Tony stood in front of his liquor cabinet, eyes running over the various bottles contemplatively. It was fully stocked, bottle after bottle of various colored alcohol lined up and ready for the drinking. And it wasn't the lack of desire to drink that kept him from unlocking the brand new child-safety lock on the front of the cabinet. It wasn't the fact that it was only ten in the morning or the fact that Rhodey was set to come over. No. It was the six-year-old in the other room sitting silently in front of the TV, his breakfast of sugary cereal untouched.
There were plenty of pressing matters that needed his attention, not the least of which was the thing in his chest slowly poisoning him. He needed to fix it. Needed to come up with a solution, now more than ever, because now, for the first time, there was someone relying on him. A six-year-old boy named Peter whose mother's assistant had dropped him off a week ago, leading the boy up to Tony's front door, ringing the doorbell, and then driving off without so much as a word of explanation.
Tony had been alerted by JARVIS that morning, waking him from an alcohol-induced sleep to inform him that there was a child outside his front door.
"A what?" he'd snapped, sitting up from his workbench and staring longingly at the remnants of watery whiskey in a glass a few feet away before reaching instead for the bottle of disgusting green juice that would hopefully keep him alive a little longer…just long enough for him to figure this out.
"There is a child sitting outside your front door. A man dropped him off approximately twenty minutes ago, and I have been trying to rouse you. Unsuccessfully, I might add."
"Dropped him off?" Tony had asked, putting the bottle down and ignoring the sass. "What the hell do you mean, dropped him off? What man?" Jumping to his feet, he'd grabbed a tablet to bring up the view of his front door. While he had doubted his AI would choose now to start playing practical jokes, he had figured there was no reason not to double-check. And, just as JARVIS has said, there sat a little boy, a red backpack at his side, a folder in his hands. Tony hadn't been able to make out his face from the angle of the video, but that hadn't mattered. Throwing the tablet down, he'd raced to the front door and pulled it open, making the child jump, huge brown eyes snapping to his own.
"Uh…hey, kid." He had tried to sound casual, like this kind of thing happened fairly often. He was a superhero. Little kids looked up to him and he'd made a serious effort since becoming Iron Man to live up to that as much as he could, taking pictures with them and signing their drawings which were seriously cute anyway. He'd never gotten fan mail before, and it was pretty cool. Still, the little boy had only looked at him, seeming to contemplate running away rather than facing Tony. "You, uh, you okay?"
Tony had had the mother of all hangovers, a headache pounding in his temples, not to mention the constant reminder that the thing keeping him alive was also killing him, but he'd decided to prioritize. The little boy had looked familiar. Sort of. With his wide brown eyes and mop of messy brown hair, the kid had struck something in Tony's chest. Without a word, the boy had held out the folder, and Tony had only hesitated a second before taking it.
The kid hadn't answered, only dropped his eyes in something like embarrassment. So Tony had opened it, reading the letter on top of a stack of papers in stunned silence. The world had seemed to go blurry for a moment, but he'd gotten the gist. "Peter Anthony Fitzpatrick. Mary Fitzpatrick, SHIELD agent. Unable to care for him any longer. He's special." And then he'd moved to the second page. A paternity test. They'd gotten his DNA somehow and this kid, Peter, was his. Of course, he'd have another paternity test done. In the meantime, though, despite the roaring in his ears, he'd gone to the next page. A birth certificate. Then school records and immunization records. A passport with the little boy's face, solemn and still wide-eyed, staring back at him. Peter. Peter Anthony Fitzpatrick. His son.
And finally, the last page. A lab report. Tony had put a hand on the wall to stabilize himself at that part. A lab accident. A spider. Mutations.
Tony had taken a deep breath, looking back down at the boy who had just stared at him from his spot on the porch. According to his passport, he was from New York, and he had been dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt with science beakers on it. Despite everything, despite the fact that he'd wanted to call Mary Fitzpatrick and whoever had dropped the boy off and ask how the hell they'd thought it was okay to do this to a kid who was, according to his passport, still months away from being seven years old, he'd taken a deep breath, reminding himself that the kid, Peter, had been sitting outside for almost half an hour and was probably scared to death.
