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Part One: In Which Tony Stark Has a Heart

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“Pete! Breakfast!” Peter’s older brother’s call pulls him out of his restless slumber. “Come on!”

“Eat without me!” He shouts back. “It’s Saturday! I’m sleeping!”

“Fine!” Peter can hear the slight betrayal in Tony’s shout. “To do list is on the fridge.”

He lets out a loud groan of acknowledgement before face planting in his pillow again. Things get quiet in the kitchen outside his room, and just a little bit of guilt slips into his  mind as he listens for his brother, who is obviously eating in silence. He feels a little bad, but more than that he just wants to keep sleeping. A few minutes pass by and the door to his room creaks open a crack. Peter lifts his face from his pillow to see his brother poking his head into the room. The expression on his face is soft and loving as ever.

“I didn’t put it on the list, but if you want you can run by the library and get a movie for when I get home,” Tony whispers, “My card and pin are on the counter, so you can get an R one if you want.”

“Thanks,” Peter mumbles.

“Sorry I woke you up,” Tony says apologetically.

“It’s fine,” Peter assures him.

“Have fun, and make sure you’re careful running errands. If there’s any trouble just go over to Mrs. Arboghast’s, okay?”

“Okay,” Peter murmurs, doubting there will actually be any trouble, “Have fun fixing cars.”

“Thanks Pete,” Tony whispers, “Love ya, underoos.”

Peter grins at the goofy smile his brother gives him, “Love you too, goat face .”

Tony snorts as he ducks his head out of the room, and Peter’s door clicks closed. A couple seconds later the door to the house opens and closes. Peter lets his head flop back down against his pillow and  is out like a light. 

He doesn’t wake up again until 12, and decides that it’s probably best for him to get up and do the list of things Tony left him. He discovers the list magnetted to the fridge, and it isn’t nearly as extensive as he was expecting it to be. In fact it’s quite short: Trash to the street; groceries: butter, milk, eggs, bread (there’s extra money if you want to get some junk food); laundry run (if you feel up for it. If not, I’ll do it tonight.) The list is ended with a goofy smiley face at the bottom with the words Have fun and be safe kiddo! written next to it. Peter smiles and tucks the list in his pocket. He grabs the trash on the way out of the tiny one story light blue duplex and locks the door behind him. He drops the bag off at the edge of the curb and then dashes back to the front of the house to his bike.

It’s a short ride to the grocery store, and Peter gets everything collected quickly, with an added in bag of Cheetos. Cheetos aren’t really Peter’s favorite, but he knows Tony loves them, so he gets them for him.

On his ride back home three police cars in a row drive past him heading in the direction of the Bronx River, but he doesn’t really take much notice of them, police are too common in this area to pay them much mind.

 

Tony can hear Vanko coming even before he shouts, “Stark, get your ass up. You have a job to do.”

“Yeah, I’m doing it,” Tony grumbles as he slides himself out from under the stolen suburban, and discovers Vanko isn’t alone. A woman Tony hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting is standing with him. She studies him for a second. Tony can feel her intelligent blue eyes tracking over him as he straightens himself up. She has a slender graceful appearance not unlike a doe, but the soft look is a little lost due to her muscular frame. It makes Tony smile just a little. She looks like she can hand out an ass kicking which ensures her survival in the gang.

“This is Ginny Redding, she’s gonna be your new errand buddy.” Vanko nods his head toward the woman.

 Tony jerks his chin toward her in acknowledgement. She returns the gesture. Her movement is smooth and natural, to the point where it’s almost too natural. As though it’s been practiced, trained into her. Her stance is just a little too stiff and square.

 “I want you two moving the warehouse stash,” Vanko orders.

“You said I wouldn’t have to run product anymore,” Tony blurts, he hates doing anything that has to do with drugs, it’s a horrible trade and it makes him feel sick. Moving product from one storehouse to another is bad, picking up shipments is worse, but worst of all, to the point Tony refuses to do it, is actually selling the drugs to people on the street, especially junkies. He’s been there, he doesn’t want to have a part in helping someone else feed their addiction.

“Well, I’m saying now that you’re running product to the boat.” Tony opens his mouth to argue, but Vanko interrupts him, “And don't be arguing with me. I’m the reason you and your little pipsqueak of a kid brother aren’t starving to death on the streets.”

Tony clenches his teeth at the mention of his brother, “Don’t bring Peter into this.”

“Then don’t argue with me,” Vanko shouts. “Now do what you’re being paid to do!”

Tony glares, but doesn't argue, “C’mon Ms. Redding.” 

He nods his head in the direction of the closest working truck. She gives Vanko a brief glance before following him.

“I didn’t catch your name,” She comments.

Tony glances at her as he starts the truck, “Sorry, jackass was being a… well you know...” He trails off and leans back in his seat. “I’m Tony.” He offers her his hand.

“Ginny,” She takes his outstretched hand. Her grip is firm and her hands are smooth and soft. “But you already knew that.”

Tony narrows his eyes at her. “Yes I did…”

She raises her pierced eyebrow. “There a problem?”

“Just getting a read.” Tony says opening his car door, “You can never be too careful in this line of work. You never know when someone might be a cop. They like trying to sneak guys in.”

If she’s catching on to his line of reasoning, she doesn’t show it. “Gotta watch your back. I get it. Just a little offended you think I’m a cop.”

Tony bites his lip a little as he climbs into the truck. She’s definitely a cop, all the subtle things about her scream cop. Soft hands, nobody working drug deals and smuggling has time for hand care. The squareness of her stance as though she’s been through boot camp, or the police version of it. Most of all the way she appears to have been trained how to move. It’s so natural it’s fake. Tony isn’t surprised no one else has noticed. She’s good, maybe even better than Happy had been.

“So what brings you to this line of work?” Tony asks, pulling out onto the main road.

“It is hard for an ex-con to find stay in a legit job. A friend of mine, Jimmy, called in a favor when I got out of lock up.”

Tony squints out the front window. “Jimmy’s great.”

“Gotta love him,” Ginny says, shaking her head a little and looking out the window.

“Yeah,” Tony agrees. “What crew are you from?” He knows they don’t let newbies on transport runs, which means she’s probably been undercover for a while, probably since Happy was killed.

“Harlem,” Ginny replies.

Tony glances over at her in surprise, “Then what the hell are you doing down here.”

Ginny clears her throat and waves his question off, “Oh, no. I’m from one of the street crews. I’ve never been up with the big guys.”

Tony turns his attention back to the road. “So you have experience with the asshole?”

Ginny snorts and nods her head.

“Good, because  the guy who runs the warehouse house we’re going to is a real jackass, and is horrible to women.”

“I think I can handle myself.”

“I sure hope so.” Tony has no intention of getting his ass handed to him for the sake of a stranger, but if worse should come to worst, he’ll probably end up doing it, and then having to come up with some bullshit excuse to tell Peter. “I don’t especially want to have to jump in. That sort of thing generally ends badly for me.”

Ginny gives him a cheeky grin. “Because you’re so small, shorty?”

Tony whips his head around, aghast by her comment on his height, “Hitting that low so soon? You really will fit in here.”

“Oh good.” Pepper grins. “I wasn’t sure if I hit low enough to actually get you.”

Tony growls in amused frustration. “I’m going to get you back for that.”

Ginny laughs. “If you can reach.”

Tony laughs too. She’s the first person in nearly 9 years to be able to get on that level, Tony had forgotten how much he enjoys a good verbal spar. Peter can throw a few good tongue lashes, but nobody ever matched Rhodey. Tony thinks maybe Ginny can.

 

“Well hello, hot stuff.” Killian ignores Tony and sets his hungry eyes on Ginny immediately. Tony physically winces when he hears Killian smack her butt as she walks past him. “Don’t be ignoring me now, sweetie.”

He reaches to stroke her cheek, but she grabs his hand and forces it back. He tries to reach up at her with his other hand, but she hooks his wrist with her foot and pins it against the floor.

“What the fuck?!” Killian whines where he is kneeling at Ginny’s feet, squirming as she towers over him, “Get the fuck off!”

“Sorry. I didn’t realize douche nozzles could talk, so I was a little confused where the disgusting voice was coming from. I should have assumed it was coming from the nastiest thing in the room.” Killian glares as Ginny apologises. Tony wants to laugh at her sarcasm. She doesn’t flinch in the slightest at the man’s death glare. Ginny pulls out a small can of pepper spray, and shakes it menacingly,  Killian whimpers. “See this here? This my best friend Pepper Spray. And she’s great eye candy, would you like to soak some of it up?”

Killian shakes his head frantically.

“Good. Then do not ever touch me again.” For emphasis, she sprays a little bit into the air close to his face, before releasing him from her grip and flouncing over to Tony. He hasn’t even realized he’s gaping until stops next to him and pokes his chin upward. “It wasn’t that great.”

“No, no, it was, Pepper ,” Tony says, giving her a shoulder bump. It was one of the best things he’s ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

“What was that you just called me?”

“Pepper,” Tony explains. “Pepper spray, red hair, spicy attitude, you’re a hot pepper, Pepper.”

Pepper shrugs, “Alright, Shorty. I dig it.”

Tony decides as he picks up the first cooler of who knows what kind of drug, that he doesn’t care if Pepper’s a cop. She’s awesome.

 

Virginia Potts has known from the second she laid eyes on Tony that he will be trouble, but not in the worst sense of the word. The trouble is not that he'll blow her op or her cover, the trouble is that she’s spent a grand total of 30 minutes with the young criminal and she already likes him… a lot. He is charismatic and seems to be an actual genuinely good person. She doesn’t know his story yet, but she’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to be running drugs from hiding place to hiding place for the biggest cartel in New York City. She also has a feeling that it isn’t entirely his fault that he’s ended up a drug mule and carjacker. She hopes it’s just bad luck that has put him here.

“Wanna get dinner?” Pepper offers when they pull back into the garage well after sundown. They had been tossed into more transport jobs over the course of the day, and she is glad it’s finally over.

Tony looks like he’s about to take her up on her offer when he glances at his watch and shakes his head. “I really wish I could, but I gotta get home to my little brother. He worries if I’m not home by 10:00.” He sounds genuinely apologetic. “And I don’t like to leave him alone at night. Makes me nervous.”

“Some other time then?” Pepper asks.

“We’ll see.” Tony shrugs. “Do you need a ride home?”

Pepper pulls out her car keys. “I have my own car. Thanks for the offer though.”

She slips out of his truck and heads to her own car,  kicking herself for her stupidity. Her, Virginia Pep- Potts, the top graduate of the New York City Police Academy had just been possessed to ask out a criminal, a criminal who she’s pretty sure she’ll have to arrest by the end of this. The worst and best part is: he rejected her. 

Chapter Text

Peter is passed out on the couch with some violent zombie movie playing on the TV when Tony pushes his way inside. Tony regrets letting him take his library card and giving him permission to watch whatever R movie he wants.

“Did you do end up doing laundry?” Tony asks, ruffling his little brother’s brown hair.

Peter lifts his head in confusion, “Did I fall asleep?”

“Yeah bud,” Tony says softly and sits on the arm of the couch next to Peter’s head.

“Oh…” Peter mumbles, “sorry…”

“No. Sleep is good. I just want to know if I need to go back out and do laundry.”

“Oh… no, I did it like you asked,” Peter mutters and rest his head back down on the arm of the couch. “Got you cheetos.”

Tony smiles down at Peter as his eyes drift closed.

“You wanna go back to your bed?” Tony asks and runs a hand through his brother’s curls. 

Peter’s only response is a quiet snore. Tony doesn’t try to wake him up again, instead he goes to Peter’s room and gets his blanket off his bed, and tucks it around his softly snoring brother.

“Night underoos,” he whispers before flipping the tv off and going back to his room.

He’s just sitting down when his phone rings.

“What? It’s late. Can I please sleep?” Tony demands before even looking at the caller ID.

“I mean I guess.” It’s Harley’s voice on the other end, “But I kinda really need your help.”

Tony can hear the urgency in Harley’s tone and softens his voice, “Sorry, I thought you were Vanko, what do you need?”

“Daisy is puking her guts up and I can’t get ahold of Mom,” Harley starts. “Do you think you can take us to the hospital? Mom has the car otherwise I-”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Tony interrupts him.

Harley’s little sister has been sickly since the day she was born. It seemed like it was always one thing or another with her. Whether it was getting sick, or breaking a bone from just tripping on a carpet. Tony remembers when she was born. He and Peter had sat in the waiting room with Harley. Daisy had been born at a breathtakingly tiny weight of three and a half pounds. No one really expected the tiny baby to make it, but by some miracle she had survived this long.

“Peter,” Tony shakes Peter awake.

“What…” Peter drawls, only half waking up.

“I’m going to go take Harley and Daisy to the hospital.”

“What?” Peter sits up, a little more awake now. “What happened?”

“She's sick,” Tony explains. “I’ll be back soon. I just wanted to let you know where I’ll be.”

“Do you want me to come?” Peter mumbles.

“No. Stay home and get some sleep,” Tony directs and grabs his keys off the table. “I have my cellphone if you need me.”

Peter is curled back up by the time Tony slips out the front door.

 

Peter wakes to Tony plopping down on the end of the couch and squishing his feet.

“That’s my feet,” Peter groans and kicks at his brother’s leg.

“What movie do you wanna start  our daily binge?” is Tony’s only reply as Peter pulls his legs out from under his brother’s weight. “You wanna finish Zombieland or-”

“Dude, it's like 10 am,” Peter groans and grabs the nearest couch pillow and throws it at Tony’s head.

“No pillow fighting!” Tony objects and a pillow hits Peter in the face.

“I was sleeping!” Peter whines as yet another pillow hits him. “I’m tired.”

“Oh come on! You’ve been asleep since 10 last night. You’ll live!”

Peter throws a pillow and sees that it hits his brother flat in the face and knocks Tony's old worn beanie down over his eyes. Tony laughs and makes a blind shove at Peter with a pillow.

“Stop,” Peter pleas between giggles, but before he knows it his brother begins tickling him. Peter lets out a choked mix of a laugh and screech, and falls off the couch with a thud.

“Now he’s up!” Tony cries in victory.

“Don’t you have work or something?” Peter demands, wiping the tears away from his eyes.

“No, I’m off today,” Tony announces and props his feet up on the coffee table, pushing his beanie out of his face. “What do you wanna do?”

“Sleep.”

Tony smacks him on the back of the head playfully.

“Hey!”

“Other than that, genius.”

“I don’t know. You’re the genius. You decide.”

Tony rolls his eyes and grabs the bag of Cheetos off the coffee table, “I thought you hated Cheetos.”

Peter scratches the back of his head a little awkwardly. “I don’t hate them. They just aren’t my favorite like they are yours.”

“So why didn’t you get something you like?”

Peter shrugs and pulls himself onto the couch next to his brother.“Because I wanted to do something nice for you.”

Tony smiles.“You didn’t have to do that Pete.”

“I know, but I did it anyway.”

Tony drapes his arm over Peter’s shoulders and ruffles his hair. “Thanks buddy.”

Peter leans into his brother, and takes in the feel of being close to his warm body. He misses hugging him, they don’t hug nearly as often as they used too. Tony only allows the embrace to last for a few seconds before pulling away from Peter to stand up and walking to the kitchen. 

“Oh, so what ended up happening with Daisy last night?” Peter asks remembering the very brief conversation between him and Tony before he left again.

“We took her to the ER. They gave her antibiotics and sent her on her merry way.” Tony sounds upset about it, as if he thinks they should have done something more for her.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Tony shakes his head a little.“So what movie will it be?” He says blatantly changing the subject.

“What if we went out and did something instead?” Peter requests. In truth he doesn’t want to sit around in the house all day and watch movies. He’s tired of being in the house. Tony is almost always busy which leads to Peter being stuck home most days after school. Not necessarily because Tony makes him, but because Peter knows Tony worries less when he is at home instead of wandering the streets of New York. As much as Peter loves his freedom he doesn’t like stressing his brother out too much. His friends hate him for it.

“I guess.” Tony sounds just a little disappointed.

“What if we go get lunch and then go see a movie or something?”

“Alright, but you have to get out of your PJs first.”

 

Peter is losing his mind over the movie they just saw when Tony’s phone rings. Tony is pretty sure he knows what’s going to be said as soon as he answers. He wants to ignore the call, say he didn’t hear it, but it will only get him into trouble, or worse it will get Peter into trouble. 

Peter glances at him, “Are you going to get that? What if it’s important?”

Tony knows it is, and he hates it. He just wants to spend some nice quality time with his brother.

“What do you need?” Tony demands, “You said you guys wouldn’t need me today.”

“Boss is dropping by to visit our humble abode. Wants everyone there,” Vanko snarls on the other end. “We need you here in ten.”

Tony looks down at Peter who  just nods, understanding showing in his eyes.

“I’m sorry Peter but…”

“It’s okay Tony. I get it.” Tony can tell that Peter is trying to hide the disappointment in his eyes, but he’s failing miserably.

“I’m sorry,” Tony repeats.

“Tony, it’s fine. They need you to work. I get it.”

Peter walks a little faster than Tony on the way home, and Tony doesn’t try to keep up. He lets his little brother stay ahead of him. Not for the first time since getting dragged into a life of crime, Tony thinks about the box of evidence sitting under his bed, evidence that could potentially take down the entire cartel. The only thing that’s stopping him from taking it to the police is Peter. Tony knows that no matter how he plays it he won’t get off for the crimes he’s committed, and likely as not he’ll be killed for snitching. Prison and even death aren’t things he really worries about, or they wouldn’t be, but he can’t leave Peter. If something happens to him then his little brother will be on his own, and most likely become a victim of the system, or worse get sent back to Howard. Tony has decided that the day Peter goes off to college, hopefully far away from New York, he will take the evidence to the police and give himself up.

Peter and Tony split ways at the house. Tony gets in his car as Peter goes to the house. The little droop in his brother’s shoulders as he walks inside is enough to break Tony’s heart. He’s a disappointment and he knows it. Peter will be better off when he is an adult and can move on, leaving Tony in the dust.

Tony pulls into the parking lot at the garage and is immediately put to work fixing some stolen car, and scraping the VIN numbers off. A foot kicks his as he’s working on the bottom of a stolen Suburban that they’d had him jack a week before.

“Get out here Stark. Boss wants a word,” Vanko sounds snide, as though he’s anticipating something horrible that he will love.

Tony slides out from under the car and wipes his greasy hands on his shirt. Stane gives him a disapproving look, and Tony notices he has his muscle with him today, which bodes badly.

“You were supposed to have  these cars out of here this morning. I have some very unhappy people pestering me because they don’t have their cars. They’re none to pleased that they have to replan the entire job they were planning to pull.”

“Sorry sir,” Tony apologizes. “I got pulled out on runs yesterday and didn’t have time to work on them.”

Stane’s disapproving glare doesn’t lighten up. “Vanko tells me that he gave you plenty of time to do the runs and still get back on time to finish up here.”

Tony casts a glance to Vanko, who smirks. Tony’s heart sinks, realizing he has just been made a scapegoat.

“What did you do on your run yesterday? You use it as an opportunity to get out of work?” Stane demands.

“No sir.” Tony shakes his head.

“So you’re telling me Vanko is lying?”

Tony takes a gulp, he knows what happens next no matter how he answers the question, “I am giving you the facts. You can extrapolate what you will from them.”

Before he has time to even register what's happening one of Stane’s muscle men, Thor, grabs him by the hair and slams his face into the truck. Tony can hear the sickening popping sound his nose makes as it's smashed against the side of the car. He groans in pain and sinks to the ground, blood spilling down his face.

