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MCU: Trial and Error

Trial and Error

Series: Lights To Guide You Home
Word Count: ~ 9.900
Summary: Tony had had a plan. He'd even had several contingency plans. But not for this.
Peter stared at him, his dark eyes flitting to the phone and then back, and Tony could see that he understood, could pinpoint the moment Peter knew … and refused to believe it. His jaw set, his hands clenched into fists and he shook his head. ”No.”
Tony breathed and shook his head. ”Peter … your aunt … I'm sorry.”
Characters: Tony Stark, Peter Parker, James Rhodes, Vision, Pepper Potts
Pairing: Tony/Pepper (past)
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: Captain America - Civil War
Setting: sometime after Captain America - Civil War
Warnings: Character Death (off-screen), grief
Contains: Language (sorry, Steve!)
Author's Note: This is longer than I thought it would be and when I was done the first time around, I hated it, so I re-did about 60% completely. This thing was nerve-wracking. I apologize for any errors, since I'm not a native speaker, don't have a beta and I'm relatively new to the fandom. I hope I also got the research on adoption right. There was a lot. The series' name Lights To Guide You Home is inspired by the Coldplay lyrics to Fix You, specifically the line "Lights will guide you home".
Disclaimer: I’m not making money with this fanfic. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the characters appearing within it belong to their producers and creators. Any similarities to living or dead persons are purely coincidental and not intended.

Complete Fanfiction Masterlist
Masterlist: Lights To Guide You Home
Part 1: Come Morning

***
***


Tony had had a plan.

He'd wanted to help the Parkers by making things easier on them in every way he could. He'd wanted to pay May's hospital bills and he'd intended to involve specialists to get her back on her feet as soon as possible. He'd planned to have Pepper find a lawyer who would make sure that Tony could take care of Peter for the time being. He'd made a note to sort things out with Peter's school for when the summer holidays ended and with the rent for the apartment.

Tony had had a plan. He'd even had several contingency plans.

But not for this.

His hand was still clenched around the cellphone. He felt faint, taking deep breaths to battle the nausea trying to climb up his throat. He couldn't allow for weakness right now. He wasn't the one entitled to that feeling.

When Peter entered the kitchen, fresh from a shower with his dark hair still wet and hanging into his forehead limply, he took one look at Tony and stopped abruptly. His eyes narrowed searchingly and his whole body tensed in response to whatever he was seeing. ”What's wrong?”

Tony cleared his throat and put his phone on the kitchen counter. “Peter, I need you to sit down for a moment.”

Peter stared at him, his dark eyes flitting to the phone and then back, and Tony could see that he understood, could pinpoint the moment Peter knew … and refused to believe it. His jaw set, his hands clenched into fists and he shook his head. ”No.”

”Peter-”

”No.” He took a step back when Tony approached. ”Don't!”

Tony stopped, breathed, and shook his head. ”Peter … your aunt … I'm sorry.” He cursed himself for the jumbled mess of words and put his hands on his hips, forcing the explanation past his lips that Dr. Manning had given him. “They had her stabilized but she had another stroke and her body was too weak to make it through. They tried to save her, but the damage was … they couldn't get her back.” He felt tears gather and blinked them away. They settled hotly in the corners of his eyes, blurring the edges of his vision. “She died.”

”When?” Peter asked.

”About an hour ago.”

”Around ...” Peter shook his head. ”Around the time I got sick?”

Tony nodded, having made the same connection … it was irrelevant, though. Right now at least. Peter shook it off as well, reality setting in; anger hit first. He heaved a breath and his voice broke when he said, ”I told you I wanted to stay.”

”Peter-”

”I said that I wanted to stay with her and you made me leave!”

Tony didn't reply to that. It was true and he would do so again. And it wasn't what Peter was really upset about. It was shock talking.

”Oh God,” Peter whispered, his face setting into a grimace as he tried not to cry. He raised his hands to push them into his hair, tightening them until the pain made him wince. A sob escaped and he bit his lip, squeezing his eyes shut.

It was a silent, frantic grasp for control.

Tony watched him take measured breaths, standing as still as a statue, fighting ... and losing when his breathing started to hitch and he became white as a sheet … and he finally asked for help. ”Mr. Stark?”

Tony stepped forward and curled his fingers into Peter's sweater, steadying him. “Sit down,” Tony said softly. ”Please sit down.”

Peter's knees buckled as if he wanted to obey and sit where he stood, and only Tony's grasp on his sweater kept him from hitting the floor harder than he did. As Tony crouched down to check on him, Peter's hand came up shakily to fist Tony's shirt at the collar … but he didn't pull him closer. He didn't push him away either.

He just kept him there as the tears started to fall.

***

The clouds were hanging low enough to touch the panorama windows of one of the top floors of Avengers Tower, the rain beating against the glass the only sound to be heard in the large open-plan communal area.

Pepper didn't come up here often anymore. The Avengers had moved to the new headquarters in Upstate New York after Ultron and Tony had only really started to spend time here again recently, mostly in the lab one floor above them or in his workshop right next to it.

Today, though, she found him in the corner that housed the big kitchen, putting together sandwiches. She noticed that he wore his favorite Black Sabbath t-shirt and the washed-out jeans he preferred when he wanted to feel comfortable. It didn't seem to work, though; his dark hair was slightly unkempt and the dimmed kitchen lights emphasized the rings under his eyes. He only shortly caught her gaze in greeting and then gave a tilt of his head towards something behind her, almost as if he'd read the question she was about to ask on her face. Pepper turned, her eyes scanning the couches and armchairs placed into a seating arrangement near the TV, and came up empty. She had to look further to see Peter.

He'd chosen a place on the floor in the corner near the bar … a curled up, small figure against the gray of the clouds, his forehead pressed to the window and his blue hoodie jacket wrapped tightly around him, his earphones blaring tinny music. Pepper couldn't recall a moment she'd seen him without the iPod on in the last few days, though he didn't really seem to be listening to the music, using it as a barrier to keep people from talking to him instead.

She turned back to Tony, giving a sad smile. “Is he doing any better?”

Tony focused back on the sandwiches, turning to the fridge to get a new pack of cheese out. Pepper winced when the door slammed shut with more force than necessary. Tony cleared his throat. ”No, he's not.”

