Peter’s tongue feels like an anchor sometimes. Weighted, swaying between indecision and casting off. About to come undone if he doesn’t watch himself and keep the words inside him in control in the curl of his palm.
He’s noticed Tony’s initial fumbling with physical touch and his eventual growth over the months as they’ve lived together. He wonders if Tony, in turn, has noticed his own difficulty with making direct requests. He once overheard Tony and Pepper chatting about the time Pete asked for permission for practically everything right after moving into the Tower. He knew they meant it half in jest and half from nothing else than loving concern, but the realization stung. It was true. He went through a period not unlike this after Ben’s passing, where he drifted from day to day in a state between tension and listlessness, hardly feeling he had the right to exist yet knowing the one person he could ask for permission to go on living had gone before his very eyes.
So when the deliveries of Christmas decorations start trickling into the Tower, Peter notices, and he tries to open his mouth when he’s sat at the kitchen island across from Tony to just speak, stop it, stop, please, it hurts, but nothing happens.
His next tactic is avoidance. He takes refuge in the workshop and migrates down there with his schoolwork, hoping that with enough new playlists pumping overhead he can forget the view of the tinsel-laden living room and hallway that are visible from his room upstairs. Thank heavens Tony doesn’t seem to have ordered anything yet for Peter’s bedroom, but Peter kind of doubts the man would actually consult him about something as trivial as permission to decorate the space for Christmas. Tony’s thoughtless that way, sometimes, not out of any malice or fault of his, but because festivities have always been a given in his life and Peter’s often left wondering if a holiday like Christmas could even signify anything more to Tony than galas and business cocktails in the city. Lord knows that Tony hardly had the family to cherish in snapshots of moments in his mind.
“What do you think, kid?” Tony asks without breaking his stride as he strolls through the sliding glass doors of the workshop.
Peter glances up and backward over his shoulder at his mentor, who, predictably, has his tablet in one hand and his smartphone in the other. One glance at the multiple screens, and Peter can already vaguely guess what the man is up to. Coughing down a little sigh, he sets down his pencil and calculator, stretches the crick from his back, and swivels around on his stool to give Tony his full attention.
“New playlist?” Peter asks hopefully.
“Nope, but good guess.”
“You...need my scintillating and very expert advice on which new car to buy?”
“Even more in-character for me. But again, no.” Tony clicks his tongue and points a finger gun at the kid before joining him at the table. He swings his leg over the nearby stool and wheels himself down to Peter’s side with a whoosh. “Take a look. Which color scheme for the dining room, do you think? The formal one. I know you’d probably like to make the informal one more personal, so we can totally go ham with the colors for that one. I don’t care.”
“Um.” Peter gulps down his saliva and forces his eyeballs to focus on the two screens Tony’s showing him. He owes Tony this, he thinks. It’s not a big deal. Not a big deal at all. His finger shakes a little, but he ignores it and scrolls slowly through the options.
“Never took you for a Pinterest guy.”
“It’s Pepper’s account. She started it.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Mr. Stark,” says Peter, trying a grin around the pain that’s whistling squarely through his teeth.
“Hey, I will not be shamed for caring about what my living space looks like. Besides, we’ve got no shortage of cash--”
“--Obviously,” Peter rejoins dryly.
“Hush, young buck. You’re not here to judge my budget, you’re here to offer me tasteful advice on color palettes.”
“Weird, considering I know way more about the former than the latter,” Peter reminds him with a shrug, “but okay.” He squints at the Pinterest board and scrolls back up. Then he takes a glance at Tony’s tablet and cursorily reviews the items in the shopping cart in a bunch of different websites throughout the tabs.
After a couple of puffs of breath, Peter ventures: “I...did notice the lobby downstairs was on the gold side.”
One elbow braced on the edge of the table, Tony shrugs. “On brand. I’m looking to switch things up for the second floor, or maybe at least keep our options open.”
Our. It should make Peter’s heart beat in happiness. He doesn’t know why, then, the roof of his mouth feels as though it’s burning.
“Then I’ll throw a wrench in your red-and-gold theme and point you to the blue and silver.”
“There’s five boards with blue and silver. Which one?”
Peter chomps down on his bottom lip to calm the thumping in his ribcage. “Fine. The...periwinkle and...white gold one.”
