That first gulp of clean, outside air was a blessing on Peter’s lungs after being held hostage in a dilapidated gas station for the past who knew how long.
His foot tripped over the arm of the now-unconscious man he’d smashed through the boarded entrance. Bending over for balance, hands on his knees, he kept taking one full breath after another. Adrenaline bubbled and popped in his veins, working to cover the pain of bruises throbbing over his ribcage. He clenched his teeth at the memory of the shotgun butt smacking his side, the crunching sound of fractures it created along his bones…
That particular injury was from about ten minutes ago, one final punishment for mouthing off, before Peter had yanked that shotgun out of its owner's hands and twisted it like a pretzel, just because he’d felt like it.
And a short while before that, he’d overheard a gruff voice lamenting that they were out of whatever drug they’d been using to keep Peter—and, by some annoying, unintended extension, his powers—docile and in check.
(“Dumb kid will run his mouth all fucking day now,” that voice had said, and Peter couldn’t care less how annoying they found him under the sheer joy of being able to hear again.)
The gig was up from then on, really. Fights were much easier when the baddies had no clue he was enhanced, and the shock on his captors’ faces as the unassuming Peter Parker snapped his bindings clean off was almost enough to make this kidnapping worthwhile in the first place.
It’d be one shitty headache of a cleanup process—preservation of his secret identity, and all—but the guilt associated with that would have to be dealt with later.
Peter’s sides were beginning to ache in earnest now as he took another refreshing inhale. A swollen, no doubt disgustingly purple lump was making a burning entrance over his left eye, and exhaustion was settling in bone-deep. When the sound of two final thugs stomping toward him across the grass met his ears, he held a hand up.
“Just… Just gimme a second, guys,” he heaved, still bent at the waist. “I gotta… gotta finish working off these drugs, I guess.”
There was a brief silence—no doubt punctuated by an indignant glance between the pair of criminals—before an angered grunt and heavy, purposeful footfalls. Peter rolled his eyes and sighed as he straightened up, dodging the punch with a lazy sidestep.
His assailant stumbled, clenched fist meeting open air, and then shouted as Peter took the opening. Wrapping a strong grip around one flailing wrist, he coiled his torso into the momentum and yanked the man over his shoulders, slamming him hard against the ground with a resounding thunk.
If Nat could see him, she’d be damn proud.
The second man shot forward as his buddy went limp, but his own swing was sloppy, all frantic rage and fear. Peter easily caught his fist and twisted.
“Sorry, dude,” he said, face twinging in sympathy when the guy yelped in pain. “Might’ve gone easier if you’d given me that second.”
A fast, powerful jut of his knee into the solar plexus was all it took to have his opponent sprawled boneless in the dirt.
Peter took two faltering steps backwards, tilting his face up and shutting his eyes. He forced one calming breath after another, willing his muscles to relax and his heart to slow.
Four seconds in, four seconds hold, four seconds out… Four in, four hold, four out… four, four, four.
Everything’s fine. It’s over, it’s over. You’re good. You’re great.
The cool, barely-morning air of spring felt amazing on his swollen face and against the sweat stains sticking his dirty clothes to his skin. When he finally opened his eyes again to sweep the area, blinking out the tiny spots in his vision, the first thing he noticed was the group of cars huddled by the dusty roadside.
He sighed in relief, shoulders drooping.
At least he wouldn’t have to limp his way out of here.
True to the amateur street gang aesthetic, all of his potential escape vehicles looked very much like they’d been acquired illegally. It was a pick between three Honda Civics, one green Durango, and two highly suspect trucks that seemed fresh out of the junkyard. All had mismatched tire rims, scratches along their peeling paint jobs, and license plates looking much fresher than the dented bumpers they were connected to.
And the Durango, which was missing its driver’s side window but looked the least likely to explode upon the application of physics, just so happened to be hot-wired.
It proved short enough work to touch the right wires together and rev the engine to get it going. Peter smiled when his ride started rumbling beneath him, the dash bursting into life with a flash of green. Nat would be hearing about his effective hand-to-hand, and now he could tell Tony that he’d technically hot-wired a car on his lonesome.
(And, if he was careful, he’d be boasting to May about managing a vehicle with massive blind spots.
