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sweet child o' mine

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When May Parker’s phone rings at eight thirty-six in the evening, she is in a shareholder’s meeting, Pepper Potts on one side and actuarial scientist Isobel Balfour on the other. This may sound like nothing particularly special, but being the brunt of two redheaded glares is nothing to rub your nose at. It’s like they’re gorgons. May is the statue, in this metaphor. A pantsuit-wearing, chamomile-sipping statue.

 

“Uh,” May says eloquently. Six months as Pepper’s shadow- three of which as the Manager of Advertisement for frickin’ Stark Industries- what is her life?? - and she still isn’t quite sure how to handle things like this. Especially considering these meetings are very important. But her phone is singing out Dean Martin’s Mambo Italiano , which is her ringtone for Tony, which means something is probably wrong , because if it isn’t wrong, he video chats her, and her ringtone for that is Sinatra’s Jeepers Creepers

 

This is all a science May has calculated, necessary because, before, she had accidentally ignored two separate Peter is concussed and bleeding and asking for you phone calls thinking that it was Tony asking her if she had seen the last episode of the Bachelorette. 

 

Pepper looks at her. She loves Pepper almost as much as she has come to love Tony but she is infinitely more afraid of the former. In fact, the idea of anyone at all being afraid of Tony nearly makes her laugh. He’s a baked potato with butter. He couldn’t be more wholesome. But Pepper? She’s Sweet Chili Doritos. She’s forgetting that you ate Sweet Chili Doritos, itching your face, and getting Chili dust in your eyes. She’s the scariest person May has ever met. 

 

May looks up to Pepper, but she doesn’t want to be like Pepper, because she would feel rather guilty if she ever made anyone’s insides writhe with a look the way Pepper is doing to her right now. And this is Pepper with someone she likes . May can’t imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of a Pepper-glare when she isn’t pleased to be in your presence. 

 

Isobel Balfour huffs but gives a wry grin. “I think that’s a sign this meeting is done. It’s too late for this anyway. Shall we reconvene tomorrow at, say, nine?”

 

Pepper begins to wrangle her papers from where they lie in neat stacks on the table-top. “Fine. Tomorrow at nine, same place. Hopefully we can finally tie this up.” Then, mumbled, only for herself, “at least now I have the chance to run to the grocer before bed, God knows my idiot fiance didn’t go.”

 

There is a murmur of assent and the suits all collect themselves. The number of briefcases in the room is enough to make May want to roll her eyes. There are more practical ways to carry papers and laptops. Briefcases are antiquated, and not in a fashionable, it’s coming back in style way. 

 

May unabashedly carries her work shit in a tote bag the size of her entire torso. It is patterned like a worn, oriental rug, all crimson and gold and clover-green. It is the perfect bag: it goes with all of her clothes- blues and browns and blacks, which is so rare for an accessory- and carries everything she could possibly need. There’s a string inside that she attaches her keys to, and a big zipper-pocket in the middle that she keeps her laptop in. 

 

The bag is excellent. If she could only find her phone in it. 

 

The other board members are sort of tittering, shaking their heads with tight-lipped little smiles, and May wants to say ha, fuck you, but she won’t, because she has manners.

 

Just as Dean Martin starts mumbling about trying an enchilada with da fish a bac a lab , or whatever the hell, May finds her phone. She praises every deity there ever was and picks it up, slinging her bag over her shoulder and shooting out the door, sparing only a quick little wave for Pepper.

 

“Hey-?”

 

We have a problem ,” says Tony before May can even finish greeting him. 

 

In all her hustle she has forgotten to be nervous, but, now, as she strides down the long white hallways and towards the tall white elevator, her heart gives a jolt so strong that it makes her cough. “Explain,” she says.

 

Tony ,” comes a muffled voice that very blatantly does not belong to Tony. “ Can we please play now? ” 

 

There’s a scuffle, a muffled, “ one second, kiddo, talking to May ,” and then Tony returns. “ I’m switching to a video call ,” he says, and though that would normally imply to May that she has nothing to worry about, something about it gives her more anxiety. 

 

She hammers on the elevator buttons, as if the added ferocity will make the damn thing move more quickly. 

 

“Sweet Jesus,” she mutters. 

 

The call swaps to video, a too-close angle of Tony’s face filling up her screen. “Oh, that’s lovely,” she says dryly, staring up his left nostril. 

 

Tony glares down at her, eyes narrowed and brows knotted. There’s something off, though. 

 

May prides herself in the fact that she has become quite good at reading one Tony Stark over the almost two years her son has been involved with him. Because, as her son became involved , she did by result. 

 

It started with a weekly coffee meet-up, May still pissed to high heaven about Tony being a provocateur in her son’s vigilante career. Tony gave her the rundown of Peter’s activity, both on the streets and in the lab, and May grumbled about enabling idiocy and whatever else she felt like grumbling about. 

 

And then Peter was really hurt for the first time, and Tony had spent the entire surgery sitting in a plastic chair with his head in his hands, shaking and breathing as if trying to catch air around a boulder. That was the first time May understood Tony wasn’t just using Peter. He cared about him, in his weird, repressed sort of way. That was the impetus to her opening her heart a bit. They had him over for dinner once weekly, and that escalated into a bring Pepper, too, sort of deal. And then Harley had showed up, and, by then, May and Tony had somehow reached a place where they were hanging out four days a week.

 

Then the hospital started cutting its staff, and, wine drunk and a little soft after Tony cooked her his mother’s recipe for pasta e fagioli con prosciutto ( welcome to Napoli, we eat dirt cheap cuisine and pretend it’s refined by adding a mountain of parmiggiano on top of everything , he had said while shaving cheese over her bowl), May had worried about it to him. And suddenly Pepper had bullied her into working at Stark Industries. What

 

She’s stopped denying it, now. They see each other practically daily, her and Tony, and it’s entirely of their own volition. She kinda loves him, in a weird way. He’s a wonderful man, even though he’s a headass jerk. She’s headass, too, so it works. They watch movies and rant about their boys and drink carefully monitored amounts of wine. They have spats in Italian, him in Napoletano and her and Siciliano and they really try to understand what the other is saying but every Italian dialect is a different language in and of itself so they just end up laughing over how stupid they sound, squinting at each other in confusion and repeating words like they’re trying to teach a baby to speak. 

 

He’s, like, her brother. The thought is odious. The thought is wonderful. He’s good for her. She didn’t have much family except Ben and his relatives. He cares about her, and he obviously treasures Peter. They’re lucky to have him.

 

He’s lucky to have them .

 

And, by the look on his face, May is starting to think his luck is about to run dry.

 

“Tell me,” she says. 

 

“Um.”

 

“Tony.” The elevator dings, stopping at the floor of the common room.

 

Seeyouinasecond, gottagobye ,” says Tony and hangs up. 

 

Che scoreggia ,” she marvels aloud.

 

The doors open. 

 

She steps out and freezes.

 

Tony Stark is standing ten feet away from the elevator, facing it as if he was waiting for the doors to open, and there is a child in his arms. A child with enormous eyes the color of wet dirt and chestnut hair falling in loose little waves over his forehead. Pale skin, pink cheeks, freckled nose. So small and thin that he could probably be bowled right over by a pat on the back, drowning in a t-shirt for someone four times his age, three times his size. 

 

Initial shock. And then another layer of shock, because, shit , she knows that child. She would know that child anywhere. She fucking raised that child.

 

“Tony,” she says.

 

“Remember I told you about how Uncle Majic and his hip hop magician back-up dancers kidnapped Crutchie a few weeks ago?” Tony says. He gives May no room to answer. “Yeah, well, they’re back, and there’s more of them. I got a notification from FRIDAY twenty minutes ago that she got a distress signal from Harley’s panic watch- your kid didn’t have his on, by the way, and he’s so grounded for it- so I went and tracked them and I find them sitting next to a dumpster, crying, literally four years old ,” Tony says this quite emphatically, as if May couldn’t see that already, “and Peter calms down when I get there but Harley flips out because he’s scared of men-”

 

“He’s scared of men,” May repeats. She realizes there is a lot to unpack with this situation. She figures she should start with the least complicated stuff. 

 

Tony winces. “He probably doesn’t want you knowing, but his dad was the biggest putz on this side of the Mississippi. Poor thing is scared to death that I’m gonna hurt him.”

 

Two waves smack May across the face at once: one, tropical water boiling with the desire to find Mister Keener, stick an umbrella up his asshole, and then open it ; one icy with dread knowing that Harley could go through that and still turn out the way he is— kind and caring to a fault, and funny, and intelligent, and, God, it speaks wonders of his trust in Tony for them to have gotten so close despite everything. 

 

It turns out that bit is not at all the least complicated part of the situation.

 

“I already called Happy in a goddamn panic,” Tony says, struggling to keep a wriggling Peter from falling off of his arm. “He’s bringing clothes and food and toys. I texted Bruce and Helen and they’ll both be here in the morning, and Steven Strange- he’s basically Dumbledore but worse - he’ll be here by tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll start figuring out where to go from there. I want them checked out by the real doctors first to make sure nothing negatively affected their bodies when they shrunk down. Bones and stuff. Harley’s leg wound, since it was mostly healed; I don’t want it exacerbated any more. Strained muscles, I don’t know. I don’t know, May,” he repeats, and he looks so helpless that May can’t help but cross to him, plant a kiss on his cheek, say, “hi, Tony,” and pull Peter from his arms. 

 

“Hi, May,” he mumbles, but the relief in his voice is only slight. 

 

“Hey, baby,” she says, managing to grin down at the little version of her boy in her arms. “You remember me?”

 

“Duh!” he exclaims. She’s instantly transported back ten years, when duh was his favorite word to squeak out in that thin voice of his. A smartass straight from the womb. He had gotten that from Mary. “You’re Aunt May. Are we- are we- are we gonna have fun?”

 

Oh, baby. The stutter is back. It was a developmental thing at first- too many smart things to say all at once, his mouth couldn’t keep up with his brain- but evolved into a psychogenic stutter as he lost his parents. It was never debilitating, and it faded with time. It was almost completely gone by the time he started high school. She hopes it doesn’t frustrate him to have to maneuver it again (because it socks her right between the eyes with affection so potent it’s dizzying).

 

She can’t help the grin that crawls across her face. Maybe this whole thing is a gift from the universe. A wonderful gift, for a short period of time, because this is going to get fixed . It will. Tony is going to fix this. She trusts him. 

 

Or she’ll go and find the wizards herself and snap all their wands- do real wizards use wands? - and then kick their noses in for good measure. 

 

In the meantime, she is going to sit here with her favorite boy in toddler form- a form of him she never got to raise- and love the shit out of him. “Yeah, Petey,” she says, and drops a kiss on his forehead. “We’re gonna have so much fun . You, and me, and Tony, and Harley. Okay?”

 

“Okay!” Peter says, then frowns. “Harley’s hiding ‘cause he’s scared,” he says matter-of-factly. “I tried to- tried to help him feel better, but he ran away. I think I know w-where he is, though.”

