Chapter 1: Chapter One
Tony Stark had always been a man of science and he always would be. It was his personal and fundamental belief that everything had an explanation. His eventual encounters with Norse gods, alien life, and sorcerers did kind of quake this a little bit, but still.
One thing that had always confounded him as the one thing that had no scientific explanation was fate. Murphy’s law, Finagle’s law, the butterfly effect, the domino effect, the snowball effect, and the wisest of all: “Shit happens.”
For example, at age nine, Tony was playing with (that is, disassembling) toy robots and cars when he was told to get ready for the day. Almost brushing his teeth reminded him that he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. Watching bacon sizzle in the pan reminded him that he’d left his jacket on a computer exhaust. Tossing his jacket into his room, atop all the disassembled pieces, reminded him to go check if his favorite T-shirt had been washed yet. Checking on his T-shirt, he passed by a window and saw snowfall. Seeing snowfall, he went back to his room to grab his jacket. Having forgotten about the disassembled toy pieces, he blindly grabbed his jacket and pierced his palm on a screw. Lo and behold, now he has a tiny scar on his palm.
The chain of events were not illogical, but there was no chemistry, no formula. The butterfly beat its wings, the domino tipped over, the snowball began to roll. Shit happened.
So how peculiar was it that one of the greatest things to ever happen to him began with a tray of champagne?
Tony was thirty years old and was at one of such a long, long list of charity balls that he had to remind himself just what charity it was for several times throughout the night. There were men in three-piece suits and women in long, flowing dresses. Alcohol was pouring from every bottle and he swore there was a band blasting music at every other corner.
Tony was doing what he typically did at these balls and galas: spacing out. Rhodey was going to be flying in soon and he wanted to treat him to an unnecessarily expensive dinner, but couldn’t decide which restaurant would be best. He was sipping on a glass of red wine and wondering if he had or hadn’t tasted its kind before. A woman in a deep-cut crimson dress was eyeballing him across the way and he couldn’t tell if there was a wedding ring on her finger or not. And, of course, plans. Plans for machines, plans for Stark Industries, plans of public speeches and award ceremonies, plans for this and that and whatever else.
Enter the tray of champagne, sudden and jarring, knocking over his shoulder and drenching his…geez, which one was this again? Armani? Dolce & Gabbana? Didn’t really matter, he guessed.
It had happened before and it would happen again. As per the norm, there are gasps and groans of sympathy, the clinking of glass hitting the floor, and a profuse stream of “Oh my god, Mr. Stark, I am so sorry! I am so, so sorry!”
Tony, meanwhile, just shook off the droplets that had trickled down his fingertips. “You’re fine. It’s fine. Just two thousand dollars, no worries.”
“I’m so sorry!” The waiter looked on the verge of tears, like he was staring a gun down the barrel. “I wasn’t looking, I wasn’t—I’m so sorry, Mr. Stark.”
“Yeah, yeah, I heard you. Hey, you got a manager I can talk to?” The sudden blueness of the poor guy’s face was worth it, and Tony laughed and clapped his shoulder with his champagne-sticky hand. “That was a joke. Point me to a bathroom, then find a place to put your head between your knees.”
He was directed to the bathroom while the guy was still struggling to breathe. He walked in and was struck with the realization that hey, he’d been in this place before and somehow not known it. He recognized the porcelain faucets and gold lining of the floor tiles. Not that he was marveling in the scenery. Nodding to the woman standing in the corner, he moved towards…the…
Tony looked back. Yeah. Woman. Definitely a woman. Short, slender. Smooth brown hair that fell to her shoulders, round green eyes. Perma-dimples and a little beauty mark on her chin. Like most of the female waiting staff, she was dressed in a black pencil skirt and white blouse. A little black ribbon was tied in her shirt collar.
While he was staring, she just nodded at him with her hands behind her back.
Tony clicked his tongue. “Hello.”
She did the same nod with a bit more sarcasm.
Tony pursed his lips and looked around the bathroom. There was no one in there but them. Urinals lined the wall. He was not lost.
He looked back at her with a grin that was only half-forced. “Are you my tour guide?”
“Your assistant.” She reached to the little gilded cart pressed against the wall, picked up a little bowl filled with pinkish little candies. “Mint?”
Lips still pursed in a half-forced smile, Tony pointedly plucked one from the bowl and tucked it away. Another rehearsed nod.
Tony pointed past her head. “I’m not to assume there’s a forty-odd man in the ladies’ room, am I?”
She shook her head. Her brown hair swayed around her shoulders. “There’s a lady in the ladies’ room.”
“That makes perfect sense.”
“Doesn’t it?” She mimicked his smile, but when he kept staring her down, she dropped it into a more halfhearted one. “Mens’ room attendees get better tips.”
Tony raised a brow. “Is that what you wrote under ‘why do you wish to work at this establishment’?”
“That’s what I told Craig when I told him why I wanted to take his shift tonight.”
“So what does Craig get?”
“A whole cheesecake from the kitchen.”
“You must not have tried it.”
Tony tipped his head in a Fair enough nod and turned for the sink. Quickly but smoothly, the woman reached over and turned on the faucet for him. Then, as Tony cut it off, waved his finger no-no, and turned on the other, she frowned.
“Cold water for champagne, hot water for red wine,” he told her. “Mark that down for future reference.”
She nodded with fake grace. “Is this coming out of my tip?”
“I figured I’d bend the curve and not give you one.” Tony let the warm water set its way in—took the cloth from her when she offered—even though it wasn’t going to do any good. This was just going to make it .01% less sticky for the rest of the evening. “How’s that working out for you, by the way? I’d think they’d be stiffing you, am I wrong?”
“Yes, actually. I’m doing pretty good. I think me just standing there actually ‘stiffs’ them.”
“It’s a living.”
Tony snorted and she huffed a laugh. Having done all that he could, he shook the last bit of water off his sleeve and took the towel she handed outward to him. He “scrutinized” her work of folding it up after…and tossing it into the washbin without looking.
“Serving hors d’oeuvres must get an abysmal pay rate,” he told her. “If standing here and watching guys answer Mother Nature’s call is the better alternative, I mean.”
The woman raised her hands up in a “don’t ask me” way. Her dimples only deepened on her face. “I did my research. Turning on faucets and handing out mints gets about thirty cents more than handing out smoked salmon on crackers.”
“Unacceptable, so: I’ll tell you what.” Tony reaches into his breast pocket and picks out a twenty. He always liked to tip waiting staff at things like these; more than half of them were trying to make ends met. Lord knew this woman was pulling extra weight. “I’m going to give you Andrew Jackson for your trauma, and if you can manage to get your way into the kitchen and snag me some of that red wine, I’ll swap it for Ulysses S. Grant.”
She took it with her brows knit together in a contemplative look. “What about Ben Franklin?”
He tipped his head. “Throw in that cheesecake and have it be as good as you say, and I’ll see if I can set up a meeting between you two.”
Her name was Mary Fitzpatrick, she was twenty-six, and fit in with much of the other waiting staff: struggling to make ends meet in Queens.
Things had never really been great for her, though she more stated this than lamented about it. She’d been in foster care for practically her entire life, with a few good loving families, one or two money-seekers who dropped her just as soon as they’d picked her up, and most strangers who treated her well enough but weren’t willing to take her in for good. Her last family had even paid her way through community college, but after that, she was on her own.
At the very least, she had a good circle of friends who’d helped her to her feet more than once. Richard, in particular, she’d known for years now and knew she could rely on in a heartbeat. She’d thought for a long time that they might end up as more than friends, but now that Richard had taken a job on the other side of the continent, that had apparently gone out the window.
Again, she did not cry and wail this to him—and thank God for that, because Tony has had more than one woman break down and weep the cruelty of life to him. Tony usually tried to call up one of their friends, maybe suggest therapy, and let them be. Mary, however, had been toughened, not broken, by her troubles. She wasn’t cold and unfeeling, just accepting in a somber sort of way.
Tony listened without prying. He changed the subject subtly, more to make her feel better than for his own disinterest. Mary Fitzpatrick was not disinteresting, not in the slightest. Tony was not going to complain about his many encounters he’s had with women over the years, of course not. He was the instigator more often than not. But more often than not, those encounters were fleeting and almost business-like. Sure, they’d flirt and laugh and joke with him, but all with the underlying message that it was just for the aesthetic. Soon enough they’d be in bed, the next morning would come, and they would depart like strangers, so there was no point in the extra effort.
Mary, though, she was fun. Tony was having fun outside of drinking or craps or roulette or whatever else. This was the kind of fun he had with Rhodey and Obadiah. Light and happy, no worries, just laughs. Mary stole the wine and the cheesecake from the back and rendezvoused with him near the bar. They both ate a slice with their bare fingers, facing away from one another so as not to attract the “Why is Tony Stark talking to a waiting girl?” stares.
The two of them listened to the band and realized they were playing the same two songs back to back. Mary bet he couldn’t get them to play “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys as if he wasn’t Tony Stark. It took until the trumpets blasted along to “Backstreet’s back, ALRIGHT!” for her to realize it had worked and she just about snorted wine out of her nose.
Happy found him, extremely unamused that Tony had shaken him off once again, and was more than a little confused when Tony slid half a cheesecake over to him and told him to go nuts. He did leave them be, though, probably thanks to the genuine smile on Tony’s face. After the wine is gone, Tony promised that he could name every alcohol and every mix behind the bar by taste and Mary made him prove it.
It was entirely possible that at least a little of the happiness came from the alcohol buzzing through his system, but Tony was positive that the rest was genuine. No, he didn’t love or fall in love with Mary. That wasn’t something that happened in the span of a few hours. He for sure grew a fondness for her, though. He would not at all minded seeing her again.
They laughed and joked and poked fun at each other while Tony’s naming every glass that’s slid their way—White Russian, Vodka Sunrise, Lime Rickey, Angel Face, rum and Coke with way too much Coke and not enough rum, please follow the guidelines Bill, you’re charging people for more than they’re getting.
What happened next was unsurprising, even though Tony wouldn’t be able to recall many details later. They got away from the crowd and the music, they were in the back of his car, they were stumbling into an elevator, Mary’s lips were smiling and laughing and then they were against his and so on, so forth.
Tony really would have liked to see her again, truly. He thought about that in the few moments before he fell asleep, with Mary’s hair ruffled up into a cloud and the city lights shining through the window. It would have been awkward, definitely. Certainly. Horribly. But they could move past that. He could have even hooked her up with a job if she wanted one. Maybe even introduce her to Rhodey. And hey, if at some point down the road they decided maybe a coffee date was in order, so be. If not, so be it. Mary was an awfully friendly woman and being her friend could be awful nice.
That was not how things went. Here was the beat of the butterfly’s wings, the tip of the domino, the roll of the snowball:
Tony prepared for this charity event in his Armani-or-whatever suit, hopped into his car, and made it fifteen minutes before getting a security alert from J.A.R.V.I.S. He turned around, expecting to find paparazzi in the front yard or a drone snapping pictures above the mansion roof, and it turned out to just be DUM-E sliding off-track and knocking over a tool cart. He shut DUM-E down for the night, decided that his suit was actually dark blue instead of black so he would need to change his tie, and did so. Around this time, Mary Fitzpatrick convinced Craig to let her take his spot as the men’s restroom’s attendee in exchange for a strawberry cheesecake. Craig took her spot as a waiter, but with every passing moment grew more and more nervous that someone would find out about the switch, and they’d both be fired. So nervous was he that he turned too fast with a tray of champagne and spilled it over the suit of Tony Stark.
This was one of those cases that Tony would return to when he thought of the unscientific nature of fate. He would also think about what might have happened if the following morning went a little more like they usually did. If they had awkward small talk and an awkward goodbye. If he’d had coffee and breakfast ready in the kitchen. If Mary had stayed around five minutes, one minute, three seconds longer. Or even if things went differently and he did offer that job to her, or that introduction to Rhodey, or that coffee date.
Instead, Mary woke up before him at seven o’clock in the morning with a bruising headache and Tony’s arm splayed over her back. Confused and disoriented, she sprung from the bad, rattling Tony awake with a groan. She looked at him and her and the bedroom, and through sleep-crusted eyes and a hell of a hangover of his own, Tony saw her put two and two together in her head.
Then she muttered “shit”, threw on all her clothes, and left before he’d even sat up in bed. He never saw her again.
This was the start of one of the greatest things to ever happen to Tony Stark.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
“It’s fine, but I actually have one other thing for you.” This ‘thing’ was a simple sheet of notepad paper scribbled on without elegance. She waved it between her fingers. “Richard Parker wants to speak to you. He won’t say what it’s about, but since he’s called three times in the last day, I think it’s urgent.”
Mary Fitzpatrick faded from Tony’s memory soon enough after their one and only night together, as did most of the women who woke up in his bed. By the next day, he’d let go of her completely. In the years that followed, if he saw red wine or strawberry cheesecake or heard “Everybody” playing over the radio, he would fleetingly think of her and carry on.
He had every reason to believe that she would leave no impact on him for the rest of his life. Time went on. Months and years passed. He met other women on other nights at other parties. Once or twice he even struck up that semblance of fondness for them, but as with Mary, they didn’t last.
Tony met Virginia “Pepper” Potts in 2003, hired her as his personal assistant, and realized quickly that he’d struck gold. He’d had personal assistants before, but they’d never lasted, for various reasons. They asked too many questions, they slipped secrets to the press, they screwed up on paperwork one too many times, they just wanted to be associated with Tony Stark and made it clear, etc.
Pepper did not ask questions that didn’t need to be asked. She signed the confidentiality agreement and kept her lips sealed shut. It didn’t matter what she had to work with, how much or how fast, she always got her work done and had it done right. She knew that she was great at her job and that was why she did it. She wasn’t a stick in the mud. Well…not always. Once someone pushed her buttons too far, or openly undermined her skills, she put her foot down and made it clear she wasn’t taking it.
Despite Rhodey’s teasing, Obadiah’s sureness, and Happy’s indirect but not at all subtle questioning, Tony made a point not to pursue Pepper. Pepper was a beautiful woman and that couldn’t be denied, but time had taught him that “Don’t date in your workplace” was a rule to uphold. He hoped to keep Pepper with him for a good long while, but if he ended up having to cut her loose, that would be a lot easier without strings attached.
Pepper earned the responsibility of keeping up with Tony’s more…“personal” troubles, too. Not just keeping up with the slander and tabloids, but with the dozens of letters and phone calls he got on the daily from strangers with an agenda. More than once, she had to tell one of his former bedmates that no, Tony was not going to “buy their silence”, he wasn’t going to do them a favor, he wasn’t going to pay off their college loans or their new car or this and that. A lot of people who insisted that Tony had promised funding for their projects, most lying, others having taken his promise while Tony was falling over drunk. There’d even been a couple of woman claiming to have carried Tony’s children, but all of them had dropped it once it was made clear an investigation would ensue. The worst one was undoubtedly a woman who’d claimed to have Tony’s child, only for a quick history check to confirm that she’d never had a baby, ever.
This was where her patience was tested, but she made a point not to complain. She had many things to do every minute and the sooner she could shoo them all out the door, the better. Some of them weren’t even all that bad. Sometimes, if their intentions were good—a young entrepreneur seeking some advice, a bedmate only curious to see if their relationship would go further, and more than once just someone who wanted to thank Tony for his inspiration—Tony himself would take over and leave a word or two for them.
The Iraq War began in 2003, and with it yet another boom for Stark Industries, and worldwide reception polarized even more intensely.
Oh, just about everyone admired Tony Stark, and even if you didn’t, you knew him. You knew that he knew what he was doing and he did it well.
Quickly, though, there are peaceful protests, number after number of opinion pieces, and even the most “neutral” news coverages were leaning on one side or the other. Half—Well, more like seventy-five percent of the world adored Tony Stark as much as they always had. He was a visionary, the modern-day Da Vinci, the single greatest thing to happen to the United States. All he had to do was wink and the world fell to pieces.
That last quarter of the world despised him. Distrusted him. Were even scared of him. War sowed violence, and violence reaped death—and many, many people laid each and every death squarely at Tony’s feet.
The Merchant of Death.
So many times were they said that Pepper was told to just let it go. Slander and “opinion” had a fine line between them. Pepper herself was approached by reporters and journalists, most wanting to know Stark Industries’ next role in the war, or if Tony had ever said anything they hadn’t heard. Some had even had the nerve to ask how she could stand working for a man like Anthony Stark.
Tony, meanwhile, just smiled and waved. No number of protests was going to keep his face off the cover of Forbes or stop him from giving speeches at college graduation ceremonies all over the continent.
Pepper was at first perplexed and even a bit unsettled by how easily Tony took all this in. Tony was Stark Industries, and Stark Industries was Tony. To be blamed and dragged through the mud day in and day out, to see the war-torn images flashing across the television screens, she just didn’t get how he could still shrug it off. It took her a while to understand that, well, that was just what he did. Shrug it off. Oh, he would pioneer the projects and oversee the developments. That was his reason to live. As soon as it came to face that reason’s destruction, all he had to do was snip the cord and let it go. Out of sight, out of mind.
Not that Tony’s consciousness weighed light. He had plenty of long, sleepless night. One too many people pointing a finger in his face and demanding he face what he’d done to the world. Talk shows spoke his name more times a day than there were stars in the sky, and though he wasn’t one to listen into those, he couldn’t afford them forever.
One guest on one show—who was he? What show was it?—went on a rant against Stark Industries and hit many of the usual marks: Murder! Immoral! Greedy! Nothing from the usual.
Until he said that, accounting for any and every life lost to whatever bomb, missile, or firearm was manufactured by Stark Industries, Tony Stark was ranked among the world’s deadliest mass murderers.
Tony drank a lot that night.
Rhodey had his back, of course. He always did, he was Rhodey. Not only his closest friend, but a man whose blood likely ran red, white, and blue. His comfort could only go so far, though, especially when Tony could only see him face-to-face so often. Obie did the best job at getting his mind cleared, at least in moments.
“Just think of how many kids are sleeping safe tonight ‘cause of this,” he’d tell him with a clap on the shoulder. “Come on, Tony. What are we going to do, stop everything cold? Leave parents unemployed, people without money to pay rent? You should be feeling damn pleased about everything you’ve got going for you.”
Obie probably wasn’t the best at comfort, in hindsight, but he knew what he was doing. Of course he wasn’t going to ease all of Tony’s troubles, and that wasn’t his job. His job was to keep him functioning, and he’d been doing it well for more than ten years.
Tony’s life went on as it always did, rich, full of energy, always busy. All the while, Tony did not see the hurricane forming by the butterfly’s wings, the line of dominoes falling his way, the snowball rolling downhill right for him.
It was November 17, 2006, and Tony wasn’t in a particularly good mood. Development on the Jericho missile had slowed enough to have several board members antsy, necessitating a near-emergency meeting with more yelling and finger-pointing than he’d cared for. Traffic turned his forty-minute drive home into an hour-and-a-half drive. Also, he missed dinner.
He was more than a little happy to be returning to the haven of his mansion at the end of the day. Slamming the door on his Audi, he was at once greeted with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s ever-smooth voice. “Welcome home, sir.”
“Ciao,” he grunted in response.
He took the stairs up to the lounge and immediately found Pepper sitting on one of the couches. Still in her business attire, the typical pencil skirt and blazer, long blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. She had her tablet in hand and was looking at it with some impatience.
(She may or may not have been playing Bejeweled on it.)
“Sincerest apologies for my tardiness,” Tony sighed, throwing his coat on the nearest surface. Pepper at once put the tablet away and resumed her posture, not that he could care any less. “In my defense, I was going to get you something at Zales to make it up to you, but the thought occurred that I don’t know what your birthstone is. February is theeeeee…?”
Tony snapped his fingers. “Thought so.”
“And also, that would have made you even later.”
“Another excellent point.”
“I have everything else taken care of for the day, but I wanted to give you these myself—”
Tony raised a hand, causing her lips to purse. “I’m positive that what you’re about to say is incredibly important—”
“—but I do believe there should be Italian cuisine waiting for me somewhere. Please direct me.”
Pepper pointed her pen behind him, to the cardboard box on the counter. Tony went to get some napkins from the bar while Pepper gathered up the papers still sitting on the coffee table.
“Caltech still needs to know if you want to give the speech for their fall ceremony or not.”
Pepper wrote a note. “You got a couple letters today, one from the Huffington Post, one from Time, and one from Miss Lucilia Chambers.”
“You remember when Rhodey last visited and you got Chateau on the dress of the woman sitting next to you? She sent the cleaning bill.”
“Gotcha. You can—What is this?!”
The sudden alarm and borderline fury in his voice had Pepper snapping her neck up at once. Her pen froze against the paper. “What?”
Tony backed away from the greasy, still-warm cardboard box on the bar counter and pointed at it. He was appalled. Hurt.
Relief and annoyance simultaneously flooded Pepper at the once. It was a sensation she was well familiar with when it came to Tony at that point. The “Stark Sensation”. “You said to surprise you.”
“Yes, not kill me!” With a forlorn sigh, Tony used his index and thumb to pinch the chunks of pineapple from the slices. As if pizza-cooked pineapple was one of the worst biohazardous materials known to mankind. “If only because I am starving, I will choke this down with whatever grace I can muster.”
“Am I fired?”
Tony pinched his fingers close together. This close.
Taking his first pineapple-free-but-still-tainted-forever slice out, Tony half-mumbled, “Toss the one from Huffington, leave the one from Time, and get Miss Chambers’ bill paid.”
Pepper nodded, and with a few more quick strokes of her pen, bent down to pick her purse up from the floor. Through a mouthful of pizza, Tony waved his hand at her. “Drive home safe. Really am sorry for the wait.”
“It’s fine, but I actually have one other thing for you.” This ‘thing’ was a simple sheet of notepad paper scribbled on without elegance. She waved it between her fingers. “Richard Parker wants to speak to you. He won’t say what it’s about, but since he’s called three times in the last day, I think it’s urgent.”
Richard Parker. Rich-ard Par-ker. He knew that name. How did he know that name, and how did he know that he knew that name? Something tickled at the back of his brain, but it was no good.
“Remind me who Richard Parker is?”
Pepper half-shrugged, helpless. “I don’t know myself, I thought that maybe you would. He’s probably just a journalist, or something. I can toss it if you want.”
“No, uh…Richard Parker, Richard Parker…Oh!” Tony snapped his fingers again and pointed at her. “Isn’t he a zoologist, or something? Hunter? Something to do with tigers?”
Pepper’s eyes narrowed, looked left, looked right. Her mouth opened, closed, and opened again. “Are you thinking of the tiger from Life of Pi?”
“…I am, aren’t I? Huh.” Tony waved at her again and went for another bite. “Leave it there; I’ll take care of it.”
“Will do. I’ll see you in the morning, Mr. Stark.”
Pepper left, Tony choked down a few more horrible slices of pizza, and he read the letter from Time requesting yet another interview. He made a plan to answer it in the morning, but for the time being, decided a long shower was in order.
He very nearly went to bed not too long after that, but one cursory glance at the coffee table while he was passing by had him spotting the notepad paper still present. Picking it up, all it says is Richard Parker’s name, followed by a string of numbers and a note reading Personal matter(?)
Tony could have very well just crumpled it up into the garbage bin, because Pepper was probably right. Richard Parker was probably just another journalist. Maybe another angry boyfriend of one of his past bedmates. Hell, even if it was another young soul looking for some word of inspiration from the Man of the Future, he doubted their life was depending on him.
Still, he somehow cannot shake that he knows who Richard Parker is, and because of that, pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed the string of numbers. It rang three times before picking up.
“Hello?” It’s clearly a man speaking, probably around his age just from the sound of it.
“Hello, sorry to bother you. My name is Tony Stark and I was wondering if there was something you could help me with, or vice-versa. How are you doing this evening?”
He was fully expecting the length of stunned silence that followed, as well as the telltale sound of someone shuffling in a panic.
“I—uh—God—Hello! I, uh…Thank you so much for calling me back. It’s, um…It’s kind of late over here, sorry if I sound so tired. I really do appreciate you calling me back.”
“No problem. I’m getting a little droopy-eyed myself over here, so might I ask what you need? I’m assuming this is Parker, Richard.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. To—uh—Mr. Stark.” There was more shuffling on the other side. “Thank you so much for calling me, again. I’m sure you get tons of calls every day.”
“Tons of tons.” Tony checked his watch. Nine twenty-six.
Silence followed without breaking, and Tony checked to see if he’d accidentally hung up on the guy. The call was still going.
“You still there, Rich?”
“Yes, sir. I…” The sigh Richard let out crackled against the receiver. “I really don’t know how else to put this, so I’m going to go out and ask, uh—Do you remember meeting a woman named Mary Fitzpatrick?”
It took two times of rolling her name through his head for Tony to remember, and he remembered well. He remembered the woman who swapped with “Craig” to be the men’s restroom’s attendee for the evening, the cheesecake, the band playing the Backstreet Boys, the look of dawning horror on her face as she realized what they had done at the end of the night.
A tiny little spark of excitement ignited in his chest, only to be instantly squashed under the weight of dread. He was probably dealing with an angry boyfriend. Even worse, he might have been dealing with another “buy my silence” scenario.
Wait, no. No, no. Mary didn’t strike him as that kind of person, even if he hadn’t seen her for years now. He realized then and there that this was how he knew Richard Parker—he was Mary’s friend, the one she thought she had a future of something more with. Another reason to ask why he was getting this call then and there.
“Yeah,” Tony replied, scratching his brow. “It’s been a good couple years—five?—but I remember her. Real nice. How is she? She still in Queens, is that where you’re calling from?”
Tony wondered if he was about to see Mary Fitzpatrick again, and wondered if he was excited about that or not. He still thought that maybe they had a shot at some kind of friendship. Mary had not been plaguing his mind, he hadn’t been seeing her every time he closed his eyes for the past few years. Not at all. Still, Mary had always seemed a good, kindly person to him, and he wouldn’t mind seeing how she was doing after so long.
Tony was wondering so much that he didn’t realize that Richard had once again gone silent as the wind until he listened in again. “Rich? Hey, are you breaking up on that side?”
“Mary…She—God, I still don’t know how to say this. Mary was—she died in a car accident. Last week. She’s—She’s gone.”
What was Tony even feeling then? Grief? Grief for a person he’d only ever known for not even ten hours, for a person whose middle name he didn’t even know? No, it couldn’t have been grief. He didn’t have the right to it.
Tony felt…disappointed. Not that he wouldn’t be able to see Mary again, but for Mary. He felt disappointed for her cleverness and quick wit, for her contagious laughter. She had to be, what, thirty-one? Thirty-one, the same age he’d been when they met, and now she was just…gone.
Mary had been young, and kind. Even though Tony was more than aware now that sometimes people just died, and sometimes they died young, and sometimes they died in car accidents, he was still reminded of just how unfair it was. He’d never even learned what Mary had wanted to do with her life, and now she wouldn’t get to do it.
God, how he wished there could be a scientific explanation for this, but there wasn’t. The answer was “Just because.”
On the other side of the line, Richard Parker—who had known Mary for much longer than he had and was feeling real, legitimate grief now as opposed to Tony’s disappointment—was listening to Tony’s silence.
“I’m sorry,” was what he came up with. “That is…She was a great lady, she really was. I’m sorry.”
Richard’s pause told him that it was not okay, but the poor guy was keeping his composure. “Thank you. I know you might not care, but—”
“No, no, no. Please. I’m sorry, really.”
“I just figured I’d call you and—No, I didn’t ‘figure’, there’s something…I’m sorry, I’m not trying to ramble, I just wanted you to know…”
“I’m thankful you did. Listen, uh, Richard…” Tony turned in circles, searching for paper, and decided to just use the one he already had. He clicked his pen despite his head still not being wrapped around just what was happening. “I don’t want to overstep any boundary, but why don’t you tell me an address? I’ll send a wreath over there as soon as I can. I know that probably sounds cheap, but—look, I don’t know what—”
“That’s not why I’m calling you, actually. I mean, that’s very kind of you, we’d really appreciate it, but—just…Listen. Mary left behind a…not really a will, more like a letter, just in case something happened to her.”
“So, uh…Mary had—has—a son. His name is Peter.”
“Oh.” Normally this kind of thing would tick him off to no end, wanting favors after only one evening of knowing him, but this wasn’t “wanting favors.” Was it weird to ask for? Maybe, probably. Still—Tony wasn’t a parent, he didn’t know the first thing about being one, but he could understand that your child was your priority. Mary herself had said she’d never been in a good financial place. It might have sounded selfish, but she had a son and she knew that Tony Stark could help him if anything ever happened to her. That wasn’t selfish to him. “I got you. I’ll…How about I call you about this tomorrow? I can set up a trust fund for the kid, if that’s what she wanted. Or did she have something else? Just tell me, I’ll take care of it.”
“I—I mean, alright, but are you understanding me?”
“Yeah, I’m understanding you. Just let me know what you need. And, uh…I guess I’ll be upfront, too. I’m assuming you’re his father? You’re Peter’s dad?”
“You are…not understanding me. You can set up the trust fund if you want, or I’ll call you tomorrow and you can do something else, but that’s not what I’m calling for.”
“Alright. What, then?”
“I just want you to know that I’m not trying to ask anything of you. Mary wasn’t trying to ask anything of you, she just—this is what was written in the letter, we’re just trying to take care of it—”
“Rich. Buddy. You have got to talk to me.”
“Alright. Alright.” Richard took a deep breath. Then another. “Mary wanted us to call you because you’re Peter’s father.”
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
Once he was in the bathroom, he snapped the door shut, sat down on the floor, and buried his face in his hands.
Tony Stark had a son, and his name was Peter Benjamin Fitzpatrick.
The sound of his name was what pulled Tony back into the present. There were many eyes watching him, eyes on young, expectant faces. Behind them, the Arc Reactor was pulsing with energy, casting all of them in an electric blue light. The floor was beneath his feet and the ceiling was above his head. He was in the present. Needed to focus.
Putting on his classic half-smile, Tony walked closer to the group, looking them all over. High school students, all of them, and most holding the typical oh-my-God-it’s-Tony-Stark-I’m-in-the-same-room-as-Tony-Stark look of suppressed awe.
“Sorry, just admiring the view.” Tony tapped against the side of the machine he stood before, more specifically his reflection. This earned him a few good chuckles from the kids. “What was that?”
“I was hoping you could tell the students more about the Arc Reactor yourself,” the teacher, Mr. Johnson—Johnston? Jonson?—told him. He was also holding the oh-my-God-it’s-Tony-Stark-I’m-in-the-same-room-as-Tony-Stark look.
“Of course. The energy generated from the Arc Reactor is clean, reliable, and completely replaces any and all need for nuclear power. No waste, no worry. All those sparks and flashes you see in there is energy in its rawest form. If any of you ever wanted to see a star up close, here it is.”
The students nodded along, but the words were like glue in his mouth. Halfway through, he realized that there was no way he was going to be able to keep this up. He couldn’t do this, not now.
“Now, I could tell you all the details, but the last thing I need is one of you using that information to best me ten years from now, right? So here’s what we’re going to do.” Tony snapped and waved at the nearest worker to them. “We’re going to let you guys have a behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes tour. I’m sure Doctor Benson will guide you all well. Don’t wait up for me.”
Doctor Benson, whose name was actually Benton (as confirmed by his ID around his neck), nodded despite clearly being unprepared for such a responsibility. He waved the children forward, and they all went none the wiser. Benton’s tour-guide-impersonating voice and their footsteps faded away, though Tony knew that at least one of them was watching him head for the bathroom. That was why he kept his hands in his pockets and his posture casual as he stepped away.
Once he was in the bathroom, he snapped the door shut, sat down on the floor, and buried his face in his hands.
Tony Stark had a son, and his name was Peter Benjamin Fitzpatrick.
He didn’t even fully remember how his conversation with Richard had gone after he’d been told. There were a lot of uh’s and um’s, and he knew that he was supposed to call Richard later that day. After that he went to bed but didn’t fall asleep. He’d been working on autopilot for hours.
Tony should have known this was going to happen, shouldn’t he? He had always been very mindful about taking precautions during his many encounters with women over the years, but he’d been drunk for a good number of said encounters, and once or twice he’d let it slip his mind. That one night with Mary was nothing but the memory of a dream now, hazy and blurred.
He just never had the idea that it would actually happen, that he would be a father and have a child. “Tony Stark” and “father” were not terms that went together. Hell, “Tony Stark’s father” was already a phrase that left a sour taste in his mouth as it was.
Howard Stark now had a grandson.
Tony was at one of those very rare instances in his life where he had no idea what to do next. Most definitely, he’d set the kid up with a trust fund and college savings. That was just common courtesy and plain sense. Besides that, though, he was at a loss. He didn’t even know if the poor kid had anyone to take care of him now; Richard hadn’t really brought it up. If he did, great, but if he didn’t, was it on Tony to find someone to take care of him?
Did the kid even understand what was happening, did he know that Tony was his father?
When was his birthday?
What did he look like?
Damn. Tony hadn’t even met the kid and he was running laps around his head.
Tony hadn’t. even. met. the kid.
He was probably going to soon.
Someone knocked on the door, and Tony was fully prepared to either ignore them or snap at them to just go away and leave him be. It wasn’t one of the students, though, or the many scientists in the building.
“Tony?” Obie’s voice was muffled from the other side. “Hey, come on. What’s up?”
Tony reached up and unlocked the door without bothering to stand. He knew he looked like a child but couldn’t be bothered to care. Obie walked in, three-piece suit and all business, and saw Tony sitting on the bathroom floor with his elbows on his knees.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, I am not sitting on the bathroom floor, I’ll tell you that.”
Obie rolled his eyes and locked the door behind him. “Alright, I get it. Sit tight and I’ll get something over here as soon as we can manage.” Already, he was pulling his phone from his pocket. “There’s a deli not too far from here. Soup or sandwich?”
“I’m not hungover.”
“Ibuprofen, then. I’ll call someone to come take a look at you.”
“I’m not sick.”
“Well, whatever you do, don’t tell me what’s wrong. Let me sit here and guess for the next three hours.” It was a playful jab, really, but the unamused glare Obie got in response had his brows furrowing. With a sigh, he propped himself up against the sink counter and crossed his arms. Tony wasn’t even looking at him. “Seriously, Tony. That Time reporter’s going to be here in an hour. You want to cancel, or not?”
Tony ran a hand down the side of his face. Hell, if there was anyone he could trust with this kind of secret, it was either Obie or Rhodey. Obviously the latter wasn’t an option at the moment.
Tony could tell him, he just didn’t know how to. Obie was watching him and he had no idea where to begin.
“Alright.” Tony propped his wrists on his knees again. Took a deep breath. Forced his mind to get its pieces back together. “Here’s the deal. A couple of years ago, I met this woman. Her name was Mary Fitzpatrick.”
“Okay, I got you. What does she want? Money? Student loans? A fancy apartment?”
“Hit me. We’ve dealt with this stuff before, we can knock this out by lunch. What are you in here moping for?”
“She’s dead, Obie!”
Obie blinked once, twice, three times. “What?”
“She died. Car accident. Last week.”
Obie leaned a little heavier against the counter. A hand reached up and scratched at his beard, ran down his neck. “Alright, uh…Is it her family, then? Just tell me what’s going on and we’ll figure something out. Look, this sounds harsh, but you don’t owe her anything, alright? It was one night, wasn’t it? Don’t feel obligated—”
“It’s not about money, Obie!” Tony’s voice snapped loud enough to ring off the tile walls. He reined himself back in. Obie was staring him down hard. “It’s not about money, alright? That’s not the problem.”
“What, then?” Obie waved his hands around, searching. “You have to tell me or I can’t do anything.”
“She had a…kid.”
A sigh, short and frustrated, huffed through Obie’s nose. “Ah, geez. Alright. I know this is probably bothering you and you think you need to do something, but like I said, you owe nothing. I get it, it’s a kid, you want to do something, but you don’t have to support a kid that isn’t even yours—”
“Obie! It isn’t about the money, how many times—?”
“Alright, alright! Does the kid want to meet you, or something? Does he want to go to Disneyworld?”
Every word cut into Tony deeper and deeper, because he wasn’t ‘the kid’, he was Mary’s. He was real, not just a problem to figure out. Mary was a real, living person, and this real, living child was her child, he was—“He is mine.”
“He’s mine. It’s my kid. It’s my s—” Something hot and lumpy glued itself in Tony’s throat. He had to swallow it down and spit the words out. “He’s my son.”
Obie’s reaction was about what he was expecting: ten seconds of not understanding, followed by five seconds of finally understanding, followed by a single, low “What?”
“Yeah. Her friend called me last night, said she had this letter, or whatever—in case anything ever happened to her. She didn’t want me to support him, she didn’t want any favors, she just wanted me to know. Well, now I know. And now you know. Congrats.”
“Alright. Alright, alright, alright.” Obie put his hands on his hips and walked in a slow, uneven circle around the bathroom. Tony just watched him with one brow raised. Already Obie’s mind was trying to figure out their next move. “Alright. Alright.”
“You don’t sound alright.”
Obie “zipped” Tony’s lips shut, thought for a few more seconds, and unzipped them. “I’m going to ask you. What are you going to do next?”
“I mean—” Tony waved his arms around, unsure of what else to do with them. Obie nodded for him to go on but that just made him move a little faster. Finally, he managed to get his tongue untangled. “The funeral is at the end of the week. I figured showing up and, you know, paying my respects is the least that I can do. Just…that would be decent.”
“Tony. You’re really good at thinking, so I’m going to have to ask you to do that for just a second. What do you think is going to happen if Tony Stark shows up at that funeral? I’ll tell you: that chapel or graveyard or whatever is going to be completely swarmed with paparazzi trying to snap pictures and ask questions. One thing is going to lead to another, and people are going to figure out why you’re there and who Mary Fitz-something was to you.”
Obie’s gaze lacked any sympathy, just the no-nonsense stoniness of a businessman at work. Tony could appreciate that, having logic to balance out the whirlwind of emotions running through his head, but it also kind of unnerved him. He was taking this a little too quickly. Even now, Tony could tell he was turning all of this into formulas and equations. Crunching numbers.
Sadly, though, Obie had a point, as usual. The idea of not showing up to the funeral of the…the mother of his child was just as worrying as the idea of actually doing it. Mary would definitely have people there who she cared for and who cared for her, and were grieving the loss of such a great person. They were going to be there to say their final goodbyes and comfort one another.
So, for such a time to be plagued by snapping cameras, strangers leering around every corner, and “Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!” crying through the air…
That would be bad. Very bad.
“What will you even tell them, Tony? ‘Oh, she had my kid after we hooked up at a party a couple years ago—”
“Obie, I get it!”
“Good. Now, what about the kid? What do you want to do about him?”
“I’m…” Tony had to think about it for just one second longer, but maybe his mind was already made up. As if he had some part of his mind on standby in case the rest of it was in shock. “I’m going to set up a trust. I know that much. Just…You know, support him in general.”
“How do you know he’s yours, anyway?” Obie’s brows were now furrowed so deeply they’d formed into one hard line across his forehead. “You done a test yet?”
“I’m going to, but I already know.”
Tony sniffed. “Gut feeling, mostly. Mary didn’t want anything else but for me to know. That’s pretty much all the proof I need.”
“That’s not proof, that’s trust. And with all due respect, you might want to reevaluate it.”
“If the test comes back negative, you have my full and earnest permission to say ‘I told you so’.”
Obie gave him one last withered look before finally stopping his pacing. The conversation was winding down, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like that to Tony. He was still thinking a mile a minute. Trying to stop for even a second just made his mind swell like balloon until he had to let it out again.
“Who else knows?” Obie asked, a fair enough question.
“Me, you, Richard Parker, and I’m going to cross my fingers and say the kid. Maybe a few of Mary’s friends, we didn’t really get to that. Any other questions?”
“One more. How are you going to keep this a secret? ‘Cause I know for a fact we don’t want the public knowing about this.”
Another brutal truth. Peter was probably…four, five? The poor kid had just lost his mother, a pain that no child should ever have to endure, definitely not at that age. The last thing he needed was strangers hassling him every day and night. The whole world would be talking about him. He would see his face on television screens and magazine covers.
It wouldn’t matter how much anyone tried to protect him from it, he wouldn’t be able to escape. For years and years and years after that, the words “Tony Stark’s son” would be branded across his forehead for all to see. Any semblance of privacy would be done for. Camera flashes would follow everywhere he went.
Tony was pretty sure he could trust Richard to keep the secret, and Obie, of course. After that, there was going to be a problem. The kid was going to be a problem. He would have no idea why he needed to keep such a secret.
The kid, the kid, the kid. He kept referring to him as that in his mind, but Peter was his kid. His son. Tony hadn’t even scratched the surface of this whole situation.
“I’m going to go meet him.”
He’d said it aloud before he could even stop it. He surprised himself with his confidence. Obie was surprised, too, albeit in a way that teetered more towards bafflement. He may not have even caught what Tony had just said.
Before Obie could say “What,” Tony finally pulled himself up to his feet, tugged his shirt sleeves straight. He really did need to pull himself together, no matter how confusing this all was. Putting his head between his knees and panicking nonstop about it wasn’t going to help anyone, certainly not himself and certainly not Peter.
“I’ll cancel everything for the rest of the week, say I have to go visit a family friend. I’ll get to see what he needs and how he’s doing. I’m going to meet him.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Except I do.”
“He still might not be yours.”
“Except he is.” Tony held his hand up, already tired of this conversation that hadn’t even gone on for five minutes. It wasn’t that Obie wasn’t making sense, but this wasn’t really his problem. It wasn’t his place to be calling the shots. “You don’t have to come with me. As a matter of fact, feel free to act as though we’ve never had this conversation.”
“Oh, I’m coming. I have to keep all of this from falling to pieces.”
“Happy to hear it.” Tony clapped him on the shoulder, but of course Obie only answered with an eye roll. His attempt at fake casualness was only slightly helping, but hey, it was something. He just had to keep it up for the next couple hours. Days. Years? “We’ll fly out tomorrow. Bring something to read. Queens is a long fly over.”
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Tony tried not to wonder too long in fear of getting himself into a downwards spiral again, but some things he couldn’t help. He wondered if Peter had allergies he should know about, or any other medical conditions. He wondered how he was dealing without his mother around and only her friends to take care of him. He worried, for a minute, if three strangers showing up out of the blue and lingering around his home was going to scare him. He tried several times to imagine what Peter looked like, but he always came up short. Brown hair was the only thing he could settle on. He’d find out soon, he guessed.
The third person to learn the news was Happy, who responded with a low, and very caught-off-guard “Oh.”
“Yeah. I’m asking you to come along with me, just in case I need you around. If not, feel free to take the week off. Go to Hawaii.”
“No, sir, I’ll come.” Happy cleared his throat and folded his hands together. It might have actually looked professional if he weren’t having to twist in the driver’s seat to half-face Tony. “That’s my job.”
“You have good work ethic, Hap. You’ll need to meet us at the airport at seven tomorrow morning. Bring enough clothes to last the week, something to do on the plane, and a positive attitude. ‘Kay?”
Happy kept his face carefully neutral at that last comment. “Yes, sir.”
“Fantastic.” Tony swung his door open. “I don’t need to tell you not to tell anyone, do I?”
“My lips are sealed. Won’t tell a soul.”
“Good man. See you at three.”
The limousine rolled away as soon as he stepped out. Following his talk with Obie—and that interview with Time, which he thought went well even if he’d had the exact same one a thousand times before—Tony found himself dealing a lot better with the…everything. The storm clouds were finally starting to clear.
He’d already called Richard again, a conversation that was hardly any less awkward than the first. Tony, Obie, and Happy would be flying in at around twelve, after which they’d make a discreet ride over to the apartment complex. Peter, Richard, Richard’s brother Ben and his girlfriend May would all be there, as they’d been for a while now. That was really going to be the hardest part, that short distance between the car and the apartment door. He’d be home free after that.
For now, Tony had to keep going as if nothing was the matter. As of that moment, he was heading into Stark Industries Headquarters to see how development on the Jericho project was going. That board meeting the day before had given him the idea that maybe an extra step needed to be taken.
After this, he had a luncheon to go to, and he would be free to go home and pack his things after that. Maybe he’d be able to have a good night’s sleep.
Pepper was awaiting him past the door, which gave him pause. It hadn’t even occurred to him whether he should tell Pepper or not. He was pretty sure he’d be able to trust her to keep the secret, but he wondered if she even needed to be bothered with it or not. Technically it was part of her job to assist him with personal matters, but he wondered if this would be a little too much. There were personal matters and then there were personal matters.
“They’re waiting for you inside,” she told him as he approached. “Miss Chambers’ bill has been taken care of.”
“Thank you kindly.”
“Have you talked with Mr. Parker already? Is there anything I need to do?”
“Yes to the first, no to the second.” One second flat, and Tony’s mind was already telling him, lie, lie, lie. He could lie. Lying was easy. “Turns out, I do, in fact, know who Richard Parker is. He is a friend of a friend from MIT who is currently going through a personal crisis with which I may be of assistance.”
“Alright.” It was hard to tell if Pepper was incredulous or not. “Who is it?”
“Benjamin Fitzpatrick.” Eh, he could do better, but it would work. He still didn’t know if he’d ever be telling her otherwise. “I can’t really go into it because it’s not my story to give, but just so you know, I am going to be flying out to New York tomorrow morning. I’ll be back at the end of the week at the latest. I need everything until then cancelled, and feel free to call me if you run into any troubles on that.”
Pepper had already started typing away on her tablet before he was even finished. “Will do. If you come home early, could you let me know as soon as you do?”
“Of course. Also, when you’re doing this, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t give specifics. Just tell them I’m visiting a family friend and leave it at that.”
Pepper nodded again. Her coppery blonde ponytail bounced about. “Understood. Anything else I should know?”
He really did consider just backtracking and telling her the truth. Not there, not in public, but maybe aside. He did trust Pepper. He knew she’d keep this and any of her judgements to herself, so he couldn’t say why he was so intimidated about telling her. Hell, she’d probably already figured he had a child somewhere at this point.
He’d tell her when it all blew over, he decided. Once he came back, he’d apologize and give her the actual reasoning, and they would move on from there. He’d probably need the help of Pepper Potts to do what he wanted to for Peter.
“Nope.” Tony turned away and went half-marching down the hall. He turned his head one last time to call, “I’m leaving you in charge of the mansion. No parties!”
The flight to Queens took almost five hours and was a dismally boring affair. Happy sat reading in his seat, Obie alternated between working on his laptop and popping a question or two at Tony (“What’s his name again?” “How old is he?” “Are you sure about this?”), and Tony mostly just snacked on his omelet breakfast, drank champagne, and looked out the window.
Tucked beneath his seat was a present he’d asked Happy to pick up if he could. He could have given the k—his kid a thousand dollars’ worth of candy, really, but he didn’t want to overdo it. Happy had gotten some kind of Star Wars toy, he didn’t know. It was already wrapped and topped with a bow courtesy of Happy himself. Did Peter even like Star Wars? He could only hope.
Tony tried not to wonder too long in fear of getting himself into a downwards spiral again, but some things he couldn’t help. He wondered if Peter had allergies he should know about, or any other medical conditions. He wondered how he was dealing without his mother around and only her friends to take care of him. He worried, for a minute, if three strangers showing up out of the blue and lingering around his home was going to scare him. He tried several times to imagine what Peter looked like, but he always came up short. Brown hair was the only thing he could settle on. He’d find out soon, he guessed.
More than anything, though, he wondered what was going to happen after this was over. He was going to see Peter because he felt that that was what he was supposed to do, even if it was just once, even if it was just for a week. Even as young as he was, Peter deserved to have some level of understanding of what was going on. He might not even know or care who Tony Stark was, but he deserved to know that he was his father. Tony was not good at comforting—he really wasn’t—but he’d like to give at least a few words of comfort to the poor ki—his poor kid!
After that, though…Tony had to admit he had no game plan. He didn’t know how he was going to say goodbye. He didn’t know how they could ensure that Peter didn’t tell his friends or their parents who his father was. The kid (screw it) might try to contact him later, and he had no clue how he was going to handle that. Peter also wasn’t going to be a five-year-old forever. Ten years down the road, Tony would have a teenager with a much better understanding of what had happened and a lot of questions.
Tony would have to cross that bridge when he got to it. That was all he could settle on.
They touched down in the LaGuardia Airport a little after twelve, with an almost twenty-minute drive to the apartment after. There were no cars following after them, not yet, anyway. They’d come in unnoticed as far as Tony could tell. Up front, Happy drove the rented car (just a BMW, just to avoid attention) without a word. Obie…Honestly, Obie looked more and more like he didn’t want to be doing this and just wanted to turn the car around and go home.
Three minutes before their final stop, Obie practically threw down the newspaper he was reading and turned to him. Tony, once again staring out the window, actually jumped.
“You don’t have to do this,” Obie told him yet again. He was insisting now. “Look, you don’t even know this Rich guy, it’s not like you’re going to be hurting his feelings. Just tell him you’ve changed your mind and you’re just going to set up a trust fund.”
“No offense, Obie, but why would I say ‘no’ five minutes after we left and say ‘yes’ three minutes before we’re there?”
“Tony. Come on.”
