***Warning***

This chapter contains mentions of child abuse, and vivid descriptions and symptoms of haphephobia.

Read at your own risk.


Chapter 25: The Clash


Monday - May 2, 2016

Stark Tower - Main Offices

12:29 PM

Everybody froze as FRIDAY's message rang through the otherwise silent room. Tony blinked, slowly scrunching his eyes as he angled his head towards the ceiling, wondering if maybe his headache was finally beginning to mess with his hearing.

"What?"

"Richard Parker has entered the building. Peter is with him."

More silence. Tony let out a sharp breath, the AI's words rattling around in his head like quarters in a coin jar, plinking back and forth as he tried to make sense of them. His gaze drifted over towards the others, who were all sharing equally as incredulous looks.

Rhodey cocked a brow. "You serious, FRIDAY?"

"Yes, Colonel. Peter scanned his ID into the system 46 seconds ago and they are now awaiting permission to ascend to your current location."

Tony took another breath, shakier this time. The ringing in his ears was back, grating on his senses as it tried to pierce through his skull, throbbing up against the sides of his temples and echoing down his eardrums. He gritted his teeth and pressed his fingers into his eyes as Pepper and Rhodey spoke.

"What the heck is he doing here? And isn't Peter supposed to be in school?"

"I guess he pulled him out. You saw those news vans, Rhodey. There were close to a dozen of them parked outside that place. He probably just took him out early.

"Well, that still doesn't explain why he's here."

Tony removed his hand from the bridge of his nose, clicking his tongue as he glanced over towards the door. "Then let's ask him. FRIDAY?"

"Boss?"

"Send them up."

Pepper and Rhodey both turned to look at him as he leaned up against the desk, cupping his hands around his face as he tried to pry apart the tangle of fog that had been clouding his mind for the past couple of days. It seemed to swirl around his head in a hazy expanse of smoke, clarity just out of reach. The billionaire brushed past the others, only to stop as the sudden movement made a wash of dizziness fall over him, He leaning up against the doorframe for a second to try and get the room to stop spinning.

The others exchanged glances with each other before Pepper was taking a small step forward, face crunching in concern as she placed a steadying hand on his shoulder.

"Tony. Are you sure you're up for this?"

He cleared his throat. "Nope. Let's go greet them." And with that, he pushed off of the doorframe and walked out of the room before either he or his friends could think better of it.

After a brief second of shocked silence, he could hear the footsteps of his friends following close behind, maybe just to make sure he didn't keel over on his way there.

Tony could feel his skull thumping in tune with his heartbeat, loud and fast. His stomach began to churn again, reminiscent of the past two days but he choked it down, tightening his fingers into fists as he briskly made his way towards the elevators before he lost the wavering resolve he could feel building in his chest.

Of all the worst possible times for this to be happening, this was pretty high up there, especially considering he was having a moderately difficult time seeing things straight.

Not only that, but he hadn't had a face-to-face confrontation with Richard Parker since he'd first recruited Peter, since he'd first offered to give him the internship in the first place and that was, what? Two months ago? Long before Tony had discovered what a monster the man really was.

Tony had always planned on confronting the man, both to call him out on his treatment of the kid and to convince him to let Peter stay at the Tower for the summer.

Of course, he'd always imagined said conversations happening when he was a bit more...in his right mind, so to speak, for something told him he'd need all his wits about him when he finally confronted Richard Parker. Well safe to say, he was not prepared for such a talk at the moment. Said conversation would need careful planning on his end to make sure he didn't somehow make things worse for Peter. He'd need to be careful.

Which was exactly what he couldn't be at that moment. His mind was too foggy and too jumbled to think quickly, to devise and plan a strategy against the con man.

So, despite how it made his skin tingle with displeasure, Tony knew he'd most likely have to play nice with the man at least for now. He would just have to feign ignorance and pretend that Richard Parker was nothing more than his intern's kind-hearted and caring father, no matter how nauseous the thought made him. Well...extra nauseous.

