The sound of Peter's feet thudding against the parquet of his playroom just a little way away was a constant comfort; thudding gentle and soothing that brought May back down to Earth even as the thuds of her own heart became frenetic and crazed and a sickly feeling strangled her right at the base of her neck. The sound of his playtime she had just about tuned out although it warmed her to see her nine-year-old nephew 'too old for playtime' there, running around his playroom without a care in the world. That... was how it should be. God, he was... he was only nine years old and there he was... all hers, a bundle of energy and warmth and secretly too-tight cuddles at bedtime -- wrapped in a thin veil of upset.
The tickets had been stuffed down the side of the toaster. A shame, really, since the pristine so-white-it-could-be-silk envelope is now covered in a thin smattering of crumbs, butter, and Peter Parker shaped fingermarks. Peter had found the envelope weeks ago. He knows what it is and he knows why she doesn't want to take him - of course he does. It's never easy to hide such things from kids.
("Can we go?" His eyes light up with excitement and May feels her heart drop right into her feet as she enters the living room to see Peter surrounded by an envelope, ravaged, and two Stark Expo tickets clutched to his chest. "Please? I wanna see a Stark Expo! You know how much!"
At that moment she wants to yell at him but Ben... Ben is there, soothing words massaging her scalp. "Love," he croons, "You know I was going to take him."
"Not now, sweetheart. Maybe next year." Her voice comes out clipped, maybe a little bit wobbly on the edges, but all the while she praises Ben for keeping her calm. It's been only two months since he passed. She can't.)
Coming to a slow stop Peter blows a hard and heavy breath from his chest, standing and bouncing on his tippytoes. He pushes his Iron Man mask aside, but not up, his face. His face is mottled petals of pink and white and slightly sweaty.
Uncle Ben gave him the Iron Man mask when he was in the hospital. The hospital scared Peter. It smelled funny and there were loads of sharp things and the nurses spoke in a weird alien language and the grown-ups were always sad. When Aunt May held his hand and said, be a good boy and wish Uncle Ben to be better he had run away and taken refuge in the toy room--curled up under a chair--forcing a nurse to coax him out from underneath like a feral kitten up a tree.
The next time Aunt May had taken him to see Uncle Ben, she said that Uncle Ben had a present for him.
The Iron Man mask. Cool. Peter had always wanted to be a cool superhero like the Iron Man. Whenever he put the Iron Man mask on - even if it pinched too tightly at his nose and made his face feel hot - it reminded him of Uncle Ben. Hospitals were much less scary after that.
"The Stark Expo tickets are there," he says helpfully, peering into the kitchen and trying to see over the shoulders of his Aunt. "It's soon. Can we go now?"
May sighs. She twists away from him and stares hard at the tickets. The date is printed neatly at the bottom but May doesn't pay much attention to it the first time. Slowly the neurones fire up in her brain as the numbers burn through as neatly printed into her grey matter as they are on the paper. Love. You know I was going to take him.
"Maybe," she says, at last, disconnected from her brain and feeling as though her mouth is moving of its own accord as she turns to face him once more. "...If you're a good little superhero who eats all his carrots at dinnertime."
She beckons him forward and wraps him in a hug, kissing the top of his hair where it jumps up in sprigs from his mask. If she concentrates hard enough he still has that milky sweet baby smell although now it's overpowered and intermingled with the suffocating stench of Iron Man branded shampoo. She’s not sure what he puts in the formula. It smells like diesel somehow.
"..aww..!" Peter whines and breaks off their hug at once in disgust. If he's a superhero then carrots are his archenemy.
"Iron Man eats all his carrots!" May counters. "How do you think he ends up so strong and able to fight?"
Peter is nine and for a long moment, May has to pray that outlandish statements like that still hold persuasion power. From what she's heard of Tony Stark he most definitely does not eat, nor consume whatsoever, carrots - unless someone had found a way to stick them into something alcoholic. She waits, breath baited, but her nephew obediently slides into his designated spot at the kitchen table with a muttered and rather pouty, "...Okay."
"Iron Man's repulsors!"
The excitement building within Peter is so strong and so obvious that May can feel it radiating off of him in waves. The Expo is packed in a way that May struggles to comprehend -- but makes her glad that she insisted to Peter he was not allowed to wear his Iron Man mask at the Expo until the crowd calmed somewhat; the thought of Peter's face plastered in that mask, welded to the plastic with sweat, was enough to set her claustrophobia off never mind his own.
As a distant crowd begin to cheer and a crowd behind her start chattering and they get pushed left and right and everything in between Peter's voice is nothing but a feather of a whisper in a tidal wave. If it wasn't for his insistent tugging of her handbag she may never have realised he was pawing for her attention. 'Hm, sweetie?" she looks down, brushes her hands through his hair.