 

Tony takes a cautious step forward. Peter senses it and turns his head, a massive grin splitting his face. He reaches out an arm, and his dimpled hand opens and closes like he’s summoning Tony closer. 

 

May’s heart melts. 

 

Tony takes another step towards them, clearly comforted by Peter’s reaction. “You think you know where he is, buddy?” Tony says. “I bet you do. You know him better than anyone.”

 

Peter gives a bouncy nod. “Mmhmm,” he says. “He’s my most favorite person. I bet he’s where he always goes when he gets sad. Sometimes,” Peter slips into a whisper, leaning forward as if conspiring. “Sometimes when he gets bad dreams, he gets out of bed and he thinks he doesn’t w...wake me up, but he always does, and he goes and hides, and sometimes I let him go alone ‘cause I think he wants to be alone when he’s sad. But sometimes he w...w-uh, gets me when he’s really sad and we look at the sky together because it makes him happy.”

 

Tony and May share a look. “Uh, we’ll get back to that later, because that is very important information that we are going to address when you’re grown up again,” Tony says. 

 

Peter looks at them solemnly. “I think he’s in the laundry room. He goes b’tween the w-washer and the drier and he sits there. I think he likes the bum bum bum sound they make.”

 

Something in May’s chest goes tight. “I bet you’re right, baby,” she says. “Let’s go get him, okay?”

 

Peter nods, and taps May’s shoulder twice. She takes this as a cue to put him down. He jumps as soon as he’s on the ground, like he’s so excited to be there, and May wonders if she would have been able to handle him in full baby form. She wants to say yes, but, really. He’s like a little rocket. 

 

May goes to follow, and holds an arm behind her for Tony to take. A few steps. Her arm is still empty, which, what the heck, Tony, they’re supposed to be in this together. 

 

“Uh,” she prompts.

 

He looks tormented. “I don’t know if I should be there,” he says quietly. “He doesn’t trust me at all. You didn’t see him, it was like- he forgot who I am. Even though Peter didn’t.” Something terrible crosses Tony’s face. “Peter still knows us, so Harley must ,” he says. “And Peter still feels the same way about us. What if. What if this means that Harley is always this scared of me? And he just hides it?”

 

May can’t help the indignant scowl that crosses her face. “Do you really think that’s even a little bit true?” she asks. “Be honest. With me, and yourself.”

 

“Uh, yeah , May, I do, because that is what the scientific analysis of this situation dictates.”

 

“Science, schmience. Sounds like hooey to me. Harley loves you, Tony, you know that,” she says. “He’s just in the body of a kid who doesn’t know who he can trust yet. You need to go to him and show him that he can trust you. Take it from someone who worked in a hospital and raised an orphan, Nino ,” she says, walking back towards him. She squeezes his wrist in one hand. “Kids have a hard time distinguishing special circumstances from normality. They think that if one person hurt them, everyone will. Go prove that you’re different.”

 

“May,” he says weakly, and here is the crux. “I don’t know how to be different. My dad was like his, I don’t- I don’t know how to act around kids.”

 

She raises her eyebrows. “You know exactly how to act around kids. You listen to your heart. If it’s all mushy and gross, you act all mushy and gross to them. If they act up and your heart gets all tight, you take a deep breath and then ask them calmly to change their behavior. If you feel out of your element, it’s because you are,” she says frankly. “We all are. Hell, I still am, even now. And you’re great with them. They both adore you, even though you hate to see that.”

 

Tony frowns, still looks unsure. 

 

“And I’m right here with you the whole time,” May reminds him, pulsing a squeeze around his wrist. 

 

The smallest of smiles ghosts over the corner of his lips. “Yeah. Okay. But if Harley freaks out and I start crying, you’re gonna have to deal with that.”

 

“As if I haven’t seen you cry before,” May scoffs, and nudges him with an elbow. “We watched Coco together. I’ve seen the full breadth of your emotions.”

 

“That movie is an artistic keystone in the world of animated film,” Tony says, pointing an emphatic finger at her. “It deserves every award it got and more.”

 

May snorts a fond laugh just as Peter comes padding back in from the hallway. “Come on, you guys!” he says, throwing his little arms out. “We gotta get Harley and make him happy!”

 

Tony leans over and throws his arms up to mirror Peter. “You’re absolutely right, buddy! Can you lead the way?”

 

“Yes!” Peter says, and gives a little jump. He scrambles ahead of them once more and Tony calls, “don’t run! Sock feet!”

 

May turns and gives him a pointed look. 

 

“Shut up,” he says, and nudges her with his elbow as he walks by.

 

She shakes her head and follows. 

 

Peter, of course, knows exactly what he’s doing. No matter how old he is, he knows Harley like he knows his own hands. 

 

The door to the laundry room is shut when they get there. Through the wood, May can just hear the echoes of sniffly little hiccups. It makes her throat constrict. She’s a sympathetic crier, and she just knows this is going to kick her ass so hard. 

 

Oh, Harley. What a twerp. How he managed to slink his way into the shadows under their hearts and burrow there, building a home, she would never know. His sadness is like Peter’s for her, and almost as potent: it’s as if she is the one trapped in a body she doesn’t know, a genius intellect stuck at three-feet-tall and unable to communicate his big thoughts through his littler brain.

 

Harley is, indeed, wedged between the washer and drier, a hamper pulled out of the way to make room for him to sit. The lights are off, the room murky save for the glow that comes from the illuminated buttons of the machine. 

 

All May can feel is stunned.

 

Harley was always tall. Ever since May first met him. But he’s even taller recently, hitting six-feet, all gangly and bony and sprightly. 

 

Kid Harley is absolutely miniscule. Smaller than Peter, even, which is saying a lot.

 

He’s bird-like, wraith-like , one with the shadows. His hair is a little overgrown and hangs in his eyes. His collarbones jut out of the neck of the button shirt that doesn’t fit him anymore. His nose is tiny, his lips pink and broad, and his eyes take up half of his face, mournful and red-rimmed and shiny. 

 

Peter taps his fist on the doorframe. “Knocky knocky, can I come in?”

 

Harley sniffles and rubs his nose with the back of his hand.

 

Peter takes that to be a yes , apparently, because he gallops his way into the room and sits hard on the ground directly across from Harley. “Hi, hi Harley,” he says. “I missed you. I brought some friends.”

 

Harley leans forward and whispers something too quietly for May to hear. 

 

“Aunt May!” Peter exclaims, and it isn’t a summons but May’s knee-jerk reaction is to go running when Peter calls her so she peeks further into the doorway.

 

Harley gasps a little and May swears he sags with relief. “May, May, May, May,” he says, and his little hands make grabby fists as he reaches for her.

 

May loves Harley. She does . No matter whether or not Harley loves her back. That’s just how love works with her. But. Fuck. Doesn’t this mean everything? That he sees her and immediately wants her closer?

 

She knows Harley likes her, sure. Liking is all well and good, but this? God. Maybe he loves her back, too. Maybe he looks up to her, finds comfort from her. 

 

There are few thoughts that have ever made her this happy so immediately. 

 

Kids. Instant gratification.

 

She goes to him, stepping carefully over Peter. The plan was to pull him out of the gap- how the fresh fuck does he fit in there when he’s full-sized? - and let him cool off in the open. But the way his eyes widen and shoulders stiffen when she reaches for him tells her enough. 

 

She sits across from him instead, lifting Peter into her lap. Making an example. “Hey, sweetheart,” she coos. “You wanna come out here with me and Pete?”

 

Harley shrugs, but, after a moment, he inches out of the shadowy gap. 

 

Peter bounces where he sits. He holds his arms straight out as if urging Harley to sit on top of his lap, on top of May’s lap. 

 

Harley considers this for a second. He looks from May, to Peter, to Tony’s figure where he sits behind May and to the side, as if trying to stay in Harley’s field of vision without actually approaching him. 

 

He comes. He squishes himself beside Peter, their knees digging into May’s stomach and her thighs but she couldn’t care less because Harley is pressing his little face into her chest and has a hand looped in the fabric of Peter’s shirt and he gives a breathy little sigh that almost sounds like relief and that is everything

 

“Hi, May,” he mumbles into her blouse. 

 

“Hi, peaches,” she says, and presses a stream of kisses into the top of his head. 

 

She can feel Tony looking at them. She knows it’s not any sort of damning look, but the jealousy sits like smoke in the air and May wants to swipe at it, shush it away. She wants to tell Tony it’s a process, wants to tell him to understand these sorts of struggles work in mysterious ways, wants to tell him it took Peter weeks after moving in with her and Ben to stop asking when they were going to leave him. 

 

“Do you w-wanna say hi to Tony, too?” Peter says, all wide eyes and excitement. He doesn’t get it. Of course he doesn’t: in no world should a four-year-old have to understand this, much less feel it .

 

“You don’t have to,” Tony says before May is able to interject. “You do whatever makes you comfortable, okay? I’ll sit right here if you want to come over, and I’ll go if you want me to leave.”

 

Harley peers over May’s shoulder. Now that he’s here, in her arms, he looks far less scared , more like he’s wary. Like he’s expecting something bad to come but he’s resigned to it, like he’s tired . Like the sky has tipped forward onto his narrow little shoulders, but he carries it without complaint, because that’s just the way it is .

 

“You don’t gotta go,” Harley says. 

 

It’s like a fucking blessing.

 

“Okay,” Tony breathes. He blinks rapidly for a moment. “Okay. But if you change your mind, you let me know. I just want you to feel safe.”

 

The most terrible expression crosses over Harley’s face. As if that’s the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard in his whole life . Safe. Ha. A farce.

 

Boss?” comes FRIDAY’s voice, hushed, as if she knows to be careful.

 

Even with the low volume, it makes Harley jump. 

 

“It’s just FRIDAY,” Peter whispers to Harley, “just Tony’s A.I., remember?”

 

Harley nods a little. “I like her.”

 

“She likes you, too,” says Peter.

 

“Right here, FRI,” says Tony. “What’s up?”

 

Mister Hogan has arrived with the supplies you asked him to pick up. He was wondering if you need him to stay, or if he should leave. ” FRIDAY pauses. “ He would like me to add that he desperately wants to see the boys as babies, for ‘the memes.’”

 

May and Tony share a glance. “Uh,” Tony says.

 

Peter is bouncing in May’s lap again. “Happyhappyhappy,” he says. “I want to see Happy.” He turns to Harley, whose eyes are wide.

 

May just wants to cry for him, the poor thing. She cannot even begin to imagine how exhausting this must be. 

 

“Do you want to see Happy?” Peter asks Harley. 

 

“You don’t have to say yes,” May says. “It’s completely, a million percent okay if you don’t.”

 

Harley looks between them all. Mashes his lips together. Nods.

 

“Yay,” says Peter. “Yay!” He scrambled out of May’s lap and jumps at Tony, knocking him backwards onto the floor with a dull thud. “Yay!” he says again, just for good measure, as Tony gives a rumbling laugh from below him. 