“I once again emphasize you don’t have to be here. You want to go to the Noguchi Museum? Go right ahead, I’ll buy you in. Pick me up something from the gift store. I am going in, and I’m going to meet Peter, whether or not you come along.”
Obie let out a long, low, gruff sigh. The hand on his knee clenched into a fist and let go again. “Nope. Let’s do this.”
“By the way, can I just say that your undying support is really helping me out in this trying time?”
“Give me a break, Tony.”
“From what? Does this whole situation offend you? I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I truly am.”
“This ‘whole situation’ is one snapshot away from becoming the cover on every tabloid in every convenience store in America.” Obie put a hand on his shoulder, but it was stiff and not at all warm. Something angry sparked in Tony’s chest, but he didn’t know what it was, and he had to stifle it down. “I’m really not trying to be cruel or come off like I don’t care, alright? But we can’t both be thinking emotionally right now. You can scream and cry and wallow in self-pity however much you want, but I have to keep it together and make sure this whole thing doesn’t collapse like a house of cards. In my opinion, we shouldn’t be here at all. There’s no reason to be. But this is what you want, so we’re going to do it, and I will accept my responsibility of keeping the peace.”
That spark flared up again, and again Tony could not tell why. He should have been thanking Obie for this, no? He was making sense, someone had to be Tony’s mediator right now. At the same time, though, Tony felt that that “sensibility” was teetering awfully close into “apathy” territory. He didn’t need Obie to stay still so he could cry on his shoulder, but this wasn’t just a PR issue to sweep under the rug as quickly as they could.
As it was, that was when Happy said, “Here we are.”
The building was like every other apartment complex in Queens. Tall, brick, sandwiched between other buildings much like it. Inside that building, Tony’s son was waiting to meet him. Probably.
“Give me a minute,” Happy said, and stepped out way too fast to be casual.
Obie and Tony watched him duck inside the building, and then all they could do was wait. Just as Tony gave himself kudos for not being nervous, he got nervous. Not horribly, there was no sinking stomach or sweaty palms. Suddenly, though, he found himself unable to stop from tapping his foot or twisting his cufflinks.
Obie saw his fidgeting and sighed for what was hopefully the final time. “It’ll be over before you know it. Don’t worry too much.”
“Thanks,” Tony replied without a hint of thankfulness.
Happy came back out faster than expected and got back into his seat. Once in, he twisted around with an expression way too serious. You’d think they were going into a battlefield and not an apartment in Queens.
“People are walking around everywhere in there,” he told them gravely. “They’ve got security cameras, too.”
So Tony wasn’t wrong, this was going to be the hardest thing to do. Ah, well, let it not be said they came unprepared.
He held a hand out to Obie. “Cough it up.”
Walking around with a doctor-style face mask was really convenient when you were as famous as Tony Stark. Once he put it on, donned a ballcap, and shrugged off his blazer, he looked like any other random passerby. If anyone glanced his way, all he had to do was cough like he was carrying the plague, and they would carry on.
It wasn’t a wonderful entrance, pretending to be a stranger with a bad cold, but it worked. No one talked to them or glanced their way. Obie didn’t even need a mask to go unnoticed. The only person they exchanged words with, period, was the receptionist. Happy did all the talking for them, and that was that.
The lobby became the elevator, the elevator became a hallway, and the hallway became a door with 303 in plated metal numbers.
One door, and that was it. This was happening. Tony took a breath and knocked.
No answer. He knocked again.
No answer. He kno—the door opened, and he pulled his hand back.
The man standing in the doorway couldn’t have been any older than Tony himself. Very tall, very much on the lanky side, not very intimidating at all. His eyes were round and as youthful as the tousle of dark curls on his head—he would have looked young if it weren’t for his strong jaw and the stubble across his chin.
He didn’t seem to understand why they were there at first, but Tony saw the lightbulb go off behind his eyes soon enough. Voice hardly above a whisper, he asked, “Mr. Stark?”
With a glance either way down the hall, Tony lifted up the mask just so.
The guy swallowed and nodded at the same time. “Right. Come in, come in.”
The three of them hustled inside quickly. The guy walked with an awkward balance, but Tony chalked that up to nervousness or fatigue. The rest of the apartment gave credence to the latter. It wasn’t horrible, really. Very quaint, as far as Queens apartments went. Beige walls, leather furniture, a little kitchen with white cabinets and cupboards. But there were papers spread over the tables, coffee cups left unattended every which way. The pull-out couch in the middle of the room hadn’t been made up yet, so it was just a tousle of sheets and blankets. There was a strange poster on one wall and a simple clock on another.
Tony didn’t see any framed photos on the walls as they came in. He didn’t know if that was good or not. He hadn’t seen Peter yet and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to see Mary’s face, alive and smiling but now gone forever. The only sign of there being a child at all was a single toy car tossed beneath the coffee table.
“Thank you so, so much for coming,” the man said again. Even his voice carried an odd youthfulness to it Tony hadn’t picked up on the phone. As he very awkwardly locked the door and maneuvered around them, Tony saw his unstable walk once more, and only then saw the walking stick he was holding. He was sprightly, for what it was worth. “I’m sorry this place is such a mess. We’ve had a lot to do, not too much time to do it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony dismissed. A throw pillow had fallen from the couch, and Tony picked it up for no real reason. Obie had his hands in his pockets and was meandering silently. Happy was looking this way and that, as if for hidden cameras or even bombs. “Parker, Richard?”
“Flesh, in the.” Richard put on a shaky smile and extended a hand towards him. Tony shook it and felt the slight tremor in the fingers. “We really are grateful you came all this way, Mr. Stark. Really, really. Can I get you some coffee? Tea?”
“Coffee will be just perfect.”
Richard turned to Obie and Happy—“No thanks” and “With Splenda, please” respectively—and hobbled into the kitchen. He paused once to toss the pullout couch back and sloppily toss the cushions back on. As he moved, his pant leg fluttered up for just a moment, and Tony got his answer to his question. Richard’s right foot wore a tennis shoe and when the fabric lifted, Tony saw the telltale, stainless metal of a prosthetic.
“It’s going to take just a minute,” Richard said as he scooped grounds into the coffeemaker.
“That’s fine,” Tony answered, and realized that he was officially at a loss for words. That wasn’t normal for him. He didn’t like it. There was an eerie tension in his shoulders, as if he expected Peter to jump out from the shadows and surprise him. He didn’t even see any toys, though, let alone the child himself. Clearing his throat, he tried to say, “So what exactly—?”
“Where is the kid?” Obie asked.
Richard blinked as he pressed the button on the coffeemaker, as if he’d forgotten it was four people in the room instead of two. Happy didn’t look very comfortable, either. He stood in front of the messily-made couch as if debating whether to sit down or not.
“He’s in his room.” Richard nodded past Tony to the little hallway behind him. “May and Ben are talking to him, shouldn’t take too much longer.”
Obie nodded, but was only just beginning his rundown of the situation. “This letter Mary left behind, where is it?”
Richard blinked again. “It’s over here—I’ll get it—”
“Don’t worry about it.” Tony waved his hand dismissively, but sent Obie a pointed look. He didn’t want to immediately get into the business side of things. That wasn’t an icebreaker, that was an ice…fortifier. “We’ll get into that later.”
Obie’s jaw clenched. “I think we should really start talking about it now.”
“Nah. We have all the time in the world, trust me.” He couldn’t stop the sharpness in his voice as he finished. They weren’t doing this anymore. “I, for one, would like to thank you for calling. Very courteous of you.”
Tony regretted it as soon as he said it, because Richard obviously picked up the tension. He just busied himself with getting whatever coffee mugs were still clean from the cupboard. His hands were still shaking just so.
“No problem at all,” Richard replied a bit too quietly. “It’s what she wanted, so we had to…do it…Uh, if you want to take a seat, feel welcome to.”
Happy graciously sat down, but while Tony was awkwardly coming forward, he heard a door behind him creak open. Enter Ben Parker.
It was very easy to see how he and his brother were related. Ben was clearly the elder one, in his forties just by a glance, with a frame that seemed to dwarf his brother’s. Otherwise, though, they were one and the same. Tousled dark hair, stubble across a strong jaw, round eyes. The hair at his temples was getting some premature silver.
Ben stood in the archway and crossed his arms over his chest. He didn’t seem to be trying to glower down at Tony, but the height difference between them gave to that effect. “Mr. Stark.”
Tony gave him a nod, not sure of what else to do. “Mr. Parker.”
Ben and Richard shared one of those silent but conversational looks that only siblings could share. Tony guessed Ben “said” something along the lines of You sure about this? There was no way of telling. There was an uncomfortable stretch of silence only broken by the gurgling of coffee into the pot.
Ben ran a hand down the side of his face and glanced back to the room behind him. Not a moment later, a woman who could only be May stepped in looking about as all-business as her partner. Quite a beautiful woman, with unruly auburn hair framing high cheekbones, but though Tony could tell she was the kind to usually radiate warmth, that was not the case then. Even in denim jeans and a polka-dot blouse, she somehow managed to daunt him. Happy himself shifted on the couch.
May, much like Ben before her, swept the room with her eyes. She couldn’t be blamed for her wariness. They were three strangers as far as she was concerned. She knew who Tony Stark was, she just didn’t…know Tony Stark.
Obie impatiently spoke up. “Is he in there?”
Blinking once, May put on a smile that dripped with sarcasm. “May Reilly, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“It really is,” Tony cut in before tension could rise any more. He crossed over to her in one stride, sticking out a hand. “Tony Stark.”
“Yeah, I know.” Despite her words, her face relaxed just so, and she shook his hand. Ben did the same once they were done with a quick awkward-but-friendly smile.
Richard hobbled over with three mugs in one hand and his walking stick in the other. Happy looked on, impressed, while Obie looked on, confused.
“Red one is for you.” Happy plucked the mug away with very careful fingers, and Richard went to the others. “Striped one for you, Mr. Stark.”
The coffee was black as night, not the way he preferred, but probably the way he needed. Tony took it with a quick thanks, a fast swig, and a barely-suppressed wince of pain.
May balked. “What the hell, Rich? We agreed that I get at least one cup from every pot we make. Do I just sit here and waste away now?”
Richard very dramatically extended the last mug over to her. “Indeed, which is why I have this.”
“You’re too good for me, Rich. Pretend I didn’t say anything.” May took the mug and drank so much so quickly that Tony passed Ben a silent look of What the hell? Ben’s look answered She’s made of steel, man, I don’t know. “God bless you, baby boy.”
Tony chuckled at the good-natured ribbing between the two, then realized he’d gone a good long while without saying a thing. So he cleared his throat and spoke.
“Were you two friends of Mary’s, too?”
Alright, you should have stayed quiet, mood-killer.
His immediate regret must have showed on his face, because Ben laughed. May gave a smile, too, albeit laced with a more prominent sadness. She tried to hide it behind the lip of her mug.
“Since we were kids.” Ben went to get his own coffee out of the kitchen, lightly nudging his brother out of the way to do so. Richard complied with a joking whine. “Mary was always bouncing around foster homes, but we kept in touch. Went to the same community college.”
“For two years,” Richard cut in, “until he joined his band.”
Tony hummed. “Do tell.”
“Don’t,” Ben begged. “Please.”
Richard ignored him. “They played one concert and split up due to ‘artistic differences’.”
“It was more complicated than that.”
May chimed in with a “They got into a Godzilla versus King Kong fight that got too out of hand”, making Ben sigh in humiliated defeat.
Tony raised his mug. “Godzilla.”
Ben raised his. “Thank you!”
May turned and pointed to the wall beside her, where the poster was. Tony thought maybe it was a beach view at first, but now that he looked at it, he realized that he literally had no clue in his mind what it was. Colors and shapes were slashed across the paper in the most chaotic display imaginable.
“Mary designed that for their big debut.” May winked at Happy. “You’ve been staring for a while. You like it?”
Happy blinked. Clearly he thought he’d go invisible for the rest of his stay. He replied in an embarrassed mumble. “I thought it was an autostereogram.”
May, Ben, and Richard answered all together, at the same time, in perfect unison. “That’s what we said.”
Tony smiled again and took another burning swig of coffee. He felt more at ease already, but one look at Obie was all it took to raise his hackles again. Obie wasn’t glaring at him or anyone else, but he looked so impatient, he seemed to suck the sunlight from the windows. Like a customer five seconds away from asking to speak to the manager. Him typing into his phone only made him look worse.
Tony ignored him, because again, he was just done with Obie’s attitude about the whole situation. However, he was reminded of what exactly they were all here for. There were six people in the small apartment when there should have been seven.
“So, uh…” Tony looked around for somewhere to set his mug. It probably wasn’t nice to put it on a bookshelf, but there were already two more there, so. Whatever. “Is he still in his room?”
Thankfully, the room did not swell with tension as much as he thought it would. Obie looked a touch bit relieved, even. May gulped down the rest of her coffee, Ben stood straight from where he was leaning against the sink, and Richard started wiping down the island as if the not-even-six-year-old would be offended if he came out to an unclean kitchen.
“Just a second.” Ben nodded at Tony as he stepped past him. Footsteps faded down the hall, the door squeaked open again, and Tony heard Ben’s voice speaking softly but unintelligibly.
Tony put his hands in his pockets and didn’t force so much as wave away the growing anxiety. Not even thirty seconds, and he’d be meeting his kid. It wasn’t the end of the world, he’d seen this coming for a day now. A full twenty-four hours to be prepared. He could go on talkshows before thousands of viewers and conduct interviews to be printed for millions. This was a teeny tiny misadventure, if anything.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out without thinking.
If Richard, Happy, May weren’t still present, Tony would have dropped his jaw, raised his arms, and barked “Are you serious?!” As it was, he didn’t even spare Obie a glance as he opened the message. As far as the others were concerned, he was checking on business.
Just remember we don’t know anything until the test results get in, okay?
Tony snapped his phone shut and tucked it away. He wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be reassuring or disconcerting, and he wasn’t sure which he felt. He was still pretty confident that yes, this was his kid. Mostly because of what he’d said before, that Mary wouldn’t bother just telling him if he wasn’t. Partly because of hope, because, well, this was going to be a very awkward turnout if Peter wasn’t even his, wasn’t it?
Regardless, they technically had no proof until those results came in. Legally speaking or otherwise.
One set of footsteps became two sets, one much lighter than the other. Ben said something soft and reassuring. Tony could almost hear a countdown with each step forward.
He could also almost hear Obie’s voice, until we get the rest results in.
Doesn’t matter either way, Tony thought. We’ll figure it out later. For now, just be civil and friendly. He’s a kid, even if he’s not yours. So just—
Peter stepped into view.
—yeah, no, he’s mine. That’s definitely my kid.
Whoo, boy...This scene was hard to nail down. Let me know what you guys think! :) Next chapter is going to focus on Mary's life, and we'll get back into the present after.
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
There was no past, present, or future for them. They were ships that passed in the night. Years from now she’d look back and say “Man, I can’t believe I actually had a one night stand with Tony Stark,” then she’d carry on.
Mary Fitzpatrick didn’t believe in fate, not really.
Oh, she was a fan of good fortune and romance and any time life decided to smile her way. She did think it was funny to look to the past and say, “Wow, how funny is it that doing X led to Y?” But cosmic-level destiny, no, she didn’t believe in any of that. Things happened because things happened, not because the entire course of time was already composed and they were all just playing to the beat.
Others did, that was fine. It just wasn’t a fundamental truth she held.
Though she had to admit that when she woke up in the same bed as Tony Stark, twenty-third richest man in the world, CEO of Stark Industries, the Modern-Day Da Vinci, the Merchant of Death, she had some questions.
Mary remembered what happened, for the most part. She’d asked to take Craig’s place in the men’s bathroom, Stark walked in, they talked, she stole the cheesecake and the wine, they laughed, they joked, they left, they got into a car, they showed up here…Yeah, she could piece together what had happened well enough.
(There was a distant, flickering memory of “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys being played on trumpets. She couldn’t explain that.)
Once she had gotten a hold of her bearings, standing in a hotel room she didn’t recognize, naked except for a sheet around her body, Stark (also naked) wiping the sleep from his eyes, regret swallowed her up quick and deep, and she bolted without another word.
Mary would regret it later. Not the leaving part, but the extreme lack of grace with which she did it. She could have at least said goodbye, or give an excuse for leaving, or whatever. “Shit” wasn’t a good replacement for “Adieu.”
Mary felt sick as she dashed out of the room. She felt sick when she was in the elevator. She felt sick when she walked out of the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel. She felt so sick in the cab she hailed down that she asked the driver to pull over so she could dry heave.
He was nice about it. Gave her water. Cool guy.
It wasn’t the idea of spending a night with Tony Stark that had her so ill. Hell, that was the dream of almost every woman in America, wasn’t it? He’d been very nice, too. Fun. As charming as she would have thought. As “talented” as she would have thought.
It was that she’d spent a night with anyone, period. Mary wasn’t a virgin—ba-dum-tish—but she’d never had a one night stand before. She didn’t judge anyone for what they did in their bedrooms, but that just wasn’t her. She had to know the person, she had to care about them. She knew zilch about Stark. If something happened to him, and it was on the news tomorrow morning, she wouldn’t be weeping in grief. She liked him, yeah. Loved him? Absolutely not.
Mary knew, not too deep down, that part of it was just because he wasn’t Richard. It would never be Richard.
The worst thing was, she couldn’t really blame anyone besides herself. They’d both been equally falling-off-their-feet drunk. She’d chugged red wine after tequila after Lime Rickey all on her own accord. Even before then, she had been flirting just as much as he had. She saw his lazy grin and the way he leaned in to talk to her and she took it, encouraged it.
Stark was a nice person, though. She didn’t know if he was good, but he was nice. If she didn’t want to talk, he didn’t push it, and if she did, he encouraged it. Dimly she remembered gentle touches and genuine smiles.
But…come on. There was no past, present, or future for them. They were ships that passed in the night. Years from now she’d look back and say “Man, I can’t believe I actually had a one night stand with Tony Stark,” then she’d carry on.
For now, though, she would go back to her poor little apartment and tuck away the hundred-and-twenty dollars Stark had given her in the little shoebox in her closet. Her boss would call her to say—surprise, surprise—she was fired. Not great, not bad. She had two other jobs anyway. In fact, not thirty minutes after she got home, she would have another one to go to.
It was one night. That was the end of it.
Mary was pregnant.
The thought had only occurred to her once, very fleetingly, while she was filling coffee cups at the Melodia Diner. Fleetingly because she was fairly sure they had used protection. She didn’t remember for the life of her, but come on. Surely Stark had wined and dined enough women in his life to take precautions for his public image. Besides, it was one night, and she probably wasn’t even on her cycle yet. What were the odds?
First it was an upset stomach in the morning that she’d chalked up to late-night snacking. Then it was a constant, unending fatigue no matter how much she slept. Being five days late for her period was the final straw that made her buy an over-the-counter test.
Mary wasn’t really one to imagine the future often, but she was like most people, having once or twice thought about the milestones in her life. As a kid, she’d fantasized about prom night. After (not) doing that, graduation. After that, having her first child. In hindsight, she’d probably fallen into the Hollywood trap. Like, okay, she knew that giving birth wasn’t going to be a clean and pretty dream where all she had to do was scream and cry a few times. Still, she thought that when the moment she held that little pink plus sign in her hands, she’d be sitting with her partner, laughing in pure euphoria, hugging and almost crying that it was finally happening.
Nope. Mary held that little pink plus sign in a bathroom the size of a closet, wearing a Han Shot First! T-shirt and bumblebee pajama bottoms with a bit of omelet still on her lip, and the first thing she said was “Oh, come on!”
She still didn’t believe in fate, but now she was pregnant with Tony Stark’s kid. So.
It took a while for the weight to sink in. She remembered all the way back in Sex Ed in one of the many “If You Have Sex You Will Get Pregnant and Die” lectures that a lot of girls just kind of “ignored” their pregnancy. As in, if they didn’t think about it, it would just “go away.”
Mary did that without intending to, and realized as such when she was washing dishes at the Pepper Mill. It wasn’t a horrible Armageddon nine months on the horizon, but she was going to have a kid. There was a life growing inside of her—Ugh, that was so weird—and that life would become a baby and that baby would become a kid and that kid would become an adult. She had nine months to make doctor’s appointments, get a new wardrobe, set up a couple for adoption…This was really happening, but she didn’t need this.
She didn’t need to wake up every hour of the night to rock her baby to sleep.
She didn’t need to worry about check-ups and appointments and making sure the kid got the Flintstone gummies they needed.
She didn’t need to worry about sticky hands and a runny nose and vomit on her shoulders.
(Just to be clear, Mary did not in any way, shape, or form dislike children but the simple fact of the matter was that she was not good with them.)
She’d decided at the end of the day that adoption was what she was going to do. She could have terminated it, but that just wasn’t something Mary wanted to do. She could do this, she’d been through worse. Hell, she could even get maternity leave, huh?
One thing was for certain, though: she would need help.
May was shocked when she was told, though in her defense, she’d thought Mary was talking about getting a pet, not having a baby. (“I call my cat my baby all the time, Mary! It’s normal!”) After the initial “Really? Really, really?” wore off, though, she was more than supportive. Heck, maybe even too much. Immediately she was talking about helping her buy new clothes and pick baby names. Even when Mary made it clear she didn’t intend to keep the child, she made it clear Mary only needed to call for her to come running. She only asked once who the father was and accepted the answer that it was just “a guy at a party.”
Ben was understanding right off the back. Of course he was, he seemed too good to be true sometimes. He didn’t ask who the father was, only if he was going to be supporting. He nodded when Mary told him he didn’t know and she wanted to keep it that way. He asked if she felt well, if she wanted to see a doctor. He even offered her help if she didn’t think she’d be able to afford the things to come. God bless Ben Parker, really.
Richard was confused.
Sitting across from him, Mary pursed her lips together. “I ate some bad takeout.”
“I—” Richard’s Adam’s apple bobbed hard in his throat. He looked unnaturally pale and his eyes were blinking hard. Even his metal foot was beginning to twitch beneath the table. You’d think it was his kid, the way he was acting. “I mean…Who did…Who was…Who? Who. I’m asking who.”
“Just a guy I met at a party.” The way Richard’s neck snaked back just so had Mary reaching for her tea. Just for the record, Mary had never been a coffee drinker, so her choice in chamomile had nothing to do with May’s insistence of coffee being a no-no pregnancy food. “Sorry, let me make it more romantic. So there I was, a mere maiden of six-and-twenty, standing among shining lights and drinking the most effervescent of drinks—”
“I’ve got nothing, Rich. He was drunk, I was drunk, a stork showed up at my window.”
“I…Okay…Uh…Okay, just—Uh. Okay. Alright.”
Mary reached across the table and pressed a finger against his forehead. Since childhood—probably since the guy was fresh out of the womb, for goodness’ sake—Richard always became a broken record when he got nervous or didn’t know how to handle things. In high school, she’d taken to touching his forehead like a reset button, or resetting the needle.
It worked like a charm, as always. Richard took a deep breath, deflated just a bit, and leveled his voice. “How pregnant are you?”
“No, I mean—How far along?”
“Oh. Uh…about a month, give or take? I know it’s hard to—” Mary gestured to her belly, still flat as ever. “—tell.”
“Okay. So—the guy at the party, does he know? Are you two going to…I don’t know, do this together?”
An inexplicable, childish, immature flash of anger took Mary over before she could even help it. She tried to cool it, but it was too late. All she could do was barely wrangle her voice from snapping when she said, “No, we are not ‘together.’”
“I was just asking,” Richard defended, and she knew it was a reasonable question. Sensible, but she was still…hurt. Like the fact that he even thought she’d be with a guy she just met just because…just because… “What are you going to do?”
“Adoption. Just—I can’t have a baby. Not now.”
“Do you want to meet them after? Like, open or closed? Either’s fine! Just—asking.”
“I don’t know. I only figured out, like, a week ago.”
“I could help,” Richard offered. He didn’t even sound sure. “Foster care is an option—I mean, you know that’s an option…”
Mary’s jaw clenched despite herself. Of course foster care was an option, but it wasn’t one she’d considered. Actually, it wasn’t an option, it was a possibility. If she put the child up for adoption, foster care would probably come down the line.
Mary had been in the St. Judas Children’s Home for the first five years of her life. Her caretakers were men and women who were friendly, loving, and perfect parent stand-ins but always carried the impermanent title of employee. Her pseudo-siblings came from broken families where their parents became the monsters under the bed. If Billy’s Daddy or April’s Mommy showed up, they had to lock the doors, cover the windows, and all go into the back room until they were gone. Mary loved that home and everyone in it, but she got too attached, and her first time in a “proper” house was a nightmare. She didn’t like the new bed in the new house. It didn’t matter how many smiles she got or how many apple pies the neighbors brought over, she always felt like she’d been kidnapped. The silver lining was that her new parents—Diane and Leonard, she remembered—let her visit the Home often.
After that, it was home after home, bouncing around the state of New York. Beatrice and Matthew lived too far from the Home to visit but encouraged her to write letters often. Samantha and Vincent promised to send the letters and never did. Fiona and Walter returned her three days later like a library book because she “wasn’t the right fit.”
It was a cold, unfeeling, hassle of a life only mitigated by the presence of Ben, Richard, and May, who never let her go no matter how far she went and only waited for her to move back closer to home. Her fourth home, Edith and Gerald, actually took her to therapy when they realized that little Mary wasn’t just sad sometimes, no, she was always upset and always would be until someone listened. That had helped her a lot.
She didn’t think the foster system was all that terrible, though. Flawed? Yes. Hell yes. Evil? No, not really. There were bad people in it just like there were bad people in the rest of the world, and hey, she’d known plenty of people who found loving families who took them in as their own.
They got lucky.
She didn’t know if she wanted to risk her kid not getting lucky.
Richard’s worried poke at her wrist tugged her back down to earth, alongside a jerk of her hand that splatters tea down her wrist. It’s still scalding hot, and both she and Richard scramble for napkins.
“Here, here, here—”
“I’ve got it, I—”
“Okay, just…be careful.”
“A tea burn isn’t going to hurt the baby, Rich,” Mary half-chuckled. Then she realized she’d said the word ‘baby’ aloud for the first time and stopped. “Anyway…I wanted you to know, since it’s going to be going on for a while now.”
“Of course. I, uh…Thank you for telling me.”
“As if I’d be able to hide it,” huffed Mary.
“Um…” Richard’s throat bobbed once more, plain as day, and he smiled. A wide, sweet smile as fake as plastic. “Congrats, I guess.”
Oh, how Mary wished she knew what was happening in his brain. She wondered if he was actually angry about this. Did she…want him to be angry about this? If he felt even an ounce of illness about this situation, she couldn’t know if she’d be upset or now. This was her decision, not his. Maybe it was the worry of a friend, maybe he was…jealous. Jealous of the guy at the party—Tony Stark.
Well, he couldn’t be jealous. He’d had years. More than ten years to get his feelings in order and it took her getting knocked up for an epiphany to come around? Oh, come on. That was bullshit. Why would she, in any way, take his feelings into account before hopping into bed with someone else? That was nonsense.
But jealousy meant something.
It would mean that he felt something, anything, for her, and she might have very well been desperate for anything. Sure, it would mean he’d never done anything about it. Now that he lived all the way across the continent, this meeting on a simple visit on a weekend off, it still wouldn’t work. Mary didn’t want to leave Queens and didn’t want to live in Los Angeles. She didn’t want to hear his voice on phones and computer screens.
Who was she even kidding?
She’d had years.
“Thanks,” Mary said, as much as it hurt. She lifted up her tea. “Mazel tov!”
Being pregnant sucked and Mary didn’t care if that went against the dreams of every girl fantasizing about glowing skin and people rubbing their swollen bellies. It sucked.
Some parts weren’t so bad, especially with the Parker-Reilly trio behind her. May helped her out with the new wardrobe, mostly. Balancing out her diet also wasn’t that horrible, and any cravings were solved by the 7/11 a few blocks down from her apartment. Morning sickness only hits her twice, thank goodness. It’s messy but it’s quick. And yeah, her skin and hair do pick up some shine. She also didn’t become a puddle of hormones, thank goodness.
But. Ugh. Literally everything else.
She had to go to the bathroom every two seconds. Her feet ached and she couldn’t find the right way to sleep in her bed at night. She got to keep her job at Melodia’s and the Pepper Mill, but hoo, boy, if waitressing wasn’t easier without a big pillow strapped to your front. The questions—“How far along are you?” or “Do you know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl?”—don’t really bother her so much as the fact that they came from strangers. They were nice, though, and she answered kindly. Until a woman just reached out and rubbed her belly without permission. She shut that down fast.
Mary spent more time at Ben and May’s apartment than her own. They made a point to be supportive without walking on eggshells around her. For the most part. May still kind of fretted over her sleep schedule and diet. More than once Ben had to pull her away so Mary could eat her bread-and-butter pickles in peace, thank you very much.
Richard kept in touch just as much as he usually did, but he seemed to actively avoid bringing up the pregnancy at all. Even when Mary did it herself, she immediately took note in the shortness in his responses. The periods at the ends of his messages. Any time that jealous-or-not question popped up, she shoved it back down at once.
Richard visited when he could, which wasn’t terribly often. The Los Angeles Medical Center kept him as busy as a medical center could, and Mary was understanding. Being a physical therapist was a time-consuming job, LA was a time-consuming city. Still, she couldn’t lie and say it didn’t bother her that she saw him infrequently enough for her belly to swell in-between visits.
Mary saw the way he refused to look at her belly and didn’t say anything about it.
She couldn’t worry about Richard anymore. The ship had sailed and she was done waving her handkerchief. She had other things to worry about.
For example, her child’s father was Tony Stark.
Well, okay, that wasn’t too bad of a problem. She just had to keep her lips sealed tight about it. She was not going to spend the rest of her life known as The Woman Who Had Tony Stark’s Kid. So it would just be a secret, forever and ever, unless the kid one day decided he wanted answers. The name “Tony Stark” alone was starting to lose its weight the more she thought about it. Sure, she sometimes felt a pang she couldn’t name when she saw his face on TV, on tabloids. Mary had dealt with worse, she could deal with this.
The bigger issue was that Mary was…starting to reconsider the adoption angle.
After she decided she didn’t want to put her child into foster care, she figured it was time to find a couple that would adopt them. There were plenty, of course. Hell, she saw advertisements in the newspaper for them. After that, though, Mary started to entertain the idea of keeping the baby. Entertaining soon became considering.
Alright. Call her a softie. Mary liked the idea of having a kid. Not the dirty diapers or temper tantrums, but the good parts. Everything had good parts and bad parts, and children were no different. Mary liked the idea of hearing the word “Mommy”, bubble baths, the first day of Kindergarten, Christmas mornings, birthday parties…She was getting a little too much into the idea. In a good way.
Sometimes she saw babies at the diner, or on the street. She didn’t care if it made her a weak-hearted daydreamer—she felt a little part of herself warm up when they giggled at their parents, or kissed their cheeks. The pure adoration in their children’s and parents’ eyes alike was enough to make just the slightest part of her melt.
“I think I want to keep the baby.”
Why did she have to tell May first? May, of all people. Of course May lit up like a firecracker. To Kill a Mockingbird just barely managed not to go flying out of her fingertips.
“Really?! Really, really?”
Mary lifted up her foot and pressed it to May’s belly, warding her away before her jubilee got too hot to handle. “Yeeup. I think so.”
“I—Well, SHIT, Mary! You could have made up your mind sooner!” May jabbed a hand at Mary’s belly, five months along and covered in a blanket. “We—You’ve got to get a cradle! You need a nursery! A college fund! There’s going to be a whole new person on this planet in FOUR MONTHS.”
“M’kay, coffee time.” Ben materialized out of heavenly nowhere and gently led his girlfriend away. She was still vibrating. “Good on you, Mary. We’ll help you figure everything out.”
May chugged down her coffee in record time and returned much more composed. Sitting back down across from Mary, she told her, “Alright. You come up with any names yet?”
Mary folded her book shut and hummed. “Maybe? Luke is a cute name.”
“Yeah, I like that!”
“Leia is also cute.”
“Oh, go figure.” May shook her head and leaned back. Ben took a seat down beside her. “It’s not my decision, but I will physically stop your hand from making their middle name Skywalker.”
“What about ‘Solo’?”
“Chill! If it’s a girl, I was thinking Kirsten, Elizabeth, Rose, Lucy, Laura, Tara, or Emma. For a boy, I was thinking, Steven, Jack, Lee, Joey, Simon, Benjamin—”
Ben all but threw his coffee mug up into the air and cackled. His joy didn’t stop even as May drove her elbow into his stomach. One of them was the upmost satisfaction, the other was betrayed hurt.
Mary held up her hands before she got a bag of Lays thrown at her head. “I just like the way it sounds!”
“So do I,” agreed Ben, and he got another elbow-drive for his trouble.
“I won’t forget this,” warned May. She jabbed a finger right at Mary’s nose. “For the rest of your natural life, Mary Fitzpatrick, I will not forget if you do this.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I was thinking of naming my future cat May!”
That did get her the bag of Lays. Thrown.
May began to go into detail about everything they needed to do. Getting a room set up and baby-proofed was number-one priority, and Ben offered to sit down with her and catalog everything they’d need. They could even get a baby shower thrown together real quick, and invite all her friends from work. Once, just once, and only after they were alone did Ben only-curiously ask what she would put as the father’s name on the birth certificate. Mary told him that she wouldn’t write anything if she didn’t have to.
So yeah. This was happening.
Richard showed up the weekend after Ben told him she was keeping the baby. It was like seeing a switch flip off, and Mary couldn’t explain it.
They decided to buy a disassembled baby crib just to get it to fit in the car. May and Mary went on a toy-and-clothes shopping spree while Ben and Richard looked around at bigger items like cradles and changing stations. Mary’s room would have to couple as the nursery until she could save up enough time and money for another move.
They spent hours getting everything together. Richard took it upon himself to build the crib, and it was such a tedious process that they all applauded once it was done. Then he flipped it over, and realized he’d somehow managed to build a perfect cage. They didn’t let up on it for hours. He didn’t fade from tomato-red humiliation for hours.
Mary finally caved into curiosity and confirmed that yes, it was going to be a boy. Yes, she was pretty sure she liked the name Benjamin enough to name him that. They all threw themselves a little party at a bar not too far away, all of them sipping cocktails—virgin, virgin, virgin Mary made clear to every appalled look she got—and having good, genuine fun. May couldn’t decide if she was happy at the news or infuriated that her boyfriend’s name won. Mary asking her to be “Aunt May” kept her pretty satisfied after that, and if Ben got a little teary-eyed after hearing “What about you? Uncle Ben?” Well…They didn’t rib him too much on it.
Richard accidentally tripped a guy with his leg, and an endless stream of apologies followed that no amount of “resetting him” could fix. The guy barked at him to get his peg-leg out of his way. He then left when the very pregnant woman stood to her feet with the look of death on her face.
After that, it seemed like every other weekend, Richard was making his way to Queens to help. Even if it was just little things, like driving her to an appointment or even just fixing a lightbulb. Mary wasn’t complaining, but she wasn’t not complaining. She was both grateful and perplexed and she decided to just not talk about it. She missed Richard dearly and took whatever time with him she had.
“So,” Richard said as they walked down the block one day. Mary was seven months along now, waddling more than walking, but she tried to be out and about for at least an hour a day. It helped more than hurt her sore feet. Richard was the perfect partner, because he also had trouble—Okay, no. Bad Mary. Selfish thought. “Benjamin, huh?”
Mary let out a low, rumbling growl of a sigh. Richard laughed. “Did he brag about it, or did Mary rage to you?”
“Both at the same time. Not a nice sound, gotta tell you.”
“Maybe I should name him Reilly, too. Just to make it even.”
Richard’s head snaked back in fake hurt. “Well, then his name better be Richard Reilly Benjamin Fitzpatrick, because I-I am not getting left out of this. I will protest!”
Mary threw her hands up. “Okay, when one of you guys has a daughter, her name better be Mary Mary Parker-Mary. In recompense for all this pressure!”
“I was already going to name my kid after you!” He waited a good ten seconds to explain, “I’m going to name my son Fitz.”
“You love me.”
“Not anymore.” Mary kicked a rock down the pavement. It kind of helped get rid of the lump in her throat. Kind of. “I was thinking ‘Peter’.”
Richard considered it well. Let it bounce around his head for a bit. “Peter’s a good name. Richard is better, but Peter’s a good name.”
“Peter Not-Richard Fitzpatrick.”
“I’ll take it.”
Mary snorted, and they were quiet for a stretch after that. The sunset was bouncing orange off all the windows around them. Not a bad day in Queens, not at all. A perfect seventy-two degrees, just the right temperature to be out and about. For a second, Mary thought about holding her son’s hand down the pavement. It was a nice thought.
“Hey, can I ask a completely off-topic question?” she asked.
“Waffles or pancakes?”
“Pancakes, Mary. For the last time!”
“You’re factually wrong and I will write a thesis one day.” With that ice-breaker out of the way, Mary went on. “Can I ask another completely off-topic question?”
“Chocolate beats vanilla. I will fight you on this, pregnant o-or otherwise.”
“Why did you go to LA?”
Richard’s face did that thing it always did when he was caught off-guard. His lips pursed, his eyes blinked, his brows knit together—they still walked side-by-side, but he gave her a confused glance as they went on. “Because they asked?”
“Yeah, but didn’t Queens Medical Center also ask? I’m just saying, if you got, like, five people killed at work, all you would have to do is walk over and we could go get drinks.”
“You’re very considerate.” The two of them sidestepped a passing couple. Richard put a hand on her shoulder as they did so, something he’d been doing much more as of late. It was hard to blame him. Even she thought she was going to tip over like a bowling pin sometimes. “I just wanted to live in LA, Fitz. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Say what’s in LA that isn’t here. Was it the casinos? Did you want to pass by the Hollywood sign every day? Did you go for Disneyland? There is no shame in admitting that you went for Disneyland.”
It would have been so easy to let her voice get sharp, but Mary was careful. Not careful enough for Richard’s smile not to gain some fakeness, but careful. “I think it was Disneyland and just…It not being Queens. We talked about it through college, didn’t we? That one day we’d just toss a coin and live somewhere that wasn’t New York.”
“Yeah, but I was thinking, like…Omaha.”
“I—You’re right. You’re so very—just completely correct. LA over Omaha. What the hell was I thinking?”
It was just a joke, of course it was, except it kind of wasn’t. The Omaha part was a joke, but Mary didn’t say—just as she hadn’t said for months and months now—that she’d thought they had meant together. She thought that was a given. When they talked about getting a condo by the ocean, or a cabin in the mountains, or even just becoming one of those hippie road-wanderers with no direction, there was an understanding of together. Who just sat down with their friends to talk about them being separated in the future? “Hey, Fitz, in a few years from now, we’re going to live thousands of miles apart and probably only see each other when we’re lucky, and we’ll slowly fade from each other’s lives and only live on as fond memories. Let’s talk about this and laugh!”
“What is it?” Richard just gingerly nudged his elbow against hers. “You, uh…You got that trying-not-to-be-pissed face on.”
“I’m not pissed.”
“I know, but—”
“I’m not trying to not be pissed, either.”
“Okay, you say that, but your—I mean, your tone just…”
“Okay, Rich, how many times are you going to press the pregnant lady’s buttons and still act coy, huh?”
“Alright, alright. I got it. I got you.”
They were going to have to talk about this at some point, Mary knew. They’d been putting it off long enough.
When was the first time she realized they were going to have to talk about something? It certainly wasn’t when they first met, Richard hadn’t impressed her. Not to be mean, but he was two years younger, a short thing who couldn’t keep eye contact and stuttered like a scratched CD.
Maybe it was after that, when Mary (and to be fair, just about every girl in their high school) thought, “Hey, Richard may have just gotten hit with the good end of the puberty stick.” Or even after that, after he asked her to prom, and she said no only because she wasn’t interested in standing around or awkwardly dancing, and then he asked Patricia Lennon instead and that made her very annoyed for some reason.
Heck, it might have even been after that, when she was running like a maniac to his hospital room. Not when she saw his cloth-swaddled stump for the first time, hell no, but maybe when she saw him eating Jell-O despite the remains of his leg being lifted up in the air in a sling and she thought He’s stronger than I thought he was. And also, more drugged.
Time, time, time. She was always asking for more time when she had all in the world that she needed. Richard left for LA, Mary slept with Tony Stark, now she was pregnant, and this was going to be how their lives went. Even if they hadn’t really run out of time, it sure did feel like that. Maybe this was fate. Bullshit, that was.
Mary didn’t get to wallow in her self-pity very long. The slight cramp she’d felt in her stomach all morning suddenly swelled up. She had to stop, and Richard stopped right along with her.
“You good?” he asked.
“Yep. I’m good.”
She was. For seven minutes, then the pain swelled again.
“Do you want to stop?” Richard asked her. He’d already pulled her bag from her hand and slung it across his own shoulder. “Let’s find a place to sit down, okay?”
“No, I’m fine. We just need to turn around. I think I might be having contractions.”
Richard gently turned her around, and they continued back in the direction of her apartment. He kept her bag the whole way there, without once struggling with his leg. It took about halfway back for another swell of pain to come, and she just huffed and walked through it.
While she brushed a strand of hair from her face, Mary paused. Stopped. Frowned.
“Did I say that I was having contractions?”
Richard blinked. “Wait, did you?”
“Yeah, did I?”
Both of them looked down at her belly.
Mary pushed Richard forward with just a sigh. “Let’s swing by and get my overnight bag.”
“Cool,” Richard wheezed. “Cool, cool, cool.”
The short version of the story was that Peter Benjamin (“May I’m still round over here can you please not slap me.”) Fitzpatrick was born on August 10, 2001, about two months early at the Queens Hospital Center.
The long version of the story was that Richard rocketed her to the Queens Hospital Center and they arrived when her contractions were six minutes apart and not terribly strong. They explained everything to the workers inside, and there was some paperwork and waiting before Mary was allowed to change into a gown. They went ahead and set up a room for her. Ben and May arrived together. Mary realized that it was actually going to take a while for the baby to actually arrive, so they passed time playing a game of Uno. Ben fell asleep in the corner of the room. Then it was time for the baby to come, and everyone was shooed out save Mary (Duh with a capital D). There was an epidural, a lot of pushing, sweating, grunting, and then she had a son. Being early, there were many procedures to go through, and she waited a bit too long to actually hold him.
Finally he was passed over to her, a tiny pink little thing with a few wisps of brown hair and hands just barely bigger than her own fingertips. Those hands claw and swipe around before finding purchase on her thumb, and she kept them there. Mary didn’t weep with joy, but she felt some tears welling up in her eyes. Happy, relieved tears. This-is-my-son tears.
May and Ben very nearly maul each other to hold him first. May won, so they settled on a one-to-one score. And oh, did May coo and fuss and giggle at every little sound Peter made. After that, the nurses insisted on setting Peter up the incubator, weakness to germs and all that. Ben and Richard huddle around the glass and watch him.
Mary fell asleep and woke up, saw her son, fell asleep again. Woke up, saw Richard sleeping in the corner chair, and smiled.
She was finally handed the birth certificate. As she’d said she would, she left the name of Peter’s father blank.
Hoo, boy...Let me know what you all think of this one. Not sure if it's too much or too little or whatever else. UO_O I wanted to offer a little more to Mary before we let her go for good--we'll probably see a little more of her in the future, but consider this Mary's focus chapter.
Thank you all for your support! I greatly appreciate each and every comment, view, and kudos!!
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
Richard was coming toward him with two letters, one opened and one not. He extended them out to Tony.
“Just in case you wanted to read it,” he said.
Tony took them, and looked over to Obie. He was still absorbed in helping out Ben with the paperwork. Happy kept sipping coffee. In the back, he heard something thump against a carpeted floor.
Tony sat down on the armchair next to the couch and lifted the opened letter first. The writing was clear but quick.
Peter took after his mother most obviously. They shared the roundness to their eyes, the smooth brown hair with a slight curl to it. Even as young as he was, Tony could see the beginnings of laugh lines in his cheeks, the telltale sign of a kid who smiled very often. Not Mary’s dimples, but very close.
His likeness to Tony was the non-obvious sort, which somehow was more effective. Same nose. Same face shape. Same—did Peter have his ears? He probably had his ears. The only thing that looked him right in the face, the one big blinking neon sign of YOUR KID, YOUR KID, CHECK IT OUT, was the brown hue of Peter’s eyes. Tony remembered well that Mary’s eyes had been a dark forest green. Peter’s eyes were his and his alone.
He. was. tiny. Tony didn’t know if he literally was or if he was average for a five-year-old and he was just imagining it, but Peter seemed so very small to him. He held Ben’s hand above his but it felt like Ben could have taken the kid’s whole arm into his palm alone.
Peter was small, and young, and real. Very real.
The way he looked at Tony was not warm. There was no drop of instant love in his eyes. Just curiosity and an abundance of wariness. He was brave enough to keep his big, big eyes trained at Tony’s face, but he kept his hand firmly in Ben’s. He was uncomfortable. Maybe even more so than Tony was.
Which made sense, because…Stranger. Three strangers, in fact, but it just so happened that one of them was his father. ‘You know, Peter, your father. The thing all your friends have but you don’t. A person that loves you unconditionally and tucks you to bed and kisses you goodnight. You’ve just never met him before because he didn’t know you existed!’
Tony didn’t know if the others were watching him. He was fully focused on watching Peter, the real, living Peter. The kid started to rock on the heels of his tiny sneakers. A little hand reached up to scratch his nose.
Someone had to take the first step forward, Tony figured, and it wasn’t going to be the five-year-old. With one glance up at Ben, who replied with an all-too-understanding nod, Tony knelt down to Peter’s height. The boy’s hand fell back to his side. If he pulled back from Tony, it was hard to tell.
Up close, the big brown eyes are almost too…cute to look at. Cute. Adorable. The kid was incredibly adorable. He couldn’t deny that.
“Well, you got my looks, so congratulations,” Tony joked. Peter didn’t so much as giggle back. Ah, well. Tony extended his hand outwards, open and upward. “Hey, Peter. It’s nice to meet you.”
Peter obediently shook his hand. Tony definitely wasn’t imagining it. The kid’s hand was smaller than his own palm.
Peter finally spoke in a voice that was just as tiny as he was. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
Then he looked up at Ben, a big question mark on his face, and he got a nod back. Before Tony could even think about what that was for, Peter had leaned forward and wrapped his short little arms around Tony’s neck and squeezed.
It was not nice.
It was horrible.
It was awkward, stiff, and maybe even a little scared. It was clear as day that Peter didn’t really want to do this, he just thought he had to. Tony felt every bit of reluctance in his first-ever hug with his own son, and all he could do was pat him on the back in return. Behind him, he heard a coffee cup clink onto a surface. Someone sniffed.
Peter pulled back after only a couple of seconds. He didn’t take Ben’s hand again, only twiddled his own together. He was looking Tony up and down, and Tony got the acute feeling that the kid was a lot smarter than his age let on. Five years old, but so clearly analyzing and estimating Tony’s every action and move. He was a stranger, but he was his father, so it was up to him to decide whether to trust him or not—LIKE him or not.
“You’ve got strong arms.” Tony almost, almost, almost reached out to squeeze Peter’s arm just so, but restrained himself at the last second. “Bet all the other kids at school know not to mess with you, huh?”
Peter didn’t answer, just shook his head. Kid language for “I don’t get the joke but I know it’s a joke so I’ll go along with it.” Ben chuckled and rustled Peter’s hair. At once, a little bit of tension eased out of Peter.
“More like he goes on the monkeybars for hours on end,” Ben teased. “Peter’s going to be super buff when he gets older, aren’t you?”
This time, Peter nodded. Still didn’t say anything.
Tony really wished he had some kind of coach with him right then. He had no idea if he was trying too hard, not enough, or not at all. He was expecting a lukewarm impression at best, but now he feared he was making Peter uncomfortable. Whether or not this would be their only time together, it would be their first time together, and Tony didn’t want to ruin it.
So, Tony stood up and walked over to Happy’s side of the couch. He and Obie were both observing in that very uncomfortable way of trying not to stare but doing it anyway. Regardless, Happy handed him the wrapped package without question. The purple paper sparkled even under the fluorescent light in the ceiling—the teeniest-tiniest spark of intrigue lit up in Peter’s face.
“I was going to keep this for myself, but I think it’s a little too good for me.” Tony eased the box down at Peter’s feet. “Have at it.”
Peter blinked at him. Peter blinked at Ben. Peter blinked at May, and May cheered, “Go ahead, Peter!” So Peter finally tore off the bow and ripped the paper to pieces.
The second it was uncovered, a miniature version of R2D2 in cardboard casing, another punch of anxiety took Tony right in the stomach. He’d forgotten what it even was. He’d forgotten that he’d forgotten. So there was a very real possibility that Peter was not in any way, shape, or form a fan of a movie series that had started twenty-five years ago. But he’d gotten him a gift for it.
Tony steeled himself for the disappointment in Peter’s face. In his head, he already docked himself another fifty ‘First Impression’ points. Doubled with an awkward introduction and never seeing the boy a day before in his life, he was probably at an even -1,000 now.