Stane gets down on one knee beside Tony and pulls his head back by his hair. “I don’t keep you and your little brother safe from Howard so you can slack off and be late on orders. If you want me to keep quiet  you have to prove that you’re worth more than he’s willing to pay to have you two pieces of shit back.”

Stane’s hand smacks against Tony’s face hard and it stings. It hurts worse than having his face smashed into the car, because it’s so familiar. It is exactly what Howard used to do to him. Stane releases his grip on Tony and he falls forward a little.

 

"Work him double time." Pepper looks up at the sound of the boss's angry voice. "And send him on a few drug deals. He hates that."

Pepper can see dread fall across Tony's bloody face as Stane says this. She finds her stomach twisting with sympathy for the man as he kneels on the hard dirty ground.  He doesn't seem to care about or even really notice the blood slipping down his nose and cheeks. Stane and his two men turn to leave. Grateful they won't hurt Tony anymore, Pepper turns back to her own work with a sigh.

"I won't do it." Tony's voice rises through the garage. Pepper freezes, her heart sinking in her chest as she looks up to see Stane and his men turning around. "I won't do the drug deals."

Pepper is a little taken aback by Tony's protest. She’s been present on multiple occasions when Stane was around and no one had ever opposed an order from him.

Stane stops and turns to glare at Tony.

"Did I hear you right?" the man asks. "You have one chance here to correct your mistake."

Fear crackles up Pepper's spine as she watches what's happening, she knows people in gangs have been killed for less.

"I won't do it," Tony says confidently. "I'm not going to help people tear their lives apart."

Stane sighs and rubs his forehead, "I was really hoping not to have to do this."

Tony's shoulders slump, undoubtedly knowing something bad is coming. 

"Boys," Stane says simply and his two men, Quill and Thor, move forward menacingly.

Quill grabs Tony's arms and twists them around behind his back. Letting out a weak cry of pain Tony squirms trying to escape his hold on him. Pepper finds herself yearning to go to Tony's rescue, and knowing it’s a stupid wish. He’s a criminal. He chose this for himself.

 Thor steps close to Tony and punches him in the stomach, Tony coughs in pain and doubles over, but Quill keeps him from hitting the ground. Pepper bites her lip. She knows better than to interfere. Tony lets out another cry of pain as Thor's fist slams into his already bloody face with so much force Quill almost loses his grip on Tony. Thor lands a few more hard punches to Tony's abdomen and he collapses forward coughing weakly. Thor stops and takes a step back and Stane gets on one knee in front  of Tony. He lifts Tony's chin with one hand. It makes Pepper feel sick how gentle he is with him. It reminds her of something cold and manipulative, like a serpent wrapping itself around its prey, almost tenderly at first then trapping it, choking it, killing it.

"Now, you will do the deals," Stane says softly.

Pepper's stomach sinks as Tony shakes his head. Stane pulls his hand away from Tony's face and his head falls forward. Pepper takes a small step in their direction as the man moves aside and Thor punches Tony again. This time he sinks to his knees coughing and Quill loses his grip on him. Thor kicks him in the side and he falls onto his hands, barely managing to catch himself. 

"That's enough," Stane announces and finally turns and leaves with Thor and Quill following. She thinks she sees Quill glance over his shoulder at Tony with a small amount of concern in his eyes, but she’s probably mistaken, he had, after all, just idly held Tony as Thor had beaten him. Vanko stops next to Tony and hisses something that Pepper doesn’t catch before kicking him in the stomach, knocking him all the way to the floor and then leaving as well.  Pepper glances around the garage where people are still casually working as though nothing has happened before running to Tony's side. He's curled tightly into a ball, coughing painfully. Pepper can’t understand why this is what makes her feel sick. She’s seen people shot in the head for disobeying orders, which did of course sicken her all in its own right, but this is different. The way Stane had been around him, it had been so intimate and cruel. It makes her skin crawl.

"Are you out of your mind?" Pepper demands, trying to sound casual and uncaring.

Tony's eyes flick up to her as she kneels next to him.

"Probably," he grunts as she helps him sit up. He has blood dripping in dark slugs down from the bridge of his nose, and each time he heaves a heavy breath and his nostrils flare blood bubbles out of them and mixes with the blood running down his chin from his split lip.

"Obviously so. Only a total dumbass would do what you just did," Pepper snaps, finding that it's making her angry how worried about him she is, and she's even a little pissed at him for making her worry.

He looks at her with desperation in eyes.

"I can't do it," It's almost like he's asking her not to make him sell drugs. She wishes she had a say, and could save him from the horrible deeds he obviously does not want to commit. He keeps his gaze locked with hers for a few more seconds before shaking his head a little and clawing himself to his feet. She can tell by the hesitation in his step that he’s hurting. 

“Are you okay?” she calls after him as he moves stiffly toward  the bathroom.

“Never better!” he shouts over his shoulder, waving one hand dismissively. She knows he’s lying.

Pepper sits back on her heels as she watches him go. The drug dealer who’s willing to get the shit beat out of him in order to not deal drugs. There’s a story there.  He has a story, one that she wants to know, and one that she finds herself wanting to be a part of. As she watches him go, she can’t help but wonder if she’s been unfair for the better part of her law enforcement career. Maybe she’s been unfair in her assumptions about people based purely on the bad things they have done. Maybe not everyone here wants to be here.

 

It’s 10:00 P.M. and Peter is starting to worry, and his worry is turning into regret. He hadn’t said good-bye to his brother when he left because he’d been too upset about him having to leave, and now Peter is terrified he’ll regret it. He tries distracting himself from his fear for his brother by watching a movie. Ten minutes into the movie he loses interest and takes to pacing around the tiny house they rent, his mind jumping from horrible possibility to horrible possibility as he works his way around the small living room. Something going wrong with a car jack, and his brother being crushed under a car, or a car exploding and killing him, or a rusted out engine falling and killing him. The more Peter thinks about all the horrible things that could happen to Tony, the more frantic he gets. He calls Tony three times in the space of fifteen minutes, paces more, thinks more, calls Tony another two times, and finally flops down on the couch in mortified defeat. Maybe he’s overreacting. Tony has been late before. Peter looks at the clock, now reading 11:00. He has never been this late without calling him, or calling him back, or texting him. Peter pulls out his phone and types in 911, but then changes his mind and calls Tony again. His brother still doesn’t answer. 

Peter bounds to the window as headlights shine through it. Tony’s old beat up green car pulls into its parking spot  in front of the house, and Peter breaks “the “don’t go outside at night” rule. He runs out the door and is wrapping himself around Tony before he is more than ten feet away from the car.

“Where were you?” Peter demands, not releasing Tony from his hug even as he tries to peel his arms away.

“Work. They kept me late.”

“I called you six times,” Peter chokes. “I thought something happened to you.”

He feels Tony relax in his hug a little bit. “I’m really sorry. My phone died.” Tony wraps his arms around Peter. “Sorry I scared you.”

Peter just hugs him a little tighter.

“Can we go inside now?” Tony asks after a few minutes of them standing idle.

“Yeah… sorry,” Peter mutters and pulls away from Tony.

When they get inside Peter notices the cut on the bridge of Tony’s obviously broken nose along with the dark bruise on the side of his face and the deep cut on his cheek bone, and he blanches at the sight.

“Holy shit! What happened to your face?” Peter says, and before Tony can answer Peter dashes to the bathroom to get the butterfly stitches and peroxide, and is back at Tony’s side before he’s made more than a few feet into the house, “Sit down,” Peter orders. “I was worried something bad happened to you… and, and then you came home and I was so happy you were fine but now…” Peter trails off as though he’s coming to a conclusion he wished he hadn’t. There was only one person who beat Tony that badly. “Oh my gosh.” Peter jerks back, a little bit of anger jumping up inside of him. “Did you get back with Ty? Did he do this to you?!”

“Pete-”

“No! Tony you can’t keep getting back with him! What if he kills you, or does something else? You-”

“Peter!” Peter shuts his mouth at Tony’s shout. Tony almost never gets even frustrated with him. Shouts have maybe only happened three or four times in the past nine years since they have been on their own. Tony grabs Peter firmly around the shoulders and looks him dead in the eyes, “Peter I promised you I wouldn’t get back with him. I promised you that I wouldn’t let him hurt me again. This is was just a pissed off customer.”

Peter looks his brother in the eyes and sees no tell of a lie in them.

“I am done with that part of my life. Okay?”

Peter nods a little, praying that his brother isn’t lying to him. Tony had always been up front and truthful with him, and Peter had always respected him for it.

“What were they so pissed about?” Peter asks and grabs a paper towel to try and clean the cut on Tony’s nose.

“I was late getting his car fixed. Which is why I had to stay late and also finish up all the other cars.”

Tony winces a little as Peter pours peroxide on the cut. His nose doesn’t look too bad.

“I’m glad you’re not back with Ty,” Peter mumbles and applies the first butterfly stitch to Tony’s nose.

“Stop worrying about it Pete. I broke up with him four years ago.”

“I know, but I still worry about you, or that he might come back.”

“Hey,” Tony scolds and grabs Peter’s hand away from his face and holds it tight. “I’m the big brother. I am the one who gets to worry about you, not the other way round.” Tony’s voice is stern and yet still soft as ever. Reassuring, Peter thinks. “I’m okay. I’ll be fine. Okay?” Peter sighs, and Tony rolls his eyes. “Come here underoos.”

Peter finally relaxes again as Tony’s arms pull him into a comforting hug.

Chapter Text

Special Agent James Rhodes walks through the rows of desks in the violent crimes unit of the FBI field office in Chicago, heading to the office of Assistant Director Phil Coulson.

“You needed me, sir?” Rhodey says as he slips into his boss’s office.

“Yes.” Coulson stands up to greet him. There is a woman next to him in a neat pants suit; she’s young, fresh out of Quantico from the look of her. She’s twenty four at best.

“This is Agent Danvers,” Coulson introduces them. “She’ll be your partner.”

“Rhodes,” Rhodey offers his hand to her, and her grip is firm as she takes his hand.

“Do you mind if we have a word?” Rhodey asks as he eyes his boss.

“No, not at all,” Danvers states, sending a nod to the director and ducking out of the room.

“With all due respect sir, you know I work better alone.” Rhodey turns to face the assistant director as he speaks.

“That theory has never been tested.”

“I’m twenty eight and I have the highest solving rate of anyone in this office sir, I’m pretty sure that adds up,” Rhodey replies with as much deference as he can muster.

“So maybe partnering you up will increase those numbers.”

“I don’t have time to have a newbie tailing me. I work fast-”

“Rhodes. I know that isn’t the reason you don’t want a partner.”

Rhodey closes his mouth.

“I know you want to keep working the Stark case. I don’t blame you, truly, but it’s been nine years, and you’ve been working on it for the past five.”

“Are you telling me to close the case?”

“It’s been nine years,” Coulson replies.

“They always taught us at Quantico that we’re the ones seeking justice for those who can’t seek it themselves, and now you want me to close a potential triple homicide case just because it’s old?”

“No, Rhodes. I want you to not let an unsolvable nine year old missing persons case ruin your career. The case isn’t even technically in your department until bodies are found.”

“Well how am I supposed to get bodies when the entire missing persons unit is to scared to go within a mile of the case-”

“Enough! Rhodes,” Coulson’s voice is hard and a little angry, “you are going to go out there with your partner and the two of you are going to work the Spencer case, and you are not going to push her out of it. Am I understood?”

Rhodey nods. “Yes, sir.”

“You’re dismissed.”

Rhodey leaves without another word, and Danvers follows him.

“So what’s the connection?” Danvers asks as they sit down at their desks.

“What?” Rhodey looks up from where he’s looking through the Spencer case file.

“To the Stark case? What’s the connection?”

“Who says there’s a connection?” Rhodey demands.

“A young agent working on a nine year old missing persons case that could potentially be a homicide, and blaming it all on one of the richest men in the world who can buy his way out of anything, so solving it and or getting a conviction is a pipe dream, and the case is considered career scuicide. Agent Rhodes, there’s a connection.”

“How did you put all that together?”

“Gossip and the ‘don’t do what he did speech’ I got not long after entering this building.”

“So they’re warning people about me now.” Rhodey sighs and leans back in his chair, twiddling his pen in between his fingers.

Danvers shrugs, “I don’t know if I’d go that far, but for what it’s worth I believe you.”

Rhodey sits up straight. “Really?”

“Yeah, I looked at the case when I heard that I might be partnering up with you. It’s too much of a coincidence that the Stark boys went missing the same night their mother was ‘accidentlly’ killed.” Rhodey likes her usage of finger quotes around ‘accidently’. “Like, you can pin one murder as an accident, but three is next to impossible. He probably killed the kids to keep it quiet that Maria’s death wasn’t accidental then disposed of the bodies.”

“So you don’t think it was an accident either?” Excitement bubbles up inside of him as he leans forward. It has been years, five to be exact, since anyone has taken his claims seriously, and nobody ever believed him, but he knew Tony, and he knew that Tony would never miss his own mother’s funeral. The Stark family had had a million problems but one of the very few things that was completely functional and beautiful about it was Tony Stark’s relationship with his mother. The thought had crossed Rhodey’s mind that maybe his best friend had taken Peter and run, but he would have called, and he would have gone to his mother’s funeral, he would have at least found some way to let Rhodey know him and his brother were okay.

“It was definitely not an accident!” Danvers agrees. “I’m still curious though, what’s the connection?”

“Let’s take a walk.”

 

“Tony, the oldest of the Stark kids, was my best friend.  Him and his little brother Peter were like family to me,” Rhodes explains. “We did everything together.” Rhodey blushes a little as a weak smile drifts across his face for a brief moment. Carol likes his smile, however short lived it had been. “Tones was my first kiss.” He says it more to himself than to her, obviously reliving some fond memory.

“So it is  personal,” Carol muses, studying her partner, she can see an age old grief in his eyes, and deeper than that a rage that scares her just a little, it forebodes of bad things to come like a dark storm festering within him.

Rhodes shrugs, and the look flashes away.  “I’d want to take Howard Stark down even if he hadn’t murdered part of my family. He’s a sick abusive bastard.”

Carol raises an eyebrow, feeling anger rising up with in herself now. “So that gives him more motive. Kill them before they can be his undoing.”

Rhodes’s nod is a solemn one, and Carol really can’t judge. She can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose a best friend and his brother.

“I’m sorry, by the way,” Carol states, “and I’ll help you pursue this if you want.”

A little bit of hope flashes in Agent Rhodes’ eyes. “Are you sure? Didn’t they warn you not to follow my path?”

“Yes, but I trust you on this. We’ll get to the bottom of what happened.”

 

Tony slips into Peter's room long before it’s time for him to get up for school, even before he himself should be up, and sits on the edge of his brother's bed. He gently shakes Peter until he lets out an unhappy groan and opens one eye.

"What?" Peter mutters. "It's not 7:30 yet…"

"I know," Tony whispers, "but I have to go to work now."

Peter sits up a little,and  even in the darkness of the room Tony can see anger and a little bit of confusion in Peter's eyes.

 "Why are they making you go in so early? You got beat up yesterday," Peter asks, the anger in his eyes seeps into the tone of his voice, "I thought you said your boss was reasonable."

"It's fine Pete-"

"No!" Peter sits up straighter and turns on his light making it easier to see indignation on Peter’s face. "It isn't fine! They overwork you, and you're never home! Why don't you get a new job?"

Tony closes his eyes and breathes out his nose. "I'm sorry Pete."

He wants to get a new job, and he really wants this whole nightmare to be over, but he can't. The second they try to leave, or he tries to get out of the street gang, Stane will tell Howard where he and Peter are and they’ll be hunted down by Howard and Stane's people. Tony’s pretty sure Howard won't care if they kill him, he’s too old to be of any benefit to his father, so Howard would probably let Stane murder him for the betrayal of running. Peter, on the other hand, would be taken back to Howard where he’d live out the rest of his young life abused, and maybe even killed, like their mother.

"I'm sorry," Tony repeats as he stands up and leaves the room. He’s about to close the door when finds Peter's arms wrapping around him.

"I love you, Tony," Peter whispers with his head pressed against Tony's chest. "Please be safe."

"I'll try my best Pete," Tony hugs his brother close to him and kisses the top of his head, "and I love you too."

Tony wishes he could promise Peter he'll be okay, and he wishes he could tell him the truth about what he’s doing, but he can't promise Peter he'll be okay and he can't tell him the truth about his job, because the truth of the matter is he'll probably die doing what he does, and telling Peter will only make him worry more and put him in danger.

Tony pulls himself free of Peter's hug and ruffles his hair a little before slipping from the room completely. 

Chapter Text

When Tony comes in Pepper can tell he’s had a long night, even after being beaten up. He has dark circles under his eyes and the look in his expressive brown eyes is cold and dead like he's tired of caring, and tired of trying and altogether just tired. She wishes there was something she could do for him. 

“Here.” Pepper hands him her cup of coffee, she can do that much for him at least.

“Why are you here so early?” Tony asks, confusion coming into his dead eyes. “I thought I was the one being punished.”

“They have a job for us,” Pepper says. “More moving merch. Gun shipment to Buffalo."

Tony visibly shrinks, panic flooding into his gaze. “Why?” he chokes, barely above a whisper.

“Because that’s where they’re sending us?” Pepper explains, not exactly sure why he’s questioning the order, or why he’s so panicked about it.

Tony sucks in a deep breath and takes a sip of his coffee, the look in his eyes is raging and conflicted and even a bit fearful. “I need to go make a phone call, make sure Peter knows I’ll be late getting home.”

Tony’s hand is shaking a little when he reaches into his pocket for his phone. Pepper studies him as he walks away from her. His shoulders are drooped a little and he looks defeated and wilted, even worse than he had yesterday when he’d been beaten up by Stane’s muscle men. He comes back a few minutes later and pats her on the shoulder as he walks past.

“Let’s go.” His words are short and breathy like he’s battling off a panic attack.

Pepper slides into the passenger side of the truck and studies Tony further as he puts the key in the ignition. His hands are trembling.

“What?” He demands, obviously catching her staring at him.

“Sorry, you just seem nervous.”

“Yeah, well, we’re about to move a giant shipment of illegal guns and I have a brother to get home to, so I’m going to be a bit nervous.” The tone of his voice tells Pepper there’s more to it than just being scared about police stopping them.

“So, what’s the story?” Pepper asks when they’re safely on the highway heading west toward Buffalo.

“What story?”

“Your story.” Pepper says, “ The story of the drug dealer who hates selling drugs.”

“Oh…” Tony trails off. “It’s a long story.”

“And this a long trip,” Pepper counters.

“Aren’t road trips better spent sharing fun stories?”

Pepper glances out the window. “Yeah, but we could get to know each other.”

She doesn’t know why she suggested it. He’s a criminal, a felon from what she’s seen. She’s a cop, an undercover one at that. She isn’t supposed to be making deep personal connections with people she’s spying on and will eventually end up arresting. She shouldn’t be getting close, but she really wants to know this guy’s story. This guy who had stopped on a drug run to give money to a homeless man, a homeless man who he knew by name . This guy who’s shown so much kindness while they’ve been out on runs. She wants to know about him, how someone so obviously good at heart ended up in such a cruel market. Pepper purses her lips and decides for the sake of the job she’s working that she won’t ask him any further questions about his life. She needs to keep her distance, and she really needs to not fall in love with this very attractive, far too gentle and caring criminal.

Deep down she begins to realize that things aren’t so black and white. Good people get stuck in bad situations or they make mistakes. Most of the time it’s a combination of both. Her curiosity about him doesn’t leave.

Tony sighs. “Fine. Life wasn’t great for me and Peter back in Chicago, so when I turned eighteen I took him with me and we left. I met my now ex boyfriend and he set me up with the job I have now.”