 

“Jeez, Petey,” says Tony, looking up at Peter with something like galaxies in his eyes. “You’re strong, for a little elf.”

 

“Not an elf,” Peter tells him, and then squeezes Tony’s nose in his little hand. “I w...wa,” he cuts off. “Let’s go see Happy.”

 

“FRIDAY, my dear, my darling. Tell Mister Hogan that we will be right there,” Tony says. He makes a big deal of sitting up with the added weight of Peter in his arms, groaning but squeezing Peter against his chest, keeping him in his arms even after they stand.

 

May has a hand in Harley’s hair. It smells like detergent from sitting here so long. “Are you sure you want to see him?” she whispers. “You can change your mind.”

 

Harley nods again, careful not to jar her hand from his head.

 

“Okay,” she says, biting back a sigh, standing up and following Tony and Peter out of the laundry room. 

 

Happy is waiting for them in the living room, sitting on the couch with an absolute battalion of plastic bags around him. 

 

Peter squints and then crows, “Happy!” throwing his arms up when he sees him, nearly pitching his way sideways out of Tony’s arms. 

 

“Oh, my god,” says Happy, standing up slowly. “Oh, this is too good. I will never forget this moment.”

 

Peter wriggles his way out of Tony’s grasp and runs over to Happy, clambering over plastic bags on the way. He wraps his arms around one of Happy’s legs and murmurs, “Happyhappyhappy,” and May is beginning to seriously wonder whether this whole threes thing is undiagnosed OCD in her kid. 

 

Happy stiffens, then visibly melts. “Hey, Peter. How are you feeling?”

 

“Good!” he says, then, “w...will you pick me up so I can gi-ive you hugs?”

 

Happy frowns and looks at May, but complies. “You got a stutter, kid?”

 

“He did when he was younger,” says May, bouncing Harley on her hip. He has a hand fisted in her blouse, but he looks otherwise calm, if shy. “He grew out of it, mostly.”

 

Peter is repeatedly squeezing Happy’s nose, making a little honk noise each time. Happy looks pleased about it. 

 

“That’s okay,” says Happy nasally through a squeeze. “You’ll grow back out of it,” he says to Peter, who beams and then plants a kiss on Happy’s cheek. Happy goes ruddy red and says, “now that’s too far,” but he’s grinning so wide that it’s absolutely unbelievable. He looks over at Harley, then. “No hello hugs from Chicken Little?” he says.

 

Harley hides behind May’s hair. 

 

Happy freezes for a moment. “He’s shy? ” 

 

Tony winces. “You could say that, sure.”

 

Happy stares at Tony. “Are you sure that’s the right kid? That is not our Harley.”

 

Harley mumbles something unintelligible. May brings her ear closer to his mouth to hear it. 

 

“‘M still Harley,” he says crossly. “Tell him he looks like Santa wif’ a bad nose job.”

 

May throws her head back and laughs out loud. “Oh my god. There you are, peaches,” she says, and can’t help but plant a kiss on top of his head. “He wants me to tell you that you look like Santa with a bad nose job,” she tells Happy.

 

Happy’s affronted yelp wrangles a giggle out of Harley, so quiet that it’s mostly just the bouncing of his chest that tips her off to it. 

 

“Well,” sniffs Happy. “I can tell I’m not welcome here.”

 

“No!” yells Peter. “Don’t go, Happy, stay and play with us.”

 

Happy looks down at Peter softly. “I should probably go anyway, kid. It’s getting late. I’m going to go pick Pepper up from Trader Joe’s, and then I’m going to go to bed , like you should , because you’re a kid now and should have a bedtime .” He blinks. “Oh my god. Who just possessed me, Estelle from Seinfeld?

 

Peter frowns. “I don’t know who that is.”

 

Happy tickles his stomach, earning a shrill scream of laughter. “All your movie references and yet you don’t know anything about the golden age of late night TV. I’m not surprised.” 

 

“He was too young for Seinfeld even before this fiasco,” May says. 

 

“Yeah, speaking of,” says Happy with a frown. “What exactly is the plan? Who knows about this?”

 

Tony cracks his neck. “Well, Bruce and Helen are coming in the early morning. Stephen Strange will be here tomorrow night to see if he can magic them back to normal. I’m hoping that between the four of us, we’ll be able to figure it out.”

 

“You didn’t tell the team,” Happy says.

 

“Nope.”

 

“Tony,” says Happy shrewdly. “You know they can probably help.”

 

“How?” Tony throws his arms up. “It’s magic, Hap, they can’t do magic. Thank God, because it would really bruise my ego if they could.”

 

“I bet Steve would know how to fix it,” Happy says with a sigh. 

 

“You always say that to me. Stop saying that to me,” says Tony, pointing emphatically. “You say that every time something goes wrong and it hurts my feelings because I am equally as valid as a human being as Steve Rogers is and about fourteen more times as valid as a scientist.”

 

Happy shakes his head and goes to put Peter down, but pauses before he can to plant a quick kiss on top of Peter’s head. “You’ll be good for Tony and your aunt, right?”

 

“The best,” Peter promises.

 

Happy looks at Harley where he clutches to May. “You too, kiddo, okay?”

 

Harley nods, and then waves at Happy. 

 

Happy presses a hand to his chest and mirrors the motion. “My heart is weak. They’re so little. And sweet. I thought this was gonna be way funnier than it is.”

 

“It’s not funny at all,” agrees Tony. “I have about seventeen new cavities already.”

 

“Dental hygiene,” murmurs Harley, and May snorts.

 

“Alright,” says Happy reluctantly. “I’ll head out. If I missed anything on the list or you end up needing extra help, give me a call.”

 

Tony steps forward and squeezes Happy’s hands in his. “You’re a champ, Hap. I’ll call you when everything works out.”

 

Happy leaves, and so they dive into the bags, unearthing boxes upon boxes of toys and puzzles and Legos, pre-made soups and breakfasts, and a few pieces of clothing for each boy. May can’t help but coo at how absolutely tiny the clothes are— and, yet, they’ll have to be cuffed and rolled to fit both of the boys for how much smaller they are than what Happy had pictured.

 

Harley sits himself next to May on the couch, Peter and Tony mashed into an armchair together, as they divvy up the pajamas and boxers and such. 

 

“Harley likes these better,” says Peter, holding up a pajama set emblazoned with Spongebob Squarepants. 

 

Harley squints across the room, eyes nearly closed from how hard he strains.

 

“What’s wrong, hon?” Tony says gently, seeing Harley’s struggle.

 

“Can’t see well,” Harley whispers.

 

“Oh,” May says. “Oh, Harley , honey. You could have told us. I didn’t know you needed your glasses when you were this young.”

 

He shrugs.

 

“Baby,” May realizes suddenly, looking towards Peter. “Don’t you need your glasses, too? And your inhaler?”

 

Peter squirms. 

 

“Oh, my god. Kid,” Tony says, turning Peter in his lap to face towards him. He looks at Harley, too, but Harley moves so he’s behind May’s shoulder, which cuts that off ever so nicely. He turns back to Peter. “You’re gonna have to remind me and May of that stuff, okay? It’s a little hard for us to read your mind through all this ,” Tony says, scrubbing his hands through Peter’s hair and weaseling a little squeak out of him. “Plus, we didn’t know you as well back when you were four the first time. You have to help us to know what you need. Deal?”

 

Peter nods. “Deal,” he says, and his cheeks are pink. 

 

“Good. We’ll have Bruce and Helen help us out with that tomorrow, and just carefully wing it ‘til then.” Tony stands, stretches an arm out, and grabs Peter around the waist, swinging him around in his arms until he’s upside down, screaming shrill and giggling wild and scrabbling for a hold on the front of Tony’s shirt. “We’ll just carry you around like this in the meantime!” Tony says. 

 

Peter’s laughter is remembering you have your favorite ice cream in the freezer after a bad day. It’s July rain and most especially the moment after it’s done, when the sun is like I am here, I am here, and the pavement is riddled with oily puddles that smirk with little bits of rainbow. 

 

God. May loves him.

 

There is a pull on the leg of her slacks. She tears her gaze away from Peter and Tony. Harley is sat there, eyes blown wide with fear, fist locked around her pants. 

 

“Hey, honey,” she breathes, leaning closer. As soon as she’s level with him, he drops her pants in favor of putting a hand on her cheek.

 

“Is Petey okay?” he whispers, and she can feel his palm shaking on her face.

 

Something in her heart snaps and she wonders how the hell Harley’s mother could have lived like this, slowly traumatizing her child rather than throwing his father out. There is no excuse in her mind. Nothing could make this worthwhile. “Yes, baby, see? He’s just laughing. Tony’s playing with him, that’s all.”

 

Harley looks back at them, and his little fingers tap a beat on May’s cheek. “Oh,” he says, just as quietly. “He sounded scared.”

 

May holds an arm out to see if Harley wants to come closer. He does, clambering half-into her lap, pressing his nose into her neck and wrapping his arms around her shoulders. His skin is freezing cold. She rubs her hands up and down his back, hoping the friction will do something to both warm and comfort him. “Can I tell you a big secret?” May says to him.

 

He pulls his face out of her neck so he can nod at her. His eyes are so blue, so round, that they look like two cups of Mediterranean water. 

 

She looks right at him solemnly, as much as his gaze makes her feel like she’s burning at the stake. “Tony is one of the nicest people in the whole world , and that’s a scientific fact,” she says. “I know he’s kinda scary-looking, with that ugly mug of his,” she prods Harley in the stomach, and she can swear he almost laughs, watching her so intently that it’s frightening to think he would trust anyone this much after what his father had done, “but he would never, ever hurt you. He loves you so much, just like I love you, and Peter loves you, and Pepper and Rhodey do.”

 

Harley burrows back into her neck. She has an idea.

 

“Hey, Harley?”

 

He hums a little against her skin.

 

“How about I go grab you a sweatshirt from your room, okay? I bet you’re cold. I’ll be right back.”

 

He pulls away like the space between them is stretching taffy. His eyes are wide. 

 

May smoothes a thumb over his cheekbone. “I’ll just be a second, I promise. Are you gonna be okay?”

 

Harley shoots a glance at Tony out of the corner of his eye, then looks back at May. He shrugs.

 

She smiles at him, as wide and sweet as she can muster. Rip off the bandaid, May. She stands, grabs the pajamas to wash them quickly, and walks out of the room, letting a hand brush over Tony’s shoulder as she walks past him. She doesn’t turn around, but, if she had, she would have seen the panicked look he shoots her and the way he pulls his lip between his teeth like he plans to bite right through it. 

 

Tony sucks in a deep breath, holds it, presses his lips to Peter’s cheek, and blows a raspberry there. 

 

Peter’s squeal in response is enough to wrangle a smile out of him. 

