate the Hunger Games,” Clint said conversationally. “Those books stressed me out.”
Tony shot him a look. “You coulda’ told me that before I semi-officially changed your name to Katniss.”
Clint shrugged. “I’m just having a stress response to this environment and can’t stop thinking how Hunger Games-y this whole thing is.”
“More like hungry games,” Peter mumbled as his stomach gave another vicious roar. His eyelids were heavy. He wanted so badly to sleep again.
Tony jabbed him in the side. “Hey. You sleepy again, trooper? You already napped, y’know.”
Tony shook him a little. “Pete. I’m not being dramatic, that’s actually worrying.”
Rhodey sat up uneasily. “Yeah, kid. That could be an early symptom of hypothermia.”
Natasha frowned and dropped out of the tree. She landed lightly on her toes, then sat next to Peter, pressing her side up against Tony and Peter’s bundle to offer more body heat. “Are your thermoregulative abilities really that shitty?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Peter, unsure if his thermoregulative abilities should take offense to that claim. “They, uh. Suck. They suck.” A shudder rippled through him as if his body resented his mistrust in it.
“Okay,” said Natasha, calm as anything. As if she took that piece of information and stored it in one of the filing cabinets in her mind in a neat little manila folder for a day when she might need it more than she needed it right then. As if Peter wasn’t inching closer to possibly dying as the sun crawled towards the horizon with desperate fingers, as if clutching to the icy ground, pleading to stay. As if every drop of degree was a step closer to Peter’s blood running slow and cool like cherry Slushie. “So, we keep up the body warmth bundle here. And if you stop shivering, we deign to let Steve make a dumbass plan.”
“Hey,” said Steve. “Not all my plans are dumbass.”
All eyes shot to him incredulously.
He mumbled something unintelligible and hid his blushing face behind Bucky’s mop of hair.
Natasha scooted closer, dropping a hand on Peter’s nearer knee and rubbing up and down, as if the friction would do anything other than make her hand ache from rubbing cold metal.
“Mm. Thanks, Nattie,” Peter mumbled, blinking slowly.
“Nattie?” Tony repeated, an evil giddiness in his eyes. “Oh, will wonders never cease today?”
Natasha pinched his bicep. He weasled the arm she was pressed against out from around Peter and slung it around her shoulders, pressing all three of their bodies together. From the little sigh of relief that came from Peter, Tony knew the action was appreciated.
“We’ll work this out, bud,” Tony said quietly into Peter’s hair, unsure if he was reassuring himself or Peter more. “I bet Harley is wrangling up the troops right now to come and grab us.”
“I bet he’s tryna’ get DUM-E onto the ship ‘n tha’s why it’s taking so long,” Peter mumbled, eyelids fluttering shut. A violent shudder rippled through him.
Tony’s chest was tight. The heater in the Iron Spider had been on full-blast for nearly seven hours. Not even Tony’s creations had unlimited power. Sooner rather than later, the thing was gonna sputter out and die, leaving only pre-generated warmth huddled between Peter’s skin and the nanotech plates.
Tony had seen Peter cold. He’d seen him show up at the tower after a patrol in the snow, nose red and throat thick and sore and goosebumps riddling his limbs. Tony sat him down with a mug of hot chocolate, wrapped him in blankets, and plopped beside him on the couch until the shaking stopped.
Tony had seen Peter too hot, heat stroke heavying his limbs after one of his younger patrols, still fifteen and fresh-faced and twitchy, the summer before Harley came into their lives like a rabid cat they couldn’t find the heart to get rid of. He had held onto his shoulders while he puked in the medbay, gripped his hand while an IV slipped under his skin and started to pump him full of saline and sedatives. Chewed on his lips while the tremors wracked him, even in sleep. Replaced the cooling packs stuffed against his neck, his back, under his arms. Tried not to cry with relief when Peter woke up thirsty but without organ damage. Failed at that, and let Peter swipe away one of his tears with his thumb.
Tony had seen Peter descending into hypothermia. Was seeing it now. Knew how to identify the thrum of Peter’s pulse where Tony’s hand was wrapped around Peter’s wrist, thready and quick like hummingbird wings. Knew the clumsy way he talked wasn’t due to numb lips so much as the terrible heaviness that settled as the cold seeped through his muscles, along the course of his veins.
Tony knew the feeling intimately. Was trying not to picture Peter in a shattered husk of a suit, lying trampled and broken and lost with no way to escape- to move- unless someone came to find him.