Nodding slowly, Pepper thought that at least, Peter had stopped hiding since Tony had brought him here yesterday. It was more private than the apartment. Nobody left food in front of the door or tried to smother Peter with empty words of advice or stories of what kind of a person May had been as if he didn't know. Nobody here left after a few minutes with a sigh of relief, glad to have shown courtesy without getting too involved in Peter's problems or grief, heaping their sadness onto his shoulders. Pepper had seen enough of those visits while she'd been at the apartment to help organize the funeral, had seen Peter starting to positively dread the sound of the doorbell, becoming more tense with every visitor passing through ... until he'd refused to leave his room at all.

When she'd first mentioned her idea to Tony, he'd scoffed. ”I can't just take him away. This is his home.”

“Give him the choice at least,”
she'd answered. ”He needs time to come to terms with this himself and he won't get that here. It's just until the funeral. Let's deal with what happens after when the time comes.”

Peter had started to pack an overnight bag before Tony had even finished asking whether he wanted to get out.

Tony's voice pulled her out of her thoughts. “I feel like I'm living with a ghost,” he said and frustrated anger bled into his words. He looked tired and drawn, much like he had after Pepper had announced that she needed a break from their relationship. She knew he'd taken that to heart, even though it had been nobody's fault. She hadn't liked some of Tony's choices as of late and he hadn't agreed with her plans for the future and they'd just ... grown apart, living separate lives. They couldn't part completely, of course. Stark Industries was still his company and she was leading it, so they spoke to each other rather often. Pepper made it a point to keep their conversations friendly, if less private than before.

Which meant that she didn't quite know what had happened between the Avengers, just that it must have been bad. Tony had started to spend more time at Avengers Tower and with company business and he'd seemed even more down than before. The media coverage was sparse and brimming over with rumors, so that Pepper had finally turned to Rhodey and learned that most of the Avengers were gone following an argument about the Sokovia Accords. He'd hinted at Tony and Steve having had a fallout about something much more personal, but he didn't go into details. She'd kept an eye on Tony as far as she could, working with Rhodey to monitor his drinking, but she hadn't pushed further than that. It wasn't her place anymore.

The sudden appearance of Peter Parker in Tony's life, however, had had a good influence on his mood. Pepper, too, had liked him instantly, though she still had no idea how Tony had even found him. Nevertheless, she could see what had caught his interest. Peter, even though a bit shy at first, was curious, intelligent and full of energy, smiling and talking a lot and looking up at Tony in a way that he needed right now.

At least he had been and Tony didn't take the change well. He always grew frustrated when he couldn't fix something.

Pepper pressed her lips together and placed the print-outs she'd originally come here for on the kitchen island for Tony to see. ”Joel sent these today. All the paperwork you need on the temporary guardianship and … the copy of the adoption application.” The morning May had died, Tony had called Pepper out of the blue and asked her to hire an adoption attorney. Joel Tyler was young, but had come highly recommended from a friend in the legal department. To Pepper, it still felt a bit unreal to even consider Tony taking on responsibility for a minor, but having witnessed him not leaving Peter's side over the last few days, she was slowly coming to grips with it. ”Peter can stay with you until a decision's been made. Joel said that it's a bit of a tedious process. Peter will be interviewed and they'll have a look at the place of residence, so you better figure out where you'll be living with him. He will get in contact with you after the funeral to talk Peter and you through the process.” She caught the short pause in Tony's hand movements and frowned. “You did talk to Peter about the adoption, didn't you?”

Tony shook his head.

Pepper cleared her throat. ”Tony-”

”I'll talk to him,” he snapped. ”Just … May's not even … there hasn't even been a funeral yet, for fuck's sake.”

Pepper ground her teeth together to avoid an angry answer, not wanting to provoke an argument. ”I'll let Joel know,” she said instead. “You'll have to talk to Peter about it at some point, you know. That is, if you are really sure you want to do this.”

He paused and turned his head to look at her. ”What is that supposed to mean?”

”You'll be in for the long haul, Tony. Responsibility for a minor is nothing that you should take lightly, even considering he's a teenager. It's not just about investing money in providing a roof and food and clothes.”

Tony smiled bitterly. ”Because all I always do is throw money at my problems?”

She closed her eyes, clearing her throat. ”I apologized for saying that, Tony, and that's not what I mean now.” She took a breath. ”Listen, I just … what you're trying to do is great for Peter. I just don't know whether it's the right thing to do for you.”

He huffed a hollow laugh, brushing a hand through his dark hair. ”Weren't you the one who wanted kids with me?”

”Weren't you the one who told me he isn't suited to be a father?”

Tony ducked his head. He braced his hands against the edge of the kitchen island and took a deep breath. Then he turned to look at her. The lights above him were dimmed, cutting shadows across his face, his eyes seeming darker than usual. ”Nobody else stepped up.”

The statement hung between them until Pepper shook her head and rubbed her forehead, looking at Peter sadly.

Tony's shoulders slumped. ”I can't let him go into the system, Pepper.”

”That's not what I meant.” She rested her hand atop one of his, squeezing gently, and stepped closer to lower her voice. “I'm sorry. I … that was unfair.” She cleared her throat and glanced at Peter again. ”I was thinking ... you should probably consider getting out of the city for a little while. It might actually do him good.”

Tony grimaced. “Funeral's tomorrow.”

“Right after, then.”

Tony nodded slowly. “Maybe.”

“Not too far away in case court gets in touch.”

Tony looked at the sandwiches thoughtfully. “Upstate New York?”

“The Avengers Facility?” Pepper asked with a frown. “Is that a good idea?”

“It's got privacy, surrounded by nature, it's got everything we might need. It's quiet.”

“And Rhodey and Vision will be there.”

“Peter knows I'm an Avenger,” Tony answered. “Rhodey will probably love getting to know someone new. It's gonna be fine.”

“But they don't know about Peter, do they?”

Tony paused. “I'll have to tell them anyway.” Finished with the sandwiches, he picked up the plate and his tablet computer, looking at her questioningly. “Was there anything else?”

She shook her head, but when he turned away, she stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Don't think you can't ask for help with this, okay? With Peter, I mean.”