All of this combined worked to fight the prick of embarrassment at realizing he’d been kidnapped in the trunk of a stolen soccer mom’s car.)
Peter took a second to click in his seatbelt and adjust his mirrors. Headlights flooding against the murky dimness of morning treated him to one final look of the sight before him. The gas station truly was a crumbling wreck, half-obscured by foliage and with large chunks of brick chipped away by time. Twisted, rusting masses of pipes marked where ancient gas pumps had probably once stood. And of course, three bodies weighted by unconsciousness slumped on the weed-choked dirt, with eight others in a similar state on the inside.
Shaking himself out of his wandering thoughts, Peter shifted the Durango into reverse and eased out onto the road. He winced at the pull in his bruised muscles, body turning on instinct alone to check for oncoming cars. It was an ultimately useless gesture, he was sure.
The first true sunbeams coming over the horizon revealed the distant shape of a lonely street sign, and he started forward with a hopeful thump in his heart. It wasn’t until he wrapped his fingers carefully at nine and three, imagining May’s voice chiding him on proper automobile safety, that he finally noticed how mottled his knuckles were. The blooming blues and insignificant scratches, both of which were already fading with the help of his healing factor, were captivating in a morbid sort of way.
Them, and the crusting of dried blood cracked along the tops of his hands.
Not his blood, and he understood that with a dangerous dropping of his gut, which meant it was time for a distraction. Time for an assessment, time to line up the facts of his situation, time to let logical thinking trump emotion.
He had no way to contact anybody right now. After that first pinprick in his neck, the one that had left him weak enough to kidnap in the first place, his captors had been of competent enough minds to confiscate anything that might be traceable. They’d dug his phone from his pocket, smashed it to bits with the heels of their boots, and tossed the pieces in a dumpster. His watch, a present from Tony that doubled as a tracker in case of emergencies, had gotten the same treatment. He’d never seen those thugs with a phone in hand, either, so they probably went to an outside location for calls if their paranoia ever allowed it.
It was no wonder why, in the end, Peter had to take his own chances at escaping. There’d never been a doubt in his mind that people were searching for him, but with no way to locate him, an apparent lack of witnesses, and a secluded, unsuspecting holding point… the circumstances had been stacked against him from the start.
He also remembered with a jolt that he’d left his wallet laying out on his desk at home. So he looked, felt, and no doubt smelled like garbage, was commandeering a hot-wired, stolen Durango with no license on him, and would be driving like a drunkard soon if this exhaustion set in any deeper.
What an excellent scenario, dude. Great job.
Still, he chose to believe the gas gauge wasn’t broken when it told him his tank was full, and though he had no choice in whether the wind was in his face or not, it felt brisk and smelled sweet. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he quickly tugged the collar of his rumpled T-shirt to unstick the damp fabric from his chest.
The figure of the road sign had gone from an obscure speck to a towering beacon as he’d been thinking, and he rolled to a stop beside it. Wooden, warped, and pointing off in one direction, it read Roscoe, New York in a messy etching. A smoother slab of wood had been nailed on below it, the words FIFTEEN MILES spelled out in black Sharpie.
Peter blinked in surprise. All this time, and he’d only been a few hours outside the city.
He just needed to make his way toward the town. There had to be someone who would overlook how much of a mess he was right now and offer him help. One phone call was all he’d ask for, just a chance to let people know that he was fine, that he was okay, that he was on his way back and was so sorry for worrying everybody.
A map would be good, too. One phone call, one map, and then if he hightailed it, he could be home in time for lunch.
There was the aftermath to consider, questions and relaying information and an endless swarm of medical personnel.
He wouldn’t linger on it now, though. Not yet.
He just wanted to go.
So, he turned out onto the road, put more pressure on the gas, and went.
The café was small, tidy, and run by an older woman who was taking a suspiciously long time in wiping her front counter down.
Peter pretended not to notice the glances she kept sending his way. He had a feeling that injured teenagers rolling into town at 6:42 in the morning via busted SUVs weren’t typical occurrences around here. She had every right to be wary, and he was just grateful she’d offered her help in the first place.
Besides, he’d procured a map by the entrance as she fetched her portable landline from the back office. If she decided to call the police—and his hearing told him she hadn’t done so already—he had what he needed for a speedy escape.