But then—but then!—Peter’s face lit up. He was trying to be composed, that was easy to see, but he just couldn’t stop a smile from curling his lips. He picked up the box and spun it around angle-by-angle. He was so enamored he wasn’t even looking at Tony anymore.
Tony allowed himself a smile, too. It was easy enough, considering the pure joy radiating off the kid. “I had my fingers crossed you liked Star Wars.”
May let out a long, amazed gasp and crossed the room to them. Though her arms were crossed, she was all smiles as she came up beside Peter. She’d built up no immunity to his grin. “Peter loves Star Wars!”
Peter nodded so much the curl in his hair bounced around. He was still twisting the box around to see every tiny detail. If Tony didn’t know any better, he’d say he was trying to read the Spanish translation at the bottom.
Ben nudged Peter just slightly with his knuckles. “You should thank him.”
Peter tore his gaze away to meet Tony’s again. There was still wariness, but the eagerness to get this toy out of the box as soon as possible easily overwhelmed it. “Thank you, Mr. Stark.”
Alright. First Impression Score: -990.
“Can I go play with it?”
May’s and Ben’s faces both fell. One glance at each other and one glance at Tony, they prepared themselves for a gentle ‘no, Peter, that’s rude.’ But Tony just waved his hand, still grinning. “Go for it, space ranger. Tear her to pieces.”
Peter left the room a good two minutes after he’d entered it. His eager footsteps faded away to the back. May followed a moment later. Probably, she was helping him with all the plastic and cardboard.
Two brothers, two business partners, and a bodyguard-slash-chauffeur were left behind with their coffee cups and awkward postures. Ben’s fingers scratching at his stubble, scritch-scritch-scritch, were as loud as stereo speakers. Tony, meanwhile, stood back to his feet and finally took off the ballcap he was still donning.
“I think that went well,” he joked futilely.
Happy always took his job very seriously, to the point where not doing something to help or protect Tony sometimes made him antsy. So, having sat still on the couch for a good fifteen minutes now, he offered a very sincere, “I think it did.” Obie just raised his eyebrows once and said nothing.
Richard crossed over, again with two mugs in one hand. Ben struggled to take it from him as he spoke, “He’s just really—shy, I promise. He doesn’t really—Ben, the green one’s mine—understand what’s going on, so he just, uh, nods along and does what he—because I put extra sugar in it!—what he’s told. He doesn’t get why—I mean, this is just what I think, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think he gets why you’re here.”
“You can imagine it’s been kind of rough on him.” Ben finally grabs the World’s #1 (MARY) mug when Richard lifts his walking stick in warning. “He’s a trooper, but he can only bend so far.”
Hearing that, and seeing Mary’s name written in Sharpie on the mug, and standing in the home she and her son lived in, another pang of sadness takes Tony right in the chest. He’d realized it before, but he realized again that Peter had lost his mother. Not just that, but his one parent. Peter’s very first memories were probably based on his mother’s face, and he’d never be seeing it again.
Tony remembered the grief, the all-consuming bitter rage, that had taken over him when his parents had died. Well, no, ‘remembered’ was past tense. He still felt it at times, albeit the pain had dulled to wasp stings over the years. It still hurt, but time had made it a little easier. Plus, Tony had been an adult when he’d lost them. So even if he’d doubled over when he heard the news and sobbed into his hands like a broken little child, he wasn’t a child. He understood what was happening. Howard had died knowing his son was a disappointment, Maria had died knowing her husband and son would never make amends, and both had died instantly in a random crash on a random road.
It was just another one of fate’s inexplicable dice-rolls. Howard had probably seen a deer, or turned too hard, or something or another. Tony understood what had happened and what he’d lost.
Peter, though…he probably still wondered if the light stayed on when he closed the fridge. He probably still thought hearts were heart-shaped. How could he even begin to understand what was happening to him now? Perhaps he knew what death was—Tony himself had been five years old and grieving his goldfish Alberto when his mother had given him the “death is when you fall asleep and don’t wake up because you go to heaven, it happens because it happens” talk—but still…He could understand what death meant while not understanding why Mommy wasn’t going to come back.
The cherry on this cake with Your life is falling apart! written in icing was that the man who Peter sometimes saw on the TV was a real person and also his father. Tony was seriously starting to reconsider whether he should have come at all.
His thoughts were spiraling faster than a tornado, and Tony knew it. He started to wander around the sparse living room as if there was anything he hadn’t seen yet.
“How far along are we in the ‘planning’ stage? I’m guessing everything was left to him.”
Ben nodded. “Mary left behind a will in case anything like this happened—besides the letter, I mean.”
Tony tipped back the last of his coffee, grains and all. Hopefully the caffeine would punch him in the face any minute now. “I don’t suppose she said what she wanted for him? Who, I mean.”
Ben scratched at his cheek again, scritch-scritch. Richard’s gulp from his coffee was accompanied with his eyes suddenly finding interest in the carpet beneath them. Well, at least they’d staved off the awkward silence of dread for this long.
“Mary sai—wrote that she was okay with me and May taking him in.” Ben’s pinky tapped against the mug. “If we want to. We’re still talking about it.”
Tony figured as much. The way she’d talked about them alone let Tony know Mary would trust May and Ben with her life and Peter’s. That didn’t mean asking them to take over in the event that she no longer could would be easy. Mary wasn’t wrong for asking, they wouldn’t be wrong for saying no.
Obie finally stood up to his feet and tugged at his cufflinks. Tony didn’t even know what to expect of him anymore. He’d been quiet this whole time, and he hadn’t been looking at him. He was relaxed (finally) and tucked his hands into his pockets. For some reason, he seemed very large in the New York apartment. Happy, now alone to sip coffee on the couch, seemed small by comparison.
“How old is he?” Obie asked.
Richard and Ben both blinked once. They didn’t say it, but Tony doubted they even knew who Obie was. It wasn’t that Obadiah Stane wasn’t an important person—former business partner of Howard Stark, CEO of Stark Industries before Tony inherited the title—but nowadays people usually only recognized him from the news. Tony didn’t think that was fair, but Obie had never really loved interviews and flashing cameras. He took part in them, just didn’t love them.
Richard answered first, with a blink of ‘oh hey yeah I know this guy.’ “He’s five. Five and a quarter, technically, uh—his birthday is August 10th.”
“M’kay. So he’s got about thirteen years before he has full access to whatever Miss Mary left behind for him.” Obie pulled his hands out to fold his arms, but his stance was not unkind. His gaze had even softened up a touch. “He’s going to need a custodian until then. Have you decided on that part yet?”
“She did ask us to do that.” Ben motioned his coffee cup near the square kitchen. The table pressed against the wall, accompanied by two mismatched chairs, was covered in a layer of papers, pens, and manila folders. “We’re working on that right now. Just about fried our brains out last night.”
Obie let out a “pah!” and clapped his hands together. “Let me help you out with that. You’ve gotta be careful about these things. Come on.”
Ben followed him with a nod of thanks. Obie sat himself down, hunched over the papers, and picked up a pen at once. Tony couldn’t hear what he was explaining to Ben, but gratitude covered him like a safety blanket. Maybe seeing the kid was, well, a kid and not a breathing threat to Tony’s public image had turned Obie’s mind in the right direction.
Happy’s impatience peaked again with “He seems like a sweet kid.” Then his lips sealed together as if Gorilla-Glued.
“Oh, yeah!” Richard swung his walking stick forward with expert grace. Finally starting to relax, and good on him for it. “I swear, he’s just—you know, he’s just shy. But he’s sweet. And smart. God, he is so smart. I—I kid you not, he’s beaten me at checkers more than I’d like to admit.”
Tony mouthed to Happy, He’s got my brain. Happy nodded.
Richard was still moving around to the kitchen island, not too far from Obie and Ben, but ignoring them in favor of searching for something. “I’m not sure if it, uh, matters or anything, but just in case you wanted to know—like I said, maybe not important—he has mild allergies to almonds and hazelnuts. And, uh, he uses reading glasses. Just for reading, not, like, all the time…He’s pretty much caught up on everything medical-wise. Vaccinations and all that, I mean.”
Tony nodded and nodded and nodded some more while he wondered if this was important after all. He wasn’t complaining about learning these facts. No harm to it. Maybe if he needed to pay for EpiPens or broken glasses or—
Tony was really overthinking this, wasn’t he?
There was a small bookshelf towards the back corner, beneath the window. It was mostly books and movies—a hardback copy of Where the Wild Things Are was propped against the case for Pulp Fiction—and a succulent in a little pot. Beside that there was a leather photo album. M & P is scrawled across the front in gold leaf.
Tony lifted up the front of the book before he could help it.
He didn’t look past the front page, but it was enough, more than enough. There were three photographs on the page, all together with no mind about chronological order. The first was Mary, with color in her cheeks and very much alive. She was laying down in a hospital bed, but despite that and the strands of sweaty hair sticking to her forehead, she was smiling. The camera was held to show the glass box in front of her—inside that box is Peter, and holy shit if Tony thought he was tiny before. Newborn Peter is so little it hurt like a stab to his heart. Wires were wrapped around his pink nose and his pink chest, held in place by cloth stickers.
Despite her son being the personification of fragility itself, Mary is smiling. Not just smiling, but a crooked smile with an upturned face and a finger pointed at Peter as if declaring, “Hell yeah, I made this.”
The next picture is both of them in a park, Central for all Tony knew. Peter was old enough to stand on two red sneakers. His hair had become a mop of unruly brown curls. Neither of them were looking at the camera, they might not have even known about it. Mary was kneeling behind Peter so he could be between her knees and lean against her shoulder. She was holding a paper bag in one hand and was extending a palm of crumbs toward four pigeons, one caught as a blur mid-flight. Her mouth was open to instruct Peter, and he was listening, but he had so many crumbs in his balled-up hand that they were spilling between his fingers.
The final picture was another candid shot, and very dark save for the grainy, bluish glow of a television out of view. It illuminated Mary and Peter on the same couch that Happy sat on at that moment. They weren’t happy. They were peaceful. Mary was in pajamas, her hair was messy. Munching on popcorn. One arm lazily draped around Peter’s body. Peter was hardly any younger than what Tony had seen of him a few minutes ago. His head was propped against his mother’s thigh. Both of them were watching the TV with their full attention, no other care in the world.
Tony heard his name but didn’t turn away immediately. The last photo could have been taken last week, for all he knew. It was taken on a couch he stood not four feet away from. He couldn’t say exactly why that upset him so much.
Richard was coming toward him with two letters, one opened and one not. He extended them out to Tony.
“Just in case you wanted to read it,” he said.
Tony took them, and looked over to Obie. He was still absorbed in helping out Ben with the paperwork. Happy kept sipping coffee. In the back, he heard something thump against a carpeted floor.
Tony sat down on the armchair next to the couch and lifted the opened letter first. The writing was clear but quick.
Parker, Reilly, Richard, & Whoever Else They Deem Important Enough to Read This
This letter will be taken out of my safe deposit box in the event that I die. I know a written letter is pretty predictable, but I have a reason for this, trust me. I don’t like writing this, either. I don’t like acknowledging that I could die younger than I think I will, but it’s better to face it and be uncomfortable than not and leave a mess behind me.
Most of this is in a will I’ve already left with my attorney, but some things need to be said here, and from me. Everything property and money-wise has already been settled, but if something ever happens to me, Peter is the number one priority, but you already know that.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and that’s why I’m writing this. I don’t know why, but I’ve been worrying and
guilting feeling very guilty lately. You may never even read this later, because maybe I’ll actually face up to things by then and I’ll pull this out of the box. But maybe I won’t, so I’ll get to it.
If something happens to me—again, already in the will—I’m trusting you three to take care of Peter. Not necessarily “take care” of him, though. There are no two people I’d trust more to take care of him than Reilly and Parker, and no one person than Rich, but I’m not going to ask that of you guys because I know that’s probably the hugest thing to ask anyone to do. So if you guys want, go for it. You’ll know everything he’s going to need. If not, find someone else who does. I trust that with you, too. I also don’t like imagining someone besides me caring for him, but I don’t think any parent who loves their kid does. The best I can do is make sure he has the best.
Whatever you decide, please, please, please don’t abandon him. It doesn’t matter if Peter is 5 or 7 or 16 when you’re reading this, I know for a fact you’ll still be one of his constants, the way I
am was. Everyone needs constants. If you decide that someone else should care for him, please just visit him and talk to him and make sure he knows you’re there. It was only through you guys that my time going from home to home wasn’t the loneliest nightmare in the world. I’m going to ask that you do the same for him.
There’s something else that I need to let you guys know that isn’t in that will. If I’d already told you this myself, you wouldn’t be reading this at all.
I’m just going to write it: Peter’s father is Tony Stark.
We met at that charity ball I was s
upposed to be waitressing at and seven months later I had Peter. I’m absolutely positive about this. Please just accept that yeah, I slept with Tony Stark and he’s Peter’s dad. I’m not going into paragraphs begging you to believe me.
(You are, however, very much allowed to be impressed.)
Tony snorted despite himself. Happy glanced over at him, but said nothing.
Again, you wouldn’t be reading this if I’d already figured this out myself. But you are reading this, and that means I haven’t told you and/or I haven’t told him.
I didn’t tell you guys because I think I’m pretending that it didn’t matter. I get that having Tony Stark’s kid sounds like a big friggin’ deal, but I didn’t think so. But I still hid it from you guys, so sorry for contradicting myself. If you’d even believed me, I wouldn’t want you guys thinking about that every single time you look at me or Peter. Calling him “that guy at the party” is embarrassing enough. I’m really not trying to be mean here, but you guys are human and humans are judgmental by nature.
The reason I didn’t tell Stark is between him and me. Maybe he’ll tell you, but there’s going to be another letter in this box. It’ll say “For T.S.—DON’T OPEN UNLESS THAT’S YOU!” I’m trusting you guys to follow that instruction. If you’re disappointed that I’m not telling you, I’m sorry. Maybe he’ll tell you. Maybe not.
I’m asking you guys to please get in contact with Stark and let him know. Why I didn’t tell him sooner will still be between him and me, but if I don’t get around to it at all, I’m afraid that’s what I’m begging you guys to do. Do whatever it takes to get through to him. Call him, fly to LA, whatever. Don’t ask him to pay off Peter’s college savings, don’t ask him to pay some kind of post-mortem child support, just let him know he’s Peter’s father and leave it at that. Everything after that is in his hands.
I have no idea how to end this letter, I’ll be honest. Please just follow what I’ve written. I love you guys so, so, so much and I know you’ll do what’s right for Peter. Look after him and make sure he doesn’t forget his Mom loves him.
—Mary Fitzpatrick, in case that wasn’t clear
There was an odd dryness to Tony’s throat when he finished the letter, but it definitely wasn’t the warning sign of tears. He folded the letter at last and glanced up just in time to see Happy flick his gaze away from him. Tony felt like an intruder reading that letter, but Richard wanted him to, he supposed.
That left the other letter, and sure enough, there the print was: For T.S.—DON’T OPEN UNLESS THAT’S YOU! Well, that was him. So Tony slid his thumb under the seal and pulled the paper out.
He read that three times like he didn’t even recognize his own name.
The only reason you’ll be reading this is if I haven’t grown the balls to face you myself. So now that you are, and I haven’t, I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry, but I need to get to that in a second.
Either Richard, Reilly, or Parker (or someone else they trust) has gotten into contact with you and has let you know that you’re Peter’s father. You’ve probably gotten this letter after they’ve sent it to you. This will be the first time you’ll have heard from me in a while. I know that what I’m doing/have done is super shitty and again, I’m very sorry.
If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. I guess you don’t HAVE to believe me, but I just have to beg you to. Take a paternity test if you feel you need to. I just want to make it clear, first of all, that I am not not not not not asking any favors of you. I know you’re Peter’s father, but he’s also a stranger you’re only just now hearing about and I’m not expecting you to support or even see him. *I* am a stranger to you and I really do not think I have any right or reason to demand anything from you.
I’m letting you know that you’re Peter’s father because you should know that you’re Peter’s father. If you’re wondering why the hell I didn’t tell you sooner, I’m going to explain the best that I can and sound like the world’s worst human being while doing it.
First of all, I didn’t think you’d believe me. I’m positive—I don’t mean this as an insult, you can even take it as a compliment if you want—that you’ve been with a lot of women before. I’m also sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that you have a kid. You might already have a kid via one night stand, for all I know. My point is that I didn’t think you would believe a word I’d said. If you did, and you thought I was going to demand half your money and all of Stark Industries as child support, I wouldn’t have blamed you for being wary.
Second of all, and this is where I’m really going to sound shitty, I didn’t think you’d care. I didn’t know you for very long, but I liked you a lot. I don’t wish to assume things, but I would say you’re a lot better than the perfect playboy the media says you are. You were funny and nice and I knew there were things you cared about, but Peter might not have been one of them. It’s not about biting off more than you can chew so much as eating more than you can keep down. A child is hard work on top of the mountain of hard work you already have.
(This last point really, really, really needs to stay with you. Please don’t tell Rich or anyone else, please.)
Third of all, I regret what happened to a degree. I love Peter to death and back. I’m not joking, he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I wouldn’t trade him for the world. But I can’t lie to myself and say that I was in a completely perfect state of mind when we were together. I’d missed my last pay on rent, I had to sell my car, and I had realized but not accepted that me and Rich weren’t going to happen. I switched with Craig because I was desperate—it was stupid, and I got fired, and I’m sure I got Craig in trouble and made a lot of people uncomfortable, however funny you and I thought it was. I’d never had a one-night stand before. I’ve never gotten THAT drunk before.
You absolutely, in no way, took advantage of me AT ALL. We were both drunk as sailors and I enjoyed every bit of our time together. It wasn’t your fault and I don’t want to say it was my fault because “fault” kind of implies that what we did was some kind of crime. It wasn’t, but I still regretted it because that wasn’t me.
I’ve known for a long time now that I should have let you know as soon as I found out. It didn’t matter if you didn’t believe me. It didn’t matter if you didn’t want anything to do with me or Peter. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t grow a damn spine and face up to what happened. You deserved to know that you were a father. I’m writing this down and I STILL haven’t told you, and I am so, so, so, so, so sorry. One of my old foster mothers said that the worst kind of people know that what they’re doing is bad and they do it anyway. Consider me the worst kind of person.
Again, I do not want you to fund/support/care for Peter. If YOU AND YOU ALONE want to do that, do it. I’ve taken away a lot of your decisions and giving this to you now isn’t the least I can do, it’s the least of the least of the least that I can do. But I am going to ask that you consider what he wants, too. So—this is going to sound horrible, but I can’t control Peter’s wants like a puppet—if Peter decides of his own will that he doesn’t want to meet you, please respect that.
I just want you to know, whether in this letter or from myself. I’m so sorry and I can only hope that you can forgive me and realize what you want to do about this. I mean it when I say I think you’re a good person. I’m not going to go into this whole “DON’T YOU DARE GET MAD AND TAKE IT OUT ON PETER” paragraph because I know I don’t have to.
I really am sorry and I hope you’re okay.
P.S. “Cold water for champagne, hot water for red wine” turned out to be bullshit, just FYI.
The next time his own name called him back to reality, which was happening with more frequency the past few days, it came from Happy. He was leaning across the couch and his eyebrows were knotted together in deep, sincere concern. Tony still held the letter even though his hands had gone limp in his lap. He could have been staring into dead space for minutes.
Tony raised his eyebrows at Happy. “Yeah?”
“Are you okay?”
Tony folded the letter.
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
"So you like Star Wars and you like Legos. What else?"
"I like reading."
"You're sophisticated. What's your favorite book?"
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." He pronounced it like "chock'lit", which was... Unfairly cute. Peter's eyes glanced between Tony and the Legos before he finally decided to ask, "What does 'sophisticated' mean?"
"Fancy and smart."
Peter didn’t come out of his room for the rest of that evening, bar one time to get a drink. Obie and Ben spent most of the time figuring out the paperwork at the kitchen table, albeit their conversation occasionally went to the Mets, Queens in comparison to Malibu, and other harmless topics. May bounced between Peter’s room and the living room. Happy only spoke when spoken to but otherwise seemed fine.
Tony sat on the armchair like a worthless couch potato.
To be fair, the others did try to strike up some conversation every now and then. For the most part, though, Tony just sat there in a thoughtless silence. Which was surprising, since he had a lot to think about.
Hours ticked by one-by-one, and with little else but pitch black coffee, everyone decided that supper was probably in order at around five. Richard was the first to suggest they go out and the first to realize that Tony existing with them would turn heads. So in the end May put in a big order for a nearby Chinese place.
Dinner was about as good as dinner could have been. Peter came obediently from the back, ate his fried rice and chicken dumplings, and didn’t say much aside from “Can I have more?” and “Yeah” and “No.” Any attempts to engage him in conversation were met with silent replies.
“What do you like to do at school, Peter?” Shrug.
“Is Chinese food your favorite, Peter?” Shrug.
“You’re being awfully quiet, Peter.” Trapped shrug.
In the meantime, the others kept up as much casual talk as they could. They even managed to crack a couple jokes and share a few laughs, but it was all blanketed in an awkwardness that couldn’t be ignored. It all felt like a business meeting trying too hard to be something else.
Peter didn’t look at Tony, but to be fair, he didn’t look at anyone much. His eyes stayed trained down to the table until his name was spoken. After a quick “Can I go to my room now?” he dashed back down the tiny hallway like he couldn’t get there any faster. Everyone tried to help out with the cleaning, but what else was there to do besides tossing empty boxes in the trash?
The conversations began to pick up the implication of closing, and Tony found himself glancing back down the hallway more and more. From where he stood, leaning in the corner with one last mug of coffee in hand, he could see a sliver of Peter’s room. Not much, but he thought maybe he saw a nightlight and a couple of glow-in-the-dark stars. Peter was being as quiet as a mouse.
“Hey,” he said, and everyone quieted down almost at once. “Is it okay if I…?”
He kind of waved his hand in the general direction, and quickly, Ben took the mug from him and gave him a nod of encouragement. With that, Tony picked up his ballcap from where he’d left it on the shelf and walked through the little hallway, through the door with P-E-T-E-R in uneven red letters, and into Peter’s room.
The room was about what Tony would have expected, albeit a bit on the small side. The walls were covered in pictures of crayons, markers, and paints, all with the "Guess what this is" quality only children could accomplish. The window had a pretty poor view of the alley down below, but an attempt was made to remedy this with striped blue curtains.
The duvet was covered in a star-and-rocket pattern, same as the pillows. A box in the corner housed a collection of toys. Those, the night stand, and a short chest of drawers were all the furniture in the room. Not counting the deflated green bean bag, that is.
Peter was in the middle of the carpet, not playing with the R2D2 but keeping it close at his side. He had a pretty large plastic box full of Lego bits in front of him. Several pieces were out on the floor—he was smart enough to keep his shoes on—and on the instruction pamphlet between Peter's feet.
His big brown eyes were pinned on his work with a surgical precision. The size of his hands actually seemed to make it easier for him to snap the pieces together. So focused was he that it took Tony turning to look at the Yoda poster on the wall to get his attention.
Watching the five-year-old's walls shoot up was only a tiny bit funny, and still in the disappointing way. He went blank-faced and turned his eyes up on Tony without raising his chin. His hands lowered the Legos as if he was about to get in trouble for it.
"Hey," Tony greeted.
Peter whispered a "Hi."
Tony nudged the box with the toe of his shoe. "You like Legos, too?"
"As you should. I kept mine ‘til I was sixteen." Given, he'd kind of hid them in a shoebox under his dresser, since Howard never did think too highly of them, but still. Who didn't like Legos? "Mind if I join you?"
Peter scooted back to let Tony sit with him. He did, cross-legged, not too close and not too far. Peter reached into the box and handed him a little booklet. It'd been folded so many times white cracks were showing. Tony spread it out and fished for the parts.
The kid deemed him harmless enough to go back to work. It was impressive, how well and quickly he worked. Not that looking at the pictures was hard, but credit was still due.
"What are you making?" asked Tony. The front cover of his own booklet was missing, so he guessed he was making a surprise.
"A jet," answered Peter. It was probably obvious from the wings.
Tony clicked a couple of pieces together. "So you like Star Wars and you like Legos. What else?"
"I like reading."
"You're sophisticated. What's your favorite book?"
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." He pronounced it like "chock'lit", which was... Unfairly cute. Peter's eyes glanced between Tony and the Legos before he finally decided to ask, "What does 'sophisticated' mean?"
"Fancy and smart." Looking for a two-dot piece in a mountain of other pieces wasn't going to be easy, but he'd try. It was hard to hear his own voice over all the tinkling of plastic on plastic. "Bet you do really good in school. All your friends must be jealous."
Peter didn't say anything to the last one, but he replied "Mrs. Batson says I'm really good."
"Mm. Usually the more you like school, the better you do. So you must really like school."
Peter shrugged. "I haven't been back for a couple days."
No duh, Tony. Great job.
He finally managed to find what he needed, and clicked it into place. “I need to ask you something, Peter, and I’m going to need you to be honest with me. Do you know who I am?”
Peter’s eyes flicked across his face for a moment; probably in search of something, not that he could tell what. “Mr. Stark?”
“Yeah, but other than that.”
“Uncle Ben said your name was Anthony, but Tony’s your nickname.”
Tony had to try very, very hard not to chew on the inside of his cheek. Not that he was aggravated with Peter for not understanding, but at the same time, a childish part of him was kind of wishing this conversation would go by faster. “Do you know how we’re related?”
Peter finally stopped with maybe a tiny sigh. Like he knew what Tony was trying to say but was playing it off in hopes of getting away sooner. Well, then, the kid really did have his father’s brains. “You’re my dad.”
“Mm-hm.” That was a little relief. “So now it’s your turn. Do you have any questions?”
Peter shook his head.
“You’re not just saying that, are you?”
This time he did chew on his cheek. Five-year-olds were tough nuts to crack. He could tell just in the way Peter pinned his eyes back down with defiance that he in fact had many questions. If he had to guess, ‘Where have you been?’ was probably near the top.
The ice remained firmly unbroken, it was getting late, and Peter wasn’t looking at him anymore. Tony finished his creation—dinosaur with a scratched-off eye, go figure—and Peter finished his. If Tony needed any more proof that he was no longer welcome, Peter twiddled the jet between his fingers in mock fascination.
“Well, I’ll tell you what.” Tony set the dinosaur a little closer to Peter. “I’m going to come back and see you later, and you can ask me any questions you come up with by then. ‘Kay?”
Peter nodded, but the slightest of cracks between his lips had Tony pausing.
“I have a question,” Peter asked.
“Is it okay to call you Mr. Stark?”
The unspoken Do I have to call you ‘Dad’? was as clear as day, but Tony ignored it because that wasn’t what he asked. “If you want, but you can call me Tony, too.”
“Okay. How old are you?”
Tony looked him up and down. “I am twenty-seven plus nine.”
Peter only had to think about it for a moment. “Thirty-six?”
Oh, he definitely had Tony’s brain. It wasn’t a crime to be proud of that. “You got it.”
“What’s your favorite color?”
Yeah, it might have been a random question, but who cared? It was harmless. Tony did have to think about it, though. He’d be the first to admit that he was the sort of person whose favorite color changed often. “I’m going to say red.”
“Okay. Red’s my favorite, too.”
“You have spectacular taste.”
There were no more questions after that. Tony stood up to his feet and put on his ballcap again. Peter picked up the dinosaur in place of the jet.
“If I can pull a couple strings, maybe I’ll get us some tickets to a Jets game. Let you know when I can. I’ll see you later, Peter.”
Peter finally looked up at him, for just a second, no more. “Bye, Mr. Tony.”
Tony, Obie, and Happy checked in to a Comfort Inn not too far away from the apartment. Tony kept his ballcap and mask on and coughed to keep up the performance. They managed to go in without trouble, with special thanks to paying in cash and the names they signed themselves under—Happy was “John Smith”, Obie was “Charles Anderson”, and Tony was “Axl Rose”. After that, all three departed for their separate rooms.
Tony had a much better sleep that night but still felt tired when he awoke the next morning. Jet lag, probably. Or guilt.
He remembered that the funeral would be the next day, and that he hadn’t brought that up at all to the others. He’d already decided that attending was out of the question, but neither Richard, May, nor Ben had so much as mentioned it. Perhaps they agreed that he shouldn’t be coming.
There wasn’t much of a plan that day, but at around nine, Richard texted him to say that he and May were going to eat at an Italian joint for lunch, did Tony want to join them? Tony agreed, Obie made a vague comment about going sightseeing, and Happy put up a bit of a fight about letting Tony go alone before departing, too.
The place was a hole in the wall, square and sandwiched, a faded canopy reading Georgino’s and a neon sign beneath it clarifying ITALIAN. May and Richard were at a booth toward the back, and cleverly seated. Tony’s back would be facing the front, there were no restrooms to come in and out of close by, and at ten-thirty, not much traffic at all. There also didn’t seem to be any security cameras, which was good for him, not so good for literally everyone else.
Tony ducked in and beelined it for the table before any of the staff could start a conversation. He’d been lucky enough to make the walk over with only a few “is that…?” glances and no confrontation. He wanted to keep it that way.
May was wearing a striped sweater, Richard a red scarf, and both looked more rested than the day before. They even offered him welcoming smiles as he approached.
“Hey, To—” May caught herself. “—bias.”
‘Tobias’ gave her a grin behind his mask. “‘Tony’ isn’t too uncommon a name, you know.”
Richard took a look around just to be safe. “I think as long as we don’t refer to him as ‘Señior Rígido’, we’re good.”
“You have my full permission to call me Tony.” He picked up the laminated menu that probably hadn’t been cleaned in a good while and flipped it open. Lasagna was the first option, except it said ‘lasanga’, so that was a good sign.
May blew a piece of auburn hair out of her eyes. “Next time you see Obie, thank and bless him for helping us out with the paperwork. I thought my brain was going to melt out of my ears the last time I looked at it.”
“That I will. That mean you guys have decided on what to do?” Not wanting to immediately bring down the mood, he tried to save it with, “Unless he was just helping you out with your electric bills, in which case, I’m afraid you should be versed on that by now.”
May picked up her menu again and shrugged. “Not entirely. We’re prepared to be his custodians, but we’re still deciding on the everything-else.”
“Just for the record,” said Richard, “we all want to. Take care of him, I mean. It’s just—I mean, I live all the way out in Los Angeles, and May and Ben—they just—can’t.”
“No kids allowed in your apartment?”
May shook her head with just the tiniest hint of a smile on her lips. Tony hadn’t even noticed until then that she was wearing glasses. “No, it’s just that we aren’t prepared financially. I work at a soup kitchen, Ben’s trying to get into the police academy, and, well, it’s New York. It’s not a bargain to live here.”
That explained Ben’s build. Tony tried to keep reading his menu, but couldn’t for long. “Just for the record, I’d be more than happy—”
May raised a finger and snapped, “Ah, ah, ah!” Then she pointed to Richard. “Rich, please inform Tobias of the Parker-Reilly proverb.”
“Only spoil a movie if you want someone to hate you.”
“The other one.”
“The owner of the last slice of pizza must be agreed upon by committee.”
“The other one.”
Richard sighed. “Well, you made one up without telling the Parkers—”
“Don’t accept charity from people, even if they mean well.” May tucked the menu back behind the napkin dispenser and gave Richard a mean stink-eye. “It’s really sweet to offer, but we have to decline.”
“That’s never been a ‘proverb’ of ours.”
“It is now,” May barked. “Anyway, we’d be using the money for him, anyway. So it’s probably not even going to be that big of a problem.”
“Fitz had a couple of friends, too. From work and—like—Peter’s school. So we were thinking maybe we could ask them. Maybe.”
Tony gave Richard a curious look. “‘Fitz’?”
Boy if Richard didn’t look like a deer in headlights. Immediately turning his eyes down to the grimy table top, he explained, “Just—what I used to call her.”
Tony probably could have come up with another quip, but he left it at that. The somber light in Richard’s eye had been there since Tony had first seen him and it hadn’t let up even when he was smiling. Mary thought they were going somewhere, she’d said. Maybe Richard had thought the same thing.
Maybe he had thought the same thing and was now sitting at the table with the father of her kid. That would…definitely explain the awkwardness.
The waiter came, and they all settled down while Tony made sure his mask was up.
May ordered saffron risotto, Richard carbonara, and Tony got the ‘lasanga’ while pronouncing it as such. Judging by the waiter’s look, they got that complaint often.
It wasn’t until the waiter was gone that May cracked the smile she was holding back. “Mary used to do that every time we came here.”
“Really?” asked Tony.
Richard said, “No, she got the uh—” He peeked inside his menu. “—spag-hottie.”
“Oh, yeah,” May laughed. Richard just smiled and shook his head like he couldn’t believe those misspellings hadn’t been fixed yet.
Given, he’d only known her for no more than a night, but Tony could hear Mary’s voice saying it. I’ll have the spag-hottie with extra marioro sauce, per favore. He suddenly remembered that in their alcohol-filled haze, he’d been naming a few of the faces at the event for her. At Alphonse Eldermark, her entire face had twisted in disgust for the man’s parents.
“When we were at that party, she got herself a rum and Coke.” Why was he saying this to her lifelong friends? Didn’t matter. May and Richard were listening now. “It was 90% Coke. Just about tore the bartender a new one.”
“Was it Bill?” Tony nodded, and May looked up at the ceiling. “Oh, she complained about Bill all the time. She was so mad he got paid more than her.”
Richard lightened his voice in friendly mocking. “‘He said he wanted a White Russian, Bill! I’d say you were trying to give him milk and cookies, but you forgot the cookies!’”
Tony laughed along with them. He wished that he’d gotten to talk to Mary a little more, a feeling nostalgic from the morning where she’d run out before he was even dressed. If only he’d said something, anything. Maybe then he’d have gotten to hear more of her eloquent insults of her coworkers.
“She was clever,” he sighed.
Richard nodded. “She always wanted to make people laugh, not that she’d admit it.”
“Peter gets it from her.” May had a warm twinkle in her eye. “I know he seemed shy as a mouse, but I swear, half the time it seems like he can’t stop smiling.”
So Tony had definitely made him uncomfortable. Great—
Oh, would you stop? some angry part of his mind barked at him. Obie was right, you’ve been wallowing in self-pity ever since you got here! You’re more bummed out than her friends of twenty-plus years!
Richard shifted in his seat, and suddenly sighed. Tony watched, but tried not to stare, as the lankier man reached beneath the table to re-adjust his leg. Tony would have forgotten all about that, if not for the walking stick now folded up at Richard’s side.
“Can I ask how that happened? You don’t have to tell me unless it’s a really cool story.”
Richard laughed a single ‘Ha!’ and straightened back up. He didn’t seem bothered. “The coolest story. I was driving a motorcycle, took a turn that was just about ninety degrees, crushed my foot into a thousand tiny pieces. I think I was in shock, because the paramedics said I was sitting cross-legged waiting for them.”
May rolled her eyes and flicked Richard across the nose. Ignoring his yelp of pain, she told Tony, “He was definitely in shock. Do you know what the first thing he said was when he called Ben? ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”
Tony raised his hands palms-up and mirrored Richard’s defensive look. “That’s a perfectly normal greeting!”
“Yeah, but when your foot is missing?”
“Well, what would you have said?”
“‘Ben, I just lost my foot, come to the hospital now!’”
Now it was Richard’s turn to roll his eyes. “Well, when you’re waiting on the side of the freeway with her foot in pieces, you do that.” Richard shook his head. “Anyway, that’s actually what got me started in physical therapy. It was—inspiring, I guess? Having someone teach me how to—function. I cannot speak, I’m sorry.”
“No, no, hey—You said you were in LA?” Richard nodded like he didn’t see the significance of that. Tony, meanwhile, all but flew his arms out with his eyes wide in disbelief. “Stark Industries is in LA! I live in Malibu. We’ve been, what, forty minutes away from each other this whole time?”
“I realized that before I called you.” May didn’t, though, and mimicked Tony’s wonder at not realizing it sooner while Richard nonchalantly continued. “I thought maybe I could fly over and see you while I was getting some stuff from my apartment, but then I thought, just—‘Yeah, like Tony St—like Señor Rígido doesn’t get strangers on his doorstep every hour of the day.”
Tony leaned forward to whisper, “The secret is to buy me flowers.”
Richard smiled at that, a real smile that crinkled at his eyes, probably the happiest Tony had seen the man. May’s surprise had turned to thought, and thought turned to brainstorming. A light bulb popped on over her head.
“Hey,” she exclaimed, a little too loud not to draw attention. Then, quieter: “When Peter comes to visit, he can come see Tony, too, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Tony answered at once. “Absolutely. Just give me a heads-up and—we’ll make it work, I’m sure.”
The waiter came with their plates in hand as he said that. The lasanga tasted as good as it was spelled, not that any of them were expecting Michelin-star quality. May explained to Tony that she was a first-generation Italian. This was a prologue into her hushed rant about how authentic Italian cuisine was becoming harder and harder to come across. Richard chimed in with a reminder that May wasn’t exactly Chef Boyardee, and that got them into an argument wherein Tony was all but ignored.
Which was probably for the best, because it was time for another round of Is Tony Beating Himself Up for No Reason, or is He Just Thinking About Important Things?
He would be returning home in probably two or three days. He’d had a grand total of two (2) conversations with the son he’d flown out to meet to begin with. Now, with seventy-two hours at most remaining, he still had no idea where he was going from here.
If Mary and Ben or Richard ultimately decided that they could house Peter, and care for him, then that would be fantastic. It would be up to Tony to decide how often he was going to visit, because…Well, he had to visit. He couldn’t just meet his son once. What kind of person would he be if he said hello and goodbye within three days? Their talks hadn’t even solved anything.
If they decided that they would need someone else to care for Peter, that would be a little harder. They hadn’t dropped any names, so maybe they were considering a foster home? As in, strangers. Well, maybe not. Cousins? Distant family? In any case, someone who wasn’t mentioned in Mary’s letters and would have to have the whole situation explained to them before Tony could even think of visiting. Meaning Tony would have to trust Mary’s friends to trust whoever they chose. No matter what happened, he was more than obligated to support Peter somehow..
Did Tony have any say in who took care of Peter? Probably not.
Did Tony have the right to be uncomfortable with strangers taking care of Peter? Probably not.
Did Tony forget that May, Richard, and Ben were already strangers, so what was the difference either way? Probably.
It was really hard to plan the rest of his life and Peter’s. He could ask Obie for help, he guessed, but he still wasn’t sure if Obie had gotten over his sourness about this whole situation.
He didn’t let his pondering ruin the lunch. He nodded, joked, asked questions, all in all functioned like an actual human being while he, May, and Richard were together. It must not have been enough, though, because he noticed the looks May was giving him. Not wary, not annoyed, but knowing. Maybe his face was neon-lighting his thought process.
They ate their unauthentic Italian, tipped the waiter, and walked outside together with Tony’s head carefully turned toward them. Richard unfolded his walking stick and tried to hail down a taxi. They would be going to Central Park to meet up with Ben and Peter.
May lagged behind until Richard was out of earshot. With a glance either way down the street, she told him, very seriously, “Listen. I’m not saying you need to know how this is going to go right here, right now, but you need to figure it out soon.”
Tony’s lips pursed behind the mask. “Yeah. I hear you.”
“I know I probably said the wrong thing, but we’re going to try everything we can to make it work. I can get another job, we’ll cut down on whatever we need for the bills, we’ll do anything, okay? I’m just saying, realistically, that it might not work. We hate that, but we have to acknowledge it.” May had her eyes pinned hard on Tony’s. “If it doesn’t work, we’re going to find the best damn people we can get. Maybe not someone we know, but someone more than capable.”
Tony swallowed hard and nodded still. He realized—not then, but before—that he really did wish Mary and Ben could care for Peter. A foster family might be able to give him a normal life, but they wouldn’t have the presence May and Ben had. Everyone needs constants, Mary had said. Even she’d agreed that it wouldn’t work, and only begged for Peter not to be abandoned.
So why, why, why, did it feel like doing what she said would still abandon him?
Tony straightened up his posture—he didn’t know he was slouching—and took a deep breath. The tension didn’t ease, but it became more bearable somehow. Even May could see him relax just so, and some relief spread across her features. It wouldn’t occur to Tony until later that May was searching for proof that he was serious; that he cared for Peter’s wellbeing and wasn’t just trying to ease a guilty conscience.
“Whatever happens,” and every word came out in careful enunciation, “I’m going to trust you guys. All I’m asking is that, if it’s not you or Ben or Rich, let me know.”
May nodded. Richard had hailed down a cab and was calling for her, but she kept her attention dead on Tony. “Okay.”
“I’m not going to abandon him.”
May and Richard hopped into their taxi and pulled away.
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight
Every time he saw Peter, his kid would be a little older, a little taller, a little smarter, a little different. Tony wouldn’t be seeing him grow, he’d be seeing him change. Every visit would have time just for recapping what had last happened in Peter’s life. Phone calls wouldn’t make up for it.
Tony had no right, but he wanted to see Peter grow up, and wasn’t that ironic? About four days ago, he thought the world was ending, and now the idea of not seeing his son regularly was making him anxious.
Sitting in front of a Comfort Inn window, listening to distant car honks and cruiser sirens, watching rain splatter on the grimy Queens street down below, all while knowing that the mother of his child was being laid to rest at the same moment was one of the worst feelings Tony has ever experienced in his lifetime.
All that he’d received from the others was a single text from Ben very early that morning: Funeral is @ 11:00, Simmons Funeral Home. No questions, no assumptions, just point-blank. Tony hadn’t even texted him back, because he had no idea how to.
Obie and Happy at least picked up that he wouldn’t be in high spirits that day. Apart from breakfast, he’d neither seen nor heard from either of them. He wanted to say that he’d at least done something productive so far, but besides watching the news and cable television, the last few hours have been pointless.
Once, just once, for no reason whatsoever, he used his computer to search Mary’s name online. He almost immediately found a result in an article titled “Queens Woman Killed in Three-Car Crash”.
A car accident early Saturday morning resulted in the death of one woman and injured two others, police said.
Mary Fitzpatrick, 31, was riding in a taxi cab on Merrick Boulevard by Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans at approximately 9:20 am when the vehicle was struck by a Nissan Altima.
Witnesses state that the driver of the vehicle, later identified as Fredrick Bass, had sped through a red light at almost twice the speed limit and struck the left side of the taxi, where Fitzpatrick was seated. The force of the collision pushed the taxi into a nearby vehicle. No passengers within the third vehicle were injured.
Bass—who later confessed to driving under the influence—and the driver of the taxi, Miguel Herrara, were both injured in the crash. Herrara was driven to the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center to treat a broken leg. Emergency responders pronounced Fitzpatrick dead on the scene, killed instantaneously.
Bass suffered minor injuries and was arrested for reckless driving, and faces charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and vehicular manslaughter.
That was it. Four short paragraphs, nothing else, no mention of Peter or Mary’s friends. Four short paragraphs, and they somehow managed to dig a hollow pit in his chest that wouldn’t go away.
One of the cons about being him, he guessed, was that he never stopped thinking even when he wanted to. He really tried to stop his mind from going on its path, but it was no good. He couldn’t keep the images of Mary lying forever still in a coffin, or being lowered deep into the earth, or Peter dressed in a little black suit and weeping, weeping, weeping, out of his head. He thought that maybe later he would go to pay his respects and—well—he didn’t know—give his last goodbye?
The only bright side of the morning thus far was that they finally got the results from the paternity test. Plot twist: Peter was Tony’s son. Obie was probably nonplussed when he heard that bit of news.
The rain’s stay was short, and at maybe twelve, sunlight finally started to shimmer down on the wet pavement. Ironically, Tony found his mind clearing up, too. It was still heavy, but at least he could get himself back into the present. He couldn’t spend the whole day locked up in his hotel room feeling sorry for himself. Plus, it was Queens. He hadn’t been back for a while and there was no harm in making the best of his time. It’d been an especially long time since he’d been back to Flushing Meadows, and he’d never before been without having to worry about camera flashes before. Why didn’t he go incognito more often?
A shower, a change of clothes, a ball cap, a cough mask, a traffic-filled taxi ride, and two heads-up texts to Obie and Happy later saw him finally walking through Corona Park. The November chill had turned the trees gray and the leaves brown, but the freshly-clear sky made up for it. Plus, the quiet. He’d had quiet all morning, but not walk-through-a-park-by-yourself quiet. Listening to the distant sounds of children playing tag was miles above a police siren blasting past his window at two in the morning.
The wind was cool, the grass was still green, and Tony walked for so long his feet started to ache before he’d even realized it. Hoofing his way to the Unisphere wasn’t that hard. Blessedly, the autumn rain had kept a crowd at bay, so now it was just stragglers and the occasional jogger.
He managed to sit down on a bench just as the fountains started up. At least he had new scenery to brood at.
It was as good as time as ever to think about what he was going to do, and how he had no idea what he was going to do. The best case scenario was that Ben and May would be able to take Peter in. In that case, after taking care of all Peter’s money issues, he would just figure out his visiting schedule. He’d have to come on the major holidays—Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving—and then trips between that.
It wouldn’t be that hard, especially since his holiday plans consisted of being with Rhodey and/or Obie, drinking, going to a big blow-out party, etc. He’d have to bring gifts at Christmas and, oh, Peter’s birthday! They’d have to be great presents, too, to make up for…everything. Options for going out were limited if he wasn’t in some kind of disguise, so he’d have to research what places took anonymous and private bookings. They could hit up the Macy’s parade. Halloween would be a great time, too. Parents went trick-or-treating with their kids in full costume all the time. Not only that, but Tony could get them the best Halloween costumes ever seen on God’s green Earth.
If he couldn’t make it to Queens, there was always the option of getting Peter somewhere else. Ben, May, and Richard could be invited, too. The Fourth of July would be a great time for a beach resort, they could go anywhere in the world for New Year’s, and hell, any time was a good time for Disney World and…
…and who was he even kidding.
Every time he saw Peter, his kid would be a little older, a little taller, a little smarter, a little different. Tony wouldn’t be seeing him grow, he’d be seeing him change. Every visit would have time just for recapping what had last happened in Peter’s life. Phone calls wouldn’t make up for it.
Tony had no right, but he wanted to see Peter grow up, and wasn’t that ironic? About four days ago, he thought the world was ending, and now the idea of not seeing his son regularly was making him anxious.
He knew why, too. He’d probably known for a while and had just been too cowardly to even think it.
Tony didn’t want to be a father like Howard Stark.
Oh, he would never put Peter through the absolute hell of being compared to someone he’d never met his whole. It didn’t matter if it was the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan or whoever the hell else; Tony lived through that hell for years and it still left a bile taste in his mouth. And he’d never make Peter feel like a failure. He’d known Peter for not even seventy-two hours and he already knew he was a great kid, a smart kid. He wouldn’t shoot down his every accomplishment and insult him to his face under the excuse of “constructive criticism”.
He’d be checking off every other box, though. Not being around when Peter needed him? Check. Making every moment together feel like an awkward business meeting? Check. Keeping Peter forever asking why his father never did, never does, or ever will stay? Check.
God, his life had changed so much in less than a week. Tony never thought he’d be a father, so he was woefully unprepared to be one, and he had nothing to go by.
Suddenly, he saw pink.
“Picked it up from the gift store.”
Obie waved it under his masked nose until he finally took it. It was a little dome of glass on a wooden base, no longer than his middle finger. A branch of full cherry blossoms was frozen within. Still had the price sticker on it and everything.
Tony huffed a laugh while Obie sat down beside him. The fountains died down for a break, leaving the Unisphere completely unconcealed.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Obie asked. Tony was very, very unused to seeing him outside of a business suit, let alone in denim pants and a T-shirt. No one would recognize Obadiah Stane like that.
“You get three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
Obie snorted and leaned back against the wood. “Alright. Well, let me start and we’ll see if that gets some conversation out of you. I wanted to apologize for being such a jackass.”
“Want-ed? Past tense?”
“Alright, smartass.” He was almost smiling as he said it, though. “I’m serious. I was being insensitive and I’m sure I was making you feel like crap. I humbly extend an olive branch.”
“So eloquent.” Despite his scoff, some relief filled him. He’d already decided to just ignore Obie’s bad mood, but finally having some backing from the person he’d been expecting it from to begin with helped. “What was getting you so riled up, anyway? Jealous?”
Obie just shook his head. “I don’t know, Tony. I try to keep my cool as much as I can, but this is a rough time we’re in. The Jericho Project, the media, the war, it’s like we can’t sneeze without Time putting it on the front cover!”
“Like you’ve got to tell m—oh, hey, pretzels! Let’s go.”
Obie didn’t even protest as Tony stood up and beelined it for the cart across the way. He just fell in step beside him and continued, “If we were different people in a different life, I would have congratulated you as soon as I found out. Would have bought you all the ‘It’s a Boy!’ banners you wanted. But we are who we are, and if we get caught even whispering the word ‘son’, we get caught in a landslide.”
Tony was fishing for bills in his pocket, and didn’t look up from his counting when he replied, “What’s that to us, though? From our end, that’s just some more bathroom gossiping to deal with.”
“Ah, come on, Tony. You know more than anyone people will find whatever way they can to judge you. The fact is that you have a kid you never knew about, but the opinion will be that you’re a deadbeat who can’t take care of a kid, so how can you protect all of the United States?”