 His brief explanation didn’t really answer any of her questions, but it did tell her that he started working here young and that he may not have had much of a choice. She finds her disappointment doesn’t end with his brevity, but also that he’s gay. She doesn’t really know why she’s so disappointed, it should make everything easier. He’s gay and therefore she doesn’t have to worry about her slowing developing feelings for him because he won’t have the same ones back. It should be something she can be grateful for, and yet the disappointment still stands.

“Your turn,” Tony says, sounding genuinely curious.

Pepper exhales through her nose. Part of her has some compunction about lying to him. She’s been undercover for nearly three years lying to criminals with absolutely no trouble, but for now she finds herself not wanting to lie to Tony.

“I grew up in Queens, nice little yellow house.” She smiles a little, this much is true. “My mom and dad were great. We had a dumbass little dog named Toby.”

The corner of Tony’s mouth twitches a little, and there is a yearning in his ponderous brown eyes.

“Dogs are nice,” he muses.

“Yeah.” Pepper smiles, Toby isn’t a lie either. “He was a great dog.”

“I always wanted an alpaca,” Tony comments.

“An alpaca?” Pepper snorts.

“What!” Tony objects. “A guy can dream of leaving the city and getting alpacas.”

Pepper laughs a little. Now that he says it, she can see him being an alpaca person. She has a little trouble wrapping her mind around it, a criminal being so soft.

“No, no! Hear me out,” Tony says, excitement coming into his voice, “It would be so great! I could take Peter and we could move somewhere far away. Raise alpacas, get him a dog… he wants a dog so bad but we can’t get one because of the damn rent agreement and I don’t have the money…” Tony trails off a little and seems to deflate. “I’ll never have the money for a place out in the country… or a dog. Or alpacas and me getting out of here will probably only happen in handcuffs or a body bag…”

A deep silence falls over them and Pepper doesn’t ask any more questions, and Tony doesn’t talk about his hopes and dreams. Pepper promises herself right then and there that she’ll make sure he doesn’t leave in a body bag. She decides she wants to help this oddly kind and soft carjacker out of this mess that she’s beginning to think he doesn’t belong in.

 

Tony glances over at the cop sitting in the passenger seat of the truck and he knows, somehow, that his journey will end with her, whether she’s the one putting him in handcuffs or zipping up his body bag after some bust where he finally runs out of luck. Running out of luck wouldn’t be all bad, probably better than having his  luck. He’d be free that way. He wouldn’t have to lie and do evil work for evil people. He hopes that when his luck runs out Peter is long gone, exploring the world through first hand experience, or through college. Tony promises himself that he won’t die until he knows that Peter will be safe and taken care of. Once Peter is taken care of he won’t need him anymore. Once Peter is taken care of, Tony will be able to die and pay for everything he’s done.

“Sorry for getting so bleak,” Tony apologizes, breaking the silence of the truck cab. “I can be a bit of a downer sometimes.”

“It’s fine. We all have our worries about our line of work,” Pepper replies with a shrug.

“I only worry about Peter,” Tony says. It’s the whole and complete truth. Peter is all he cares about. He’s living for Peter, he’s doing all of this for Peter, and he’ll continue to do so until his little brother is safe and far away where no drug cartel can get their hands on him.

“I can tell," Pepper responds, glancing over at him. "You seem like a good big brother."

"Nah," Tony mutters. "I'm not around for him enough. He'd be better off without me."

Pepper eyes him with concern brimming in her blue eyes. "I don't think that's true. You're doing all this for him."

"Yeah. And I should be able to do something else. Something  that won't end with me dead or in prison," Tony spits the words out like they’re bitter, "he deserves better."

They lapse back into silence.

 

Peter lets out an angry huff of air as his brother hangs up. He doesn't see why his boss won't just give him a break; it’s been weeks, months even, since Tony has had an actual full day off. He’s had days he was supposed to be off, but he always gets called in. Peter has slowly begun to realize that it just keeps getting worse. He wishes there were a way to help, to stop them from overworking him, and from time to time hurting him. He doesn’t get hurt much, not since he left Ty, but he still, like the night before, occasionally comes home a little beat up. He can’t help but think that his brother might be keeping secrets from him. When he was little he’d been naive, but he’s older now, perhaps it’s time for him to abandon the idea that his brother is perfect, but the truth is that he wants to keep thinking Tony is perfect.

Peter walks to school, and as he nears the building he can’t help but notice Harley standing with a group of other seniors, and not a good group of seniors. These are the kids who’ve been in trouble with the law much more than once. One of them hands Harley a cigarette, and he takes it with an eager smile. Peter glares at him from across the courtyard. Harley notices and gives him a cocky nod. Peter shakes his head and heads into the school. He and Harley have been friends ever since he and Tony moved to New York after fleeing their father and Chicago, but these days Harley’s been hanging out without all the unsavory kids. He's tried talking him out of doing drugs and drinking with them, but all of his attempts fall flat. Despite Peter’s anger at him, Harley still seems to think of him as a friend, and they still do hang out sometimes.

 

Ty grabs Tony by the shirt and slams him into the refrigerator. Tony tries not to squirm under his boyfriend’s grip, and he tries not to let his fear show in his eyes as he stares up into Ty’s cold blue glare.

“Take it back!” Ty growls and pushes him into the hard fridge door again; something within it crashes. Tony shakes his head a little. “Now!” 

His hand cracks across Tony’s face and tears come into his eyes from the sting.

“What are you guys doing?” Peter’s sleepy voice drifts to the kitchen from the hallway. 

Ty’s grip on Tony’s shirt releases and he slides to the floor. Tony buries his face in his hands, avoiding Peter’s gaze.

“Nothing, Pete,” Ty’s voice is suddenly very soft. “Go back to bed.”

“No,” Peter insists. “What’s wrong with Tony?”

“Your brother is fine,” Ty assures Peter.

“Tony?” Peter calls to him to confirm what Ty has just said.

Tony tries to blink the tears out of his eyes as he lifts his head to look at Peter.

“I’m fine, Pete,” Tony chokes, and curses himself for letting his voice crack. “Please go back to bed.”

Peter looks reluctant, but turns around and goes back to his room.

“I’m going to go home now,” Ty states as soon as Peter is gone. “Call me when you feel like not being a bitch.”

Tony flinches at the harshness in his tone. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles as Ty walks to the door.

“Maybe I’ll forgive you,” Ty says over his shoulder and slips out the door, closing it softly behind him.

Tony buries his face in his knees and wraps his arms around his legs. He sits on the kitchen floor like that for a long time, trying to stop the tears slipping down his cheeks. He knows he shouldn’t be crying, Stark men are supposed to be made of iron, besides Howard had done worse and so had Ty for that matter. Tony finally manages to suck it up and pull himself off the kitchen floor. He heads to his room as quickly as he can, hoping to avoid Peter. He thinks he might just make it without a confrontation with his little brother, but his Peter slips into his room just as he’s sitting down on the edge of his bed.

“Tony?” Peter whispers as he pulls himself onto the bed next to him. “Did Ty hurt you again?”

Tony’s heart sinks. He thought he’d kept his and Ty’s fights secret from Peter.

“It’s okay Peter. I deserved it.”

“No you didn’t,” Peter says sternly.

“Pete-”

“No. You don’t deserve it. Stop pretending you do.” Peter’s voice is way too serious for the thirteen year old that’s speaking. “Please don’t let him hurt you anymore.”

Tony sighs and wraps an arm around Peter’s shoulders and pulls him close. Tony knows he deserves what Ty does, but Peter doesn’t deserve to be worried about him. Tony doesn’t want him being scared for him. He wants Peter to be happy, that’s all he wants.

“Okay Peter,” Tony agrees. “Okay.”

“So you’ll break up with him?” Peter asks, hope coming into his voice. “So he can’t hit you anymore?”

Tony sighs.“Yes, Peter, I’m going to break up with him.”

He’s going to do it for his brother’s sake.

 

“So, what’s in Buffalo that’s so bad?” Pepper asks, breaking their hour long no talking spell. Tony wishes she hadn’t. He doesn’t want to talk about Ty and that dark smear on his life.

“What do you mean?” Tony demands, not wanting to talk about what, no, who is at the end of the road they’re on.

“You nearly panicked when I said we’re going to Buffalo.” Pepper shrugs.“There’s gotta be something at the end of this road.”

“I just don’t like being this far away from my brother,” Tony lies.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but please don’t lie to me.”

Tony’s brief amusement that the undercover cop who is lying to everyone is lecturing him on honesty distracts him from his dread.

“My ex-boyfriend Ty, the one I mentioned earlier, runs the operation there,” Tony breathes.

“Are things awkward between you?”

Tony laughs coldly. “You could say that. Last time I saw him was four years ago when he nearly beat me to death.”

Pepper inhales sharply. “I’m- do you want me to do all the dealing with him?”

Tony shakes his head. “Gotta face my demons sometime.”

“I know, but if he almost killed you.” Pepper seems only concerned now.

“I’ll be fine, Pepper. It’ll only give him more satisfaction if he thinks I’m still scared of him.”

“And are you?”

Tony thinks on the question for a long time before speaking, “I think I have enough anger to survive an encounter with him. The question shouldn’t be about me surviving him, but him surviving me.”

 

Pepper can hear the dangerous edge in Tony’s voice and it makes her skin crawl. A fear dawns on her.

“Did he hurt your brother?”

Tony’s answering laugh is bitter and cold. “Oh no, he would be dead if he’d ever laid a finger on Peter.”  He shakes his head, and his voice softens, “He had my best friend killed… because of me… because I broke up with him.”

Pepper looks at him with pity, “I’m sorry.”

“Nah, it was my fault. If I was capable of standing up for myself then Happy wouldn’t have been killed for protecting me.”

Pepper’s mouth drops open before she can even stop herself from showing the amount of shock running through her mind. Sitting next to her are the answers that she’d been searching for since her time undercover started. Sitting next to her are the answers to what happened to Detective Harold Hogan, the man who helped raise her after parents died, and helped mentor her through the first year of her law enforcement career.

Tony raises a skeptical eyebrow. “What?”

Pepper closes her mouth and shakes her head. She finds her escape from Tony’s confused expression by looking out the window at the red and gold autumn trees. She silently curses herself for not putting two and two together sooner. Harold had written her secret letters from his undercover operation; more than once he had talked about a young man who he’d grown very fond of. He’d never called him by name, but he had mentioned a few times that he’d given him the nickname Happy. Tony is the guy Harold had been talking about. She’s sure of it. He had also said that Tony had figured out exactly who he was within days of their meeting, which only makes Pepper wonder now if Tony knows she’s a cop. She hopes that if he does, he’s still as trustworthy with that kind of secret as he had been with Harold. If he isn’t then she’s probably screwed.

“Hey, I told you about my past and my feelings and all that bullshit, what’s that look for?” Tony asks, poking her in the side. Pepper accidentally flinches. There’s a fair chance he knows who she is, and that puts her on edge. Someone knows. That’s dangerous.

“It’s nothing,” Pepper brushes his question off. Tony is right, he did open up, and she wants to open up for him, so they can share the loss that still obviously hurts them both, but she can’t, not until she is sure she can trust Tony.

“It was definitely something ,” Tony sounds a little annoyed.

“It’s just I’m surprised you miss a cop, is all,” Pepper lies, and feels horrible about it.

“He was a good guy,” Tony insists. “He tried to take care of me and Peter. Hell, he left us half his money.” Tony trails off.

It takes all of Pepper's self-control not to tell Tony that Harold had given her the other half of his belongings and money. She’d always wondered where the rest had gone.

“He shouldn’t have died. He should have let Ty kill me.” Pepper wants to reach out and hug Tony, she knows Harold wouldn’t have regretted saving his life. He never had regrets about saving people. “He would have been better at taking care of Peter than me. Peter would have been happier with him.”

“That’s not true,” Pepper blurts. “you keep saying that Peter is better off without you, but it isn’t true. There isn’t anything, no matter how great, that can replace the love of lost family.”

Tony looks over at her, there are tears threatening to fall from his eyes.

“Trust me,” Pepper whispers. “Peter doesn’t want you gone, and he won’t see it as a good thing when you’re gone. I know.”

“What do you mean?” Tony asks, turning his head back to the road.

“I mean nothing can replace your family. Believe me. I lost my parents and went to live with my uncle and his husband. They’re wonderful, but they’re not my parents. I think the same goes for Peter and you.”

Pepper prays she isn’t making a mistake in saying what she’s saying. Part of her thinks it’s worth the risk to make him feel better. He is so broken.

“He might not think it, but it would be better for him. He’d be safer living with a cop, and just… things would have been better for everyone if Happy had let Ty kill me.”

“Why are you doing this?” Pepper finally asks the question that has been gnawing at the back of her mind the whole car trip. “You’ve only known me for two days, and… and do you realize what the vast majority of people here will do to you if they find out that you not only knew that Har- Happy was a cop, and you were still friends with him?”

For the first time in four years, Pepper is talking as a cop to someone other than her partner on the other side.

Tony looks over at her briefly, his dark brown eyes drilling into her. “Because I don’t care what happens to me, and besides, I don’t think you’re going to tell anyone.” His eyes say that he knows.

Pepper opens and closes her mouth, pondering her next words.

“How long have you known?” She forms the words before she even really realizes it and instantly regrets them. She knows it could very likely be a fatal mistake, but some other part of her doesn’t think Tony will tell anyone.

A loose smile slides across his face. “Since the minute we met. Don’t feel bad though. I’m very smart Pepper, I broke the machine they tried to test my IQ with. I figure things out very quickly. You’re very good by the way.”

Pepper finds herself not really surprised that he’s known that long. She also finds herself blushing at his compliment.

“And don’t worry Ms. Pepper, your secret is safe with me, just like Happy’s was.”

Pepper believes him.

Chapter Text

Ty is waiting for them when they pull into the old warehouse. Tony swallows hard; Pepper gives him a comforting pat on the shoulder before getting out of the delivery truck. Tony takes a little longer to get out of the car, and before he does he opens the glove box and takes out his loaded and cocked 45. caliber pistol. He tucks it into the back of his pants and pulls his shirt over it to hide it. He hops out of the truck, and something dangerous flashes in Ty’s eyes as he sets his cold blue gaze on Tony. Tony manages not to shrink under his demeaning glare. Ty takes the toothpick out of his mouth and flicks it in Tony’s direction. It lands uselessly on the floor in front of his feet, and somehow Tony manages not to flinch.

“Hey love,” he says and a grin spreads across his face as he shows his white teeth. “Long time no see.”

“Can you really blame me?” Tony can hear the quiver in his voice as he replies to his ex.

“I do,” Ty sneers. “We were great together.”

“Yep,” Tony snaps back, and his voice doesn’t shake this time. “Like a boxer and a punching bag.”

“Oh, come on love.” Ty waves his hand in the air. “It wasn’t that bad. You were smart most of the time.”

Tony catches Pepper glaring at Ty out of the corner of his eye. He clenches his trembling hand and swallows the nervous lump rising in his throat.

“I was smart once,” Tony states, “and that was the night I left you.”

Ty smirks. “No. That was the dumbest thing you ever did. I did so much for you and your brother.”

Tony lets out a weak breath. He isn’t sure how long he can keep up his strong face, he isn’t even sure it is a strong face.

“We’re not here for small talk, loverboys,” Pepper interrupts, Tony can tell she is trying to draw Ty’s attention away from him, and he appreciates it. “We have business.”

“Oh, you brought your girlfriend to protect you,” Ty mocks. “So you’re a slut and a coward.”

Pepper looks like she’s about leap on Ty and rip him to pieces. Tony wants the ground to rise up and swallow him; that would be better than this.

“I’m gonna tell you something right now honey,” Ty turns his cold gaze to Pepper whose eyes are a blazing inferno, “if you want this one to behave and do what you say, you do have to smack him around a bit.”

Pepper looks like she wants to murder Ty. Tony almost hopes she does.

“He isn’t my boyfriend.” She sounds nonchalant as she speaks, but Tony picks up on the angry edge to her voice.

“Well, if you ever need to slap some sense into him. It really gets him all squirmy if you elbow him in the ribs. He hates that,” Ty states and approaches Tony. “Isn’t that right love?” Ty throws an arm over Tony’s shoulder, and he can’t stop himself from flinching. His breath hitches in his throat and he feels like he’s about to pass out. Ty pushes Tony’s beanie over his eyes a little. “Isn’t it?” Tony finds he can’t make himself move to respond, until Ty grabs his ass with a firm hand. “Ah, still just how I-”

Then, like a gift sent from the heavens, Tony’s reflexes, his need to fight and survive, take over. He firmly grabs the arm that’s draped over his shoulders, slips under it so he’s behind his ex boyfriend and pushes Ty forward with a solid grip on the back of his neck. Tony lifts his knee and drives it into Ty’s elbow. Ty screams in pain as the joint makes a sickening pop. Tony releases him and he falls to his knees, gasping in pain. Tony glances at Pepper. She looks impressed.

“Gah…” Ty spits, “You broke my fucking arm!”

“Yep. Now me and Pepper will be nice and get the crates from the truck for you since you might have a little trouble now,” Tony snarls, he doesn’t even really sound like himself. He doesn’t feel like himself either.  Pepper lets out a whistle.

Ty just whimpers and clutches his elbow, which even Tony has to admit looks bad. Looking at it makes him feel sick, and some old dormant part of him rises up and wants to apologize for what he’s done, but he keeps his words back despite the sickening pang in his stomach at seeing someone he once loved in so much pain. His stomach crawls with guilt as he stares down at Ty, still shocked at what he did. His talk with Pepper about potentially killing Ty was just that: talk. He knows he would never be able to actually go through with it. He couldn’t, not when it all was his fault. Ty had never been abusive to anyone else. Tony knows it’s his fault that Ty had turned on him. He had driven him to it. The only thing that would ever make him try to kill his ex boyfriend would be if he hurt Peter. All cards are off the table when it comes to Peter.

Tony and Pepper unload the crates quickly and don’t linger at the warehouse.

“I’m going to kill you for this!” Ty screeches after them as they get in the truck. “I’ll- I’ll murder you and your brother  for this.” His words are weak and raspy, but they serve their purpose, planting seeds of fear deep inside of Tony. “You’re going to regret this!”

Tony shrinks in his seat just a little, fear pounding through his body, freezing his muscles so he can’t move. He believes Ty.

“Tony,” Pepper’s hand rests on Tony’s arm and he nearly jumps out of his skin before realizing it’s only her, “let’s get out of here.”

Tony swallows and backs the truck out of the warehouse. Ty is still screaming death threats, but they’re drowned out by the noise of the truck. For the first time in his life, Tony is grateful for the horrible sound of the unhealthy engine. 

 

“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you see in him?” Pepper asks, breaking the silence that had fallen over the cab of the truck. She tries not to sound too judgemental of Tony. She knows that abuse is a very complicated issue and every victim has their own unique reaction to it. She had seen her fair share of cases before being put undercover, all of them were horrible and none were the same.

A ghost of a smile appears on Tony’s face and then vanishes. It scares Pepper a little, the fondness in it.

“He was nice at first,” Tony muses, and it sounds almost like he misses Ty. “He made me feel… good, we connected, and fuck, he was so great with Peter. He… We… He took care of me and Peter… We relied on him, too much apparently.” Tony stops talking and glances over at her for a second, he looks broken. "He was the only person who loved me and… and put up with me."

Pepper's heart sinks as she studies Tony carefully. He looks confused as his mind obviously tracks back to the days where he loved the despicable man they’d just been cursed to cross paths with.

“I guess… I guess somewhere along the line I screwed something up, and he didn’t like it,” Tony continues.