"Alright. Peter?" The boy had just stared at him, lips pressed together in a tight line, the expression making him look older than he was. "Hi. I'm Tony. Why don't you come in, huh?" He'd given the boy a few seconds to think about it before holding out a hand to help him up. The kid had flinched back, grabbing his backpack and standing, staring at the man's outstretched hand. "Woah…hey, I'm not going to hurt you, Peter."
"M'not supposed to." Peter had whispered, eyes downcast, arms close to his sides.
"Not supposed to what?"
"Touch. 'M sticky."
It had taken Tony a moment to figure out what the hell that meant before remembering the last paper. Lab accident. A spider. Mutations. "Sticky? Like a spider?" He'd been too surprised to censor himself, and he'd worried as soon as the words had come out of his mouth that he'd offend the kid, but Peter had only nodded. "That's cool." He'd blurted, and Peter had looked up at him again, eyes full of naked hope that had made Tony's chest ache for non-arc related reasons. "Seriously…you've got spider powers?"
Finally, the boy's lips had twitched into a little smile, and he'd nodded, but the smile faded just as quickly as it had come. "Mommy said not to show anyone. She said they'd hurt me."
Tony had flinched, holding out his hand again. "I won't hurt you. Promise. And we don't have to tell anyone. Why don't you come on in? Are you hungry?"
Peter had clammed up again, shaking his head and dropping his eyes, so Tony had just ushered him inside and over to the sofa. Despite saying he wasn't hungry, the boy had devoured the frozen waffles that Tony had thrown in the toaster and smothered in syrup, then curled up on the couch, staring at the wall until Tony had turned the TV on.
The next two days had been a flurry of activity…calling Pepper to get another paternity test done, convincing Peter to let him prick his finger and that he wasn't going to do anything to hurt him, and then getting the news. They were a match. This was his son. He'd put Peter in the guest room at first, surprised when the kid made himself as small and unobtrusive as possible, never speaking without being spoken to, watching TV quietly or looking at books that Tony bought for him. Then, as of the day before, he'd had an entire child's bedroom set up while Rhodey attempted to figure out where Mary Fitzpatrick was so that Tony could have a talk with her.
It wasn't that Tony didn't want Peter. He did! Of course he did. This was his son and he already loved the kid and was trying his best to connect with him while also being a barely recovering, dying alcoholic and the boy was obviously terrified of doing anything wrong despite being told that he was very welcome and that Tony was happy to have him. But Tony was dying. And he knew that there was a chance that he might not come up with a cure. So he needed to let the woman know all this before she went on a Shield mission to North Korea or whatever.
"Tones?" The sound of his friend's voice made him jump, and he turned to find Rhodey standing behind him, eying him with concern. "A little early for a drink, huh?"
Tony hadn't had a drink since the boy had come into his care. Hadn't dared. Not that Peter would have noticed. Peter kept to himself for the most part, never seeking him out for anything, and Tony wasn't sure how to feel about that.
"Is he here?" Rhodey asked when Tony didn't answer, and Tony nodded, gesturing to the other room. "Tony?"
"Any news on Mary?"
"Nothing." Rhodey sighed. "So…what are you going to do?"
"About…" Rhodey jerked his head toward the other room.
"He's staying with me until we get this figured out."
The surprised expression hurt a little, Tony would admit it. But it wasn't like he had the best track record. Still, he was doing his best. Rhodey seemed to realize what he'd done and turned a little sheepish. "I'm sure you're doing a great job with him."
"I'm not. He barely talks. Barely eats. I don't have a fucking clue what I'm doing, Rhodey but…god…you should have seen him. She didn't even bring him over herself. Some guy dropped him off on my porch and I was in the lab and…hell, I was asleep. I left him out there for almost half an hour and…"
"Tones." His best friend's voice was gentle as he put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey. It's going to be fine. He's probably just adjusting. This must be hard on him…but I'm sure you're doing great." Tony sighed, shaking his head. "Why don't we do something with him today? Get him out of the house?"