Right now, though, in the squeaking plastic of a corner booth, the phone was like a sizable weight in his hands. The top corner of the glowing orange screen read out the date in tiny pixels, and he stared at it with a constricted sensation in his throat.
It was April 27th.
He’d been kidnapped April 4th.
He steeled himself with a breath and dialed. Each punch of a number sounded like a bomb blast, the button texture like sandpaper against his skin. A drawn-out line of tension shot down his spine at the beep of the call going through, with the cut-off as it connected having the effect of being socked in the gut.
Peter almost burst into tears on the spot, tightening his double-fisted grip on the receiver.
There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end. He could imagine her raising a hand to her mouth, lips parted in surprise.
“Oh… oh, goodness. Peter? Is that you, baby?”
He screwed his eyes shut, leaning until his forehead rested on the table. This couldn’t be allowed to break him. Not when he still had to get home.
“Yeah,” he choked out, voice soft. “Yeah, it’s me.”
May laughed, breathless and overjoyed. “Oh, thank God. It’s—oh, it’s so good to hear your voice. We were… well, none of us knew what to think, we—oh, my. Sweetie, where are you? Are you okay?”
“I am. I’m alright.”
“Are you really?”
And the sudden strain in her voice, the way she was clearly trying to hide the fear behind her question, gave him a moment’s pause.
His ribs still ached like hell. He could feel the memory of the handcuff around his left wrist, how freezing it always was, how omnipresent, and how it kept him from wandering more than eight feet from the wall of the storage room they’d kept him in.
He could remember the pinch from the injections, never painful but always followed by a disgusting sluggishness that left his stomach churning something fierce when the feeling abated.
He could smell the wafting stench of the gas station. A rat, a bird, a mouse, something must have died inside the walls, and the lingering odor always mingled with the awful strain of pot one of his captors insisted on smoking every night.
But… well, nobody had ever hit him. Not excessively, at least, and never terribly hard. In fact, he’d been left alone a majority of the time, save for when someone came by to feed him or stick him with more drugs.
It hadn’t been a stay at a luxury resort, but he was sure that, by the standards of other superheroes, it had been a decidedly tolerable kidnapping.
So he hummed an affirmative into the phone.
“I’m fine. Honest.” He swallowed, straightening up. “I, uh… I probably smell, though.”
May breathed a chuckle on the other end, but there was an ounce of hesitation beforehand that spoke volumes. “Well, not like I haven’t worked with that before. Tell me where you are, baby. We’ll pick you up right away and you can take as long a shower as you need.”
“I’m on my way home, May,” he responded quickly. “I have a ride. It’s just me, I mean, driving myself. Nobody’s with me.”
“That’s not what I asked, Peter.”
“Um…” He cast a careful glance at the café owner, who had turned her back to wipe down a coffee machine but still had her ear angled toward him. “I’m in Roscoe. There’s a nice lady here letting me use her phone for a little bit.”
He was met with a brief yet loaded pause.
“Wait,” his aunt eventually said, her tone halting. “Roscoe? As in—as in where that bed and breakfast was that Ben liked? Roscoe as in New York Roscoe?”
“And were you there the whole time?”
“Um. Well, uh, maybe like twenty minutes away? Which is still close, but I wasn’t—I wasn’t here here.”
“Oh, Jesus.” There was the sound of something creaking, and Peter knew May had sunken into that favorite chair of hers, the one Ben had reupholstered years ago. “He was just… he was a few hours away the whole…”
Her voice trailed off and for what felt like ages, a heavy silence came through the other end, only broken every couple seconds by a controlled breath.
Peter hunched over the table. “May?”
“You said you had a ride, baby?”
She came back in so sudden, so strongly, but the nasally edge to her voice was a dead giveaway that she was crying.
Peter closed his eyes again.
“Yes. It’s, um. It’s a Durango.”
“Those are big blind spots,” she said with a distant quality, like she was mumbling to herself off the top of her head. “I’m gonna—” she sniffled, and cleared her throat. “I’m gonna tell Tony, okay? He’s had everyone on Peter search duty since you disappeared, so he’s all worked up and I have to let him know you’re safe.”
Peter expelled a long breath, stomach swooping around in… what, bottomless guilt? Endless shock? He couldn’t tell anymore.