This comment makes Pepper’s skin crawl, he sounds like he genuinely blames himself for the abuse he received when he’d been in a relationship with Ty.

“Stop right there,” Pepper snaps. Tony looks surprised and a little hurt. “Please Tony, I’m begging you not to believe that him being abusive had anything to do with you.”

“I screwed up a lot of stuff,” Tony mumbles and scratches the back of his head.

Pepper examines him, all his confidence from standing up to Ty seems to be spent, and he is now running on deep reservoirs of insecurity, fear, and, guilt. Tony thinks he turned Ty into the monster he is.

“It isn’t your fault Tony. He has issues. Please don’t blame yourself for them.”

Tony shakes his head a little. “I stayed with him so long after he got violent… It’s my fault. He’s right, I am an idiot.”

“No,” Pepper argues. “You were manipulated. He tricked you into thinking you needed him.”

“I did need him,” Tony chokes, making Pepper realize just how messed up everything must have been for him. It makes her hate Ty more.

 

It’s raining as Peter walks home from school after academic decathlon training. He decides to run. By the time he reaches their duplex he’s soaked to the skin, and he’s sure that his homework is probably drenched as well. 

Peter gets inside and immediately checks his bag. By some miracle, all of its contents have survived, and Peter sets to work at the kitchen table. 

It’s 8:00 PM and Peter is halfway through his Algebra III homework when the door unlocks and Tony comes in. He looks drained as ever, and a little bit scared, but mostly okay.

“How was work?” Peter asks.

“Wonderful,” Tony huffs. “You eat?”

Peter shakes his head. “I got caught up in homework. I can make you something if you want.”

Tony smiles weakly but shakes his head. “You don’t have to do that Pete.”

“Or I can order pizza?” Peter offers.

“Sure.” Tony sinks down onto the couch. Peter closes his math and goes to sit down next to his brother.

“What toppings do you want?”

“Whatever you want,” Tony mutters. “I probably won’t eat much.”

Peter dials the pizza place, and as he does Tony leans his head against his shoulder and closes his eyes. His worn beanie rubs Peter’s neck, but he doesn’t mind. The hat is old, yes, but it’s special. Their mom had made it for Tony when he was younger, and Peter is pretty sure he’ll never buy another hat as long as he lives. Tony is asleep before Peter finishes the call. After Peter hangs up, he gently maneuvers his brother so he is lying comfortably on the couch, and slides the beanie off his head and sets it on the small coffee table. Tony’s slightly curly dark hair is plastered to his head from his overuse of the beanie. Peter smiles a little and pulls the couch blanket over his brother before returning to his math homework.

The pizza comes a little later, and Peter decides not to wake Tony up for it. He looks so peaceful passed out on the couch. More peaceful than Peter has seen him in a long time. He misses seeing Tony content, and he wishes it wasn’t such a rare occurrence. Tony’s phone starts ringing and he doesn’t even stir in his deep sleep. Temptation creeps into Peter’s mind and he grabs his brother’s phone from the coffee table. The name ‘Pepper’ is flashing across the screen. Peter knows he shouldn’t answer, but he does anyway.

“Hello?”

“Hel- oh, this isn’t Tony is it?” The voice on the other end is soft and melodic. This Pepper person sounds nice.

“No, this is his younger brother, sorry,” Peter apologizes.

“Oh! Hi Peter, we haven’t met yet, but your brother talks about you all the time. I’m Pepper.”

“Nice to meet you, Pepper,” Peter replies, “Are you Tony’s girlfriend that he hasn’t told me about yet?” 

“I wish!” Pepper snorts. “But I’ve gotta respect his sexuality.”

Peter holds back his laugh a little, “Oh, he’s bi actually. If you tried, and if I approve of you as a worthy partner for my him, you’d totally  have a shot with him.”

Pepper laughs on the other end. “Your brother really means the world to you, doesn’t he?”

“Not to be dramatic, but I would die for him,” Peter tries to put a light hearted air in his tone, but the truth is he would, in fact, die for Tony. “Don’t tell him I said that. He has this thing about being the protective one.”

Pepper snorts again, “I sort of got that vibe.”

“Why’d you call?” Peter asks. “Do I need to wake Tony up to talk to you?”

“He’s asleep?” Pepper’s voice goes very soft.

“Yeah,” Peter says, glancing down at his snoring brother. “He came home and passed out on the couch.”

Peter can hear her smile in her tone as she speaks again, “I just wanted to make sure he got home okay.”

“Yeah, no new bruises. He was just exhausted. They work him too hard.”

Pepper sighs in agreement. “I need to go, but before I go, Peter, you have a wonderful big brother. He may say he’s the only one who can be protective, but Peter, take care of him and go easy on him. He loves you so much.”

Peter looks at his brother sleeping peacefully and smiles. “I know.”

“Goodnight Peter. It was lovely talking to you.”

“You too.”

When Pepper hangs up, Peter returns to his homework and eats pizza as he works. He can’t help but smile as he thinks back to how nice Pepper seems, she was nothing like Ty. Peter could hear it in the way she spoke that she really truly cares about Tony. He’s pretty sure that if she starts dating Tony he’ll approve.

Chapter Text

“I’m gonna kill you!” Ty screams as he slams his knees down on Tony’s chest, crushing the air from his lungs.  Tony tries to fight against the weight bearing down on his chest, constricting the life out of him, but Ty is bigger than Tony and far stronger. Panic hits Tony like a fist as he squirms under the weight strangling him, and then Ty’s actual fist hits him. He feels his nose give, and an instant later his head snaps back and strikes the pavement. He tries to gasp in pain but the air is squeezed from him before he can even inhale. Ty’s fist comes down on his face again, and again, and again. Each blow crashes down with more force than the one before it, each blow knocks Tony closer to the edge of oblivion, each blow sends new waves of pain pounding through Tony’s head, each blow cuts him deeper and sends more blood dripping into his eyes. He can barely feel the sting, there’s too much other pain. Hot sticky blood soaks through his hair and trickles down the back of his neck. Ty’s fist slams into him again and as his head snaps back into the cement Tony can hear his skull crack from the impact. 

Tony believes him. He knows Ty is going to kill him. His only thought as Ty grabs him by the hair and lifts his head off the ground, is that he’s failed, Peter. He’s going to die and Peter will be alone. He’ll be forced into the gang or back to Howard and either way he’ll die. Peter will die because Tony couldn’t make himself work things out with Ty. Ty shoves Tony’s head into the ground and more blood crawls across his scalp.

Ty’s enraged roars become nothing more than muffled sound being drowned out by the blood rushing past Tony’s ears as his head is driven harder and harder against the pavement. His staggered breaths fail him and the white spots dancing in his vision turn black and spread. Just before Tony tips over the brink into nothingness the weight on his chest is lifted. He rolls onto his side, coughing at the sudden ability to breathe. After a few failed attempts to catch his breath, Tony rests his head on the bloody ground and lets his eyes close. He manages one weak gasp before descending into another fit of pained coughs. He wraps his uninjured arm around his throbbing ribs and fails to contain a weak whimper. He can hear a familiar voice raging and roaring at Ty, but he’s too exhausted to try to figure out who it belongs to.

The shouting stops.

A firm yet gentle hand slides under his head and, ever so carefully lifts, him slightly upright. His head leans against a soft cushiony body.

“Hey, I got you, little man.” It’s Happy’s voice that soothes him, and it’s Happy’s large hand that brushes Tony’s hair from his bleeding face.“I’m gonna take care of you.”

“Don’t tell Pete…” Tony manages to mumble. “He’ll blame himself…”

“Don’t worry about Peter,” Happy whispers as he slides his arms under Tony and lifts him into the air. The way Happy cradles him is kind and loving. The last time he was held like that was when he was little and his mother was there. He leans his head into the crook of Happy’s neck and doesn’t protest as he’s set down in the passenger seat of a car. 

“Here’s your hat,” Happy says as he pushes Tony’s worn beanie into Tony’s trembling hands.

“Thanks, Hap…” He wheezes, leaning his head back against the back of the seat. 

He passes out before he hears the door close.

 

“Tony?”

Tony wakes up abruptly to Peter shaking him. “Yeah? What d’you need?” Tony asks, sitting up on the couch.

“Can you take me to school?” Peter asks. “It’s raining.”

Tony scratches his head. “What time is it?”

“7:30,” Peter answers.

Tony finds himself very much awake very quickly. “Shit!” He half leaps, half falls off of the couch and gets tangled in the blankets. “Get my keys and get in the car. I’ll be out in a second.”

Peter hesitates as Tony flounders on the floor trying to free himself from the blankets.

“Go!” Tony shouts.

Peter does as he’s told. Tony grabs his hat and yanks it back over his head before finally freeing himself. He dashes to the fridge and grabs a leftover slice of the pizza he didn’t get to eat the night before. He’s very late for work, an hour late, but he decides not to tell Peter that. The little martyr would refuse to be taken to school and probably get sick after slopping the halls in rain-soaked clothes. Tony knows that he’ll likely as not get in trouble again, but he doesn’t care at this point.

 

Tony barely makes it inside the garage before Thor’s thick arms are pulling him into a headlock.

“Gah, what the fuck…” Tony chokes as Stane’s muscle man tightens the chokehold.

“The boss isn’t pleased. Tiberius Stone is a valuable asset, and working with a broken arm slows him down,” Thor growls and shakes Tony a little so he gives up on fighting. “Stane wants you punished.”

“No!” Tony tries to smack Thor so he’ll let him breathe, but a firm hand reaches out and grabs his arm in a death grip. “You don’t understand!”

Tony knows that even if they did give him the chance to explain they wouldn’t care. Nobody here cares what happens to him.

“Stane doesn’t usually let me break things,” Vanko snivels from behind him. “Hold him still. He isn’t going to like this.”

The man yanks Tony’s arm back so his elbow is locked and stiff. Thor forces him to his knees. Tony lets out a stifled cry of pain as the muscles in his shoulder twist.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tony begs. “Please, I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.”

“Lessons must be learned, boy.”

Tony knows what’s coming next and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Vanko lifting his foot over his outstretched arm. He clenches his teeth and squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for the pain to come.

“Wait! Hang on!” It’s Pepper’s cry that stops Vanko from bringing his foot down on Tony’s elbow. “Stane is pissed because things are behind now, right? Because Tony broke Ty’s arm. Right?”

There is an edge of frantic panic to her voice, but Tony doubts that Vanko picks up on it. He doesn’t understand why Pepper cares what happens to him. She’s a cop, she definitely shouldn’t care.

“That’s right. He wants Tony punished.”

“Fair. I think we all do. He damaged business, but breaking your best mechanic’s arm isn’t going to do anything but slow down business more,” Pepper reasons. Tony’s heart sinks in betrayal. She doesn’t care. He’s not sure why it surprises him and especially why it hurts so bad. It makes total sense that she wouldn’t care what happens to him. She’s just doing whatever it takes to keep up her cover. He doesn’t blame her.

He lets his head hang forward waiting for the blow to come despite Pepper’s logic. Vanko isn’t a logical man. To Tony’s surprise, he is released from Vanko’s grip.

“You’re right Ginny,” Vanko says with a sneer. “I’ll just have the boys at the high school pay his little brother a visit.”

Tony’s gut drops as panic washes over him. Pepper looks horrified.

“No!” Tony chokes as Thor releases him, “No, no, no, please, please don’t do this to him!”

“Should have thought of him instead of yourself for once,” Vanko snorts and pulls out his phone.

“Stop! Please! Just, just stop!” Tony pleads. “Take my pay, work me triple time, send me on drug runs! Fuck, I’ll do deals, just please, please, please do not do this. I am begging you!”

Vanko laughs. “I love how much this is going to hurt you!”

He turns and walks toward his office, unlocking his phone. Tony doesn’t even hesitate in pulling his glock out of the back of his pants.

“Stop and drop the fucking phone.”

The rage inside of him is on the brink of boiling over, and he thinks he might actually shoot Vanko.

 

Pepper pulls her gun out and has it on Thor almost as fast as he has his gun pointed at Tony. There’s a burning inferno raging in Tony’s eyes, and she knows he will pull the trigger. It terrifies her.

Vanko laughs and turns around. “Just keep screwing up boy and you might actually dig yourself  a hole big enough to be buried in.”

“You promised you would leave Peter out of this. You hurt me, and only me,” Tony’s voice shakes as he tightens his grip on his glock.

“I’m tempted to send this text. It would be satisfying to die knowing Thor’ll fill you up good once I’m gone.”

“He could try,” Pepper growls and cocks her gun.

Tony glances at her for just a brief moment, but it gives Vanko the opening he needs. He has Tony’s gun on the ground and Tony in a headlock almost faster than she can see.

“Now, what are we going to do with you, Tony?” Vanko hisses.

“I don’t care.” The certainty in Tony’s voice scares Pepper. “Shoot me, break my bones, torture me, kill me. I do not care as long you leave my brother out of this.”

Pepper can tell beyond any doubt that Tony is telling the truth, and she realizes in full the true extent of Tony saying he would do anything for Peter. Tony has no fear of death if it means his brother will be okay.

Vanko laughs. “You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

He shoves Tony to the floor.

“If you hurt him I won’t work for you anymore.”

Vanko laughs harder. Thor joins him.

Vanko leans down and grabs Tony around the throat. He squeezes as he lifts him into the air. Her stomach drops at the choked gag that escapes Tony’s lips. He looks small and helpless dangling in the air from his boss’s hand. Vanko’s glare is cold and evil, and she realizes he’s enjoying crushing the life out of Tony. Tony’s attempts to grab at the man’s thick arm are getting weaker with every passing moment until finally his hands go limp and fall to his sides. His face is about five seconds from being blue.

She’d been told going into this assignment that she would have to be cold and heartless, and she’s witnessed a lot of things that every fabric of her being screamed for her to step in and stop, but this is the worst. She has never wanted to blow her cover more than she does now.

“Boss!” Harley, the young boy who always hangs out at the shop, comes sliding into the garage just as Pepper thinks she’s going to hear Tony’s neck snap.

“What do you want?” Vanko roars “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“This is important,” Harley blurts, and there is worry in his eyes as his gaze flicks to Tony. “Killian just got arrested. The boss sent me to get you.”

Vanko sighs and drops Tony. He crashes to the floor in a fit of coughing, and it takes all of Pepper’s restraint not to run to him.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Vanko hisses and leans down so his face is inches from Tony’s. “This is your warning. You step out of line again and I kill you and your brother. Now, what do you say to me?”

“Thank you,” Pepper barely hears Tony’s drawn out rasp, and it makes her sick that he’s being forced to show gratitude to the man who just tried to strangle him.

“Good.” Vanko dusts off his hands and leaves. Thor follows him.

Harley reaches Tony before Pepper does.

“Shit, man,” the kid scolds and helps Tony sit up. “What the hell did you do?”

Tony shakes his head and coughs again. It sounds horrible, and Pepper can see the dark red mark wrapping around his throat.

“He pulled a gun on Vanko,” Pepper explains for Tony as she throws his arm over her shoulder and hauls him to his feet.

“He did what?” Harley sounds shocked.

“Vanko threatened Peter. Tony pulled a gun,” Pepper elaborates. Tony gives her a look of pure defeat.

“Oh. Yeah. That’ll do it,” Harley states.

“Harley, can you go get him some water?” Pepper asks, trying to get rid of him so she can have a word with Tony.

“Thanks,” Tony mumbles as soon as Harley is gone.

“Don’t thank me,” Pepper fusses and gets an ice pack from the garage freezer. “Put that on your neck.”

Tony glances up at her before responding, “You called in a tip on Killian, didn’t you?”

Pepper had done exactly that, and she loves her partner for his perfect timing.

“Maybe.” She shrugs and lifts Tony’s chin to examine the bruise forming around his neck. “We need to get that checked out.”

“No,” Tony argues. “Doctors are for gunshots and stab wounds, not scrapes and bruises. Ask anyone.”

Pepper frowns and lets go of Tony’s chin. “I talked to Peter last night.”

“You did?”

"Yeah, I called to check on you because of the run in with Ty, and Peter picked up. He said you were passed out on the couch."

Tony snorts weakly. “Sounds about right.”

“He adores you,” Pepper says.

If not for Tony’s charm, Peter’s obvious love of his brother is enough to make Pepper swear she will get this small family of brothers out of all this alive.

“I don’t know about that,” Tony mutters. “He might now, but if he ever finds about… about this, about what I do, he’ll hate me, and he should.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Pepper argues. A few weeks ago she would have had the same view as Tony’s imagined reaction from his brother, but since getting to know Tony that’s no longer true. She had heard the pure untainted fondness in Peter’s voice as he talked about Tony last night. She doesn’t think that finding out his brother is a criminal will change that.

“I hope he does,” Tony scoffs and stands up. “I have work to do.” 

He stalks off toward one of the cars that needs work.

“Where’d he go?” Harley demands as he appears from around the corner.

Pepper points to the car that Tony has already slid under.

“Is he always so self deprecating?” Pepper asks, not really meaning to say it out loud.

“Yeah,” Harley sighs and sips the water that was meant for Tony, “when I was little, he wasn’t so bad about it, but after Happy died… he took a nose dive. Almost relapsed I think.”

“Relapsed?” Pepper questions.

“Yeah. According to Peter he went through a spell when he was like sixteen and got addicted to like… everything. He got clean when he realized that he might have to pull him and Peter out of Chicago.” Harley shrugs. “Anyway, he really took a nosedive after his buddy died. Blames himself.”

Pepper looks across the garage and watches as the mechanic, who seems to be able to fix everything but himself, slide out from under the car to collect some tools before disappearing again.

Chapter Text

Fall break rolls around faster than it ever has before. Tony somehow manages to swing three days off for the week so they can actually spend some time together and go do fun fall breaky things, but he doesn’t really think it will stick. It never does, but he’s excited because Tony has promised to bring Pepper with them on at least one day out. Tony has started talking about her all the time, to the point that Peter is pretty sure he’s in love with her, like smitten .

“So,” Tony throws himself down on the couch after hanging up the phone, “Pepper’s gonna meet us down at Elphie’s tomorrow-”

“I thought you said we didn’t have the money to go there anymore,” Peter interrupts. Tony had told him a month ago that they’d have to live light for a while because of payment cuts at the garage. They’ve been doing surprisingly well, but Peter misses chips and also french fries, especially the chunky ones from Elphie’s. Those are the best.

Tony smiles fondly. “I saw Elphie in the grocery store yesterday and they said they miss seeing us around. They said seeing us at the diner is all the pay they need and they’ll give us a special discount, aka free.”

Peter can’t help but let out a small squeal of joy, he has very much missed seeing Elphie. They’re always so nice to him, he can’t count the amount of times Elphie has given him free refills on his milkshakes, and free refills aren’t even a thing at the diner. Elphie just always seems to know when someone needs something extra to add sunshine to their day. They’re just like that.

“And we’re bringing Pepper? Has she been before?”

Tony beams and shakes his head. “Elphie’s gonna love her.”

Peter can’t help but snort a little, Tony says everyone will love Pepper. Peter really hopes for Tony’s sake that she is as amazing as he makes her out to be. He can’t bear the thought of things turning out like they did with Ty.

“What was that for?” Tony demands.

“Nothing,” Peter replies innocently.

“No, no, no. that was not a ‘nothing’ snort. That was definitely a ‘something’ snort.” Tony wags his finger at Peter. “Spill the beans.”

Peter just breaks down into small snickers. “You are so in love…”

“Am not!” Tony objects.