He stared at her for a long moment as if he wasn't sure what kind of answer he should give. Then he simply said, “Girl trouble is all yours.”

She smiled, relieved. “Knowing your track record, it's probably better that way.”

He smiled back, hesitantly but just as relieved. Pepper let go of his arm and he left, crossing the large open-plan area towards the windows. Pepper couldn't hear what he said after tugging on Peter's earphones to get his attention, but Peter took a sandwich off the plate hesitantly.

Tony settled down opposite him, leaning back against a support beam, and started to work on his computer while Peter continued to stare outside, holding the sandwich as if he didn't know what to do with it.

***

Peter had been difficult to watch during the funeral, his body tense and his face set into a neutral mask while people approached and talked to him, shook his hand, touched his shoulder. Tony knew Peter had hardly slept since May had died. Using the old couch in the living room those first three nights before their move to the Tower, Tony had had trouble finding sleep himself and he'd heard Peter in his room: the nightmares, the restless pacing, the low music. Somehow, he doubted that Peter had managed to sleep better in the Avengers guest quarters.

Peter hadn't mentioned that he had trouble sleeping, so Tony didn't let Peter know he knew. He wasn't sure how to ask or if asking was even tactful. He didn't want Peter to think that he was listening in on the night terrors, knowing how embarrassing it could be when others found out about this kind of thing. It had taken a long time for him to be able to talk to Pepper about his nightmares and even then …

Unfortunately, Tony was just as unsure about how or if to broach the subject of adoption. Tony knew he had wasted several opportunities to bring it up. When he'd told Peter that he'd applied for a temporary guardianship over him, May's death had been too recent to also mention he would have his lawyer file for adoption and to ask whether Peter was alright with that. He felt as if he would come across as too eager to replace her. He should have mentioned it when Peter had signed the agreement for the temporary guardianship the next day, but Peter's hand had shook and there had been tears in his eyes and Tony hadn't known what to think about that. Joel, fortunately, had picked up on that and not mentioned anything either, though he gave Tony a stern warning to talk to Peter, and soon.

After that, Peter looked fragile enough without additional pressure being applied, so Tony resigned himself to being a neutral zone, somebody Peter could be around without feeling something was expected from him.

He swore to himself and to Joel that he would change that until Joel's next scheduled visit in two days.

“So you'll get on the road now?” Rhodey asked.

“In about ten minutes,” Tony answered, looking around the kitchen and the communal area to check whether he had left anything lying around. Peter was getting changed out of the suit he'd worn at the funeral and was packing his bag in his room. Since he hadn't brought much to the Avengers Tower in the first place, Tony didn't expect him to need much longer.

“It'll be good to have you back,” Rhodey said.

“Miss me, dear?” Tony tried a joke. It felt strange after days of severity.

Rhodey chuckled. “We're lost without you.”

Tony smiled, then he became serious. “Rhodey, one more thing.”

Rhodey picked up on the change of mood and sobered. “Yeah?”

“Could you get one of the unused quarters ready? I'm bringing someone.”

“Are we recruiting?”

Tony winced. “It's complicated. I'll explain when I'm there.”

“Okay. See you then.” Rhodey hung up.

Tony rubbed his forehead and stared out the window until he heard the scuffing of sneakers against the polished floor behind him. He turned around with a smile he didn't feel. “Ready to go?”

Peter grabbed his laptop off the kitchen counter. “Yeah.”

When Tony had offered Peter to get out of the city for a few days, Peter had agreed much more easily than Tony would have thought he would. Before May's death, Peter had never wanted to come near the Avengers as himself, fearing they would figure out that he was the face behind the mask of Spider-Man.

Staying in New York, though, seemed to scare him more now. It was strange, but Tony had noticed that Peter was almost afraid of the city, huddling into one corner of the car that had brought them to the graveyard and picked them up again, his earphones in and the music deafeningly loud. He'd only marginally relaxed once back in the Tower, high up and tucked away from the streets and the people and the noise. Tony hoped that Peter just lacked sleep and a bit of peace to come to terms with May's passing and then he would come out of his shell again … he didn't want to consider the alternative.

Picking up his bag, he joined Peter at the elevator. The defeated slump in Peter's posture caused Tony to squeeze his shoulder before withdrawing. “You'll like it,” he promised. “Stick to the story and they won't realize you're Spider-Man.”

Peter huffed a breath. ”I'm not anymore.”

”Hey,” Tony said gently, “no decision's been made, remember? You're taking a break to think about it.”

Peter didn't look at him and the rock of dread in Tony's stomach expanded.

***

“Is the lasagna enjoyable?” Vision asked, taking off the apron to fold it neatly on the marble of the kitchen island and then tugging at his white, knitted sweater as if to make sure it was in place.

If Vision were human, Rhodey would have interpreted it as a nervous gesture immediately. If Vision were a run-of-the-mill robot, Rhodey would have thought that he was just mimicking what he'd seen others do. As it stood, Rhodey knew that Vision was an android, but sometimes, he wasn't quite sure where the freakishly complex programming ended and whether there wasn't something like real emotion lurking beneath the synthetic red skin and gleaming Vibranium.

Fact was that Vision seemed to miss Wanda quite a lot and apparently, he'd found that cooking was the perfect outlet for that, though he was surprisingly bad at it. However, he seemed to genuinely want to please Rhodey with his meals and Rhodey didn't have the heart to let him down, so he didn't mention that the red sauce was way too salty and that he had no clue where the bitter taste in the white sauce stemmed from. In the end, he just said, ”It's not bad.”

Vision seemed to think about that statement and Rhodey took another bite to show that he was enjoying it. He could practically feel Vision's eyes zooming in to try and see whether he was lying. It was unnerving. The bright lights seemed to focus on his seat at the kitchen island like an interrogation lamp. He had rarely been as grateful for Tony's voice drifting towards him as he was right now.

“... system will recognize you and let you in. Access rights are managed by me, should you have problems.”

They both turned towards the kitchen door, Rhodey more than a bit curious who would be with Tony.