Though Peter’s focused on the screens instead of turned to Tony, he can sense the man’s eyebrows going up at his side. “Really?” says Tony. “That’s--okay. Out of left field, but I think I can see how it actually fits. I got some lighter gold tones in the greeting area downstairs, so maybe if I tone down the red...maybe switch up some of the present lights under the tree...yeah, yup, totally seeing it come together in my head now. Thanks, champ.” Tony swats the side of Peter’s shoulder, lightly, but all casual.
Peter’s choked up with things he doesn’t have the energy to name right now. He plays it off by pretending to set down the tablet and slide it back to Tony with a sound of disgust. “Now go check out with your bajillion credit cards. Don’t subject my eyeballs to that torture.”
“Hey.” Gaze locked on his screen, Tony points sideways in the general direction of the kid. “I’ve done my due diligence. Personally picked out new charities to add to the list Pepper already had from the past couple years. And I’m planning on heading over to several of them, personally, sometime next week. Which--speaking of, care to join me?”
The switch in topic lightens the constriction in Peter’s chest a bit. He starts to relax, enough to lower his head to his arms on the table and bop his chin with a fist. He grimaces a little. “I still got school next week. Like, I’m totally down for using you as my get-out-of-jail-free card and just ditching, but I do still have a lot to catch up on.”
“Hm.” Tony’s still swiping and typing on his tablet, but Peter can read from the mere shift in his posture that the man’s putting more attention now into the conversation. The boy silently prays that his mentor doesn’t call him out on his bullshit: he’s been studying and practicing calculus problems since July, since the week after May’s funeral, since--since it all went to shit. If there’s one thing that Peter does have under control, it’s his studies, precisely because he’s thrown himself into them. Made them his drug.
“I think,” Tony says slowly, now finished with his online purchases but a bit unwilling to commit to eye contact, “I think...you don’t have that much to catch up on. But if I’m right, and there’s another reason you’d rather stick to your routine, don’t feel--I don’t know. Obliged to tell me.”
“And no apologizing for it, either.”
“...Sorry,” Peter mumbles. His mouth snaps shut.
“So.” Tony finally swivels back around on the stool with his arms spread, opening the floor metaphorically. “You’re free to tell me, or not. I mean. Either way, I’m getting hives, but it’s probably the good adult thing to do to...talk and shit.”
Peter stops the giggle from escaping him. It sounds irreverent and out of place, just like Tony’s deliberately casual swearing thrown in at the end of his sentence.
Peter starts and stops, more than once. He hangs his head and watches his hands curl and uncurl in his lap, and then circles his skinny left wrist with the fingers of his right. He’s tried and tried to erase the very visible nervous tic, most especially around Tony who can read him best at it (takes one to know one, and all that jazz), but he just can’t help it at moments like this when he’d rather that the concrete below their feet opened up and swallowed him whole.
Well, maybe he’s being dramatic, but tell that to the little anxiety demon running free through the labyrinth of his brain right now.
“It’s not--” He sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “I dunno. I don’t know how to say this.”
“Hm,” Tony says aloud. “Try thinking aloud. Pretend I’m not here.”
Peter takes a moment to glare at him through the strands of his slightly overgrown fringe. He doesn’t gel back his curls when he’s at home--at the Tower, he means. “Pretty hard to pretend you’re not here when I can hear you breathing like a cow about to give birth.”
“Ouch,” Tony pronounces with supremely affected offense.
“Sorry. I--you know what I mean.”
Tony waves him off with a tiny grin. “Go on. Or please try.”
“Uh...well...it’s not going with you that I have a problem with?”
Tony folds his arms and sniffs. “I gathered. Nobody’d miss a chance to bask in my radiant presence.” He throws in a gentle wink to let the kid know that yes, he’s only joking.
Peter finds he’s too distracted to even reflexively roll his eyes. “I just want to go to school and come straight ho--straight here, you know?”
Tony slides his jaw to the side and considers that. He picks up his phone from the table and starts playing with it, tossing it from one hand to the other and then spinning it between his middle finger and thumb. “You’ve been coming straight home from school for a...really long time, Pete,” he says softly.
He’s pushing Peter, ever so slightly. He knows this.
Predictably, Peter avoids his searching gaze.
“Yeah,” says Peter.