It was the last thing Tony wanted to do…spend even more time not trying to figure out how to save his own life, which had significantly higher stakes than before thanks to the addition of his son, but then he thought of Peter, how the boy had woken up early and sat in his room until Tony had let him out, like he was locked in or something. How his eyes had been red-rimmed and he'd sniffed, turning away when Tony went to touch him. He still wouldn't let Tony touch him. Still wouldn't talk about his mother or his powers or the lab accident or anything. Tony figured he was having nightmares. Either that or crying himself to sleep. He wasn't even seven years old yet. And his whole life had been turned upside down. Now Tony would have to be the one to fix it.
"How about the beach? We'll take a picnic. Then we can take him out for ice cream. All kids love ice cream, right?"
Tony hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah. That sounds…it sounds great, actually."
Peter watched him enter the room, and Tony noticed that barely any of his cereal had been eaten. He had dark circles under his eyes, and Tony couldn't help noticing the way Peter curled up under a blanket like he was scared. Brushing that thought away, he went for a smile. "Hey, Pete. There's someone here I want you to meet."
Rhodey entered the room as if he'd been cued and smiled at Peter. "Hi, Peter. I'm Jim Rhodes. I'm…"
"Your uncle." Tony interrupted.
"Hi," Peter whispered, looking uncertainly between the two men. Rhodey knelt in front of him.
"It's good to meet you, Peter. Your dad's told me a lot about you."
They hadn't really discussed the whole "dad" thing. Tony had been so busy trying to figure out what to do with this kid and Peter never addresses him as anything, much less 'dad.' He wondered if they should. Maybe he'd dropped the ball on that.
"Nice to meet you." Peter responded, obviously on autopilot."
"We were thinking about heading down to the beach. What do you think, kiddo? You ever seen the ocean?" Tony wondered, and for the first time since he'd complimented Peter's spider-powers, the boy's face lit up and he shook his head.
"No…just out the window."
Rhodey grinned. "Well, why don't you get changed and we can go see it together."
Peter looked at Tony, unsure but hopefully, and Tony nodded with what he hoped was a friendly smile. "There are swim trunks in the bottom drawer."
With only one last hesitant look, Peter jumped up and hurried to his room while Rhodey followed Tony to his own bedroom where he pulled out his own swim trunks and threw an extra pair to Rhodes.
"It's only been a week, right?"
"Just barely," Tony confirmed.
"Well, I'd say you're doing pretty good."
"He looks like he hasn't slept all week. And I have no idea how to talk to him."
"You'll get the hang of it," Rhodey promised, pure confidence in his voice as Tony headed to the bathroom to change. "Have you taken him down to the lab yet?"
Tony paused at that, turning around and frowning as the red swim trunks hang from a finger. "The lab? Rhodey, he's six."
"And how old were you when you built your first robot? He's your son, Tony. He probably inherited some of those brains you're always bragging about."
Tony considered it as he got changed, staring at his face in the mirror for a moment once he'd put his shirt back on. He hadn't really looked at Peter's school records. It was May, and school wouldn't start again for another few months. The boy would be going into second grade, and Tony had planned on putting him in private school regardless of how smart he was. But maybe the kid would like playing in the lab. He could do what his father never did…set up some things for Peter to play with. Do some experiments. Introduce him to Dum-E and see if the boy wanted to know how the robot worked.
He found Peter and Rhodey both in the living room, with Peter carefully rubbing sunscreen over his arms, meticulously making sure to only get it on his skin. Rhodey, on the other hand, dripped onto Tony's carpet, and he had to chuckle as he joined them, putting his own sunscreen on. Peter was definitely on the thin side, with ribs that showed through his skin, but he was also wiry…muscles shown through his upper arms and Tony wondered just what kind of mutation the boy had. They hadn't really discussed it…hadn't discussed anything. But he made a mental note to try. He didn't want the kid to feel like a lab rat, but it was important that he knew everything if Peter was going to stay with him. At least, for however long he had. If he couldn't find his mother, then he would find someone else to care for the boy. Rhodey, probably.
They piled in the car, Peter wearing a shirt and flip flops and Rhodey carrying a beach bag while Tony carried the cooler, then Tony drove them down to the private beach at the bottom of the hill. They could have walked, but he didn't really want to carry everything, and he figured Peter would be too tired by the end of the day to walk back up the hill.