He'd have to leave the real confrontation for another time, preferably when he wasn't in danger of overdosing on migraine medication. Besides, Peter would be there too. And the last thing Tony wanted to do was put the kid in a tough spot by going off on his father.

So with that, he swallowed down his doubts to join the bile in his stomach before he could truly comprehend what he was walking into.

They had nearly made it to the elevators when the doors were sliding open and out stepped Richard Parker, complete with a suit that could probably rival Tony's in terms of expensiveness. His hair was slicked back and combed neatly out of the way and on his white-dotted face was a million-dollar smile. "Mr. Stark! A pleasure to see you again." He held his hand out.

Tony didn't even spare the man a glance, absentmindedly shaking his hand as he searched around him, searched for a particular sight. "Mr. Parker. I'm...surprised to be receiving a visit from you." He spotted Peter standing behind the man, hidden so well, in fact, that he'd almost missed him. The teen's head was down and his hood was up, arms tightly folded over his chest. His face was covered in shadow.

A familiar seed of worry was already beginning to grow.

Richard paid it no mind, however as he diverted his attention to the two standing behind Tony. "Ms. Potts. Colonel Rhodes. I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting you." The man stepped forward to shake their hands. Tony could practically feel their reluctance to actually touch him, but they did so anyway, Pepper smiling a tight smile. "We have met before. The Scholarship America Gala last year?"

"Right, right. Apologies, I tend to meet a lot of people at those events."

"I'm sure." Pepper's voice was pinched with artificial sweetness.

Tony paid it no mind. He wasn't focused on any of them, actually. Instead, his eyes stayed on Peter, who had yet to move from his spot behind Richard, not even to greet him. Tony took a small step forward, eyes narrowed. "Peter? You okay, kid?"

The teen didn't look up, didn't say anything. Instead, he angled his head away and tightened his grip on his arms.

More doubt, more worry. It pooled heavily in his stomach.

Richard waved a hand dismissively. "He's fine. There was a bit of an incident at school, but the principal assured me it was being handled." At that, Tony couldn't help but look away, sharp eyes meeting Richard's calculating stare. The man's face still held an aura of calm, a casual smile gracing his lips. But as Tony flicked his eyes around the man's features, he noticed the slight outline of his tensed jaw, the brief flash of something darker in his eyes.

With a sudden onslaught of blinding suspicion and fear, Tony shot his eyes towards the man's hands and caught sight of his knuckles - bright, raw, and angry.

The fog lifted from his head, so sharp and sudden as a chilling fear shot down his body like ice water breaking him out of a trance.

He turned back to Peter without another second of hesitation, practically shoving past Richard as he latched his hands around the kid's shoulders and knelt down. "Pete? Kid, what's wrong? What's the matter?"

Peter still didn't say anything, didn't lift his head. Tony tried to search his face, but the hoodie cast too much shadow for him to really see anything. The man lifted his shaking hand and gingerly grabbed onto the lip of the hood, hesitating for a fraction of a second before pulling it off.

Pepper gasped behind him, Rhodey letting out a full-blown curse. And Tony...Tony just stared, a punch of air violently leaving his lips as he suddenly forgot how to breathe.

Peter's face was covered in bruises, bright red angry patches of skin that were just now beginning to darken into a deep purple, even turning black in some areas. Underneath his left eye, his right cheek, against his jawline, the corner of his lip. They were huge ugly patches of discolored skin that painfully stood out against the normal pristine pale white of his complexion. Deep cuts stood out in the darkened patches, tears in the skin from where the blows had been forceful enough to rip and produce blood. The bright crimson lines smeared against his forehead and around a cut on his lip. Some of them were so fresh that blood was still dripping, including down his horribly crooked nose.

Tony felt his grip tightening around the teen's shoulders as he stared with wide eyes and a slacked jaw, which slowly began to tense up as his eyes darkened. Peter wasn't looking at him. His eyes were downcast, head tilted away, as if he couldn't bear to look the man in the face. The angle of his head exposed a small portion of the teen's neck, Tony's eyes catching some more discoloration. Without waiting a second, he gripped the teen's collar and harshly pulled it down, exposing the darkening flesh of the boy's neck, a thick band of discoloration that went around his entire throat.