 

Harley is just sitting there staring at them. As if he’s trying so hard to analyze the situation and it doesn’t make sense

 

Tony knows the feeling. He remembers the first time he met Mister Rhodes: a soft-faced, tall man with a scruffy grey beard and a child for each day of the week. (Tony had always imagined Rhodey as being a Thursday type of kid: school all day, not quite the weekend yet, but, with some finagling, you could probably manage to get smashed that night.) The man had grabbed Tony’s hand in his own and shook it, a firm thing but somehow infinitely warmer than every handshake he’d shared with his father’s friends and colleagues. He had then proceeded to stare straight into Tony’s soul and invite him over for every single holiday in one shot. Those two years of Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters were his two best. No drunk Howard throwing glasses of scotch at his head for dropping an ornament; no drunk Howard administering a tooth-rattling backhand for him having over-mashed the potatoes; no drunk Howard bruising his knee kicking him for having his elbows on the table (Tony can see the theme, now).

 

Harley is looking at him like he doesn’t know him. Or, like he knows him and yet doesn’t know him, doesn’t know what he is about or whether he can trust him.

 

Tony has a very specific, strangely clear memory of Jarvis- the human Jarvis- tending to him after one of these holiday evenings. He was biting back tears- Stark men don’t cry , and they didn’t back then, but now they sure do- and nursing a bruised wrist, swearing that he was damned and his life was for shit. The man had squatted down despite his poor knees, looked Tony right in the eye, and told him with levels of surety that could only come from aged wisdom that everything is going to be fine, Anthony, so long as you give yourself time and let it be

 

Tony loved Jarvis. Loves him, still. But Jarvis had a knack for arriving right after Howard had committed the deed, whatever it may have been. Always the servant, never the attendant.

 

Tony doesn’t want someone to have to clean up his messes. He never wants to make messes with his boys. Because he fucking loves them.

 

Tony drops slowly to his knees, trying to keep his expression as open as possible. Peter clambers down as soon as they’re close enough to the ground, and sends a wide grin to Harley.

 

“Hey, honey,” Tony says softly to Harley, and smiles, lips closed. “I was thinking we could play a game, if you want.”

 

Harley is looking. And he’s looking. 

 

And he’s crying.

 

Tony’s heart splits like it’s been cleaved right in two.

 

Peter whispers, “oh, no,” and then plods over to Harley. “Please don’t be sad,” he says, but Harley mashes his fists over his eyes and rubs at the tears.

 

Peter grabs Harley’s hand and, when he doesn’t pull away, says, “ this is the sadness police ,” in an exaggerated cop voice. “ I’m h...here to arrest anyone who is sad for a million bajillion years .” 

 

Harley gives him a look that is so Harley that it makes Tony ache. He never thought he’d see such a dry expression on a face so tiny.

 

Peter giggles at it. He lunges forward and plops a kiss onto Harley’s cheek, loud and wet. 

 

Harley’s nose wrinkles. He sniffles and says a quiet little, “cooties.”

 

Peter takes that as a cue to tackle Harley completely, landing on top of him and peppering his face with loud kisses and saying, “ this is your punishment for bein’ sad! A hundred hours in kiss jail! ” and Harley is suddenly laughing , a sweet, delicious thing that brings tears to Tony’s eyes. 

 

“No, no,” Harley chants, but his arms are wrapped as tightly around Peter’s shoulders as Peter’s are around him. Another giggle slips out, this one even freer than the last. 

 

Peter’s attack culminates when he lets all of the tension slip from his body and lays his full weight on Harley’s chest. 

 

Harley huffs, then squirms. “Off,” he says. His arms slip from around Peter, smack ever so gently down on his shoulders. Prompting him to move. Peter doesn’t listen. 

 

Then, terrifyingly, Harley’s features go slack. As if he’s resigning himself to something. It’s the expression he gets when he’s dissociating, usually. 

 

Tony calls quietly, “Peter. Up, kiddo.” 

 

Peter obeys. 

 

Tony looks from him to Harley- who is laying just as loosely on the couch as he was under Peter- back to Peter. 

 

“Peter, can you hold his hand? If he doesn’t look at you, squeeze it a little,” Tony says.

 

Peter hops right to it, worry beetling his little brows together. He loops his fingers between Harley’s. He’s humming a little under his breath, and Tony is approximately eighty-four percent sure that it’s the DuckTales theme. Figures.

 

Harley, thankfully, reacts to the contact. Unfortunately, it is with abject terror, skittering onto the floor and thumping into a wall while trying to distance himself. A harsh breath comes wheezing out of his throat, and his eyes shut tight. 

 

“Harleyharleyharley,” Peter says quietly, and crawls a little closer to him. “Please don’t be scared. S’just Tony and me. And w-we’re nice .”

 

Harley presses his hands to his face. “I know,” he whispers.

 

“Why are you scared?” Peter asks, and cocks his head to the side. 

 

Tony wonders if this is where he should interject, should cut this off before it becomes too raw for a pair of four-year-olds.

 

“Because I don’t want to get hurt,” Harley says, and Peter’s face falls.

 

“We would never, ever hurt you!” he exclaims, shaking his head wildly. His curls bounce. “I promise. You don’t gotta be scared of us.”

 

Harley peeks between the fingers of one of his hands. “You promise?”

 

Peter sits on his heels and marks the sign of the cross over his chest. “I swear. Even though I’m Jewish. Uncle Ben says that’s why I shouldn’t do the sign of the cross,” he adds covertly, “but Aunt May does it sometimes so I think it’s okay.”

 

Tony doesn’t even want to begin to unpack that, especially considering the kid is referring to his uncle- his very dead, most definitely deceased uncle- in the present tense.

 

Harley blinks, and then the smallest of smiles quirks the corners of his lips. “Okay,” he says softly. Still, he doesn’t quite look at Tony. He looks just a little to the left of him, even as he says, “can we still play the game?”

 

Tony’s chest aches. His left arm is actually tingling, which is just ever so slightly concerning. Kids. Holy shit. They’re kids.

 

“Yeah, buddy, of course,” he says. “We can absolutely play.”

 

Tony teaches them charades. It’s the best idea he has ever had. 

 

Peter is currently acting out something so unintelligible that Tony cannot even begin to think what it is. The coffee table is set up with any object he can find, from kitchen utensils to the nice candlesticks Pepper bought for holiday decorating but never came down after Christmas. His arms are out like a zombie, and he’s knocking everything over in what looks like a clumsy attempt to grab them. Four syllables, movie. 

 

Harley is bouncing on his knees. “Ratatatouille!” he says, and the extra syllable makes Tony want to melt down into his seat and just simmer there.

 

Peter jumps up. “Yeah! Wow, I can’t believe Tony didn’t get it .”

 

Tony gives him a hopeless sort of shrug. “You’re just too good at the game, baby. I’ll never be able to beat you.” 

 

Peter preens, wiggling his head a little bit like a proud cat. “W...what can I say? I’m jus’ the best .”

 

Tony snorts a laugh and has to bury his face in his hands to hide the absolutely horrible mushy smile that blooms. “I hope some of this pride holds up when you grow up again,” he says, muffled. 

 

Peter bounces twice and then skips over to Tony, throwing himself across Tony’s legs and laying there, head dangling over one side and feet over the other. He pats the side of Tony’s thigh with his little hands and Tony really thinks he’s going to cry. Like, fully cry. “This game is so fun. Thanks for playin’ with us.”

 

Tony drops a hand on Peter’s back and rubs in gentle circles with his knuckles. “You don’t need to thank me, amore . I’m having fun too.”

 

Harley is watching them curiously. Almost like he wants to come over. 

 

This is the moment, and Tony knows it. May is obviously not coming back because she’s making a point, and as much as Tony doesn’t mind being schooled by people, this one is mildly offensive. Deserting him in his time of need. 

 

Howard never would have done this. Never played games with him, never did anything but teach him hard facts. Or, more often, plop a book in front of him and say read it , expecting him to be an expert by the time he was finished. (He always was, but that isn’t the point.) 

 

As much as he’s done with Peter over the past year-and-change and Harley for just shy of one, it was never something like this. They had agency when they started hanging out with him. They could make their own decisions and use their judgement. They could weigh a situation. 

 

They can’t do that now. He’s putting them on the spot. He’s asking blind trust of them. And that is fucking terrifying. 

 

But, deep down, maybe Harley remembers. Maybe Harley remembers that he is Tony’s kid . Not his son , not really, because he’s not, but he is his kid , and Tony thinks that’s about ten times more meaningful. They chose each other. It was no random chance. 

 

And now he needs to make the choice to prove he’s worthwhile to the kid. Jesus.

 

He throws an arm out, holding Peter in place with the other. “Do you want to come sit with us, Harley?”

 

Harley watches, visibly weighing. It almost humors Tony that this never changes: Harley wears his heart on his cheek, never bothering to swallow back what he’s feeling. 

 

Harley stands. He walks over.

 

It’s like he’s approaching a volatile bomb, the way he walks, a little stuttered and winding. Like he’s still not sure. Like it’s something bigger than him making the decision for him. 

 

He sits only a few inches away from Tony. Their kneecaps almost touch. 

 

Tony lets his arm fall, reasonably certain that Harley isn’t going to try and climb into his lap like Peter did. 

 

As soon as his knuckles brush the hardwood, Harley’s little hand darts out and wraps around one of his fingers. 

 

He thinks time freezes, for there has never been a second that has lasted this long in all of history. Not the breath-holding moment before the meteor struck and ended the Mesozoic Era. Not the moment before Brutus signalled the senate to stab Caesar. Not the moment before someone wrote in Harambe on their election ballot and inadvertently allowed Donald Trump to become the- ha- president

 

Not the moment before the barrel of a wave collapses; nor the moment when a bike wheel strikes the sidewalk and tips; nor the moment right after a performance ends and the audience sits stunned, too immersed to clap.

 

Tony holds perfectly still, in complete shock, even as Peter wiggles himself up from his lap and sits between his crossed legs so that he can look at Harley and smile.

 

Harley looks just as wide-eyed and shocked as Tony does. 

 

What a pair, the two of them, in complete horror over barely touching each other when, not even five hours ago, Tony had kissed Harley’s head goodbye before he and Peter went to a movie.

 

Tony breathes, “hey, honey.”

 

Harley squeezes Tony’s finger. One pulse.

 

And, suddenly, all of the feeling in the world crashes down onto Tony. Everything he had ever distanced himself from, refused to address, neglected to acknowledge.

 

It destroys him. One fell swoop.

 

These boys that he loves . His father, who he forgives and then doesn’t, back and forth, because, God , how could someone do that to their kid? His mother, who he loved deeply but who never stuck up for him. Rhodey, his brother in all but blood and the one person above all that he could never live without. Pepper, his love, his life. Happy, who never stops protecting him, even though it’s not his job. May, his soul sister, who verbally ribs him raw and tells him he’s a blessing in the same breath. 

 

The things he has done. The bottles, the pills, the dust, angel wings, an errant dream, an angry fix, a breath illuminated, another, drowned. The blasts, the concrete, the storms and seas and fires. Every step, every bead of sweat on his brow, every callous on his hand, every moment of purgatory-

 

has lead to this moment.