“Listen, Pete, I’m the last person to push you out of your comfort zone at a time like this. But...I genuinely think it might do you some good to go out and about. Y’know, take a break from the four walls of this workshop. Granted, they’re some pretty amazing walls, not gonna lie, but you can’t just subsist on calc and robots 24/7.”
Peter arches a brow and shifts his torso upward to give his mentor a very particular look.
Within seconds, Tony has both hands up in surrender. “Pot calling the kettle black. Understood.” He sniffs and scratches his goatee. “Think about it, though?”
Peter offers him a mute nod. He keeps his gaze on his hands and scratches the center of his palm with his thumb.
A couple beats pass. Peter is even more painfully aware now of their breathing filling up the space between then, as little as that may be. He draws another gulp of air, and then--“Do you ever...get tired of the snow? The whole, I don’t know, hullabaloo about Christmas lights and decorations?”
He can practically hear Tony’s brow furrowing. “The lights are what make the season. I mean, of course there’s the whole joy to the world aspect of it, but most of the time I don’t even have time to really sit and enjoy the trees and ornaments. Which is why I get all of the decorations done ahead of time.” Tony gestures roundly. “For the benefit of the employees, reminder of the holiday spirit, et cetera.”
“Huh,” says Peter. “You usually take trips during the holiday season?”
“Not always on purpose,” says Tony, and the wry grin is evident in his voice. “It’s usually to help Pepper in her never-ending agenda. The holidays just tend to be interrupted by business partners or enemies--or, well, knowing me, they’re usually the same thing--so there was that one Christmas I was down in the Canary Islands rooting out some pesky copycat weapons dealers and it turned out I’d showed up late to Rhodey’s party.”
“Rhodey?” Peter repeats, not understanding.
“Yup.” Tony pops his p. “He does important government shit in his important government position, apparently. Like investigating illegal international trade deals and not informing his best friend about them.”
“He probably wanted you to just have a nice, calm Christmas,” Peter supplies helpfully.
Tony snorts in response, followed quickly by Peter as they both realize the sheer ridiculousness of that statement. The vise grip around Peter’s ribs loosens infinitesimally.
“Hey,” Tony says, all of a sudden. It catches Peter unawares and makes him swallow quickly. “Look at me?”
Peter obliges. His eyes feel unexpectedly and shamefully watery. But when he meets Tony’s gaze, he doesn’t seem surprised in the least.
“What are you saying, bud? You wanna blow this popsicle stand?”
Peter obstinately plays dumb. “What popsicle stand?”
Tony waves his arm around them--DUM-E picks up on the movement and lifts his head with an inquisitive whir--around at the glass windows, through which the downy sheets of snow can be seen drifting to the ground. Through the glass doors at the rear of the workshop, the famous New York skyline with winking lights in the approaching afternoon gloom can just be discerned across the distance.
“Snow. Christmas lights. The pushing and shoving in the malls and the general gooey sh--stuff,” Tony says by way of explanation.
Peter lifts a brow. “I don’t know about you, but personally I don’t think we’ll get very far from Christmas lights or pushing and shoving in the malls even if we go to the furthest corner of America.”
“Fair point. But warmer places like Florida exist. Or even somewhere in the Caribbean. And they don’t say frequent flier miles for nothing.”
“What about your guest appearances next week?”
Tony shrugs. “Sure. I’ll take care of those first, and then we’ll book it outta here. What d’you say?”
Peter wonders when Tony got so adept at reading him and his indirect request. Or maybe--and this is the answer that the kid acknowledges as the more likely one--Tony has picked up on the breadcrumbs Peter threw down for him, and he’s throwing money at a problem he can’t pinpoint. In the most Tony Stark-esque fashion.
He’s trying. Peter knows that. And it’s all that he needs to latch onto the metaphorical hand being extended to him.
“Deal,” says Peter. “Do I get to know where we’re going?”
“Nope,” Tony says triumphantly with his hands laced behind his head. His expression swiftly morphs from one of smugness to sincerity. “Unless, of course, you’re not that keen on surprises.”
“Nah, not really. But I know it’s your thing.”
“Compromise. We’re going somewhere warm, I promise.”
Peter wonders if he should ask if they celebrate Christmas down there, too, wherever they’re headed, but he keeps quiet. Instead he tries a smile back and says, “Hey, it’ll be a nice change for my thermoregulation issues.”