“Hey,” Tony said, dropping his bag next to the door. He was wearing a black suit and even though that wasn't really that unusual, the black shirt definitely was. He looked like he was in mourning. Rhodey nodded at him and Tony gave a tight smile. “We're just in time for dinner.” He turned back towards the corridor. “Come here, kid.”

Rhodey straightened in surprise when a teenager entered, carrying a backpack over one shoulder and a battered laptop under his arm. His earphones were hanging around his neck, blaring tinny music into the air. He shifted when the silence stretched, clearly uncomfortable with all eyes in the room on him, and pushed his free hand into the pocket of his blue hoodie jacket. Rhodey had definitely never seen him before, not even on the few family pictures he'd got to see of the Starks.

He wondered, for just a second, whether he was Tony's son. Then he shook the thought off, because even though they both had dark hair and eyes, there was no trace of Tony to be found in the teenager's features.

Tony placed one hand on the kid's shoulder. “Rhodey and Vision,” he said, introducing them with slight nods of his head, “this is Peter.”

Rhodey raised one hand for a small wave. ”Hey.”

Peter gave a smile, but it was short-lived and strained. Tony looked as haunted as he had when he'd returned from Siberia. Rhodey figured that the explanation he was going to get for all this involved some kind of horrible story.

Vision was either unaware of the tense set to Tony's shoulders and the way Peter nervously hugged his laptop to his chest or he just pretended to be. It was hard to tell with him. He motioned towards the steaming dish with lasagna. ”Would you care for dinner?” he asked, the focus of his question directed at Peter, ever the dutiful host.

Peter shook his head.

Vision cocked his head to the side slightly, his blue eyes assessing carefully and apparently coming to conclusions. ”Then, may I show you to your room? You might want to rest.”

Peter glanced up at Tony, who nodded at Vision. ”Thank you.”

”You are very welcome.” Vision held out an arm invitingly and Peter stepped closer to him until Vision's hand hovered just behind his back, as if he intended to guide him without actually touching him.

Tony looked at Rhodey. ”Which room?”

”Next to Wanda's,” Rhodey answered. It had been the most logical choice. He hadn't wanted to set up one of the quarters that was already taken and the unused one next to Wanda was closest in line to Tony's.

“Peter,” Tony said and the kid turned around to him. ”I'll be right down the hallway. Last door on the left. If there's anything you need ...” He trailed off in an unusual display of insecurity.

Peter gave a nod. “Okay, Mr. Stark.”

”See you later, kid.”

Tony breathed a sigh of relief when Vision and Peter vanished around the corner, Vision starting an explanation about the house an its facilities. Tony yanked the fridge open, got one beer out and slammed the door shut again. The lid landed in the sink, which made Rhodey raise his eyebrows in surprise. Tony had complained more than once about Sam's habit to leave food lying around, about Bruce's organized chaos of notes and tools, about Thor being too used to have servants picking up after him. Normally, he was rather house-proud. Now, he slumped onto the chair next to Rhodey and pulled the dish with lasagna closer, eating straight from it with a fork. The taste only brought a slight grimace to his face.

Rhodey turned in his seat to look at him, wincing when his legs didn't quite obey the way he wanted them to. He was still getting used to the exoskeleton Tony had designed, to the strange sight of his legs moving and bumping into things without him feeling any of it. ”So,” he said once Tony had eaten several bites and was starting to slow down, ”feel free to start explaining.”

”I didn't drive to New York for a project. I drove there because a hospital called me. Peter's aunt was there and since he's a minor, they needed someone to take him home and look after him.” He took several long swigs from the bottle. ”She died early the next morning.”

”Tony, that's awful,” Rhodey said, ”but I still have no idea who Peter is. You never mentioned him before.”

“He's an intern at Stark Industries, the High School Initiative.”

“You usually don't associate with interns, much less with the ones from the High School Initiative.”

“I personally placed him in that program,” Tony replied. “He's a dumpster diver, builds computers, plays around with tech. He put some of his stuff on YouTube and that's where I found it.”

“On YouTube?” Rhodey asked, skeptical.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y. isn't just scouring the internet for super-human activities, you know? I have several filters running. Some of them private. He was found by one of them.”

Rhodey raised his eyebrows. “He must have impressed you to go through the trouble to find him and offer him an internship.”

Everyone knew how hard it was to impress Tony in that regard. Most of the university interns at Stark Industries didn't manage it, but when somebody did, Tony rewarded it. It was no secret that a job at Stark Industries was secure when Tony or Pepper extended an invitation for a meeting to an intern.

Tony met Rhodey's eyes, sincere in a way he rarely was when he answered, “He did.” He ducked his head, poking at the lasagna. “I didn't tell you about him because it just never came up. I should have.”

Rhodey shrugged it off. “So, every time you were in New York over the last few weeks ...”

“I did take care of Stark Industries. But I also mentored Peter.”

Rhodey was surprised. Tony usually didn't have much time for kids, preferring to support students at universities and especially institutes like the MIT. The High School Initiative of Stark Industries had been Pepper's idea and it was still her pet project. As far as Rhodey knew, Tony had never done more for it than sign the checks. He cleared his throat. “So, let me get this straight. The hospital called you to look after him.”

Tony nodded.

“His aunt died,” Rhodey went on.

Another nod.

“And he's here now, with you, because ...” He looked at Tony questioningly.

“Because there is nobody else.”

Rhodey released a breath. “His parents?”

“Died a long time ago. His uncle died a few months ago.”

”Shit,” Rhodey said. ”No friends he can stay with?”

Tony paused, then he shrugged, looking miserable. ”I never asked whether he even has any friends. He never mentioned anyone, so I guess he doesn't? At least not close ones. Not the kind you call when you're in trouble.” His eyes shone in the gentle lights of the kitchen and he blinked quickly. ”He said that he handed the hospital my number because he thought I wouldn't pick up, but I'm starting to think … there's literally nobody else he can turn to.”

“Shit,” Rhodey said again. “He's what? Fourteen?”

“Fifteen,” Tony answered. He emptied the bottle. “I couldn't ...” He shook his head. “I couldn't walk away from that, Rhodey.” He huffed a sad laugh. “And I'm the first in line who should.”

***

It had been hours since Vision had shown Peter to his room and there hadn't been a sign of him since. Maybe, Tony thought, slowly walking down the corridor, he was being paranoid. He couldn't stop himself from checking up on Peter on his way to bed, though, to make sure he was settled and that he didn't need anything.