 

This one, right here, where reality is nothing and everything and who is he other than he and things are skewed in the fact that they are balanced and oh, God, does he want a kid?

 

And the world comes back.

 

Peter’s balancing on Tony’s thigh, using the added height to gently tap his fingertips- like pinpricks, so small- along his cheekbone. “Tony, Tony,” he’s singing under his breath, and swiping at the warm wetness that fell without him realizing. “W-why are you sad, Tony?”

 

Tony blinks twice, but he can’t rip his eyes from Harley, who is staring at him wide-eyed. “I’m not sad, baby,” he breathes. “I’m not.”

 

Peter continues to rub his tears away with his hands. “No lyin’, Tony,” he says. “If you’re not sad, why are you crying?”

 

“Because I’m happy ,” says Tony, and it takes him saying it aloud to realize it. “I’m so happy to be here with you two, because I love you so much. Sometimes when we feel a lot of emotions- even when they’re good - we cry. And that’s okay.”

 

Peter presses his hands more firmly to Tony’s cheeks, making his lips pucker. “Yay for happy,” Peter states emphatically. 

 

Tony nods a little, careful not to jostle out of Peter’s grip. 

 

Harley watches.

 

“Harley,” Tony says. “I am so happy that you’re here with us. And I love you so, so much .”

 

Harley blinks. A little smile touches his lips and it’s like the clouds parting at the cusp of April and May. Like the truck driving out of the way and displaying the new mansion on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. 

 

He squeezes Tony’s finger again.

 

Tony hiccups a little. It makes Peter laugh.

 

May chooses that moment to come back in the room, carting the clean pajamas for both boys over her arms, plus a sweatshirt for Harley that is going to swallow him whole. She pauses for a moment in the doorway, a slow, I told you so type of grin clawing its way across her face, and Tony kinda wants to roll his eyes but he knows more tears will splash out if he does, so he controls himself. 

 

“Hey, boys,” she says, and holds up the clothes. “I’ve got clean pee-jays for everyone.”

 

Peter jumps off of Tony’s legs. “Maymaymay!” he says. Tony, too, is starting to think that little Peter has a thing for threes. He wonders if big Peter does too. “You took forever to come back,” he accuses her, pointing a finger and squinting.

 

May snorts a laugh. “Sorry, baby. I was… waiting for something. But I’m done waiting now.” 

 

Peter begins to attempt to climb up her legs like she’s a jungle gym. “What were you w...w- uh, the thing, what was it?”

 

May visibly holds back a wince as Peter struggles through the sentence. She slings the pajamas and sweatshirt over the back of the couch and grabs Peter up in her arms, feet at her shoulders and head by her knees. “Magic,” she says mysteriously. “I was waiting for a special magic spell to happen.” She gives a witch’s cackle and digs the fingers of one hand into Peter’s ribs, holding him with the other arm. Peter squeals and squirms, prompting May to almost drop him.

 

“Foolhardiness is hereditary, apparently,” Tony says as he observes May holding Peter by the ankles.

 

“I’m not technically related to him,” says May, shaking Peter and causing him to giggle wildly. 

 

Harley is watching them with a smile on his lips, still holding Tony’s finger. His grip, though so tentative at first, has become suffocating.

 

If Tony has to amputate his finger after this for nerve damage, he won’t even mind.

 

He looks back at Harley, and the kid must feel the gaze on him because he stiffens and the smile turns into a look with lips pressed so tight the edges are white. 

 

Tony knows when to push. He’s pushed the kid a lot. He won’t anymore.

 

May brings over the pajamas, Peter now safely clinging to her back. “Okay, Harley-boy,” she says, kneeling down in front of him and Tony. “I brought the pee-jays, but I’m thinking we should get you and Petey in the bath first. Is that okay? So you’re nice and clean for bed?”

 

Harley shrugs. That’s a pretty rousing affirmation from him, relatively.

 

“Perfect,” says May, and she presses a gentle kiss to the tip of his nose. He wrinkles it up after, wiping at it with his free hand and muttering, “ew,” which is pretty on par with the reactions to affection he’s been showing all night.

 

Crazy, considering what a goddamn leech he is to all of them at age seventeen. 

 

He and May bring the boys to Tony’s private bathroom because it is vast and holds a bathtub big enough to fit the Hulk. This is definitely, absolutely not a claim Tony and Bruce have tested. The Hulk does not love bubble baths and candles and gossip magazines.

 

Heh.

 

They fill the tub halfway with warm water and soap that smells like shea butter and cacao. The surface of the water is covered with a thick coat of bubbles, and May helps the boys in one at a time. Happy had brought them some rubber ducks, so they toss those in after the boys, all of them made to look like pirates or doctors or rock stars. 

 

Tony wonders briefly if he should start a manufacturing branch for Avengers themed rubber ducks. They would probably sell.

 

Tony and May sit back after that, watching to make sure the boys don’t slip under and drown or anything, but not needed to help them wash up. The boys are old enough to handle most of it, up until it comes time to do their hair.

 

May takes Harley without discussing it with Tony first because she is pragmatic and intelligent. Tony washes Peter, which, frankly, he has plenty of fun doing. 

 

Peter is fascinated with the bubbles more than he is with splashing- which is what Tony had feared Peter would enjoy more- and is taking the opportunity to explain to Tony how they work. Tony hangs onto every word as if he doesn’t at all know the functionality of the bubble. 

 

“- really just air under all of the soap , Tony, isn’t that cool?”

 

“The coolest , kiddo,” Tony says, dropping a cupped handful of bubbles right onto Peter’s head and then shielding his eyes from them. “Can you tilt your head back for me?” 

 

Peter obliges.

 

Using a little plastic cup, Tony pours water over Peter’s head to rinse out the bubbles. Water drips into his mouth as he grins and he sputters, spitting a spray at Tony.

 

Tony gasps in magnified disgust, saying, “rude! How dare you disrespect me like this?!”

 

He hears Harley’s breathing stutter from across the tub. Immediately, guilt numbs his limbs. 

 

How the fuck is he supposed to fix this one?

 

Prove to Harley that he wasn’t going to hurt Peter. That’s how.

 

Tony scoots even closer to the edge of the tub and lets one of his hands cup Peter’s cheek, tilting his head to press a kiss into his sopping curls where they hung loose onto his forehead. “You’re allowed to disrespect me all you want while you’re still little,” Tony jokes. “But the second you’re all grown up again, I expect your best behavior. No more help with baths! Big kids do that themselves, right?”

 

“Mmhmm,” Peter says, and leans into Tony’s hand. His face is so small that it covers him from jaw to forehead. He grins, and then presses a quick kiss onto Tony’s palm. “Sneak attack!”

 

Tony’s smile is verging on painfully wide. “That was the best attack I’ve ever been a part of, by far . Thank you. I’ve been blessed.”

 

“Amen,” Peter agrees.

 

May snorts, shaking her head fondly. “Make sure to clean your feet,” she says, “and behind your ears, and let Tony help with your back.” Her hands are buried in Harley’s hair, soap foam lining her arms to the elbows. Harley is squinting up at the soap cloud as it approaches his eyes, wary.

 

“Careful,” Tony points out quietly. “Soapy eyes.”

 

May looks down at Harley and mutters cazzo under her breath. She swipes the foam away and Tony hands her the little plastic cup to rinse his hair with. Tony is relieved that Peter is too busy smushing bubbles into his beard to notice the curse.

 

They finish rinsing the boys and swaddle them in big towels, wiping away at the water that drips streams down their foreheads and over their shoulders. The floor quickly becomes a slippery mess, streaked with puddles and patches of soap that make the tiles gleam. Tony doesn’t mind a bit. This is his favorite part. He wraps Peter up like a burrito and scoops him into his arms, carefully using the corner of the towel to dry under his eyes and around his ears. 

 

“You guys did great,” he says after a moment, watching May scrub Harley’s hair with a towel as he stares at her disgruntledly. “You’re so well-behaved. Thank you for making this so easy and fun.”

 

May presses her lips together as if she’s hiding a grin and peers at Tony out of the corner of her eye. “Tony’s right,” she says. She squeezes Harley’s cheeks in her hand. “You guys are wonderful as children. I wouldn’t have minded raising you one bit.”

 

“Me neither,” says Tony without thinking. He immediately feels ready to dig a very deep hole, hop into it, and have someone fill it over his him. 

 

Peter presses his little nose into Tony’s neck and wriggles. “Can we get dressed? I’m a little cold.”

 

Tony wraps his arms tighter around Peter and rubs. “Of course, baby. Let’s go try on those fancy new pajamas Happy brought you.”

 

Tony carries Peter into his bedroom, where he and May have set up shop. The pajamas and boxers are spread in two separate piles: Spongebob and red for Harley, and Pooh Bear and blue for Peter. 

 

Tony sets Peter on the bed with a grunt, the bones of his back protesting all of the lifting and up and down he’s been doing this evening. He flops next to Peter for a moment, waiting for the pain to pass. 

 

May taps his ass when she walks past him to put Harley down. “Old,” she comments.

 

“You’re not allowed to touch that,” Tony says. “Pepper owns that. There’s a tag on it and it says property of Pepper Potts . I wouldn’t challenge her.”

 

May snorts a laugh. “She can keep it. I don’t want it. Saggy monkey-ass old man.”

 

Tony feels genuinely affronted. “I will have you know that my tush is in excellent form. And it’s Rhodey who told me so.”

 

May waves a hand noncommittally. “He’s more married to you than Pepper is.”

 

“True,” Tony says gooily.

 

“May,” Peter says suddenly. “Gotta go.”

 

She winces. “Toilet time?”

 

“Right now right now.”

 

“Okay.” She scoops Peter up in her arms and carts him back into Tony’s bathroom, turning around to shoot Tony a supportive thumbs up before closing the door behind her.

 

Just Harley and Tony, then.

 

That’s okay. Tony can handle this.

 

“Hey, honey,” he says while rolling over to look at Harley at the foot of the bed. “You ready for pee-jays?”

 

Harley shrugs.

 

“Okay,” Tony says, because he knows that is the best he’s getting. He pushes himself up onto his elbows. “How about you come over here, up by the pillows, okay? I’ll leave as soon as you’re all dried off and ready to go.”

 

Harley’s eyes flit from Tony to the headboard and back again. It feels like a full minute elapses before Harley raises onto his knees and crawls there.

 

He doesn’t sit the way Tony expects him to. 

 

He lays flat on his back, head on a pillow. He turns his face to where Tony is now, kneeling beside the bed. His eyes are glazed and yielding. 

 

Tony frowns at him. “Something wrong, honey?”

 

Harley blinks at him. “If you’re gonna do it, do it now. I’m ready.”

 

Tony frowns. “Do what?”

 

Harley stares. 

 

Tony stares back. “Harley, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He fumbles. “How about… let’s just get you dry, okay? I’ll be quick.”

 

Harley stares for a moment more before his gaze flicks up towards the ceiling. His jaw is set. 