“Oh come on! That’s a lie!” Peter laughs. Tony’s eyes light up with joy every time he speaks of Pepper; the last time Peter saw him that stupidly in love with someone was when he’d been dating Rhodey. His eyes had always borne a beautiful light whenever he was with Rhodey. Sometimes not even their father’s shadow could blot out the special little light in Tony’s eyes. Peter had been devastated when Tony and Rhodey had broken up because the light had gone away. Its ghost still came around whenever the two of them spent time together after the breakup, but it had never shone so bright again, that is, until now. Now the light is back.

Tony deflates a little, but the twinkle in his eyes is still there. “Is it that obvious?” Tony’s question is sheepish.

Peter sets a hand on his shoulder and gives Tony the most grave face he can muster. “I’m afraid so. I am so sorry Tony but I’m diagnosing you with heart eyes.”

“Shut up!” Tony jokes and gives Peter a playful shove that sends him rolling off the couch.

“Rude!” Peter laughs and hits Tony with the closest pillow. 

Tony laughs before becoming earnest, “But seriously, is it that obvious?”

Peter sits up on the floor and nods. “You’re smitten.”

Tony lets out an exasperated huff and flops back on the couch all the way. “She’s just so amazing! She’s kick ass, and beautiful and smart, and level headed and kind...” Tony trails off before sitting up and breaking off into love struck rambling, "She is so kind Peter, She loves like everyone and just… we were walking together the other day and she stopped to help lost kids, and I didn't even realize they were lost, but she did. She's so observant, she just like knows when you need something. She brought me coffee yesterday, no one at work in all the nine years I’ve been there has ever brought me coffee, but she did, she just knew Pete, she always does-" Tony breaks off, coming to the grand conclusion Peter had reached weeks ago, "Son of a bitch. Peter, I’m in love!”

Peter smiles at the goofy joy on his brother’s face, but the only thing he can think of is how much he doesn't want this to end up like it did with Ty. At the tender age of twelve Peter had wanted to murder Ty like really wanted to murder him. He had never hated anyone so vehemently before in his life, and he hated how it had felt to want to kill Ty. Ty is the only person who has ever made Peter feel that way. Peter had actually once been tempted to steal the glock Tony doesn’t know he knows about; it had been the night Tony had broken up with Ty and had been nearly beaten to death.

“What’s the sudden dark look for?” Tony jokes, and ruffles Peter’s hair.

“Nothing.” Peter stands up to retreat to the kitchen.

“Peter,” Tony’s firm voice stops him. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Peter turns to face his suddenly very serious brother.

“It isn’t going to end up like that. I promise.”

Peter sees the little light still dancing in his brother’s expression, and he believes him.

 

Tony smiles like an idiot as he shakes Pepper’s hand. When she offers her hand to Peter it’s soft, but her grip is firm and her posture is open yet just a little intimidating. She isn’t much taller than him, but she still looks like she could lay out just about anyone if she wanted to. Peter doesn’t let her obviously worked out biceps and authoritative demeanor intimidate him.

“I like your tattoo,” Peter comments on the tattoo of a cobra weaving around her wrist.

“Thanks,” Pepper replies with a smile, and nods at his Star Wars t-shirt. “I love your shirt.”

Peter just narrows his eyes at her. She likes Star Wars, or maybe she’s just being polite, if she genuinely likes Star Wars Peter is one step closer to trusting her with his brother, but if she’s just being polite then that means she’s willing to lie just to get cool points, and is therefore untrustworthy.

“Thanks,” Peter decides not to test her on her Star Wars knowledge just yet. “Did your tattoo hurt?”

“Not really,” Pepper says, and shrugs.

“I wanted to get one when Tony got his,” Peter says. “But he said no.”

“How lame,” Pepper agrees.

“Yeah.” Peter casts a glance at Tony, who gives him a ‘don’t you dare’ look from where he’s walking on Pepper’s other side. “But Tony crying the whole time he got his made up for it.”

His brother blushes a little and absentmindedly rubs his left shoulder, where he has a small tattoo of a brilliant red and gold dragon winding around a wrench. He had taken Peter with him when he got it because he’d felt left out when Tony hadn’t let him go with him and Ty to get his first tattoo, the snake wrapping itself in a knot around his upper right elbow and bicep. Peter had never liked the snake one, and not just because it was a constant reminder of time his brother had spent with Ty, but also because it had always looked a little evil in Peter’s opinion. The dragon, on the other hand, he loves.

“I did nothing of the sort,” Tony mumbles and kicks a pebble down the sidewalk.

A grin comes across Pepper’s face and she wraps her arm around his shoulders. Peter notices that Tony doesn’t stiffen, after Ty there are few people who can give him physical affection without him tensing up. Peter notes this small interaction in his point system for Pepper.

“It’s okay Tony. We love you anyway,” Pepper assures him.

The smile that spreads across Tony’s face at the word ‘love’ is priceless, and Peter wishes he would always be that happy. He realizes just how much more happy his big brother is since meeting Pepper, and that makes him hope all the harder that she is what his brother thinks she is. He catches Pepper giving him a quizzical look and he realizes he must be frowning, so he lets the frown turn into a smile and she looks away, and an indulgent grin lights up her face as she turns her attention back to Tony.

 

Peter slides into the booth at the diner expecting Tony to slide in next to him like he’d always done with Ty. He had almost never sat next to Ty. Tony would always stay close to Peter whenever they were out and about as though he wanted to keep him safe from his boyfriend. He doesn’t do that this time. Today he slides into the seat opposite Peter and allows Pepper to sit next to him. Peter’s happy that his brother trusts her, but he can’t stop himself from thinking about how similar it all is to how things had started with Ty. The only (and possibly redeeming) difference is that Peter can tell Pepper actually loves his brother. He can see it in her eyes whenever Tony talks like she’s just soaking his words up.

 

“So,” Peter says shortly after their food arrives. Tony and Pepper both look up from their burgers. “So, who’s your favorite Star Wars character?”

Pepper swallows and wipes her mouth with a napkin. “I gotta be honest with you Peter, I never really got into the character aspect of the movies. I just watched them because I love space and spaceships. I commented on your shirt because it’s got the Millennium Falcon on it, and the space ships were my favorite part of the movies.”

Peter catches Tony’s sideways look warning him not go off on Pepper for not liking Star Wars. Peter has no problem complying because he has no intention of doing such a thing

“Although, I gotta say, I think the Star Destroyers are my favorite.”

“And why is that?” Peter asks, sitting back and folding his hands together. Tony looks like he’s enjoying their exchange immensely.

“They always sort of reminded me of real navy ships.”

“I guess you’re right,” Peter says and rubs his chin. “What got you into space and spaceships?”

“Oh, all kinds of things. Space just always fascinated me. The impossible vastness of it. Like it just keeps going forever, always expanding.”

“It’s a bit like numbers,” Tony comments. “Like numbers keep expanding in both directions forever. ” Peter notices Pepper smiling at Tony as he speaks and it sends joy budding up inside of him. Ty would have rolled his eyes by now. “And then in between each number you have your own infinite possibilities of digits and decimals that can also go on forever without ever meeting a whole number. Like with the ones that repeat? They just repeat forever and never actually meet a whole number. The planets are like the whole numbers and then you have within each one an infinite amount of possibilities and it’s just…” Tony trails off, looking very shy all of a sudden. “Sorry, didn’t mean to rant, it just… sorry I’ll shut up.”

Pepper frowns a little at Tony, her eyes gleaming with concern for his sudden shift into awkward apologetics.

“I thought it was beautiful,” Pepper says softly and rubs Tony’s hunched shoulder with one hand. “You can keep going if you want to.”

Peter hopes he does. It’s been so long since he’s heard his brother go on one of his deep and beautiful rants about science or numbers or both or even just things he thinks are cool. Ty had always hated Tony’s little spurts of knowledge, probably because he had never been able to fully understand them.

“Nah,” Tony says with a shrug, but his shoulders seem to perk up a little. Pepper asking him to keep going had made his day, it’s easy to tell. Pepper looks a little disappointed. Peter feels the same way. “We can talk about something else.”

“Okay, what do you guys do in your spare time?” Pepper asks.

“I do decathlon,” Peter says.

“Oh cool!” Pepper says. “I was never quite smart enough to make the team, but I would occasionally sit in on matches to see what I could learn from it. What’s your favorite subject?”

“Science and probably literature. I know a lot of the stuff because Tony used to read stuff to me and teach me about it.”

Tony blushes a little and ducks his head away from where he had it resting on his hands, staring intently at Pepper. “I didn’t teach him that much. He’s smart. He figured most of it out on his own.”

Pepper looks at Tony with kind eyes. Peter would also diagnose her with heart eyes like he had done for Tony. 

“What about you Tony? What’re your favorite things to learn about?”

“All kinds of stuff,” Tony says vaguely.

“Like?”

“I always liked building stuff I guess,” Tony says quietly. “It’s always what I feel the most comfortable doing. I know I’m not going to mess anything up when I do it. It’s trial and error, and like sometimes there are errors, but they aren’t bad because they show me what not to do next time. With engineering the errors are a good thing. I guess that’s part of why I like it. You’re safe to make mistakes… as long as you’re not like making a bomb or something. If you're making a bomb it’s like oops. Wrong wire. BOOM! You dead.”

Pepper’s laugh is beautiful and genuine. Tony beams.

“The whole bomb blowing up in your face problem is very easy to solve though,” Tony says. “Just don’t make bombs. They’re horrible anyway.”

“Unless they’re for special effects in movies,” Peter adds.

“Unless they’re for special effects,” Tony agrees, giving Peter a small hand wave of agreement. “But I’m sadly not in Hollywood working with special effects teams, so I don’t mess with that shit. I just make little robots and stuff from time to time.”

“You do?” Pepper says, intrigued.

“I’ve got a whole bunch of them under my bed at home,” Peter says.

“You keep them?” Tony asks.

“Tony, I wouldn’t dream of ever getting rid of them.”

“But most of them don’t even work that well.”

“I don’t care. I still love them. There isn’t enough money in the world to make me get rid of them.”

Tony’s smile is weak but still genuine, and Peter can see the faint traces of tears in the corners of his brother’s eyes.

 

It’s late when they finally get back home, and Peter is starting to look a little under the weather, but Tony feels like he could stay up for days as long as Pepper is there with him.

“Do you mind if me and Pepper stay out a little longer?” Tony asks as he unlocks the door to the house, praying his brother acquiesces.

Peter yawns. “Sure… go have some fun “adult” time.”

“You’re sure?” Tony double checks, trying not to sound too excited.

“Yeah! You hang out with me too much. Go have some time to yourself,” Peter assures him.

“Thanks, Pete!” Tony ruffles his brother’s hair and sees that he makes it all the way inside and locks the door behind him before he turns and skips back to the sidewalk where Pepper is waiting for him. 

“He say yes?” She asks.

“He did,” Tony replies and slides his hands into his pockets.

“Where d’you wanna go?” Pepper says as they begin their slow meander down the street.

Tony lets out a lengthy breath. “I honestly hadn’t thought this far ahead…”

Ever since meeting Pepper he really hasn’t thought anything through. He’s been acting on his heart not the logic that used to drive him. It’s a strange concept and he knows that falling in love with her (a cop!) is probably a mistake. For some reason he finds himself okay with the mistake, he’s willing to suffer for it, but in a far different way than he was with Ty. He’d stayed with Ty for so long because Ty ensured protection for Peter. Tony is taking this risk with Pepper not for Peter, but for himself, because he can imagine the rest of their lives spreading out golden and intertwined.

Their wandering leads them to a small sidewalk close to the river. Somewhere during their trek Pepper’s hand slid into his. It holds a tender love that he’s not felt in a long time.

“Tony…” Pepper's voice is whimsical as she swings their arms a little. “What are we doing?”

Tony chews his lip, but doesn’t answer. She knows just like he does that this is wrong. A cop and a criminal in hopelessly over his head falling in love has and never will end well. It won’t work. They should hate each other. He hurts people and she tries to save them.

“Falling in love, I think,” Tony says confidently despite knowing it will probably end soon. He finds it a little twisted, he stayed with Ty to take care of Peter, and now he can’t have Pepper so he can continue to take care of him. He hates the universe for the way it is spinning his life. “But we shouldn’t, should we?”

“I mean…” Pepper trails off, obviously not liking this either. “I don’t… we both know how this ends.”

Tony closes his eyes and shakes his head a little, “But what if it doesn’t?”

Pepper gives him a pained smile, “Tony. This doesn’t end well. This isn’t a fairy tale.”

“But what if we make it like that?” Tony asks, though even as he says it he knows that she’s right.

 

“That’s not how this works,” Pepper hates saying it, she hates the desperation in Tony’s eyes, and she hates the way the chips have landed for him… and her. “That’s not how any of this works.”

She wishes there had been a class in the academy titled ‘what to do if you fall in love with the super adorable mechanic for the illegal chop shop that works for the biggest cartel in New York, and he’s also a really good guy who just had the odds stacked against him’.

“What if we make it like that? What if we make things work?”

“Tony,” Pepper is desperate to try and make him understand that he and Peter will be safer if they aren’t close to her. “We can do whatever we want, but in the end I won’t be able to help you. The law is the law. You’re a criminal.” He flinches and then nods and she hates every nano second of it. “I’m a cop. My job is to arrest criminals, and uphold the law, no matter how much want things to be different, they aren’t. I have to uphold my job, otherwise I’m just another person in power who breaks laws for selfish reasons and just… Tony, I’m sorry.”

There are tears in his eyes. She’s half expecting him to turn and go, but instead he stops her and wraps his hands around her waist.

“I’m not asking you to compromise your beliefs and your duty for me.” Passion burns in Tony’s eyes. “I would never want you to do that for me, frankly I’m not worth it, but Pepper I am asking you to be with me. And when the time comes I give you permission to arrest me.”

Pepper looks away from him, unable to keep her eyes locked with his powerful brown gaze.

“Tony-” She doesn’t know if she’s strong enough to do that, even now.

“I don’t care how this ends.” He clasps both of her hands in his. “I just care about now. Starting a relationship with the end in mind is… it’s not how it should be. Start it for the now not the future. Don’t stop for what might happen. Please just-”

And then before she even realizes she’s doing it, she is leaning in and they are kissing. For a brief moment she considers pulling away, but she doesn’t. She kisses harder. His soft lips press against hers and her heart flutters with a kind of joy she doesn’t think she has ever felt before. Finally, after a long time they break apart.

Tony ducks his head in embarrassment, “Sorry… I didn’t mean to… Not if you didn’t...”

“I didn’t even… I don’t…I do...” Pepper is flustered by what’s just happened, but it only lasts a few seconds before his lips are pressing against hers again. It feels so right despite all the surrounding complications. She doesn’t bother fighting it. She doesn’t want to.

 

They head back to the small duplex, not entirely sure what to say to each other after the events of the night. Tony is pretty sure what they have is going to stick.

“Pepper,” Tony whispers her name as they press their foreheads together in a sweet goodbye.

“Hmm?”

“When something happens to me, please promise me you’ll take care of Peter,” Tony requests, the words hitching in his throat as he asks the question.

The look in Pepper’s eyes is concerned as she brushes her hand down his cheek. “I promise I’ll take care of your brother, but you promise me that you won’t….” she trails off, seeming to realize why Tony made the request. “You mean if something-”

“When,” Tony interrupts, a little adamantly.

Pepper shakes her head in defeat. “Okay, I will Tony. I’ll take care of Peter, I promise.”

“Thank you Pepper,” Tony whispers, and after pressing one last quick kiss to her cheek, he pulls away from her soft touch and slips inside, closing the door quietly behind him. He watches from the window as she gets in her car and drives away. He knows what he’s known from the day he started working for Stane, he knows this path leads to him dead or in prison. It’s always been a daunting thought, something that keeps him awake at night purely because of his fear of what will become of Peter should he die or go to jail. For the first time in nine years Tony doesn’t have to worry about Peter and what will happen to him. For the first time in nine years, everything seems less formidable. For the first time in nine years Tony is at ease with his impending doom.

Chapter Text

“This guy seriously had no enemies,” Carol huffs as she throws the fifth case file down on the table.

“What about the guy he cleaned for?” Rhodes asks passing Carol the file on Clint Barton.

“Barton’s just an accountant,” Carol objects. “I don’t see any motive. He’s not married so it’s not like Spencer caught him cheating or anything-”

“What if Barton was pulling a scam and the kid caught him?” Rhodes says. “Think about, cleaning guy comes across something he shouldn’t and the accountant murders him.”

“I thought the same thing, so I had his bank records pulled, and there’s nothing off about them,” Carol sighs. 

The murder of Charlie Spencer had almost been passed off as a mugging and handed down to the police to take care of. The student had been stripped of all of his valuables, which would have been classic mugging signs had there not been a nine hundred dollar ivory and gold handled letter opener buried in his chest cavity. Muggers didn’t use letter openers, and they sure as hell didn’t use nine hundred dollar ones.

“Look, just go talk to him. Do a home visit and see what you can see.”

“But-”

Rhodes’s phone rings and interrupts her. “I gotta get this,” he says quickly. “Just go in for follow up questions and have a look around.”

Carol rolls her eyes as her partner ducks out of the room to talk to his mystery caller.

 

Clint Barton’s house is a big one. Carol can’t help but note that he’s almost definitely rich enough to afford a nine hundred dollar letter opener. The accountant opens the door almost immediately.

“Agent Danvers, right?” he greets her with a friendly smile.

“That is correct. I was wondering if I could ask you some follow up questions,” Carol replies, not letting his friendly demeanor cloud her judgment.

“Sure! Of course!” Clint waves her in. “I feel so bad that you haven’t found who did it yet. He was such a great kid.”

“That’s what we’ve been hearing from people,” Carol replies as she follows Clint further into the house.

“Here, we can talk in my study.” Clint shows the way to a large room lined with tall bookcases and filing cabinets. She takes in as much of the room as she can, trying to scan for any kind of evidence that might link Clint to the crime. When she sits down, she sees it: a large magnifying glass framed in ivory with gold swirls on the handle, a match set to the letter opener found in Spencer’s body.

 

Rhodey’s phone rings as he gets into his car. He’s a little surprised to see that it’s his partner calling him so soon.

“He did it,” Danvers blurts before Rhodey even has time to say hello.

“Who did what?” Rhodey demands.

“Barton did it. He murdered his cleaning guy,” Danvers states.

“How-”

“He has a magnifying glass that matches the letter opener that was used to murder Spencer.”

“Now all we need is motive,” Rhodey huffs. 

They have a weapon that links to a magnifying glass, as far as evidence needed to convict him, that isn’t enough, and even with the added detail of him being the last person to see Spencer alive they probably didn’t have enough to get a warrant.

“I say we make an attempt to get a judge to sign off on a warrant.”

Rhodey sighs, knowing they likely don’t have enough on him, but that it’s worth a shot. “Head down to the courthouse and see what you can do. “I have a meeting I have to get to.”

“I’ll call you when I have the warrant,” Carol says confidently and hangs up.

Rhodey feels a little guilty for working double cases and not including Carol on the Stark case. She’d been so ready to help and believed in him so quickly, but this meeting took months to plan, and if he’s right, it will split the case wide open. He doesn’t have time to wait for Carol.

 

“Thank you so much for meeting with me Captain Wilson,” Rhodey greets the man he’d only spoken to over the phone. “I really appreciate you making the extra time to make a pit stop here before you head overseas.”

“I had to pull some strings, but after fifteen years on the force I know what it’s like to have that one witness you just need. ” The Captain says understandingly. “I just hope it’s all worth it, and that I can actually be of help to you.”

“Anything you can tell me at all will be a big help, sir.”

“What do you need to know?”

“What do you remember about December 16th, 2010,” Rhodey says evenly, trying not to flip out. This is the closest he’s come to some actual answers.