He ignored the abandoned quarters he walked past ... or at least he tried to. His subconscious, though, didn't cooperate, assigning the rooms their owner's names automatically: Steve, Sam, Clint, Natasha, Wanda ... their things were still there as if they'd left for a mission, the cleaning lady still went in to dust and hoover. Sometimes, Tony wondered whether he should go through the quarters and put personal belongings into storage, but seeing the rooms void of them would only hurt more ... would make it final.

He wasn't ready for that.

There was no answer to his knocks on Peter's door.

Tony entered because he honestly thought that Peter had the iPod turned up too loud again and didn't even hear him. He entered because a tiny part of him thought that he might find the window open and Peter gone. Neither was the case, though.

The room was only lit by the small lamps on the bedside table and the desk, the iPod resting switched off on the covers next to the cellphone.

Leaning back against the headboard, with his legs under the covers and his laptop resting atop them, Peter was asleep. He'd changed into a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, so he had probably intended to lay down properly at some point. His exhaustion had got the better of him. Tony knew how quickly that could happen … and he also knew that even someone as young as Peter would definitely not be comfortable in this position for much longer.

Tony took the laptop first and set it on the bedside table. “Peter,” he said, touching his shoulder.

Peter frowned.

Tony lifted the covers and nudged him into a reclining position. “Come on, kid. Your neck won't forgive you for this in the morning.”

Peter blinked blearily but he obeyed, sliding down and burying underneath the covers fully. ”'s quiet,” he muttered, hugging one of the pillows close.

“Yeah,” Tony replied, fussing with the covers awkwardly. “It's not Queens.”

”'s good.” Peter sighed. “Can't hear anything.”

Tony's hand strayed from Peter's shoulder to the back of his head. “How do you mean?”

”Things get loud when I'm stressed out,” Peter said, coming awake a bit more. His eyes blinked up at Tony. “Sirens and cars and ... people.”

”Is that why you haven't been sleeping?” Tony asked, sitting on the edge of the bed. “You should have said something. We could have come here sooner.”

Peter blinked in confusion. ”Run away?”

“Your priorities are screwed up,” Tony replied, putting the cellphone and iPod on the bedside table. “We'll have to talk about that.”

”Later?” Peter asked, hiding a yawn in his pillow.

“Later,” Tony confirmed. “Lights out?”

Peter nodded and Tony switched off the lamp on the bedside table. He set the laptop down on the desk and was about to close it when the screen caught his attention. The Daily Bugle from today, its headline reading Spider-Man waits for New York to beg for his return. Why we shouldn't give in. Tony scoffed ... and froze when his eyes caught his own name in an article on the right side of the page. Internal source confirms: Playboy billionaire Tony Stark to adopt orphan from Queens.

“Fuck,” he muttered. “Shit.” He glanced at Peter, who was asleep again. “You did not read that,” he asked softly, “did you?”

***

Tony didn't sleep until the early morning hours, scouring the internet and finding more and more websites picking up on the Daily Bugle's story. It went national, then international. He only managed to sleep for a few hours and then dressed haphazardly in a t-shirt and jeans before he called Pepper as early as he dared, who promised to have their PR department draft an official statement.

That didn't change the fact that the damage was done and in more ways than one.

Some of the sites remained neutral about the adoption, others seemed in favor, but Tony noticed that most of the articles followed in the Daily Bugle's footsteps and had a scathing or sarcastic undercurrent. One even went as far as recounting all the times Tony had been a topic in media during his college years and before he'd got together with Pepper. Alcohol, parties and women, the charge for possession of ecstasy when he'd turned twenty-three, that one accident he'd had under the influence when he was twenty-eight, his involvement in arms trade, the party that had escalated into a fight with Rhodey after Tony had become Iron Man, the split of the Avengers ... all of it was pulled to the forefront, rehashed and judged more or less harshly and in light of a possible adoption.

Tony felt sick.

The press had always been ambivalent about him. At the beginning, he'd been angry about it but with time, he'd simply started not to care. This, though ... all his failings in a neat list and used to question his ability to take care of Peter ... a niggling fear turned into serious doubt and maybe he was making a mistake … maybe he should stay away from the kid ...

“Tony,” Rhodey said, pulling him from his thoughts. Blearily, he looked up from the mug of coffee he was holding and blinked into the bright sunlight filtering into the kitchen. He found himself leaning against the kitchen island with no recollection of how he'd got here. Rhodey was frowning at him from his position by the fridge. ”Hey, man, you alright? I asked whether you want a sandwich for lunch.”

The thought of food turned Tony's stomach. He shook his head and took a sip of coffee, grimacing when he noticed it was stale and cold.

”You look like shit,” Rhodey said, placing cheese, salad, bread and cold cuts on the kitchen island. “Are you sure you're okay?”

Vision saved Tony from an answer by entering with a deep frown etched into his forehead. ”Peter is still asleep.”

”Let him sleep,” Tony replied. Rhodey handed him a fresh mug of coffee.

”Twelve hours seem excessive,” Vision said.

Tony rubbed his face tiredly and shrugged. ”The last few days were tough on him. He's probably catching up.” That explanation seemed logical enough for Vision.

Rhodey on the other hand cleared his throat. ”When were you going to tell us that you intend to adopt him?”

”Shit,” Tony muttered, closing his eyes.

”Or are they wrong?”

”No, they're not. I applied for it.”

Vision raised one eyebrow. ”That is most honorable.”

”Didn't want the whole damn world to know about it, though,” Tony added bitterly.

Rhodey scoffed. “They're idiots. I wouldn't worry too much about it.”

Tony looked at him. “What if Peter read it?”

Rhodey shook his head. “He shouldn't believe it. Seriously, Tony, this is the kind of crap he'll have to learn to deal with when you adopt him. He'll get used to it.”

“I didn't mention the adoption to him yet.”

Rhodey stared at him and Vision paused in his perusing of a cookbook. Rhodey cleared his throat. “You applied for it. How can you not have talked to him about it beforehand?”

Tony set the mug down loudly, exasperated. “What was I supposed to say? 'Hey, your aunt's dead. Want me to replace her?'”