"...you son of a bitch..."

And suddenly the chill in his spine turned into white-hot fury.

Tony launched up to his feet, whirling around towards Richard, who had the audacity to look bored with the display. His fists curled as he lurched forward. "You son of a bitch!" he snarled, body moving across the floor before he could think better of it.

He only made it a few steps before Rhodey was suddenly in front of him, wrapping his arms around him as he held him back. "Tony! Man, don't!"

Pepper was rushing to Peter but Tony couldn't take his eyes off the smirking man in front of him, suddenly overcome with the need to rip that look right off his face, blast it off it he had to. How dare he? How fucking dare he?

Rhodey's grip was firm though and he couldn't seem to cross the few feet he needed to properly kill the bastard. Richard stared at him with an almost amused look as Tony continued to thrash in his friend's hold, desperate to release the rage bubbling inside of him, the fiery haze of red now glossing over his vision.

"Perhaps we should talk in private, Mr. Stark? I'd hate for my son to be subjected to your little temper tantrum," he said casually, straightening out his cuffs as he did so. Tony stopped fighting for just a second to let the words process in his steaming head, blinking back into reality as he spared a heated glare behind him.

Pepper was kneeling down next to Peter, who wasn't even acknowledging her. Instead, the teen's head was finally raised, eyes wide as he flickered his gaze back and forth between Richard and Tony with a look of straight, undiluted fear.

The glare softened, the fight in his muscles slowly seeped out and the adrenaline pumping through his veins began to pool into his stomach in a thick glob of hate. Peter was here. Peter was watching.

Peter didn't need to see this.

Tony shoved Rhodey's arms off, the Colonel hovering nonetheless just in case the billionaire decided to try another rush. He turned to Pepper and Rhodey, teeth grinding as his eyes burned. "Watch him," he growled, angling his head towards Peter, who simply glanced away, rubbing at his arms as he looked very much like he'd rather be anywhere else. Tony didn't have the time to feel guilty as he whirled around towards Richard, who had now stuffed his hands into his pockets nonchalantly.

"Come with me." It took everything in him to keep from spitting the words right into the man's face. He stormed down the hall without another word, the only confirmation that Richard was following being the light sounds of his footsteps behind him.

Knowing his anger wouldn't be containable for much longer, Tony didn't venture far, turning into one of the first available conference rooms in the next hall. He shoved the door open and stalked into the room, fists shaking at his sides as he felt the washes of anger boiling back up. His head was pounding, but he couldn't bring himself to care in that moment as he pressed his palms into the table surface and stared down at his fingers, eyes seeming to smoke in his head as Richard calmly entered the room.

Said man didn't spare Tony much of a glance, not that the billionaire cared. He was too preoccupied with repeating over and over in his head that he couldn't attack the man then and there, fighting to add some sort of restraint to the itch in his fingers that demanded blood.

("Did you know?")

. . .

. . .

He couldn't lose it.

Not again.

Tony heard the soft sound of clinking glass and glanced over, narrowing his eyes as he watched Richard calmly open the bottle of scotch they always kept in the conference rooms, bottles they must have missed in their clean-sweep of the Tower.

Tony actually felt his stomach roll as he watched the amber liquid be poured into one of the glasses, turning away with a scrunch of the nose and a disgusted curl of the lips as he pushed down the surprising cloud of nausea that arose at the sight. Richard swirled the scotch in the glass before smirking over at Tony.

"Want me to pour you one? You seem a bit tense."

Tony couldn't help but scoff as he straightened up, watching Richard casually take a sip from the glass. He swallowed, tightened his grip on the fury in his chest and spoke. "You got a lot of fucking nerve showing your face around here when his looks like that."

Richard shrugged, didn't seem to mind the venom lacing Tony's words. "As I said before, there have been some issues at school. Apparently Peter's having some trouble with a few kids, some of which aren't opposed to putting their hands on him."