“Captain America’s been coming by, you know,” she added with a soft laugh. “He likes talking about you. I think you have a fan.”
His forehead touched the table again. “Okay.”
There was another long pause, though this one seemed more filled with thought as opposed to sorrow.
“I love you.”
He couldn’t help smiling in spite of himself.
“I love you, too.”
“God, it really is good to hear your voice again, you know that?” She sounded like she’d tilted her phone closer to her mouth. “And while I’d really like you to stay where you are for now, sweetheart, just so someone can come pick you up, I know you. So you just get yourself home really safe and sound, okay?”
“Okay. I promise I will, May.”
“I’m holding you to that. And I want you back in time for dinner, mister. We’ll have Tony order pizza. Something tells me he’ll put up with pineapple toppings tonight.”
And Peter laughed, short and quiet but still bright and real.
He wanted to keep talking, but the owner was staring him down again so he made a last goodbye before he hung up the phone. The words “I’ll talk to you later” had never sounded so happy as they did in that moment, hitting him with something warm and fuzzy as he approached the counter.
Right outside the city, his heart whispered. You’re right outside the city. Just a couple hours.
“Thank you so much, ma’am,” he said as he handed the phone back over.
He knew he didn’t look entirely like a wandering delinquent anymore, an earlier glance in the Durango’s side view mirror telling him his face was healing nicely. There’d also been a half-empty water bottle in the glove compartment to clean the blood off his hands with. The hope was that this, combined with the sincerity in his voice and smile, might ease over the leftover nerves in the woman’s pinched face.
On the contrary, though, her expression only got harder.
“Did you ever mention how you wound up here?” she asked stiffly by means of a response, eyeing him. “Because I don’t think you did.”
He felt himself go bug-eyed. “Oh, um.” His face threatened to heat up in panic and he hurriedly cleared his throat.
“Well, it’s just… bad luck, ya know? Of the, uh, the genetic sort.” He gestured to his face with one hand and waved in the general direction of the parking lot with the other. “My eye, and uh, the car. All just bad luck. A family issue.”
The woman, who’d followed his flapping motions with furrowed eyebrows, nodded slowly.
“I’ll pretend to know what that means.”
She gave Peter one last scrutinizing look before pushing away from the counter and heading back toward her office, the phone held gingerly by the tips of her fingers.
Peter waited for her to disappear from sight around the corner, then scrambled to grab the map up from the table. By the time the landline was hesitantly clicked back into its cradle, he’d already rushed out the door.
Peter hadn’t been this way out of the city in a while. He kept a careful watch on street signs while following the minute curvature of roads on the map, which was shook out and laid up on the dashboard, one corner curled under the windshield.
The road was empty around him, save for the odd pickup truck or two going in the opposite direction. The highway was the most straightforward way home, a quick speedrun above sprawling farmland, but he preferred a vacant side street any old day.
(Tony thought it was highly ironic that the teenager who leapt off the Empire State Building for fun got the jitters at the thought of driving on a highway.
Peter always responded that being above the busy streets was different from being on them, a sentiment entirely lost on the man who, while understanding the rush of flying, used to take joy rides down the I-10 in California just because he’d felt like it.)
Compared to his escape from the gas station, the aching drive into Roscoe, and then his flipping emotions inside that café before he floored it out of town, this final stretch was proving itself to be kind of… peaceful. Nobody he passed spared him a glance, not even a truck with fifteen-odd teenagers squeezed into the bed, all of them singing at the top of their lungs.
The digital clock on the dashboard slid slowly from one minute into the next while the sun continued to rise higher in the sky. It was warming up temperature-wise, though it was by no means stifling, and the wind still felt good in Peter’s hair. He relished in the sensation of sunlight and just drove.
He was going to be home soon, and that was a thought that kept threatening to choke him up and break him down if he let himself dwell too deeply on what such a word entailed.
Because it meant May and Tony. It meant Ned and MJ. It meant his own bed, a change of clothes, and shower water to wash the grime away. It was actual food, strong hugs, and a huge blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
It was home, home, home home home, and this played on loop in his brain, loud and tumbling and distracting…
But not in a way that would have him miss the silver Audi speeding toward him in the opposite direction, a sight that made him do a double-take for two reasons.