Vision frowned. “That doesn't seem very tactful.”

“So what if he read it?” Rhodey asked. “It's not the end of the world. Just talk to him as soon as he's up.”

“This isn't how I wanted him to find out!”

“It sucks, but there's nothing to be done about it now,” Rhodey answered with a shrug. Then he paused, suddenly getting the speculating expression on his face he always got when he tried to figure out whether Tony was speaking the truth.

Tony hated that look. Rhodey knew him better than he knew himself sometimes ... and he really didn't need another person pointing out any of his many flaws to him right now. “Rhodey, don't.”

“Wait a moment,” Rhodey said. ”Your problem isn't that he might have read about the adoption in the papers, your problem is that you're not sure whether you should do it anymore.”

Tony put his hands on his hips, then crossed his arms, his hands balling to fists. He scoffed. “Come again?”

“You never do anything half-way, Tony, and you said it to me yourself yesterday: You're the first person who should walk away from this. You would have talked to him about it, no matter what, if you were sure that you want to do this but you're not. Some small part of you is doubting it's a good idea.”

Vision's eyes settled on Tony, his face taking on an expression of confusion. Tony didn't give him the chance to say anything. “Of course I do,” he replied. ”I don't think I'm equipped to handle the kind of baggage he's carrying, but that's not the reason I didn't ask.”

”You were hoping somebody else would step up and you wouldn't have to.”

”Yes!” It slipped out before he could think about it, surprising even himself. Tony brushed a hand through his hair, as a heavy feeling settled in his stomach, squeezing up against his lungs, making it hard to breathe.

“So what now?” Rhodey asked.

The silence settling in the kitchen was only broken when Vision spoke.

”Hello, Peter.”

Tony felt his heart skip several beats and Rhodey's eyes closed in defeat.

Peter stood in the kitchen door, wearing a blue sweater bearing the emblem of his high school and pajama bottoms, having foregone shoes to wear just socks, his hair rumpled and his eyes bleary. He avoided looking at Tony or Rhodey, keeping his attention on Vision instead. “Hi.”

There was no telling how much he'd heard. Tony sagged back against the kitchen island, opening his mouth to say something – anything … he came up empty.

Vision pulled one of the chairs out to offer Peter a seat, unshakable. “Would you care for some breakfast?”

Tony said, ”Or lunch. It's almost afternoon.” It had been intended as a joke, a way to catch Peter's attention because he couldn't bear the way he kept avoiding his eyes … but it sounded a lot more accusing than he meant it to and he saw Rhodey wince.

Peter lifted his shoulders. “Sorry. I ...” He swallowed. “I-I think the alarm on my phone ... I forgot to switch it on.”

Rhodey cleared his throat. ”That's okay, Peter. No worries.”

Tony caught his warning glare and crossed his arms, taking a step back. He needed to get away, he needed to think ... “I've got a conference call.” It was true enough. Secretary Ross had written several messages asking for an update. He cleared his throat. “I'll see you later.”

He couldn't get out of the kitchen fast enough.

***

Let's talk.

Tony's finger hovered over the Send button. Not for the first time and certainly not for the last. He'd typed this exact message into the cellphone Steve had sent him so many times that he couldn't even count them anymore, but he'd never pressed that button. He kept trying, though, for the same reason that he kept the phone instead of throwing it out: sometimes, he wanted to believe that there was a way back.

And sometimes, like right now, he wished he could talk to Steve and ask his opinion. Rhodey was Tony's best friend and he knew he could always turn to Pepper – even now –, but Steve had a way of looking at things that was quite different and he'd swayed Tony's opinion on things more often than he cared to admit.

Not this time, though.

He deleted the message and flipped the phone shut, dropping it onto the workbench with a sigh. The glaring lights of his workshop worsened the headache that had started to niggle at him this morning and he'd spent hours staring at the schematics for Rhodey's exoskeleton without making any productive progress. He'd turned to the bottle of scotch an hour ago, knowing it wouldn't help his headache or creativity in any way, but feeling the slight buzz of alcohol was at least soothing his frayed nerves. It was dangerous thinking, dangerous territory, and Rhodey as well as Pepper would be disappointed … he found that thought hurt less than the thought of how he'd fucked up yet another relationship in his life and this time, single-handedly.

He cleared his throat and turned around to reach for the bottle when he noticed Peter standing in the door. Peter startled and took a step back and Tony thought he would leave … but he remained, his arms coming up to cross over his sweater, shoulders squaring and his jaw setting determinedly. ”Hi,” he said, his voice far less self-confident than his posture. Now, Tony noticed that Peter looked better than yesterday, less haunted and tired, though still sad. He hadn't changed out of the pajama bottoms and socks, though he'd fixed his hair and looked much more awake than a few hours ago in the kitchen. ”I-I ...” He swallowed and stepped forward. ”Rhodey said it would be okay to come down here.” He stopped and looked around, wide eyes taking in the various workbenches and projects, the blue-prints on the walls and the simulations and calculations running on the screens. ”This isn't, like … super secret or something, right?”

Tony poured himself a new glass of scotch and shook his head. ”No, it's fine.”

”Who could I even tell, right?” Peter asked with a sad grin and pulled his shoulders up. Tony winced and Peter's smile fell off his face. “Sorry.”

“What can I do for you?”

Peter stared at him for a moment, as if he wasn't sure what to say or how to say it, then he took a breath. ”I-I just ...” He ducked his head. ”I mean, I just wanted to …” He stepped closer. “You know, the newspapers only write crap about us. I know, 'cause I-I'm … Spider-Man is branded the Masked Menace or something. Doesn't matter what we do, they just … I don't believe what they write about you. You're not … a-a bad influence or something.”

”You're stuttering,” Tony said in surprise, even though it wasn't the first time he'd noticed that tendency in Peter. Finding Tony sitting on the couch in his aunt's apartment had caused him to stumble over his words and he'd also stuttered when Tony had introduced him to Pepper. Insecurity and nervousness seemed to be a factor, so Tony wasn't surprised now about the fact that Peter did stutter, but about the fact that Peter had stopped doing it in Tony's presence weeks ago … and it turned Tony's stomach that he was starting up again.