“Did you ever watch Home Alone?”
“’Course, kid,” Tony says around the boarding pass between his teeth, as he roots around in his coat pockets for the important...something or other that he might have misplaced. He locates his charger with a small a-ha, plugs in his phone at the outlet to the side of his seat, and takes the boarding pass out of his mouth again. “I may have been washed up in the 90s, but they still had Blockbuster in the 2000s.”
“Hm,” Peter hums, hands interlocked over his stomach, in lieu of taking the bait for banter.
Tony twists his mouth pensively. “You don’t seriously think I’d lose you in this airport, do you? Ol’ Kevin Shmevin had six siblings. I’ve only got one of you.”
That was by no means intended to make something unfurl uncomfortably in the center of Peter’s chest, yearning, with an ache he can’t abide, but still it does.
“Hey,” says Tony. “You’re not really getting all queasy about the flight, are you? We’ll be in seats next to each other.”
“Right. Yeah. That was silly.”
“Maybe you just haven’t had a flight in too long.” Tony hands him a Juicy Fruit.
Peter arches first one brow at him, then the other, before taking the proffered gum stick. “I thought you had taste.”
“I do, which is why I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole, but I have noticed you chewing that around the Tower when you’re nervous before a test.” Tony shrugs. “Hard not to notice how you like cracking your jaw on that stuff. Chewing it to a pulp for two hours.”
Peter unwraps the gum with a sniff. The familiar punch of powder and sugared candy hits his nose. “That’s how I economize on gum sticks.”
“I know,” says Tony softly. No rebuttal, no mockery.
“Maybe it is just that,” Peter relents. “I haven’t flown anywhere since our, uh, Germany thing. And before that, we never really had the need to be anywhere that wasn’t within driving distance of Queens. May actually hates flying. Makes her go deaf because she can’t make her ears pop.”
The rustling of their jackets from both sides of the armrest between them stops. Peter turns to look up at Tony, whose face is awash with the same brand of realization as his.
“Hated,” Peter corrects himself.
That’s all he says. He swallows down the part of him that wants to jump right out of his throat, screaming, stop, stop, it hurts, and the part of him that drags itself out of the shadows with the ugly remembrance of how he couldn’t come within twenty feet of an image or mention of airplanes because of how his parents died. Airplanes. Guns. Cars. The universe sure did check off all its boxes to make sure he learned to fear every single thing that could take away the little pieces of his family that still made him whole.
But no, not fear: loathing. Airplanes and guns and cars couldn’t hurt him. Spidey knows that, after having leaped onto flying aircrafts hundreds of feet above the ground, and dodging bullets and backflipping on top of rigs on the crisscross of New York highways. He’s invincible. Impervious to all the things that killed his loved ones. They’re weapons, yes, but weapons of a different kind entirely, the kind that can turn around and chip at him day by day through his memory and the burning in the roof of his mouth and the glue on his tongue. One day he’ll be sat here beside Tony Stark, the man who took him in when literally no one else could, and they’ll be chatting about brands of chewing gum and fear of heights and again, and Peter will have completely lost his ability to say anything of value or sincerity about what his heart is doing to him.
Tony’s hand comes down heavy on his shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “There’s nothing wrong with speaking in the present tense, kiddo.”
The gut of Peter disagrees with that. But then the announcer’s voice comes on coolly overhead, and it’s time to gather up his single backpack and Tony’s coat and bajillion unnecessary carry-ons and head toward the boarding area. And the thread of their conversation drops into the labyrinth behind them.
They serve a crapload of peanuts on the airplane, wrapped in festive plastic with painted designs of snowflakes and elves. The steward who hands Peter his ginger ale has a cheap red and white Santa hat perched on his head. The stewardess who comes back laden with fresh blankets at Tony’s request wears a seasonal waistcoat as part of her uniform, updated with poinsettia-themed embroidery on its edges.
Tony catches sight of Peter eyeing the bag of peanuts as if it might explode. “Got a peanut allergy?” he asks, throwing back his head with a handful of his own nuts.
Peter suppresses a sigh and tears open his package. “Yeah. Long time ago, before the Spidey bite. Asthma, bad eyesight peanut allergy--epipen--the whole works.”
“No. Wait. Really?”