 

Tony taps his fingers on the edge of the mattress. He needs May. “You’ve gotta sit up to dry off, Harley.”

 

Harley’s face scrunches in a frown. “But- you can’t. It won’t work that way.”

 

“What won’t work?”

 

“You can’t do it from there.”

 

“Do what, honey?”

 

Harley turns to look at him sharply. “You know what I’m talking about,” he snaps. “You can’t reach it if I’m not layin’ down, he always says it’s easier this way.”

 

Tony is reeling. “Baby, what?” he says. He pushes himself off the floor and sits on the edge of the bed, trying to move closer but still give Harley space.

 

It’s not enough, clearly. No matter what Harley was saying about reaching , he scrambles away from Tony the second he moves nearer. His head thumps hard into the wall and he winces, face folding.

 

“No,” Tony says quietly. “Honey, no. Okay. I’ll stay over here. Can I see your head, though? I need to make sure you didn’t bump it too hard.”

 

Harley buries his face in his hands. “M’sorry,” he sniffs. “You can do it now. Just do it.”

 

“Harley,” Tony says. “I need you to look at me, okay?”

 

Harley shudders. “Can’t I keep my eyes closed?”

 

“I need to look at your eyes to make sure you didn’t get a concussion, but you can close your eyes when I’m done if you want,” Tony says.

 

Harley’s shoulders tense. He drops his hands and leans forward so Tony can look.

 

“Can you follow my finger without turning your head?” Tony says, holding up one finger.

 

“I know how to check for a concussion,” Harley mumbles a little shortly.

 

Tony’s heart feels as if its been torn in pieces, like tissue paper ribbons.

 

“How do you know that?” Tony says, praying it’s a memory kept from the future and not one from this age.

 

Harley dutifully follows the movement of Tony’s finger. “Dad had to teach me,” he says succinctly.

 

“Oh,” says Tony. “Oh, honey.”

 

“Is my head okay?” Harley asks.

 

“Yes,” says Tony.

 

Harley closes his eyes and gives a single nod. He returns to where he had been lying. 

 

“Harley,” says Tony, but it comes out like he’s beseeching him. “What are you waiting for?”

 

Harley looks at him like he’s an idiot. “You. Aren’t you gonna…?”

 

“Aren’t I gonna what?”

 

Harley frowns. “ Touch me,” he says.

 

Time stops. “Touch you where.”

 

There .”

 

Tony understands, now. 

 

He wishes more than anything that he didn’t.

 

Because, this? Is his every nightmare come alive in startling technicolor.

 

The door to the bedroom opens behind him with a hollow thud. “I’m back!” Peter calls proudly, and skips his way into the room. He’s wearing his pajamas now, his hair wet and flat against his forehead, curling over the shells of his ears. He leaps up onto the bed beside Tony, who still hasn’t moved.

 

“Harley,” Tony says. “I promise you, from the bottom of my heart to the edges of the universe, that I would never, ever do something like that to you. It’s okay if you’re still scared- I get it- but I. I just want to tell you. I would never.”

 

Harley slides off the end of the bed, grabs his pajamas, and runs into the bathroom, breezing past a visibly confused May. He shuts the door behind him.

 

“Tony?” May says.

 

“Later,” he chokes.

 

Peter crawls over to Tony, petting his knee. “Don’t be scared, Tony,” he says. “We’re here w...with you.”

 

Tony blinks hard and turns to Peter. He reaches out and pulls the boy onto his lap, cradling his head against his collarbone. He has never so wanted to protect someone as he does now. He presses a kiss into Peter’s hair and swears to himself to be better.

 

There is something itching beneath the top layer of his skin. It is persistent, rude. He wants it gone. He wants it gone .

 

“May,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

 

He kisses Peter’s forehead once more for good measure, then places him down on the mattress.

 

He goes to the lab, closes the doors. 

 

Hurls tools and scrap metal. Screams his throat raw. Punches the bulletproof glass until his knuckles weep.

 

He wipes his cheeks on his sleeve. He goes back upstairs to take care of his boys.

 

Harley is in his pajamas now, and he sits on top of the bed with his arms crossed tightly over his chest. The sleeves and legs of the fit are unfortunately long on him, and he has cuffed them clumsily to reveal his hands and rolled the waist several times over to keep the pants hiked up. 

 

It makes Tony ache to see. As if he can’t provide a single thing for Harley correctly . Jesus. The kid doesn’t deserve this.

 

Peter is on the opposite end of the bed as Harley, sniffling, rubbing his nose on his wrist. May is leaned against the wall across from the pair, arms crossed, a conflicted wrinkle across her forehead. 

 

“What’s wrong?” Tony says. His voice cracks through the roughness of his throat.

 

“Don’t wanna go to bed,” Peter sniffs, “‘cause w-what if you’re gone in the morning?”

 

Tony looks at May. She mouths parents .

 

“Oh, baby ,” Tony breathes. He crosses the room to kneel in front of Peter. 

 

Peter scoots towards the edge of the mattress and slides into Tony’s arms without being prompted, locking his elbows around Tony’s neck and scuffling his little fingers through the short ends of Tony’s hair.

 

“May and I aren’t going anywhere,” he swears. “We’ll be right here when you wake up. Same with Harley,” he adds, and rubs his hands in circles over Peter’s bony back, his palms catching on the knobs of his spine. “We’re all sticking with you. Okay?”

 

Peter rubs his nose on Tony’s shoulder. “M’kay,” he says. He pulls away and Tony swipes at his tear tracks with the pads of his thumbs. 

 

“You okay, Petey?” Tony says.

 

“Yeah,” Peter says, but something behind his eyes is visibly tangled, like endless strands of wires in petite knots and Tony wants to unwind every single one. 

 

“You sure?” Tony says.

 

Yes , Tony,” Peter repeats and rolls his eyes, and that is much more like his Peter, so he’ll let it go. 

 

Tony looks from Peter to Harley, whose gaze holds his unwaveringly for the first time that night. It almost startles him away from making his offer, but he forges on. “Do you two want to sleep in here tonight, in my bed? I can take another room if you don’t want to leave.”

 

Peter’s eyes go wide. “Like a sleepover?”

 

“Just like that, buddy,” May says, walking forward to kneel at Tony’s side. She drops a hand on the knee of each Peter and Harley and Tony is reminded quite suddenly of the moment she had done the same for Peter and Ned after the fight with Flash that introduced Peter and Harley. Look at them now.

 

Peter thinks about this, bouncing a little on the bed. “Okay,” he decides, then looks at Harley. “You wanna, Harley?”

 

Harley looks at the bed, then Peter. And, slowly, shakes his head no .

 

Peter frowns. “You don’t wanna sleepover?”

 

Harley shakes his head again.

 

“Oh,” says Peter. Dejection weighs at the corners of his lips. 

 

“It’s okay that you don’t want to,” Tony hastens to say. “You guys can have a sleepover some other time instead.”

 

Harley nods. Peter half-shrugs, his eyes glossy once more. 

 

May rubs his knee. “It’s okay, baby,” she tells him. “If you get some sleep now, you’ll feel better in the morning. That’s science.”

 

Tony snaps his fingers. “She’s absolutely right. All facts all the time with Aunt May. Sleepy now.”

 

Peter crawls towards the pillows, letting Tony and May work to clumsily tuck him beneath the comforter. They bonk heads when they both go to adjust the far pillow at once, and let out a rather impressive two-parted string of curse words. Like a duet, melody and counter-melody. Except Italian profanities.

 

May kisses Peter’s forehead and brings him through a psalm of well-wishes. “Sweet dreams. Sogni d’oro. Buona notte. Good night,” she says, and he parrots each phrase back to her. It reminds Tony something terrible of his own mother. The kind of reminder that will sit heavy on his chest with longing for days to come.

 

Tony leans over Peter and lets him grab his fingers in his much littler ones. “Good night, Tony,” Peter says quietly. “I love you.”

 

Tony lifts Peter’s hands to his mouth and presses a flurry of kisses onto them. “And I, you, cucciolotto . Sleep well.”

 

Peter hums a soft sigh and lets his eyes fall shut.

 

Tony goes to leave the room, but pauses by the door. 

 

Harley rises too. Goes to Peter’s bedside, and plants a fleeting kiss onto his forehead. “G’night,” Harley mutters, then scurries into the hallway, leaving them all somewhat shocked.

 

He and May blink for a while. It’s like processing. Like too much information, too much input, and something is not right. 

 

But then he holds his elbow out to her and she takes it and they walk out of the bedroom arm in arm.

 

Harley is rustling about in his bedroom. Tony and May can just barely make out the shape of his rear as he struggles to climb up the comforter like a rope so he can get into bed, what with how dark the room is.

 

May boosts him into bed. She then waves Tony over and he can’t say no , so he goes. 

 

They tuck him in like they did Peter.

 

“We’ll be right in the living room if you need us,” May tells him.

 

“If you need anything at all,” Tony says, “you can ask. Okay, honey?”

 

Harley nods, his hair flopping.

 

May strokes it off his forehead and kisses the spot. 

 

Tony gives Harley a little wave, which seems to satisfy the kid plenty. He closes his eyes after that.

 

And, like that, Tony has taken care of children for the first time. 

 

Sure, he had May with him. But he thinks it’s a miracle that- even with May- he didn’t manage to accidentally maim or lose or kill either of the kids. 

 

They make tea and sit on the couch in silence, as if stunned, as they sip. Tony forces himself out of his mind so he cannot think. It’s blissful narrative distance.

 

It doesn’t last long. 

 

Peter wakes with a shout before eleven o’clock comes. 

 

“Shit,” says May.

 

“Shit,” Tony agrees.

 

They hustle their way to Peter’s room- strength in numbers- but, when they get there, an unexpected sight awaits them. 

 

Harley had gotten there first. Harley had climbed into bed with Peter and was hugging him to his chest while he shook and cried as if he had done this a million times before. 

 

Peter’s hands were fisted in the back of Harley’s shirt, pulling, as if it could bring him closer. 

 

“May,” Harley whispers. “Tony. May and Tony, Petey.”

 

Peter merely whimpers and holds tighter onto Harley.

 

“Bad dream,” Harley tells them. He has bags beneath his eyes. He addresses Peter, then. “Was just a dream, Petey.”

 

“I know,” Peter says through a shudder. “But it was sc-a-ary. Everyone was gone .”

 

“Where did we go?” asks Harley.

 

“I don’t know! ” Peter wails, burying his face in Harley’s neck.

 

“Peter,” says Tony brokenly at the same time May says, “oh, darling .”

 

Harley pats the back of Peter’s head with careful, chubby fingers. “S’okay, Petey.”

 

Tony feels useless. And lost. He doesn’t know how to not be needed by Peter. He doesn’t know if he should linger for moral support or if he should leave, doesn’t know which will make Peter happier, doesn’t know if Peter even knows he’s here.

 

Peter heaves with another sob and slips out from Harley’s arms, turning on his side to face the wall and pulling his knees to his chest. He holds himself, and he cries. 

 

“What do we do?” Tony breathes. He needs May. 