Peter blushed and frowned at one of the computer screens, pressing his arms tighter against his chest. ”I know. Sorry.” He took a deep breath. ”It's just that I read about … everything they said about the … you know, the adoption-”

”About that,” Tony interrupted him, motioning for Peter to come closer until he could grasp both his shoulders firmly. ”It's better if we ...” He made himself meet Peter's eyes. ”I never asked you and maybe it's better if we … leave it at that.”

Peter ducked his head. ”Oh.” He fussed with the sleeves of his sweater, pulling them down to hide his hands. ”I mean ...”

”It's better for everyone involved,” Tony continued, squeezing Peter's shoulders. “No expectations that are not being met.”

Peter met his eyes, looking almost startled for a moment. ”I think … I'm not ...” He paused and Tony could hear his breath hitch, his eyes blinking rapidly, before he stepped out of reach and gave a firm nod. ”Okay.”

Tony shook his head. ”Listen, kid, I just ... you don't need to deal with my kind of crap, okay? The media and the avenging and my charming personality, as demonstrated this morning-”

”I don't mind all that, Mr. Stark.”

”Well, I do.” He pressed his lips together. ”I'm sorry.”

”That's okay,” Peter said but he looked like it wasn't okay at all and Tony felt like somebody was pressing down on his chest.

”You're killing me, kid,” he muttered and reached for Peter faster than he could step back, hugging him tightly. Peter's hands came up immediately, holding onto Tony's shirt. Tony put a hand on the back of his head. ”It's not like we won't see each other anymore,” he said, gently nudging Peter back to look down into his eyes. ”We can still work on Spider-Man. Improve the equipment. I've got some ideas for the web-shooters, actually. You mentioned the straps were itching on bare skin, so we should get onto that. Maybe we can even make them smaller and more lightweight.”

Peter crossed his arms again. ”I'm still not sure, Mr. Stark, if I … wanna go back to being Spider-Man.”

Tony nodded slowly, trying to hide his disappointment. ”I see.”

Peter took a breath, smiled sharply, and looked around once more. ”This is really cool, Mr. Stark”, he said before he turned to leave.

Tony sank back onto his chair and sighed deeply. ”Yeah … awesome.”

***

Tony only noticed that the bottle was empty when he tried to pour himself a new glass.

He cursed softly, resting his head in his hands, before getting up and unsteadily making his way to the kitchen where he knew a new bottle was stashed away. He dimmed the lights when he entered the room, not wanting them to be quite that bright, and poured himself a new glass. Sipping, he checked the clock on the wall next to the fridge. It was just after eleven in the evening. Everything was quiet … until he heard a noise from the door leading towards the living room and saw Rhodey standing there, his arms crossed and his forehead creased into a disapproving frown.

Tony emptied the glass he was nursing, setting it on the kitchen island. ”Last one today, promise.”

”Right,” Rhodey said, glowering at the glass. ”Let's say I will ignore this if you tell me why the fuck you lied to me. And to Vision.”

Tony shook his head in confusion. ”What do you mean?”

”I followed Peter to your workshop, Tony, to make sure he was alright. I heard you talking. About alterations to his equipment.”

Tony didn't feel surprise or shock. He felt nothing but defeat. Chuckling bitterly, he settled on one of the stools. ”Oh, that.”

”Yes, that,” Rhodey replied angrily. ”You know, this makes much more sense than you knowing him from YouTube.”

”I do know him from YouTube,” Tony answered. ”I just lied about the type of video.”

Rhodey shook his head, stepping closer. ”So it's true. He's Spider-Man?”

Tony nodded.

”Jesus,” Rhodey muttered. ”He's just a kid.” He sat on the stool next to Tony's, folding his hands on the marble of the kitchen island.

”Where is he?” Tony asked.

”Sleeping. He didn't want to show it but your conversation upset him. He skipped dinner and went to bed. Vision checked on him a few minutes ago.”

Tony put his head in his hands. ”He shouldn't skip meals.”

”Well, you weren't there to tell him that.”

Tony buried his hands in his hair, his fingers gripping the short strands tight enough to hurt.

Rhodey let the silence stretch for a moment, then he softly said, ”Tony, you should adopt him.”

Tony sighed deeply, closing his eyes. ”I want to.”

”But you won't, because you're scared that it'll happen again: you open yourself up and you'll get hurt. It happened with Pepper … and Steve.”

Tony glared at him. ”It's got nothing to do with Steve!”

”It's got everything to do with Steve,” Rhodey answered calmly. ”You don't handle rejection well, especially when it means so much to you. You know … it only hurts because you care.”

Huffing out a breath, Tony asked, ”Are we done with the third degree?”

”I don't know. Are we?”

Tony rubbed his eyes tiredly. The headache had died away the more he'd drunk, but he started to feel slightly nauseous now. ”I wouldn't be a good dad.” He laughed bitterly. ”I had that discussion a few months ago already – with Pepper.”

”What's the alternative for Peter?” Rhodey asked gently. ”Do you know?”

Tony sniffed and turned his head to look at Rhodey. ”Strangers. The system.”

”You don't like the thought.”

”I hate the thought.”

”I think that's your decision then.”

Tony scoffed. ”It's not that easy.”

”Look,” Rhodey said, ”of course it isn't. Parenting is hard, sometimes it's trial and error … Clint could tell you a lot about that. But you aren't going to do this alone, Tony.”

He stared at Rhodey, then a smile spread over his lips, unbidden and quite alcohol-induced, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. ”Are you proposing to me?”

Rhodey chuckled.

”Because that would be awkward,” Tony continued. ”I'm still in love with someone else.”

Rhodey bit his lip, clearly in an effort to suppress his laughter. ”Stop it,” he said, becoming earnest. ”Seriously, Tony … no jokes.”

Tony stared at him and shrugged, shaking his head ... at a loss. He didn't know what to say and he didn't know what to do. He didn't even quite know how to feel.

Rhodey squeezed his shoulder. ”Tony, you just spent three nights on a couch in an apartment in Queens to help the kid out. You hired an adoption attorney as soon as you heard that his aunt had died. You arranged for everything he couldn't arrange for. You took him to Avengers Tower, you took him here.”