Tony stared at him, opened his mouth before turning away with a humorless huff of laughter, shaking his head with a tight smile. Richard's voice was so light, like they were simply making small talk at a financial gala. It was almost understandable why nobody ever suspected anything. Almost. "Heh...bullies. Is that what you're making him say? Do people actually buy that?"

"Buy what? It's the tru-"

"Drop the act, you bastard." Tony snarled, composure slipping ever so slightly as he rounded a harsh glare at the man, taking a few threatening steps forward as he leaned closer, jabbing a finger in his direction. "I know about you."

Richard didn't lose the calm and collected look smeared onto his face, but Tony did catch the way his fingers tapped against the glass and the way his jaw clenched ever so slightly. He smiled and tilted his head, taking another sip without pulling his eyes away from Tony's face. "Know what, exactly?"

Tony took another breath, a deep inhale that swirled the air through his chest. His head was still pounding, a constant pain that lingered behind his eyes and made his teeth ache. But the foggy haze that had been with him all day was gone, leaving nothing but a burning clarity in its wake. He narrowed his eyes and leaned in closer, skin bubbling with a teeming hatred he could barely put into words.

But he could try.

"I know about you. I know you're scum and you've somehow convinced everyone in the city that you aren't, that you're the complete opposite. I know what you do to him. I know you're the lowest dirtbag I've ever had the displeasure of knowing and the worst part is that nobody else seems to see it." Another breath, another step closer. Richard tapped his fingers again. Tony shook his head, pressing his tongue against the inside of his cheek. "You like to pretend that you're this big, benevolent, kind-hearted soul whose greatest pleasure is bringing joy to the world, but I know..."

His hands itched to move, itched to make a grab for the man before him but he kept them down, kept them clenched at his sides. "I know you're nothing but a lowlife abuser who gets his sick kicks by taking his frustrations out on his own son."

Richard watched him, an almost passive expression on his face as he began to run a finger around the rim of his glass. He didn't take his eyes off of Tony. They just kept staring at each other, a thick cloud of tension hovering between them, thick enough to taste in the air. Richard squinted his eyes ever so slightly and smiled. "Is that all?"

The words seemed to be a joke, but his tone of voice almost sounded...serious, like it was a legitimate question. Tony broke their staring with a sudden blink as he wondered what the man could be referring to, if anything at all. But before he could dwell, Richard was taking another sip of the scotch, the smell making Tony take a few steps back as he whirled around on his heel and gripped the back of one of the chairs.

He heard the swirling of the liquid against the glass. "Sounds like Peter's been telling you some tall tales, Mr. Stark."

"Oh, don't you dare accuse him of lying!" He whipped back around, tempted to smack the drink out of the man's hands. "Not when you drag him in here looking like that, you sack of horse shit!"

Why is he still denying it?

He didn't understand. The man had to know that Tony was onto him, it wasn't like he was hiding his suspicions, after all. So why go on pretending that everything was fine, that he was another smiling face on the sidewalk that he had to appease and convince? Another camera to smile at? What was there to gain in it? What was the benefit to keeping up his façade?

The billionaire held onto his question for another two second before he received his answer.

Richard spared a glance up at the ceiling.

Cameras.

FRIDAY.

Tony shut his eyes, felt his teeth suddenly grinding together as his nails began to pinch into his palm.

Richard was still on the air, still cued in playing the part for anybody who could potentially watch back the footage. Even here, with video evidence Tony could use in a court of law, he still had nothing. And if his previous encounters with the man were anything to go off of, Tony was absolutely certain he wasn't about to get anything useful today, at least not straight from Richard's mouth. No confessions, no self-incrimination.

He was too smart for that.

"Peter has always had a very active imagination, Mr. Stark." Richard took his eyes away from the ceiling and kept smiling, but the look didn't reach his eyes. "I'm just...surprised he shared his creativity with you." Instead, his eyes were smoldering, both of them - one a deep, darkened brown, the other a paler ash-gray. Tony felt his skin begin to prickle with a sudden wave of dread. Richard continued.

"Usually that's something he keeps to himself."

Tony sucked in another breath, found himself fighting against the urge to shift underneath the man's scrutinizing stare. He tapped his fingers against the back of the chair and turned his head away, realizing he'd have to chose his words carefully. The last thing he needed was for his own carelessness to get the kid in trouble.