“That was nine years ago!” Wilson scoffs a little.

“Look, I finally got access to your records, you were on patrol in the northern part of the county, which means you should have been the responding officer to the call from Howard Stark about his dead wife.”

“Oh!” Wilson stands up from his seat, a little defensively. “You’re that crackpot agent who’s obsessed with that case.”

“Can you please just humor me!” Rhodey begs as Wilson turns to go. “Please. This is the only time I’ll ask you for information, and I’m sorry that I put you through so much trouble to get here and speak with me, but I need to know.”

Wilson sighs and sits back down. “Okay. Since I flew all the way here anyway... ask away. I’ll try to remember.”

“Thank you,” Rhodey breathes in relief. “Can you remember why you weren’t the one to respond to the call?”

“I was on a traffic stop I think.”

Rhodey’s breath catches in his throat. “You… can you remember who it was? What they looked like, anything?”

“Some kid with his son in the back seat.”

“How old was the kid? The little one? The one in the back seat?” Rhodey can barely contain the excitement bubbling up inside of him he scoots a little too eagerly closer to Wilson.

“I don’t know, seven or eight give or take. It was a long time ago. I don’t remember much.”

“Do you remember what kind of car they were in?” Rhodey asks, his heart racing in his chest.

“I don’t really remember. I’ve pulled a lot of people over. I think it was some kind of fancier car. I’m really not sure. Sorry.”

Rhodey sits back, clamping one hand over his mouth. “Holy shit…”

“Uh… what?”

“They’re still alive,” Rhodey breathes, he can feel his heart skipping from the excitement. He isn’t entirely sure he believes it. “Thank you so much, sir.”

They’re still alive. They’re out there somewhere; he just has to find them.



“Underoos get up,” Tony’s voice is tight and curt, and laced with something dangerous as he shakes Peter out of his sleep.

“Go away,” Peter whines and pushes at Tony’s arm with his small hand. “I’m trying to sleep.”

“Peter. Get up now ,” hisses Tony, it scares Peter and he shrinks away from his brother. He sounded too much like their dad just then.

“Go away.”

Tony doesn’t ask him again, his strong hand just closes around Peter’s arm and yanks him up.

“Sto-” Peter tries to cry out, but Tony’s hand clamps over his mouth.

“Be quiet,” he says,  low and menacing. Peter can see a deep and terrifying fear in his brother’s eyes. He’s never seen anything like it before, not even when Tony and their dad fight. Peter feels inclined to obey. His arm hurts, but he doesn’t complain,

“What’s happening?” Peter mumbles as Tony pulls a hoodie down over his head and forces a backpack into his arms.

“We’re leaving,” Tony says quickly and grabs Peter’s favorite stuffed giraffe that their mom had made.

“But tomorrow’s your birthday…” Peter pleads. “Mommy was gonna make you a cake. I have a present for you and everything...”

“Well that isn’t going to happen,” Tony’s voice has a hint of grief to it. “Besides. It’s after 12:00. I am eighteen.”

“Why do we have to leave?” Peter moans as Tony picks him up in his muscular arms. “I wanted to see you open your present.”

“Because it’s not safe here anymore Pete,” Tony replies.

“Stop! I have to get your present first!” Peter cries as Tony starts walking towards the door. His brother lets out a frustrated sigh and puts him on the floor, but keeps a firm grip on his arm. He gets down on one knee and looks Peter in the eyes.

“Will you be quiet if I let you get it?” Tony’s voice is angry. He’s only ever seen his brother angry at dad before. His big brother is scaring him. 

Peter nods.

Peter grabs the wrapped box that contains the red and gold lego robot man he had spent hours constructing for Tony out from under his bed. He barely has a firm grip on it before Tony’s hands are wrapping around him and pulling him back into the air. His hands pinch Peter a little.

“Ow! Tony stop! That hurts!” Peter cries. “You’re scaring me!”

He can practically feel his brother soften around him.

“I’m sorry Pete,” his brother says softly. “I’ll be gentler, I promise.”

Peter swallows back the lump in his throat and hugs his arms around Tony’s neck.

As he’s carried out into the hallway where it’s light, Peter notices for the first time that there’s a cut on the bridge of Tony’s nose, and little bits of blood dripping down his face.

“You’re bleeding,” Peter points out. He knows who did it.

“Yep,” Tony replies and pushes his way into his room, where he sets Peter on the bed.

“Is Mommy coming too?”

Tony goes rigid and stops opening the window to the old fire stairs. He turns around slowly and kneels in front of Peter. There are tears in his brown eyes only adding to his shattered expression. It scares Peter even more, and he finds his own eyes beginning to water.

“Peter,” Tony’s voice cracks as he speaks. “Mom’s… Mom’s not coming with us, she’s- Peter she’s dead.”

Peter doesn’t even realize he’s falling until his rear end hits the hardwood floor of Tony’s room. Before he knows it long drawn out sobs are shaking his body.

 

Tony curses under his breath and grabs Peter as he begins to wail. He can’t blame him, he wants to do the same, but he has to get them out of here, and Howard can’t know they’re leaving. He’s so drunk and angry that Tony isn’t entirely sure he won’t kill them if he finds them trying to escape. He scoops Peter into his arms  and ducks out the window. He walks as quickly and quietly as he can down the fire escape and then sprints across the yard to his car in the driveway. He puts Peter in the back seat and buckles him tightly before climbing into the driver's seat. He sees Howard come out onto the front porch just as he starts the car. There’s still blood on his hands and soaked into the knees of his pants. Tony can see even in the darkness of the night that the man has tears streaming down his face. Tony has never hated him more. He doesn’t deserve to be sad. He had killed her.

Howard staggers down the front steps, a whiskey bottle clutched in one hand. He’s staggeringly drunk, but that doesn’t make him less dangerous. If anything it makes him more dangerous.

“WHERE THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING!” he screams and starts running toward Tony’s car. His steps are swayed as he moves closer. “I’LL HAVE YOU ARRESTED FOR KIDNAPPING! YOU CAN’T TAKE PETER!”

Tony throws the car into reverse and speeds out of the driveway. A whiskey bottle smashes on the ground behind them. Peter is crying louder now.

“You’re lying!” he continues wailing. “Mommy can’t be dead!”

Peter begins pounding the back of Tony’s seat in a panicked frenzy. Tony doesn’t say anything. He can’t make himself say anything. He wants more than anything to pull the car over and hold his little brother and promise him everything will be okay, but they can’t afford to stop, not yet, not if Howard is going to try and catch them. Tony isn’t entirely convinced that his dad will call the police on him, but he can’t risk it.

Tony doesn’t realize until the red and blue lights are flashing behind him that he’s speeding. He slows down and pulls over, hoping against all hope that this is just a traffic stop and that Howard didn’t call the cops on him. He knows his father will have him arrested, not just for kidnapping but he’ll probably frame him for killing his mother too, and then he’ll find some way to blame Peter for running away. They can never go back to Howard.

“Pete, I need you to stop crying for like five minutes,” Tony says gently and reaches over into the glove box to grab his license and registration papers. Peter somehow manages to get his breathing under control by the time the cop is at Tony’s window.

“License and registration please,” the officer requests.

Tony hands them over, trying to conceal his relief.

“You know you were going ten miles an hour over the speed limit, right?”

Tony lets out a heavy exhale. “Yes sir, and I’m sorry. I really am.”

The officer, Wilson is the name on his shirt, raises an eyebrow. “Have you had anything to drink?”

“I’m eighteen sir. I don’t drink, and nor will I start.”... again Tony adds silently in his head, wondering if that counts as lying. He hasn’t had anything to drink in over a year, but he did at one point drink and do drugs.

“Right answer,” the officer mumbles and writes something down on his notepad.

“Are you going to write me a ticket?” Tony ventures.

“Depends on why you were speeding.”

“I have a lot on my mind. It’s been a super long night. I was focusing on the road, not the speedometer. I was just trying to get home.”

The officer studies him and his eyes flick to the back seat where Peter is sitting chewing on the leg of his stuffed giraffe. He looks more concerned now than anything else.

“I’m gonna let you off on a warning,” he decides, and Tony breathes a sigh of relief. “But I’m going to have to recommend you head home and rest. It’s late.”

“Thank you, officer.” Tony gives him a polite smile, and the man waves him on.

Tony lets his breath out once the officer is out of sight.

“What happened to Mommy?” Peter whimpers from the back seat.

“She…” Tony trails off, not exactly sure what to tell his little brother. He knows he can’t tell him that Howard slapped her so hard it knocked her down the stairs and she broke her neck and cracked her head open. Tony can’t shake her scream as her head had hit the bottom step, and he can’t make himself forget the image of her blood pooling on the varnished floor. It plays over and over in his head in a horrifying loop. Every time he blinks her blank stare is there. He settles for a very simplistic version of the story, “She fell down the stairs.”

“That’s stupid,” Peter states. “She wouldn’t die from that.”

Tony swallows the bitter lump in the back of his throat. She had died because of him. Howard had been hitting him then she had stepped in to try to stop him. Tony knows he should’ve done more to stop her from getting involved, but he had been in pain, and he’d just wanted someone to jump in and save him from his father. He regretted it now. He should have taken the hit. It should be him dead at the bottom of the stairs, not his mother.

“Look, Pete, just try and get some sleep. We have a long drive-”

“Are we going to Rhodey’s? We should totally go to his house.”

Tony’s gut twists in pain at his brother’s innocent comment. No one can know where they’re going. Not even Rhodey.

“No Pete. We’re going to New York.”

“That’s too far!” Peter cries.

“It’s by the ocean, we’ll have fun there. Now can you please just go to sleep?”

Peter huffs angrily and tucks his legs up onto his seat, curling himself into a ball around the seatbelt.

It isn’t until Peter falls asleep that Tony finally lets his tears fall.

Chapter Text

Peter wakes up from a nightmare around 3:00 am and decides to get up and check if Tony has come back home from hanging out with Pepper. He creeps across the dark hallway and pokes his head into Tony’s room only to discover it empty. Confused and a little worried, Peter ventures into the living room and discovers his brother sitting up on the couch sipping coffee from one of his ridiculously large mugs. Peter doesn’t say anything as he slinks over to the couch and curls up next to his brother. Tony glances down at him for a second before wrapping his arm around his shoulders. Peter leans his head against Tony’s chest and listens to his steady heartbeat. He finds it calming.

“Bad dream?” Tony says,  finally breaking the silence of the dim living room.

Peter doesn’t answer him immediately. He knows if he does then Tony will want to hear about his nightmare so he can try to make him feel better, but Peter doesn’t want to talk about it, or even think about it, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to tell Tony about it. Peter shakes his head as bits of the dream replay in his head. Blood and guns and violence… and Tony, right in the middle of it. 

Dead.  

Peter swallows hard and hugs around Tony’s middle even harder. He focuses on Tony’s slow relaxed heartbeat once more. His brother strokes his hair with one strong hand while holding him close with the other.

“Me too, Underoos. Me too,” Tony whispers. Peter glances up at Tony who is staring absently into space.

“You had a bad dream?” Peter questions.

Tony shakes his head a little. “You could call it that.”

“Hmm.”

After a long silence Tony finally speaks again.

“Peter what would you…” he trails off before picking back up again. “What would you think about moving?”

“What?” Peter exclaims as he sits up straight. “Where would we go? This is home!”

Tony looks sheepish, and his voice is so soft and quiet when he replies Peter almost can’t hear it. “Not we Pete…”

The words sink in like heavy stones on Peter’s chest. Tony wants to get rid of him.

“You mean you want to get rid of me?” Peter cries and jumps to his feet pulling away from Tony who recoils a little.

“That’s not-”

“Is it because you’d rather be with Pepper?” Peter doesn’t know why he accuses Tony of such a thing. He knows Tony would never do that, but he’s too angry to hold it back. The thought of living without Tony makes him sick. “Was I not welcoming enough to her? Does she not like me so you’re just going to get rid of me so she’s happy!”

Tony looks wounded. “What the hell?”

“Oh come on! I know you’d rather spend time with her!” Peter says, knowing it’s stupid even as the words come out. It’s always been the two of them against the world, that isn’t going to change now just because Tony got a girlfriend.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with her!” Tony shouts.

On any other occasion a shout from his brother would be enough to shut him up, but Peter is too enraged to let it phase him.

“Yeah! Right! Just like your job is safe!” Peter shouts back. “I know you hide stuff!”

Tony opens his mouth, but Peter cuts him off.

“I noticed how you were wearing shirts with collars last month! You hate collars, and guess what! I saw the bruises anyway! I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if you were still dating Ty, and if Pepper is just a cover story!” Peter knows as soon as he says it that he’s made a terrible mistake. 

The long-dormant fire that only very rarely manifests itself leaps alive in Tony’s eyes and Peter regrets everything.

“What the hell did you just say to me?” Tony’s enraged shout rattles Peter to his core. “You need to get over yourself, Peter! I am doing everything I can for us-”

Peter dares to interrupt him, “Or are you doing it for yours-”

“NO.” Tony’s bark startles Peter and he discovers that he’s been backing away from the argument when his back hits the wall. “This where you zip it! The adult is speaking. I am doing everything  I can for you, Peter. You are not above me just because you’ve never made a stupid mistake! You don’t get to make all of these demands of me. You don’t get to make decisions for me, and you don’t get to decide what I do!” Tony’s words bite as each of them sinks into Peter’s ears. Doesn’t Tony know he just wants him to be safe? “I am not your personal servant who has to do everything you say! You may be almost an adult, but as of right now you are still a child and I am still the one in charge.”

“I don’t want you to be my servant!” Peter screams back. “I don’t even want you to take care of me-”

“Then why the hell are we having this conversation!” Tony roars. “I can call someone tomorrow, and it’ll be done. You’ll be safe and taken care of. I’ll-”

“No!” Peter cuts him off. “I just want you back! I want you to take a second to be my brother again!”

Tony closes his mouth and a look of confusion comes into his eyes.

“I just want my big brother back!” Peter repeats. “And I don’t want you to die because of me!”

Peter can feel hot tears spilling down his cheeks, and he makes his escape before Tony can say anything else. He slams his door closed behind him and locks it. He face plants in his pillow and lets the sobs take over.

Peter can see Tony’s shadow from under the crack of the door. He stands there not moving for a long time. Peter wonders if he’s going to come in. He doesn’t. Peter is about to get up to open the door and apologize for accusing him of getting back with Ty, among the other atrocities he said, but Tony leaves before he can move. A few minutes later he hears the front door open and slam closed. Peter curls under his covers regret worming under his skin. What if Tony decides that he can’t take it anymore and calls child services? Peter doesn’t think he will, but he said he could make one phone call and it would all be over. He suddenly feels more like a child than he has in years, and the thought of growing up without Tony terrifies him.

As Peter lays on his back in bed he remembers a very important detail from his dream. Tony lying dead in a pool of blood all because of him.

Peter jumps out of bed.

 

Tony is walking down the dark street with his hands buried deep in his pockets when he hears the heavy pound of feet running toward him. He turns around just as Peter barrels into him and nearly knocks him over.

“I’m sorry I said what I said about Ty,” Peter mumbles as he buries his face into Tony’s chest. “I’m sorry about what I said about Pepper. She’s super cool and I can tell she makes you really happy, and that makes me happy.”

Tony wraps his arms tightly around his little brother’s warm body and holds him close.

“I’m just scared,” Peter admits. “I don’t want to lose you. I need you. Please don’t make me leave you.”

Tony’s heart breaks at his brother’s quiet plea.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Tony lies and kisses the top of Peter’s head. He wishes he could really mean what he says to Peter, but the truth is he doesn’t think he’s going to last much longer. “And I would never replace you.”

“Then why did you want to send me away?” Peter whimpers around a sob.

“Hey,” Tony says sternly as he crouches to meet his brother’s eye level. “I don’t want to send you away. Peter that’s among the last things I would ever want to do. I asked because it might have to happen anyway.”

“Why?” The desperation in Peter’s eyes kicks Tony in the gut. “Tony, what’s happening?”

Tony bows his head toward the ground to avoid Peter’s gaze. He wants to tell him the truth, he wants to tell him that he’s a criminal and that he has been for the past nine years, and he wants to tell him that he needs to bring down the cartel even if it sends him to prison or even kills him, but he can’t because he’s sure Peter will do something stupid and put himself in danger, so Tony says nothing.

“I’m sorry Peter,” Tony whispers.

“Tony please,” Peter begs.

Tony shakes his head. He feels sick.

“I can help,” Peter insists.

“It’s not for you to worry about Peter. I’m sorry.” Tony means it.

Peter’s arms fall away from Tony as he lets out an angry huff of air. Tony doesn’t need to look up to know that Peter is walking away. Tony stands alone staring down at the wet pavement as the first tiny snowflakes of the season fall around him.

Chapter Text

Peter attempts to go back to sleep when he gets home and fruitlessly tries to ignore the guilt and anger battling in his head. He’d left Tony all alone… but it’s his own fault, isn’t it?  His brother is keeping secrets and lying; Peter feels like he has every right to be mad at him, but he can’t help the guilt worming in his stomach as he lays on his back in bed. Tony’s trying his best, he always does, and Peter left him. He tries not to think about how broken he’d looked as he turned away. His guilt is joined by fear when the night drags on and he still doesn’t hear the familiar sound of his brother trying and failing to come in quietly. Tony always tries to be as stealthy as possible when he gets home late, and Peter knows it’s because he doesn’t want to wake him up. Peter takes comfort from it in two ways, the first being that it alerts him Tony is home safe and the second is that he cares about not being too loud. 

He watches the minutes tick by slowly on his watch, and with each one Peter gets a little more scared for his brother. He’s on the verge of reaching for his phone to call him when he hears the quiet and familiar click of a key turning in the lock of the front door. Peter sinks back into bed. Part of him hopes Tony will come in and talk to him, but all he does is poke his head into Peter’s room for a brief moment, obviously making sure he’s there, before disappearing and closing the door behind him. With the fear for Tony gone, Peter’s anger at him seeps back in.

Peter gets up a few hours later and heads to the kitchen to see about digging up breakfast, but discovers his brother frying something on the stove and decides he’d rather not talk to him. He spins on his heel to escape back to his room and hopefully avoid the conversation.

“Peter,” Tony’s call stops him in his tracks, for a brief moment he debates pretending he didn’t hear anything and continuing his escape, but he decides against it. He turns and faces his brother.

“What?” he demands. Tony flinches.

“Come sit down.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so, damn it!” Tony barks and Peter decides it’s probably wiser not to argue. He pulls himself onto one of the stools by the kitchen island as his brother finishes scooping his horrible fried eggs off the pan. For the first time in his life, he hates the slightly burnt eggs that Tony puts in front of him. “About last night-”

“Can we please just not talk about it?” Peter snarks.

“No. I need to make something very clear to you.” Tony locks eyes with him. “I am the adult here. You are the child.” Peter opens his mouth to try to argue, but Tony silences him with a hand raise. “Which means I do not have to tell you everything I do, and you don’t get to question it, especially because it’s being done to keep a roof over your head and food on your plate. You don’t have to like it, but it is the way it works. Second, I would never do anything if I thought it would put you in danger. Nothing is going to hurt you, I promise. That being said I still value what you think and how you feel-”

“I’m not worried about me,” Peter says, interrupting his brother before he can keep talking. “Why can’t you see that? I just want you to take care of yourself for once!”

Sadness comes into Tony’s tired brown eyes.

“Don’t worry about me, Peter. I’ll be okay.”

“Promise?” Peter asks.

Tony sighs. “I promise.”

Peter doesn’t really think he means it, but he chooses to let the promise comfort him anyway. The eggs on his plate don’t look so bad anymore.