“Kidding,” Peter says with a lopsided smile. “The bite probably rewired a whole bunch of my DNA, but I don’t think I’d survive that much rewiring.”
Tony serves him a flat look worthy of an Oscar. “You’ve survived falling from airplanes and crashing into trains, kid. With you? I’d probably believe anything.”
There’s an expanse of awkward silence, and then Tony seems to realize what he just said, at the same time that they’re both riding strapped down in a flying death machine.
“Right,” says Tony. “Forget I said any of that.”
The hotel that they check into on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia is strung up on the cottage-like facade with enough lights to rival even Tony Stark’s display in the first-floor greeting area of the Tower. A cool breeze blows through, rattling the lights, and Peter’s attention is fixed on them above his head until Tony’s hand comes down on his shoulder again to bring him back to the present and steer him inside.
“My thoughts are, we check out the digs, freshen up, throw on some fresh clothes, and then hit the beach. What are your thoughts?” Tony rubs his chin. “Please don’t say higher than my thoughts.”
Peter blows out an unimpressed breath between his lips. “I don’t repeat a joke twice.”
Tony holds up his other hand as he continues steering the kid down the royal blue-carpeted hallway. “I was hopped up on Benadryl at the time, so you can’t blame me for thinking you’d go for an encore.”
“Oh, my God,” Peter says in the flattest voice ever. They arrive at their door number, and Peter slides in the key card and lets them both in with a click and a whiff of sea breeze air. Housekeeping must have sprayed it on thick.
Peter barely stops to drop off his backpack at the foot of one of the double beds in his trek to the window at the other side of the suite. The glass stretches from midway to the ceiling nearly to the floor, crisscrossed by panes in cracked and weathered paint and bordered by stiff linen curtains the dusty shade of the sea at twilight. Peter stops when he’s gotten right up against the glass and presses his forehead against the surface. The coldness of it shocks him a little--but after all, that’s what he has been looking for. His hands clench into fists unconsciously at his sides as he closes his eyes and forces his breathing to slow and his mind to be grounded.
The duvet on the bed on the far side of the suite rustles as Tony sets down his own bags. There are zippers and then the thumping of shoes being kicked off and tumbling to the carpet.
“Enjoying the view, Webhead?”
Peter nods against the glass, letting the dull sound of his skin on the surface answer Tony for him. He blinks his open again to be blinded by the slant of early afternoon sun glinting off the surface of the water in the distance. Gulls cry out into the vast expanse of the sky above them, blue, blue, blue, and Peter could look on forever and begin to lose himself in the realization of the monstrosity of everything around him.
He feels small, and he knows it and he knows why it is so, and maybe the better part of him revels in the temporary comfort that he is but a cog in the machine. That he is not so special that the universe would actually program itself to sabotage him and everything he’s ever loved.
He has vague memories of his parents building a sand castle with him. He never was one to have a prematurely developed long-term memory--between him and Ned, it’s Ned who can chatter away about his earliest remembrances from when he was four years old bouncing on his grandmother’s knee in their provincial home in Davao--but there are bits and pieces that filter back to him. Sometimes it’s the aroma of a french cruller that jogs his memory, sending him hurtling back more than a decade before, when his father used to take him through the specialty donut shop for a black coffee and a pastry before they headed off to the nearby park to play on the jungle gym. Peter doesn’t remember quite what it was what he did that made Richard choke on the lip of his coffee cup and throw back his head and laugh at him, but that image of his father appears before him at moments on his capers throughout Queens as Spidey, when he spies fathers and daughters and sons relaxing in the parks.
Other times, it’s like this: he stares out a window at a beach, quite far removed from anything he’s known in the city and nearly deserted save for the grease-winged gulls and the occasional elderly couple making their way down the sandy strip, and he wonders how he thought he could have ever run and run and made it very far past another memory of a loved one who’s no longer in his life. He stares, and remembers the fond exasperation in his mother’s voice around a chuckle, orange plastic shovel in one hand and wet handkerchief in the other to scrub his face free of sharp bits of sand.
He stares, and he thinks that he may have left May Parker and Christmas behind together with a modest headstone in Queens, but by God, his parents are everywhere.