One, because the fancy car was a foreign presence after nothing but rusty, dented Ford pickups for the past hour.
And two, he was pretty sure that was Tony in the driver’s seat.
“What the fuck?” Peter wondered aloud, watching with wide eyes as the vehicle sped closer.
His brain spun momentarily. Okay, no. It’s just a trick of the light because I’m exhausted. Audis are expensive but that doesn’t mean Tony is the only guy in the world who owns one. And why the fuck would he be driving if he could take the suit?
But those thoughts didn’t stop Peter from turning his head as the car zipped by, and they didn’t stop him from glimpsing that “Professional Web Designer” Spider-Man magnet on the left bumper. His foot slammed down on the brake at that, too focused on staring through the rear windshield to care when the Durango jolted violently from the sudden pressure.
Tony’s favorite Audi—and, yeah, Peter could see the dozens of other embarrassing car magnets he’d bought for the man—darted forward another thirty yards or so before it screeched to its own halt, forceful enough on the pavement that it left visible skid marks. Peter guessed FRIDAY had made a frantic alert the moment they’d passed each other.
The tail lights blinked red and orange as the car suddenly moved into reverse, and Peter was knocked from his dazed shock. He twisted forward to put the Durango into park, took four shaking clicks to unclasp his seat belt, and dropped down onto the street. Mindful of how the grass beside the pavement made a steep downward hill, he came around to the back of his vehicle to gawk.
Once he’d gotten within full sight of the Audi’s rear view mirror, it sped up its backward motion with clear gusto. The sleek, silver car rolled to a stop right beside him, passenger window down, and Peter’s breath hitched. A sensation was filling his chest that made him want to cry and laugh all at once.
Yes, he’d known. From the moment he’d seen the vehicle, he’d known, in spite of his brain trying to make rationalizations. But it was different to see him up close, wearing that faded AC/DC shirt spattered with old grease stains, sunglasses sat askew on his nose and hair disheveled.
“Tony?” Peter asked. He couldn’t help it.
For a few moments, it was just him watching Tony watch him. The man blinked twice in shock, parted his lips in surprise, and then breathed in relief. One second, he was frozen in his seat, hands clenched in a death grip on the steering wheel. In the next, he was jerking into motion, key forcefully twisted out of the ignition and seat belt being practically torn off.
“Holy shit,” Tony exclaimed loudly, stumbling out onto the road. As he rounded the hood of the car his sunglasses fell with a clatter, but if he’d noticed then he certainly didn’t care.
Peter, for his part, felt rooted. He had so many questions, but they were tangled in his brain and stuck to the roof of his mouth. Tony came right up to him, fingers raised to brush his arms in search of injuries—lightly, carefully, as if scared he’d vanish—and he struggled to choke out something intelligible beyond the thickness of his tongue.
Then a concerned thumb fluttered right under the edge of his black eye, and for some utterly inconceivable reason in the TV static that was Peter’s brain, that was the motion that knocked down his dam.
“Okay, so I thought they wanted to kill me, but they actually just wanted ransom from you, and they kept saying they’d call but then they’d get scared of you and what you’d do if you found them! So they didn’t really know what to do with me most of the time, which left me just sitting there while I waited for something to happen because they’d broken my phone and my watch and the gas station was literally in the middle of nowhere so how was anybody supposed to find me?”
He’d taken an involuntary, bumpy step backwards, his hands clenched so tight he couldn’t be bothered to gesture with them.
“And they just had these really stupid drugs that, like—they made my strength just disappear, for some reason, except I don’t think they knew about Spider-Man? They just didn’t like how much I talked, but it’s not like I can control it, ya know? I just say whatever’s on my mind and it doesn’t help that they left me alone, like, the whole time, except to feed me or dose me or whatever, so I’d talk out loud to the walls which I know sounds totally crazy but it was better than not saying anything at all!”
He knew his face was going beet red as his lungs ached for air, but there was so much to say and he had to say all of it or he felt he would explode.