“I hear you, but I’ve given up on caring. Plus, I might even get some more nicknames. Have you heard about ‘Merchant of Death’? Tell me that’s not an amazing name.”
With the vendor close enough, Obie quieted for just a minute. Tony forked over a few bills, the glass box was opened, and they were both handed hot-and-fresh salted pretzels, praise the Lord. Obie waited until they were a good length out of earshot (and until he had a good mouthful) to keep going.
“It wouldn’t just be a personal thing, though. It’s like a seed that gets planted, first it’s just soccer moms gossiping at the hair salon, then it’s hosts on talk shows that only come on Sunday nights, then it gets higher and higher until our partners start questioning you. I’d like nothing more to just kick ‘em in the teeth and tell them to piss off, but that wouldn’t be an option, would it?”
Honestly, Tony was only half-listening, because he just realized that it’s very hard to eat a pretzel with a coughing mask. The only thing he could do was pinch some off and stuff it underneath, which was worth it.
“So you were stressed out?” With a mouthful of pretzel, the last word came out as ow.
“More than I like admitting. I’d ask how you weren’t, but honestly, you’ve looked halfway between panic attack and constipation for the past few days.”
“Please write poetry. Anyway…Guess I was just more worried about Peter. Literally since the second I started to breathe, I’ve had cameras flashing in my face and microphones shoved down my throat. People I’d never met a day in my life acted like aunts and uncles visiting on the holidays. But at least I became a person. I don’t know if Peter would ever get that blessing. People would start thinking his first name is ‘Tony’, middle name ‘Stark’s’, last name ‘Son’.”
Obie nodded along with no rebuke, his brow even creasing together in agreement. “Oh, yeah. God, that poor kid.”
“You haven’t talked to him yet, have you?”
“I asked if he liked any sports.”
“What’d he say?”
Obie opened his eyes wide and shrugged his shoulders.
Tony chuckled. “He’s smart. Can’t get more than ten words out of him at once, but he’s smart. May said he loves to make people laugh.”
“You know, his birthday was only a month ago. I was thinking, if you want to really make a good impression, you can make up for it.”
“Didn’t I already get him an R2D2?”
“Hear me out: an actual R2D2.”
Tony laughed aloud at that. He was feeling significantly better already. He may or may not have actually been considering that idea, too.
The two of them went on in silence for a stretch, making a full half-circle around the Unisphere before they started to break off from the turn. The sun was at its highest now, probably, what, twelve? One? The funeral was probably over by then; they may or may not have returned home already.
“I was thinking about maybe helping May and Ben out with Peter. May said she wasn’t too big on the ‘charity’, but I think I can insist.”
Obie crumpled up the napkin in his hand and tossed it into a nearby garbage bin. “That would be best. They’re already family, right?”
“Right.” That last comment gave him inexplicable and probably unjustified offense, so Tony just took it and went on. “What I’m really wondering is how I’m going to go about visiting and all that.”
“Huh. You going to visit?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Somehow visiting him regularly sounds a hell of a lot easier than preparing a ‘Goodbye Forever’ speech.”
“Mm-hm.” Obie’s jaw worked side to side for a moment. More cogs, less serious ones and not as heavy, were spinning behind his eyes again. “Not going to be easy. You’re going to have to come up with a lot of cover stories. I don’t know if anyone will buy you going on vacation to Honolulu for Father’s Day.”
As if Tony would be spending Father’s Day with the kid. Father’s Day was for fath—well. Uh…
“Thing is, I’m trying to figure out how to make it as regular as possible. I don’t want Peter to think I’m just coming because it’s holiday tradition, you know?”
He wasn’t looking at Obie while he said it, so the silence that followed confused him. Obie was watching him with eyes half-narrowed and a mouth that was neither smiling nor frowning. It was impossible to pin what he was thinking.
“You’re taking this very seriously.”
“Didn’t we just have a conversation about how we’ve both been taking this very seriously?”
“I’m talking in moral terms, not business terms. First you just…know that he’s your kid, then you have to see him, and now you’re thinking about how you’re going to see him for the rest of forever.”
“He’s my kid, Obes. Don’t know what else to say.”
“You remember when Hobbs found out he had that daughter with the woman from Nepal?” Hobbs was a member of the board, a man who was all business and transactions until he left the building. Once he had a beer in hand and 2004 New Year’s glasses on, he would say anything and everything. “He didn’t sweat a drop, he just sent enough for a college fund and some pretty dresses. End of story.”
“I’m not Hobbs.”
“Yeah, that’s what’s surprising me.”
“So you thought I was going to slide over a couple grand and let that be it?”
“Tony, the first thing you did after we found out someone strapped a bomb to your car in Philadelphia was go to a bar and order a Daiquiri. Can you blame me?”
“Happy carried me away like a princess to a castle. I felt safe!”
Tony crumpled up his own napkin, and Obie groaned.
“Alright,” he went on. He and Tony both ducked their heads when a jogger passed by a little too close for comfort. “You’ll help Ben and May take care of Peter. You’ll visit…let’s say twice a month, not including holidays. We’ll map out the schedule so we don’t have to cancel too much. If they need anything, they’ll have straight access to your phone number. We’ll have a lot of NDAs signed. Happy ever after.”
“Yeah.” Tony nodded. “That sounds good.”
Obie suddenly pressed a hand against his chest to stop him. He still had that not-smile, not-frown expression on his face.
“So,” said Obie, “why are you still upset?”
Tony tried to shrug, but he probably just jerked his body instead. Trying to avoid Obie’s eyes just made the older man gaze him down harder. “Can’t really think of anything that’s going to make me click my heels right now.”
“No, no. We found a solution, you still think there’s a problem. Spill.”
Trapped in a corner. Tony huffed, and the sound alone seemed to please Obie. Sometimes Obie’s ability to read him like an open book was a blessing. Sometimes it was a pain in the ass.
“I’ll say something I don’t say often: I don’t know.” Obie let him keep walking while he rambled on. “I’ve broken this down to the most black-and-white, step-by-step formula that I can, and it still bothers me.”
“Tony, you didn’t know he even existed until a few days ago. It’s not like you abandoned him—”
“This isn’t about the past. I can’t change the past. I know I didn’t abandon him then, but I cannot map out a single scenario where I avoid abandoning him now.”
“I shouldn’t have used the word ‘abandoned’. That’s not what this is. It sounds like you’re throwing him to the wolves, or something.”
“You don’t know what’s going through his head right now.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Then educate me.”
And Tony did, succinctly, his voice rising just a hair more with each word until he was almost shouting at the end.
“He’s probably gone his whole life wondering why his dad wasn’t around, and now he has an answer: his dad didn’t know he existed. His dad doesn’t know his favorite color, or his favorite book, or his favorite anything. But no problem, right? Now Dad’s here, so now they can finally get started on some good old father-son bonding, right? Nope! Any and all excitement that he’s worked up is now going to be popped like a balloon, because guess what? Dad’s not staying. He’s just visiting, and he’s going to visit again, but it’s never going to count, it’s never going to be real. He’s never going to be able to see him without making sure his schedule isn’t full first. He’ll be so distant that Peter’s going to be confused about what the word ‘father’ means, because he thought a father was someone who stuck around and loved you and told you so, not some guy who ‘stops by every now and then’!”
Obie listened along until he was finished, and didn’t speak for a moment after. Embarrassment took its unfamiliar hold on Tony quickly, and he pulled himself together. He was not about to have a breakdown about his daddy issues on a trip to fix his…daddy issues.
When Obie did answer, it was very calmly with a little lace of satisfaction. “So this is a personal thing, just so we’re clear?”
Tony marched on ahead, and he swore he almost heard a laugh. He took back what he’d been thinking before. Obie’s presence was not comforting him in the slightest. In fact, as Obie stepped up his pace just enough to fall in line with him again, he felt his blood pressure rise a few digits.
“First of all, you have got to stop acting like Howard was the worst monster who ever lived.”
“I’m not having this conver—”
“Second of all, I am going to ask you—as your friend—to please accept that there’s nothing else you can do here.” Obie’s voice had become softer. If his intent was to calm him down, it worked well enough. Still embarrassed, Tony felt some of the heat cool in his veins. Overreaction wasn’t the way to go here. “You didn’t ask to have a son, you didn’t know you had a son. You feel like there are so many expectations you have to meet, but you’re the one who made them up to begin with. Peter will be fine, Tony, and safe. He’ll grow older and he’ll understand everything better.”
There went the last of Tony’s fight.
A sudden fatigue fell on him, running his hand down his face. Obie reached out and clasped his shoulder in comfort. The weight he was carrying on his shoulders was eased by the weight on his shoulder. Crap. If a dad-grab on the shoulder eased him up this much, he might consider paying someone to friggin’ snuggle him.
“I don’t envy you. This is a really unfair situation and it’s no one’s fault. A solution is a solution, just because it doesn’t feel good doesn’t mean it won’t work. Look on the bright side of things: you’re setting him up for a hell of a good life. He’s never going to have to worry about money, he’s going to have great people taking care of him, and he comes from the biggest brain of the modern day.”
“Yeah. Yeah…” Tony ran a hand down his face again, and Obie’s hand squeezed a little more. “Sorry. I guess I just needed to vent a little.”
“You won’t find any blame from me. I’m just surprised you haven’t blown a gasket already. I’m going to help you every step of the way, remember that. We’re going to set this kid up so he’s one step away from living at the mansion.”
“Perfect. ‘If only we weren’t us’, right? Then maybe he actually could.”
He and Obie scoffed at the same time, the latter following with, “Yeah, right.”
“I just mean if we didn’t have to worry about the press and everything. I’m joking, Obes. It’s not going to happen.”
“Yeah, I know you’re joking.”
Tony squinted at him, but all Obie did was tilt his head a little to the side and ask, “What?”
“Now I feel like you’re the one not saying what he wants to say.”
“Why are we getting worked up over a joke?”
“I’m not worked up. Are you worked up? I’m just curious.”
“Tony. Anthony. Come on.” Obie waved his arms out. He was finally smiling, but he didn’t seem amused so much as defensive. It was very dry. “You could be a random Joe in the suburbs and it wouldn’t happen. Let’s be realistic.”
“Realistic about what?”
Obie’s arms and his smile dropped at the same time. “I’m not going to say it.”
“Nope; this is getting too serious. You said we were joking.”
“We are joking.”
“Yes, now tell me the punchline.”
There was a long, long moment of Obie just staring him down, not moving an inch. Tony urging him on just made him blink. Add ‘very confused’ to Tony’s descriptors for that moment, right beneath ‘inexplicably annoyed’.
“You can’t take care of Peter,” Obie finally sighed.
“I know that, I was talking in theoretical. This entire conversation has been an up-and-down rollercoaster, and I’d really appreciate it if we could get on the same page here.”
“The ‘page’ that I’m on is that theoretically or otherwise, you can’t and couldn’t take care of Peter.”
Tony’s head snaked back. “Why?”
“You know why, but let’s get on that ‘same page’. Raising a kid is a pretty big deal and you’re not cut out for it. Not because you’re busy or famous, it’s just because you’re you. I’m really not trying to insult you here, Tony. I’m just stating facts. It doesn’t matter.”
Outrage—outrage?—sparked in Tony’s chest and spread down his torso. If not for the mask, Obie would have seen his teeth gritting together behind his lips. He couldn’t even get his own thoughts organized, his mouth was running faster than his mind was.
“You just decided that?”
“I didn’t decide anything. I didn’t decide the sky is blue, and I’m not deciding that you wouldn’t be able to—”
“Well, no, because that’s for me to decide, isn’t it?”
Obie deflated at long last. It was like the past few minutes had aged him twenty years, even his voice dipping low in exhaustion. “Alright. You say what you think, then.”
That was probably why he was so angry.
He wouldn’t be able to take care of Peter and he already knew that. It wasn’t Stark Industries or his busy schedule, it was just him and him alone. He was immature, irresponsible, and a whole lot of other negative i-words. Even if he’d known Peter since he was born, raised him from the moment he first opened his eyes, he wouldn’t have been good for him. Not being a father like Howard Stark didn’t make him a good father by default.
But Tony always had a childish part of him that couldn’t be killed, and that childish part just didn’t like someone saying what he knew out loud. Yes, Obadiah, he was well aware that he’d be a shit father. Doesn’t give you the okay to say that.
While he was stewing there with steam puffing out of his ears, Obie just waiting for him to wave his little white flag, Tony thought about the horrid experience that it would be to be his kid—always feeling unimportant, unwanted, unloved. That wouldn’t change no matter how many birthday parties they would throw, or how many Christmas mornings they’d have, or how many A+ papers Peter brought home…or how many first days of school he’d go through…or…or…
Obie was already walking away. “Yeah, sure.”
“I would. Not trying to brag here, I just think I’d be a pretty fantastic dad.”
“I know it’ll break your heart to hear it, but I don’t need your approval. Me and him will get along just fine without it.”
Ten feet away now, Obie just threw a look over his shoulder. “Who’s ‘him’?”
“Yeah, you don’t need my approval to go see your kid. I’m not really into this conversation anymore, sorry. I have stuff I have to take care of.” Obie pulled his phone from his pocket, flipped it open. “Hey, since we’re in NYC, why don’t we find a good pizza joint? I saw about fifty on the way over here.”
“I don’t need your approval to take care of him.”
“It’s not happening, so it doesn’t matter. Let’s try ‘Big Joe’s’. Sounds promising.”
“No, it’s happening. You should feel proud, you’ve changed my mind in ten minutes. New record.”
Obie had been clicking the buttons on his phone to text Happy, and was murmuring it under his breath, “Big…Joe’s…meet in…thirty…” He didn’t even so much as look up at Tony. “Changed your mind about what?”
Tony walked past him.
“Peter’s going to live with me.”
He made it a good twenty feet ahead before he heard Obie’s voice call, “What?”
“It’s not like I don’t have the room. You go on ahead and save me a couple slices, alright? I have to go have a talk with the Parkers.”
That wasn’t the end of it, of course. Obie marched after him and kept marching until Tony found sanctuary in a taxi cab. He tried every trick he could, from pretending like they were still joking to the good old “Ah, come on. You’re just saying things.” Tony, feeling simultaneously better and worse than he’d felt for a while now, didn’t pop a vein once. Calm and collected, it only made Obie more annoyed by the second, until he was huffing steam when Tony shut the door on him.
It didn’t matter. Tony had already made up his mind.
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine
May’s reaction was a little different from her boyfriend’s.
Which was to say, she was livid.
“What the hell?! No!”
Tony didn’t like, at all, bringing up the conversation only four hours after Ben’s best friend’s funeral, but time wasn’t infinite for them. He was technically supposed to fly out tomorrow, and he hadn’t told Pepper that yet. He also had to admit that he was running on adrenaline at that point and didn’t want to run out.
Ben was alone in the apartment. May was out with Peter, but he didn’t give any more detail than that. Tony took a guess that she was trying to cheer the poor kid up. For all he knew, Peter was still sobbing his eyes out. Richard was MIA. No one knew where he was.
Their greetings were a lot cooler than the last time they’d seen each other. Tony didn’t know if Ben had expected him to come to the funeral, and he probably never would. Maybe Ben was mad, maybe he was still grieving, maybe he was just being awkward. It took some chitchat and coffee before Tony finally managed to say what he wanted to say.
Ben didn’t balk, nor did he smile. He accepted it fast enough, albeit with an understandable confusion.
“I’m pretty sure I’m sure.”
Ben took a deep swig of coffee, except he’d run out a minute ago. Considering he didn’t so much as blink, he didn’t notice. Tony decided Ben needed more sleep than he did. The poor guy was still dressed in the suit he’d worn to the funeral. His striped tie was haphazardly looped around his neck.
“Can’t say this is what I thought we’d be talking about,” Ben mumbled.
“I realized on the way over that this might not be the time and place to talk about this. But I also can’t think of what would be a good time and place, so.”
“Yeah. Um…” There came the hand to scratch at his stubbly cheek. That was his tic the way that Richard’s was stammering, Tony had learned. He guessed he needed to be paying attention to everything now. “I mean, obviously—this isn’t my decision. We’re going to have to do a lot, a lot of talking.”
“I know this isn’t going to be a one-conversation thing. Just know that I’m extending my stay here in Queens, and I’m prepared to do what needs to be done.”
He really needed to tell Pepper. Happy also wasn’t, well, happy that Tony had once again dashed off without him. “The apartment” worked well enough as an answer, though.
Tony was definitely, absolutely, unquestionably pushing any doubts deep, deep down before they could even become proper thoughts. This was just like skydiving, right? If you freaked out and thought of every bad thing that could happen, you got cold feet. You just had to go for it before you could second-guess it.
Maybe skydiving wasn’t a good comparison to taking in a child. Hm.
This was going to have to be a step-by-step process, he decided. There were two ways of overthinking this whole thing, and neither of them were good. Step one was to just get the ball rolling. No plans could be made until he got the ‘okay’.
Ben’s hand couldn’t stopped moving, it seemed. First he was scratching his cheek, then he was rubbing his brow, then he was running a hand down his face. The conversation had turned him as fidgety as a kindergartener.
“I know I literally just asked, but you’re sure that this is what you want to do?”
“I can’t say I don’t understand your questioning, Ben, but if you don’t mind, could we maybe wait until May gets here? I feel like maybe she should be here for this, too.”
Ben nodded before he was even finished. “Yeah, yeah. You’re right. Of course.”
So they waited. It took a short while, but May and Peter finally returned home from wherever they were. Tony had by sheer chance been in the bathroom when they arrived, so he was spared the image of little Peter in a black suit and puffy red eyes. From the other side of the door, he heard May and Ben’s voices muffled, somber.
The conversation picked up shortly after that. May’s reaction was a little different from her boyfriend’s.
Which was to say, she was livid.
“What the hell?! No!”
The sudden whip of her voice had Tony and Ben both shifting in their seats just a bit. She at once looked regretful—not for her anger, but for almost waking Peter in his bedroom. He’d apparently been tuckered out as soon as they came in.
May’s eyes were wide open behind her glasses. Hands on her hips, auburn hair bright against her black dress, Tony had never seen her so intimidating.
Ben cleared his voice in a teeny little cough. “I think we all need to sit down and talk about this—”
“Talk about what?” demanded May. “This is a terrible idea! There’s nothing else to talk about.”
Tony raised a finger. This could have very well been one of the most awkward situations in his whole life. “I had some points prepared.”
May’s eyes somehow managed to harden and soften on him at the same time, same as her voice. Terse but calm, she told him, “Tony, I like you, alright? I do. But you cannot take Peter back to Malibu; he can’t live with you.”
“I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing—” So familiar was he with May that Ben didn’t so much as flinch when she rounded on him. “—but I think we need to get into the why.”
“Why? Why. Okay. Here’s why.” May pressed one finger hard to another. “One: Peter has lived here his whole life and moving all the way to Malibu is too big a change.”
Here Tony interjected. “Malibu is a fantastic city, if I do say so myself, and I will do whatever it takes to make it feel like home.”
“Two: all of his friends are here, including us.”
“Five-year-old friends, which he will make more of at the best school Malibu has to offer. I would do absolutely nothing to keep you separated from him. Plus, Richard would only be forty minutes away, tops.”
“Three: he met you two days ago.”
“Which I am terribly, terribly sorry about, and which is why I intend to make this a very easy process for him. It is my full intention to read every parenting one-oh-one book that I can get my hands on.” May’s glare was withering. “I’m not expecting an immediate Brady-Bunch bond. I want to get to know him, I want him to get to know me. He’ll be able to call you at any time of the day.”
“Four: his mother just passed away, her funeral was a few hours ago, and now you want him to move across the continent with a stranger?”
“…I have no response to that.”
May heaved out a great gust of air and grabbed a fistful of her hair. “Where is this coming from?”
“I honestly think it’s been in the back of my head this whole time, I just needed a walk in the park to get it out.”
Ben hummed. “Where’d you go?”
“It’s nice when there’s not much of a crowd.”
May snapped her fingers at both of them. “Don’t change the subject!” She took a step closer to Tony and leaned forward, eyes hard as rock behind the lenses. “This isn’t something that you decide in just two days.”
“May, I don’t know what you want me to say. I want to take care of him and watch him grow older. The kid’s got a grip on me.”
“Can you honestly look me in the eye and say that all you want is for Peter to be taken care of?”
Thankfully, the sincerity in the one word was enough for May to stand upright again. She watched him for a long moment, eyes roaming over each inch of his face. It was the same look she’d given him yesterday after their dinner together with Richard. She couldn’t read minds, but she could read faces.
May finally tore her eyes away to pace around the living room. Now it was Ben’s turn to let out a great sigh.
“Okay,” he said, “maybe I’m playing devil’s advocate here—”
Tony pointed up a finger again. “I’d appreciate not being called the devil.”
“Sorry—but just thinking from the other side of the coin, I think Tony should have some say here. He is Peter’s father.”
“Since when?” snapped May, but the glance she sent Tony’s way was apologetic. Tony couldn’t deny some hurt, but neither could he deny that it made sense. “I’m not going to say that Mary made the right or wrong choice not telling you, Tony, but it was a choice she made. Yes, you’re Peter’s father, but you’re also a stranger he doesn’t know.”
“Like I said, I’m not pretending otherwise. I swear to both of you, I have been thinking about this a lot, and—I’m not going to vent about my life story, but I can put myself in Peter’s shoes here. The way that I see it, this can go three ways. The first is that I never see or talk to him again, which is going to upset him and me both. The second is that I visit as much as I can, but that’s going to be a very awkward life with no satisfaction for either of us. The third is what I’m proposing right now. It’d be a real awkward start, don’t get me wrong, but I think we could work up a—a real, father-son bond. Or something. Something along those lines.”
Ben looked from him to May. “He has a point.”
“Why does it have to just be those three, though?” countered May. “What makes you think he won’t be happy otherwise? I’m really, really not trying to be mean here, but it sounds like you’re saying being with you is, like, the only thing that can ever make Peter happy. My dad was in the military, I saw him for half the year at most. I was still perfectly happy.”
Ben looked from May to him. “She has a point.”
Tony swallowed the seemingly permanent lump in his throat and stood up to his feet. Ben stiffened up on the armchair, probably thinking that a shouting match was about to ensue, but Tony liked to think he was as cool as a cucumber. May didn’t step back an inch from him as he approached.
“I’m not saying I’m his only key to happiness,” he told her. “That’s ridiculously self-centered.”
“I’m glad you agree. What I’m saying is that it might have been better if I’d never come here at all.”
Every muscle in May’s face scrunched together. “What?”
“Hear me out. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to meet him very much. Now that I’ve met him, and now that he knows me, I’m afraid that I’ve put both of us in a very awkward situation. I remember what it’s like to be a kid, alright? When you’re a kid, you’re taught a lot of rules, and when something goes against those rules, you get very confused and upset. You with me?” May nodded reluctantly. “Okay. Peter knows what a dad is, he sees them on TV and he reads about them. He probably sees his friends get picked up by their dads every day. He knew that his dad wasn’t around; that was the rule. Now his dad finally came, but he’s kind of, sort of leaving again, so I can only imagine that he is ridiculously confused at the moment.”
“You don’t think living with a stranger will also be confusing?”
“It’ll be a lot less confusing, in my opinion.”
Ben finally joined in. Though he, too, stood up to his feet, he kept himself right in the middle of them. He still wasn’t taking one side or the other.
“My mom left my dad when I was six,” he told Tony. “I knew what was happening. I hated it, but I knew what was happening. I hear what you’re saying, but I think Peter’s capable of figuring out what’s going on.”
May nodded. “And if you ask me, there’s no outcome to this that isn’t going to be stressful to a five-year-old. Will he understand? Sure. But it doesn’t matter whether you never see him again, or if he lives with us while you visit, or if he lives with you while we visit. I can’t even put that all on you, that’s just how things are now. I’m just trying to figure out a plan that will give him a pinky’s less trouble. Right now, that’s between people who have known him his whole life and a person who’s known him for forty-eight hours.”
“Maybe I’m misrepresenting myself here: I’m not saying he’d be with me exclusively. Like I said, you’d be able to call him anytime, anywhere. He can come see you, or you can come see him, whenever.”
“Why can’t we just do that the other way around?”
“Alright, alright, alright.” Ben pressed one hand to Tony’s chest and one hand to May’s. He waited for some of the steam to waft away from them before continuing, “Let’s backtrack and cool down for just a second, because as far as I’m concerned, we have two sides here. Tony is Peter’s father, he wants to be Peter’s father, he’s more than capable of looking after him, and he wants Peter to be as comfortable as possible. On the other hand, like May said, we’ve known Peter a lot longer, Queens is Peter’s home, and this would be a lot to take in right now.”
“I’d also like to add that he’s one of the busiest men alive right now,” May cut in.
Feeling petty but adamant, Tony cut in, “I’d like to add that money would never, ever be an issue.”
“Al-right.” This time Ben pressed them gently until they stepped back from one another. For a man who didn’t have children of his own, Ben had mastered the fatherly quit fighting look down to a T. “Putting all that aside, I think we need to focus on one thing first and foremost: what does Peter want?”
Tony didn’t freeze. Did he? No, he didn’t freeze. He just…felt his fire die out.
May didn’t look away from him for a moment. “I’m going to take it you haven’t asked him?”
“I’ll admit it hasn’t crossed my mind.”
“I need a drink.” May shouldered past both of them to make her way to the kitchen. They heard the refrigerator door creak open. “I’m cracking open the beer I’ve been hiding behind the hot sauce. Don’t look at me.”
Ben didn’t look at him when they were left alone; he just picked up his empty mug and went for the sink. All the while, he kept rubbing and scratching his face.
There went all the adrenaline Tony had pumping, all replaced by humiliation.
What the hell was he thinking?!
Of course Peter wasn’t going to want to live with him! He couldn’t make himself keep eye contact with Tony for more than five seconds, there was no way in hell he was going to willingly go live with him all the way across the continent. Considering the way kids’ minds worked, he might even hate Tony for even posing the question. He wants him to leave Aunt May and Uncle Ben? Forever? No! Go away!
This had to be reality grabbing him by his collar and slapping him awake. May had been right; Tony could visit regularly and Peter could be perfectly happy. He’d broken the envelope, he’d crossed every line. Not only was he going to have to be careful about his relationship with Peter, he’d be walking on eggshells around Ben and May for the rest of forever.
The phone in his pocket buzzed for the hundredth time that day, it seemed. Expecting Obie or Happy, Tony fished it out just so he could shut it up.
The caller ID read Virginia.
“Uh—I have to take this.”
Ben waved him on, and May didn’t look at him. He almost moved for the doorway, but figured an apartment building hallway wasn’t the best place to have a conversation. Nor did he want to do it in the room.
Fire escape it was, then. May did look up at him when he drew the window open and crawled out. Probably confirming that yes, he was weirder than she thought.
He made sure to keep his face mask up before he answered. Never knew when a camera would be ready to snap a picture.
Pepper’s voice was impatient. “What’s going on, Tony?”
“Did I miss a call, or something? Things are pretty hectic over here, so…sorry.”
“I mean what’s going on with Obadiah? When’s the last time you talked to him?”
Tony stilled his hand on the railing. “Maybe an hour ago. Why?”
“He said he’s heading to the airport right now to come home. He sounded really annoyed, but he wouldn’t tell me what’s wrong. Did something happen?”
“I, uh…” Tony tugged on the bill of his ball cap. “It’s a little too much to explain on the phone right now, but…I may be staying here for an extra day or two. Don’t worry about Obie.”
“So you’re promising me that everything is okay.”
“Yes. It’s—Benjamin. It’s just everything going on with Benjamin.”
“See, you say that everything is okay, but you’re lying right now, so…I don’t know what to think here.”
Pepper couldn’t see him, of course, but he still blinked. “Pardon?”
A sigh. “I really wasn’t trying to snoop, Tony, but I figured that if anything came up with ‘Mr. Fitzpatrick’, you might want me to send something or another over. Except I looked through pretty much every class that has graduated from MIT and they’ve never had a Mister Benjamin Fitzpatrick. So…I’m not asking for details, but can I just get some assurance that you’re not covering for some really awful, dark secret that’s going to cause everyone a lot of trouble?”
Let it not be said that Pepper wasn’t dedicated to her job. Despite the cover being blown, Tony didn’t feel that stressed. Probably because he knew as of five minutes ago that the whole parent-for-life thing wasn’t going to happen. Probably also because he’d spent all of his stress in the past couple of days.
“Alright. I lied, I’ll admit to that.”
“You have my word, there’s nothing really awful or dark going on over here. It’s just a very private matter that I don’t even think I should say over the phone. I’ll tell you when I get back over there, alright? Just hold down the fort for a little while longer.”
There was a shuffle on the other side. Pepper’s voice became softer. “Alright. Just…Call me if you need me.”
“’Course,” he said, and then she hung up.
Was he surprised that Obie was flying back to Malibu? Only because he hadn’t said anything about it. Tony had tested the man’s patience for almost a week straight; it was a matter of time until he threw in the towel. Plus, this was probably a good thing. Now that Obie was back, Tony didn’t have to worry about his attitude, and someone was there for Stark Industries. It worked out for all of them.
Inevitably, though, he would have to inform Obie that no, that whole Peter’s-going-to-live-with-me thing didn’t work out. Then he’d have to deal with Obie’s half-assed apology and comfort all while he tried to fight a smug grin from his face. Tony might have to ask point-blank to just spare him the humiliation.
Tony was disappointed, too, but in a self-realized kind of way. He had wanted to take Peter back home with him, the idea had jet-fueled him all the way back to the apartment, but now he knew that just wasn’t going to work. All that lamenting about Peter’s happiness and wellbeing were for nothing, because what Peter wanted was the priority.
This was fine, though. Tony had a son, he could visit him whenever he wanted, and he’d be safe and happy with the people his mother wanted to care for him. Really, he’d just overcomplicated everything. Simple as that.
He opened the window to get back inside, but made it a good three inches before May’s and Ben’s voices spilled out, almost as clear as day. Tony didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but once he heard, he realized that hopping back inside also wasn’t a good idea.
“…thing I’ve ever heard of in my life. What are you even thinking?!”
“May, calm down. I just think that, you know, maybe he has some kind of right here? Mary said she trusted us to take care of Peter, but it wasn’t—you know, official.”
“Right, because if not us, she wanted us to pick someone we trusted to take Peter in. Now, me, I thought that maybe we could look through all our friends and family. You, however, have decided that hey, maybe the guy we met a few days ago is the most qualified person!”
“He’s Peter’s father, I think he has some kind of say in this.”
“Yeah, he has some say, but not this much say! How the hell can you trust him? I just—I think he’s nice, Ben, but that doesn’t mean he’s good! Peter hasn’t been alone with him for more than five minutes, and he’s got to be the busiest person alive. Can you look at him and imagine him and Peter having a game of catch for two seconds?”
“I’m not going to say that I’d be happy with it either. I love Peter. You love Peter. I like Tony, but I don’t absolutely trust him, and I wouldn’t be clicking my heels if he took Peter. But we’ve already decided we might not be able to take care of him, either, and Tony will never have to worry about money, or safety, or—”
“So what? It comes down to the fact that he’s rich?”
“No, it doesn’t come down to that, but we should consider that! It’ll have to come down to Peter, alright? If Peter wants to stay with us—which he almost definitely will—then fine. All good. Happy ever after. If Peter wants to stay with Tony, then we’re going to have to accept that.”
“When I was a kid, I wanted to eat the entire box of Chips Ahoy that my parents bought from the store. There’s a reason they didn’t let me do that!”
“Well then he’ll figure it out, alright? The second he doesn’t feel safe about it, he can come right back home.”
“You can’t just ‘try out’ living with someone. How far are we going to let him go before he can change his mind?”
“I—I can’t have this conversation right now.” Tony could almost hear all the air deflate from Ben. “I’m sorry, I just…I can’t.”
Then he was quiet, and May was quiet, and tension was so close to physically spilling out from the window crack that Tony didn’t want to go back inside anymore.
On the bright side of things, now he just had a couple more reasons to know he was wrong, right? Right.
Obie touched down sometime around five, something he learned from Pepper, not the man himself. Tony returned to his hotel room to…pack, he supposed. Either tomorrow or the day after, he’d be returning to Malibu. That meant he had to figure out what he was going to say to Peter before he went. Not goodbye forever, but goodbye nonetheless.
Happy was at first in a sour mood when he returned. To be fair, after Obie had texted him to meet up at Big Joe’s for pizza, he’d wound up alone and wondering where they were. So Tony apologized for that, but then there was silence. Happy didn’t ask what was wrong. Maybe he didn’t need to.
Peter wouldn’t be that much more open when he said goodbye, so that would render the whole visit to meet his son little more than awkward small talk. Tony couldn’t grind information out of him, but maybe he could still leave him with something.
Using the stationary on the nightstand, he started to write things down.
My favorite color is red.
My favorite food is pepperoni pizza.
My favorite band is AC/DC.
My favorite movie is
Alright, what was his favorite G-rated movie Peter could reasonably watch?
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
I am 36.
My full name is Anthony Edward Stark.
My parent’s names a
re were are Howard Anthony Walter Stark and Maria Collins Carbonell Stark.
My birthday is May 29.
My eyes and hair are both brown.
What else should he leave? Should he ask Peter to fill out one of his own? Peter’s favorite color was red, his birthday was August 10, he was five years old, period. Tony had a lot of room to learn.
Happy stood up from the tiny little table in the corner (he might have been doing Sudoku puzzles for the past three hours), and went to the box-shaped mini-fridge. He pulled out a Styrofoam box and handed it out to Tony.
“Got you some,” Happy explained. “It’s not fresh, but—New York pizza, said you always liked it…”
Tony pressed his lips in a half-smile. He took the box. “Thanks, Hap. Very thoughtful of you.”
“I also got this…”
His coat was draped on the back of his chair, and he withdrew a book from that. Paperback, with a price sticker in the corner. Tony only saw the title when Happy extended it forward.
You’ve Got This—Lessons for Parents Who Weren’t Expecting
“I was going to get something to read on the plane, and I saw this in the bargain bin—not that I wouldn’t have gotten it if it weren’t on sale, I just figured. I thought maybe you’d want to—No. I am so sorry. This is horribly unprofessional.”
Happy drew the book back before Tony could even touch it. He was wincing in shame.
“Hand it over.” He did, still looking afraid. As if he’d just dived headfirst into this will get you fired territory. “I appreciate it.”
He wasn’t joyful, but he was sincere, and Happy nodded with clear relief. Tony could’ve been annoyed or even offended, but honestly? He needed all the help he could get. He could make exceptions to his being-handed-things peeve.
Tony’s phone buzzed once again. Happy went back to his table immediately.
He didn’t recognize the number, so Tony just answered. “Hello.”
“Hey, Tony? That you?”
Tony set aside the paper and pen. “Hey, Ben. Yeah, it’s me.”
“Alright, uh…You said you were going to be here for a little while longer?”
“Yeah, probably for another day or two. I just want to make sure everything’s good before I go. So just…whenever.”
Ben sighed more at himself than Tony, he could hear that. “Okay. Is there any way we can meet up, maybe tomorrow?”
“Of course. I just need the when and the where. And preferably the why, if you could.”
“We talked to Peter a while ago. He said he’s—you know, he’s okay with it. I mean, he wants to live with you.”
“Oh. Alright! Great. So…your apartment, around eleven? That good?”
“Yeah. That sounds good. I’ll see you then. Good night.”
“See you, Parker.” Tony was already talking before he or Ben have hung up. “Happy.”
Like the flip of a switch, Happy went from okay-when-did-Sudoku-get-this-hard mode to tell-me-what-to-do-and-I’ll-do-it mode. “Yes?”
“You remember when we were in the lobby, and there were all those magazines on the table? Confirm to me that there were Toys R Us catalogues there.”
Happy thought about it for a second. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure there were.”
“Go get all of them.” Tony all but threw a stack of bills at him. “And go to the clerk and ask for every sticky note they have. We’re in for a night of shopping.”
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten
“Alright. My son is coming to live here.”
Tony took a deep, nose-tingling drink.
Seven, eight, nine…Ten seconds, and Pepper finally rewound to what he just said. He saw her thought process in the way her eyes widened and brows knitted.
Her reaction was not unlike Obie’s. “What?”
The process of taking in Peter wasn’t a happy one. Pretty tedious, actually.
First there was just the talking, a lot of it, mostly in the visit Tony made the day after he got the news the first time. The conversation was much slower, a lot cooler. Civil. Everyone kept their voice even, but there was unhappiness weighing down on the room. Ben and May both contributed what needed to be said—for example, that Peter had reading glasses, or how long it had been since his last checkup. Ben was clearly trying to just move with time, get everything going, but May was biting her tongue the whole talk. She was angry, bordering on furious, but there was nothing else she could do. She’d talked with Peter, she had no more say.
There were two additions to the talk this time around, one of which was Richard. And…
Not two days ago, Tony had seen him bright and ready for their dinner at the Italian joint. Even with his walking stick, he’d had energy. He was alert, eyes open. He talked when he was spoken to. He was fine. He was alive.
Now, though…Richard was almost a dead man walking. His pale was as pale as a sheet of paper, the slight hint of stubble on his jaw had become a full shadow. The bags under his eyes were so thick, they could have been drawn on in Sharpie. He blinked slow, talked slow, moved slow.
The day before, he had attended Mary’s funeral—Fitz’s funeral. The woman he loved but never got around to saying so. Best friend for almost his entire life. One of his constants. Tony could almost feel the grief wafting off of him. The poor guy was just…hollow.
What was there even to say to him? He was the guy who fathered Mary’s son, he wouldn’t be surprised if Richard hated him, even just a little bit.
Speaking of “son”, Peter had joined them, too.
He wasn’t excited. He didn’t bounce off the walls or ask Tony what his new house was going to be like, nothing like that. But he was certainly more chipper. He didn’t turn his head down at the first hint of eye contact, nor did he go out of his way to distract himself with something. He stayed where he was seated beside Richard, calm but fidgeting.
The first thing Tony had said to him after a greeting was, plain and simple, “You sure about this, kiddo?”
Peter nodded. “Mm-hm.”
Why? “You sure you’re sure?”
WHY? “Alright.” Tony gave the kid’s shoulder a squeeze. “Let’s figure this out.”
Since he was there, they all tried to be mindful of what they said, not wanting him to feel ignored or left out. He could understand everything they said.
They talked about all the big things that needed to be said, like setting Peter up at his new school. May only got grumpier with each word that was said, and judging by the way Peter’s eyes always went to the floor after he looked at her, Tony guessed that their talk about it had been a long one. He doubted May had tried to spin Peter’s mind a certain way—she was adamant, but kind, and he couldn’t imagine her doing a “It’s your choice, Peter, but also I’m going to be very upset if you don’t make the decision I want” shtick.
Tony noticed tenderness between Peter and Richard he hadn’t seen before. Peter half-sat-beside, half-lied-on Richard on the sofa. Richard had a cup of coffee on the little nightstand by Peter, and gently asked him to pass it over when he wanted it. He ran his fingers over the boy’s curls without looking, making Tony think that he didn’t even know he was doing it.
He also noticed—and was pleased by—Peter’s decidedly more open nature to him. He had yet to ask or say anything to Tony himself, but he answered when Tony talked to him and didn’t shy away. In fact, whenever Tony smiled at him, he returned it. Maybe not happily, but warmly enough. When Ben brought up his glasses, he rushed to get them from his room just to show him. His almond-and-hazelnut allergy came up again, and he made it clear that he was still totally okay to eat peanut butter. Sweet kid was trying.
He wasn’t happy, but he was the happiest Tony had seen him since they met. He liked it. He liked seeing Peter smile. He liked how he handed Tony his glasses like they were some marvel. He liked that he was almost excited to come live with him; it gave him a glimpse into what the future would be like.
It was a little tempting to give him a hug. He didn’t, of course.
Eventually they got on the topic of how Tony was going to deal with the whole sudden-five-year-old-child situation to the public. Tony assured them that he was already brainstorming how to keep it under wraps—which was almost completely a lie—but before he could plan on the spot, Peter’s brow furrowed on his forehead.
“Doesn’t ‘keep it under wraps’ mean ‘secret’?”
Well, if that didn’t just give them another bout of awkwardness. Just about everyone did some kind of fidget. Cheek rub, nose scratch, sniff.
Someone had to explain, and it should be him, Tony decided. So, putting on the “Dad stance” of leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, he tried.
“You know how I’m on TV and magazines a lot? Not because I did anything, but just because I got a cheeseburger, or something?” Peter nodded. “Yeah, that’s not always…fun, and if everyone finds out that I’m your dad, that’s going to happen to you.”
Peter frowned. That, too, made Tony think that he looked more like him than was obvious. “I thought being on TV and stuff was good?”
“Well…It is when you did something good. Imagine you go to school one day, and your shoelaces are untied, so you trip. Then someone takes a picture of you tripping, and everyone in the world is talking about that. How would you feel?”
Peter scratched the end of his nose, unhappy. “Embarrassed.”
“Yep. So since I’m really famous, that would make you really famous. And you’d be embarrassed all the time.”
Out of his peripheral vision, he saw May give him a quick, angry look. It wasn’t his intention to scare Peter, but hey, Peter didn’t seem all that scared. There was some pent-up curiosity in his face, because he was a kid and kids were curious, but he seemed to understand. Or at least, he understood enough and didn’t want to pop off his ten thousand questions at that moment.
He did pop off one, though. “So I can’t tell anyone?”
“Well—” Ben paused to see if Tony was okay with his chiming in. “It’d be a secret.”
“But what if someone asks? Do I lie?”
Tony didn’t know the answer to that. his first instinct was to say no, because you weren’t supposed to tell your kid it was okay to lie, right? But also…He’d probably have to. Except—
Alright, hold on.
What was the plan, again?
He’d keep his son a secret. How was he supposed to keep an entire human being a secret?
Ben didn’t say anything; May didn’t say anything.
Richard said something, in a soft voice. “I may have an idea.”
On paper, the plan sounded simple. Like, figurative paper. The papers they had to sign and file and whatnot were neither simple nor thrilling.
This was the cover story: after the death of his mother, Peter Fitzpatrick was adopted by Mary’s close friend, Richard Parker. Though her other friends May and Ben dearly wanted to do so, they simply didn’t have the time or money to care for Peter properly. Richard, now well on his way to becoming a physical therapist, also did not have countless time on his hands. However, he did have time, and enough money to keep him and Peter comfortable. Peter Fitzpatrick was now Peter Parker.
This was the real story: Tony had—in every legal sense—taken custody of Peter. It was up to him to care for him physically and financially, up until he was at least eighteen. Richard’s “adoption” was just a show. To keep that show going, Peter would spend one or two days a week at Richard’s new totally-bought-with-his-own-money house specially secluded from curious neighbors. PTA meeting? Doctor’s appointment? Kid’s birthday party? Richard was Peter’s father. Otherwise, he’d be with Tony in the mansion. Any time of day, any day a week, Peter could call his Aunt May or Uncle Ben if he wanted to talk.
He could also call him if he changed his mind and wanted to come home. Tony could only hope it wouldn’t come to that.
It wouldn’t be easy, of course not. There were a lot of factors they had to deal with. The only people outside of them who knew were less than five lawyers and CPS agents who all signed black-and-white NDAs, but who was to say they wouldn’t spill to the press anyway? Peter finally got on board with the lie—no, not lie, pretend—that Richard was his new father, but what if he just couldn’t help it and let it slip one day? Not being seen in public with Peter wouldn’t be too hard, but he could be seen with literally anyone else and the media might try to put two and two together.
All through the process, they watched Peter like a hawk, minding how he felt and what he thought. His excitement for his new home became more evident at times when he was Tony, evident enough to let the somewhat gap-toothed smile peek through.
“How big is the mansion?” “Imagine the biggest house you can think of and multiply it by pi.” (“Pie?”)
“Will we be close to the beach?” “If you walk too far out the back door, you’ll fall into the ocean. Let’s just put it like that.”
“Is it close to Disneyland?” “Not exactly, but just tell me when you want to go and we’ll get it arranged.”
Sometimes, though, the wariness came through, as it should have. At times they caught him looking around the little apartment with some sad fear, the knowledge that oh, I’m not going to live here soon. He asked to see just where Malibu was on the U.S. map and was very surprised to see several inches between it and Queens. When he finally returned to his last days at his school, one of his friends—Wendy? Willy?—gave him a sloppy fifteen-second Ill miss you Peter!! card that he carried heavily.
They had different ways of dealing with this. Tony’s way was to try and cheer the kid up through some cheap but well-meaning distractions. Ben’s way was reassurance that there was nothing to be scared of. May’s way was encouraging Peter to say what upset him. Richard somehow managed to do all three at whatever times they were necessary. He read his soon-to-be-psuedo son well. In the end, Peter would always reassure that he was still okay with it.
It was curious, at some point, how well he and Peter got along. Peter didn’t call him “Uncle Richard”, for some reason or another. Just “Richard.” If some passing comments were to be believed, then Richard’s busy job meant that the five years of Peter’s life had him visiting often, but still just visiting. Some months, he never saw Peter at all. But still Peter relaxed around him, opened up to him, laughed himself red in the face when Richard did funny voices.
(Some part of Tony asked, “Hey, if Richard and Peter have such a good relationship just visiting, why can’t you do the same?” He shut that part up.)
It was a mission that took all five of them. Every detail, every plan. The specifics of each step. They made it work, though, through some elbow grease and strong wills. Grief stull hung over them all. There was always an empty spot whenever they talked; there were times where they could all sit in the living room and feel as if they should have left a seat vacant.
Mary was gone. They loved her, they missed her, but they had to keep going. May and Ben knew this, Richard knew this. Peter knew this, too, even if he did at times have his lip quivering and go suddenly quiet for no clear reason.
Maybe Peter had known that Richard and his mother had some kind of special connection? There was a difference when Richard comforted him. He was too sweet to pick favorites, but there was no reluctance when it came to hugging Richard or taking his hand.
Richard watched him a lot in the days they were together, in a way that almost kind-of, sort-of creeped Tony out. He didn’t even seem angry, he was just always watching. Mostly it was just glances, but when Tony talked to Peter, that gaze was pinned on them both.
Tony almost thought that maybe a talk was order when, lo and behold, Richard took it upon himself to instigate it. It was after dinner, everyone was in the other room, Tony was taking a look at how much Peter had packed up. (It wasn’t much, but Peter didn’t really have much.)
It was not a talk so much as a lesson, really. There was no back-and-forth as Richard talked to him in a firm, even voice that almost bordered on but never crossed into anger.
“Keep him safe,” he said. “Keep him safe, keep him happy, and don’t ever, ever make him feel like he’s not wanted. Okay?”
“Okay,” Tony had promised, to him, and Richard, and Peter, and Mary.
Tony couldn’t keep away from Malibu forever, and he wasn’t always needed. He bounced to and from Queens on an irregular basis over the weeks. If anyone was curious about where the Man of the Century was going, Pepper shut them down with an explanation that was just ambiguous enough.
Speaking of which, Tony realized as he walked into his home after his extra four days in Queens and saw her standing in the middle of the room that oh, yeah, that was what he forgot. He thought maybe he left something in the hotel.
“Hiya,” he greeted.
“Hey,” she answered. If he didn’t know any better, he would have said she was relieved to see him. That wasn’t an ego-stroke, by the way, he just knew he was asking her to hold down the fort maybe a little too longer. “Everything go alright?”
“Alright enough. Everything looks like it’s still in one piece.” He made a joking look around while he said it. “You didn’t find my secret wine cellar, did you?”
“No; I promise I’ve just been making sure the cleaners came.”
“Wonderful. By the way, I totally do not have a secret wine cellar I don’t want anyone to know about.”
Pepper gave him the pursed-mouth look she usually gave him, like she kind of wanted to smile but also didn’t want to indulge in his humor, so she reached a halfway expression. Even that soon faded, though. “Can you tell me what’s going on now?”
“Yes, I can. As a matter of fact, hold on there just a second.”
He took all of thirty seconds to hop over to the fridge and pull out two ice-cold Coke cans. Not the best for a toast, but he was suffering from jet lag already, so champagne actually didn’t sound so great at the moment. Pepper just raised a brow at him as he approached and took hers with a pen still in hand.
Tony cracked his open. She tucked her clipboard under her arm so she could do the same.
“To life and good fortune and whatever the hell else,” he declared, and tapped his can against hers.
She nodded. “Whatever the hell else. I’m guessing we have good news?”
“We certainly do. Emphasis on the ‘good’, and emphasis on the ‘news’, because you’re not going to see this coming.” Pepper’s brow started to furrow at once. “Emphasis on the ‘good’, I said! This is just going to be a big surprise that you shouldn’t be worried about.”
Pepper took a breath. “Alright.”
“Are you ready?”
“Just tell me.”
“Alright. My son is coming to live here.”
Tony took a deep, nose-tingling drink.
Seven, eight, nine…Ten seconds, and Pepper finally rewound to what he just said. He saw her thought process in the way her eyes widened and brows knitted.
Her reaction was not unlike Obie’s. “What?”