Peter is so lost, tumbling in the swirl of his thoughts, that for once his superhearing does not register Tony sidling up to him. He misses, too, the way Tony lifts a hand as if to lay it on his shoulder, but thinks better of it and instead flexes his palm in the air and lowers it back down slowly to his side.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out some trunks and going for a swim,” Tony says affably. “If you want a minute of--I dunno, manly privacy--I’ll be over there in that bathroom.”
“You should probably get in under this umbrella before you fry to a crisp,” Tony says around the straw in his mouth, without looking up from the book (yes, he’s packed a novel with him) in his lap.
Peter doesn’t bother to open his eyes or unlace his hands from behind his head where he’s lying on a crimson towel just a few feet away from Tony’s chair. He goes on counting the teardrops of vermillion and neon yellow behind his eyelids, seared there by the relentless sun above them.
“Nah, I’m good. I need the warmth, remember? ’Specially in the winter.”
“Buddy. You don’t thermoregulate, which means you are victim to the whims of dear Mother Nature. Freezing, thawing, boiling into a fine marinara sauce. All of them.”
Peter grumbles his assent.
“See? I thought they teach you that shit over in your fancy science high school. The sun’s already cooking up your brain, bit by bit.”
“Just a couple more minutes,” Peter mumbles, totally ignoring Tony’s jab.
“Fine by me, but if you’re not up and under this umbrella by the time Frollo is done with his disgusting fantasizing about Esmeralda, then I’m calling your--I’m calling Pepper.”
The slip shocks Peter into opening his eyes. He hisses at the blinding stab of white into his eyeballs, and he squints and turns his head to the side to allow his sight time to adjust. A little girl shrieks and gives a bubbly giggle from somewhere down the shoreline.
I’m calling May, he knows is what Tony was about to say. Even the man isn’t immune to it. To the morbid habit of speaking in the present tense.
He appreciates the neat save, but he knows--and they both know--that the threat to call Pepper holds little weight and even less comedic significance than threatening to call May.
Peter unlocks his hands from behind his head and eases himself into a sitting position. Wind and little stray waves have brushed up thin layers of sand over his legs. He doesn’t shake it off, just starts picking at the grains from between his toes and in the cracks of the skin around his knees.
“Me and May never went to the beach,” Peter says quietly.
There’s a small rustle and a little thump as Tony shuts his book. He doesn’t quite reach up to take off his shades yet, but by the glint of sunlight in his peripheral vision, Peter can tell that his mentor has turned his head to face him.
“Any particular reason for that? Fear of heights and planes?”
“No, naw, it’s--it’s not that. There were plenty of beaches around the Jersey shoreline we could’ve gone to. I mean, my parents took me a couple of times. I only remember one time, I think, but there’s a whole bunch of pictures from different years where we all went. It was like a, like a Parker thing.”
“Huh.” Tony chews the inside of his cheek. “Guess your aunt wasn’t such a fan of the saltwater, then.”
“That, and bad memories.”
“Right.” The chair creaks almost comically as Tony shifts his weight to sit up straighter. “So why’d you agree to come with me here?”
“You said we were going somewhere warm, not that we’d be going to a beach.”
“Oh. Sorry, bud.”
“Chill. I’m just kidding.” Peter flashes him a tight grin. He does that a lot, these ill-timed and awkward jokes and forgetting to smile, when the beat of his heart is too heavy for the situation. “I knew there was gonna be a beach. I was--kinda curious, I guess. I haven’t been since I was like five years old.”
“It’s not triggering anything weird or bad, is it?”
“No,” Peter says honestly. “I’m just...thinking a lot, I guess.”
“Yeah, you are. You’ve been doing that a lot.”
Peter doesn’t answer.
“Well, I’m not one to...intrude on private thoughts and all that jazz. But you do know I’m around to...bounce stuff off of, I guess you could say. If you wanted to. Or needed to. In case you missed the memo.” Tony rubs the lines of his forehead. “Jesus. Anyway, discussion of the day--pretty urgent--I’ve got everything picked out for Pepper and it should be ready at the Tower by the time we get back, just in time for us to have a little gift-wrapping party. It’ll be quiet and casual, I promise, I totally use the word party with liberty. But I was thinking--we’re with each other practically 24/7 and I cannot for the life of me sneak away from you without your pesky super-ears or eight eyes knowing about it. So. Just lay it on me--what do you want for Christmas? Nuh-uh”--he wags a finger in Peter’s direction--“I don’t care how cheap or expensive it is. I don’t. Just tell me what you want, and I’ll make it happen.”