He swallowed thickly against the bile rising in his throat and tightened his grip around Peter and Natasha.
Natasha had tied off her hair with a strip of wire and the tail of red was the brightest color in the clearing. The grey was endless. Everything was low saturation, like it was covered in a thin film of dust.
Peter’s suit died.
He felt it happen under his hands, as if the slightest hum had been cut short. Like Tony had his hand on a speaker and the music shut off.
“Shit,” he breathed.
Peter shuddered. “Well, that was nice while it lasted.”
“Don’t worry,” said Tony quietly while he worried in technicolor and cinema screams. “It’ll be fine. Take my jacket, kid, please.”
“Not yet,” Peter said. “Not yet. I-I-I’m still fine.”
“For the love of Krispy Kreme,” Tony muttered, dropping his arms from around Peter and Natasha so he could wiggle out of his jacket— a thin layer, nothing more than a windbreaker, really, but better than the dead suit Peter had around him. Before long, the chill would seep into the armor, turning the metal into an ice cage. Tony wanted to stave that off for as long as possible.
Peter grumbled but let Tony sheathe him in the coat, zipping it all the way up and pulling the hood over his head so low that only his pouting lips, red nose, and squished bangs poked out.
Peter burrowed back against Tony’s chest and Tony tried to ignore the way the wind was picking up, a salt-dusted breeze coming off the coast.
It was a strange dichotomy: the salt breeze but the frigid air. As an Italian kid who had never been allowed to follow his father on his Antarctic Cap-digging endeavors, he never had a reason to go to a cold beach. The sound of it was almost nauseating in its paradoxicality. Beaches should be warm. Salt air should come with the itch of sunburn, cold beer on his tongue, wiping greasy chip crumbs on the corner of his beach towel. Not wet mud beneath his dead suit, his starving, freezing kid and his- assassin? acquaintance? little sister?- in his arms.
Bucky had sat back up at some point, and had decided to tell stories to pass the time. As he spoke, he eyed Peter out of his periphery. Trying to keep track of him. They all were.
“-and then Steve, he picks up this brick, right? And he can’t be more than three feet tall- he’s a little bird of a thing, all gams and no body, walks like a drunk deer- and he just lobs it at the kid who took my homework. Hits ‘em right in the shoulder. Stevie was always a little- uh, hard boiled. Right from the beginning,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes.
Sam was shaking his head, Rhodey listening attentively beside him. “So, what you’re saying is,” said Sam, “all this time we thought you were protecting the little squirt back in the old days, when really-?”
“Yup,” said Bucky, popping the p. “It all started when he stoned the twit who used to steal my math homework.”
Peter poked Tony’s arm to grab his attention.
Tony moved his face so his ear was right by Peter’s mouth. Didn’t want him to have to shout or anything.
“Ask when they knew they loved each other,” said Peter.
Tony pulled away to shoot him a look. “You want me to ask that?”
“I want you to ask for me,” Peter said.
Tony stared at him for a moment.
“Hey, Steve,” Tony said. Peter grinned as if Christmas came early. “The kiddo wants to know- uh,” Tony cut off and when he started talking again, his voice was about as soft as it had ever been towards Steve. “Squirt wants to know when the two of ya knew you loved each other.”
A face-splitting smile colored Steve mushy and red with blush and his eyes crinkled and Tony wasn’t the type to aww over anyone but his kids, but if he was the type, he would have.
“Well,” said Steve. “I always loved Buck, but I don’t think I realized I loved him that way ‘til we were fifteen or so.”
Bucky shot him a sharp look. “Was that the winter you-”
“Had TB, yeah,” Steve said. “And then it cleared up at Christmas like a goddamn miracle.”
Bucky socked him in the shoulder. “I still haven’t forgiven you for that. Thought it cut about seventeen years off my life.”
“There was one night,” Steve said quietly, looking at Bucky as if he was saying it for him rather than the rest of them, who were listening to the story as if hypnotized, glued to the two of them. “One night you got real scared. They sent me back home, ‘cuz they figured if I was gonna kick the bucket, I might as well do it in my own bed. Just another Lunger at the end, yeah? Well, Bucky wasn’t having it. He made soup with whatever he could steal from the grocery in his pockets. It tasted like dust and cabbage but he slaved over it like it was the healing elixir that would grant me eternal life. Then he sat next to the bed in a chair the whole night long, just watching to make sure I didn’t wake up with my lungs filled and drown in it or somethin’. That’s when I knew that no one was ever gonna love me like Buck did.”