“And then I heard them say through the walls that they ran out of their drugs so I knew my powers were back because I’d heard them, like, through the walls! And I broke that one guy’s shotgun after he hit me and then I broke the handcuff and used some guy to smash the door open and I threw another guy over my back like Nat showed me, and then I stole the Durango but like, only technically because it was already stolen, and then I called May, and I—she wanted me to wait if I could, but there was this woman running the café and I was worried she would call the police, Tony!”
He took a sharp, inward gasp when he finished, clenched muscles trembling.
Tony, eyes open wide, just… stared at him. He stared for what felt like ages.
And maybe it was the way Peter had gotten caught on those words, tripping on his consonants like he did when he excitedly recounted an event from patrol.
Maybe it was the way he winced when he finally let loose the tension in his spine, remembering the still-healing fractures lacing his ribs.
Maybe it was him directly addressing Tony in-person for the second time in a little over three weeks.
Maybe it was all those things, or something else entirely.
Whatever the case, Tony’s staring ended with a hard exhale that finished in a grateful, elated burst of a laugh. His eyes, red in their rims and baggy underneath, welled up at the corners. He stepped forward, mindful of the eye as he cupped Peter’s face fully, and grinned.
“Holy shit,” he began again, catching on a shaky breath. “Holy shit. Peter.”
And then Peter was being tugged into a hug that was encompassing and warm and grounding while being completely mindful of his injuries, and holy shit indeed, because Tony was here. Frazzled, tired, heart still skidding a beat out of rhythm, on an empty stretch of back road at almost eight in the morning for no other reason than Peter being here, too.
Sometimes, back in the gas station, his captors pumped him with a high enough dosage that his intelligent thought patterns were flattened, and there was only one thing he could remember thinking clearly in those sluggish hours. It had played on a maddening repeat, over and over and over again, until his eyes slipped closed in sleep.
I want to go home.
And now, home was here. It pressed fingers over Peter’s pulse point, lingering until the shake in calloused hands was barely perceptible. Those same fingers then moved to the back of his head, finding familiar tracks in his hair and running through them.
Peter thumped his forehead against Tony’s chest, arms coming up to wrap around him tight.
He wasn’t anticipating the sob he choked on, wasn’t ready for how ugly it sounded. Screwing his face up, he bit the inside of his lower lip in a desperate attempt to keep the encroaching outburst at bay. No crying, no crying. Not here, not now. Not when the bags under Tony’s eyes and that quiver in May’s voice were the results of late nights, of early-morning espressos, of a panic born from Peter’s ineptitude, his—his inability to handle a few low-brow punks in black masks.
But then Tony stopped the ministrations in his curls, just pressed his hand so that it practically cradled the back of Peter’s head, firm and comforting in a way that reminded him of Ben but remained distinct in the scarring, the rounded nails, the lack of uncertainty in place of what had once been trembling disquiet, because Pepper had informed Peter that before he’d come swinging into the picture, her fiancé had never worked on getting used to the closeness stuff.
“Scariest part is over, buddy,” Tony murmured into his hairline. “You’re okay now.”
And Peter broke.
His next breath was another sob, and then another, and then a hiccup. Fat drops of tears slipped down his cheeks to catch on his lips, run along his jaw and tremble under his chin before falling to dot the fabric of Tony’s shirt.
He hadn’t realized just how long he’d gone without a touch that wasn’t malicious in nature, just how fucking lonely he’d been. He’d stared at that cracked ceiling, night after night, and tested how loud he could talk before someone’s fist went banging on the door, telling him to shut the fuck up. They’d hated it when he talked, because half the time it was nonsense listed in a lethargic flatline of a voice. He’d stumble over science equations and movie quotes, stutter on song lyrics, make summer plans for himself and Ned.
He’d clank his cuff against the metal edge of his cot, scuff his sneakers along the ground and watch the dust fly, try desperately to hear beyond his makeshift cell until pain shot along his temples.
A sense of the outside, of life, of contact, of light, of laughter, of anything, something, please please please… That was what he’d craved, what he’d ached for, and it had just...
It had just really, really fucking sucked.
“Tony,” he forced out past another shaky sob, pressing harder into the man’s shoulder. He was beginning to suspect May had meant something different when she’d asked if he was okay.
Tony whispered soothing words—everything's alright, it’s over, I’m here, I got you— and started slowly rocking in place where they stood, back and forth in a mindless sway. His hand ran in hypnotizing circles at the nape of his neck, something he did when Peter had migraines or needed that extra push before he tumbled into sleep.