When they arrived, Peter was the last to climb out of the car, standing unsure on the asphalt right at the edge of the beach while Tony and Rhodey grabbed the cooler and the beach bag. "Come on, squirt. Let's go pick a spot." Rhodey called, gesturing to the umbrellas which had been stuck in the sand and which the groundskeeper always put away when there was a chance of high wind or storms. Hesitantly, Peter followed them, and Rhodey chose a spot close to the water, dropping the cooler between two umbrellas in his and Tony's usual place.
Still, Peter was quiet, just staring at the ocean with an unreadable expression. Fear, Tony wondered. Or wonder or awe…the little boy was oddly quiet for a nearly seven-year-old, but Tony wasn't sure if that was because he was naturally introverted or because he was scared. Scared to be living with a stranger and scared to be away from his mother and the life he'd known. Scared of the weird powers that his mom hadn't let him talk about or show lest someone hurt him.
Tony laid out three towels, two close together under one umbrella and one under the other for Rhodey. The waves over the ocean beat methodically against the sand, and almost as if unaware of his own actions, Peter began to walk toward it, shirt still on. Tony threw his off while Rhodey sat down on his towel, laying back and pulling a mystery novel out of the beach bag. Tony snorted, rolling his eyes and biting back a comment about his friend being thirty-eight going on ninety, figuring that he'd better keep a close eye on Peter.
But the boy stopped just short of the water, watching it with a cocked head, then knelt down to pick something up. Probably a shell. Torn between joining Peter and giving him some space, he searched his mind, trying to figure out what you did with kids at the beach. According to his own memories, nothing. You sat on a towel with your wife and let your kid do whatever the hell he wanted, then yelled at him if he got too close and dripped water or sand on you. You shoved his hand away when he tried to show you a crab or cool shell you'd found. But, Tony reminded himself, he wasn't Howard.
So he chucked his shirt in the sand by his towel, kicked his sandals off, and padded over to the boy crouching on the sand. "What did you find?" He asked, raising his voice a little over the roaring of the waves. Peter hesitated before holding up a shell, and Tony crouched beside him, wincing a little when it made his knees ache. "Cool."
The boy opened his mouth then closed it, eyes finding the sand once more, and Tony wondered what he could say…how he could convince Peter to open up to him, just a little. Then an idea came to him.
"You want to keep it?"
Peter jumped a little like he'd forgotten Tony was there, then stared down at his shell. "I…I can?"
"Sure. Let's find some more."
So for an hour, he followed the suddenly energetic kid up and down the beach, the two of them getting their feet and legs wet when the waves would catch them off guard, building up a collection of seven shells. Peter was apparently very discerning when it came to his new shell collection, only keeping the ones in perfect condition that spoke to him on a level that Tony couldn't understand. Still, the kid was talking to him! And yeah, they were just talking about shells, but it was something.
By the time the hour had passed, the sun was crawling upwards into the sky, and they headed back to their towels where Rhodey was pulling out sandwiches and bottles of water and juice. Peter practically inhaled his, and Tony felt something in him unclench just a little. It was working. He was talking to the kid and feeding him and Peter was having fun. He was doing it. He was being a father to his kid.
Rhodey asked Peter about his new collection, bless him, and, unbeknownst to Tony, each shell had a very specific backstory. So Tony sat back, listening to Peter teach Rhodey all about them while they ate sandwiches, watching the waves come up on the shore…and that's when an idea hit him.
They waited the required thirty minutes after eating to enact Tony's plan, spending the time building a sandcastle to protect Peter's shells. But once the time had passed, Tony stood, holding a hand out to Peter. The boy looked at it for a moment, unsure, but Tony kept his face open. "C'mon, kiddo. I want to show you something." He urged. So, in the biggest display of trust Peter had shown since arriving at his house, he took Tony's hand.
Peter's hand wasn't sticky, exactly, but there was something just a little off about it. His grip was strong as his tiny hand fit into Tony's perfectly, letting the man pull him to his feet. Tony led Peter toward the ocean, far enough away from Rhodey that the man wouldn't hear, before speaking. "You don't feel sticky." He told Peter with a little smile that he hoped the kid took as lighthearted. The boy hesitated, then something changed. The hand was no longer just holding his. It was superglued.
"Woah." Tony looked down at their joined hands in surprise. "And you can just change it?"
Peter gave a slow nod. "I can stick if I want to…but sometimes…sometimes I can't make it stop. If I'm…Mom said it was when I was upset."