Peter stares at him, dead into his eyes behind the stupid layer of those stupid rose-colored sunglasses, and he opens his mouth to speak and squeezes the ball of sand in his hand, and tries to say May. I want May. I want her back, and nothing comes out but a small, pained sound like a wounded animal.
Stop it. Stop it. Stop, it hurts.
“I’m fine,” Peter gasps out. He clenches his fist harder. The sharp edges of the stones lodged in the sand grains dig into the crevices of his skin. He buries his face in his forearm and turns his entire torso to shield it from the scorching and inexplicable guilt that consumes him when he looks at Tony.
“Peter. What’s going on? You okay?”
Peter lifts his head a little and bites down on the flesh of his forearm to keep any sound from escaping him. He tastes sand on himself, salt and sand and panic, he tastes it everywhere.
May is gone. He knows this. She’s never coming back, and he’s known this, but for the first time ever he realizes it’s true.
He’s scared to the very pit of his bones.
“I’m fine,” Peter says. Injects as much normalcy into it as he can muster. “Sorry. I’m fine. I--I just need to go to the bathroom.”
So he stumbles to his feet, almost tripping on the edge of his towel, and he speedwalks away in the direction of the hotel.
It doesn’t take Tony long to find him back at the suite. Peter is curled up on top of the duvet of his bed near the window, counting his breaths as they ever so reluctantly slow to a crawl, when Tony lets himself in with his copy of the keycard and throws his book down on the other bed and stands there with his keyfob rattling in his hand. The picture of awkwardness.
“Pete? What’s going on.”
Peter curls his body closer around the pillow that he grabbed and clutched to his stomach. His bare back and shoulders are still striped with sand, and he’s likely getting it everywhere, he knows, but between the chill of the air behind him and the mocking afternoon beauty of the view through the window, he can’t bring himself to care.
“I’m fine, Mr. Stark.”
“Yeah, well, I call bullshit.” The harshness of Tony’s words is belied by the gentleness with which he pads on bare feet across the carpet and carefully lowers himself onto the other edge of the bed, just behind Peter’s body.
The man watches the kid’s rib cage expand and contract for a full minute and listens to the tiny hitches in his breath before he speaks: “I meant it, you know. I am here if you need me. I know I’m--I know I’m not May, and we don’t actually share that many secrets together, come to think of it, but...I can be a good listener when it matters.”
A tear burns as it slips traitorously from the corner of Peter’s eye and slides across the bridge of his nose and down his other cheek. It patters almost silently on the bed. His nose burns, his whole face burns, the pain hardly knows where it begins or ends.
Tony clears his throat. “And, uh...I did just stop by the bathroom on my way over, so I’m totally good to go. I’ll wait for as long as you need me here. If you need me here. Just say the word, and I’ll leave you alone.”
The truth is, Peter doesn’t want to be alone. He’s never wanted the opposite of that any more in his life.
What he doesn’t want is to feel this fucking shame at the core of him. This shame in living.
“Stay,” he says softly. Scratchy.
“Okay,” Tony whispers. “I can do that.”
They breathe together for seconds that turn into miles. The gulls go on crying out and beating their wings against the sky. The shadows of them flit in columns of passing darkness across their still bodies through the window.
“I’m sorry I ran off,” Peter whispers.
“I’m not,” Tony says, just as soft.
Peter pauses in the pattern he’s tracing with his thumb over the fluffy middle of his pillow.
Behind him, his mentor sighs. “I knew we had to talk. It was just--hanging over our heads. I thought taking a trip might make talking easier, or maybe...make you feel better so we didn’t have to talk, if I’m being real honest here for a minute...but I’m just sorry that I said something that provoked that kind of reaction from you.”
“You didn’t mean it,” Peter says around the tears and snot in his throat.
“I don’t know what I said,” Tony admits. “I just know it had to do with Christmas. Should I--should we not talk about it? Is it like a no-go holiday? I really wanna know, kid.”