Soothing, safe, secure, home.
Peter didn’t know how long they stayed like that, with the sun warm overhead and the wind whistling lazily and the road curiously, blessedly devoid of any potential onlookers. He only knew that when his crying finally slowed down, he had his voice back, and the first thing he whispered without a trace of panic was a “thank you.”
Then, with a soft, small smile, “Pretty crappy service they had going. No pool or TV or anything. Zero star rating.”
Tony huffed in disbelieving amusement, then was silent for a minute, breathing slow and even into the oily, tangled wreck of Peter’s curls. His arms squeezed with just the barest hint more of pressure.
“God, kiddo,” he finally uttered, voice thick. “We didn’t—we weren’t sure we’d ever…”
He pulled back far enough to press a kiss to Peter’s brow, brushing the bangs off his forehead with such tenderness. Then the man’s eyes caught his, and Peter saw a smile on Tony’s face that he couldn’t ever remember seeing before.
“I love you so much, buddy, you know that?”
The ease with which he spoke those words, how he’d clearly made this epiphany a long time ago, left Peter faltering. Eyes going wide, he flitted his gaze over the man’s face, feeling dangerously close to crying again.
Then he nodded, fast and jerky and with a tightness in his throat. Of course he knew. Some part of him had always known. But Tony had never—well, neither of them had ever—
Two more kisses were pressed in quick succession to his hairline, followed by an arm wrapped around his shoulder to tuck him against Tony’s side. Peter let himself be guided to the still-open driver’s side door of the Audi, and gave no protest when he was gently pushed down into the seat, stretching his lanky legs down to the pavement.
His face felt warm and his muscles like jelly, but he watched with rapt attention as Tony went to the backseat, like taking his eyes off the man would mean waking up back in bindings.
It was evident in how Tony kept his torso twisted toward Peter, reaching into his car with one hand, that he held the same exact worry.
“Alright—” he pulled out the bulky first aid kit with a labored grunt, “—what’s the damage, Pete?”
With Tony’s retrieved sunglasses perched on his nose, Peter observed with bated breath as the Durango faded from view behind them. A final prick of tension eased off his chest the moment a sloping hill obscured the run-down car from sight, and he settled back into the smooth leather of the Audi, seat warmer on low just the way he liked it. Eyes closed, the rhythmic tapping of Tony’s fingers on the steering wheel was lulling his heart into a steady, normal pulse.
Before they’d set off, two granola bars had been pressed into his palms. To knock your special Spidey meds down easier, Tony had said, presenting the painkillers alongside a condensation-damp water bottle.
The effects of the medicine were just starting to kick in, not enough to knock him out but leaving him feeling downright cozy.
“So,” he started in a half-mumble. “How did you know where to find me?”
Tony flicked on his turn signal, making a smooth left onto the next street. He always drove carefully when Peter was in the car.
“May called me, kiddo. Right after she got done talking to you.”
“I know, but I probably wasn’t in town by then. I left after I gave the phone back to that lady.”
“The café owner who you thought was gonna call the cops, right?”
Tony blew out a lengthy exhale. “Okay, at some point we’ll have to work on those decision-making skills of yours, bud. But we’ll wait until after I’m done being happy that you’re back.”
Peter grinned and popped his eyes open, rolling his head along the seat so he could see Tony’s face.
“Sure, like that’ll ever happen.”
“You wanna bet, smart aleck?” the man smirked, reaching over to ruffle Peter’s curls.
Peter just giggled, maneuvering out of reach, then turned to stare out the window.
“Tony?” he asked a couple minutes later, watching with wonder at the acre of white-blossomed apple trees they were currently passing.
“Seriously, how did you know where to find me?”
Tony hummed peaceably, a small smile evident in the sound.
“Well, I know how much you hate highways, so that crossed the interstate off my list. But I still figured you’d want to get home fast, so I asked FRIDAY for the shortest back route and went from there.”
“Oh,” Peter said, because he didn’t know how else he was supposed to respond. He preferred to chalk the warmness in his face up to the sun on his cheeks.
“Also, May told me what kind of car to look for. Really, Pete, a Durango? You’d have been better off walking.”