“Y’all are fuckin’ nasty,” sniffled Sam, wiping aggressively at his nose. “That was disgusting. I hate you.”
“Go back into the Hallmark movie where you belong,” Clint agreed, not bothering to hide the tears that were dripping thick over his lashes.
Peter was still smiling that reverent smile. He poked Tony’s arm again.
“Bucky now,” he said quietly. “Ask Bucky.”
“Barnes,” Tony called gently, sending him a smile. “What about you?”
“The kid ask, or you?” said Bucky, smirk on his lips but delight in his eyes.
“Hmm,” said Tony. “Both.”
“Well, in that case,” Bucky said, and sat up straighter. “I loved him from the moment he threw that brick,” he said. “Knew it then, knew it while he was dying every day between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, knew it when I shipped out and left him home, thinking thank God, he was safe back there. Then the boob came and followed me out there. And I still loved him, all supersized circus guy with the tights and the motorbike and the dames in little skirts. Lost it for a while somewhere in the middle- as you all know- but then he came back around and reminded me. Hard to forget it when he’s staring right in your face like you single-handedly made every tollhouse cookie he ever ate.”
“So you’re telling me you were the highest ranking, most famous gays in the whole goddamn American army during World War II and no one knows about it because America is homophobic as shit,” said Clint.
“Fighting Hitler with the power of love and sodomy was kinda our shtick,” said Bucky.
“One time our camp was attacked by Krauts in the middle of the night,” said Steve, looking nostalgic, “and Buck and I were sharing a bed pad. So we jump outta there, buck naked except for our shorts, right into the snow- no shoes or nothin’- and we take down seven of ‘em between the two of us and then went back to sleep like nothing happened. That was how the Howlies found out about us. Woke up just in time for us to brain the last one, and watched us walk back into the tent like Achilles and Patroclus.”
“Fear the queers,” Bucky said.
“Fear the queers,” Peter echoed in a mumble, pumping one fist clumsily.
And so on.
Minutes turned quickly into an hour. Somewhere near the end of it, everyone had started shivering and Peter had stopped. He now had Clint’s sweatshirt layered over Tony’s jacket. Rhodey had joined their dogpile on Tony’s other side, and everyone else had crowded around until they were a tight circle, heads huddled together and arms around each other’s shoulders, struggling to hold warmth in a cluster that was solid as fingers in the wind.
Peter’s heart palpitated every few minutes. Tony felt it against his chest, through Peter’s back. Every stutter made him gasp a little, as if the next one would elapse with a sickening, mournful silence instead of another tripped beat.
Tony couldn’t stop talking. Quietly. Whispering, really, only meant for Peter’s ears. Wanted to give the kid some sort of rope, something to cling to as everything melted out of focus. As his bones grew cold.
Tony remembered wanting that. Wanting someone to talk to while he died.
“I spent a lot of summers in Italy,” Tony hummed. He was rocking back and forth as gently as he could, trying not to upset Peter’s tentatively set ribs. “My mother used to bring me there. She was from Napoli, she grew up there, so we would spend a month in the city, going to the market. For a few years, I must’ve been- gosh, eight? Maybe nine?- we would try a chocolate gelato from every gelateria in the city and try to find the best one.
“And, then, for the second month, we would go to her family house, her summer house. That was in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, in Tuscany. It was on a vineyard. The hills were like patchwork, dusty yellow dirt raked through, and spindly olive trees, and plots of thick, ultra-green grass. I’ll bring you some day, if you want. Show you my favorite places.” Tony’s eyes filled with tears, stinging hot. Frustrated. Terrified. Mourning something that wasn’t even lost yet. “You’d do really well there. You’re pretty much fluent. I’d need to teach you a little Napoletano, though, because you only know clean Italian and whatever Sicilian you picked up from May. Sicilian is- a different fuckin’ breed. Napoletano is nothing like that. It’s a lot of consonants changing, like, you pronounce the c-h in schifo like it’s hushed, so it’s shhhkeefo, which is weird.”
“Italian lessons with Tony,” Peter mumbled into Tony’s collarbone.
Tony tightened his arms around him and planted a kiss on top of his double-hooded head. “Yeah, baby. Got a lot of those to come, so just stay awake with me, okay?”
“Tryin’,” Peter said.
“I know,” Tony said, and his heart ached. “I know. You’re doing great, Pete. Just hold on a little longer.”