“I’m going to wrap this up nice and quick. Five years ago, I met a woman at a party, she had a kid, I didn’t know, she passed away just recently, that’s why I left, and now my son’s going to come live here with me.”
“I—we—Tony, oh my god, how could you not tell me that?!”
“We only made the decision a few days ago; figured you wouldn’t want to hear this over the phone.”
“Well—is he here now? Is he coming?”
Pepper craned her head around him, as if expecting the little boy to just be there with his bags in hand. Tony shook his head.
“He won’t be here for a while. Since you are one of the four people given full access here, though, you need to know.”
Pepper was still unable to wrap her mind around everything. “Are we going to have a press announcement, or something? How are we going to let people know?”
“We aren’t going to let people know.”
“Take a seat, Miss Potts. Let me break down Operation: It’s a Boy for you.”
He did, over the course of about an hour, with another can of Coke and a bag of popcorn between them. Though she didn’t relax entirely, Pepper listened well, and (as was her personality) only asked questions where she needed. They spent more time on the how’s and why’s, she also listened well to what he had to say about the Parkers and May, the letters, and Mary herself. She didn’t pry too much on that last one.
When her back had finally touched the sofa instead of sitting needle-straight, Pepper asked, “When is this happening?”
“In a month, maybe? There’s a lot of stuff we need to take care of.”
“Right. What do I need to do?”
“Nothing. Well—no, I could definitely use your help. He’s going to be going to school, so we need to figure which one would be the best option—you know, distance, security, whatever. Getting his room set up is going to a hassle. We’re going to have to get truckloads of toys and furniture here without anyone asking questions.”
Tony could see in her eyes that she was already making her list. God bless Pepper Potts, honestly. One hour and she was abundantly more supportive than Obie had been for more than a week.
“You ever hear from Obie?”
Pepper shook her head. “Just to talk about business. He never told me anything.”
Tony sniffed. “Yeah, I figured.”
“Something wrong with him?”
“Let’s just say he’s not happy about this and leave it at that. I know it’s only around nine right now, but Queens feels like one in the morning, so I think we’re going to have to talk about this later. You good? Not mad? Should I novelize everything?”
“No, I’m good. I understand.” Pepper stood up to her feet and straightened out her blazer. She opened her mouth for a goodbye, it seemed, but then she paused. “You sure you have everything figured out?”
“Oh, no, I’m still floundering in the water. It’s a work in progress. I’ll make it work, though, don’t sweat about it.”
“Alright. See you tomorrow. Or today. Whatever.”
Tony went ahead and took off his watch. He was content to hop into bed and drift off while Pepper let herself out. It maybe wasn’t the greatest thing a host could do, but he was tired, and she was understanding.
Pepper’s hesitant voice had him turning around again. The blonde tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, already looking regretful.
“I’m here to help, so just tell me when you need anything.”
Tony nodded. “Will do.”
Pepper left after that. Tony went to bed feeling significantly better.
The whole process took a good couple of weeks, all the way past Christmas. Tony went to Queens, talked to everyone, caught up with Peter, signed the papers, and returned to Malibu. Repeat. It took a toll on his sleep schedule, but that was a small price to pay.
Happy and Pepper were so supportive during the whole thing, they might as well have been cheerleaders. Happy just did as he was told without problem. Pepper did the same on top of her other duties and never complained about her full plate. She figured out how to get Peter’s room taken care of: it was a system of ordering everything through a card that couldn’t be linked back to them, then specifically—specifically!—asking that the contents of the boxes not be told to the deliverers. When said delivery trucks came down the driveway, they dropped off huge boxes and crates, never the wiser of what they contained.
Obie, in contrast, was content to ignore everything. Tony saw him again, of course. It took more than a month to do everything, and Tony still had to do his job as Stark Industries CEO. They didn’t talk about Peter at all. They were all business day in and day out, only discussing SI and the board and the Jericho Project. Obie didn’t show up to his mansion again.
Tony was thankful. Caused him a lot less stress.
Between all the work and the planning, Tony found that the best thing about it was spending time with his son.
Whenever he returned, Peter greeted him very casually, having accepted that he was part of everyday life now. He let Tony look at the things he’d done in class and talked about whatever he wanted.
He smiled when Tony smiled at him, and the first time Tony got him to laugh—Peter was drawing an android that he called ‘KA-1O’, and Tony purposefully mispronounced it as Kay-yo—Tony felt happy. Pleased, in a warm way.
Tony was excited. He really was. He was looking forward to showing Peter his new room and everything there was to do in Malibu.
Now, the question occurred to him once or twice when he was falling asleep: Did he love Peter?
He guessed the answer was ‘no’, if only because he didn’t have the right or reason to. But! At the same time, perhaps there was some innate fatherly tenderness in him. He’d read that in You’ve Got This. (He wasn’t totally planning on reading the book cover-to-cover, but he got curious.) One of the opening paragraphs said that every parent, even ones that weren’t expecting children, would feel some near-instinctual connection to their kids. Tony stopped reading after that because, ahem, Howard, but now he thought there was some truth to that. Like, yeah, maybe every parent did have at least a little undeniable love for their kid. Didn’t mean they couldn’t also be shitty, uncaring, or even abusive.
Peter’s class had thrown him an impromptu farewell party, complete with a GOODBYE, PETER! banner and cupcakes and whatnot. Peter was in a bittersweet mood about the whole thing.
“You going to miss them?” Tony asked while they were packing away Peter’s drawings. Peter wanted to be very, very sure that they wouldn’t be wrinkled or torn in the flight to Malibu.
Peter shrugged. “I’ve only been going for a couple months. Wendy was—we were friends since we started—like, she started after we did, but we were friends.”
Peter did this sometimes, fumbling over his words. Not out of nervousness, though. He was five. He wasn’t always articulate.
With the final drawing tucked away in the box, Peter folded the box closed, in that two-over-two way that wouldn’t actually keep it shut. No matter—Tony had the packing tape ready to go.
“Maybe you can call her sometimes, huh?”
Peter shook his head. “It’s okay. Uncle Ben said I’ll make new friends at my new school.”
“That you will.”
Did it occur to Tony to have Richard check in with the school to ensure that Peter was making friends? Maybe. Sort of. Kind of.
December 28th, almost six weeks since Tony first learned that he had a son, Peter finally returned home with him. Finally, finally.
They all drove in one car, and sitting in the backseat with Richard and Peter was only moderately awkward. The last of Peter’s things are in a backpack at their feet. Every two minutes May craned her head from the passenger seat to ask if he forgot something. He assured her until he got tired and started groaning, “No.”
It was a shame Peter couldn’t sit by the window, because when the car pulled up closer and closer to the jet, Peter began to almost vibrate in excitement.
“We’re riding in that?” he exclaimed.
“Mm-hm.” Tony tried to stifle the swell of pride by readjusting his sunglasses. The sun was pretty bright, for a cold December day in Queens. “I couldn’t get the rocket today, sorry.”
The genuine elation in Peter’s eyes almost made him regret the joke.
The car pulled up to a stop, and everyone finally stepped out to stretch their legs. This was the most opportune day they’d gotten for a while—Peter might’ve gone to Malibu sooner had the threat of snowstorms hadn’t kept them at bay. Not that he wouldn’t have spent Christmas with May and the Parkers either way.
Richard pulled his two bags from the trunk and slung Peter’s bag over one shoulder, never affected by his leg. He’d taken Tony up on his offer to fly back with them, because why wouldn’t Tony offer? It saved the man around $400 dollars someone studying physical therapy couldn’t afford to toss around.
(Even the pilot had signed an NDA; no doubt he would be curious about why Tony’s back and forth trips had culminated in a child and a grown man returning home with them.)
The door was already open, extending the steps down to the ground of the runway, and Peter couldn’t stop himself from shooting inside the jet like Speedy Gonzalez. Maybe it was rude; May sighed. Still, Tony couldn’t help but smile hearing Peter’s muffled cries of awe inside.
Ben was kind of in the middle. Almost smiling, but also trying to stay ‘professional’. “He’s never been on a plane before, so if he starts bouncing all the walls, you know why.”
“Fingers crossed he doesn’t find a way to open a window. Rich, hey—stop showing off.”
Tony took the man’s bags and strode up into the jet without stopping. He dropped them into the nearest seat for the moment, but took a look at Peter while he was inside. The kid really was bouncing off the walls. He looked at the seats, the windows, the tiny little compartments that housed absolutely nothing. Pure amazement.
“C’mon, Pete. You can look this place up and down on the way over, kay?”
Peter followed without protest. Back outside, in the icy cold air, the others were waiting. Richard and Ben were talking about something or another and May was holding a forced smile on her face. It became a little less forced when Peter ran forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. She bent down to push her cheek against the top of his curls.
“You need anything at all, you just ask.”
“Call me as soon as you can.”
May kissed his forehead twice before she let him go to Ben. He made a big show of picking Peter up off his feet—the police academy workout routine meant it was as easy as turning a sheet of paper for him—with a big roar that had Peter giggling and May rolling her eyes and mouthing showoff to Richard. But then he stopped joking to hold Peter against him, the boy’s head on his shoulder. Another reminder of just how small the kid was.
“Don’t have too much fun without me,” Ben muffled into Peter’s shirt.
“Promise I won’t.”
“’Kay. If you get thrown in jail, we’ll bail you out.”
Peter giggled again, and Ben set him back down with a forehead kiss of his own. Peter went back to May for one last hug, then let Richard have his turn of goodbyes.
May turned to Tony while he stood a little to the side with his hands in his pockets. “Everything good?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but it was refreshingly joking. She still wasn’t making friendship bracelets for him, and Tony had settled that she maybe never would. That was okay. Tony could have done everything she ever wanted of him, and she would still be upset, even just a little bit. She loved Peter, and him being so far away from her would hurt no matter what.
But she’d finally accepted it. She was wary and bitter and quiet, but the excitement Peter had to live with his dad was undeniable.
Then they left. They stepped up and into the jet, peered out the windows to wave goodbye, watched the car shrink behind them. Peter kept his face pressed to the glass for what felt like hours and hours, just watching the land give way to clouds and the clouds give way to wide, open sky.
“You hungry, sport?” Tony nodded to the sleek black box tucked away on the other side of the cabin. “Go on, help yourself.”
Peter shot right for it like he just wanted to open the fridge itself. Usually, the fridge would be keeping a variety of alcoholic beverages and fruit. Now it’s fruit, juice boxes, little ice cream cups, and Creamsicles. The little compartment above that had chips, pretzels, M&Ms, so on, so forth.
“Whoa-ho-hoa,” Peter whooped.
“You want something, Rich?”
Richard had taken to a book in-between his sparse talk with Tony, and was caught off-guard when spoken to. A Feast for Crows almost fluttered shut. “Ah, no, I’m good.”
Head stuffed in the icebox, Peter called, “There are Creamsicles.”
“No, I—oh, wait, get me one!”
“Snag me some M&Ms and get back over here,” Tony called. “Got something for you.”
Peter returned with his hands full and the fridge maybe not totally shut all the way, but whatever. Tony reached into the pocket lining of his jacket, Peter’s eyes watching every movement. He did that a lot, lately, always amazed not by how much money Tony had but rather the fact that he seemed to be able to just procure whatever, whenever.
This ‘whatever’ is a pair of dark violet shades in gold frames, sized just enough for the eyes of a child.
“Specially made. Now we match.”
Peter made another delighted sound and put them on at once. Yeah, he probably looked a little funny, but Tony thought he was looking pretty good.
Richard readjusted where the glasses went over his right ear. “What do you think?”
“It feels cool!”
“Yeah. But it’s dark.”
“Hence why they’re called ‘sunglasses’.” Tony also drew out the little leathery box for them. “Here. Keep ‘em safe.”
Despite the darkness, Peter wore the glasses all through the rest of the flight until he finally turned to the book in his backpack, Matilda. Then he swapped the sunglasses for his reading glasses, and man if he didn’t look like the smartest five-year-old in the world wearing them. He read the words under his breath, nodding along to the more difficult words to pronounce them.
Most of the flight after that is quiet, but not tense. Richard and Peter read. Tony considered joining them, remembered that his only option was a how-to-be-a-good-dad book, and decided to pick up the crossword book tucked under the table. It was fine and casual. Plus, he was still excited. That was another plus.
Peter fell asleep for good around a half-hour before they landed. Six forty-five for Malibu meant the poor guy was feeling closer to ten on Queens’ time. So despite the fact that the sun hadn’t even fully set yet, Tony let the boy sleep on.
The jet touched down, the coast was clear, they all stepped off. Tony almost woke Peter up, then…reconsidered. Maybe it was a little too parental for a one-month father, but he decided to just carry Peter to the Audi Happy had left for him. Didn’t even break a sweat, and Peter barely stirred as Tony held him. The weight of his head against Tony’s shoulder was relaxing, somehow.
“You sure you don’t want me to do anything else?” Richard whispered when they were back out in the night air. He stood back while Tony delicately placed Peter in the backseat, and wrapped the seatbelt around him.
“Go catch some Z’s, Rich. I’m sure your coworkers are going to have a baby shower ready for you tomorrow.”
Richard nodded, reluctantly. He’d wanted to spend Peter’s first night with him, thinking it would help, but his DPT program just couldn’t stretch out his across-the-continent visits any longer. He needed to be in first thing in the morning tomorrow.
So, with one last goodbye and a kiss to Peter’s brow, he went on his way to flag down a taxi cab. Tony hopped in the driver’s seat to take him and Peter home.
The sky was violet when they returned home, and Peter wasn’t just asleep, he was uh-SLEEP.
Which was a problem, kind of.
Just past the front door of the mansion, Pepper and Happy would be waiting with party poppers in hand and a mountain of gifts on the table. Streamers and balloons would be hanging from the ceiling, and a banner stretching behind them would read WELCOME, PETER! in vibrant red and gold. There’d be a stack of pizza boxes waiting on the table, and paper arrows on the floor would lead Peter to his new room.
When the door opened, Pepper and Happy were supposed to pop out the confetti (however reluctantly or embarrassing it was). Peter would meet Pepper, finally get a proper introduction to Happy, and get to know who they were and what they did. As soon as they saw the little boy, the party would be in motion.
Instead, the first thing they saw when the door just barely opened was Tony’s hand holding a sheet of newspaper Sharpie’d with BE QUIET!!!
So they stayed quiet and went even quieter when Tony came in with the still-sleeping Peter draped against him. Nothing is popped, no greetings are given. Happy took the backpack and a silent confirmation from Pepper had her moving ahead to the bedroom, where she turned out all the lights and pulled back the blankets.
There wouldn’t be any party that night. Happy and Pepper would take the pizza home and promise to return the next morning to catch up. The paper arrows were picked up.
It wasn’t too disappointing; they’d get to it tomorrow. Peter would wake up in his new room with the North Pacific Ocean stretching out beyond his windows. Then, Tony guessed, the new life began.
There's chappie 10!! This was supposed to end in a different place, but then I noticed it was getting about twice as long as a normal chapter, so we'll continue this in ch. 11 (U._.) It'll be a long one!
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven
It did make him sad, in a subdued way that didn’t take him out of the present, that he’d been deprived this for so long.
The first day went very well.
Tony was unfortunately not there to see Peter’s face when he first woke up in his new room, but a later recount from J.A.R.V.I.S. would confirm that he was, in fact, elated. For good reason. Tony had paid mind to make the bedroom of every child’s family—within safety measures, of course.
Instead of the star-and-rocket patterned bed, the bed was a rocket, the foot raising up into a “control panel” filled with enough buttons and switches to make a N.A.S.A. scientist impressed. They didn’t do anything (for now) but Peter’s imagination could do wonders. The glow-in-the-dark stars had become little LED lights wired in the ceiling. One wall was essentially one giant whiteboard, underneath which was a cushion-topped set of cubbies for all of Peter’s toys. The whiteboard had a bucket of markers of probably every color of the spectrum and then some. All of Peter’s books and all the ones he needed were now in a “shelf”—except that it was shaped like a star, each point was its own holding place with a sliding cover, and Peter could spin it around to get the books he wanted. There was a TV with a Wii on one end, bean bags on the floor, all his posters and pictures lining the walls like a gallery.
Was it a little much? Yes.
Did Tony feel any ounce of shame for it? Hell no, it was a great room.
Maybe Peter had spent some good time just exploring the new wonderland, or maybe he went straight for the door to figure out where he was. He came out all the same, though, and Tony spotted him quickly. Still dressed in his clothes from the night before, hair now an absolute nest. Seeing the cushions and stars of his room become sleek tiles and glassy surfaces seemed to unnerve him. His little hand started to trail on the wall to anchor himself.
“Wakey, wakey, something-and-pancakey.”
He hadn’t meant to scare him, but the boy jumped about a foot in the air. Then wonder returned to his face when he saw what Tony had set out for him. The pancakes he made himself (he wasn’t a five-star chef, but come on, he could do pancakes), but everything else—blueberries, strawberries, chocolate chips, whipped cream, syrup, so on—had been delivered right that morning. Tony nudged the three-stacked plate closer to Peter as a blank canvas.
“Go nuts.” That reminded him—Tony pushed over the glass container of crumbled peanuts.
Peter pushed himself up and onto the stool. He was almost drooling. “Really?”
“Really, truly. As you can see, I’m pretty boring over here.” Tony pointed down to his own stack, just blueberries and syrup. “So wow me.”
Wow him, Peter did. Like—wow.
After the bowl of chocolate chips was emptied and no more pancake-top could be seen under the whipped cream, it only then occurred to Tony to make the first introduction.
“Hey, I have someone I want you to meet.”
Peter was trying to figure out how exactly he was going to eat his new creation, so when he looked up at Tony, his fork had pretty much disappeared into the sugar. “Who?”
“J.A.R.V.I.S., introduce yourself.”
“Hello, Master Peter, sir.”
Peter went as still as a rock. He looked around the room just to confirm that yeah, no, there was no human being to see where that came from.
“Say hello,” Tony told him.
He did, quietly. “Hello…”
“I am J.A.R.V.I.S, the artificial intelligence system that controls and protects this house.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, sir.”
He had to look at Tony for confirmation. He was obviously trying to fight down a smile now, still confused but excited. This probably being the first time that someone called him sir, that word that only grown-ups got called, also helped. He turned in his seat a little bit, like he could face the AI.
“Are you a robot?”
“In a sense, yes. You can think of me as a robot without a body.”
“Like one of the things that we—like, at home, the box that let you talk to the people outside?”
“Yes, I am, but I don’t just let you talk to people. I control the lighting, the air conditioning, the electricity, and security. I know who is coming into the building and who is leaving it. I assist Master Tony with his projects and experiments. I can answer any question that can be researched within reasoning.”
Peter took this as a challenge. “Any question?”
“Why is the sky blue?”
“The sunlight that passes through the Earth’s atmosphere is scattered by gases and other particles, and blue light is scattered more due to its smaller waves.”
“How many stars are there in the sky?”
“As of now, there is no certain answer, though research puts the number between two billion and six-hundred billion.”
“What am I thinking right now?”
“That is not within reasoning.”
Peter deflated, but asking “Can you turn the lights off?” and the kitchen immediately being turned to darkness made up for it.
“J.A.R.V.I.S. keeps me and you safe,” Tony told him. “So if you ever feel like you’re in trouble, just talk and he’ll answer. Or, you know, if you just want to talk to him. Feel free.”
Peter was absolutely fascinated now, and turned back to his conversation (“Can you see me?” “I am aware that you are in the kitchen.”) while Tony went down to his pancakes. Given, that was just the basic introductory to J.A.R.V.I.S., but Peter would find out more and more with each passing day. He didn’t know that—technically—J.A.R.V.I.S. would always be keeping an “eye” on him. Not like a camera, Tony would allow him his privacy, but he’d already instructed J.A.R.V.I.S. to be alert for things like crying, screaming, or any form of bodily harm. He didn’t think that was too bad.
The boy and the AI talked much through breakfast, during which the lights came back on, the window shut close, and “Hakuna Matata” blasted over the speakers. Peter didn’t get too far into his pancakes—unsurprising, considering the brick wall of sugar—but that was fine. He’d probably crash hard later, but who cared?
The conversation was cut short by J.A.R.V.I.S. announcing that “Miss Potts is at the front door.”
“Let her in.” Tony pushed off from the counter and waved Peter forward. He’d instructed the AI to give him a heads up when she arrived. “C’mon, got someone else I want you to meet.”
Peter followed him to the living room, all the while looking up and down, left and right at every shining surface of the mansion. At five years old, he probably didn’t even care about leather couches or glass waterfalls, he just knew that they cost a lot of money and looked cool. If not, all the balloons and streamers still hanging up did the trick.
Pepper, in a charcoal blazer and pencil skirt, so professional so early in the morning, was carefully stepping her heels over the balloons on the floor. For no reason besides nitpicking, she readjusted the gift boxes stacked on the table. She was tweaking the bow of one, a little square wrapped in newspaper cartoons.
“This is Pepper Potts—” Make that Person #2 he nearly scared to death that morning. “—she’s my assistant and you’ll be seeing her a lot.”
Pepper gave him a flat look for the scare, but softened on Peter. She’d already gotten a good look at him last night as they were tucking him into bed, but seeing the big doe eyes open and looking up at her was something else. Tony guessed that she was thinking what he had: so small, jeez! Unable to decide whether to kneel down or not, she sort of awkwardly squatted while she smiled down at him. Peter came closer; not too close.
“Hello, Peter. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Hello.” He scratched the side of his nose, like he did that first time, and asked, “What’s a personal assistant?”
“Uh, well—I do a lot of Tony’s paperwork, and I answer some of his phone calls. I schedule his appointments and I let him know if anything is happening at Stark Industries.”
Peter nodded just once before looking up at Tony instead.
“Have you ever seen a movie where there’s an old guy in an office, and there’s always a lady with him writing stuff down and telling him stuff?” Peter nodded. “That’s what she does.”
Though irritated, Pepper just nodded along, then turned to the gifts behind her and picked up the newspaper-wrapped one. She checked it over for a second before she handed it over to Peter with a real, teeth-baring smile. “Here; got this for you.”
Peter took it quickly enough and tore off all the paper with little trouble. Under the Californian sunlight beaming through the windows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gleamed gold.
“I heard that one was your favorite.” As soon as she said it, Pepper’s face fell. Regret took over. “Which means you…probably already have it, huh? I’m sorry, I’ll get you another one.”
“It has all the pictures,” Peter exclaimed as he flipped through the pages. Tony wasn’t well-versed in Dahl, but he recognized the classic pinpoint eyes and sloppy lines on the images. He’d seen Peter’s copy before, and all the characters had been drawn in a neater, more rosy-cheeked way, not as childishly charming. “Thank you!”
Relief silently took over Pepper’s face.
The door swung open.
“Tony, they just announced a recall on that spin-art toy, the battery compartment can overheat and burn—do not let Peter open it, I don’t want him to get excit—hey, Peter.”
Just as quickly as he came into the room, Happy pulled himself up short, back to professional Harold Hogan. Pepper looked like she was trying to hold back a smile, while Peter looked at the man he soooort oooof(…?) knew with curiosity.
“You remember Happy, right?”
Peter scratched his nose again. “You were in our apartment that—the first time, right?”
“Uh—Yeah. I’m Harold.”
Tony scoffed. “Call him Happy.”
“You don’t have to—alright. It’s nice to meet you, Peter. Officially, I mean.”
Happy took one step forward, caught himself, and drew back. Peter was not an unobservant child, though, and held his arm out as an okay. The two shook hands with as much professionalism as a grown man and a five-year-old child could manage.
“Are you a personal assistant, too?”
“No, no. I’m Tony’s chauffeur—uh, that means I drive his car wherever he wants to go. And I’m his bodyguard.”
Peter’s eyes went wide. “Cool!”
Tony, though still just as grateful as he was annoyed about having a bodyguard even after all these years, sent Happy a wink while he took the torn newspaper from Peter to toss in the trash. “Very cool.”
“Have you beat anybody up before?!”
Peter answered “no” the same time that Happy answered “well” and Tony answered “oh yeah.” The three of them gave one another amused but displeased looks.
“I just keep Tony safe from bad guys,” Happy tried to explain. “I don’t just go around and beat people up. So, uh—I got you a present. Except, I just found out that it’s very dangerous, so I’m going to just—take it back. I’ll get you something else. Just—”
So very awkwardly did Happy pluck the jade-colored box from the table. Peter shook his head.
“It’s okay, I’ve got enough. Thanks, though.”
“Yeah, no problem, kid. Uh—Peter.”
“Real nice of you, Hap. Really is. Speaking of, check out all these other gifts! Second Christmas, sport, go wild.”
All the others were from Tony himself. So yeah, he was technically sneak-bragging, but whatever. This was step three of the “Make Peter Feel Better than Little Orphan Annie Going into Warbucks’ Mansion” plan and he wanted to keep the ball rolling. Even if that meant getting a little side-eye from Pepper and Happy when Peter started tearing paper like a ravenous wolf.
It was nice. Very nice. Homey. Just the three of them, watching the kid open his presents and ooh-and-ah. Thinking about it, this was probably what Christmas would have been like had Tony been with an actual family, which he hadn’t. While Peter had been celebrating with the Parkers and May, Tony had treated himself to his favorite Michelin-starred restaurant in town and spent the night in the workshop playing “Jingle Bell Rock” over the speakers.
While Peter was opening Gift Number 7, an Apollo 11 Lego set of more than a thousand pieces, Pepper caught his eyes and nodded to her right. Happy was left to nod along to Peter’s exclamations while she and Tony stepped off to the side for a second.
Though she gave the boy a fond look over her shoulder, Pepper’s voice dropped quietly as she spoke to Tony. “You’re not going to spoil him, are you?”
“Ah, come on. This is just his big welcome. I’m making up for lost time.”
“How much did it cost you just to get that bookshelf in his room?”
“Not a dime. Made it myself. Bet you didn’t think I could woodwork, too, did you?”
Pepper shook her head, still almost smiling. “He going to get everything he wants and more?”
“I’m going to stay away from the line between ‘providing’ and ‘spoiling’. It’s a thick line. It’s one thing to give him the things I can afford to give him, it’s another thing to make him think he’s entitled to those things. I’ll avoid planting bad seeds.”
“That’s very well-said. Almost like you…I don’t know, read it somewhere.”
Tony took a sharp glance at her. Definitely smiling now.
He sighed. “Happy told you, didn’t he?”
“You left it between the couch cushions one day.” Catching Tony’s somewhat pursed mouth, Pepper softened her teasing look and told him, “I think it’s really sweet. I can get you more, too, if you want.”
“I might call it quits after this one, actually. One chapter is devoted entirely to comparing raising a child to planting an apple tree and watching it grow. An entire chapter, dedicated to one simile. I…”
Pepper shook her head, too, and they returned to watching the present-opening. Happy took out a pocketknife so he could snap away some plastic twine around one of the boxes, then just about had a heart attack when Peter’s fingers suddenly came forward to help by holding the twine taut. Peter had to promise that Happy hadn’t actually sliced one of his fingers off.
The arrival of another person surprised Tony. Said arrival not being announced by J.A.R.V.I.S., meaning that they were in the okay-to-let-in database, also surprised him. Seeing who it actually was did explain that, but was the most surprising.
Obie had a calm smile on his face as he shut the door behind him with his heel. One of his hands was holding a cardboard tray of four coffee cups, the other holding a folded-up bundle of red cloth. He walked in like it was any other day, not even glancing around at the streamers and balloons even as his footsteps sent several fluttering up into the air.
“Morning, everyone. I know someone here likes theirs with five creamers, six sugars, and a bit of cinnamon, but I can’t remember who it is, so I’m just going to make you take the Walk of Shame forward.”
Even Happy gave Tony a look from where he was kneeling on the floor with Peter, who was watching Obie with the same recognizing curiosity he had before. Even though Obie had done a little more talking to the boy than Happy had—which was to say, he had talked to Peter—Peter seemed more wary in the older man’s presence. Understandable, maybe, since Obie was notorious for his severe face that was only softened by his smile.
Not wanting to address the elephant in the room outright, Tony turned to Pepper. “That you?” Pepper shook her head, and he hummed. “Definitely not me. Get your terrible coffee, Hap.”
Obie held the tray out so Happy could take the cup, and while he was bending over, turned his eyes to Peter.
“Hey, kiddo. Sorry I couldn’t make it to the party last night, but Pep said there was a do-over this morning, so here we go.” He held the red cloth out to him. “Not much, but I swear it’s comfortable.”
Peter took it from him with a quiet “Thank you.” Satisfied, Obie left them to go to Pepper and Tony. They both took their cups, too, but Tony couldn’t help but level Miss Potts a look.
“You give him a heads-up?”
“I just said you might be a little late today,” Pepper said. “I didn’t—”
“I’m a party crasher, Tony. Don’t take it out on her.” Obie tossed the empty cardboard into the trash. “You seem displeased. Why’s that?”
“Hm. See, you ask that, but this feels a lot like a peace treaty, so…”
“Yeah, I was being coy. Allow me to explain.”
He said this after taking a sip of his coffee and immediately grimacing, so he beelined for the kitchen without awaiting Tony’s answer. Now being pulled aside from being pulled aside, Tony just waved an ‘okay’ at Pepper and Happy before he followed. Peter was struggling to get a piece of tape unstuck from his finger.
Obie was already sprinkling sugar into his drink when Tony walked in. “Remember when I apologized for being an asshole about this whole thing, and then immediately returned to being an asshole about this whole thing.”
“I vaguely recall that, yes.”
“I’d like to extend Apology 2.0. I figure, since the kid’s going to be around a lot, I might as well get used to ‘im before I start making him feel bad. Poor little guy’s been through enough, I don’t want to add Big, Scary Obie in the mix.”
“Good. Fantastic. Just—before we get into another repetitive talk that derails into arguing, why don’t you just tell me point-blank what the deal was this time? I know I kind of slammed the door of my bedroom last time, but it’s been just about radio silence from you for weeks.”
“I’m not proud of it.” Obie took a gulp way too big not to burn. He leaned against the counter and turned his eyes on Tony, softer than he’d seen them for a while. “So, first, I thought you were just saying ‘nuh-uh!’ and then we’d meet back up for an awkward do-over. Then you stayed in Queens and starting making plans and I started thinking, ‘okay, so he’s taking in the kid just so he can prove a point.’ Then I saw how much effort was being put into this and I thought, ‘well, shit, he’s serious and I’m being an asshole.’ That was followed by about a week of me being sheepish before I decided to show up.”
“Can’t say I don’t appreciate the honesty…”
“Anyway, I hear you now. The kid’s staying, this is happening, we’re doing this. Fact of life, I have to deal with it.”
Tony pursed his lips. “So are you going to give me the don’t-screw-this-up talk, or what?”
“Do I need to?”
“That’s a loaded question.”
Obie shook his head and chuckled. Crossing the kitchen back over to Tony, he clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You know you’re going to be busy, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Tell me about it.”
“Yeah. So, I decided to—oh, boy. There a problem?”
Tony turned to where Obie was looking, and stopped. Where Peter once stood, there was now just a teetering lump of red cloth. Two long lengths were flapping about, and it took him more seconds than he’d admit to realize they were sleeves. Happy was fretting off to the side while Pepper was tugging it further and further down.
Finally, fluffy curls and brown eyes popped out. Peter spat hair from his face. The sweatshirt was so big on him his arms were all but swallowed up by the thing, and the hem brushed against his bare feet.
Obie grimaced. “That’s the smallest one they had…”
“Ah, geez—Do you want to take it off?” asked Pepper.
Peter shook his head, still dusting hair away from his eyes and mouth. “It’s okay. ‘S like a blanket.”
Pepper nodded. “Yeah, it looks really—” Peter turned around, and she saw the V-neck and drawstrings beneath his hair and Stark Industries written across the boy’s back in white letters. “—oh.”
Tony just waved at her to leave him be. Obie shook his head, amused.
“I was saying, since you’re good to be busy for the rest of forever, I’m going to throw you a bone today. Stay here, do whatever you want, spend some time with your boy. I’ll hold down the fort.”
Tony hummed, unsure. “People have got to be asking questions now.”
“Everyone buys that you’re just taking a vacation, trust me. You don’t mind if I borrow Pepper for the day, do you?”
“Not if she doesn’t. Thanks, Obes.” Tony clapped him on the shoulder, too, and went to rejoin the party. “’Preciate it.”
Again: the first day went very well.
Peter opened all his gifts and took each one with the same amount of wonder and gratitude. In his room, they all went strewn about the carpet, remote-controlled cars overturned on their sides and LEGOs creating a minefield. For today, Tony took care of cleaning up all the paper and balloons and whatnot.
May and Ben call a little after ten, and Peter talks back via J.A.R.V.I.S. Richard had explained that he was out like a light last night, so they weren’t so upset about not being called sooner. He didn’t mean to listen it, but Tony grinned as Peter gushed and gushed and gushed about his new toys and his new room and the view from his windows. He did the same for Richard when he called next. From what he heard, they all only sound mildly concerned, overall just pleased to hear his excitement.
It wasn’t exactly beach weather four days after Christmas, so the first thing they did after Happy drove them to Los Angeles (hello, ball cap and face mask) was the Griffith Observatory. Clearly, Peter’s love of all things space went further than just Star Wars, because his eyes were never not wide open. If he wasn’t smiling, he was gaping in awe. He didn’t just like looking at the star displays and planet models, either—he asked Tony to read the plaques of information and listened to the recorded voices over the speakers.
After that was Warner Bros. Studio, and there was no less wonder as they looked at Loony Tunes cells, movie costumes on display, almost-empty soundstages, and so on, so forth. Instead of a fancy, expensive restaurant, they grabbed a quick lunch at one of many, many Californian taco trucks. They ate in the car so Tony could take his mask off, but driving through the scenic LA streets while Peter stood up through the skylight made up for it.
It was a little too short notice to go to any of the big amusement parks of Universal Studios or Disneyland, but it was a remarkably fun day regardless. Real fun, Tony would recall with fondness later. True, there was no one around to snark at or with, and he did have to mind what he said, but that was okay. Peter was funny enough on his own—May wasn’t lying about him liking to make people laugh. He did it so often, he just said things to crack a grin out of Tony.
It did make him sad, in a subdued way that didn’t take him out of the present, that he’d been deprived this for so long. Honestly, he didn’t know whether he was upset with Mary not telling him about their son sooner. Some part of him felt wronged, because like she herself had said, he had a right to know that. It wouldn’t have been an easy thing to do, though. Tony didn’t even know how he would have reacted to the news.
In any case, it wasn’t just the morality of keeping the secret from him. Yeah, his wanting to have a real relationship with Peter hadn’t been an instant decision. Now that he’d made it, though, he felt some envy for Richard and Mary and Ben—envy that he was aware was childish, so he kept it to himself. Peter was sweet and friendly, he wanted to be with Tony and know him, but he just didn’t trust him, and that made perfect sense. They weren’t yet close enough for Peter to just ask him for things, even little things like “can we do this?” or “can we do that?” Tony had to feed him ideas, and when Peter agreed, it was up to him to see that he was just going along with it and didn’t really want to.
They’d have to work on that, he guessed. He was still planning how his busy schedule could work now. He obviously couldn’t ask Pepper or Happy to babysit because that wasn’t their jobs, and he couldn’t ask Obie to do it, no explanation needed. He’d have to split time with Richard, and if not, pay for a babysitter at Richard’s house, because he really didn’t want to let anyone else know the secret. It was called a secret for a reason.
Who knew, maybe he’d be able to install a babysitting program into J.A.R.V.I.S. one day.
They were both tuckered out a little before five, and resigned to ordering takeout once they got home. Peter could only play with his new collection of gadgets and toys for a few minutes before popping in The Great Mouse Detective. Tony knew the need for alone time when he saw it, and told him that if he needed anything, all he needed to do was talk to J.A.R.V.I.S.
Peter only did so once to ask if he should go to bed—it was eight twenty-two, not even ten minutes past the time he’d gotten from Ben—and Tony gave him the go-ahead, goodnight. Peter got in his pajamas, brushed his teeth, and tucked himself in. J.A.R.V.I.S. confirmed as much.
Sitting down in his workshop, giving DUM-E a fond pat on the head, Tony mentally gave himself a thumbs-up. He’d thought Day One would be a disaster, but it was pretty great, if he did say so himself. All he had to do was keep up the good work.
Just one last time: the first day went very well.
The first night did not.
It was maybe a half-hour since Peter had said goodnight when J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice cut AC/DC’s music off short.
“Sir, you’ve instructed me to inform you if Master Peter is hurt or distressed.”
Tony had been bent over his work desk at the time, but stood up pin-straight in less than a second. He yanked the pin he was holding between his teeth out. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s not physically harmed, but he is crying at the moment.”
Shit, Tony thought as he scrambled up to his feet. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…
He ran out of the workshop, up the stairs, through the living room, all the way to Peter’s bedroom door before he pulled himself short. Not to doubt J.A.R.V.I.S.’s report, but he leaned forward just enough to let his ear hover close to the door.
The AI had been right; the sounds coming from within the room were not the loud, bawling cries of a skinned knee or bruised elbow. No, they were the sounds of pure sadness, quiet sniffles and hiccups of air. His face was no doubt flushed and streaked with tears, but Tony couldn’t even make himself picture it.
Tony stood outside the door so long his shoes threatened to root themselves in the carpet. He couldn’t make himself open the door, even when his mind was yelling at him to do it.
This was going to be his life now, he was taking care of his son, who was five, and five-year-olds weren’t always going to be sunshine and giggles. Especially not a five-year-old who’d just recently lost his mother, and his friends, and his home…He knew that. He knew that he knew that, he’d had so long to prepare.
But the idea of going in just froze him. He had no idea what to say. He had no idea how close was close enough, or too much. His presence alone might make Peter feel worse, not better. While he stood there, unmoving, he swore he could feel the eyes of May and Ben and Richard and Mary watching him, urging him on. Telling him that he should just get in there and be a father.
It definitely would have helped to call May or one of the Parker brothers, but at the same time, how alarming would that have been for them? Even if they’d all agreed to this, none of them were at least a little unsure, and a nighttime phone call telling them that Peter was crying his eyes out, could the please help, wouldn’t help at all.
The best thing to do was go in there and comfort his son, because just trying was better than nothing at all.
But Tony didn’t do the best thing. Tony was unprepared, and scared, and—for once—stupid.
That was why Pepper showed up not long after.
It was very strange, seeing her outside of blazers and heels and whatnot. In simple jeans and a button-up, she already looked like a completely different person. Not that Tony was able to look for long, though. The second the door opened, she leveled him with a look of such crushing disappointment that he couldn’t bring himself to take one step closer to her.
“You said he’s not hurt?” She was already setting her keys on the table, not stopping to face him.
“Health-wise, he’s fine.”
Pepper didn’t wait for any more explanation, or any debriefing before she opened the door, ducked inside, and shut it again. Effectively separating her and Peter from Tony.
He waited. Went to the sink to clean the oil from his hands. Waited some more. Spent some time looking out over the moonlit ocean, feeling sad for himself. Waited even longer.
The next time the door opened, Pepper was alone. There were no more sniffles or cries, but as she stopped just long enough to say “goodnight”, a reply of “’night” came out as barely more than a whisper. Pepper shut the door softly.
She picked up her keys and moved for the door. Tony realized she wasn’t even planning on giving him an explanation, which given, maybe he didn’t deserve one. This was not something that was in her job description; this was not something you asked of anyone, ever, really.
Tony still asked, though. “Find out what’s wrong?”
Pepper stopped while her hand was on the door handle. There was another withering look from her. Disappointed. Not surprised.
“He misses his mom, Tony,” she told him. “He just really misses his mom.”
That was the first night of the new life. Pretty damn bad, if Tony said so himself.
So this is another "was supposed to be something else but turned out longer than I thought it would chapter" (U._.) The next chapter will be the one covering the time lapse, I promise, haha. Thank you all so much for the support!
Also, if you work at Marvel Studios, Disney, or Sony, and you are reading this now:
PLEASE LET MY SON STAY IN THE MCU I CAN'T LOSE HIM AGAIN.
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve
They don’t seem to drift apart at all, but it couldn’t be denied that they didn’t see each other nearly so often anymore.
The first month was not the worst, nor the best, it was just the most difficult one.
The first night was sadly not the only time that Peter cried; also sadly not the only time where Pepper had to swoop in like a heavenly savior. One time being unable to comfort his grieving son was unacceptable, every time after just made Tony want to punch himself in the teeth. No matter how long he spent beating himself up after, though, he never managed to do any better the next time.
Peter returned to Queens for New Year’s Day, just a few days after he came to the mansion for the first time. Tony did not return with him, but Peter did seem a little more chipper when he returned. Plus, he called May and the Parkers at least once a day, but usually twice. Tony hardly ever did, but he was infinitely grateful for them. Though Peter was not horribly homesick, having his pseudo-family there at any moment was undoubtedly doing wonders for them. They never ran out of things to talk about.
Peter spent his first night with Richard when he returned, and seemed to fit in just fine. Tony would later give a (very rare) visit to Richard’s house—no longer an apartment, in a lovely neighborhood in LA, but at the end of a wooded driveway for some privacy. Peter’s room was a nice one, almost identical to the one he had back in Queens. Richard’s friends from work sent Peter a remote-controlled toy dog in greeting. The dropoff and pickup from one house to another was a tedious process left up to Happy, but there was never any terseness. This was their agreement, plain and simple.
Peter began his attendance at his new school, and in the first week managed to wrangle a new play pal by the name of Seth. He had no problem telling Tony what he learned that day or showing him the crafts he’d made. Tony oohed and ah’ed over them as if the cotton balls and popsicle sticks were creations that could rival his own.
Tony, of course, had to return to work. That was already a challenge in and of itself, but throw in a new child, and he had a schedule to figure out. Thankfully, he managed to get home around three most days, right when Peter would return home. He just had to slow down on the drinking and partying so he could spend time with Peter; no big deal, no problem. Who cared?
Really, the hardest part was him getting used to Peter, and Peter getting used to him. It wasn’t unlike that first day for a good while: they could laugh and have fun and smile, but anything even an inch deeper than that was off the table. Peter hardly ever asked to do anything from the norm. If he talked about anything that happened more than a month ago, his voice would become small and hesitant. Tony had to get used to keeping up with Peter’s games of pretend and what did and didn’t work for the five-year-old.
That was all understandable, though. Not the frozen inability to talk about the elephant in the room, but everything else. On the bright side, Peter didn’t seem to dislike anything about his new home. He talked to J.A.R.V.I.S. about things like movies and science, sometimes asking the AI about his favorite color or movie—and, once, his favorite food, before he remembered that that question couldn’t be answered. Pepper being the one to comfort him in those dark moments had warmed him up to her exponentially. He greeted her with enough enthusiasm to make her smile every time. Happy and Obie he never really minded, though he never went out of his way to talk to them.
The only thing Tony hadn’t really crossed off the checklist was introducing his son to Rhodey. He hadn’t seen his best friend for over two months now, and it wasn’t a piece of information to be shared over a brief phone call, so he never really had the chance. He just had to keep his eyes and ears open for when he was going to fly in next.
He did. He checked in with Pepper at least once a day, he had J.A.R.V.I.S. do checks, so on, so forth, he wanted to be ready.
Tony was not ready.
He walked in to the house one day to hear chatter in Peter’s room, opened the door to find him and Rhodey playing a video game on the floor, and he was not ready.
There were worse sights to be greeted with, he supposed. Rhodey, rarely out of uniform, now sat cross-legged in simple jeans and a T-shirt on the carpeted floor. Peter sat next to him with his tongue poking out between his lips and his feet barefoot. Both had controllers in their hands and both were mashing buttons and turning sticks with great intensity. Every time one of the little karts on the television screen turned a corner, they tilted their bodies into it. They weren’t talking. It was all about the game. Just Mario and Yoshi.
Tony had been standing there for, what, thirty seconds? Then Peter’s half of the screen flashed 1st, Rhodey’s 4th, and a whoop and a groan sounded off at the same time.
Rhodey noticed him first. He just put his controller down and greeted him, very casually, “Hey, Tony. Could you ground this guy for me? I’ve been eating his dust for the past hour.”
Peter protested. “I didn’t cheat!”
“I didn’t say you did, little man, you’re just too good.” Rhodey jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the child. “I’m not being sarcastic, man, he’s insane. I’m legitimately hurt over here.”
Peter was grinning, of course, and with a lot of pride. He clicked out of the match and back to the menu, already flicking through the different courses. “Want to do Rainbow Road now?”
“I’m not subjecting myself to that evil. Actually, could you do me a favor? I think I left my wallet in the kitchen. Could you go get it for me?”
“Okay!” Peter shot up to his feet and barely gave Tony any time to sidestep out of his way. He did turn his head over his shoulder to call back, “Hi, Tony!” That was what he was upgraded to, now. It took a month, but he’d finally dropped the ‘Mister’. That was nice.
The second Peter was gone and out of earshot, Rhodey turned to Tony.
“What the hell.”
“Yeah.” Tony held up his hands. “Yeah, I know.”
“That’s a kid.”
“That’s your kid.”
“When did this happen?!”
“About five years ago.”
“No, when did THIS happen?”
“About a month ago.”
“I can’t believe this.” Rhodey dragged his fingers down his face, pulling his cheeks down. “I’m somehow not surprised at all, but I can’t believe this.”
“I wanted to tell you in person. I did, really. I swear it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can get that. This is a big deal. Just, uh…This used to be the guest bedroom, and now there are Lego boxes and robot drawings everywhere and I just need to know where the segue happened. I know why the kid’s here, but why is he here?”
Tony explained it to him as short as he could—the Parkers and May, the letters Mary had left, the whole process of deciding that Peter should come live with him and how it was all working out. Rhodey nodded along, still shocked but listening well. He didn’t seem bothered by Tony having a kid so much as he was the very big change of housing said kid in such a short amount of time. Unlike Obie and Pepper and whoever else, he didn’t have nearly so many questions after.
Peter returned empty-handed. “I didn’t see it in there.”
“Hm. Can you check the bathroom?”
He was already running off again. “Okay!”
Rhodey turned back to Tony, face flat. “How’s this working?”
“It’s working.” Tony gave him a dry thumbs-up. “It’s definitely working.”
“Who all knows?”
“Eugh…Me, you, Pepper, Happy, Obie, the Parkers, May, about four lawyers, and my jet pilot.”
“Your jet pilot?”
“I don’t know if he knows, but he flew us over here from Queens, so I think he’s put two and two together now.”
Peter returned once more, legitimately frustrated that his missions were failing. “I didn’t see it in there, either.”
“You know what? It’s right here in my pocket. I forgot.” Rhodey leaned forward to the compartment beneath the TV and pulled out a third controller. He’d already plugged it in before anyone could say anything else. “C’mon, Tones. We’re playing Rainbow Road.”
Peter whooped in victory and took his seat back down on the floor. Tony—now ensnared in the most cowardly of ways to get someone to do something, the old the child will be upset guilt trip—tucked his sunglasses into his breast pocket and joined them. Just a CEO, his son, and a colonel playing Mario Kart. Nothing out of the usual.
“You having fun here, Peter?” Rhodey asked.
Peter was leading them through the menu to add another player in. His tiny hands had no trouble working the controller. “Mm-hm!”
Tony moved his stick to pick Yoshi as his character. Rhodey intercepted him, the bastard. Didn’t even glance his way while he did the Three Clicks of Shame over to Donkey Kong.
“Your dad’s pretty busy,” the colonel went on, “how much do you guys hang out?”
It was infuriating how Tony just had to sit there and not say anything about it. The Rainbow Stripes of Hell appearing on the screen at least gave them a reason not to look at one another, but if he could, Tony would have been glaring him into a six-foot grave.
Peter was none the wiser. “Uhhhh…When I come over. I stay with Richard sometimes, but I stay here a lot, too.”
“What about your friends? Outside of school, I mean.”
Peter shook his head. Rhodey hadn’t been kidding: Tony was genuinely trying at this game, but Peter-as-Mario was well ahead in first place and was somehow dodging the out-of-nowhere chomping ball-whatevers with ease. “Not really.”
Tony brushed his elbow against his. “I thought you were going to talk to Rich about Tee Ball?”
Peter sighed a little, quiet breath. And promptly hit Tony with a green shell while he was already dead in the water. “We play baseball at recess, I’m not—good at it.”
“So you like baseball,” Rhodey concluded.
“You ever watch the LA Angels play?”
Peter shook his head. “Nuh-uh, just the Mets.”
“Tony!” Just the way he said it, dripping with the fakest spontaneity he’d ever heard, let Tony know the first blow was coming in fast. Peter, the sweet innocent child, turned his head just so. So curious. So oblivious. “You know what you should do?”
Tony didn’t even grace him with a dry guess. He just waited in knowing silence.
“You should send Peter and his friends to a ballgame. First of the season, front row seats. He’d love it.”
Peter was mature enough to keep his excitement contained, but young enough that he looked up at Tony—glancing back to the screen, but he’d pretty much already won anyway—with so much hope that it really, physically hurt just to meet his gaze. “Can we?”
The kid probably hadn’t brushed his hair that morning. Locks were sticking up at odd angles, like cowlicks. Tony brushed one down and told him, “Sure, we’ll figure something else.”