 

Tony looks more exhausted than usual when he comes into the garage. The dark circles under his eyes are even more pronounced than normal, and his gaze looks dead and broken.

“Are you okay, Tony?” Pepper asks as he makes his way slowly to the car of the day.

“Long night,” Tony sniffles, his voice low and raspy; it sounds like he’s picking up a cold.

Pepper studies him, he’s wearing more layers than he normally does on a cold day, and his prized beanie is pulled a little farther down over his ears.

“What happened?” Pepper asks, following Tony to the waiting car that can only be described as a stakeout van.

Tony’s already slumped shoulders slump further. “I can’t seem to do anything right.”

Pepper’s eyebrows knit together in concern. “Did Peter find out about… about this?”

Tony lets a frustrated exhale leave his nose in an angry huff. “No, but he knows something’s wrong.”

“You think he’ll figure it out?” 

Tony moves his head in a tired nod. “Pete’s a smart kid. I’m surprised he hasn’t already.”

“Maybe you should tell him,” Pepper ventures, thinking it might not be the worst idea. Tony, on the other hand, must think it's hilarious. His response isn’t the warm, soft laugh she’s used to hearing from him, it’s cold and hard and amused in some dark terrible way.

“I don’t think they care about criminal backgrounds when they hire comedians. You should try stand up comedy,” Tony chokes, his dry laugh breaking off into horrible wracking coughs.

Pepper would usually take the time to be offended by Tony’s belittlement of her suggestion, if she wasn’t so concerned about him.

“Hey, take it easy,” she soothes and runs her hand over his back, trying to calm him as he attempts to get his breathing under control. She can feel the scrape of his lungs at she runs her hand up and down his back.

“I’m fine,” Tony wheezes and straightens himself up, clearing his scratchy throat as he does so.

Pepper folds her arms over her chest and scowls at him, but he doesn’t wither under the look like she’d half expected him too. “What’s that look for, Ms. Redding?” Tony demands and pats her on the back. “I’m right as rain.”

“I’m curious, Tony,” Pepper interrupts his attempt to dodge her concern, “where on earth did you get so much bullshit?”

Tony lets out a mix of a snort and a cough and ignores the question without casting so much as a glance at her.

“Stark! Redding!” Tony freezes at the sound of Vanko’s shout. Pepper jumps a little as she realizes how close behind her the man is.

“Yes dear?” Tony says smartly and turns around with a smirk plastered on his face. Watching his sudden shift in attitude is like watching a defensive wall rise up around him. She can tell it’s all just there as a mask because his eyes are angry, and his eyes always betray him.

“We need two people to drive to Chicago and pick up some specialty product,” Vanko replies, annoyance brimming in his cold tone. “You know Chicago. The two of you are going.”

“Sorry,” Tony apologizes with mock sincerity. “No can do. Kid brother needs me home.”

Vanko lets out a harsh laugh. “I find it hilarious that after nine years you still think you get a choice in the matter. You do exactly what I tell you, when I tell you. Especially after that stunt you pulled a few weeks ago.”

Tony’s jaw tightens. “And what exactly am I supposed to do with Peter?” 

“You’re the genius, I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” Vanko waves his hand in the air dismissively. “Boss wants you on the road by tomorrow morning, so you two are off until then.”

Tony holds his smirk until Vanko is gone, and then it falls off his face and is replaced by an expression of pure outrage.

“I can’t go to Chicago!” Tony splutters. His voice has an edge of panic to it. “There’s too much… I can’t go back there and… and what the hell am I gonna tell Peter?”

“The truth,” Pepper whispers.

“No. That’s… Just no. I can’t tell him and then instantly fuck off to Chicago!”

Pepper can see the logic in that, and it would be highly irresponsible to take Peter. Her heart aches for Tony. She knows this isn’t going to be easy for him, and she knows he’s going to hate every second of being back in his hometown. He hasn’t told her much about his life before it was turned upside down but she knows Chicago holds daunting memories for him. She doesn’t doubt that Vanko gave him the assignment just for the sheer joy of knowing it will make him suffer. She hates the man and hopes she’s the one who’ll get to snap handcuffs on his wrists and throw him in the back of a cruiser to be taken away to rot out the rest of his days in prison where he can never hurt Tony again.

 

“Pete!” Tony’s voice echoes through the small duplex and makes its way past the music blaring in Peter’s ears. “We need to talk about some stuff!”

Peter rolls his eyes. He’s spent the day making himself okay with Tony keeping him out of the loop, or he’s been trying to at least, but failing miserably. He’s pretty sure if his brother drops another bombshell on him he will actually explode. No more duds.

Tony’s standing in the kitchen making burgers when Peter comes out of his room. His brother is tossing the patties of meat nervously from hand to hand. Peter hasn’t seen him do it that way since the last time he and Ty had cooked together. It was something he only did when he was feeling petrified. Peter swallows hard and prepares himself for whatever new shit bomb Tony’s about to drop. He knows one is coming

“What d’you need?” Peter asks, sliding onto an island stool to watch his brother cook.

“What kind of cheese do you want on your burger?” Tony says, tossing one of the patties from hand to hand before setting it into the sizzling frying pan. Peter notices for the first time the rasp in his brother’s voice and how congested he sounds. He feels a small pang of guilt flip in his stomach because he’s sure Tony’s cold is a direct result of staying out in the cold the night before.

“American. What other kind of cheese is there?” Peter says sarcastically, trying to lighten his feelings of guilt.

Tony smirks. “Well let’s see, there’s blue cheese, cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese, cream cheese, sour cheese, cottage cheese… oh! You want cottage cheese of course! How could I forget, that’s your favorite!”

“Gross!” Peter cries, despite knowing Tony is only kidding. His brother knows better than anyone else that Peter despises cottage cheese. “How dare you ever even suggest putting something so foul on something so pure.”

“Wait… you put the beef on the cheese?” Tony jokes.

“Gosh you’re disgusting,” Peter laughs. 

“You know I kid. Cottage cheese does not belong on burgers.”

Peter lets out a sigh. “At least we agree there.”

Tony’s grin sinks a little. “Look Pete I-”

“No,” Peter interrupts him. “It’s fine. I mean, I wish you would tell me, but I trust you, Tony.”

As Peter says it, he realizes he means it. Tony is always doing his very best. Peter trusts his reasons for keeping things secret, for now at least.

“Thanks, Pete,” says Tony as his smile returns to his face, but Peter can still see the anxiety in his eyes. He’s not sure if it’s from his cold or if there’s something else his brother wants to say.

“Was the cheese the only thing you needed to know?” Peter asks, certain that it isn’t.

Tony pinches the bridge of his nose and lets out a slow exhale. “I… Uh… My boss wants me to take a trip to… to Detroit.”

“We can’t go to Detroit !” Peter objects, standing up so fast he knocks the stool he’s been sitting on over.

The look on Tony’s face can only be described as wounded.

“Not we, Peter.” His voice is hoarse and broken, and so very quiet that Peter thinks he imagined it. He hopes he did.

What?” 

Tony’s pained expression deepens. “You have to… Peter, you have to stay here.”

“No.” Peter states. “You can’t go to Detroit. I won’t let you. You’re obviously sick. You should be staying home, and resting not working! Or driving 10 hours to Detroit!

“It’s not your decision, Peter,” Peter winces a little at how hard his brother’s tone suddenly becomes.

“What if something happens to you?” Peter demands, folding his arms over his chest. “Detroit is insane .”

“And New York isn’t?” Tony lashes back.

“At least we’re close this way!” Peter’s voice slips closer to being a shout.

“It’ll be fine Pete-”

“How do you know that?” cries Peter, throwing his hands in the air angrily. “What if you get hurt or murdered or… or… or something else!”

Tony closes his eyes. “Peter.” His voice is so gentle it shocks him. “I will be okay, and Pepper’ll be there with me.”

The fact that Pepper is going with Tony somehow makes Peter feel a little better.

“Everything will be okay.” The tone in Tony’s voice makes Peter think the opposite, he sounds scared. Peter is scared. He’s scared he’s going to lose his brother, if not to the dangerous streets of Detroit then to something else entirely, something Tony won’t tell him about until it’s too late.

Chapter Text

Tony stumbles and falls against a cold metal street sign at the entrance to an alley. It’s hard for him to make out exactly what the sign says through his blurred vision. He doesn’t think it really matters much what the hell it says and decides it’s as good a place as any to do his dirty work. He staggers down the alleyway that was probably once lit by a street lamp, but that burnt out long ago. The bottle of whiskey he stole from Howard slips from his hand and clatters to the ground. By some miracle, the glass holds and only a little is spilled from the open mouth of the bottle. Tony curses under his breath at his own clumsiness and slides to the ground, he can feel the brick scraping against his back even through his t-shirt. He sits in silence with his head leaned against the comforting firmness of the wall before rummaging through his pockets for a syringe and the little bottle of what the dealer had called “magic lemonade”. It takes Tony longer than it should for him to fill up the needle, his shaking fingers keep jerking it around. He finally settles for using half the contents of the little bottle, and with impatience, he shoves the needle into the already raw bruised part of his forearm where he knows he’ll find the vein.

He hasn’t tried this stuff before, so he isn’t entirely sure it won’t kill him. Part of him doesn’t care if it does. At least then he’ll be free of Howard. Tony doesn’t get all of the heroin into his arm before he feels himself begin to choke, and then shivers are running through his body and he convulses. Panic floods over him as his breath hitches in his throat. He tries desperately to bring in air, but no breath comes, just more choking and what feels like a hand closing around his airways so he can never breathe again. His whole body is shutting down, and there’s nothing he can do to save himself. Part of him is glad of it but more than that he’s ashamed of himself. He’s taken the easy way out and left his mother and Peter alone to face Howard. Another spasm tears through him, seizing his muscles in a series of sharp jerks. Tony hopes that when it’s all over and he dies that Howard won’t have a reason to be angry anymore and will stop hurting Peter and their mom. When the loss of air finally becomes too much and he blacks out it’s a relief.

 

Tony drops Peter off at Harley’s apartment around 5:00 A.M. and heads to the garage where he and Pepper are to meet and begin their journey to Chicago. He already feels like he’s going to die, asphyxiating on his own anxiety and terror. Peter’s question still burns in Tony’s mind: what if something happens to him? The question isn’t just a subject for his present worries, but also the future. Tony needs a plan for when something inevitably happens to him; he knows something will. He can feel it coming.

Pepper sleeps the first few hours of the drive and wakes up for the first time when Tony makes a coffee stop in some obscure small town. She slowly becomes more alert as she sips from the cup he got her.

“How long have we been on the road?” she mumbles, taking another long drink from the coffee.

“Few hours,” Tony says absently. He has too much on his mind to really pay much attention to her, so he just keeps his eyes focused on the dark road before them. Pepper heaves a heavy sigh and he can hear her repositioning herself in the seat next to him.

“Are we going to do all thirteen hours in one go?” She asks after a few minutes of silence.

“Sooner we can get there and leave the better,” he says, trying to sound casual but failing miserably.

Pepper eyes him and looks like she’s preparing to ask him something, then apparently thinks better of it and turns her head to look out the window.

“What’s in Chicago?” 

Tony’s breath hitches in his throat at the question.

“Bad memories,” is all Tony can make himself say on the subject of his abusive father and dead mother and every other shitty thing that happened in that shitty city.

“Worse than New York?”

Tony only shrugs, not really wanting to talk about what happened nine years ago, or any of the years before that.

 

"My dad was from Chicago," Pepper comments trying to lighten the mood, and not really knowing what else to say.

"Is this your real dad or your cover story dad?" Tony asks flatly, and she can’t help but notice his voice is still strained and raspy with sickness. She’d been hoping his day off would give some time to get better.

Pepper frowns, just a little insulted by his question.

“My real dad,” Pepper says. “I’m not going to lie to you, Tony.”

Tony doesn’t seem entirely convinced, but he’s wise enough not to comment any further, just sniffles and keeps his eyes on the road.

“What’s your dad like?” he says, glancing over at her.

Pepper smiles, remembering her father’s warm hugs, and the way he used to pick her up and hold her over his head, zooming her through the air like an airplane. He’d taught her about his beautiful flowers and what each of them liked. Some days he would let her skip school to help in the shop where he sold both his flowers and his pastries. Pepper had loved those days. They drove her mother up the wall. Pepper had wanted to go to work with her mom at least once, but she’d always been shot down. It was too dangerous for a child to go hang out at a police station, and especially go on a ride-along, which is what Pepper had always wanted to do. Pepper wonders what her parents would think if they knew what she was doing now, not only being a police officer but an undercover one and falling in love with a criminal. She likes to think her dad would be supportive and helpful, and that her mother would be the one to play the “if you hurt her I will kill you” card. She can’t help but find amusement at the thought of her mother and Peter going at it with the over protectiveness. Peter hasn’t given her the “don’t you dare hurt him” speech yet, but she’s pretty sure it’s coming sooner or later.

“You okay Miss Redding?” Tony says, tossing her a concerned glance.

Pepper sighs, a little sadly, before replying, “I’m fine. Just reveling in fond memories.”

“What’s that like?” Pepper can tell that was his weak attempt at a joke, so she doesn’t say anything and only snorts lightly. “No, seriously. Tell me about your family. Why you decided to do all this.”

Pepper exhales slowly. “Dad owned an odd mix of a bakery and a flower shop. He’d bake stuff at home and then take the pastries to sell alongside the flowers. Mom was a cop.”

“How’d they meet? Come on Redding, we have a long car ride ahead of us. Don’t be shy,” Tony urges her to keep talking.

Pepper chuckles. “Okay fine.  My mom was chasing down an armed robber and the guy ran and hid in my dad’s flower shop. Story goes, and this could be my dad’s embellishment, but the way my dad told it, he was watering his sunflowers, and he saw the most beautiful woman on Earth, an angel that one could not even dream the beauty of, then he saw a grungy guy pointing a gun at her, so he hit him with a flowerpot.”

Tony's laugh is genuine and amused. Pepper can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment, even though it’s just a short laugh. It’s a beautiful sound and she relishes it.

“After that the story kind of splits off into two versions. My mom’s version where dad freaks out because he just hit someone with a pot, and my dad’s version where he is cool and suave and asks my mom out. Knowing my dad, Mom’s version is the most accurate. He never handled violence well, but he was so brave. He…” Pepper trails off, trapped in the memory of her parents’ deaths. The way her father had put himself in between the startled robber and her mother. He had never been one for conflict, and if given the choice he would roll over rather than fight back, but he’d been so willing to die to protect his family. He’d tried so hard to shield her mother from the bullets, but in the end it had been useless. The whole night is dreamlike, or more accurately nightmare-like, in Pepper’s mind. Her parents in a pool of blood on the ground, a gun a foot from her face, a young man who looked as terrified as she felt. They never caught the guy. Pepper used to fantasize about hunting him down and bringing him to justice for what he had done to her family. She’s never hated anyone else quite like that, not even Vanko with all of the tortures he puts Tony through, and she hates Vanko.

“He what?” Tony asks.

“In the end, he was still willing to do whatever it took to try and save his family,” Pepper finishes, her mind beginning to wander back to that night once more. She can’t help but think that maybe it had all just been an accident. One stupid mistake that lead to something horrible, like what had happened with Tony. Now that she’s thinking about it, she really doesn’t believe the guy wanted to be there or that he wanted to shoot her parents, just like Tony doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing now.

“What happened?” Tony’s words are hesitant and there’s even a bit of reverence in his tone as he asks the question.

“I was twelve,” Pepper recalls. “It was late. My parents were tucking me into bed and something downstairs broke. Mom had insisted on going to check it out alone, Dad had refused.” Pepper stops for a moment, remembering how scared her mom had sounded. “I snuck downstairs after them, some dumb kid had broken into the house. He had a gun, they startled him…”

“Oh…” Tony’s voice is quiet. “I’m sorry.”

Pepper shrugs, forcing her tears back and tries desperately not to sound as traumatized as she still is. “Like I said, it was a long time ago. Eventually, you have to move on, plus Uncle Morgan and his husband are great. They’re really fun, I had a great childhood with them.”

As Pepper thinks about her two slightly insane uncles she finds herself missing them more than she ever has before and has the sudden desire to be home with them. She misses feeling safe and comfortable, the safest she feels is when she’s around Tony, and even in those moments, there is the fear eating away at the back of her mind that something terrible will happen to her or him or both of them. She has a constant fear that something will happen to her and they won’t know about it. Steve gives them constant updates on her undercover status, but even with that small comfort, she wishes it could be her talking to them. She hasn’t actually talked to them since she was put on the assignment, and she has a feeling that Morgan will have a few choice words once she finally gets done. He’d never been fond of the fact that his sister had become a cop, it had driven a bit of a wedge between them, but he’d been supportive enough of Pepper when she announced she was applying to the New York Police Academy.

“When we get this mess cleaned up, I’ll take you to meet them. They could probably find you a legit job. Morgan knows a lot of people in the business of helping ex-cons stay out of crime, he runs a ranch that focuses on rehab.”

“We’ll see,” Tony says with a hint of longing. Pepper’s heart sinks, remembering that Tony doesn’t share her optimism about getting out of this whole thing alive. “Do they know what you’re up too?”

“Yeah, my partner on the other side keeps them informed of the important stuff. I’m pretty sure Morgan isn’t happy about it.”

“Overprotective type?”

“Very. I think you and him would get along.”

“What are you saying about me?” Tony objects in mock offense.

“I’m saying you’re both a little overprotective.”

“Well, you have to protect the things that matter most to you,” Tony states.

“I know, but eventually you have to let go and let people make their own choices and take care of themselves.”

 

Tony knows his version of letting go is very different from Pepper’s.  Hers is a fairytale where everyone goes their separate ways and gets their happily ever after. His is not. Letting go for him is dying in some horrible way and trying to somehow be okay with it, but he’s always wished for her version, no matter how outlandish he knows it to be.

Chapter Text

Rhodey whips around at the sound of an undeniably familiar laugh behind him. His heart leaps into his throat as his eyes settle on the unmistakable red beanie and leather coat that Tony used to wear all the time. He’s about to call out to his best friend, or the stranger he thinks is his best friend, when Carol closes her hand around his wrist and pulls him to one side.

“Rhodes, are you even listening to what I’m saying?” she scolds as Rhodey swivels his head back around, searching the crowded streets for his best friend. He’d been there, Rhodey’s sure of it. Tony had been right there walking next to some strawberry blond woman, but now they’ve both vanished from sight. He clings to the hope that if he hurries he might still be able to find Tony.

“Rhodes!” Carol says snapping her fingers in his face to get his attention. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I thought I saw Tony,” he says quietly, still searching the mass of people for his friend.

Carol lets out a heavy sigh and pinches the bridge of her nose in mild frustration. “Just like you thought you saw him the last five times and instead freaked out some poor pedestrians?”

Rhodey swallows and turning his gaze to her, he nods.

An apologetic look comes into Carol’s eyes as she looks him over. “Look, I’m really glad your friend isn’t dead, and I know you must be even more relieved considering you mourned him for the last nine years. I know you want to see him again, but he’s been away from the city for almost ten years. He’s not just going to randomly come back. There’s an obvious reason he took his brother and left and stayed gone, and we both know that reason is still very much here,” Carol nods her head toward the Stark building towering over the city, “I know you want him to be here, but you have to keep your head on your shoulders.”

Rhodey shuffles his feet. “But it was really him.”

Carol bites her lip. “Okay, then he’ll come find you when he’s ready.”