"Iron Man's repulsors, Aunt May!" Peter is so excited he almost feels like he could soar above the crowd and go whizzing around the room like a balloon with all the air let out of it. The real, actual, Iron Man repulsors! To go with his mask! Oh, man, all the things he was going to blast away with his repulsors. Bad guys! Aliens! Carrots!
He points frantically, just in case Aunt May can't see where the garish and gaudy "GET YOUR IRON MAN / STARK EXPO MERCH HERE!" sign is or that it's accompanied by a giant statue of Iron Man himself, pointing directly at the stall. "Please! Please please!" May isn't moving so he jumps now, pulling at her arm and then her handbag straps.
In what feels like an excruciatingly long time May finally comes back to life and chuckles lightly. "Alright," she coos, running her fingers through his hair and ushering him into the throng of burbling fans at the merch stand. "Let's go line Stark's pockets some more, huh?" she murmurs under her breath. Although Peter is sure she doesn't mind because she always gets photos of him in his Iron Man mask and tells him how much Uncle Ben would have loved to see their own little Iron Man protecting their home.
One pair of red-and-gold repulsors (and the obligatory Stark Expo t-shirt and gap-toothed grinning-ear-to-ear photo) later, the Expo begins.
The Expo is not like Peter expects it to be. Tony does not come out on stage at first. Not like Peter so badly wants. At first, there are lots of girls who walk on stage in really high wobbly heels and short Iron Man style dresses that sort of look as though they've shrunk in the wash. Some of them don't even have dresses on at all, just their underpants and a tiny little red strip across their chests. Peter doesn't like any of these girls, even if they make him blush a bit and his tummy squirm. Their dancing is cool, though, so his eyes are firmly locked on the stage. Peter sort of wishes he could dance like them. They all kick out their long legs at the same time as one another, wriggle their bottoms and twirl. But they're not as pretty as Aunt May and they're definitely not as cool as Tony Stark. He shifts impatiently on his tippytoes, already aching from standing and waiting, and squeezes May's hand tightly. "Is Tony going to be on stage soon?"
"Soon, sweetheart." May's fingers intertwine and squeeze with his own, pulling him down from his impatient bouncing. She waves a booklet at him and quickly flicks through the glossy flapping pages, falling quiet as she reads and as Peter studies her face. "Just after the dancers!"
Of course, a few go-go dancers are nothing in comparison to the man himself. Peter frowns lightly and his hands move in fists to meet at his sides. “Oh...” he mumbles. Usually, May would admonish him, remind him that he has to be patient, but she feels pity for him in this case—besides, she’s not sure she wanted him watching scantily clad women jiggling all over the place just yet. “Sweetheart, shhh...” the crowd in front of them moves and ripples like the sea and, looking around, her gaze locks onto a pretzel booth a short way away. Amongst the throng of people - the throng hot, sticky and pressurised, she fumbles for Peter’s hand. “Let’s go and get you a pretzel and then by the time we get back, Mr Stark will be there.”
She returns to their designated spot $8 lighter with Peter sat on her shoulders, pretzel crumbs dotting her hair as he munches and an ache in her back that pleads for her to place him down — but when he’s whooping and clapping at the mere sight of Tony onstage she convinces herself she can hold him for just a little longer.
Mr Hammer had drones.
The drones were cool, Peter thought. Cool, but a little bit scary as they stood all in a row across the stage with the metal of their suits glinting under the hot spotlights on the stage.
It was different from Iron Man somehow. Iron Man’s suit was cooler, for one - all glossy red and yellow sort of like a sports car. Sure, these drones looked like robots, just like the Iron Man - but they weren’t all shiny red and yellow they were just a sort of... boring grey colour. When Iron Man flew around the light bounced off of the red and yellow strips on his suit and made it glitter and sparkle no matter where he was - up there in the skies or coming in to land in the warmth of the Expo; looking out of his bedroom window one evening, Peter swore he had seen the Iron Man soaring against the stars with his suit all lit up.
Aunt May had said that he sort of looked like a shooting star, and Peter had thought this a very good comparison. The drones had got that right, at least; but something still felt sort of wrong about it. Shooting star Tony Stark made Peter’s tummy do happy somersaults, but the glinting shoulders of the drones were... a little bit scary. Rather than happy somersaults, Peter found his belly filled up with anxious wriggles as he looked at them.
He stepped backwards, his hands grasping out for Aunt May’s hand to clutch in his own so that he would feel protected and held in tight like a... like a... baby chick with its mom. He had learned about baby chicks at school when they kept one egg in a big glass box and it hatched; that the mother hen would keep the chick under her wings until the chick was big enough to do what it wanted. Aunt May had always said she was like his mommy hen, wasn’t she, and he had quite agreed—even if he told her off and said ‘mommy’ was much too embarrassing a term.