Peter went back to the game, but just looking by his upright back and open eyes, was already imagining what the Angel Stadium would look, smell, and sound like.
Rhodey, meanwhile, discreetly leaned over to Tony’s ear and whispered, “I’m going to ruin your life with this kid.”
Tony answered, “I’m going to ruin your life, period.”
The next two months are much better.
Finally, they have reached a routine. It was really like moving into a new house, Tony supposed. It took a while to get used to, but they slotted in eventually. Most of the time, Peter would go to school, and if he wasn’t going to Richard’s for the night, he’d make it back to the mansion a little bit before Tony returned from work. There were exceptions, of course, as Stark Industries sometimes pulled some surprises on him, and hey, maybe, admittedly, Tony liked to spend one or two nights on his own every now and then.
He was careful about what he did now that he was a Responsible Father. He didn’t stop drinking, but he stopped drinking outside of his workshop, kept the cabinet and bar under lock and key. The workshop he’d kept off-limits just because the idea of Peter around all the heavy equipment made him nervous, but he always let J.A.R.V.I.S. unlock the door if it was an emergency. He had to mind his language, of course. The first time he left a party with a woman in company—he was a little ashamed to admit he’d never actually gotten her name—they went back to her place instead of his. On the off-chance that Peter saw some left-behind underwear or an unknown woman walking around their home, that was a conversation he didn’t want to have.
He saw Richard often enough, talked to him often enough. They weren’t friends, per se, but they did have a very important job together and they had to stay connected. They never got into any spats about where Peter would stay and when; Peter never got upset when he had to leave one house or another.
May and Ben he hadn’t seen since they’d departed that last time, but they sometimes had phone calls where Ben was more than pleasant and May tried very hard not to sound like an interrogator. When Richard and Peter took visits up to Queens, they did it on the jet, just the two of them. Peter kept calling them at least once a day and updated him on how their lives had changed since he saw them last.
(Valentine’s Day was when Ben finally popped the question. Tony sent them a sincere congratulations and they replied with sincere gratitude. Peter thought they were already married and was very confused.)
Rhodey, as busy as ever, did not see Peter too often. That didn’t stop him from becoming the honorary “Cool Uncle”, though. He always brought gifts when he returned—nothing too big, but still supreme to a five-year-old, like service caps and detailed models of military aircrafts. On his second visit—his second visit!—he scooped Peter up by his underarms and carried him on his hip like it was the most natural thing in the world. And Peter let him because, uh, hello? Colonel in full uniform carrying him around? Yes, please.
Tony couldn’t even be envious; he got it. It was somehow easier to get along with a friendly and unknown stranger than a stranger that also just so happened to be your father. It was the same thing for Pepper—albeit her comforting him in those dark moments definitely still had her in good standing in the kid’s eyes.
There was a light in Peter’s eyes when he saw Pepper, and a softness in hers in turn. They saw each other on a near-daily basis. Sometimes he gave her pictures and she clipped them underneath her very important documents on her board. Other times she’d bring him these very specific grape lollipops that a nearby 7/11 sold. They did have some boundaries, though. Pepper was hesitant to touch him at all, and she couldn’t always keep up with his energy or endless time. She turned down his offers of Mario Kart and sometimes had to excuse herself from his excited rambles to answer a phone call. She liked him and he liked her, that was true enough.
Tony had also finally decided that yes, he loved Peter.
There wasn’t any particular moment where he realized it, it wasn’t like one more hug from the kid had officially upgraded him into “love” territory. It was really just over breakfast one morning, watching Peter meticulously pick up the Cheerios that had fallen from his spoon, when he thought I love this kid.
(Rhodey also told him point-blank when they were out to dinner one night. Richard had sent him a confirmation message that Peter was tucked away and sleeping, and watching Tony tuck his phone away, Rhodey had chuckled, “You love him.” Tony didn’t deny it.)
Parental love was…new. It was familiar, but unique in its own way. He took joy in seeing Peter happy, and took joy in making him happy. He noticed his little quirks and habits—like whispering aloud when he read, or how carefully he used yellow markers so the felt tips wouldn’t stain—as well as his flaws and shortcomings—like how he always wanted five more minutes at bedtime, or refused to drink orange juice if it had even a hint of pulp in it.
You’ve Got This said that those were things you were supposed to work on, but for now, Tony took them as the things that let Peter be Peter. His situation was a very unique one. Also, You’ve Got This had earned a lot of criticisms from him, starting from that children-are-trees chapter.
He and Peter were now acquainted enough to make living together a breeze. Peter knew to keep his Legos toys in his room, for example, and Tony knew not to use the blender when Peter was in the kitchen because he hated the sound it made. More than that, though, they were just casual with each other. They weren’t walking on eggshells anymore, and though it wasn’t as if they’d known each other for Peter’s whole life, it was amazingly peaceful between them.
Not that there weren’t some hurdles.
Like Mary’s birthday, for example.
Peter had come into the kitchen with uncharacteristic sluggishness. Instead of bouncing up into his seat at the island, he just took his seat and took his grilled cheese sandwich with a murmured “thanks”. He wasn’t talkative, either, but he shook his head when Tony asked if he was feeling bad. J.A.R.V.I.S. scanned him when he was out of the room and confirmed that he was healthy.
It took going to his room, getting his backpack packed and zipped, and sitting down on the bed while they waited for Happy to come for Peter to finally spill.
“Really?” Tony hummed, unsure of what else to say. “I didn’t know that.”
Peter shrugged one shoulder. “I got really mad when I forgot last time, so she said ‘Mary-born-in-February, date-of-birth-the-twenty-first.’”
Damn. That was good. “She would be thirty-two today, right?”
“I think so.” Peter paused. “Last time we went to a Chinese rest-‘raunt. She got this—it was like chicken soup, but it wasn’t chicken—there were these things like—like pizza pockets, but they had like—meat in them…”
J.A.R.V.I.S.’ voice slipped in. “Mister Hogan has arrived, sirs.”
Peter hopped up and grabbed his backpack, but Tony was worried. That first birthday after Maria had been killed, he hadn’t wanted to do anything. He just wanted to stay home and stare at the TV without watching it. But he had to be out and about, had to take care of business, all culminated in a fancy dinner held in her memory. He thanked absolute strangers for their condolences and ate food and wore a suit and he hated every second of it.
Maybe that would make it easier for Peter, though, being around his school friends. Even just sitting in class and having something to do.
“Maybe we’ll do something later,” Tony had told him, and then Peter was running out to meet Happy at last.
They did, eventually. Tony brainstormed the whole time he was at work that day, and very nearly zoned out in the middle of a meeting just planning. Obie—who never spoke to Peter very much at all but was friendly enough when he did—had to give him a rattle of the shoulders to snap him out of it.
It wasn’t much, in the end. But when Peter returned home at the end of the day, his eyes lit up at the sight of the bowl on the kitchen island.
“It’s called wonton soup,” Tony explained as Peter scrambled up into his seat so quickly his foot slid off the rung and Tony just about dove forward to keep him from falling. But he was alright, and picked up his spoon at once. Tony just kind of regretted not taking it out of the Styrofoam bowl first. “For future reference.”
“Won-ton,” Peter tested.
“Mm-hm. Eat up, sport.” Tony picked up his takeout box and stabbed a chopstick through a piece of pork. “Richard’ll be here soon.”
Peter slurped up a spoonful of broth. “Why’s Richard coming?”
“So you guys can hang out. Do whatever you want. Go to the movies. Rob a bank.” Though Peter nodded, he was still very confused, and Tony went on. “Richard probably wants to do something today, too, and I think you’d both be a lot happier if you went together.”
There was a restrained kind of sadness in Peter’s eyes, like he was happy to be with a familiar face on such a dark day, but also reminded of just why this was a dark day.
“Don’t you want to come with us?” he asked.
Tony wasn’t a mind-reader, contrary to popular belief, so he didn’t know just what that question meant. Maybe Peter was offering because being left out was a universally hurtful thing and he was just a polite kid, or maybe he really, truly wanted Tony to come along with him on this day. Or maybe he didn’t want Tony to come at all and he just knew it was the nice thing to offer.
“I also think,” he said, “that on days like these, it’s nice to have people you really, really know around. I like to be with Rhodey and Obie because I’ve known them a long time, so I think you’d like to be with Richard. What do you think?”
Peter nodded, but Tony still wasn’t totally convinced. So, leaning down just so, he asked very simply, “Do you want me to come with you guys?”
Peter had to think about it, which he guessed was better than a scared, immediate ‘yes’. Or maybe a yes was supposed to be ideal. And maybe when Peter confirmed “I want to go with Richard” and went back to his soup, he still didn’t mean it. But that was that, because Tony couldn’t grab him by the shoulders and shake an honest answer out of him. They ate their food and talked about how Freddie Maxwell was totally cheating at kickball at recess until Richard came at last.
He looked a lot better, about as awake as a physical therapist in full-time training could look. He gave his sort-of son a hug around the shoulders when he came in. Tony sometimes couldn’t even tell that one of his legs was a prosthetic.
He said “Hey, Tony,” and Tony said “Hey, Rich” and other than vague talk about the hospital and SI, that was it. Watching Peter pull on his shoes and run a brush through his hair to get ready for whatever they decided to do, Tony thought about maybe joining them after all. Or rather, he thought about if he should have wanted to join them after all. When had he stopped understanding his own brain?
Tony ended up staying home and still unsure of just what he wanted. But Peter squeezed him around the shoulders and told him “See ya, bye, love ya,” before he left, so…Not a horrible day.
The next three months were the best.
Peter was perfectly at home in Malibu, at the mansion, and at Summerset Kindergarten. He looked forward to visiting Queens just as much as he looked forward to returning home. Tony got into the habit of swinging by his bedroom to say goodnight and waking him up in the morning when he could. Tony was the first person he bragged about his drawings and crafts to, followed by Richard, then Pepper, then Happy.
May and Ben wanted the exact opposite of a big wedding, so within two months after “yes, I’ll marry you” came “yes, I do”. Richard and Peter flew out to Queens to join them, and Tony went on what was a business trip with several board members but was really just an excuse for them all to go to the Bahamas. Richard sent him a picture of Ben holding Peter on his arm, both of them in blazer-less tuxedos, with May walking towards them in a white summer dress. Tony responded with a picture of the sun setting on the ocean horizon, hoping that was even enough.
May and Ben flew over once or twice for visits. They always ate dinner together and made a point to keep their talks about how Peter was doing purely nice and not passive-aggressive at all. Tony actually liked May a lot now. Not just how adamantly she defended Peter, but everything else she cared about. Ben was also just—a ridiculously good guy sometimes. He cleaned the kitchen for no reason than just “wanting to”.
They had private movie screenings at home, they go on incognito trips to the museum and the beach, and they sometimes spent hours on Lego sets (the Apollo one was finished quickly and put on display on the shelf). Peter one day hit the bed corner pretty hard with his foot, and having to reassure him that he’s fine while he sniffles and cries just about broke Tony’s heart in half.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Peter was a good kid, but he was a kid. He had the capacity to whine and be sassy and push limits. No, Tony didn’t love those moments, but he loved Peter, so he just had to pinch the bridge of his nose and work through it. Disciplining—which was for some reason the shortest chapter of You’ve Got This, what the hell?—was not so hard as he thought it would be. He only thought as much because, well, he never imagined having to be in a discipline-your-kid position. It was a learning process, not perfect, sometimes maybe a bit much. He thought he was doing alright. For an unprepared parent. Again, Peter was a good kid.
Said good kid had finally gotten around to calling him ‘Dad’ at some point or another. Whenever it was, it wasn’t like some great, momentous occasion imprinted into Tony’s memory. More like “Morning, Dad” or “See you later, Dad”. Just like how Tony had fallen into the habit of calling him “Pete”. It was good. It was great. It felt very natural.
Similarly, Tony didn’t know when Peter, or even himself, had dropped the first “I love you”. If he thought about it, he’d say that it was probably after Tony was shutting his bedroom door one night. He’d said “Night, Pete. Love you,” and Peter’s soft and drowsy voice had answered, “Love you, too.”
After that, it was just an everyday interaction. Eat breakfast together, pass the TV remote, ruffle the kid’s hair, give Tony a hug around the leg, say “I love you”. Tony didn’t really think that much of it, but seeing Pepper’s lips quirk up just so when she overhears them one day, he thought that maybe he should. He didn’t know—should he quietly accept it as routine, or should he be celebrating it as a milestone?
Either way, Dad, Pete, and “I love you” slot into life without problem. They’d reached a state of serenity now. Yeah, Tony still had to work long nights and take sudden business trips, and Peter still had to spend so long with Richard a week to keep up the ruse, but even though they didn’t have a fixed schedule, nothing was wrong. Every now and then there were things to celebrate.
Like birthdays, for instance. Pepper’s had come just nine days before Mary’s, and whether it was on that day or before or after, Tony hadn’t been in the best place at the exact moment. He was work-stressed and going minute-to-minute, so he just deposited her a quick $750. Peter, though, he painted over an animal cracker box and gave it to her “since she said she was losing her jewelry”. Maybe she used it, and maybe she didn’t, but the warmth in her eyes told Tony that she loved Peter dearly.
Tony’s came in May, and it wasn’t too much different from the usual. Peter was not at all bothered to hear the plan: that Tony would be having an adults-only party at his house, with all of his “friends” from work and wherever else. Obie and Rhodey would be there, too. Peter likened it to having birthday parties at school, where your family wasn’t there and not all of your classmates were your friends, but it was fun anyway. Clever kid. Even if he wasn’t aware of why it was an “adults-only” party.
The day before Tony gave him a hug and a shared “love ya” before Peter went over to Richard’s. He was neither happy nor sad to see him go. Peter wasn’t going to be there every day of his life, and that was fine for both of them. Peter kept asking him what he wanted as a present, but considering he was, you know, five, Tony told him to just draw the coolest picture he’d ever drawn and they’d leave it at that.
He’s presented with that, except it’s on a square of cloth instead of paper.
“So you can wear it in your suit,” Peter explained.
The pocket square is covered in what might have originally been a tie-dye pattern, with ink spreading from the center in squiggly circles, but it seemed Peter got frustrated with that pretty soon and decided to just do the rest in haphazard crosshatch. There are places where the yellow and purple have become brown and plenty of unchecked white spots.
“It’s perfect,” Tony told him, and meant it. Though he’d come up with the lie that a “young fan” had sent it to him, he wore it to the next meeting.
(Before he could say that lie, though, one of the members actually asked him where he got it from. Tony had to choke himself to stop from laughing then and there.)
The three months after that are…worse. Not terrible, just worse.
When summer was coming, Tony had thought it’d be a good thing. That meant going on a yacht and trips to the beach and lounging on the sand. It also meant summer vacation for school, though. So between Stark Industries and Richard’s work, that meant it was officially time for a babysitter. Or babysitters, rather. They were infrequent, men and women, boys and girls, the youngest sixteen and the oldest twenty-five. They were short and tall, fat and thin, every color of the rainbow. Peter liked them (except Sally, who he just said was ‘rude’) and they liked Peter.
But they weren’t Richard or Tony, or even Pepper or Rhodey, and having the new faces walk in and out every day just seemed to remind Peter of how different Malibu was from Queens. Sometimes his school friends, or rather their parents, would have Peter over for playdates, but that wasn’t much. It would have been nice to get him into a sport or a club or something, but that meant making their complicated schedule even more complicated.
The first time Peter asked to go visit May and Ben, it made Tony sad. He knew Peter didn’t mean it as an insult or anything—“I’m unhappy, take me home!”—but it did sort of feel like that. Neither Richard nor Tony could join him, not that Ben and May couldn’t handle it. Peter was happy when he came home. Refreshed.
There are…other problems, though, not just Peter’s homesickness and the scheduling. Tony had problems—caused them.
Old habits die hard. That was a stone fact. Tony hadn’t gone sober in the past six months—HA!—but he’d definitely gone lighter on things. His bar visits had slowed to maybe twice a month, everything else being occasional glasses at home. He’d had a grand total of four parties, and that was including his birthday. Anything outside of that were on business trips and business dinners.
Tony didn’t fall back into the habits so much as he’d willingly walked back to them. Sometimes he could have Peter home so they could spend time together, but he wanted to spend the night sipping Daiquiris with the first female companion he could find. He hired a babysitter or two when he could have just cancelled a late-night workshop session. Between taking Peter to Hollywood Studios and taking an excursion on his yacht, he’d chosen the yacht. He’d really regretted that one.
He didn’t think that was horrible, though. He didn’t even need to read You’ve Got This (which he’d officially chucked in the trash when he got to the shit-you-not threequel to the “children are trees” chapter) to know that there was nothing wrong with taking “me time” as a parent. That wasn’t even limited to written guides, either, that was just a common understanding. Every second of the day, there were dozens of babysitters watching over little Billy and Sarah while Mommy and Daddy went out for dinner.
He had to admit, though, that it felt a little different for him. Tony spent a lot of time at work, sure, but was it possible he was being disproportionate to his work-to-relaxation time? There wasn’t a formula to go by. Especially considering how he’d missed the first five years to figure it out.
They don’t seem to drift apart at all, but it couldn’t be denied that they didn’t see each other nearly so often anymore. The days where Tony returned home to an empty house had returned with discomfiting frequency. Tony was searching for a way to push himself to make it work without driving far and beyond his stress limit.
In the several months now that Peter had been living with him, they’d had plenty celebrations together. They spent the Fourth of July at Disneyland and he’d put time aside for a week-long summer vacation to Rio de Janeiro, which was a pleasant time of sunshine and samba music even in spite of his disguise. Peter took immense joy in the lush jungles and colorful streets; but still, Tony had been planning his birthday, the big s-i-x, for a long time coming.
He’d given speeches to hundreds of people, he’d stayed up three days straight to get projects done by deadlines, he’d been playing part in the Iraq War for more than four years now, and Tony was still horribly nervous the whole day.
Like—this was his son’s birthday, the first one he’d ever been able to share with him. He had so many bars to raise. It had to be perfect.
When Peter wiped sleep from his eyes over their English-style breakfast buffet, Tony thought, Oh, no, what if he’s too tired to keep going the whole day and we have to cut it off short?
When he saw the size of the line for the Bionicle Blaster at Legoland, Tony thought, Oh, no, should I slip a hundred to the operator so we don’t spend too much time out of the day waiting?
When they were in the limo on the way to the Grove for the shopping spree of a lifetime, Tony thought, Oh, no, what if we pass by a building right when the plane flies by and he doesn’t see it?
(Peter did see the distant banner of Happy Birthday, Peter! being dragged across the sky. He proceeded to lose his mind.)
Tony fretted and fussed much more than he’d like to admit, but he forced himself to smile and laugh and go along with everything. He’d never before felt such a consuming need to make someone happy. All of Howard’s expectations that he’d tried to meet were stupid and painful and worthless, and he knew that even as he tried so very hard for his father’s approval. Peter, though, Tony just needs him to know that he’s loved. Peter needed to know that Tony wanted him around now and forever.
The day was culminated in a little mini-party back at the mansion. Pepper, Happy, and Richard are all there and waiting, but so are May and Ben, shifting between gawking at the wonders of the place and none too subtly flashing their rings with pride.
Obie was there, too, which really surprised both of them. Even if he’d accepted Peter into life just as much as the rest of them, he still talked to him very rarely. Peter didn’t mind him, though—especially when he set down a Lego-printed ballcap down on his curls that Tony really needed to schedule a trim for. “So you and your old man can match now.”
May and Pepper fell into easy conversation about their jobs and the people they have to put up with, but also suggestions for what May should do while she was there (she never got around to doing everything the past few visits). Rich showed Peter his new “upgrade” that made his prosthetic look a lot sleeker and not as clunky. Ben, Obie, and Happy got into a very intense conversation that Tony thought was worrisome before realizing that they were talking about the ending of No Country for Old Men. They did all this over slices of birthday cake and pizza.
It felt like home.
Happy gifted Peter a jacket, Pepper a new backpack with his name sewn on the back, and the three Parkers had all gifted him the entire Harry Potter book series and audio recordings since he’d expressed interest a while ago.
Tony was a relentless sort of bastard, though, so even though they’d done, you know, everything that day, he had one more gift up his sleeve. Months in the making, not as hard as he thought it would be, but a source of infinite pride regardless.
“I’ll be back with it in a minute. I don’t want to see that unasked-for Hawaiian box even touched when I come back.” After the workshop door had swung open for him, Tony paused to narrow his eyes at his son across the way. “Do you eat pineapple on pizza?”
Peter shrugged. “I’ll eat it but I don’t ask for it.”
“You’re on thin ice. Stay here.”
The reactions are about what he expected: gasps of wonder, gapes of awe, a whispered “He didn’t”, all laced with a bit of exasperation because he really didn’t need to go that far but he did anyway. Tony didn’t plan on apologizing anytime soon. Especially not when Peter was jumping and dancing and screaming with such jubilee that he could have been crying with joy.
Obie leaned over his shoulder to whisper, “I was joking, you know.”
“Yeah, but it was a good idea,” Tony answered while R2-D2 answered Peter’s greeting with a Beep-ba-bo-bwip!
The next four months were the absolute worse and it started when he awoke to a tiny finger poking his cheek and steam wafting past his nose.
“Dad…? Are you awake…?”
Peter’s voice was hardly more than a breath, even past the fog that seemed to be drowning him. His limbs were as heavy as lead, his head thick. Every breath he took felt slow and wet. He tried to push himself up from whatever it was he was lying down on, but then a hammer slammed into the side of his head and he fell back down with a gurgling groan.
The only saving grace was that it was fairly dim wherever he was, no blinding light stabbing through his eyelids. Oh, and he had clothes on. Two saving graces.
So dim was it, though, that he had to be sure of who he thought it was. “Pete?”
“Yeah. I brought you some tea.”
Tony wasn’t a huge tea drinker, but he recognized the ginger aroma. It was a slow and dragging process, but he made himself take everything in one-by-one. Peter was there and holding a mug of tea out to him. He was on the bed in his room, except his feet were on the pillows and his head was at the foot. There was no mess except for tousled sheets and rumpled clothes. Where there should have been a crystalline view of the ocean beyond the mansion, he instead saw black panels.
“Wh’ time s’it?” he asked as clearly as he could while trying to rub away the pain in his temples.
“I think it’s—I think it’s eight-thirty.”
“Should’un you be at school? You should be at school. Go tuh school.”
“Yes it is.”
“Why’re you whispering?”
“Richard said to be quiet.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at him. It barely made him look a little less squiggly. “Why’s Richard here?”
Peter explained almost in one breath, still whispering like it was a secret. “I came to wake you up this morning but J.A.R.V.I.S. said you had this thing called a hangover and that if you didn’t wake up in thirty minutes he was going to call Pepper but I know Pepper gets mad at you about stuff so I asked if Richard could come over instead and J.A.R.V.I.S. said okay.”
Speak of the devil: the voice of the AI came from the walls, low in volume and almost disappointed in tone. “With help on the way, the first step of the Katzenjammer Protocol was aborted. My apologies, sir.”
“You did good, Jar.” Tony doubted even the supercomputer could hear him; he said it muffled into the comforter.
“Do you want the tea?”
“No, but I’ll take it.”
The ginger tea was a little too spicy for his taste and way to hot to gulp down, but he did it anyway. Tony managed to pull himself up to his feet and only then saw that he was not in his pajamas, but in slacks and a T-shirt. Plus a baby’s bib that said Mommy’s Little Heartbreaker, the origin of which he could only vaguely recall as a waitress with a nose ring and knuckle tattoos, and he tore it off and stuffed it under the mattress before Peter could see.
Peter led him out of the bedroom almost by hand. The rest of the house was sunlit, but he just dealt with it. The sound of someone moving around the kitchen was enough of a distraction.
R2D2 was in the living room. Tony stared, remembered, and kept walking. The little robot beeped and strolled after Peter.
Richard hadn’t arranged a five-course meal for him, but he’d concocted a hangover-worthy breakfast of scrambled eggs and banana slices with a glass of apple juice. Tony counted himself only somewhat fortunate that he wasn’t having an upset-stomach hangover. He wasn’t exactly drooling, but neither did his belly roil at the sight of food.
Richard was pulling the coffeepot out of the maker when Peter and Tony came walking in. Whatever look Richard leveled his way, Tony didn’t see it, because he was still rubbing his eyes even as he walked to his seat.
“Hey, Tone.” Yeah, he was definitely not happy. He never called Tony a nickname.
Peter carried Tony’s mug of coffee over to him, and still whispering, reminded Richard to “save some for him!” Richard had to rear the pot back before he filled another mug full and poured the rest into a third mug. It was only a third full, but the rest would be filled with milk and sugar, the only way Peter took it.
With his pretend-father getting his coffee together for him, Peter turned to his actual-father and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Will be,” Tony answered through a long yawn. “You don’t have to whisper, you know. Just don’t yell.”
So speaking, he asked, “What’s a hangover? I asked J.A.R.V.I.S. but he told me to ask you.”
Despite surely listening in, the AI said nothing in explanation. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Tony should definitely be the one to answer the question. As Peter stared up at him in curiosity, though, Tony came up short.
Richard, who also took some of his older brother’s gift-to-earthness, answered for him. “It’s like a bellyache adults get sometimes. He’s not sick; he just feels bad.”
“Oh.” Peter set his hands on the side of the bar and propped his chin atop them. It was adorable, and Tony would have ruffled up his curls at any other day. Today, though, Tony keeps his hands to himself and puts way too much pepper over his scrambled eggs. “When I got bellyaches, Mom used to make me pillow forts. So I could hibernate. Like a bear.”
The first bite of eggs slid down more than got swallowed, but Tony nodded to him. “That sounds absolutely incredible. Please do that and make sure it has five bedrooms and an indoor pool.”
Peter shot off like a bullet, coffee forgotten, and R2D2 followed when Tony shooed him on. The robot—which technically had an artificial intelligence on par with J.A.R.V.I.S., but was limited to beeps-and-boops for communication—was basically their pet dog at this point. An infinitely adorable playmate for Peter, a sometimes-nuisance for Tony. At least they didn’t have to worry about Peter growing out of it anytime soon.
Tony just got it out of the way. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t cut it. I know.”
“In complete and utter fairness, in the nine months this has been going on, this is actually the first time the cavalry had to be called in.” Richard took a gulp of coffee and smacked his lips. He’d probably never had imported-from-overseas coffee before. “’Mean, this isn’t good, but it’s been fine up until now.”
“Yeeeah. Actually, hold on…Was Peter here last night or not? I’m confused.”
“Happy brought him over and made sure you were here before he left. Peter said you were sleeping on the sofa, then a little after Happy left, you just got up and went to your bedroom.” He gestured to the bar, where Tony only just noticed the giant stuffed teddy bear that didn’t belong to his six-year-old. “He also said you were snuggling that thing, but you know him. No judgement.”
Last night must have been freaky, Tony thought. “Okay. Uh…Eugh. Let me explain.”
“You went partying and got blackout drunk. I get it. My mom did that, like, sixteen times when I was a kid. Wouldn’t even care that much if it weren’t for Peter, you know?”
“Yeah. Shit.” Tony ran a hand over his brow. “You have my word, not going to happen again.”
From the living room, Peter called, “Can I get the pillows from your room?”
“Go ahead.” After a blur sped past them, he turned back to Richard. “Never.”
Richard visibly chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Maybe just—I know you have a lot of protocols and stuff with J.A.R.V.I.S., so maybe you can just…Make another one? Just in case Peter’s around. You don’t have to—just thought—you know. Precaution.”
As stiff and stammered his words were, Tony got the underlying message: Richard didn’t quite believe him. He was right, this was his first huge screw-up so far (you know, outside of not knowing Peter existed for 83% of the kid’s life), but that didn’t mean it was okay, or something not to be worried about. Richard was as aware as anyone that Tony’s main endeavors were time in the workshop, bars, parties, and pretty much anywhere where alcohol flowed and inhibitions were loose. He’d never judged him for it before since he’d always kept it in bounds, but now he’d taken the first step over the line.
Peter passed by again with an armful of pillows that almost consumed him. Guilt panged hard in Tony’s chest. He didn’t even want to imagine what could have happened while he was out like a light.
Richard nudged his coffee toward him like an olive branch. Tony took it, already planning on implementing the Dad’s Fallen and He Can’t Get Up Protocol by the end of the day.
A third time, for good measure, he repeated, “Never again.”
It happened six more times. Five times it was a gravely disappointed, border-lining furious Richard who came to the rescue. Only once was it Pepper Potts, with the rage of it being the hundredth time. To her knowledge, though, it only happened once.
Peter, again, did not have full access to the workshop, purely for safety reasons. There were sharp tools and heavy machinery everywhere; not a place for a six-year-old to wander about. Tony knew that just made the place the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden that was the mansion. In all of Peter’s few and brief visits inside, he always looked around with wonder and want.
To be honest, the workshop was also Tony’s personal place. In there, it was just him, his work, and the rock music that played over the speakers. He didn’t have to worry about Stark Industries or the Jericho Project or the War. While others might beat punching bags or shoot at a range to vent, he dismantled engines and snipped wires.
He was a parent now, though, and that meant making exceptions and sacrifices. Even if he didn’t want to, and even if it annoyed him.
Originally he’d had it so Peter would be let in automatically case of an emergency, like an injury. Otherwise Peter would beep him on the intercom before he let him in. Sometimes he just needed to know where something was, and he’d walk off without problem after. Other times he needed help getting something from a high shelf and whatnot, and Tony would come and meet him.
In this case, when Peter’s voice cut Led Zeppelin off cold, it was to ask, “I need help on my math stuff.”
So Tony heaved a great sigh, cut off his blowtorch, and said, “Alright, c’mon. Careful.”
He’d had to lay off three people that morning. He and Obie had gotten into a spat about the progress of the Jericho Project. He had a migraine that he kept taking Ibuprofen after Ibuprofen for. But Peter just needed some two-second help. He could do that.
Peter came tiptoeing in and made the most of the short walk over to admire the scenery. Tony was surprised, since Peter had never had an issue with schoolwork, but then he saw what the problem was. The paper (he questioned even giving six-year-olds homework, but whatever) had run out of ink about halfway, so the final row of addition equations were hardly shadows. The ones up top were filled in and correct.
“I can’t see what they say,” Peter told him.
“Gotcha. Alright, give me a second.” Tony looked over his desk to find his pen. “I’ve got it. Hey, do not touch that, alright? It’ll fall.”
Peter looked over to the tool rack and nodded. The thing was pretty delicately held against the back of the desk. Tony did not miss the irony in something so small as it going unfixed in his workshop. He just dealt with it.
Writing over the shadowy numbers with pen took longer than he should have, especially at the very bottom. Tony seriously doubted he got any of them wrong, but if he did, Peter would have a note about how the paper was misprinted.
Then it happened.
The crash of sound hit him like someone smacking him upside the head. He set his pen down, took a not-very-deep breath, and already knew what he was turning to see. The tool rack was now facedown on the desk, wrenches and pliers scattered this way and that, all while Peter clutched his once-extended hand to his chest.
Instinctively, Peter cried, “Sorry!”
“I told you not to touch that.”
“Get out.” Tony handed him the paper and picked up the rack. The few tools that had kept their hold went clattering down. “Just go.”
“I said get out, Peter!”
It took getting the rack propped up, the tools piled together, and the music playing again for regret to sink in. He’d broken the number-one rule of parenting, Do not take out your anger on your kid. Yeah, Tony, he’d done something you told him not to do. So reprimand him, don’t bite his head off his shoulders.
He was too annoyed, frustrated, and tired to immediately pull himself up the stairs and apologize. If tears were falling from Peter’s eyes, J.A.R.V.I.S. decided Tony didn’t need to be told that. Even worse, the parental guilt pretty much ruined his venting. Now he just felt sluggish.
When he decided enough was enough, he forced himself to Peter’s door and knocked.
“Hey, Pete?” No response. “Hey, can we talk?”
Still nothing. Tony tried to twist the knob, but it kept hard in place.
“Pete, unlock the door.”
“Unlock the door, Peter.”
J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice drifted down. “Would you like me to open the door for you, sir?”
Tony thought about it.
“No,” he decided. “It’s alright.”
Peter did eventually emerge, decidedly not teary-eyed and with the homework done. Tony apologized for snapping at him. Peter apologized for knocking down the tools. That was that. Not a big deal at all. Still, Tony promised himself that it wasn’t going to happen again.
It happened again. And again. And maybe three more times after that.
“Can I spend Christmas with Aunt May and Uncle Ben?”
It wasn’t the question itself so much as the timing of it that made Tony’s heart squeeze. In the past two weeks, he’d only been able to see Peter a total of three hours altogether. The Jericho Project had reached its critical state; everyone was in overdrive. Meetings, crunch time, emergency intervention after emergency intervention—everyone was at the end of their wits. It wasn’t just that Tony didn’t have the time for Peter, he didn’t have time for anything.
Except for the occasional party and bar hop, though. It didn’t matter how much he kicked himself in the pants for it later, he always made time for it.
But he really had been making Christmas plans for him and Peter. Nothing huge, but something like a cabin somewhere snowy. Peter could enjoy making snowmen and going sledding and Tony could enjoy sitting in front of a fireplace and drinking eggnog. They could even watch those old Rankin/Bass stop motion Christmas movies for extra nostalgic value.
Of course, he’d been planning on allowing Peter time to spend with the Parkers, but those visits lasted a few days at least, and he was holding out on a certain time frame. The days before and after Christmas was “vacation time” for Stark Industries, an eye in a storm that couldn’t be rescheduled.
Tony pulled up Peter’s blanket a little more, trying to be casual. “Yeah, why’s that?”
“Just wanna.” Peter rubbed at his eye. “I haven’t seen them in a while.”
You saw them two weeks ago, and you talked to them this morning. “How long do you want to stay?”
Peter thought about it like he always did. Tony didn’t remember waiting so tensely for the answer, though.
“How ‘bout a week?” he finally decided.
So much for that trip, then.
“Sure. Now go to sleep.” Tony flicked off the lamp on the nightstand. The stars in the ceiling lit up one-by-one, casting them in a light glow. In the corner, R2-D2 stood dormant. “I’ve to go call Santa.”
Peter left for Queens almost a week before Christmas, just in time to say goodbye to a visiting Rhodey and make Tony realize he didn’t like how happy Peter was about leaving and feel childish. He’d sent most of the gifts over already just so he could have that Christmas-morning opening spree, but he kept his own gift home until he returned. It wasn’t an R2-D2, but it was a near-authentic astronaut helmet, a puzzle made from one of his drawings, and other cool little things put together.
Instead of a comfy cabin with a burning fire and his son just in the other room, Tony spent Christmas largely alone in his mansion save for one dinner between him, Rhodey, Obie, several board members, and a somewhat incredulous-as-to-why-she-was-there Pepper. After this, he’d return home and do a lot of nothing for a lot of time. Peter would return days later, but work would hit him so hard that Tony wouldn’t be around to actually see him open the gift. Nor would he be around to even welcome Peter back to Malibu.
That Christmas night, while they were all standing from their chairs and shaking hands in goodbye, Rhodey tapped him on the shoulder. “You know he’s fine, right? He’s spending Christmas with his family, not rotting in a trench.”
He wasn’t fine, though, but only Tony knew that. Rhodey didn’t know that Peter had been pulling away for weeks now, slowly but surely not saying as many jokes or talking about school as often. When he’d left for Queens, he’d been so happy for the first time in a long time, so happy to be leaving.
Rhodey also didn’t know that for as much as he hated watching Peter go, Tony was doing little to get him back. He would mope and pout about not seeing Peter so often, only to turn away an opportunity when it was handed to him on a silver platter. He’d been so sure he wouldn’t let this happen.
Don’t ever, ever make him feel like he’s not wanted, he heard Richard warn.
This is a terrible idea, he heard May cry.
The worst kind of person, he heard Mary sigh.
“Yeah, he’s fine,” he heard himself lie.
Eesh, sorry for that wait! This chapter was a toughie, eugh u._. That's it for the prologue, though! I.M. begins in the next chapter!
Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen
This, uh…This didn’t feel good, though. Tony (and Peter, he guessed) knew by now that this wasn’t going to be a walking-talking Hallmark movie. Tony wasn’t going to walk in with a “Hey, sport!” and Peter wasn’t going to joyously cry “Dad!” and run to his arms so he could scoop him up. “I love you, Dad,” Peter would not say, and then he wouldn’t go “I love you, too, son!” Then the credits wouldn’t roll and play whimsical flute music.
Pepper didn’t hate her job, but God if Tony didn’t test her patience on a daily basis. Surprise paperwork and emergency board meetings were just a given in any personal assistant’s job; they were annoying, but she could deal with them.
Having to time and again escort Tony’s bedmates out of the house, though, that was never fun and never would be.
Usually, the women were from bars or parties, everyday ladies who had caught his attention. Hell, sometimes they weren’t even that bad to deal with. Renee, if Pepper remembered her name right, was perfectly fine. She was pretty miffed about being shooed out like an unwanted pest, but she’d left pretty quickly and didn’t take it out on Pepper. The last time he’d bedded a more “noteworthy” woman had been a soap opera actress, and it was the most awkward nightmare imaginable, having to deny left and right that they were the new “It” couple.
Christine Everhart was kind of an in-between. The everyday person wouldn’t know her name, and there wouldn’t be any “Tony Stark & Christine Everhart: THE Hottest Couple on the Red Carpet?” tabloids. It was worse, actually, because Christine was a reporter, and a damn good one at that. She’d probably had her eyes set on Tony for a while now—in the reporting sense, but maybe in the other sense, too.
Having to have a business conversation was a fresh-out-of-the-bed woman dressed only in her undergarments and a loose shirt was never not difficult.
It was just especially difficult when an unsuspecting six-year-old was in the next room, just one door away from unleashing the biggest media craze since Kim Kardashian’s tape.
That was why, when J.A.R.V.I.S. had informed Pepper of yet another houseguest she needed to tend to, she was seized by panic. They had a protocol now, for when Richard or Happy came to drop Peter off while Tony wasn’t there. Once Tony hopped into a car to return home, J.A.R.V.I.S. would be alerted. They all trusted the AI, and Peter had always been generally well-behaved, so they would sometimes let J.A.R.V.I.S. watch over him.
It wasn’t a perfect system; Pepper didn’t like it at all. The blame could also be shared with Richard and maybe J.A.R.V.I.S. for not having a better plan. Mostly, though, it was Tony, because he’d been reminded several times over that Peter would be coming back from his class trip today and he was supposed to see him before he left, did it seriously only take one pouty-lipped look from Christine Everhart for him to forget?
Best birthday ever.
Pepper had her clothes washed and pressed, a car ready to take her away, and a lot of regret for taking this job in the first place when she made it to the mansion. J.A.R.V.I.S. reported that Everhart hadn’t woken up yet, which was a saving grace.
It was either grace, too, or misfortune that Peter opened the door just as she was coming in. It was hard to forget she’d known the boy for over a year now, because as far as she was concerned, he looked exactly the same. Still tiny, still messy-haired, still as cute as could be.
“Hey, Pepper.” He tried to sound chipper, but his voice was soft with sleep. He started to walk out in his Saturn-print pajamas, wiping his eyes clear.
Quick but not sudden, Pepper set the clothes on the back of the couch and corralled him back in. He obeyed, but blinked his huge brown eyes up at her, confused.
“Hey, Peter, I need you to stay in here for just a little while, okay? I'll come get you when it’s okay; but you’ve got to stay in here ‘til then.”
“Nothing, nothing, just—”
J.A.R.V.I.S.'s voice announced, “Miss Everhart has awoken.”
Peter’s nose wrinkled. “Who’s that?”
“Um...” Curse you, Tony. “One of Tony’s work friends. She travelled a long way last night and she was tired so Tony let her stay here.”
“Oh.” Already he was backing away from the door, wary. They'd only done this a handful of times before, with a visiting contractor or stockholder or two, but he knew the drill: someone was in the house and it was time for him to hide and be quiet. “Okay.”
“Yeah. I’ll be back in just a minute, okay? Hang tight.”
It was like she could feel Everhart’s incoming presence through the very walls. Pepper took hold of the doorknob, trying to smile, and Peter let go. Suddenly, though, and too loudly, he said, “Wait!”
“Isn’t today your birthday?”
Pepper actually hoped she was crazy and wasn’t hearing padding footsteps incoming down the hall. “Yeah, it is, but I gotta go now. Stay here.”
Whispering in that very intense way children do: “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” she hissed, and right as the door finally shut, Everhart appeared in a very classy underwear-and-loose-shirt ensemble.
Best birthday ever, indeed.
Pepper gave him time, at least, and even Tony had to admit that was as good as he deserved. They talked about his almost-two-hour-late flight, that Jackson Pollock painting, the MIT speech, even her birthday that he really, truly did feel bad about forgetting. She gave him all the time up to him tipping back his espresso like a shot.
“One more thing,” she called out, not even facing him. “Peter wants to know if you’re going to come upstairs and say goodbye or not.”
He heard her, but he didn’t really process what she was saying.
“Is he upstairs?”
“Everhart didn’t see him, don’t worry.”
“I was going to call him once he got back from his trip. Why’s he upstairs?”
“Because he got back from his trip yesterday, not today—and you’re not supposed to call him, you’re supposed to see him.”
“I have no memory of this arrangement.”
“Do you have any memory of J.A.R.V.I.S. sending you an alert last night?”
If Tony’s body was as much as a computer as his brain was, Pepper probably would have seen a giant loading symbol across his face. Though he was still, the skin around his eyes pinched together—and ding, he pointed a finger upwards. “I do have a vague memory now. Very hazy.”
“Hey, I knew I was prolonging the flight for something! It just slipped my mind.”
“How often does that happen?”
“Almost never. You should schedule me a doctor’s appointment.”
“I—he’s still up there.”
Tony wiped the oil off his hands and hustled for the stairs before he could make an even bigger—well, not idiot, he wasn’t stupid. But he was kind of an ass, he had to admit that. The almost-glare Pepper pinned to his back as he left was pretty justified.
He really, truly didn’t remember this arrangement. Peter left for his trip on Friday, he’d be gone for all of Saturday, then he would be coming home on Sunday. By then, Tony would have—or should have, at this point—be on his way for his flight to demonstrate the finished Jericho Project and he’d give Peter a call on the way over.
Wait, maybe Peter had returned Saturday night instead. But in that case, he’d never agreed to having him come over to the mansion before he left. How would that make sense? Why would Peter be brought to the mansion if Tony was going to leave the next morning? That didn’t make—
Now that he recalled it, on the last conversation he’d had with Richard last week…He’d mentioned that he was going to be doing an overnight shift at the hospital. So he’d suggested that when Peter got back to school, which would be a little late at night, Richard would bring him over to Tony’s house, then in the morning he would return to bring Peter home.
Tony had agreed to that.
And…yes, he’d had this exact thought process when he’d gotten an alert from J.A.R.V.I.S. about being Peter home. But then he’d heard “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” and his attention span had regressed to that of a goldfish.
In conclusion: yes, this was his fault, and he’d really screwed the pooch. Again.
In that one part of his mind with a very dark and dry sense of humor, he thought, I should start a punch-card for how many times I’ve done who-knows-what while Peter was supposed to be under my care.
Tony realized just how bad he’d done this time when he was standing in front of Peter’s bedroom door. Not that all the other times weren’t bad, but this was a new level of bad, this was could-have-dropped-a-bomb bad.
He’d never before brought home a woman while Peter was home. He’d gotten back into the habit of bringing them to the mansion, yes, but he’d always made sure that Peter was miles away before he did so. His son’s bedroom automatically locked down when there was company in the house. J.A.R.V.I.S. would give him a heads-up if there were misplaced Legos or a child-size jacket anywhere.
He’d never before brought home a woman while Peter was home, and he’d never been so damn reckless to bring home a woman like Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair magazine, who could have seen Peter with his big, brown Stark eyes and curly hair and realized ho-lee shit, she’d just found the story to end all stories.
So, yeah. This entire setup they had going for two years now, almost ruined because he saw a cute blonde and couldn’t be bothered to check his day planner.
Forget disappointment. Mary was probably watching him now and screaming, What are you doing?! What are you DOING?!
Tony would reflect on the crushing stupidity of his actions later. For now, Peter was waiting to tell him goodbye.
“Pete?” he tapped his knuckles on the door. “’M I good to come in?”
“Yeah,” came the answer.
Peter’s room looked, in Tony’s opinion, better than it had when it was first made. Now it actually looked lived-in. The books in the star-shaped shelf were hardly ever in any order. The whiteboard was always covered in scribbles and shapes of pretty much any color imaginable. The open box of Legos, the video game controllers on the floor, the shoes kicked haphazardly under the bed—it felt like an actual kid’s room now.
Peter sat on the bed with what Tony guessed was his ‘haul’ from the trip: little booklets and papers, crafts, toys, the whole shebang. They’d gone to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, if he remembered right, and the Santa Maria Discovery Museum on the way back.
Peter had a large, glossy conch shell in one hand, held a little parallel to his head, and looked very perplexed.
“What’cha doing?” Tony asked while he took a seat on the foot of the bed.
“You’re supposed to be able to hear the ocean when you listen to a shell,” Peter answered, “but I don’t hear anything.”
“You have to hold it to your ear, Pete. Like—here.”
Tony guided Peter’s hands until he held the opening of the shell flush against the side of his head. Peter listened, and frowned, still unhappy.
“All I hear is shhhhhhhh.”
“Well, you’re not actually supposed to hear the ocean. That’s the blood in your ears. It sounds like waves, doesn’t it?”
But Peter had dropped the shell, alarmed. “Why is there blood in my ears?”
“Because—okay. I’ll explain later.” Tony should probably be giving some kind of affectionate touch now, but with them sitting opposite to each other, he just...tapped Peter’s foot. “Listen. I have to go to that business trip now. Remember?”
Peter nodded. “Yeah.”
“Remember where I’m going?”
He pronounced it carefully, “Aff-gan-nuh-stan.”
“Remember how to spell it?”
“Fantastic. I’ll only be gone a couple of days. You won’t be able to call me, probably, so just…hang tight, alright?” Peter nodded, and he went on, “Richard’s going to be here in just a minute.”
“Aunt May and Uncle Ben are coming down to visit. So I’ll be with—you know, we’ll all be together in Richard’s house.”
Ah, yes. The familiar feeling of May Parker nee Reilly’s visceral disappointment washes over me once more. “Sounds good.”
That was it, Tony guessed. Business had been taken care of, and time was ticking.
This, uh…This didn’t feel good, though. Tony (and Peter, he guessed) knew by now that this wasn’t going to be a walking-talking Hallmark movie. Tony wasn’t going to walk in with a “Hey, sport!” and Peter wasn’t going to joyously cry “Dad!” and run to his arms so he could scoop him up. “I love you, Dad,” Peter would not say, and then he wouldn’t go “I love you, too, son!” Then the credits wouldn’t roll and play whimsical flute music.
He just didn’t want it to end on such a neutral note. Peter didn’t seem angry, thank goodness, but he seemed carefully calm about it. Like everything he’d learned in Childhood 101 was telling him to hug Tony and ask him not to go but he really just wanted to keep hearing the “ocean” in the conch.
“Hey, tell you what: the second I get back we’ll go to that Mexican place in Glendale you really like. Parrilla Dorada?”
Instead of smiling, Peter’s mouth wrinkled. “I thought it closed down?”
“What? No it didn’t.”
“I thought it had rats and they had to close down.”
“No, that was Parrilla de Plata.”
“I thought they got cockroaches.”
“No, they—wait, no, yeah. Okay. No more Parrillas. So we’ll just have to find our new favorite Mexican place! Hey, and, I don’t know if you forgot, but the Land of Adventure opens up at Legoland next month! We could do what crazy people do and camp out in front of the gates the night before.”
Well, if that wasn’t a red flag, what was? Legoland was Peter’s heaven on earth. His home away from home. Was Peter going through a midlife crisis at six years old?
“What’s wrong? Legoland not your cup of tea anymore?”
“No, I still like it, it’s just…”
“I don’t know…I like stuff besides Lego.”
That was actually a very…fair point. Peter liked space stuff, Star Wars, and Legos. He also had a knack for science stuff, too, but even Tony had to admit he was kind of chalking up his son’s interests to not even five things. He simply didn’t recall them talking about much else. That wasn’t an excuse, though; that was just another mark against him.
“Alright. What do you want to do?”
Peter thought about it. “We could go see a baseball game?”
He’d forgotten that Peter was a Mets fan. They never got around to going to that game. He made a mental note to plan one as soon as possible. “We’ll get box seats. Pinkie swear.”
They twined their pinkies together, but Peter’s gaze dropped from his as quickly as his hand pulled away. Now Tony was positive he found his haul more interesting than his departing father. And that didn’t sting. Nope. Not at all. All good.
Tony stood up. He could feel Pepper’s impatience oozing through the walls. “Alright; give me a bye-hug.”
It never crossed his mind that it was a demand. He’d said it a million times, when Peter was heading out for school, or before Richard took him home. But for some reason, this time, it was a demand, and Peter poorly concealed his reluctance as he pushed himself up to his knees and wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist. His arms were stiff. His head pretended to rest against Tony’s chest.