Peter ignored the jab in favor of scrunching his nose up in confusion, looking around once more to stare at Tony’s profile.
“But you drove right past me, though.”
Tony waved a dismissive hand through the air. “Chalk that up to the throes of parental panic, bud. FRI here was the one keeping her head.” He lightly patted the car’s center console. “Right, honey?”
The AI’s level voice chimed in with agreement through the speakers.
“Boss was in a considerable amount of distress, Peter. I had to manually move the car into drive because he couldn’t understand why his gas pedal wasn’t working.”
“Okay, there was no need to elaborate,” Tony grumbled, but Peter was barely listening anymore. A large, dumb smile was stretching across his face, and he rubbed at it idly with the back of a hand.
He loves me, he thought, chest singing.
Tony was eyeing him from his periphery, fondness written into every small crease of his face, and Peter had a feeling his thoughts were being read.
A good ten minutes or so went by in a comfortable silence after that, save for when Tony pointed out the window as they passed a dairy farm.
“Cows,” he noted in a deadpan.
“Cows,” Peter confirmed, craning his neck until the animals were gone from view.
But the calm was truly broken by a sudden, sharp whooshing noise from the horizon. Peter perked up at the sound, distant at first, before it steadily grew in volume. Eyebrows lowered, he removed Tony’s sunglasses and peered up through the windshield.
“Um… is that the quinjet?”
The hulking grey mass of the aircraft, completely unmistakable and wholly unexpected, sped over the Audi in a record pace. Tony sniffed, casting a casual glance at it through his side view mirror as it passed.
“It sure is.”
Peter fixed Tony with a mildly bewildered look, the corners of his lips twitching up.
“For Cap’s overly-complicated rescue mission, of course.”
Peter narrowed his eyes. “So, everyone else was gonna take the quinjet… except for you.”
“Yup,” he answered with a pop of the ‘p,’ despite Peter not phrasing it as a question.
“And you just… casually decided to drive yourself.”
“So, what happened to the suit?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Pete.”
“Colonel Rhodes locked you out again, didn’t he?”
Tony shrugged nonchalantly in a way that said Rhodey definitely locked him out, and Peter smirked. It earned him a light flick on the arm, which only made him bark with laughter.
“Parental. Panic, Peter. Remember?” Tony replied with mock seriousness, struggling to keep his own grin off his face. “Besides, I still got to you first, didn’t I?”
Peter beamed, mirth still edging every breath.
“Yeah,” he relented. “Yeah, you did.”
He knew Tony would always get there first.
“Damn straight I did. Now, stop laughing, before you break another rib or something.”
Peter just rolled his eyes, twisting around to look out the rear windshield, though the quinjet was long gone by now.
“Ya know, you should probably tell them that I’m with you,” he quietly mused.
“And where’s the fun in that?” Tony scoffed, but he reached for his phone anyways.
After checking his vitals and giving a stern lecture on the importance of bed rest, Dr. Cho had cleared Peter to heal up in his bedroom at the Compound, rather than in the stifling colorlessness of the medbay.
It took him settling into his mattress, covered to his chin in the familiar warmth of his blankets, for him to remember just how exhausted he was.
May had stepped out a few minutes ago to make herself some tea, so it was just him and Tony for the moment. The man had dragged in his armchair from the living room and laid his laptop on Peter’s nightstand, making it clear that he meant to settle in for the next couple hours. He was slouched to the side right now, chin resting against one palm.
Peter dug an arm out from under his comforter, reaching lazy fingers forward. Tony took his outstretched hand without thinking, immediately rubbing a thumb along his knuckles.
“T’ny?” Peter murmured, turning his face deeper into his pillows. The second dose of painkillers was making its way through his bloodstream, and his eyelids were drooping heavily.
“Right here, bud.”
Peter sighed contentedly, letting his eyes slip shut.
“I love you, too.”
Tony watched the single crack of light from the bedroom door play over the curve of Peter’s cheek, highlighting the freckles dotting his nose and the shine of his freshly-washed hair.
He squeezed his kid’s hand twice in acknowledgement, leaning forward to press a firm, lingering kiss on the side of his forehead.
“Sleep well, kiddo,” he whispered.
By the time he pulled away, Peter was already fast asleep.