Peter twitched one finger, dragging it back and forth along the fabric of Tony’s t-shirt, which he had fisted in his other hand. “D’you think th’re comin’?” he mumbled, sounding resigned. As if he was sure they were stranded. As if he had already accepted it.
“I do,” Tony said, and tried to believe it. “I absolutely think they’re coming as soon as they can. Okay? So stay awake ‘til they get here. Because if Harley is on the jet and you’re asleep, he’ll talk my ear off. And I can’t handle him alone. You hear me?”
“Hear you,” Peter mumbled. His skin was grey. His veins were like treacle rivers running below it. Another palpitation had Peter coughing weakly, then whining in pain as his ribs jostled. Tony could hear them grinding along the cracks.
“Jesus, Pete,” he said thickly. “I’m so sorry, buddy. I’m sorry. This was a stupid mission to bring you on. Greenland, ocean monster, not good for spiders. No more missions more northern than Vermont for you.”
“Northern edge o’Vermont is… same as N’York,” Peter mumbled, eyelids fluttering shut. He looked almost peaceful, except for his raw, cracked, purple lips and the shiny waxiness of his skin.
“Hey,” said Tony loudly. “None of that. Eyes open, Petey, that’s right. I know. I’m so, so sorry, buddy. It’s almost over.”
“I know,” Peter said, and Tony tried to feel like it wasn’t a premonition.
Natasha tightened her arms around the two of them. Rhodey did in turn.
Peter’s muscles started to twitch. His eyes shut, and no amount of shouting or shaking would force them open.
Tony was begging. “Come on, baby, please,” he breathed, squeezing Peter to the point of pain, to the point that he heard one of Peter’s half-healed ribs grind and then he was crying. “Open those eyes, Pete, come on. You can do it. I’m right here waiting for it. We’re almost out of here, just wait a little longer.”
Peter made a little keening noise in his chest. “I know,” he repeated, so quiet and petulant that Tony almost laughed.
And then Bucky breathed, “sonuva bitch,” not two seconds before a Quinjet crested the horizon, hurtling towards them and coming to a clumsy hovering stop.
The hatch opened.
“Get in, losers, we’re going shopping!”
Natasha laughed aloud, something boundless and warm.
Tony let out a sob of pure relief and pulled Peter closer to his chest. “Oh, God,” he breathed, and suddenly he was laughing, too, they all were, something horrified and maybe a little off-kilter, but they were going to be okay. “Hear that, buddy? Harley’s here, that little rat asshole. Did I call it or what? He came, alone, just like an idiot, just like we said. You knew it, didn’t you? You heard it coming?”
Peter hummed, a content smile playing at his lips now that his ramblings had been understood.
Tony scooped him up, pretended he didn’t stumble under the weight, and carried him up the hatch.
It was warm. God. It was warm. Sultry warm, the kind that made Tony shiver as if solace were sunshine and he was basking in it. He had been so distracted by his damn kid that the cold had hardly bothered him in the moment- the memories had hardly cropped back up the way they usually did, like stubborn weeds- but now that the chill was melting away, he felt its absence. Like a weight someone was helping him shoulder.
One of the benches had been cleared off. Beside it stood a wide-eyed, tight-lipped, barely-collected May Parker, bottles upon bottles of hot water in her arms, all of which she looked ready to prop against Peter.
Tony knew what a go, now signal was.
He went, then. Placed Peter down on the bench. Helped remove the two layers of jacket Peter had on through the unshakable tremors in his hands. Worked beside May clumsily, remembering all the while that this was her son and he was an intruder, blatantly reminded of the fact every time their knuckles bumped as they reached for the same one of Peter’s loose limbs.
Peter was still awake, but barely. He had hardly reacted to the change in environment of moving into the jet. Hadn’t seemed to notice May yet. The clamor of the other Avengers settling themselves, stripping wet layers and unearthing old blankets and sweaters they had left around after old Glory Days missions, was a welcome distraction from the reality at hand. The reality being: Peter, eighty percent of the way to corpse-hood, on the bench before him, and May Parker there to see it.
It was one thing when May heard about it. Tony didn’t sugarcoat for her. May would rip his balls off one at a time and sell them on the black market if he did.