It wasn’t back to Square One, but it felt like a step in that direction. Tony couldn’t even deny it the next time: the easiness in which Peter focused on his stuff instead of watching Tony go hurt.
Tony dreamed of Mary, sometimes.
He’d had these kinds of dreams before—they wouldn’t leave his damn head alone after his parents were killed, and even today they popped up on the most random of nights. They weren’t entirely the same, however, especially since he hadn’t really lost Mary. Mary was never really his to lose.
Sometimes, they are what-if dreams. What if he’d stopped her before she left his hotel room that morning? What if she’d told him she was pregnant the second she found out? What if that car had never struck her taxi?
The third sort are the worst, because those feel so domestic and normal. His own brain never decided if they were married or if they just knew one another. He saw Mary walking into the mansion with a fresh-out-of-school Peter, Mary lifting Peter effortlessly onto her hip while they walked through whatever amusement park they were in, Mary talking, Mary breathing, Mary living. Dreams insist they’re reality, of course, so he never questioned it, just lived in the moment until he woke up with an empty concave in his chest.
He was starting to forget what she looked like. Photos from her friends hardly helped. She’d become a pair of green eyes and a clever smile, framed in brown hair but floating in a haze.
Once, he dreamed that she was still alive, but Peter didn’t exist. That one had unsettled him, because he’d felt so much that something was missing even though he couldn’t put his tongue on it.
Mostly, he dreamed that she just…came back, somehow. One way or another, she showed up at his mansion knowing full and well everything that he’d done. She called him a drunk, called him a mess, told him she never wanted him to take Peter because she knew he’d be a shit father, she knew, she knew.
If it didn’t stop at that, then she tried to take Peter. Peter always welcomed her back with open arms, as if she’d never left him—and even with her featureless face, the dreaming Tony always thought, they look so much alike. Peter wrapped himself around her, and smiled with such joy, such relief that Tony’s heart ached…and then ached harder as he reached out, begging Mary to please, please don’t take him away, I’ll do better, he’s my son, please, Mary, I love him.
Did Peter ever react, in those dreams? Did he ever reach back to Tony, or did he bury his face in his mother’s neck and let her carry him away? Maybe he just became a personification of something Tony couldn’t lose.
Whatever he dreamed, however it ended, he almost never fell asleep afterward. If he had the energy, he’d pull himself out of bed and go to Peter’s door. If he was about to break, he would crack it open and just look at the little lump beneath the sheets, the little rise and fall of Peter’s chest.
Those dreams were always his…what had Jarvis called them? ‘Momentary motivations.’ After them, he’d be reinvigorated with this sense of I’m going to do better, I’m going to be a better father, I’m going to make Peter feel loved and protected and wanted. Then that reinvigoration would fade, and he’d go right back where he was, not trying a damn thing and just waiting for another dream.
He hadn’t had such a dream for a while, but thinking about him made him, well, think. At the least, he would think until he couldn’t take it anymore. The guilt made him physically ill, even nauseous. He had to save himself, whether by a cold drink or another project to fiddle with.
After the demonstration—the heat of the explosion was still warm on his back, the air smelled like dust—Tony gave himself an out by telling the very sleepy Obie on his phone, “Keep an eye on Pete while I’m gone, yeah?”
Obie answered, “You got it.” And there it was, his regularly-scheduled bout of self-loathing. Now all he had to do was lock it up and save it for a rainy day.
Perhaps dreams were why he could never bring himself to take a nap, or why he could go literal days with no sleep. Maybe Tony Stark was afraid of dreaming.
But later, as he lied awake with ash in his lungs and smoke in the air, surrounded by hard stone and stretching darkness, the feeling of something cold and living and wrong deep and inescapable in his chest, Tony wished that he could dream.
Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen
Tony kept tinkering with the arc reactor and readjusted the battery wires when they tangled around his waist. The goal, for now, was to try to find a way to live. If he lived, then he could prevent a whole lot of hurt for a lot of people.
Plus, y’know, living. Wanting to not die was admirable enough.
Tony still couldn’t make up his mind about the debate of fate. He’d put his jacket over his dismantled toys and now he had a scar. His parents hopped into a car and now they were dead. He met Mary Fitzpatrick at a party and now he had a son. He still believed, firmly, that there was nothing supernatural about any of it, though. Things always had some kind of formula. Even if it didn’t, stuff just happened sometimes.
He told himself this several times: when he thought about his friendship with Rhodey, when Stark Industries launched another product, and when he lied awake in a freezing cave with a car battery serving as his only wall between life and death.
The electromagnet hurt, God did it hurt, but more so than that it just felt wrong. It was a wonder he wasn’t spilling blood every time he leaned forward, it was buried so deep in his chest. The skin around it felt stretched and torn at the same time, and often Tony could swear he felt a bolt of static shoot through his veins. He was very careful with the wires that connected it to the battery. The second one of them pulled taut, he scrambled. All it would take was one hard tug and he’d be on the floor, trying and failing to save himself before the darkness closed in.
Probably. It was a car battery and some scrap metal. He was dying more and more every second.
Yinsen—he only learned his name a week later, when he bothered to learn it—said he got over his shock quickly. “Which is good. It means you can spend more time thinking now.”
As if Tony ever stopped thinking. It just wasn’t the things he was “supposed” to be thinking about.
Surely looking to your impending death had to have an effect on everyone, right? Not that death was ever, you know, timely, but knowing it was coming was hardly better than having it catch you unaware. Oh, sure, you had time to get your properties and affair in order and you get to say goodbye to loved ones—
(Not that Tony was going to be able to do either of those things)
—but in exchange, you are filled with so much dread that it leaves you unable to breathe. Tony only guessed that was what it was like for everyone; that was what it was like for him. It wasn’t like sleeping in the cave was easy, what with the icy temperatures and ashy air and the inability to lie comfortably in a threadbare cot with wires running through your veins, but it wasn’t made any easier with the knowledge that he might not wake up. That the fire-lit walls might be the last thing he ever saw, that faceless men with guns ready to shoot him down would be the last people he ever spoke to.
At least he had an actual reason to fear sleeping, now.
Perhaps he was still in shock, after all, or maybe he’d shot right through it so he could get to acceptance. Being all too knowledgeable of death’s hand on his shoulder was about as accepting as he could get, probably.
He could write a doorstopper of all the things he was going to regret—not figuring out just what was going on between him and a certain personal assistant, not finding any meaningful relationships besides a few sparse people, and pretty much every single thing to do with his son that he was never going to see laugh, cry, or breathe again—but was there even a point? It wasn’t like he was going to make peace with any of them. He wasn’t an old man in his death bed, surrounded by his loved ones. He was stuck in a cave with shrapnel barreling towards his heart.
It’s not even that him dying had to happen, anyway. If they really did just send him home like a found puppy after he built their missile, or if there was anything better around to mend the machinery in his chest, then maybe he would have had a chance.
The cave was cold, the food to keep him alive-until-he-dies was nothing but gruel, and even sunlight was too much for him now. He was not going gently into that good night, that was for certain.
What really confused him was how the hell Yinsen did so well with all of it. He didn’t just smile and chat and make jokes, the man made sure his suit still looked nice and bothered to shave in the tiny clouded mirror he’d strapped up. And he knew it, to, because when he caught Tony giving him a bewildered look, he just gave a smile meant to be calming but was really challenging. He wanted Tony to ask, he wanted Tony to use him as a role model, or something. Proof that he could be okay.
Tony felt a lot of things those first few nights in the cave. ‘Okay’ was far from being one of them.
Tony made it through a week, despite what he feared. He had no calendar to mark the days off, but a week was good. A week was something.
Their captors were taking their sweet time getting everything in order, it seemed. After that second day, where Tony had been pulled into the blinding sunlight to be given his assignment, another Jericho missile, they let him and Yinsen sit in their shared cave for a whole two days just to brainstorm, it seemed. They gave them food in cans and boxes when they needed it. Tony had shook their leader’s hand in agreement, so for all they knew, their two captives were just figuring out when and where they would get started.
Tony had finally gotten around to thinking like Yinsen said he could. He sometimes entertained ideas that might save him. Like maybe they could figure out if they had any kind of communication technology and they could re-wire it to send for help. Any of these ideas had ended with the reminder that him and Yinsen were as good as dead.
Yinsen finally gave him a hint of why he was so determined to keep going. ‘Legacy’, he’d said. ‘Defiance.’ ‘The last act.’
Well, he had had a point, and Tony couldn’t deny that. If they were both going to die, they might as well try to do something. Anything was better than shivering in their beds day in and day out.
They got to work.
The ‘Ten Rings’, as Yinsen named to him, were surprisingly cooperative with him. Whatever supplies and tools Tony asked for, he got. Captive though he was, he was also their golden goose, he guessed. In order to do what they wanted, they had to give him nothing but the best. Which they did—but in a cramped cave in the middle of a desert, a lot of things were the ‘best.’
Tony played along at first, because it gave him time to do the thinking. He sure as hell wasn’t going to be building them a Jericho, so he pretended. He was good at that; he loved taking things apart and seeing how they worked, so it was easy to act like he had a goal.
Opening the missiles, though, he began to find some breadcrumbs. Palladium breadcrumbs, that is, but they led him where he needed to go: that car battery he was lifelined to.
It wasn’t going to save him from a bullet to the skull, or being left to starve in some dark corner of the cave, but perhaps he could save himself from some shrapnel to the heart.
He didn’t dream much in the cave. Maybe four times. The other nights were just darkness.
Twice they were dreams about waking up at the mansion and discovering that the whole thing was just a bad dream. He wasn’t in a cave, there was no shrapnel heading towards his heart: he was in his warm bed in his mansion, suiting himself up for the day, waiting for coffee to finish making in the kitchen. J.A.R.V.I.S. bid him good morning, Peter left for school, Pepper told him about his appointments. Then he woke up.
Once it was a dream where they were saved by some helicopter or plane, whatever, it didn’t matter. The faceless men scrambled away from the gunfire and orders of “Get down, get down, hands behind your head!” while Yinsen and Tony are led away to the safety of the craft. They were assured that they would be fine now, but Tony still felt like it was a nightmare, because where was Rhodey? Where was Peter? Where was Pepper? Obadiah? Why didn’t he know any of these men and why couldn’t he talk to someone he knew? Then he woke up.
Once it was some horrifying mix of the two. He and Yinsen are saved, but the whole rescue is treated more as an inconvenient bump in the road than anything important. Tony does not go to crowds of reporters or the safety of a military aircraft; he just goes straight home, and everyone was waiting for him. Peter just waved from his spot on the floor because there was nothing to worry about. Pepper gave him a welcoming smile that made something inside him grow warm. Rhodey and Obadiah and the Parkers were all together, chatting about something blessedly pointless, and Mary was with them. She caught his eye as he came in and smiled, but that was it. She went right back to the conversation because she wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.
Then he woke up, and his cheeks were wet. Yinsen was kind enough not to say anything about it.
The arc reactor glowed blue, in its short flickers and flashes as Tony perfected it. It was a nice change in pace from the orange firelight or the electric white glow of the fluorescent beams.
The cameras were always watching them, but if anyone had a hunch his project didn’t have anything to do with the missiles, he never heard a word of it. Yinsen gave him curious looks and was often annoyed at being left in the dark, but Tony couldn’t really help it. Yinsen was his only light in this hellhole, the only soul who treated him with a shred of kindness, but Tony only trusted him because he had to. If he found out Tony was potentially putting their already-doomed lives at risk, Tony couldn’t be sure the man wasn’t going to lunge for his throat.
Once he realized that his idea was going to work, he let his mind wander to more calming thoughts. Wondering, even.
Stark Industries was probably being run by Obadiah, at the moment. No doubt he had a lot on his plate, what with the CEO being officially kidnapped and all. Surely his disappearance was the hot topic of the press; his face was probably on every magazine cover, black-and-white with letters reading Tony Stark: Can he be found?
He was being looked for, definitely—even Yinsen knew that. Stark Industries worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. military, and he’d been taken while he was under their ‘protection.’ For all he knew, every sand dune in the desert was being flipped upside down. Rhodey might be among the searchers. Rhodey had to be doing something.
Pepper had her own fires to put out. If she wasn’t working with Obadiah, she was working with literally everyone else, assuring them that Tony’s absence wouldn’t affect their stocks or their contracts or…whatever. She had to be worried about him. They were friends, weren’t they? Hell, she was probably the best company he had, able to work efficiently beside him, putting up with everything about him without, well, putting up with it. He wondered how worried she was, though.
Peter could be with any of the Parkers. Either that, or he had a lot of babysitters to deal with. He could still be going to school. He had plenty of adults around to protect him, even cheer him up. Obadiah had promised he’d look after him, though that was before the drive back from the demonstration had become a haze of smoke and blood.
Peter was fine, he had to be. Fine and healthy and still living his life because time didn’t stop moving for everyone just because it did for Tony.
Peter did miss him, though, right?
Peter loved him, right?
If he and Yinsen didn’t make it out of this alive—and there was a high chance they weren’t—it had occurred to him already that he had a lot of business to leave behind. Obadiah would become permanent CEO, and Pepper would be out of the job unless she worked with him. Stark Industries itself would become a hurricane, because a lot of their people made it clear they thought Tony was the backbone of the place.
His largest regret was not setting up the proper plan for Peter, because it had never crossed his mind that something might happen to him. Pretty stupid, really. Something had happened to Mary. Peter existed, period. He had to get better about considering possibilities.
Financially, Peter would be fine. Obie and Pepper could help the Parkers with any money issues they would ever need. Peter could live with Richard or Ben and May, his choice. He would be able to go to college and buy a car and do whatever it is he was going to do in the, what, seventy years on average to come?
It just meant the past two years were…pointless. The move to Malibu, every moment they spent together and every hug they shared. All for nothing.
And how cruel was that, really? How goddamn cruel? That Peter had to lose his mother, one of his constants, someone he loved, a lifeline, his. mother. and then he only got a taste of what it would be like to have a father before that got taken away from him, too? Alright, Peter, time to come home now. Go look at the mansion one last time. Say goodbye to the dad that promised he wouldn’t leave you. This was a nice vacation, wasn’t it?
…Peter loved him, right?
Tony kept tinkering with the arc reactor and readjusted the battery wires when they tangled around his waist. The goal, for now, was to try to find a way to live. If he lived, then he could prevent a whole lot of hurt for a lot of people.
Plus, y’know, living. Wanting to not die was admirable enough.
Sometimes he had to look around and remind himself that this was all his fault, directly or not. It wasn’t just about him having to suffer now—though it was true that he wouldn’t be forced to make a Jericho missile from scratch if he hadn’t made the original in the first place.
No, Tony now had to see the always-loaded rifles and the contraband weapons and realize that this, killing people, it was just business to them. They did not want him dead, they wanted him alive, but once they were done with him he’d be put down like a dog.
Tony had spent hours, days, almost weeks now knowing that he would likely die. “Likely.” Not for certain, but almost.
He had to wonder: how many people had realized that Stark Industries weaponry was turned against them and realized there was no “likely” about it, they were going to die?
He had been granted so much time to think and process. How many had only a few sparse seconds to breathe their last breaths? How many had been caught unaware, walking and breathing one second, lifeless the next?
He’d been spared it, and thank God for it, because he probably would have just shut down completely if not: Tony didn’t lose anyone to war. But his weapons, his work, his pride, his money, they had killed children. Parents. Siblings.
He thought about this so much one evening—one thought led to the next, each pummeling him harder than the one before—that he vomited his poor excuse of dinner in the quiet of the evening. Yinsen rarely touched him, but in that moment, he put a hand on his back and pushed the tin cup of water into his hand.
Yes, it did take finally being forced into the other guy’s shoes for him to realize that Tony Stark was a warmonger, pure and simple. That made it worse. It just proved that he lacked empathy, didn’t it?
It took showing Yinsen his blueprints for the man to give him an idea of what he was trying for.
(It also took a board game. They were allowed board games, because in the times where there was literally nothing to do but wait for something to cool or a tool to be found, they were encouraged to do something. To prevent insanity, Yinsen explained.)
Tony was starting to subscribe to the idea that it was just survival on Yinsen’s mind. Again, just wanting to live was admirable enough. He hadn’t thought about him having a family to return to until they were talking about it. He didn’t go into detail if he meant children, parents, or even distant cousins, just ‘family’ that he would see when he made it out. He made a point to say when.
When Yinsen asked if he had family, he said no on instinct. Because that had been the truth for more than fifteen years. His parents were dead. Even if Yinsen hadn’t just meant blood relation, Obie had been the closest thing he had for…ever. Even that was a stretch.
He regretted his answer as soon as he said it. It wasn’t until later, as they were choking down their daily gruel—maybe that was too generous, ‘sludge’ was more fitting—Tony admitted, “I lied, before. I have family.”
Yinsen didn’t seem surprised. “Oh?”
“I have a son. His name is Peter.”
Eyebrows raised up, more in response than in reaction. “I haven’t heard anything about a son. Or a woman, for that matter.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason for that.” Tony tossed back the last horrible swallow and set his tinny plate down by his feet. “Long story short: we met at a party, she got pregnant, didn’t tell me, she had a kid, she died a little over a year ago, I found out about him, and now he lives with me. Lived with me. Can’t say where he is now.”
Yinsen nodded. “Does he have your brains?” Yinsen stacked his dishes neatly, because tidiness was very important when you were being held hostage in a desert cave. “Or did you meet a woman who was smarter than even you?”
“He’s smart,” Tony scoffed. “Smart as a rocket scientist. His own teachers can’t keep up with him.”
“You sound proud of him.”
“Only because I am.” He forgot sometimes how great a kid Peter was. Which—okay, he was Peter’s father, his judgement wasn’t impartial. Still…he was smart, kind, liked to make you laugh, well-behaved. A model kid.
“Do you miss him?”
Tony’s brows furrowed into a knot. “What kind of question is that? Of course I do.”
“Do you love him?”
Now Tony sat up straight. Yinsen’s face was calm in the firelight. “I repeat what I just said…!”
Yinsen hummed and stood to his feet, shrugging off his blazer. There were no coatracks or hangers for them, but there was a slight jut of rock above his cot that he used instead. “So why did you say you had no family, before?”
Fair point. “I’m not…used to it.”
“You said it’s been over a year now?”
“Yeah, I’m still not used to it.”
Yinsen didn’t turn to him, but he gave him a look over his shoulder Tony was quite familiar with now. When the skin around Yinsen’s spectacled eyes tightened just so, he was analyzing him. Or reading his mind. One of the two.
“I don’t have children of my own, but I have nieces and nephews I see often. My brother and sister-in-law are good parents. They’re people, they’re not perfect, but they love them. They care for them and want them to be safe. They want them to grow into good people.” He gave Tony another tight-eyed look as he unstrung his tie for the day. “I think you’re a good parent, too, but you seem…unhappy. Why is that?”
Because I’m not. Because Obie was right and I make promises I can’t keep. “Let’s just say that I do all that stuff but I have a real crappy way of showing it.” Another look. “Classic ‘Daddy’s-too-busy-to-play-catch’ stuff, you know.”
“Well, ‘Daddy’s-too-busy-to-play-catch’ subtracted by the five years of his life I wasn’t around for and multiplied by his mother dying not even two years ago equals a bad ‘good parent.’”
All he got at first was a hum. “You’re right. You must be a terrible father. I’m sure your son hates you.”
“I see what you’re trying to do here—I’m going to get angry at you for saying that, and then you’ll turn around and say that that’s why I need to try harder—but just know I’ve had this exact conversation in my head a hundred times now.”
“Do you not want to be better?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“So why not be?”
“Because I’m not a good father, alright? I’m a bad father because I don’t care enough about my son but I’m not going to get better because I’m a bad father. It’s a loop. You’ve cracked the code. Congratulations.”
Tony went to his cot because he didn’t feel like being stared down anymore. It was good practice to take the sheets and bat them at least once every few hours. Got rid of the dust and ash before you needed them.
Yinsen was not a man who was dismissed easily, however, and he followed Tony until he sighed and faced him.
“I don’t know if you’re a good father,” he admitted. “I don’t even know if you’re a good person. I don’t really know you.”
“I’ve spent the past ten years of my life creating weapons capable of killing every man, woman, and child within fifty miles of them. You sure you don’t know?”
“I’ve spent the past several weeks helping the men that stormed my village and burned it to the ground. Maybe I’m not a good person, either. But as I was saying, regardless of whether you are good or bad, I’m sure you’ve heard the first step to change is admitting that you need to.” I took that first step a long time ago, Tony almost cut in, but Yinsen went on. “So since you’ve already heard that, I’d like to offer my own two cents, if that’s fine with you.”
“Go ahead,” Tony answered, and crashed down into his cot for the evening. He swore he almost fell right through. “No censorship here.”
“It’s not fair to put yourself in this kind of cage. It’s especially not fair to your son. I’d tell you that you have the chance to make right what Stark Industries has done wrong, but I don’t want you to throw up that dinner, so I won’t. It’s not fair, to be simple. But that’s just my two cents.”
Once he was done, Tony couldn’t help but think, That’s your mic-drop? I already knew that! But Yinsen didn’t give him any more looks, analyzing or satisfied, and that was it for the night. Soon after, the florescent bars all went dark, a clear “Go to bed.”
Yinsen and Tony both huddled under their respective threads, Tony unsure if Yinsen’s words were anything that would stick.
Screw it. Yinsen was right.
Yeah, Tony already knew what he’d been told. It wasn’t an actualized thought, though, more like a wordless feeling he’d written off as more guilt.
He wanted to get out of the hell he was trapped in because he wanted to live. A warm bed, real food, sunshine, peaceful nights—those would all be nice to have.
He wanted to get back to Pepper, Rhodey, and Obie, though. He didn’t want “proper goodbyes,” he didn’t want to say goodbye, period. He even wanted to see all the Parkers again. Maybe prove to May he did consider her a friend, even if it wasn’t apparent.
But he needed to see Peter again.
Something furious had taken hold in him—furious but warm. Even to just look at Peter through a screen, to see his growing curls and Stark eyes again, would be an incomparable relief. At the same time…Tony was careful not to provoke any of the Ten Rings gunmen, but if Peter was on the other side of a whole line of them, Tony would probably take on all of them with his bare hands.
What really kept him going was not unlike the very thing that had him take in his son in the first place an all-consuming, undeniable need to be there.
He NEEDED to see Peter grow tall.
He NEEDED to tell him goodnight before he went to bed.
He NEEDED to see him dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween and wake up way too early on Christmas morning and see him make friends at school and be invited to birthday parties and try out for sports teams and study for exams and get nervous about his first crush and go on his first date and go to his first day of high school and wear an oversized tuxedo for Homecoming or Prom and shyly introduce Tony to his boyfriend or girlfriend and wear robes on graduation and move into his college dormitory and text Tony to complain about the classwork and come visit him on the weekends.
He had to prove to Peter that he wasn’t a bad guy, that he really did love him the same way Peter did him.
Yinsen saw it in his quick hands and steady gaze, his refusal to eat as much as a bite until he’d wrapped up his latest breakthrough. He didn’t smirk or preen about it; he was good at hiding whatever self-satisfied pride he felt at knowing his words struck a nerve.
Yinsen was a pretty good observer in general, really. He knew when to leave Tony be and when he was open to chit-chat. He was better at that then 90% of everyone Tony knew. He picked up quickly that once Tony lied down in his cot, he was to be wholly ignored.
Tony’s dreams didn’t change too much. There were still visions of returning home, or waking to see it was all just a bad dream.
Now, though, he woke not feeling hopeless or forsaken, but…affirmed. The dreams were no longer horrid taunts to hurt him further; they’d become reminders of what he had to fight for.
It was still hard work. At the end of the day, his fingers would be singed and his chest would burn from the inside-out. But then he’d think about an older, taller Peter waiting for him, and he hopped right back to work with no problem.
Their luck—or maybe time—had to run out eventually. The Ten Ringers (it was such a dumb name, honestly) watched them day and night, but let them be. Even after the new arc reactor, which pumped Tony full of so much raw energy he felt his veins pumping with it, they wrote off his and Yinsen’s nonstop work as further development on the homemade Jericho missile.
But once Tony had to put those “missile parts” on his arms and legs to test their fit and function, he knew it was just a matter of time.
Roughly a day, to be exact. That was show long they were given to finish the missile that would never be. What was Tony supposed to do? Let Mr. Clean kill his one and only companion?
So it was now or never. Tony and Yinsen were in maximum overdrive.
The suit came together like a puzzle, the wires a tapestry. Their burns and cuts were nothing. The real hurtle would be getting the reactor to power the suit without—you know, eviscerating them in a nuclear blast.
This meant their real intentions would be even clearer than ever before, so their solution was a “doorbell” on the iron hatch of the cave.
The bomb was very easy to make, actually.
There wasn’t any time to worry about anything, past, present, or future. The only thing Tony let himself think was This is it. This is it. This is it.
The only time they hesitated was when the first wire came to the arc reactor.
Yinsen looked up at him, the lens of his glasses shining blue. “For your son?”
“For your family,” Tony confirmed.
The wire went in, the reactor remained intact, and they went on.
They pushed themselves to the breaking point. They sweated and bled, hardly breathing. They were almost falling apart, but they couldn’t stop. not when footsteps thundered toward them, not when fire and smoke filled the cave.
If only Tony thought to thank Yinsen for everything.
It was the least he could’ve done.
Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen
For now, they would stay on the base and get him back on his feet. Tomorrow, he’d go home. Which was weird, because home was home, but he didn’t feel very much like Tony anymore.
His skin was scorched. His throat was raw, dry. He was bleeding, weak, so broken each dragging footfall sapped just a little more of his nonexistent strength away.
But the arc reactor was still going strong and pumping energy through his blood. It was all such a weird combination. Hot and cold, weak and strong.
It would be awfully funny-not-funny if this was how he died. He had his chest blasted with shrapnel, car battery lodged in his heart, blazed by gunfire and explosions and finally shot out of the campsite like a rocket, but dehydration did him in. Ha, ha. Hilarious.
“Don’t waste your life.”
He was going to try, Yinsen, if he didn’t die five steps out the door.
Maybe he should have used his last breaths to leave a message in the sand. “Tell Peter I love him, tell Rhodey, Pepper, and Obie I said goodbye, it was the Ten Rings…” That wasn’t too long, right?
Wait. The wind.
If he was lucky—and he wasn’t feeling very lucky lately—he’d be noticed by a helicopter, or a satellite, or…something. The only thing he could not do was stop moving, because he knew that the second he let his knees buckle, he would be unable to pull himself back to his feet again. It helped, a bit, to imagine he was walking just a little closer to Pepper, Peter, Rhodey…Kind of. He really hurt.
He didn’t know what time it was, what day it was, only that the sun was high and pretty damn ruthless. Even the wind was hot. Beneath the wrap he’d made out of his jacket, his neck was drenched in sweat and his hair was probably dripping grease. It would have been a relief to take it off, but looking at the patchwork burns on his arms, he kept it on.
He thought, darkly, that Christine Everhart was probably going to be happy about this. Her and every other anti-SI reporter. Sure, for a while, there’d be the typical Tony Stark: Now Gone, but Lasting Forever or some equally poetic titles on the magazines, but then people could say what they wanted to after the obligatory waiting period. Once a man who sat on a golden throne, died broken in the lifeless desert.
It was stupid, he knew, to be having the “I’m going to die out here” thoughts after all that, but that wasn’t really what they were. They were the self-hating, you’re-a-monster thoughts. He’d always had those. Nothing new.
Yinsen was dead, now, because of him.
Yinsen’s family, killed in a war he shared stock in.
Thousands of innocents, men, women, and children, shot dead in their beds or at their dinner tables with weapons branded with the Stark Industries logo.
The Ten Rings, or at least a good chunk of them, were also dead. That was all him, no ‘indirect’ about it. He was thankful he had the mask, because if watching their forms catch flame and become tongues of fire indistinguishable from their stolen treasure made him so ill, he hated to think about how it must have smelled. There was perhaps one second where Tony thought about how old those men were, if they were being forced to do what they were doing, if he was just as heartless as they were.
Then he remembered who he was confronting, and stopped feeling so bad about it. He was officially a killer and that was the thing he was alright with.
For now, he would hold out on hope until he literally couldn’t anymore. His legs hadn’t failed him yet, nor his lungs. If they did, there was nothing more to do about it, but at least he could say that he didn’t give up.
The wind was picking up now, piercing sand into his raw skin. He was starting to hate the desert more than the Ten Rings themselves. If he found water here, it’d probably be boiling hot and dirty, because everything here sucked.
Another spike in the wind, strong enough to thrum his eardrums, and Tony braced himself against it.
He then realized that was not wind, but rather something large, airborne, and mechanical coming.
It was probably his time in the cave that almost made him duck down, fearful that a squadron of the Ten Rings’ cronies were hunting him down, but then he turned and saw blades chopping through the air.
Suddenly the sand tearing his skin didn’t matter anymore. Nothing did.
Because in that moment, like a bucket of heavenly cold water pouring over his skin, Tony realized, I’m safe.
He looked like a madman, for sure. Red-skinned and dry as a rock. When the helicopters touched down and blurry soldiers came running for him, he thought he heard them talking about the glowing blue light in his chest. He didn’t care to explain. He wouldn’t have to.
For now, Tony let himself slip away, not to sleep but to complete fatigue. In no time at all, his tongue would touch cold water and his skin would be soothed, and he would get to eat real food and sleep in a warm bed. The things he’d now realized did not go away, but they faded to the background. Just for now.
The first of the soldiers came running right up to him, and Tony was prepared for the spiel. “U.S. military, Mr. Stark. You’re safe now. We need you to lie still.”
Instead, what he heard was, “How was the Fun-Vee?” and realized that it was Rhodey. He couldn’t stop himself from laughing, even if it stabbed his throat.
Turned out being trapped in a desert cave for three months—which Tony really couldn’t believe, but even he didn’t know how long it felt like—and only getting out through gunfire and flame did a lot to a guy, and getting back to the swing of things wasn’t a dream.
It was Tony’s fault, really, for making his rescue this idealized romance in his head. Oh, yeah! The soldiers would whisk him away on a helicopter and wrap him in a warm blanket and sing him lullabies while he dined on the finest of cuisines! That was how real life worked!
Yeah, no. There was no instant relief at any moment Tony was finally out of harm’s way. Injury-wise, his skin had basically been crisped. It was especially horrible on his shoulders. Tony made the mistake of looking and thought, deliriously, that his own flesh looked like a sponge. But it wasn’t irreparable. He didn’t even need skin grafts, just a lot of good ol’ doctor-prescribed medicine. There were other cuts and bruises to take care of, all relatively easy to patch up but not exactly soothe.
Something was up with his left arm, though. Not broken, but maybe sprained. Honestly, he drowned out the doctor’s words in favor of cuddling into the thin med-bay pillow. He needed to wear a sling for a while. Tony was supposed to be dead, so this was no problem at all.
They insisted, almost to the point of threatening tranquilization, on inspecting the reactor. Tony let them disinfect and salve however much they desired, but made it clear in no uncertain terms that it was not to be touched, prodded, tweaked, or twiddled. He could not emphasize enough how important it was, and they still seemed to doubt him.
There were other things. He’d dropped a dangerous amount of weight, but it could’ve been worse. He was in dire need of vitamins. Even his first meal was ruined for him. The first drink of cold water did zing him, yeah, but he was not prepared for the stomach roil that happened after a simple serving of beef stew. Too much of a change on his stomach, he guessed.
He still felt like he was dreaming—he still feared waking up to the cave’s darkness. But hey, if that was the case, at least Yinsen would still be alive.
Rhodey rarely left him. Tony didn’t want to cling, but he had to keep touching him. Patting his shoulder. One-armed hugs. Reminders.
For now, they would stay on the base and get him back on his feet. Tomorrow, he’d go home. Which was weird, because home was home, but he didn’t feel very much like Tony anymore.
Was Pepper always glowing, before?
She looked like that now, though. Bright. Shining. She was smiling as he stumbled down the ramp. Tony couldn’t take his eyes off her.
And yeah, he knew he should have gotten more medical attention, but he was tired—his first shower in forever and a half had also been ruined by the sting of water in his wounds. At the same time, seeing Pepper and Rhodey again had jumpstarted him. Heck, even seeing Happy standing at the door of his car filled him with relief. He was all the closer to getting to what he needed most.
He was also officially starved. A cheeseburger sounded heavenly.
More importantly, Tony was eager to start some change and keep his promise to Yinsen.
Pepper protested, always the responsible one, and sweetly concerned for him, but Tony was stubborn—that hadn’t changed.
“You’re going to scare him off if you collapse, you know that?”
“I’m peachy. But hungry. He likes Burger King, right? Burgers, Peter, press conference. Easy list.”
“Peter is fine.”
“I know. I still want to see him.”
“We can bring him to the hospital.”
“Don’t need one.”
“It’s been three months. We’ve got to get caught up on work. First call whoever has Peter and then call a conference. I can call BK. Game plan.”
“You need rest.”
“Miss Potts.” Tony’s voice sounded firm but almost begging, all at once. “I want to see my son.”
Pepper’s list pressed together. She took a breath. “Okay.”
Maybe he should’ve been more precise, in hindsight. This might have been his fault.
“I meant Peter to come before the press conference.”
Pepper tucked away the phone she’d been talking into ever since they’d started moving. She seemed frazzled, but in a this-is-stressful-but-the-least-stressful-thing-in-three-months kind of way. “Obadiah said Peter is in there.”
He could already hear the excited buzz of a crowd outside. Cameras were clicking for no reason. He should’ve known there’d be a sea of smiles and cheers. It didn’t exactly put butterflies in his stomach, though. “Why?”
She looked helpless. “I don’t know; I’m sorry.”
He must have been in some kind of private room, Tony guessed. He’d be able to duck his way through the crowd—“Sorry. Mr. Stark will be back in a moment.”—and close a door. Acknowledgement of the people, then a private, happy reunion. It was a fair compromise.
Tony was buzzing so much at this point the sight of reporters outside the window didn’t faze him at all. Neither did seeing Obie, for a different reason. It wasn’t the same as seeing Rhodey or Pepper. Seeing Obie was not refreshing. Obie was turned and performing for the crowd. Tony was expecting a pang of joy at seeing Obie again—he’d known him for so long. He just felt…neutral, now.
But whatever. He’d see Peter soon.
So when the door opened, he waved to the cheers and the cameras, leaned into Obie’s hug while the older man was still grinning from ear to photogenic ear. He looked exactly the same as Tony remembered him.
Tony dropped his voice low, just the two of them. “Where’s Peter?”
“Hold your horses.” Then they had to go back. What a welcome-back.
He let Happy carry the Burger King bag while Obie led him in. At least no one was going to judge him if they noticed the kid’s meal inside. Three months held hostage in a cave? Sure. Get the man a kid’s meal.
He did kind of wish Obie would stop acting like a circus ringleader for a minute, though. The man’s smile was loud.
Getting through the crowd to the stand was nauseating. So many lights, so many voices. So many strangers clapping him on the back. And was it even real? Yeah, sure, everyone was worried about him, but he doubted anyone there had actually missed him. He swore the reactor itself was screaming, “Go away!”
So he was not going to see Peter first.
He didn’t have time to be upset, though, not when the “new era” was just around the corner. It was time. He was sitting on the floor and wolfing down a third cheeseburger, and it was time.
The world was watching as he talked, and even he didn’t think he was going to mention Howard, but he did. It was true, he didn’t know what he thought of Stark Industries, if he’d ever had a realization like Tony had. Warmongers, the both of them.
Pepper and Rhodey looked concerned, in the back. Obie looked wary at his side. The sea of reporters was rapt.
He was rambling, threating to burst, really, of all the thoughts that had been sardine-packed into his brain for the past three months.
But then he stopped. In letting his eyes search the crowd, he saw the second-floor landing and the people leaning against the railing.
Rich, as tall and messy-haired as ever.
May, eyes wide behind her glasses.
Ben, larger than life but gaze full of worry.
And in Ben’s arms, Peter.
Someone cut his hair, was the first of coherent thoughts that came to Tony, after he spent a few seconds too long just…staring. That was all he could do. He couldn’t move even if he tried. Something had hit him like a freight train.
Peter had hit a growth spurt. Finally. It wasn’t extreme, but it was there. Longer in the limbs, not as painfully doe-eyed. The sleeves of his hoodie, the SI one Obie had gotten him as a welcoming gift, still threatened to swallow up his hands. Somehow he looked exactly the same and too different for Tony to take, all at once.
His hands, still small, were braced on Ben’s shoulders as he faced Tony. He saw that Tony was looking at him—Tony saw him blink—but he didn’t wave, or smile. He stared. He watched.
For half of half of a second, Tony was disappointed at the lack of anything resembling happiness. But…no. It made sense. The next time he saw Peter was supposed to be when he got back from a business trip. Now Peter was seeing him after months of everyone questioning if he was even still alive. He might have looked as different as he felt.
Maybe Peter wasn’t happy to see him.
Maybe he was neutral.
But Tony was happy, in the worst way he’d ever felt happy. Even as Peter just stared, and a crowd of flashing cameras separated them, he wanted to just go up there and take him into his arms and promise, promise, that he wasn’t going anywhere, ever again.
He didn’t, because this wasn’t a dream. This was real, and it wasn’t fair.
No one noticed him staring at Peter, no one asked why. Maybe it had only been a few seconds. He must have just looked thoughtful, after everything that had happened. It wasn’t the reporter asking the first question, what had happened in that cave, that snapped him out of it. It was Obie’s knuckles bumping against his arm. To the crowd, it seemed like a comforting touch. To Tony, it was a warning to get it together.
He did, enough to stand up. Then he announced the discontinuation of the weapons manufacturing and walked away before he got caught up in the shitstorm that followed.
Dawn of the new era.
He made it clear that he wanted to see Peter next. Now. Period. End of sentence. The burgers were getting cold. Come on.
It took some puppeteering for Pepper to get a room they could meet in. Only they knew where it was—them and no one else, not even Obadiah, because Tony did not yet have the energy to deal with Obadiah. Him aside, no doubt every person who had so much as a distant cousin who worked with the media would be hunting him down. The room they got was small, with no windows, but Tony felt unbelievable relief once he got inside.
He honestly wasn’t expecting Richard to grab his hand and do the shoulder-bump thing.
“Good to see you,” he said. There was a lot of sincerity. Even though Tony had never gotten the feeling that the younger Parker brother hated him, he’d been an unwilling part of Tony’s get-shitfaced-while-Peter’s-in-your-care routine.
“You too, Rich.”
May didn’t touch him—not surprising—but she didn’t even seem to believe he was real. Her head was tilted just so as she took him in up and down. They stood apart from one another, quiet, until May took just one step forward.
“You scared us,” she admitted. “We thought you were…”
She didn’t finish.
“’M not. Obviously. Do tell, how have the Parkers been?”
He got no answer, which was more annoying than anything else. He recognized this kind of atmosphere from when his parents had died: concerned, wanting to help, while at the same time not wanting to talk at all because what was there to say? It was human nature, really, but man if it didn’t grind on his nerves. As if what had happened to you was a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth everyone felt they should point out, but didn’t.
“Nevermind. Anyway…” He sat down in the nearest seat. What kind of room was this, even? A meeting room? “How’s the squirt been? How many doctorates has he gotten?”
Damn. Even Pepper hadn’t given him the How the hell are you joking right now? look.
“He’s been…good,” Rich answered. “Healthy, I mean, not—not happy.”
“Where is he?”
“With Ben,” said May. “Pepper said they should come in a different way in case some reporters were tailing you.” She crossed her arms over her cable-knit sweater. “He’s been staying with us; we said Richard’s been busy with work so…you know. He’s had to go to a different school, but—are you really going to eat right now?”
Tony extended the little box while munching on a fry. “Want one?”
May just blinked at him. Richard offered. “He’s probably in shock, May, don’t…”
“How am I in shock? I ate mystery meat hash for three months straight. I’m going simple on French fries.” May’s look wasn’t angry, it just wasn’t amused. “I don’t think this is funny, Miss Parker, but I’d rather be happy about this. I don’t want Dad to be a mess when he comes in.”
He was maybe surprised to see May’s gaze soften instead of harden. He’d take it. it wasn’t that he needed her approval, necessarily, but it was nice to know he had it.
The door creaked open. Enter Ben, Pepper, and Peter.
There wasn’t even a second to catch their breath before Pepper said, “Alright, I think we’re good. Happy is keeping an eye out.”
Ben nodded at Tony as he entered. At the very least, his hesitance seemed to come more from not wanting to put a damper on things than not being able to acknowledge it. “Hey, man. Good to see you.”
Tony pulled himself out of the zero-focusing on Peter. He stood a little closer to Ben’s hip when he set him down. “Mm-hm.”
Pepper took a glance down the hall. “Do you guys want to go?”
“Yeah,” Ben breathed. He ruffled Peter’s curls. “We’ll be outside, bud.”
Quickly but not rushing, all the Parkers but Peter stepped out of the room. Pepper gave Tony one last look he couldn’t even read before shutting the door.
Had silence ever been so loud?
Tony was unsure if he should stand up or stay seated, so he went with the latter and just didn’t move. He looked tired, surely, Slumped back with his sling-held arm over his belly. He hoped the cuts on his face didn’t scare him.
Peter seemed okay with not moving, either, save for a slight sway and twiddling fingers. He still wasn’t smiling. It felt a little strange, seeing him there and real. It was as if Tony was seeing him in too much detail, down to the tiniest of freckles.
“Hey,” Tony greeted.
“Hey,” Peter replied.
How was this a hundred times worse than when they’d first met? He’d imagined this going a lot of ways and “awkwardly” was not one of them.
“May said you’ve been staying with them. That right?”
Peter nodded. “Mm-hm.”
“What school did you go to?”
Tony hummed. “That’s the one you went to before, wasn’t it?”
“Did they recognize you?”
“Carrie and Liam did.”
“No one else?”
A shrug. “A lot of them go to the other schools now.”
Well, it had been more than a year. Kindergarten to first grade. “Did you do anything else?”
“Uncle Ben took me to a Mets game.”
“Yeah? Did you like it?”
“It was fun. We had to sit behind the—the net, but it was fun.”
Tony didn’t want to push him into talking when he didn’t want to, but…He was supposed to be trying. He was always supposed to be trying, of course, but he’d made a promise.
“Did I scare you?”
Peter scratched his nose, not uncomfortably. “I thought you were dead.”
Well, if that didn’t spear him right in the heart. At the same time, what else was there to expect? Peter was a little too smart to be convinced that Tony was absolutely hunky-dory.
“Yeah? Who told you that?”
Another shrug. “No one.”
“So why did you think that?”
Hesitation. “Everyone was just saying that you might be, so…so I had to ‘prepare myself.’ like you might be—dead, but you might not be, so…”
He didn’t say it, and maybe he couldn’t because he was so young, but Tony got it. When you’re five, no one tells you that your mom might die one day. Then she does. So when everyone says your dad may or may not be alive, you’ve already been shown how unfair life can be, so you think, “He is.”
Tony didn’t even know who “everyone” was, but he couldn’t be mad at them. It was either be painfully realistic with his kid, or potentially set him up for the worst lie ever told. Not an easy choice.
“I’m okay. Sorry I made you worry.”
Peter seemed unconvinced at best. Tony hadn’t noticed before, but his eyes had been flickering to his arm. “Does it hurt?”
“This?” Tony bounced it. A sting of pain hit his shoulder. “Nah. All good.”
“Did they beat you up?”
Be realistic, but not brutal. “A bit, yeah. I was hurt for a while. ‘M alright now.”
Peter was still frowning, though, and had yet to come any closer. “What does ‘torturing’ mean?”
What? “Where did you hear that?”
“Sometimes the people on the-the news would talk about you and they said people were torturing you.”
Realistic but not brutal? “‘Torturing’ is when someone hurts someone a lot because they want them to be in a lot of pain.”
“Ummm…Kind of. They were bad guys, so…they did bad things.”
“What does ‘comeuppance’ mean?”
“Did you hear that on the news, too?”
“Sometimes Aunt May watches it and I can hear it from my room—”
“No more news. For either of us.”
Even behind the questions, Tony could tell Peter was worried. That didn’t make him happy; it couldn’t; because that was a horrible thing to be happy about. Plus, Peter had no doubt been left in the dark for all of this. The adults would talk about your dad, Peter, but they weren’t going to talk to you.
An idea came to him.
“Hey, come here.”
He did, slowly, until his little sneakers were almost toe-to-toe with Tony’s shoes.
Tony asked, “You want to know a secret?”
“What kind of secret?”
“A super secret. Some people know about it, but the only ones here who have seen it are me and Rhodey. No one else.”
“You’re not lying?”
The door wasn’t locked, but he trusted the others to keep the coast clear, so he loosened his tie and went to unbuttoning his shirt. Only being able to use one hand made it tricky.
The reactor cast blue orbs of light into Peter’s eyes, which widened to the size of golf balls.
“What is it?”
“You know that big blue generator thing I showed you at SI that one time? It’s like a mini version of that.”
Peter’s fingers were twitching at his side, but he didn’t say anything, so Tony did. “It’s okay. You can touch it.”
Slowly, Peter reached out and brushed his fingers against the cool metal. Tony felt his fingertips ghost across the edge, making sure that it was really there, not just stuck on.
“Why do you have it?”
“The bad guys hurt me really bad. There was a man there named Yinsen. The only good one. He made it for me. And he helped me get out of there.”
Maybe Peter picked up that Yinsen hadn’t made it out, or maybe it didn’t even occur to him. He kept his hand on the reactor. Sometimes, in the sleepless nights in the cave, Tony had done the same. There was a small, almost pulse-like thrum inside. Peter felt it.
“What does it do?”
“It keeps me healthy. Safe.”
Tony shrugged this time. “Almost.”
Then Peter pressed his hand a little harder, and Tony remembered again:
This was real.
He wasn’t going to be taken away again. More than that, he would wake up tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and Peter would be there. He was home.
“Hey,” he whispered.
“Can I get a hug? Welcome home hug?”
So close already, Peter just reached out and wrapped his arms around Tony’s neck. He didn’t try to pull away when Tony squeezed him close, or when Tony turned and kissed his head. For that moment, he let himself just listen to his son’s breathing and think that this was good. Progress was good.
Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen
So the mansion was really just their own little world, for as long as they had it.
The new new life probably began the second he stepped out of the cave and into the sunlight. Or maybe it was when he announced the end of Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing. Or maybe it was when he and Peter were eating Burger King and talking about what had happened while Tony was gone. Who was to say?
Whenever it started, Tony thought he’d feel a little better about it. No, he did. He just didn’t think there was going to be so much backlash.
From stockholders, yes. Talkshow hosts and their guests, sure. Obie, absolutely.
(Why wasn’t he at the airport? Why did Tony only first see him at the press conference?)
Pepper and Rhodey, though, he thought they were going to have his back. instead, Pepper had started a nonstop stream of sighs and Rhodey—who had to report back to duty ASAP, which couldn’t be helped—was answering his texts in monosyllables.
Tony wished he could make them see things the way he did. It’d be real nice to just grab them and shake them and yell, “It’s not about the money! Forget about the money!”
At the same time, he knew it wasn’t just the lost investors or stock drops. Pepper was looking at an approaching shitstorm of fury, and Rhodey was probably worried about how he was going to go about defending his country with a military that just got one of its legs cut off. No doubt both of them worried, even a little, that Tony was going delirious.
The public bit back, and very quickly at that. News anchors were jabbering on about the cessation of SI weapons on every channel, interview requests came in by floods, and Tony had to close down mail, electronic or otherwise. Even the sources who had been very anti-Stark before were trying to figure out what was going on inside his head. Tony didn’t look into what had been said about him while he was gone.
He wasn’t allowed to stop, but he let himself breathe while he still could. Board members were practically screaming for him, so he had to tune it out.
And Obie…had gone cold on him, at least for now. Maybe seeing the reactor, or confirming that Tony had gutted the weapons manufacturing in favor of the arc technology, had been too much for him. Obie had given up smoking for three years when Tony had been taken, and he’d come to meet him with a huge rolled-up cigar in his mouth. So.
In the eye of the storm, and intending to go on after, Tony tried to focus on Peter. He wanted, more than anything, to just hole themselves up in the mansion and watch cartoons and eat junk food. But they didn’t have that much time, and he didn’t want to overwhelm Peter, so he kept it simple but attentive. Burger King, Home Alone, checkers.
Peter unwound the more time they spent together, but still seemed a bit wary. Tony had his spells of unwavering fatherly attention before, and they’d all ended in him drifting away until the next one. That was fine. Tony had waited three months to see him again, he could wait for him to come around.
Peter told Tony about school, his friends, the Parkers, and so on. Pepper called him at least once a week just to make sure he was doing okay. Rhodey had even come by Queens for a visit. Tony appreciated that very much; Peter shouldn’t have to bounce between two separate worlds.
Ben and May really stepped up to the plate while Peter was with them. Almost every little story Peter had involved them and what they all did together, from camping in the living room of their apartment to swinging by a different pizza place every Friday night. It was a glimpse of what could have been if Tony had decided he was not going to take Peter in…or, if he’d never been told Peter existed at all.