“But-”

“Rhodes, listen to me. Your friend is safe. He’s away from his father. We’ve put in the calls to the other agencies across the country to alert us if he surfaces anywhere. We’ve done everything we can on that, but right now the murderer of an eighteen year old boy is walking around free and we need to find and arrest him.” Her hands close around Rhodey’s. “We’ll find Tony when he wants to be found.”

Rhodey takes a deep breath knowing his partner is right. Deep down he knows the person he saw was not his best friend. He was just a little too tall and a little too built, besides as long as Howard is still alive and free Tony won’t be coming back to this to this city. He’s too smart for that, and even if Howard was dead and gone Rhodey’s not sure if Tony would come back. This city holds too many dark memories for him, dark memories he knows his friend won’t want to relive.

 

“Damn it Tony,” Rhodey chokes as he sinks to his knees on the wet ground next to his unconscious friend. “What the hell did you do?”

Rhodey knows what his friend did even before his eyes settle on the half empty bottle of liquor lying tipped over on the ground and the needle still buried in his arm. He knows his friend overdosed, and he finds that he can’t even blame him for doing it. There are fresh cuts smeared with dry crusty blood on his face from Howard’s most recent vented rage. From how terrified Maria had sounded over the phone Rhodey knows the beating was bad.

He maneuvers Tony upright and desperately feels for his friend’s pulse. Rhodey breathes a sigh of relief as he finds it. It’s slow and faltering, but it’s there. Tony’s not dead. Rhodey slides his own coat off and wraps it around Tony’s shivering shoulders.

“I got you buddy,” Rhodey promises as he flips his phone open to call for help.

“I’m sorry I didn’t find you sooner,” Rhodey whispers as soon as he’s off the phone and hugs his arms closer around his Tony’s shaking body. “I’m sorry I can’t save you from Howard. I’m so sorry Tony.”

“Platypus…?” Tony mumbles weakly. “That you…?”

“Yes, Tones it’s me. I’m right here.” Rhodey assures him. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here.”

“He tried to hit Peter…” Tony sobs and wraps his arms around Rhodey. “I had to do something…”

“I’ve got you now Tony. I got you.”

“He wouldn’t stop hitting me…” Tony trails off. “I had to make it stop…”

“Shhh,” Rhodey murmurs and holds Tony’s head against his chest. “It’s okay Tony. It’s okay.”

Tony lets out a choked hiccup and goes limp just as bright red lights flash just beyond the alleyway, filling it with blinding light. The big red ambulance pulls to a stop and two EMTs jump out of the back.

“Down here!” Rhodey shouts.

“What’s he on?” one of the medics asks, kneeling down next to them.

“Alcohol and heroin… I think,” Rhodey says as the worker presses her fingers against Tony’s neck.

“Okay, your friend is going to be fine,” the woman promises just as the other EMT arrives with a stretcher. “Do you want to set him down here for me?”

Rhodey nods and carefully sets Tony on the stretcher.

“Please don’t go…” Tony mumbles and grabs Rhodey’s hand in his.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Rhodey promises, and he means it.

 

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Pepper says quietly and gently bumps Tony’s shoulder with hers.

“What?” Tony chokes on the word as it comes out. He hadn’t even realized he’d been holding his breath.

“You’ll be okay Tony,” Pepper says knowingly. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Tony ducks his head awkwardly. His chest hasn’t stopped feeling like something is wrapping around it tighter and tighter since the moment they’d left New York.

“Thanks Pepper,” Tony says weakly. He appreciates the kindness of her words, but he can’t find comfort in them. Part of him just wants to curl up in a ball and die in some obscure corner of the city.

“Do you want to go get something to eat? You know, take your mind off of everything?” Pepper asks gently.

Tony shakes his head. “I don’t think I can eat…”

Pepper gives him a sad look and slides her hand into his. “You should try. I don’t want you passing out from lack of nutrition.”

“I’m fine Pepper. I just want to go to the hotel and not move ever again,” Tony says sharply.

“Okay,” Pepper replies with a sigh. “We can do that I guess.”

“I tell you what, I’ll go back to the hotel, and you can explore the city,” Tony offers. Chicago is a potentially fun city with lots of fun things to do. It’s just miserable for him. “One of us being miserable here is enough.”

“I don’t want to leave you alone if you’re going to have a panic attack or something,” Pepper argues.

“Pep, it’s fine. I’m an adult, I can handle being here on my own. There are a lot of fun things to do here. There’s no reason for you to have a terrible time too.”

“Tony-”

“Go on Pepper, go have fun. I’ll be fine! I’ll go to the hotel and order a pizza, maybe watch some tv and sleep.”

“But-”

“Pepper, I’ll be fine!” Tony promises.

Pepper sighs and releases Tony’s hand from her grip. “Fine, but if you need me, call me. Okay?”

“Okay,” Tony agrees. “That chicken place over there is really good by the way.”

He doesn’t mention to her that it had been his mother’s favorite place to go. She’d used to take him and Peter there when Howard was in a particularly foul mood, and they would order a bucket of chicken to share. They would laugh and joke and pretend like nothing was wrong. Then the place hit closing time and the three of them would take deep breaths and return to the harsh reality that lay waiting for them beyond the small building’s doors.

“Do you want to go too?” Pepper asks.

“No, not in there, but you should definitely go in there. The owner is nice, and they’ve got the best chicken in the world.

Pepper gives him a defeated look but doesn’t argue. “I’ll try it out.”

Tony forces a smile across his face. “Have fun Pep.”

“And you be careful,” Pepper says and presses her lips against his before turning and walking toward the fried chicken joint.

Tony stands and watches her go, before turning and flagging down a taxi.

“Where to sir?” The driver asks as Tony slides into the back seat.

“The Stark burial plot please,” Tony says.

“You know that’s a private cemetery right?” the driver says, sounding a little confused. “And they say it’s super haunted.”

“Ghosts don’t exist, and I’m family so I’m allowed to go there. Now please just drive,” Tony says trying to sound calm, but really he thinks he’s going to hyperventilate and pass out.

“Whatever you say,” the driver says with a sigh and pulls back out into traffic.

 

The Stark Family plot is a small one, even by private cemetery standards. Howard Stark Sr. had been the first person buried there. He’d immigrated to the United States when Tony’s dad had been a baby, and he’d done it alone. Tony was never told anything about his grandmother, and he always wondered if his father actually knew anything about her. He’d been very young when his grandfather died in his sleep, far too young to be sad, and as he found out later from his mother if he’d been older he probably wouldn’t have been able to find it in himself to be sad either. Apparently Stark men were just assholes, all of them except Peter. Tony still has faith that his little brother can break the cycle of shame.  

Tony feels sick with anger at the fact that the only thing between his mother and a world of sick people who try to do sick things to cemeteries is a small chain link fence and a little padlocked gate. He takes a deep breath, swallows back his anger, and vaults himself over the fence with no strain. Dry leaves crunch beneath his feet as he lands and studies the small plot of land. His grandfather’s grave is close to the corner of the short fence. He can’t help but find himself wondering if the man was as miserable and awful as Howard. His mother had said he was, but Tony isn’t sure if that’s possible. He hadn’t ever killed anyone, let alone his wife.

His mother’s grave is close to the center of the cemetery resting at the foot of a young oak tree. Her headstone is a small and simple one, white marble with simple carved letters etched into the stone. Tony thinks he’s going to choke on the ball of bitter rage that rises in his throat as he looks down at the headstone. His mother had always liked simple things yes, but Tony knows  Howard hadn’t cared enough to make the headstone simple for her. He knows that the only reason the headstone is so simple is because Howard hadn’t cared enough to pick something nice. Tony clenches his fists and tries to hold back the anger building up inside of him. His anger only boils up more as he reads the words written below her name. 

Mother and much loved wife.

Tony thinks he might actually hunt down his father and murder him. He’s about to march out of the cemetery in anger when a small bundle of flowers laying at the bottom of the headstone catches his eye. They’re nothing big or extravagant, they look like wildflowers picked from some field. They’re the kinds of flowers that his mother used to love and his father used to call weeds. Tony knows exactly who they’re from. He sighs as the anger leaves him and he sinks to the ground next to his mother’s headstone. The marble is cold against his back, even though his leather coat is lined with thick sheep wool.

“Hey, mom,” Tony whispers after a long time of just sitting in silence and taking in the cool clean freshness of the country air. “Sorry it took me so long to come see you.” Tony leans his head back against the cold stone and wipes his hands down his face. “And I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. This should be me. You should be the one with Peter. I’ve fucked everything up so bad, mom… I’m sorry-” Tony breaks off into a choked sob and buries his face between his knees. “I should be the one who’s dead not you. This is all my fault.”

Tony runs his fingers through his hair and just cries for a long time, ignoring the cold wind clawing at his skin through his coat and biting at his tear stained face. Everything would be so much better if Howard had killed him instead of her.

“Peter needed you, mom…” Tony chokes. “He needed you, you were good and and- I’ve fucked everything up so bad. He just… He’d be better off with you. I’ve messed up so bad, and I’m so scared he’s going to get hurt, and I don’t know what to do…”

As Tony says it, he knows what he needs to do. He needs to give Pepper the box of evidence under his bed and let her take down the cartel. It doesn’t matter if he goes to prison for it, or if Stane hunts him down and murders him. Pepper can take care of Peter once he’s gone. He knows his little brother will be better off with her.

“I should go,” Tony finally says and pulls himself up off the frozen ground. “I love you, Mom.” He leans down and kisses the top of the gravestone. “I’ll see you soon.”

Chapter Text

Worry starts to creep into the back of Pepper’s mind as the hours tick by with no word from Tony. She knows there’s something here he hates, and she’s scared that whatever drove him away from this city has found him. She’s about to call him when someone knocks on her door. Instinctively Pepper grabs for her gun sitting on the bedside table. It’s too late for room service or really anyone else with good intentions to be at her door. She slides out of bed and tiptoes across the rough carpeted floor. A flood of relief washes over her when she peers through the peephole and sees that it’s only Tony. She slips her gun into the pocket of her bathrobe before opening the door.

“Hey, are you okay?” Pepper asks, looking Tony over with concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says quietly and folds his arms over his chest. “Just um... wanted to make sure you got checked into your room okay.”

Pepper can tell from the way his eyes keep nervously darting around that there’s some other reason he’s here.

“Do you want to come in?” she offers, hoping for his sake that he’ll stay. 

“Nah, I’m fine. I should be getting to bed. Tomorrow’ll be a long day,” Tony says weakly.

“Come on,” Pepper urges. “I can tell something’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Tony replies with a small shrug. “Just wanted to check up on you.”

“Mhmm.” Pepper raises one eyebrow.

Tony shifts nervously before letting his shoulders droop, obviously giving up on whatever act he was trying to keep up. “Okay, you win.”

Pepper opens the door wider and stands to the side, letting Tony in. She closes and latches the door behind him and returns to the bed. Tony paces nervously.

“Careful there. I don’t want to be paying to replace the carpet,” Pepper jokes and Tony stops walking.

“Sorry,” he mumbles.

“You wanna come sit down with me?”

Tony nods and slides into the bed next to her. “Sorry if I was putting you on edge.”

“No, you were just making me concerned. Did something happen while you were out?” Pepper asks and wraps her hand around his.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” he says and leans his head against her shoulder. “And this damn city gives me anxiety.”

“I’m sorry,” Pepper whispers and maneuvers her arm so it’s wrapping around his shoulders. “We’ll be out of here and heading back home tomorrow.”

“And then what? We just go back to the chop shop? We keep dealing? We keep hurting people?” Tony snaps. “I mean eventually you’ll build your case and you’ll get to go on with your life, but all I’ve ever done is hurt people so I’ll just… there’s nothing else for me.”

“That’s not true Tony,” Pepper argues, her heart sinking in her chest.

He looks over at her hopelessly. “Yeah it is, truthfully I’ll probably be dead by the time you’re done.”

“Tony-”

“Come on, you know it’s only a matter of time before I piss Vanko off enough that he finally puts a cap through my skull.”

The ease and bluntness that Tony says this with makes Pepper feel sick. It’s like he doesn’t care, like he’s expecting it, almost eagerly.

“Tony, nobody is going to shoot you. I promise,” Pepper says, knowing she shouldn’t make a promise she doesn’t know if she can keep. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Tony gives her a forced smile. “Thanks for trying Pep.”

“I’m serious,” she says.

When all Tony does is shake his head sadly, Pepper comes to the realization that maybe he doesn’t actually want to survive this. They sit in silence for a long time. Pepper listens to Tony’s even breathing that occasionally hitches in long sighs. She can hear a slight rasp in his breath from the cold he’s been dealing with for the past few days. Fear drifts into her mind, the fear that he’s right about his fate and when the time comes there will be nothing she can do to stop it and save him.

“Pepper?” Tony whispers softly. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

She glances over at him, signaling she’s listening.

“I probably should have told you sooner, but um… I- at home I have a box,” Tony begins slowly. “It’s full of stuff I’ve collected over the past nine years.”

“What kind of stuff?” Pepper asks, sitting up a little straighter.

“It’s evidence against the gang,” Tony says quietly. “I know I should have told you sooner, I was just nervous.”

“It’s fine,” Pepper breathes, not exactly sure how to react to the fact that he has the key to her wrapping up her stint undercover and finally breaking away from the gang. She could give the evidence to her partner once they got back, they could have the case built and put together in a month tops, and she could go home. It could all be over. “I wasn’t really expecting this…”

“It started out as insurance and then it just became me wanting to do something right with my life,” Tony says.

All of Pepper’s thoughts of freedom stop dead as she realizes what it could mean for Tony. If the gang were to find out it was him who flipped on them, they’d kill him. Pepper is about to point this out despite knowing he probably won’t care, when he interrupts her. “Anyway, we should probably continue this conversation in the morning. We need to get some sleep.”

“Yeah…” Pepper mumbles absently.

“Well, goodnight I guess,” Tony says and makes like he’s about to leave.

“‘Wait, you can stay in here if you want,” she offers.

Tony smiles, perhaps the first genuine smile she’s seen from him the whole trip, and settles back into bed with her. “Okay.”

Pepper wraps her arms around his waist as they both nestle deeper into the bed.

“Thanks Pep…” 

She can hear the relief in his quiet voice and it makes her feel a little better. “No problem.”

Pepper doesn’t let herself go to sleep until Tony’s slightly labored breaths turn to peaceful snores.

 

Tony tearing himself from Pepper’s grasp jolts her out her contented slumber. He half slides half falls out of bed and hits the floor with a heavy thud that makes Pepper’s teeth hurt.

“Tony, are you okay?” Pepper asks and  turns the light on as Tony pulls himself into a sitting position on the floor and gasps helplessly.

“Pep…” It’s almost like a weak cry for help as he crumples in on himself.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Pepper asks softly, moving quickly across the bed and down onto the floor next to him.

Tony just shakes his head and presses his forehead against his bunched up knees. She can feel his whole body shaking as she wraps an arm around his shoulders.

“It’s okay,” she soothes and pulls him close to her.

“No… I have to- we have to get out of here…” Tony chokes weakly.

“We will in the morning,” Pepper promises.

“No,” Tony moans. “We have to go. I’ve gotta go make sure Peter’s okay.”

The desperation in his voice scares her. “Listen, it’ll be okay-”

“No,” Tony protests and stands up abruptly. “There’s something wrong. We have to go back-”

“Tony listen, we’re thirteen hours away even if we left right now-”

“Fuck…” Tony spits and starts pacing. “We gotta go back Pep…”

“Tony calm down!” Pepper urges.

“I can’t! What if something happened to him!”

“Look here,” Pepper holds her phone out to Tony, “call him.”

Tony snatches the phone away from her. His abruptness startles her and deepens her concern. The only times she’s seen him get rough was with Ty and the day Vanko had threatened to have someone break Peter’s arm. Both were times when he’d been worn thin with fear.

 

Peter wakes up to the sound of the apartment door slamming shut. He can hear muffled angry voices on the other side of the thin wooden door. One of them he instantly identifies as Harley’s voice, the other he doesn’t recognize. The accent sounds Russian in origin, but Russian that has been blended with a New York accent over a long period of time.

“Please don’t come here.” Peter makes out Harley’s words as he slides off the couch and creeps toward the door that leads to the hallway outside. “This is my home, and I don’t want you near my sister.”

“What is it with you people and your overprotectiveness for your younger siblings?” The Russian man snarls.

“I want Tony rules,” Harley demands, ignoring the man’s question.

“You spend too much time with that prick.” The man replies coldly.

“Well, it’s better than spending time with you.”

Peter is about to open the door and demand to know what his brother has to do with their dispute, but his phone goes off from where it’s sitting on the arm of the couch. He sighs and decides to continue eavesdropping after he deals with the phone call that’s probably a scam. 

Peter picks up his phone and discovers that it’s not a scam, but Pepper and fear instantly begins crawling under his skin. It’s late, or technically very early, so she wouldn’t be calling him unless something had happened, and if it’s her calling, not Tony...

“What’s wrong?” Peter blurts as he answers the phone. “Is Tony okay?”

“Yeah.” Peter is surprised to hear his brother’s voice on the other end. “I’m okay. Everything is okay here.”

“Oh,” Peter breathes a sigh of relief. “Then why’d you call?”

“I just- I wanted to talk to you,” Tony mumbles, sounding suddenly very embarrassed. “Did- did I wake you up?”

“No,” Peter says and flops down on the couch. “Harley woke me up going out in the hall to talk to some dude.”

“What dude?” Tony asks casually, but Peter still catches the undertone of fear in his brother’s voice.

“Not sure. He’s got a Russian accent and sounds like an asshole.”

Tony sighs on the other end of the phone. “Okay, well stay away from him, please. I don’t want you dealing with strangers while I’m gone.”

“I think Harley’s running him off,” Peter replies and is tempted to ask him if he knows a Russian guy like the man standing outside.

“Good, just please be safe Peter,” Tony says gently with a slight quiver in his voice.

“Are you sure everything’s okay?” Peter asks. He’s learned over the course of his seventeen short years on Earth how to recognize when something’s bugging his brother, and now is definitely one of those times.

“Yeah, I’m fine, it was just a bad dream.”

Peter finds himself smiling, touched that Tony decided to call him after a nightmare to make sure he is okay.

“You wanna talk about it?” Peter asks, not really expecting his brother to say yes. He’s always known Tony has nightmares, he’s even tried to get him to talk about them, but he never does. He always keeps up his big strong guy act and pretends like nothing bothers him, not the cuts and bruises on his face he comes home with every once in a while and not his nightmares or obvious emotional scarring from Ty and Howard. He always pretends none of it exists.

“Nah. I’m fine now.”

 

When Tony finally ends the call with Peter he seems much more relaxed. He isn’t shaking anymore as he curls back up in bed with Pepper. She wraps her arms around him and keeps him close to her. She knows whatever dream he’d had was horrible, and she wishes she could protect him from it ever happening again. She wishes she could hold onto him forever and keep him safe from the world and all of its torments. She wants to save him and show him that life is okay and that he can do it and that his life is more than just his suffering.

“It’ll be okay Tony,” she whispers softly and kisses his cheek. “I promise.”

She knows logically that the promise is not one she can necessarily keep, but she decides then that she’ll die before breaking it.

“What was that?” Tony mumbles.

“Nothing,” Pepper soothes and rubs his muscular arm with her thumb. “Just go to sleep.”

Tony doesn’t say anything else as he nestles a little closer to her body. His soft hair tickles against her face as she moves her head in closer to the crook of his warm neck. She can feel his muscles through his shirt as she hugs arm a little tighter around his abdomen. She finds his hand and intertwines her fingers with own. He makes a soft sound of pleasure in his throat and shifts slightly. His rough work worn hand squeezes hers. Pepper wishes they could stay like this forever, warm, comfortable, and safe.