One of the drones came to life in just a blink, raising both its head and its arm in pin-pointed, perfected, synchronisation. Peter registered the drone's movement about five seconds too late and jumped in surprise, squeaking for May. Only the warm sensation of May's hand in his own, May's thumb running over his knuckles, could coax him into relaxing enough to look at the drone in all of its glinting, marching glory.
...Huh. It didn't quite look as if someone could fit inside it like the Iron Man suit (well, unless they were particularly skinny!) but the man on stage, Mr Hammer, he said that these bots didn't need a pilot like the Stark suit - and so that made them even better. Peter wasn’t so sure.
May was watching and listening too but most of Hammer's ramblings dribbled out of her ears the second they went in, body favouring the continuous itch in her bladder. "Sweetheart..." she looked down at her nephew, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and hesitated. It seemed a shame to tear him away from all of his excitement just to drag him to the bathroom (and then have him whine that he had missed the most important part of all, knowing their luck)— but at the same time, May was hardly sure that she felt comfortable leaving him in this testosterone-filled sardine can of people.
Then again, spurred on the dull ache in her nether regions, the bathroom was only a matter of footsteps away... yes, looking up, May was able to count the exact amount of steps it would take her to get to the bathroom and back again. Surely... surely...
”Sweetheart, listen to me,” May cooed, squeezing Peter’s shoulder tightly to pull him away from the goings-on of the stage. “I’m going to go to the bathroom, just there. Do you need to come with me?”
Peter shook his head. His body was doing that horrid thing it did, that horrid thing that usually happened when you had the best hiding spot during the most intense games of hide and seek, and now that she was talking about it maybe he did need to go a little bit.
He frowned and shook his head again. He was fine, and going to the bathroom would mean missing out on the rest of Mr Hammer’s bots. Mr Stark had promised a science exhibit for Peter and all the other children Peter’s age, too, and that sounded too cool to miss out on!
”...Okay.” May said, pointing. “I’ll be right there. Don’t move, I won’t be long.”
The robots moved out into the crowd, and as they did their feet made heavy thwunk-thwunk sorts of noises. They stood above everybody, taller than even the grown-ups, and there was a soft murmur of interest across the crowd but it was infused with worry. Some people stepped back and the crowd was so tightly packed he stepped back with them, instinctively pressing against the body behind him. Another murmur went up and Peter stretched, trying to peer over the crowd. He could see the War Machine. That was good. The War Machine, after all, belonged to Mr Stark, and that meant they were in safe hands.
The War Machine jerked about and started to look a little bit broken. One of its guns raised and whined and prepared to fire. Oh. This was... not very good.
The murmur in the crowd rippled around again, decidedly more worried this time. Some of Mr Hammer’s drones stepped even further into the crowd and then there was a pew-pew-pew. Peter recognised it from the Saturday morning cartoons he loved to watch at the crack of dawn and he knew it was gunfire. The crowd screamed and, once tightly packed, began to break up and run in all directions. The War Machine fired up and shot off. There was a crash, and the sound of glass smashing and collapsing and more pew-pew-pew noises, over and over.
Peter went unnoticed.
His hand grasped blindly in the dim light of the Expo but only grasped the air; he tried again just in case he had missed the first time and finally looked up to realise that Aunt May was still gone and hadn’t reappeared, and none of the other grown-ups had decided to help.
He swallowed thickly. His first instinct was to cry. His first instinct was always to cry, just a little bit. Although nobody minded, Aunt May had worried he might be teased at school for it. Iron Man never cried if he was frightened, did he? she said.
Pulling down his mask (trying to ignore the way it pressed stickily against his cheeks) he drew his hands into fists and saw them whirr and light up excitedly. He looked across at the crowd. Lots of people were still running. He almost wanted to run with them; to press in tight, or to find Aunt May and tuck in close to her. But— but there were so many people around and so many... so many—well, he wasn’t sure exactly what Mr Hammer’s drones were—evil robots?— that he wasn’t sure where to begin.
Behind him, there was a noise sort of like a vweerpt as the robots continued to fire. It sounded scary now that it wasn’t just a noise torn out of Star Wars - scary and very close to him.
Taking a deep breath, the little boy ran. He ran towards the noise, in the hope of finding his aunt. The bots fired quicker and harder and so he ran quicker and harder and more desperately (not finding her) and then he started ducking away from the shots, feet thudding the floor harder than they ever had when he played at being superhero and calling out not for Captain America or Hulk or Thor, but for May. When a mother hen tucks her chicks in close she protects them and keeps them warm and safe from predators. May did that a lot. Now it was Peter’s turn to do that for her.
Eventually (after ineffectual shouting and running for a good ten minutes) with his legs like jelly, he succumbed to their pounding and stumbled to a stop. The drones were still storming overhead; the noise of them, a deafening sort of vreeeemt came to Peter’s ears now that he was paying attention rather than sliding into his superhero fantasy world.