Peter sniffles and draws the back of his arm over his nose. He considers rolling over to face Tony, but he wants to stay here in the chilly safety of his coiled body for a moment longer. “You asked me what I want for Christmas,” he says. “I don’t want anything. I don’t want--Mr. Stark. There’s only one thing I want, and that’s…”
The pain is palpable in the very sound of Tony’s sigh. “And that’s not happening. I’m sorry, Pete.”
“And Christmas reminds me of her. Which is stupid, because we never even made such a huge deal out of it, but I had specific plans for our next Christmas, like I actually woke up one day with the thought that, like, hey, I really want to do something special for her because she does so much for us, and--” The words are suddenly spilling out of Peter, and he can’t stop, not now that his biggest secret of the last few weeks is out and Tony is quiet and still and taut as a bowstring behind him, and he doesn’t have to look back over his shoulder at his mentor and make eye contact, not yet, not yet.
“And like, we stopped doing stuff for Hanukkah after Ben died. I used to do it with him. He always used to say he didn’t know all the blessings that well, but then I would ask him and ask him about it, and he’d end up saying them all by heart and teaching me to pronounce them, which was probably some of the coolest stuff I remember doing with him. May always tried to help cook, too, which was a disaster. Ben was always laughing. He was never mad when the smoke alarm went off. Which didn’t happen a lot, because he did most of the cooking, anyway, but when it did happen it was just like some huge inside joke between the two of them. And then...I dunno what happened. I guess we both kind of agreed without ever talking about it that we’d never do Hanukkah again because Ben wasn’t there anymore and it just...didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel real. May was always Roman Catholic and I never felt half as good as Ben to really call myself a Jew. But we did Christmas all right, and we’d usually get gifts ahead of time because May’s not too big on surprises and we wanted to make sure we were spending our money on the right thing for each other. But we still put up the stockings that Ben made, like, ages ago, and there was always one thing at the bottom of them on the eve of Christmas. Always. It could be, like, a Pez or something, but there was always some joke about it.”
Peter’s vomit of words eventually slows to a lull. He draws a deep breath, nearly gasping, having not realized how little he breathed throughout the whole retelling of the memory.
“And I know that Christmas is important to you, probably, ’cause like, that’s normal for most people, and you and Mrs. Pepper really should be able to enjoy one of your favorite holidays together without me blubbering all over it. I just--I just can’t--it’s too much. The snow reminds me of her, and the lights, and I feel like this is wrong, and I should stop because I shouldn’t be doing Christmas anymore without her.”
A pause. The last part leaves him in little more than a whisper. “It hurts, Mr. Stark. Please. Make it stop.”
Tony’s hands are on his bare shoulder before he can finish his last broken sentence. Tony’s on his knees on the rumpled duvet, making twin dips in the mattress, and he half-sinks, half-folds into the boy’s body, drawing him and his icy, sand grit-flaked back against his chest. The movement is laced with awkwardness and desperation, and anyone being held by Tony at that moment could tell that he’s held precious little in his life that is this fragile, but the single embrace makes Peter shudder once and then melt back into Tony’s arms.
“Shh,” Tony says. “I’m here. I’m here.”
“It hurts,” Peter says again around a hiccup.
“I know. I’m here.”
“It won’t stop.”
“It will stop,” Tony says. “I promise you, it will stop.”
Peter shakes there in tatters on the bed as the sound of an ocean wave tears at the shoreline and the gulls scream overhead. He raises one hand to latch onto Tony’s forearm across his chest, like it’s his last lifeline in the detritus of his mind.
Tony’s other hand comes up to cup the side of Peter’s head and flatten itself over the boy’s ear until slowly, infinitesimally, the overload of sensations from the window and the curtains and the voices outside begins to leech away from the kid’s consciousness. Peter’s body relaxes in tandem. After several seconds, Peter’s heaving breaths begin to sync in half time with the beat of Tony’s heart between them.
Though his hearing is muffled now by Tony’s arm and other hand, Peter still manages to easily make out Tony’s next words.
“It will stop. Not today, but someday. That’s a promise. And living isn’t wrong. Living is exactly what you have to do.”
Peter breathes. Tony breathes.
“Someday you’ll get to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah again. It doesn’t have to be soon, and it definitely doesn’t have to be now. But for what it’s worth--I know May would be proud of you right now for living.”
Peter breathes again, and Tony continues speaking, well into the gathering shadows in the window that this time brings a cloak of comfort and forgiveness over them both.