But when he asked about Obadiah, on an afternoon they were spending primarily on the couch playing games, Peter just sort of shrugged.
“What?” Tony asked gently. Most of the time, he could get through Peter’s hesitance with just a little nudging.
Peter tried to re-arrange his cards in one small hand. “He didn’t want to talk to me. Do you have any fours?”
Tony passed one over. “Not at all?”
Tony hummed. That wasn’t awful, he guessed. Obadiah and Peter had never been very close. It was more of an acquaintanceship. “Any twos?”
“Go fish.” Peter paused, considering, and offered, “He was really mad when he called us to—to come to the—the—”
“Press conference? Maybe he was stressed.”
“Shouldn’t he have been happy?”
“Maybe he wanted to be and he just had a lot of stuff he had to do.” Tony almost asked Peter to fork over the fives he knew he had, but it was bothering him: “How was he mad?”
“He just…yelled a lot. On the phone.”
“What did he say?”
Peter hummed an ‘I-don’t-know’. “He was talking to Uncle Ben and Uncle Ben was mad but he—he didn’t say why.”
Well, that was a red flag. Uncle Ben should never be described as ‘mad’. Still, Tony wanted to offer some empathy. It wasn’t okay, per se, but Obie was always a prickly sort when he was stressed. He didn’t mean to throw Obie to the wolves, either, but that was what the press and shareholders had become: one big pack of hungry wolves.
So the mansion was really just their own little world, for as long as they had it. Peter settled back into his room, R2 roamed the halls once more, Tony once again had someone to bid goodnight and good morning to. He didn’t want to smother Peter, really. He was just very, very relieved to be back and that wasn’t something that could be vented through tinkering and repairs. Tony vented them in kissing Peter’s on the forehead just about any time he left the room, carrying him around for no reasons at times, and—if Peter fell asleep somewhere besides his own bed and Tony carried him back—just running his fingers through his hair to assure that they were both there and real.
In total, three things were on his mind. Peter was the priority, Stark Industries as a hole was the second place holder, and the third was an idea at the back of his head that was getting more and more realized, like a fire being fed more wood. It wasn’t just spending time with Peter at the top of his list, either, it was everything to do with his past, present, and future.
Wary but not quite scared, Tony wrote up a rough draft of a will—there were fair divisions between Rhodey, Pepper, and Obadiah, but the vast majority would go to Peter in the event that something happened to him and he didn’t make another phoenix-esque rise from the ashes. He couldn’t guarantee Peter a future as SI’s head honcho, but he could do for him what Howard had (admittedly) done for Tony and set him up on a path that could lead him to it, if he so desired. Obadiah had been a great interim before, he could do it again. If Peter decided he wanted to be something else—anything else, from janitor to astronaut—then Tony felt alright leaving SI to Obadiah. It was great to know they both had a wonderful supporting team.
Pepper was dreading going into the mansion now, even though she really, truly did not want to hold it against Tony.
She was happy that he was back. When she’d gotten that phone call and heard the words “We found him, he’s safe,” she was only a little embarrassed to say she had shed some tears of relief. The last three months had been a living hell. Every day entailed her inbox and cellphone being bombed with messages, meetings called ‘late-notice’ when they should’ve been called ‘panic-induced’, and everyone and their grandmother asking her for answers like she was some kind of all-seeing guru. Oh, and Obadiah Stane had been a delight to work for. Sure, he seemed apologetic and ashamed after the fact, but did anyone like having their boss treat them like a punching bag that also got them coffee every morning?
Plus…she’d been worried. She had missed Tony’s spitfire cracks and dry wit, and she even missed him being far behind schedule and getting him dinner when he forgot to eat. The image of him bleeding and broken had tortured her many times. The image of him cold and lifeless had killed her a dozen times over. Calling Peter had helped—his light had dimmed but was not extinguished—but also reminded her of how empty the mansion had become. She’d happily given him a hug when he came to the press conference.
So yes, she was happy to have Tony back in (almost) one piece. Not unlike Tony, however, she had foolishly expected IcyHot levels of instant relief. But whereas Tony’s expectations were squashed by how reality worked, Pepper’s were squashed by the fact that three months locked up and tortured in an Afghan cave had not killed Tony’s recklessness.
And occasional, blinding stupidity.
She’d been freed of Obadiah, thank grace, but now she was at the mercy of the world at large. The questions of the future of SI had returned with ten times the urgency and a healthy dose of “What about my money?!” Pepper told them over and over that Mr. Stark was not releasing anymore statements and was healing at home—which was to say, completely ignoring doctor’s orders by taking his arm out of the sling and not getting any rest—but it was like using a watergun on a forest fire.
Pepper dreaded going to the mansion because she knew it wasn’t going to do any good. She’d come in, get some vague instructions, and tap away on her tablet until she was good to head out once again.
J.A.R.V.I.S. did not announce her arrival, and Tony was not in the sight. A red SI hoodie was draped over the couch and a half-empty pizza box sat on the coffee table.
She did hear voices, though, coming from Peter’s bedroom. Curious, she stepped closer, thankful that she was wearing flats instead of heels that day.
Tony said, “Okay, now press that.”
Peter asked, “This?”
The door was open enough for Pepper to see into the room without being seen herself. Tony was kneeling on the carpeted floor—the room was in dire need of some six-year-old messiness, as its owner had left it vacant for three months—in front of Peter, and both were huddled over something. A phone?
“Okay.” Tony flipped the phone shut and open again, back to its main screen. He let go and let Peter hang onto it with hands almost too small for it. “Show me you can do it.”
Peter obediently tapped some buttons until he got to a screen Pepper could see had two big circles, red and green. “And then I hit that?”
“You got it.” Tony sounded satisfied, but shut-and-opened the phone again. Peter navigated to the contacts list, which wasn’t long at all. Not even ten numbers. “You can’t take it to school, but if anything happens and one of us isn’t there, you use this, okay? First me, and if I don’t pick up, call Richard, then Ben…you know. and you know how to call nine-one-one?”
“Magnifique. Now call me, just to be sure.”
More button-pressing, and then Peter lifted the phone up to his ear. “Back in Black” began to play, muffled, and Tony reached into his pocket with a raised-brow look of surprise.
He hit the answer button, held it to his ear. “Hello?”
Peter asked, “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can. Can I ask who this is?”
Here Peter frowned, confused. “It’s Peter…?”
“Really? My son’s name is Peter, too! I’m actually trying to teach him how to use the phone right now, so can you tell me what you need?”
And here Peter’s face finally lit up in one of those straight-to-your-heart smiles, and he giggled, “Dad!”
Tony grimaced. “Ooh, sorry, buddy. Think you’ve got the wrong number. I’ve only got one kid. Sorry again. Bye!”
He hung up and looked up at Peter with a natural, expectant face, as if Peter wasn’t giggling right in front of him. “Sorry ‘bout that, Pete, wrong number. Try calling me now.”
Peter did, still smiling. Back in black, I hit the sack—Tony answered the call once again.
“Tony Stark. Who’s calling?”
A groan. “Listen, pal, I’ve told you, you’ve got the wrong number! I’m trying to teach my son an important lesson. Thank you!”
He hung up again and urged Peter on with an impatient, “Come on! I need to know you know how to do this.”
The next time ACDC started, Tony huffed and snapped the phone open, not even looking now, and Peter was absolutely pink-faced. “Now you listen here, Peter, my son needs to know—”
“Hi. Is this the wrong number?”
Tony and Peter looked up at her almost in unison. Tony looked at his phone screen, and sure enough, the caller ID read ‘Miss Potts’ and Peter had not yet hit the call button.
“Yes, it is. No biggie.”
He and Pepper hung up at the same time. Peter was still tickled, which was making Tony’s mouth curl in satisfaction, but he still chirped, “Hi, Pepper!”
“Hey, Peter. New phone?”
“Yeah! It’s got your number in it!” Peter glanced between it and his father. “Does it have to be about something bad? Can I—Can I just call if I want to talk?”
“Sure, you can.” Maybe Tony picked up on her mixed feelings about their favorite six-year-odld having her number at the ready, though, because Tony added, “But wait until Pepper calls you, ‘kay? Very busy woman.”
“Can I call Happy?”
“He. Would. Love that. Call him right now.”
Tony gave him a gentle nudge, and Peter waddled out of the room to torture the poor chauffeur. Pepper did not miss the warm, loving look Tony sent after him, but she fought down a smile.
“So!” Tony clapped his hands together and stood straight again. “What’s new out there in the real world?”
“The usual. Your business is burning into ashes and everyone hates you.”
“Yep, the usual.”
“Can I please just get some kind of official statement?”
“You can, but it’s not going to be anything new. SI will no longer be manufacturing weapons, for the reasons I’ve already listed—bloodshed, innocent lives, et cetera.”
“And everyone who has investments in said weapons manufacturing…?”
“Are more than welcome to pull out. I’m looking towards a new focus, but don’t quote me on that. It’s not official yeeaugh.”
Suddenly Tony was pressing a hand to his chest, and though dimmed by his T-shirt, Pepper saw the bright blue-white circle beneath his collarbone flicker.
Pepper only knew what Rhodey had told her over the phone: that the Ten Rings had blasted Tony full of shrapnel, and that the energy core in his chest was the only thing keeping him alive. She didn’t know how, but it was. And now Tony was clutching it with a wince of pain.
So, reasonably, she panicked. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Just…need an upgrade. This thing’s pretty much a rough draft.”
“Should I call someone?”
J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice popped in, “Can I be of assistance, sir?”
“No to both of you. I’ve got it.” Still rubbing over the reactor in small circles, Tony narrowed his eyes at Pepper just so. “And please stop worrying about me.”
Pepper blinked. “You just—had a miniature heart attack.”
“Not that. You, Obie, and Rhodey are acting like I’ve gone crazy.”
“Well…Can you blame us?”
“No, but I can ask you to stop. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t burned a lot of bridges, but I’ve done it in a sane state of mind, I assure you. You don’t have to agree, just don’t coddle me, alright?”
For a second, all Pepper could do was purse her lips. “I’m just worried you’re setting yourself up for a lot of pain.”
“Undoubtedly. But I can take care of myself.”
“No, you cannot.”
Then Peter came bounding back into the room with his phone extended. Tony pulled his hand away from the reactor. “Happy wants to talk to you!”
“Pardon,” he told Pepper, and took the phone. “It’s Tony.”
“Why is Peter calling me?”
“He has a phone now.”
“I gave him one.”
“For safety, Happy.”
“Why does he have my number?”
“Do you not want him to? Hold on.” Tony beckoned Peter closer, and before Pepper could protest the strain on his arm, he scooped Peter up and put him on his hip. “Peter, Happy said he doesn’t want you to talk to him.”
“No, no, no! I swear—Peter? Put Peter on the phone.”
He did, looking quite satisfied as he carried his son out of the room while he kept chittering to Happy. Pepper watched them go for a moment, utterly torn between pleasure at seeing such a real, positive change in Tony and worry that what he’d said wasn’t quite true and that there was something going on in his head he wouldn’t say a word about.
Then she recalled why she’d come to the mansion to begin with, and followed. It might be like pulling teeth, but she had to at least try to get him to captain his sinking ship.
Well, if Tony thought Rhodey was miffed at him before, now he had confirmation that the Colonel was real and truly pissed. “Get your mind right.” Tony kept trying to be understanding. He was hurting Rhodey, he knew it. Kicking out a leg from under him. He just wished he could have his best friend’s support. Tony was feeling awfully alone.
He supposed he had Pepper’s support, in a concerned way. She had yet to say a word about his decisions and plans, but maybe that was because she didn’t know what they were. He was too in-cardiac-arrest at the time to laugh about it, but later remembering the sheer panic on her face as she pulled the used arc reactor out of his chest, he found himself chuckling.
Tony figured he had one more day, tops, before his absence at SI started to ignite literal fires. He retreated down into the workshop, the only place he still felt himself in, and mulled on the idea that had been festering in his head. It was neither a good idea, nor a bad one—neutral at best. on the one hand, it was going to take a tremendous amount of work, and he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. Revenge? On the other hand, work had never been an issue for Tony, and if revenge was in the plan, didn’t the Ten Rings deserve it more than anyone else on the planet?
Tony began with what he and Yinsen had created in the cave, but it was a rough draft of a rough draft of a rough draft. Powerful, yes, but clunky, finicky, and its last ever use was shooting him into the sky like the cork off a champagne bottle. He stripped the whole thing down to the skeleton before he got started.
When he had said skeleton at the ready, just a simple blue hologram, he heard the buzz of someone upstairs on the intercom.
Tony stopped short. “Yeah?”
“I can’t get a puzzle from my shelf.”
Tony pulled his hands back at first, intending to go right upstairs to help, and paused. His first and only concern was that it would be dangerous, but then he thought that if it was just him and Peter, all he had to do was keep an eye on him. plus—for the first time in perhaps ever—he thought that he would like some human company in his workshop, especially that of his son’s.
“Hey, Peter? Forget about the puzzle. Come down here.”
“Why?” Peter asked, but the door was already unlocked and he was already padding down the steps.
Tony answered under his breath, “Because you’re going to love this.”
Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen
Tony wanted to have that familiar but improved life. He’d still have Peter, but he would be the father his kid needed and deserved. He still had Stark Industries, but no longer manufacturing weapons that would take the lives of those with no escape. He still had his mansion and his few companions and whatever else, but he now knew how to properly appreciate them now.
Tony could not…let go. If he’d ever told himself that he would forget about that cave, conscious or subconscious, he’d lied to himself.
Tony didn’t let Peter stick around for every single moment, of course not. He decided that Peter was smart enough not to touch anything that would cost him a finger. That didn’t mean he was okay with his kid being around open flames or spinning saws. Peter was a good sport about it for the most part-and yes, there were some moments that got a little too slow and Peter simply left.
Still, the project had almost become their shared secret. There was still school, Tony had to return to a burning ship, and life was just life. Between those moments, they sat huddled in the workshop like conspiring scientists. Tony let Peter hand him the tools. Over the flame of a blowtorch, they talked about Peter’s classes and friends and baseball. Tony did his best to have dinner together every night, even if it was just greasy takeout.
Rhodey somewhat came around in that he stopped by when he could—he and Peter acting like old college friends, honestly—but refused any mentions of S.I., the war, or anything similar.
Obadiah officially smoked one big, cartoonish cigar a day. Arc reactor development had begun and he was working right with it. His cooperation was real, but it seemed every smile he gave Tony had that “I hate this” edge to it.
“Pass the pepper, Tony.” (I hate this.)
“We’ve got a meeting on Thursday.” (I hate this.)
“Hey, Tony, how are you doing?” (I hate this.)
This was always what Obadiah had been, though. The man didn’t like wrenches in his plans or more work on his plate—as evidenced by his pushback on the idea of Peter coming to LA. That said, Tony had put forward a foundation-breaking change that could have spelled disaster. He knew the Arc technology would be phenomenal, but others didn’t. Maybe he was still a shit person for it. He was trying to be empathetic.
Everyone wanted to know what the project was, for different reasons. Obadiah probably wanted reassurance that they weren’t going to have to lay off hundreds of employees, Rhodey wanted a “sike!” and some brand-new army-issued tech, and Pepper wanted to know if she was going to have to hospitalize him for exhaustion. Tony was going one or two nights without sleep, but his body always had a backup supply of energy. Another only-him-knowing fact.
The Mark II was going to take quite a while for sure. Having an actual workshop only made him realize just how many things could be improved. Flight was going to be the major focus, but he had to establish an armor strong enough to not pancake himself after every launch.
Peter one day asked, “Are we making a robot?”
Tony answered, “No, not really.”
Then the arms and legs came together. “Are you sure it’s not a robot?”
“Nope. Not a robot.”
Peter finally snagged a look at the blueprints. “It looks like a robot.”
“Yeah. Kinda does.”
Peter often asked what they were making it for. Tony only answered, “For fun.” Because even he did not know what his plans were with this, just that he’d be a great deal happier once he had it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d put such focus into a project. It wasn’t just passion, it was a need to see this through. As if it would prove something or another.
When the last touches to the thrusters were being made, Tony decided Peter probably shouldn’t be in the room for the first test. The reactor’s power might very well blast things to smithereens, and Tony would have liked one of those things to not be his son. It would be quite a tricky thing to explain to Ben or May or Richard. All he needed was DUM-E and J.A.R.V.I.S.
He was vindicated when he slapped full-body against the ceiling.
Peter’s disappointment was overshadowed by his concern. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yee-up. Number three, please.”
Peter handed him the wrench obediently from his own little desk space. It wasn’t much at all, just some crayons, paper, and a Rubik’s cube (that he could solve), but it was enough to establish his place in the workshop.
Peter leaned forward. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Peter’s vast knowledge of all things TV and cinema had taught him that this question was as foolproof as checking for one’s pulse. Thus, Tony answered, “Three and a half. Now four. Two. Five. Two again.”
Satisfied and smiling, Peter dropped his hand. So Tony returned to his tinkering—the sweat on his brow threatening to unstick the bandage on his forehead once more—but not five seconds later, Peter asked, “What are stocks?”
Tony first looked at Peter’s face, which had lost its smile, and then to the little screen on his desk. Tony hardly ever used it, as its main use was to hookup to the latest news if he so needed, from developments in the war to the stock crashes. And lo and behold, there was another photo of the Stark Industries’ logo, the article titled, Will Stark Industries Survive 40 Point Drop?
“Jar, put on Tom & Jerry.” The screen flicked away at once, and though Peter glanced at the slapstick, he kept his attention on Tony as he explained, “When you own part of a company, you have stock in it. The company gets money, you get money.”
“Is it like a video game? With the points?”
Peter paused. “I think everyone’s mad at you.”
Tony laughed without humor. “You think correctly. Number four, please.”
“Did you do something bad?”
Tony stopped and thought. He didn’t want to lie, but he wondered how well Peter would be able to grasp more political concepts. “I made a decision that changed things for everyone else. It wasn’t fair of me, even if I did it to help.”
“Yeah. Don’t worry; everything will work out.”
Peter didn’t seem wholly convinced. He never did, no doubt knowing when an adult was just trying to cover up problems. He wanted to know what happened in the cave, but Tony couldn’t tell him those details.
The Parkers had never pried too much into Tony and Peter’s home life outside of check-ins and such. Perhaps they don’t want to dictate whether Tony was raising Peter “correctly” or not. Lately, though, they’d been making check-ins more frequently. Tony didn’t know if they, too, thought he was losing his mind and drowning in trauma and…he didn’t care. That was bad, but it was true. His patience wasn’t endless.
The first time Peter returned to Richard’s home, it was a surprise that Ben was there, too. The man was absolutely allowed to see his brother, but the timing was undeniable. Tony was not offended, nor did he feel “tricked.” He couldn’t, really, when Peter looked so happy to see him. Tony remembered that Ben had really, truly come to the plate to care for Peter in his absence.
So Tony was not at all unhappy to return home without Peter. Nope. Nah. This was the agreement. This was what normalcy entailed: a return to form. This was great. Fantastic. Superb. Peter was fine. Tony got some alone time. Ideal.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t call.
Ben didn’t even bother with a ‘hello.’ “You lasted thirty minutes longer than I thought you would.”
Tony leaned against the work bench. It was very unusual to not be able to focus on his work. “I’m flattered.”
“Peter’s fine. Currently stuffing his face full of popcorn.”
“Great. Star Wars?”
“Jumanji. He likes other movies.”
It was a totally harmless tease, a total joke, Ben Parker-level kindness, but eesh. Right in the gut. “Yeah, I know. Just joking. Hey, if you don’t mind me asking: has Peter said anything maybe a little weird? Something I should worry about? If you think that’s invading his privacy, that’s—fine. Just figured I should ask.”
It was thoughtful silence, not judging. “Caaaaan’t think of anything outside of the usual…I mean—apparently you guys have some kind of project, but all I know is that it’s super secret.”
He laughed. Couldn’t help it. “Yeah. Super, super secret. Government-level.”
“So can I just come on out and ask if you’re okay?”
A sigh had to be choked down. “Okay in light of what?”
“Answer how you wish.”
Kind as ever. Ben would ask, but let you vent. “Okay, just not happy. Not exactly fun to have the entirety of the world dissecting your mental state.”
“You in any trouble?”
“Nothing that isn’t going to work out.” Hopefully.
Ben paused. “Is Obadiah involved in any of it?”
Tony was caught off-guard, but answered, “Yeah. Obadiah Business Stane—it’s his middle name.” So much so that he’d finally just went and told Tony to lay low while he sort-of took over for the time being. Tony was pretty sure he didn’t have to worry about security anytime soon, but he’d painted a target on his back for sure.
“I, uh…I don’t know Obadiah that well, to be honest. Is he always…like that when he’s stressed?”
Tony immediately understood. “Yeah, listen…I know more than anyone how pouty he can be. Believe me. I’ll be the first to say he needs to work on it, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just a good guy with a bad temper.”
“Alright.” Ben’s sigh ruffled the receiver. “Just making sure. I wasn’t sure if it was like some ‘true colors’ stuff or—no, crap. I’m not trying to be judgmental. Just…whatever. I believe you.”
He could have let it end there, but now Tony was curious, and a little wary. “So what kind of stuff did he do, anyway? Or was it just passive-aggressive, rolling his eyes stuff? The ‘don’t talk to me’ attitude?”
“He just…lashed out a lot. At everything. And everyone. I mean, from what I could tell. We tried to stay back from him while everything was going down, y’know? We didn’t want to make a bad situation worse.”
“I got you.”
“But we weren’t sure if there was something we should know—like if you had one of those protocols or something. We went to Pepper when we could, but she was as overwhelmed as you can get, so we tried Obadiah instead. Just…‘Hey, before we take Peter in, is there something we should know? Legal documents, stuff like that?’ and he just…blew a gasket. ‘Do you think I have any time for this? Do whatever you want with the twerp!’ Something-something, grunt-growl.”
“Twerp?” Tony had only heard of the kids in Peter’s classes insulting him, and it was stuff like saying he picked his nose or was stupid. Even in his moodiest moments, Obadiah had never point-blank called Peter something. “He called him a twerp?”
Ben tried to hide it, but Tony caught the pause in his voice. “Did he call him something else?”
“I mean…he called him a…a little shit once.” Ben must have felt the punch of outrage Tony got, because he scrambled to go on, “I’m sure he was just really stressed out and didn’t mean it. Like you said, he isn’t a bad guy, he just needs to work on that stuff. I know he’s fine with Peter. He’s nice to him. Just—Peter was stressed out, too.”
“He called him a little shit in front of him?”
“No, no, no! Peter was never around when we were talking about stuff; we didn’t want him to get freaked out. He just said that in one of his…”
Tony tried to think of something to say and fell short. He was equal parts angry and confused. On the one hand, it was perfectly in-character for Obadiah to get even more irritable than usual when he had to deal with the undeniable hellfire that happened the second Tony went MIA. On the other hand, Obadiah’s moodiest lows always held a little bit of truth in them. All those arguments about being Peter to LA in the first place, when Obie told him he was not a man to do such a thing, he wasn’t masking his opinions there. Those opinions had changed, he’d given his eventual blessing, but…
Best case scenario, Obadiah really didn’t mean it and cracked under the unthinkable pressure, as any man would.
Worst case scenario, Obadiah actually still resented Peter, or the idea of him, at the very least. It took so much of everything else to get him to slip on it.
“Uh…Yeah. That’s not okay. Not okay at all.”
“Agreed,” Ben said with an awkward laugh. “But I’m sure he’s mellowed out now that you’re back, right?”
Eeeeeehhhh. “Not zen, but I’m sure he’s mellowed out a hundred times over.”
“Right. Hey, you know I’m not asking you to do anything about it, right? I’m sure you have enough to deal with, too.”
“No, no. I know when someone’s asking for favors. Don’t worry about it.”
Tony would, though. He figured a talk with Obadiah about his behavior was long overdue.
“Hey, Peter’s getting pretty annoyed that I’m not in the ‘theater’, so you mind if I go?”
“Go right ahead. Hey—uh—before you go.”
“I just wanted to say a formal thanks for…everything. I know you did a lot to keep Peter safe when I was gone, so. You deserve credit for that, at east. I owe you a hundred. Just tell me when.”
Ben chuckled sadly. “We both made promises, Tony. No need to thank me.”
School eventually came to its summer end. Babysitters returned to Peter’s life, but only occasionally, not the endless come-and-ago the last year had brought. Laying low meant only occasional visits to SI, purely overseeing, nothing too much too fast. His own birthday came and went with little fanfare. No parties, no big blowouts, just him relaxing at home and getting some good food with Peter in just the next room.
Tony tried to get even more into the old swing of things, but it was hard. Nothing seemed appealing—clubs, yachts, anything money could buy. He could go on an impromptu vacation and not one person would judge him for it, but he just wanted to stay in the mansion with his workshop, Peter, J.A.R.V.I.S., and nothing else. He would prefer R2-D2’s presence over any reporter, any day, but oh how the press tried to break through to him.
It wasn’t that he was being lazy, either. Even outside of the workshop, he kept up his normal workout routine. His appetite was the same. It wasn’t so much that he’d gone cold sober that getting drunk just disinterested him. He wished he had said disinterest the many times he’d been left with a young son to care for.
It should have been easy, shouldn’t it? To just walk back into the life he’d left with open arms. Easier than easy. But it wasn’t.
Tony wanted to have that familiar but improved life. He’d still have Peter, but he would be the father his kid needed and deserved. He still had Stark Industries, but no longer manufacturing weapons that would take the lives of those with no escape. He still had his mansion and his few companions and whatever else, but he now knew how to properly appreciate them now.
Tony could not…let go. If he’d ever told himself that he would forget about that cave, conscious or subconscious, he’d lied to himself.
There were times when the smoke that came from the work of his own hands reminded him of the ashy air of his old “workshop”, the cavern of fluorescent lights and cold stone walls. Sometimes Peter would be doing the most benign of things, LEGOs or video games or reading books, and Tony would ruffle his hair and kiss his brow, remembering when he thought he would never see him again. When he heard or saw any and every news report of the war, the face of Yinsen—
It was only the wet sheen from the firelight that told Tony what was blood and what was ash. He couldn’t focus on that, though, not when Yinsen was speaking to him even as his eyes grew dimmer and dimmer. “Don’t waste your life, Stark.”
—would come to his mind.
Most often, it was tiny, little, simple things that made him think about the Ten Rings. They’d beaten him, drowned him, pumped him full of shrapnel, left him bleeding, like he was less than nothing. They watched him writhe in pain and smiled. They would have taken his life in an instant and never so much as bat an eye over it. And just to make all of that worse, they had done it, time and again, over and over, to so, so many others.
Tony was enraged in a way that he’d never been enraged before. This wasn’t some hot and burning flash, it was something dark that had taken root and wasn’t going to let go. The only time he ever saw any of them again was probably going to be on newspapers and news channels, but it didn’t matter. While Yinsen and his family and so many other families had their lives cut short, the Ten Rings—cronies and top dogs alike—were still alive and breathing.
Was Tony going to do something about it? He guessed not. The weapons manufacturing of SI was officially over—he wasn’t going to use them against the Ten Rings when there was no keeping them from anyone else. It was somewhat satisfactory just to be back home, as lame as that might have been. “Remember when you guys were going to pop me between the eyes when I got done making your shiny new toys? Well now I’m eating day-old takeout on my sofa watching Spongebob. Take that!”
It wasn’t enough. Tony didn’t know what he was going to do, exactly, but living just wasn’t enough. He knew he was still “wasting his life”, someway or another. He wouldn’t be working on the Mark II if he wasn’t.
Do you have a minute?
You did to send that text.
Don’t do this to me.
I just need to talk for a minute.
Is it serious?
Is it related to the company?
Have you thought about literally anything else?
When was the last time you ate?
I’ll send Happy over with some granola bars.
Someone has to man this fort.
Your instructions. Lay low.
I don’t deny that.
What’s going on? I’m really on a crunch here.
How much did you stay in contact with the Parkers while I was away?
Not much. They wanted Peter away from everything.
I told them to call if they needed anything but I guess they were all good.
But you talked.
We all did but it wasn’t much.
We had a lot to deal with.
It was hard to schedule get-togethers.
We were talking about it last night.
Did something happen I didn’t know about?
Like I said they didn’t reach out about anything.
Said you said some things.
Insults. Dismissals. Lots of good ol’ bitterness.
I’ll admit I let my tongue slip a few times.
This isn’t just about back then.
This has been an ongoing problem you know.
Saying stuff you don’t mean when you’re stressed.
Does this have anything to do with when we were talking about taking in Peter?
Because that was years ago and I apologized.
I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to spin this on me.
Apologizing is great and all but working on the actual problem would be better.
I’m just saying it would be nice if you stopped going oops when you lash out.
Don’t ignore my texts.
I’ll cancel your birthday party.
Don’t test me.
I told you I’m busy T please.
I get it. I need to work on holding my tongue.
If you weren’t you wouldn’t say it in the first place.
Just use that as an explanation not an excuse.
You might want to be extra sweet to everyone to mend some bridges.
I’ll tell Peter I’m sorry for talking to him like that.
Talking to him like how?
Peter doesn’t know they didn’t tell him.
I meant ABOUT him.
But alright. I’ll apologize to the Parkers.
In the meantime lay low.
The fire is starting to go down.
Take care of yourself.
Look who’s talking.
Late merry crisis and a happy new year!!
Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen
It isn’t nearly as easy as just asking what is the problem, though, because he can’t get through the battle without ammuni—Bad analogy. It’d be much easier to tackle if he had an inkling to start with. He doesn’t, though, even after asking Peter a second time. In the midst of working on the new project, he is completely unable to focus, especially when Peter is there to help.
He should have known what the problem was. He should have. He didn’t.
Peter’s birthday is not a huge deal. Not through lack of care—Tony offers him many ideas. Legoland? Disneyland? Anything? No, Peter just wants to stay home, order pizza, have the family together. He wants a colorful cake with the letters of his name as the candles. A lot of balloons.
Tony does not question why Peter doesn’t want to do anything for his birthday. That’s not really what he’s questioning as of late.
Tony thinks he knows kids pretty well by now, due in no short part to remembering being one himself. He'd had no problem running to his mother about bullies and boo-boos or scary sounds in the dark. If he kept his mouth shut, it was because he’d done something. Can't get into trouble if no one knows.
Peter is different from other kids, though. He isn’t just smart, he’s observant. He reads adults easily. Plus, he’s a year wiser now.
Also, Tony can kind of tell when Peter is hiding something. His son can’t lie to save his life. He can’t keep eye contact and can’t keep his voice even. Now, to his credit, he is a kid. No, Peter, Tony can not believe that DUM-E somehow managed to get all the way upstairs, break a glass, and get back down to the lab before Tony came to see what happened.
Sometimes, though...he just gets quiet. Especially after assuring Tony that he’s okay.
The birthday plan was fine. Tony won’t make him do what he doesn’t want to. Honestly, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Peter was as drained from the last few months as he was. If he just wants everyone at the mansion to hang out and eat pizza instead of walking around an amusement park for hours, that’s fine.
There is something, though, and Tony was positive that it was everything he expected—the stress everyone’s failing to hide, or the media buzz that Tony can’t completely keep out, so Peter hears it all like cicadas outside his window. He was positive, until he asked. Is that what’s wrong, Pete? Are you worried about everything that’s going on?
“No,” he answers, and Tony knows when his son is telling the truth.
Which means he was wrong, and he doesn’t know what’s bothering his son.
It isn’t nearly as easy as just asking what is the problem, though, because he can’t get through the battle without ammuni—Bad analogy. It’d be much easier to tackle if he had an inkling to start with. He doesn’t, though, even after asking Peter a second time. In the midst of working on the new project, he is completely unable to focus, especially when Peter is there to help.
He should have known what the problem was. He should have. He didn’t.
Peter’s birthday party was going fine. They were all together, eating pizza, R2-D2 rolling around with a party hat, watching Peter ooh-and-ah over his presents. All three Parkers were in attendance, Rhodey walked around out-of-uniform and basically carrying Peter everywhere like he was a king. Tony was striking up a good balance between being social and pulling away when the subtle look of Everything is wrong and I don’t know if we should talk about it in the others’ eyes got a little too not-subtle. Happy was avoiding him—more specifically, he was sitting cross-legged beside Peter to snap open tight bows for him like it was his God-given duty. The only person who could talk to him like a normal person was Ben, and Tony couldn’t expect him to stay glued to his hip.
Then, while everyone was meandering around post-pizza-and-presents, a certain guest arrived without J.A.R.V.I.S.’s announcement. He was one of the few people who could enter the mansion without one.
“Sorry I’m late,” Obie announces with the air of a father coming home to a set dinner table after a long day at work. He has his blazer slung over one shoulder and is holding a gift bag stuffed with polka-dot tissue in the other. “Very unexpected business to take care of.”
Everyone tried not to let the tension set it. That made it set in thicker, behind all the smiles-not-smiles and hums-that-aren’t-quite-greetings. Ben was trying the hardest, and looked maybe the most uncomfortable. Richard regarded Obie with neutral wariness. May looked like smiling pained her.
Pepper, though, she mirrored Tony’s look. Something is wrong here but it’s Peter’s birthday, so nothing is wrong here.
(Rhodey looked like he had no idea what the hell everyone was acting so weird for.)
“Glad you could make it,” Tony said in a thinly veiled attempt to hack off some tension. “There are party hats on the counter. Required for attendance.”
“Did I stutter?”
Obie just chuckles, and then he crosses the living room over to Peter. Ben looks at Richard, Pepper looks at Tony, May watches Obie, and Happy watches Peter.
It was that moment that Tony got his first inkling. The moment in which, watching Obie approach, Peter just ever-so-slightly leaned back and let his hands drop to his lap. In leaning back, he did so just slightly in Happy’s direction, as it to assure himself that he was not alone. Tony watched, and Tony worried.
Obie handed the gift bag to Peter with a big, crinkly-eyed smile. “Happy birthday, sport.”
Peter smiled probably the most horrific, gut-twisting smile Tony had ever seen. Not because it was monstrous or uncanny, but because a seven-year-old should never know how to give a fake smile. “Thank you.”
The rest of the party goes off just fine as long as the elephant in the room went ignored. It was hard, but they did so in hopes of giving Peter a reprieve from watching adults share pointed looks so as not to actually talk in front of him. Peter went to bed, seven years old, safe and tired and in his new star-print pajamas.
Obie’s gift was a Nerf gun. It is the one toy Tony never sees him use. Just like he never wears the SI hoodie anymore. Or the hat.
Tony has been picking up on the behavior around Obie for a while now, but he'd chalked it up to lingering fear of Obie’s Tony’s-disappearance-era anger. Ben had said he wasn’t around for any of the heavy talk. Peter had confirmed (in that murmured, “yeah” way kids do) that Obie had apologized if he’d hurt his feelings about anything.
Obie has gotten better. No more sarcastic smiles or snippy responses. Perma-grin Obie seems to be here to stay. Yes, his frustration peeks through sometimes. He seems to have a plan, though, or at least he knows how to deal with the more panicked board members.
Obie has made a point to stick around more, too. He swings by the mansion at least once a week. If Tony had noticed any hesitance on Peter’s part to interact with him before then, he hadn’t really Noticed. They only ever saw each other for a few minutes when Peter was coming in from school, or Obie was about to head out.
He gets what he thinks is the answer one day, when Peter is in the lab with him, watching the screen load all the information into the computer system, and he asks, “I’m not supposed to tell Obie about this either, right?”
“Right. Top secret. Me and you, no one else. Did he ask?”
“What did you say?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Mm.” Tony hesitates. He doesn’t want to push it, but he doesn’t want to drop it either. “Was he upset?”
Peter keeps his eyes on the screen. “He keeps asking.”
“Kinda.” Peter doesn’t miss Tony’s silent look to explain. “The first time he asked—he just—he asked what we were doing and I said it was a secret. He hasn’t said—he hasn’t asked that again, he hasn’t asked what we’re doing in the lab, but he…”
Peter falters, not out of unwillingness to continue. Tony had this struggle when he was around this age, too. He knows what he wants to say but he doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to actually say it.
“Hey, do you know what the word ‘imply’ means?” Peter shakes his head. “Okay. When you ‘imply’ something, that means you’re saying something without really saying it. So if a teacher looks at you kind of angry and tells you to go to the principal’s office, they’re implying that you’re in trouble, right?”
“Has Obie implied that he wants to know what we’re doing down here?”
“Yeah. I think so.” Peter visibly thinks. “He just…he says stuff like—he says stuff like he wished he knew what we were doing. He said he bets it’s really cool.”
Okay. Well. Question answered, then. No, Tony doesn’t like the idea of Obie nudging his seven-year-old for the answers Tony refuses him, but that isn’t anything to crucify him for. It’s maybe even funny, Obie’s not-too-subtle desire to get not just in Tony’s lab, but his head, too.
Peter is a good confidant, which is unfortunate for Obie. Tony has not once been confronted about what they’re doing by Pepper, the Parkers, anyone. Which doesn’t necessarily mean Peter’s a good liar, but that he can keep his mouth sealed for a secret.
So Tony settled that Peter’s hesitance of Obadiah stemmed from the man’s attempts to pry into his and his father’s secret.
Another good thing: Peter isn’t miserable. He’s not walking around with his head hanging and his feet dragging across the floor. He perks up like a firework every time Tony tells him it’s lab-time. He’ll talk for what feels like hours about school and a book he’s reading or his favorite TV show. Heck, Tony even likes the return of such seven-year-old traits as wanting to stay up past bedtime, or being too messy, or rolling his eyes when Tony tells him to do something. He’s happy to know Peter is still a kid and he hasn’t been aged by everything that has happened.
It does occur to Tony, however, that while he is fine being cooped up in the mansion—yes, Rhodey; yes, Pepper; he is fine. He’s not getting cabin fever—Peter probably isn’t. He doesn’t actually say anything to Tony about it, but it does occur to him that it’s been more than a month since they’ve actually gone out to do something like they used to do. Tony’s determination to finish his project burned as bright as ever, but he could put that aside for the two of them to get some much-needed R&R.
He asks Peter when they’re working in the lab one day, Peter dutifully handing him every tool he needed from the rack. “How about you, me, and the Parkers all make plans to go out next weekend? We’ll do anything we want.”
Peter smiles, and it warms Tony’s heart.
It ends up being a boys’ night out in the end—the Parker brothers, Peter, and Tony. The soup kitchen where May volunteers is expecting a rather large rush that particular weekend and they need all hands on deck. She tells Tony this when he calls to ask, and her wish for them to “Have fun!” is genuine. So Tony is more and more assured that maybe May Parker is okay with him now.
Ben agrees to come with enough sincere happiness to make Tony wish he could clap the man’s back in person. Richard agrees with a tentative “if he can” and just a little hint of I still question your mental state.
And Peter, he is so excited. So wonderfully excited.
“Where are we gonna go eat?”
“Anywhere we want.”
“Are we going to go see a movie?”
“Sure, if we have time.”
“Can we go to an amusement park?”
“We sure can.”
The thruster set up behind the sheet of Plexiglass roars up, and the two of them spend a second just watching the bright blue flame stream out of the end. Tony ups the capacity, the jet brighter and longer, and when it finally starts to flicker, he makes a note and shuts it off.
They are tantalizingly close now, almost too close for Tony to handle. It felt bad in a good sort of way to be excited for two things. Tony is excited to go have a Boys Night Out with his son, the mellow-tempered Richard, and King of Making You Feel Like an Actual Person Ben Parker. At the same time, he kind of knew that the Mark II was going to be on his mind the entire night, niggling the back of his brain. He wasn’t getting his priorities screwed, he was just excited.
Peter looks out at all their work for a moment. Tony usually likes his workspace clean and tidy, but he can’t help the organized chaos this time around. It isn’t horrible. They can clearly see just how far everything has come together.
“Why are you making this?”
Tony’s fingers paused on the computer screen. It wasn’t the first time Peter had asked ‘why’, but it was the first time he’d asked it generally. Not ‘Why do we need to screw that in?’ or ‘Why do I need to stand back?’, but ‘Why are we doing this whole thing?’
He answers, “Just because. It’s like when you draw a picture. You just want to.” And see, Tony isn’t trying to lie. The answer came out easily, but once he’s said it, Tony knows that he’s just lied.
Peter knows it, too, the clever little guy, and he just says (in a tone that is way too implicating for a kid who just learned what that word meant not too long ago), “This is a lot of work for wanting to do something.”
Tony leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, not angrily. He turns the chair to face Peter, who does the same—albeit he does have to push against the counter to turn. They do this sometimes: just regard each other, not upset or awkward. Just taking a second to silently say ‘I hear you, but I’m thinking.’ Peter patiently kicks his legs beneath the chair. Tony should probably get him a custom one.
“I don’t know why I’m making it,” Tony tries again with a bit more honesty. “I just want to, even though it’s a lot of work.”
Peter glances at the image on the computer. It spins in place for a full 3D rotation of what will eventually be real. “Are you going to do something with it?”
“Yeah. I just don’t know what, though.”
“You’re going to be fly, right?”
“If I can get it to work right, yeah.”
“If you do, you can just do that.” A little lazily, Peter extends his arms out to his sides and tilts his body like a plane. “Just fly around whenever you want and never have to take a car anywhere.”
He’s old enough now that he is a little wary at the idea of the suit flying instead of being in starry-eyed awe, but young enough that he doesn’t understand that even if it works, Tony’s not going to be able to just fly around all willy-nilly. Tony loves him. “There’s an idea. Every time I want Burger King, I’ll just zip on over.”
“You can take me to school.” Peter holds a hand in front of his face. “You’re going to have a mask, so no one would be able to see you.”
“You just want to fly, too, don’t you?”
“And all the other kids to think you’re cool.”
“Yeah.” His son’s face pinches together into an expression that’s probably supposed to be intimidating. “So everyone would know to never mess with me.”
Tony’s smile drops just a little bit. “Do the kids mess with you?”
“No, but they’d know not to mess with me.”
Tony nods and taps a finger against his temple. “Ahhhh.”
Peter does the same. “Ahhhh.”
For the next week, Peter goes back to school and Tony hoards himself up in his laboratory. He’s starting to feel lonely, honestly, between Rhodey being kept lock-and-key at work (and also, still pretty pissed at Tony even if he did call neutrality for the birthday party) and Pepper letting him be in favor of helping out Obadiah and SI in general. Tony can’t lie and say he doesn’t miss Pepper being around at any given moment with her quick brain and refusal to take Tony’s bullshit, but he’s not going to keep her with him like a service animal when she could be doing actual work elsewhere.
The suit is also so very, very, very, very close now. Just behind the curtain. All it is now is a matter of tests and practice, and Tony usually isn’t so cautious but recent events have somewhat changed his mind. Peter spends most nights with Richard—the now-official physical therapist having been so busy he’d hardly been able to see Peter at all for two weeks, so it was a matter of swapping time—and Tony questions if he wants to wait to do the first launch until Peter comes back.
He knows that the suit isn’t going to go nuclear or anything, but his last couple of flight tests have been far from perfect. After giving the hoods of his cars a nice toasting, he really, really, really doesn’t want to do the same to his son. Still, if Tony is careful enough, it’d be such a huge moment for them to share.
Also…Tony is impatient. He feels like a kid that was just handed a big wrapped present and told “Don’t open it.”
Obadiah swings by at least once a day, and Tony is more and more impressed by his improvement. If he comes by around noon, he brings lunch, and he and Tony will take a minute to sit in the kitchen and eat. Once Tony tries to gobble it down to get back to the shop (rude, but helpless), and Obie chides him in a way that is almost fatherly.
They talk about work, of course, but in a much better way than they had before. Obie is just updating him, really, not trying to guilt him into doing one thing or another. If he brings up the board’s impatience with Tony’s continued absence, it is because Tony brings it up first. He asks maybe once a visit what he’s got going on in the workshop and drops it.
Tony considers asking him to stop asking Peter…but thinks against it.
The more that Obie comes over, the more Tony sees and understands just how much this is taking out of the old guy. It had been Obie’s decision to take over, yes, and the whole situation is just one huge shitstorm media attention, panic, stock, etc. But Tony has to remind himself sometimes that Obie is in this just as much as he is. If Tony’s out of the picture, it’s on Obie to shoulder all the responsibility and backlash. There shouldn’t be one, singular person for everyone to point fingers at and blame, but there is, and it’s Obie.
Tony is so grateful that Obie is letting go of his habit of letting his stress vent out in snippy remarks and snaps of impatience, but there’s no way he can just command the man to not be tired. When Obie sits, it’s with a breath of relief. When he stands, it’s with a groan to brace himself for more work. When he talks of work, the occasional sigh slips through his words, and Tony knows they’re all genuine.
He owes Obie an olive branch, probably, not just for the past few months but for all the months Tony was locked in the cave, unable to even dream about helping SI. He wonders if Obie thinks he resents him for anything. He doesn’t.
In one of Obie’s visits, the day before the big hangout, the two of them are sitting on the sofa of the living room, drinking fresh-brewed coffee and watching the latest Mad Money. Jim Cramer is finally talking about something besides SI, but no doubt he will be back to it soon. Probably not the most relaxing programming.
An idea occurs to Tony. “Hey, we were all thinking of going out this weekend.”
Obie took a slurp of steaming coffee. “Who’s ‘we’?”
“Me, Peter, Richard, and Ben.”
“Mmm. Boys’ Night Out.” Obie glances at him and smirks. “You know you can’t bring Peter to a strip club, right?”
“Wasn’t in the agenda, but thanks for the footnote. You should come with us.”
Obie finally takes his eyes off the TV to look at him. “Sorry?”
“Yeah, you should come with us. Get out on the town and stretch your legs. Wear something besides a three-piece. Particularly, that one. That has to be the fourth time you’ve worn it this week.”
“I have several suits in slightly different shades of gray and I won’t explain that to you again.” Obie pauses for a second and takes another, much quieter sip of coffee. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Tony.”
“Well, in case you don’t have working eyes, the Parkers aren’t particularly sweet on me.”
“I thought you apologized?”
“I did. Doesn’t mean we’re going to hold hands and skip through the daisies.”
On the one hand, Tony wants to build some bridges here and get this whole…not really a family, but ‘unit’ working healthily. On the other hand, he is suddenly a little grateful that May isn’t going to be able to make it now.
“Hear me out: for the first time in forever, no one is going to have to worry about work or deadlines or board meetings—”
“First time in forever for us, you mean.”
“—and we can all just relax and talk and do whatever it is four grown men and a seven-year-old boy do for fun in town.” Tony paused with the lip of his coffee cup just inches from his mouth. He dropped it back down to his lap. “That sounded much weirder than I intended it to.”
“It sure did.” After a brief chuckle, Obie’s face twisted just so, his nose wrinkling as he swirled his coffee around in his cup. “I don’t know, Tony. I don’t think a night on the town is really in my schedule right now.”
“Then force it in. It’s probably not even going to be six hours, Obie. Come on.”
Obie downs the last of his coffee—in a swallow so big Tony blinks in concern for a second—and with a loud pfwah, answers, “Fine. But if I need to leave, I’m hightailing it out of there with no questions.”
So for once in a blue moon, everything was looking pretty alright. One night to have fun and maybe mend some bridges, and he got to spend some good out-of-the-house time with his son as a bonus.
Peter is spending that night at Richard’s, too, and the plan is to ride with him and meet up with Tony and Ben at the rendezvous point. Tony had texted Richard and Ben both earlier that day to tell them that Obadiah would be joining them. Ben answered with a simple thumbs-up emoji and after a simple ‘Will he be able to?’, Richard agreed and left it at that.
Oh, Tony knew for a fact that there was going to be lingering tension, but the point was to get through it. If they were all at least civil with each other by the end of the night, Tony would be more than happy.
As for Peter, he figured that Obie would at least have the sense not to bring up the Secret Lab Project on their night on the town. If not, Tony would easily find away to just stem the conversation away, and maybe then he would tell the older man that Peter just didn’t want to talk about it, so please stop asking. Peter had no reason to be wary of Obadiah and Tony wanted to prove that to him.
A little after eight, Tony’s phone rings. He almost does not catch it over the hum of the processing computer, but he manages to pick it up right before the call ends. The caller ID reads Richard Parker. Tony had picked a stock image of a tiger as the photo.
“Hey. Sorry for not picking up sooner. Working.”
“It’s okay. Um…I—Listen. I have some bad news.”
Tony pauses the processes so the computer quiets down. He can hear Richard perfectly fine, but he suddenly feels like he can’t have a whisper of noise interrupting them. “What’s up?”
“Peter’s just…not feeling good right now. He says his stomach hurts.”
Already, Tony is striking through the entire schedule for tomorrow. Disappointment settles heavy in his chest. “Oh, man. Is he taking any medicine?”
“Yeah, I gave him some, but—you know—tomorrow, he might not…”
“Yeah, yeah, no. Absolutely not. It’s no big deal. Nothing important.” Tony licks his teeth for a second. “Hey, can you hand the phone to him?”
“He said he doesn’t want to talk right now…sorry.”
That there is no pause in the answer tells Tony Peter had preemptively told Richard that. For some reason.
“No, it’s alright. Just, uh…Tell him not to worry about it. We’ll see if he’s feeling better tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Alright.” A pause. “Sorry, Tony.”