One of them suddenly slid in front of him, drone and child eye to eye. All ugly bulky clunkiness, now that Peter could see it up close.
Huh. Iron Man was most definitely better, Peter thought, over the sound of his galloping heart. He swore his heart was beating so hard it might’ve burst out of his chest.
He stared the bot down silently. Almost as if he was daring it to attack him in the long moment they had gotten caught in.
Areas on each shoulder of the drone began to raise and light an ugly sickly pale sort of light, preparing to fire. Accompanying this was a high pitched squealing whine.
Peter continued to stare at the drone and raised his arm, watching as the LED light on his plastic repulsors begins to glow.
Tony scanned the expo floor breathlessly, trying to ignore the anxious spike in his chest. He had been corralling people to safety in between avoiding a rogue Rhodes. Easier said than done. Not Rhodes but the people. The mistrust they gave him, worried he too was going to attack them, stung. Fucking Hammer. Fucking, fucking Vanko.
“Sir,” Jarvis said, and his voice was gently edged with worry — which was never a good sign. “Great job so far although I urge you to use haste. A child appears to have decided to take up your mantle.”
A kid. God, not a kid. Jarvis must have been wrong. Tony almost wanted to ignore him.
Fuck—why did he allow kids to this kind of place anyway? Sure they bought his merch and gave him crumpled little doodles that he secretly treasured but they also rubbed their snotty noses on things and seemed constantly to leave puddles all over the place and didn’t remotely appreciate the go-go dancers and well that was small-fish, really, some sort of panicked ramble so he wouldn’t have to come to terms with the fact that there were children here and he was going to be at least partially responsible for all of their little, lifeless, snotty-nosed bodies. He hoped and prayed with every fibre of his being that Jarvis was wrong... although a quick scan of the grounds showed a child (mercifully close) in some form of battle position, both drone and child ready to fire although the drone was going to fare better. “Shit!” Tony bit, a string of fierce curses streaming from his mouth as he swerved toward the child as quickly as his suit could carry him. Despite that, the tickle of pride in his chest was undeniable and so strong in his chest that he found it hard to ignore; a big warm spread.
”...Nice job, kid,” he praised, scooping the child up under the armpits with one hand and effortlessly shooting at the attacking drone with the other. To Peter it sort of looked like he had shot at the drone with his own repulsors and he looked at the ring of plastic-and-light in disbelief.
As the drone (really rather pitifully) exploded and sent a wave of heat and bitty metal shrapnel flying—toward them—he lifted the child higher, out of the way of danger. Now he was tucked close in tight, and Tony could hear the little awed ‘wow’s which twisted into slightly worried ‘oh’s as they advanced higher over the carnage.
The child was clinging to him. Tony knew that.
It was weird how Tony recognised the cling, even through the metal of his armour that rendered touch near-impossibly felt; the digging cling of tiny fingers—the sort of cling that said don’t-let-go even if Tony didn’t know this kid from Adam and this kid didn’t know Tony from Adam either; the cling of a little boy that was not frightened, not really, but touch starved. Not from a mother or a sister or an aunt, no, but touch-starved of a father. Tony held the child, protected the child’s little skin-and-bone body with his armour. ‘There’s my aunt, there,’ the child wriggled, boneless relief re-fuelling him suddenly, and Tony dropped the little boy in a heap precisely into his Aunt’s awaiting arms.
She let out the sort of cry that someone only ever let out if they had lost a child, an anguished sort of cry, enveloping the small child into her. She sounded like she was crying, or at the very least on the verge of a panic attack, her voice loud and haunting and stilted with emotion above the hot and sticky chaos, loud and raw even if Tony was lost in the throng and had a million voices piercing his ears.
“Peter, you’re safe! Oh, honey, you’re safe!”
“That was you?!”
Unwrapping the grease smattered paper from his cheeseburger Peter blushed at the tone of Tony’s voice and buried his face into the mound of bread, beef, tomato and cheese so that the man, opposite him, wouldn’t see a thing.
(Unfortunately for Peter his blush leaks out past his cheeks, rushes all down his neck and up to the tips of his ears, so even if Tony couldn’t see the colour of his cheeks he could see the reddened ears peeping out behind the burger.)
“...I- I mean, it happened.” He confirmed quietly, a big beaming smile dancing across his face all the same.
”Huh.” Tony smiles, and the same odd sensation comes to him right in his chest, so distinct that he recognises it from some six years ago— a tingling sort of massage deep in his chest and, immediately afterwards, a warm spread where his heart is. “Look at you. Following in my footsteps even then.”
He winks, but Peter has shut down out of shy embarrassment, and so Tony is left to think to himself that maybe, just maybe, this mentoring thing has been working out alright after all.
...And that he had been mentoring Peter for a lot longer than he had thought.