 

“He hasn’t come to me for dreams in a long time , Tony. Midnight ice cream? Star Wars? We used to listen to Springsteen,” May says helplessly, “when Ben was alive. We would dance around to it, and it always made him smile. He thought he sounded funny when he sang.”

 

“You heard the woman, FRIDAY,” Tony says, waving a hand, eyes attached to Peter’s tremulous form. “The Boss it is.”

 

Dancing in the Dark comes on in full swing. 

 

It isn’t Peter who smiles, however. It’s Harley , eyes lighting up like it’s Christmas and his birthday all rolled into one. He turns over onto his stomach and slides off the bed, pattering off the second his feet touch the ground. 

 

“Honey- what? Where are you headed, kiddo?” Tony calls, standing up and raking a hand through his hair. “Crud,” he says, then marches off after him, leaving Peter to May’s care.

 

It takes a full minute to find the kid. He’s not in the bathroom, or his bedroom, or nestled into that stupid crease between the washer and the drier. 

 

He’s stood on the dining table in his oversized pajamas, hair flopping into his eyes, bouncing his knees and grinning and dancing

 

Tony finds himself smiling inexplicably, ear to ear, the kind that makes his wrinkles obscure his vision.

 

“You like the music, honey?” Tony says.

 

He shakes his arms. “I love music,” he says emphatically. He pauses for a moment. “I hope it makes Petey feel better.”

 

“Me, too,” says Tony. “I really hope so, too.”

 

Harley bounces some more. “You should dance.”

 

Tony feels a little beat in his chest before it sputters. This flip-flop is. Too much. From Harley avoiding him like a plague rat to this , dancing and smiling in front of him and telling him to join in. From Harley knowing Tony wouldn’t hit him , but thinking he would touch -

 

He can’t. Tony can’t. His next breath stutters as if his lungs have suddenly shrunk down. And it burns . It burns like he’s being pressed against a stove, the way the arc reactor had stung at first, the very physical feeling of something being in the way of his breathing. The blisters building, his skin reddening, his cheeks burning. There was a universe of space within him and it’s been sucked in one horrible slurp through a plastic curly straw only to be spit back into his own face. He is a vacuum. You should dance. He’s nothing. He can’t breathe. Aren’t you gonna touch me? Never again, probably, because those words, that expression, that genuine confusion is something he will never be able to blink away.

 

That feeling in his boy . His boy has to feel this. 

 

“Tony?” comes his little voice, concerned now.

 

The air comes. It’s cold in his throat, his lungs ache with it. He blinks rapidly to clear his vision, but it doesn’t work. Not one bit.

 

“Tony?” Harley repeats. He’s stopped dancing. He kneels on the tabletop and scoots towards Tony. 

 

“Sorry,” Tony gasps. “One- second. One second.”

 

“May?” Harley calls, his voice climbing in pitch with his fear. “May, help!”

 

Boss, ” comes FRIDAY’s voice, and this is too much , “ breathe in with my counting. One, two-

 

“What’s going on?” demands May, hurrying into the room. Too many too much, too many too much . Her socks slip on the floorboards and she bumps into the corner to catch herself. FRIDAY stops counting. “Oh,” May says, taking in the scene: Harley near to tears on the tabletop and Tony hunched at the waist, a hand on his knees and one on his throat, every breath whistling its way in and huffing its way out. “Tony. Okay. This is fine. We can handle this.”

 

She approaches until she’s five feet away from him. “Harley, come here, sweetie,” she instructs. 

 

Harley does so.

 

“Good,” says May. “Tony, turn towards me. I’m not coming any closer.”

 

Tony weighs the words. Turn towards her? That isn’t. Possible. That isn’t happening. 

 

“Or not,” says May dryly. “Okay, we can work with that. Do you know who I am?”

 

Of course he does. That’s a dumb question. “May,” he gasps. He presses harder on his chest because his panic-addled mind is backwards. As if pushing harder will ease the pressure. Ha.

 

“Good. And do you know where you are?”

 

He turns a little to glare at her. “Living room.”

 

“And do you know who else is here?”

 

“Harley. And. Peter.”

 

“Can you name something else you see?”

 

She’s. She’s fucking grounding him. What the fuck? How does she know how to do this. May Parker. 

 

“You’re not the only emotionally constipated little boy in my life, Nino ,” she says, and, shit, did he say that last bit out loud? Yikes.

 

“See the table,” Tony says, and he knows this is already working. His brain, as capable as it is, cannot handle two duties at once; he is the poster-boy for one-track minds. “Carpet. Pepper’s candles.”

 

“Good. Try breathing again. Big breath. Fill your lungs.”

 

He does. Immediately the pain eases, as if it had all been placebo. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Shit,” he says. 

 

When he drops his hands, Harley is standing right before him. So suddenly, so close, that Tony jumps.

 

“Sorry,” says Harley, enormous eyes wet. “Are you okay?”

 

Tony runs his hands over his face again. “Yeah, squirt,” he says. “Sorry about that.”

 

“You scared me,” says Harley.

 

“Oh, honey . I know. I won’t do it again, I promise.”

 

May walks forward, holds a hand out to Tony. 

 

He goes to take it, but she goes for his wrist instead, pressing a thumb over his pulse point expertly. 

 

“Keep breathing,” she tells him. “I don’t like this pulse with your dumb heart.”

 

“Your heart is dumb?” asks Harley.

 

“So dumb,” Tony says. “The dumbest heart in the world.”

 

“Oh,” says Harley. He frowns. One of his little hands extends slowly, unsurely. It presses against Tony’s chest like a single lightning strike. 

 

The touch is so, so gentle, but it makes the bones of his chest feel busted. Shards of plaster.

 

“Shh,” says Harley to Tony’s heart. “Shh.”

 

Tony bites down on his lip to stop himself from sobbing. 

 

“Thank you,” Tony says to Harley once the lump in his throat is manageable. “That helped a lot .”

 

Harley’s eyes light up. God. He’s an ember. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah, honey,” says Tony, and nearly leans down to kiss his forehead because he can’t help it, that’s his boy, that’s his boy that feels like this but stops himself. “You always help a lot.”

 

“You always help, too,” says Harley, then looks surprised for having said it. 

 

May runs a hand through Harley’s hair. “Tony will always help you, baby. No matter what.”

 

“You too?” asks Harley.

 

“Me too,” she swears, then smiles at him. She looks at Tony. “Peter conked back out while I was still in there, Nino . If you want to go in and sleep with him, be my guest. I can stay in the guest room.”

 

Tony frowns at her. He struggles to formulate his thoughts as his brain feels distinctly like Silly Putty that was left in the sun for a little too long. “Are you… that’s… not?” is what his mouth gives him. Not particularly workable.

 

May snorts. “Yeah, Tony, it’s okay for a kid to sleep with his dad when they’re both upset. Gesu.”

 

Tony doesn’t know how to say you magically fix everything and I am so lucky to know you without sounding like a prick, so he settles for giving May a look of pure relief. 

 

May just smiles wanly back. “Do you want me to take you back to bed, Harley?”

 

He turns to her and- finally- drops his hand from Tony’s chest. It feels colder without it. 

 

“No, it’s okay. Can do it myself,” he says. He lets May kiss him once more and waddles off to his bedroom. Tony watches his little knobby knees knock together and a part of him wants to fully collapse.

 

He slides to the couch and drops his face into his hands.

 

“Bad?” May asks, lowering herself beside him. She rubs his back.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Bad.”

 

“I won’t ask,” says May.

 

“Thank you,” Tony whispers. 

 

“Mm. Hey. We did it. A full day. Good thing we spend such a ridiculous amount of time together already,” says May, wiping a stand of hair out of her eyes. She tries for a joke. “If I wasn’t used to you, I would’ve tied your nuts in a knot by now.”

 

A strange stiffness comes into Tony’s shoulders. “If you want me to stop dropping in so much, you coulda’ just told me,” he says.

 

May grabs the nearest toy and throws it at him with all the strength she can muster. “That’s not what I meant, you stronzo sporco ,” she says. He ducks the robot but it clips his shoulder anyway. 

 

“Hey!” He looks at her, all gobsmacked and offended, but he’s trying to button up a smile before she can see it.  

 

Nino ,” she says. “You know I love you. Actually- Jesus,” she says, and some potent dread spills in her stomach like hot tar. “I think you’re my best friend,” she says, horrified. She glares at him. “How did you do this to me, huh? Sanguisuga , you’re a fuckin’ leech , Tony Stark, what the hell.”

 

He’s looking at her. But it’s not just a look. It’s one of the heaviest looks she’s ever been on the receiving end of. Heavier than the one Ben gave her while he was on the phone with the hospital and they were saying we’re so sorry to call you like this, but . Heavier than the one from Peter while he sat in a plastic chair in the police station wearing one of Ben’s old jackets, blood soaked into the knees of his jeans and the canvas of his sneakers. Heavier than the one from her boss when he said I just want to warn you, because it’s the board doing the cuts, and I have a soft spot for you but no say in the decisions

 

This look is awe. It is better than every other look she has ever received. This is Tony Stark in complete shock, and it’s the good kind. 

 

It brings a tear to her eye, if she has to be completely honest. 

 

He lets out a tremulous little “ really? ” and May thinks her heart breaks right there and then on the leather couch. 

 

“You won’t hear me say it again,” May tells him. 

 

An embarrassed little grin quirks up his lips. “Well. In that case. I’ll make sure FRIDAY saves the security video of it.”

 

May rolls her eyes and drops her feet onto his lap. They sit like that for a while, just thinking, until May goes and grabs her purse. She pulls out her journal, the little one with the leather cover where she plans her novel, and a pen. It writes with grey ink, and she loves it infinitely because she has never seen another pen that writes with grey ink . She plops back onto the couch, returns her feet to Tony’s lap, and begins to scrawl out more details for her plotline. 

 

It’s quiet. It’s nice. Very domestic.

 

Tony goes to bed around midnight, and May follows. She takes a shower and squats under the spray, letting it drill onto her shoulders and steam around her face. She takes big, deep breaths of it and feels better afterwards. 

 

She sleeps like a rock until eight, when a shout shakes her up.

 

“What the fuck?!”

 

That’s Tony’s voice. That is- not good.

 

She rolls herself out of bed and stumbles into the hallway, squinting out of sleep-stuck eyes, her sweatpants twisted the wrong way. 

 

“What?” she yells. “What?”

 

She bumps head-on into someone and another curse slips out because it’s- Harley.

 

Their Harley. Seventeen-year-old Harley, who towers over her and wears his glasses askew on his nose. 

 

“Oh, my god,” she says, and claps a hand to her chest. Her back hits the wall.

 

Harley scrambles forward and wraps his arms tight around her, planting his feet and resting his chin over her head. “Hey, May,” he says quietly. “Somethin’ crazy happened, I think.”

 

She leans into the embrace. “ Real crazy, peaches. Do you feel okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Harley says. “A little discombobulated, but fine. I… uh, I remember everything.”