So, when they met for their weekly commiseration session- doing face masks and splitting a pot brownie and watching Hallmark movies while mourning their good-hearted, selfless, crackpot son’s destructive tendencies- he told her the truth. Peter came in with a knife wound to the thigh Thursday. It was fine; we had Harley stitch it up. Builds character. And the Tuesday after that, he got a handful of crack literally thrown into his face, but the mask filtered out the worst of it. He wasn’t even high, just ardently singing Somebody to Love to himself as if he didn’t realize we could hear him. Which he does anyway, so.
May had heard it all. Took it with a stiff lip and a swig of Rose. But, here. Before her. On the table. Splayed flat. Hardly coherent. Was her son. Blue eyelids. Stiff fingers. Broken ribs. Concussion. Hypothermic. And it was hitting her like a swift slap on the back.
Her baby almost died that day. Risked his life the same way he did every day. And she couldn’t stop him, she would never stop him. It was him, the same way it had been part of Ben. The same way it was part of Tony. This kid collected sacrificial dads like baseball cards. Jesus. May wanted to be mad. She wanted to scream, and hit Tony over the head. He would take it. He would let her hit him.
And that’s why she didn’t do it.
Because she knew that look on Tony’s face, the one like he was watching someone burn on the stake and wishing it was him. Thinking it should be him. Knowing it should be him.
Being wrong about it.
May let her hand purposely bump Tony’s as she went to tuck a hot water bottle under the small of Peter’s back. She grabbed it. Cold. Calloused. She squeezed it, then squeezed it again. Didn’t let go until Tony squeezed back like it was a lifeline. Like it was redemption. Like penance. Like absolvement. Like it was okay.
“It is okay, Nino,” May breathed over the decumbent body of her son.
“It never will be,” he answered.
“No,” she allowed. “Not if you don’t let it be. I’m saying it’s okay. Me, who raised him. Which means I am the supreme authority. It’s fine.”
Tony looked up at her and he was pure torment.
May grabbed his hand again and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “You did good. You did the best you could. You took care of my kid. Thank you.”
“Thank me? Jesus, I almost killed the kid. Can’t you swing one at me just to make both of us feel better? Right here, on my jaw, nice and solid.”
“It wouldn’t make me feel better.”
“It might, May!”
“May?” Peter breathed.
Both of their mouths shut sharply. May gave him a special we’ll finish this later type of glare.
Peter, meanwhile, was trying to sit up on the bench. He fell back with a wince, head knocking against the metal bench top. “Ow. Hi, May. I love you. Why are you in Greenland?”
May brushed Peter’s bangs off his forehead and pressed a kiss there, trying not to go full Angry Sicilian Aunt as she felt just how cold his skin was. “I’m in Greenland because you’re in Greenland, baby. I wasn’t letting Harley come to get you without bringing me. I needed to make sure you were okay, right? Can’t just- sit on the. Sit home. Wondering-” she cut off, recognizing the manic hint her voice was taking on. She cleared her throat. “I told you, I’ll always be here to pick you up from bad parties.”
“Mm,” Peter said, blinking slowly. “Bad party.”
May, for a quick moment, had to toy with her body’s response to that statement like a sound mixer in a studio, flipping switches and pulling levers and making the rough, pitchy words she wanted to shout into something sweeter, more in tune with what Peter needed. No use yelling at her boy when he was basically in the hypothermic version of shock. “I had to borrow a different ride. The Toyanda wasn’t going to make it this far.”
“Maybe if we pu’floats on it, like in that really, really, really old movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” said Peter. His eyes shot wide open as if he’d been shocked, and he slapped at Tony’s metal-encased thigh. “Harleyharleyharley,” he said, as if that was Harley’s full name; as if somehow the image of the dilapidated car had reminded him of his brother. “Need Harley.”
May rolled her eyes. That was her boy, alright. She turned over her shoulder to see where Harley had gotten tied up. He was leaning on those damn crutches still, carefully prying at the back seams of the War Machine armor with a crowbar to force it to disengage. It snapped open like a Polly Pocket outfit and Harley wiped his brow, grinning at Rhodey as the Colonel slapped his back in thanks before waddling towards the bathroom.
“I just turned War Machine’s armor into assless chaps,” Harley announced, eyes searching for the person he knew would truly appreciate that joke— where he was laid flat and grey and blue-lipped and rumpled and surrounded by heating pads, in a dead suit with a sweatshirt and a windbreaker draped over top like blankets, neither of which belonged to him.
Harley’s heart stuttered and he crossed to Peter’s side as quickly as the crutches allowed, not bothering to apologize as he pushed through the defrosting Avengers.