”So?”

”You are already committed.” Rhodey got up and turned towards the door, but paused. ”By the way, the reason you are doubting yourself is down to the fact that Peter read stupid opinions about you uttered by people who don't know squat, and for the first time in your life, you did care. Not because they wrote it, but because he saw it and you somehow thought it would lessen you in his eyes. It really doesn't, you know? He's been following your every step since his aunt died and when those people attacked you, he tried to comfort you. He didn't come to the workshop to talk about the adoption, he came to let you know that he doesn't care what they say about the guy who is basically his hero. Or did you miss that part of the conversation?”

With that, Rhodey left.

***

The next morning brought a raging headache.

Tony only managed to eat one slice of toast so that he could take pain killers and he spent half an hour sitting under the hot rain of his shower and waiting for the pills to kick in. By the time he came out, he felt a bit better.

Two coffees later, he felt human again.

Peter had been in the kitchen for some cornflakes while Tony had been in the bathroom and Vision informed him that he'd retreated back to his room to watch TV immediately after.

The door to Peter's room was open.

Tony knocked on the frame to catch his attention before he entered. He found Peter stretched out on the bed in his school sweater and pajama bottoms, watching something on his laptop.

”We have a huge TV screen in the living room,” Tony offered.

”Netflix,” Peter replied.

”It's a smart TV.”

”I'm used to using the laptop.” Laughter rang out from the speakers – a comedy show – and Peter clicked Pause.

Tony pushed his hands into his jeans pockets, approaching the bed slowly. ”What are you watching?”

Big Bang Theory,” Peter said. ”Old episodes. Just …” He shrugged.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Tony nodded. ”I get what you mean.” Getting back to normal after such a personal loss was hard. Turning to something ordinary that carried no connection to the person who'd died was one of the first steps.

Peter sat up and crossed his legs, folding his hands on his ankles. His dark eyes locked onto Tony expectantly.

Tony gave an embarrassed smile. ”I think I need to apologize for my behavior in the workshop yesterday. You tried to tell me something and I misunderstood. I'd been drinking – not just a bit – and I drew the wrong conclusions and pushed you away because I ...” He took a deep breath. ”Because I, quite frankly, freaked out.”

”That's okay,” Peter answered, picking on a thread coming loose from the seam of his pajama bottoms.

Tony shook his head. “I was harsh. And I'm sorry.” He gave a sigh and cleared his throat, shifting to sit up a little straighter. ”You see, if I mess up this much already now, can you imagine the plethora of ways I'd mess up as your adoptive parent?”

Peter lifted his shoulders into a halfhearted shrug. ”Don't worry, Mr. Stark, it's really okay.”

”No, it's not and you really need to stop saying that,” Tony replied, becoming annoyed. ”That's not you, always agreeing to everything and apologizing for everything. Where's the fight gone?”

”Spider-Man was the fighter,” Peter answered and his shoulders tensed, his jaw clenching.

”I don't believe that.”

”I'm not him,” Peter answered heatedly, frustration lining his face and clenching his hands. ”I stutter when I'm nervous a-and … I'm kind of a loser and really … really not good in sports and I know just about every locker in our school from the inside, but at least I don't-I don't get people killed and I don't come home at three in the morning to … find ...” He trailed off with a hitch in his breath and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath to calm himself. ”I know you want me to go back to being … that but I … I can't. Not even if it would mean that you would ...”

The half-finished sentence and Peter's miserable features were enough to have Tony feel nauseous again. ”You think that's why I won't take you in? Because you aren't sure whether you can become Spider-Man again? Because you wouldn't meet what you think are my expectations of you?”

Peter shook his head, looking tired. ”I never fought, Mr. Stark. I tried but I was just not good enough, so I stopped.”

”Until you became good enough,” Tony said. ”Spider-Man isn't some separate person that turned up after whatever happened happened, he is a part of you. He always has been. He just came out to play when you gained the powers, that's all. And he won't go away, believe me. I've tried that with Iron Man. It didn't work.” He grasped Peter's shoulder, waiting for him to meet his eyes. ”And concerning expectations, Peter ... I meant that your expectations of me won't be met.”

“I don't believe that, Mr. Stark,” Peter replied.

Tony smiled, relieved when Peter smiled back hesitantly, and cleared his throat, withdrawing his hand so he could hide it shaking with nerves. ”So,” he said slowly, ”I'm not exactly sure how to ask this but … are we on one page now?”

”I don't know,” Peter answered, avoiding his eyes. ”Which page are you on?”

Tony realized that Peter was probably scared to assume, scared to even ask … and decided to offer. ”About me adopting you.”

Peter bit his lip and nodded. He looked at Tony for just a second, then he ducked his head and softly said, ”Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” He wiped his eyes on one of his sleeves quickly and Tony pretended he didn't see it.

Instead, he returned the blinding smile that Peter gifted him with next. ”Right,” he said, ”on one condition.”

Peter cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

”We will never have such a conversation again.”

Peter laughed.

”Seriously,” Tony said, ”I'm exhausted.”

”That's your age showing,” Peter replied, still smiling. ”Maybe you should take a nap, we'll wake you when the Golden Girls start.”

The joke was hesitant, delivered quickly and almost shyly, but it made Tony's day. ”See what I mean?” he asked, forming a fist and bumping it against Peter's sternum gently. ”He's right there.”

***

Tony checked the cellphone in his desk drawer out of habit when he sat to check his e-mails, barely paying attention … until he noticed that there was a message in his inbox.

This had never happened before. Steve had sent Tony the phone to get in contact with him, not the other way around.

He swallowed and hesitated for a long moment, then opened the text message before he could decide to delete it.

I'm happy for you. Take good care of him. New York needs him. SR

Tony stared at the words for several minutes, not moving. So Steve knew that Peter was Spider-Man. Tony smiled slightly. Of course he did. Peter had mentioned once that he'd told Steve he was from Queens and the websites had mentioned that much about the orphan that Tony Stark intended to adopt. Making the rest of the connection wasn't very hard.

His fingers moved over the keys automatically, tapping out the message he'd written way too often over the last few weeks … and never sent.

Let's talk.

His thumb hovered over the Send button.


END
07/16

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