 

May sighs and his arms expand around it.

 

“I just want to say I’m sorry,” he says, and May is ready to, like, take his heart in her hands and cradle it close, protect it from harm. “For being such a pain in the ass.”

 

“Harley,” May says, firmly enough to shut him up. She pulls away to meet his eyes, but he keeps his hands around her elbows as if he’s wont to let go of her. “You are a delight at any age . In any situation. I meant what I said: I’ll always be here to take care of you. You hear?”

 

“Loud and clear,” he says softly. “Thank you, then. Thanks.”

 

“Tony was cuddling with me ,” comes an emphatic yell, followed by Peter’s fully-grown form marching out of Tony’s bedroom, a sly grin on his face. “Tony is a softie , alert the presses.”

 

“I cancelled on Bruce and Helen,” Tony grumbles, following Peter, blushing. His arms are crossed tightly over his chest, and the shadows under his eyes tell May that he didn’t sleep a wink. “Strange is still coming to make sure they’re not gonna magically turn seventy-two next, or something. I also told Pepper you couldn’t make it to the meeting this morning because of a Peter emergency.”

 

“Did she threaten your balls?” May says, but Tony speaks fluent May so he knows she means thank you .

 

“Aggressively,” he agrees. Then, “where’s Harley? I need to talk to him.”

 

May turns quickly. “He was just- what the hell?” The spot where Harley had been standing by her side was now deserted. “Huh. Sneaky bastard must’ve slipped away without me noticing.”

 

Peter finally goes to May, then, and plops a kiss on her cheek. “Morning, May.”

 

She holds his cheek against hers for a moment longer. “Hey, baby. You feeling good?”

 

“Better,” is the answer she gets. 

 

“I’m going to find Harley,” Tony says with all of the attitude of a man walking to the gallows. 

 

“Okay,” May says with a frown. 

 

“Tony,” Peter says, and his voice is heavy. Tony turns and meets his gaze. “Be gentle with him,” Peter says.

 

Tony presses his lips together and nods. “Of course I will. Of course .”

 

He goes, then. 

 

Harley is in his room, the door open. He knows. What’s coming, that is.

 

He sits on his bed, legs crossed, leaning heavily on his elbows. His head hangs. 

 

Tony knocks on the frame of the door, two sharp taps. 

 

“Mm,” says Harley.

 

“When I was fifteen,” starts Tony immediately, and this startles Harley’s gaze up because it is not at all part of the narrative he had been predicting, “I started college. I was a quiet kid at first, so it was just me and my big softie of a roommate, Jim. I hardly left the room except for class, meals, and to use the research labs. 

 

“It was Jim who brought me to my first party. He was older, y’see, and had lots of friends aside from me. I was his favorite, of course, that’s a given. But not relevant to the story. Anyway,” Tony runs a hand through his hair. It’s trembling. “I go to this party. And I get- smashed. I don’t know how alcohol works, I’m a kid , it’s just Jim and me and a bottle of vodka and some strobe lights and I realize, quite all of a sudden, that’s all I need . So the one party becomes four nights a week. And people start to pick up on it- hey, isn’t that the Stark brat doing a keg? Gnarly as hell - and my reputation… inflates. 

 

“But the time comes where Jim doesn’t feel like going out. He was ROTC, of course, so he has work up to the goddamn gills. Go on without me , he says, and young Tony thinks maybe I will . And, so, he does. He goes, that is. To a party. It was off-campus and everything, special invites only. It was a guy from the rowing team who invited me, actually, but I had no clue who he was. It was all the name,” Tony says, and it is bitter. “So I go. We drink. I do a line of coke for the first time. That was crazy. Don’t you ever . Not even a single grain. 

 

“But, then, there’s this girl . And she’s gorgeous. A ten, if she doesn’t break the scale all together. She’s witty, she’s smart, a Politics major. We talk all night, and we kiss a little, share a handle of vodka, you know. Teenage romance. Eventually, it gets to the point where I’m coming down from my high and I want to leave the party. She… doesn’t like that.”

 

Tony stops for a deep breath. Harley’s gaze is locked on him unflinchingly. 

 

“She drags me upstairs,” says Tony, and his voice is slipping into something monotonous. “I’m fucking fifteen and she’s a senior, she’s seven years older than me and a helluva lot stronger, and I’m still drunkish. She pushes me into her bedroom and she. She takes what she wants.” Tony rubs his eyes. “That was the first time. I could say no all I wanted, but. I was an heir, a child, drunk,  and a boy. No one believed me, ‘cept Jim Rhodes. He had to come pick me up from the party, actually. I was puking in a bush, but it wasn’t because of the alcohol. 

 

“Rhodey took care of me all that night. Went with me to report her. The laws were so different back then, though. So, not only did they not believe me, but even if they had they wouldn’t have done jack shit.” Tony shifts his weight and scratches at his left arm. “And she was the first in a long line of girls and guys who had their way with me through college. It ended up becoming easier to just. Convince myself I wanted it. Than it was to push ‘em off.” Tony spreads his arms out. “Oh well, right?”

 

Harley’s eyes leak earnestly. 

 

“Don’t,” Tony whispers. “Don’t cry for me.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Harley sniffles thickly. “No one deserves that. No one should go through that.”

 

“That includes you,” Tony says, standing up straighter. “ That includes you .”

 

Harley makes a terrible keening sound and drops his head again.

 

“You didn’t deserve it,” Tony says sharply. “You didn’t. You didn’t .”

 

He looks up at Tony, eyes red-rimmed and hair flopping into his eyes, miserable

 

“Oh, honey,” Tony breathes. He takes a tentative step into the room and, finally, Harley doesn’t flinch. He sits on the edge of the bed. “No. No, come here.”

 

Harley doesn’t hesitate for even a moment. He crawls over to Tony like he’s someone half his age, a third his height, and clambers into his arms, perched between his thighs, face mashed into Tony’s neck like he can’t physically get close enough.

 

Tony sympathizes with the feeling. There is a massive, gaping hole in his chest, with cracked edges that send bits of dust and rock tumbling into the chasm below, and it wants to swallow Harley up, to keep him safe at the bottom, shield him from the world, hide him . Curl up with the kid. Cover the mouth of the hole with a tarp and some leaves and pretend it was never there. Pretend they aren’t there. Never, ever let anything or anyone come near him again.

 

Harley’s arms hang loose at his sides, like he’s forgotten how to use them, but Tony’s are aching with the strain of holding Harley close (aching with the knowledge that, no matter how tight they hold him, they can never hold him tightly enough). Harley isn’t crying any longer, but he shakes.

 

“I love you,” Tony tells him, as if it’s something he has just remembered. “I love you,” he repeats, because he has to, because it’s bubbling up in him and if he doesn’t let it out he’s going to burst , “I love you.”

 

“I know,” Harley mumbles into Tony’s neck. His breath is warm, but the tip of his nose is freezing. 

 

“Harley,” Tony says. “Harley.”

 

“I know,” says Harley.

 

“I’m sorry I never noticed.”

 

“I’m sorry I never told you.”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“You shut up first.”

 

“Don’t talk back to me, Chicken Little.”

 

“Just- just hold me.”

 

Tony does.

 

They fall back into silence. It’s not heavy. 

 

Time ticks by slowly. Languid. Like the morning is stretching for them. 

 

“I’m gonna say something sappy and you’re going to be quiet and listen,” Harley says. He pauses a moment, as if expecting Tony to challenge him. He doesn’t, so Harley plows on. “I know that I was a little shit last night. I didn’t know how to- I couldn’t. I don’t know. Everything was eight times scarier. And I know I acted like I was afraid of you, but I want you to know that I- me , the real me, this one- am not.” Harley takes a deep breath. He finally wraps his arms around Tony, resting his chin on the older man’s shoulder. “What you are to me, he never was. You care about me , you treat me like a person instead of a nuisance, you listen to me when I talk and you never make me afraid of you, or what you’ll do. A lot of people say family ends in blood,” Harley starts to fumble with the hem of Tony’s shirt, “but I know better than anyone that ain’t true. Shit, Tony. I know it’s not what I call you, but you’re, like, my dad . You’re the closest thing I’ve got. And, I mean. I wouldn’t want anyone else to be like that for me.” He pats Tony’s back twice. “Okay, that’s all. I’m done now.”

 

Tony couldn’t formulate a coherent thought if he tried. He settles for pulling away just enough to press a long kiss to Harley’s forehead, then clutching closer again. “I,” he tries. “You’re my kid,” he says. “No matter what. It’s a forever typa’ thing. The universe brought us together and I’ll fight the universe to the death in ritual combat if it tries to take you away now.”

 

“Do you think you could beat the universe?” Harley asks.

 

“For you? I think I could do just about anything.”

 

Strange is there soon after, and corrals them all in the medbay for a full examination. He rolls his sleeves and holds his shuddering hands up and tells them if they move then he will eviscerate them. 

 

“This is an exact magic,” he says, voice dry, gaze unimpressed. “Just sit down first in case you black out.”

 

“In case they what-?! ” Tony yelps, but Strange’s eyes are closed already.

 

The boys drop like marionettes, their heads bonking together as they collapse flat onto the bed. One of Peter’s hands is twitching. 

 

“What the fuck ,” says May. “What the fuck.”

 

“I hate it,” Tony agrees. “Put them back.”

 

Stephen’s eyes flick open and the boys let out simultaneous groans. 

 

“Well,” says Strange. “The good news is the spell broke itself. The better news is someone killed your evil sorcerer.”

 

“Someone killed Bellatrix?” Peter asks, squinting and rubbing his head. Harley half-lifts himself onto his elbows and says woah under his breath. 

 

“Her death caused the effects of the spell to terminate. I now have her origin source, however, and can follow it to the rest of the douchebags that have been tormenting you all,” says Strange. The Harry Potter jokes do not seem to be amusing him.

 

“So, the kids are safe?” asks Tony, still reeling. 

 

“Yes,” says Strange, glaring at Tony from under his eyebrows. “I thought your level of intellect would permit you to draw such implications from statements that heavily imply such, but here we are.”

 

“Hey,” Tony protests. “Up yours, asshole.”

 

“Double up yours, you impertinent, naive -”

 

“Are we children?” says May. “No, really, answer that. Are we children? Because it seems like we are.” She crosses her arms and glares from Tony to Stephen. “Thought so. Now, thank you, Doctor, for checking on the kids. Your presence is no longer required.”

 

Stephen Strange stands with a swish of his cloak, gives May a respectful nod, and sticks his tongue out at Tony. He raises his hands, makes a circle like spinning a sparkler, and disappears into it. 

 

“Fuck that guy,” says Harley. 

 

“I wonder how the sorcerer died,” says Peter thoughtfully.

 

“Yeah,” agrees Harley fervently. “I hope it was super lame. She deserves it.”

 

(Four blocks uptown, Happy Hogan files his nails in the front seat of his Prius, having just finished wiping glittery, magical blood and brain matter from his fender. No one messes with his kids.)