The thought of the situation that must have led to that particular realization made Tony's heart clenched, and he squeezed Peter's hand gently. "Can you unstick it now if you want to?"
As the words finished leaving his mouth, Peter's hand went back to just holding his, and Tony chuckled. "That's pretty cool, kiddo. Might come in handy someday."
"Really?" Peter asked, looking up at Tony trustingly. Hopefully.
"Yeah. I bet it will. But in the meantime, can you swim?"
"Um, yes." Peter gave the ocean another look, this time more frightened than anything, and Tony squeezed his hand a little harder.
"I thought we'd give it a try. Don't worry. I won't let you go. You can stick to me if you want."
And, surprisingly, Peter just nodded, seeming to place all his trust in Tony as the two stepped into the water. It wasn't too cold, especially after a morning spent in the sun, and Tony made sure to brace the boy, not letting the waves knock him down. As they moved forward, it wasn't long until the water was up to Peter's chest, and without even giving it much thought, Tony did what he'd always wanted his father to do. He knelt down, pulling Peter close, then hoisted the boy onto his shoulders.
The delighted laugh took Tony by surprise as the boy who barely weighed anything gripped his head, but it only took a second for him to get his balance, and Tony waded further into the ocean, smiling as the boy on his shoulders laughed. He jumped whenever a wave came, bouncing the boy, and sticky hands gripped the sides of his head. One particular wave was higher than the others, and Peter leaped from his shoulders into it with all the reckless abandon of a boy who knew his father would save him if he needed it. But it turned out, Peter could swim like a little fish.
Tony started to reach out for him, not wanting the kid to float away, but Peter kicked his legs and righted himself easily, looking up at Tony with a smile Tony had never seen on the boy's face before. So he laughed, reaching out for Peter, then tossing him in the air just as another wave came by. The boy came up laughing, practically screaming in delight.
"Again!" He begged, reaching out his arms that Tony caught easily, pulling Peter upright once more before tossing him gently in the air to be caught by the water.
It took quite a few throws, but Peter was finally tired out from playing in the water, and Tony swung him into his arms, pressing a kiss to the side of his hair before his brain caught up with his actions. He froze for a moment, hoping Peter didn't pull away or ask what he was doing or worse, ask to be put down.
But Peter did none of these things. Instead, he laid his head on Tony's shoulder, letting out a long breath and shivering a little.
"You tired, kiddo?"
The boy nodded against his shoulder, and Tony tightened his arm around him as he carried him back to the shore. Rhodey was openly watching them, his book sitting on the sand next to him. His friend was quiet as Tony sat down on his towel, the slight incline allowing him to sit up a little and rest his head on the balled up shirt he'd dropped earlier, and Peter lay on his chest. Tony reached out, grabbing Peter's towel and, making sure the non-sandy side was the one to touch the boy's skin, he wrapped it around him. The sun hit everything from his neck down, despite the umbrella, and he wrapped his arms around Peter, moving the towel until it shaded his eyes.
The boy in his arms didn't stir, just rested his head against Tony's chest and sighed softly in his sleep. It had only taken him the walk back from the ocean to drop off, and Tony found himself pressing his lips to the boy's hair once more, rubbing slow, gentle circles on his back. His friend watched a small smile on his face as he pulled out his phone and held it up for Tony to see the screen. Using his thumb to scroll through pictures, he showed Tony the several photos he'd taken of the two of them playing in the ocean, and Tony grinned, squeezing the boy a little harder. His boy. This was his boy. His son. And he loved him like he'd never thought he'd be able to love anyone.
"Think he's too tired for ice cream?" Rhodey asked as Peter's breathing evened out, and Tony wondered how long it had been since the boy had slept comfortably, without tears or nightmares. Had he known that his mother was going to leave him with a stranger? Had he known anything about Tony before she'd had a random guy drop the boy off on Tony's doorstep? Had he been scared?
"Nah. Give him half an hour and he'll be ready for some sugar," Tony predicted. Then, laying his head back, he closed his eyes and started on his problem again. The arc reactor, the thing slowly poisoning him, needed to be dealt with. As soon as possible. No way he was leaving his son without a father.
Thank you for reading!