“Hey, Chicken Little,” Peter said blearily when he caught Harley in his line of sight, waving his hand around in the air until Harley moved his face forward and let Peter squish his cheeks. “Sugar pie, honey bunch. I’ve got sunshine. Sweet Caroline- bum bum buuuum! Talkin’ ‘bout my gi- uh, talkin’ ‘bout Harley. Harley!”
“Lend me some sugar— I am your neighbor!” Peter sang passionately.
“I resent being compared to a neighbor when we literally share a bed, six nights of seven.” He looked at Peter’s expectant expression. Rolled his eyes. Begrudgingly said, “alrightalrightalrightalrightalright.”
Peter gave a quiet little whoop of excitement— all he could manage in his exhausted state.
Harley pressed Peter’s hand more firmly against his cheek. Small, and smooth, and frigidly cold. Like marble. Like the shit the Renaissance artists carved and called gods. “You good, buddy?”
“I’m alright,” said Peter, like a wiseass. “My brain is swollen and my ribs make Rice Krispies noises when I move. But I’m great.”
Harley winced. “I’m real sorry it took me so long to get here.”
Steve was staring at him from across the jet, half-focused, rummaging through the glove compartment. (Harley found it really hard to take heroes seriously when their flying war jets had glove compartments full of caramel candies and several copies of Elton John’s Greatest Hits CD.) Steve let out a quiet little ha! and pulled out a handful of smushed granola bars that looked like they had been around while Napoleon was still marching his little baby boots across the Danube, tossing them around to the team. May had to duck out of the way of one that hit Tony right in the face.
“Hey,” Tony said. “Armful of Spider-Baby, here.”
“M’not a baby,” Peter mumbled.
“Harley,” Steve said finally, as if he had done all the thinking he could and still hadn’t reached an answer. “How did you fly the Quinjet?”
“I skimmed the manual before leaving,” Harley said with a shrug, as if letting them all know he had learned how to fold an origami fortune teller. “As soon as I got the notif- which took for-frickin’-ever, Tony, so I fixed that glitch for you, too- I started reading. It wasn’t hard, an idiot could’ve riddled that shit out. But. That’s why it took me so long to get here. Had to learn how to fly the bitch first.”
Peter yanked on Harley’s arm. “Dude,” he said approvingly.
Harley patted his hand. “Thanks, Petey.”
Everyone else mumbled some sentiment along the same lines, Natasha squinting at Harley in a way that gave Tony anxiety because it was a calculative sort of look, a what can I do with this sort of look, the kind of look that meant Harley was probably going to end up in an iron suit of his own, flying around the city alongside Spider-Man and calling himself Iron Lad or some shit. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been training with Natasha every goddamn weekend since he’d found out Peter was Spider-Man. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t beat his lanky, awkward limbs into something almost graceful, powerful. Lithely muscular, using elbows and knees to his advantage where he lacked blunt force. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t capable, because, God, he was.
It was just that Tony dreaded it. He dreaded it so much.
Tony jumped up onto the bench beside Peter. Peter peered up at him through his lashes and strained his neck to lift his head. Tony knew the silent request. He scooted until his lap was beneath Peter’s head, his hand buried in Peter’s curls.
He didn’t think he could handle having two kids on the front lines like that. Fuck the world. His kids mattered more. Kill him for it. Sue him for every cent. He couldn’t lose them. He couldn’t lose them.
He reached out the hand that wasn’t anchored in Peter’s curls. Harley caught the message and sat down heavily next to Tony, crutches clattering to the floor, pulling Peter’s limp legs into his lap. Tony drew Harley closer, dropping a quick kiss into his fluffy waves, hoping it communicated the things he was too spent to say.
May took that as an invitation and clambered onto the bench herself, sprawling on Harley’s other side, grabbing Peter’s feet and holding onto them.
Tony wanted to shout, hold tighter. Keep them here, like this, forever.
Keep them safe forever.
He settled for swearing it to himself. He met May’s eyes over their heads and knew instantly the sentiment was reciprocated. Goddamnit. Their boys.
May reached out a hand and squeezed Tony’s shoulder.
At least he knew the weight of it all was spread between them. Two sets of narrow shoulders, both beaten down by grief. In this together.
May and him. Peter and Harley.
He spared a look down at their boys, Peter jabbering away at Harley, who looked equal parts perplexed and fond, and knew. Of course. Of course. No matter what— freezing limbs or gunshot wounds. It was all worth it.