"Peter didn't tell me anything." Technically true, at least as far as Richard needed to know. "I pieced it together myself."

The father chuckled, the noise sending an involuntary chill through Tony's spine. "I'm sure you'll understand how I find that hard to believe, seeing as how nobody else ever learns about Peter's...creative imagination."

Tony actually growled at the man's playful dodging. Richard didn't seem to mind.

"So I wonder how you managed to do what nobody else has without him telling you...something. See, Peter has always had a bit of a problem keeping his mouth shut about things nobody really has an interest in." The man's eyes narrowed and his smile somehow grew colder. He chuckled, the sound harsh and cruel. "He's not the best at reading the room, if you know what I mean."

Parker took a small step forward and Tony, against his will, found himself taking one back. He furrowed his brow and straightened back up, leveling the man a hard look. "He didn't tell me anything," he growled, hoping the man would somehow believe him and leave the kid out of it. "I guess I just have my fair share of dealing with shit dads."

"Projecting now, are we, Mr. Stark?"

Tony gave an annoyed roll of his eyes, but didn't say anything. He wouldn't give the bastard the satisfaction of making him any angrier than he already was. So instead, Tony turned away with a shake of his head, pointing his stare towards the windows. "What the hell do you want? Why are you here?" As if he didn't already know.

Richard glanced over at the conference chairs and walked over, pulling out the nearest one. "I'm sure you're aware by now of the recent developments happening in the news." He sat down in the seat and crossed his legs, balancing his drink atop one knee. "They've discovered his school."

Tony scoffed and folded his arms over his chest, didn't bother in looking over. "Yeah, and judging by the kid's face, you weren't too happy with the news." He resisted the urge to glance towards the door.

He wanted to be out there. He wanted to see Peter, check the kid over with more than just a frenzied glance. But the worming seed of fury was still there, sitting tightly in his chest, demanding to be let out, demanding some sort of release. With his emotions already running high and the sheer exhaustion of his detoxing lowering his restraints to near negative levels, he preferred to risk having it blow up in Richard's face rather than Peter's.

Besides, if it meant keeping the bastard away from the kid for just a few more minutes, then Tony would stay in that conference room for as long as he possibly could.

Richard pursed his lips at Tony's comment before letting out a small sigh and glancing down at his drink. "Look, I was fine dealing with those reporters when they were just crowding around my house. It's fine. Nothing I've never dealt with before. But now they're taking it even further, so much so that it's quickly starting to become a nuisance," he muttered with an annoyed scoff.

Tony couldn't help the small sense of satisfaction he got hearing the man's slight irritation. He still didn't turn to look at him, just kept his furrowed gaze to the window and his back to the man. "News flash, Parker. I don't give a shit about whatever's inconveniencing your life."

"...Well what about Peter's life?"

The sudden flash of anger he felt just hearing the man say the kid's name was shocking.

He finally turned, showing his disgruntled glare which Richard received with a humored smile, obviously content that he'd finally gotten a reaction out of the man. "I noticed you two have a bit of a strange relationship." He swirled the scotch once more and took another sip. "It is cause for some mild concern on my part."

Tony narrowed his eyes. "Why? Cause I don't fawn over you like everyone else you've conned?"

He tightened his grip on his arms before shoving his hands into his pockets, suddenly unsure as to what to do with them. Richard was still staring at him, his sheer gaze like a stickiness coating his skin, tight and uncomfortable and ever-present. He suddenly understood why Peter was such a fidgety kid. It was hard to keep still under the intensity of the look. Like squirming under a heat lamp, the room suddenly felt suffocatingly humid. Still, Tony - more than used to dealing with uncomfortable, high-tension situations - simply met the man's gaze with one of his own and kept his voice level. "What are you suggesting we do about it then?"

Richard shrugged. "Simple. They have their questions? We answer them." He leaned back in his chair. "A press conference. A controlled environment we can manage and maintain on our own terms, filter their questions, only take in reputable news outlets." He tapped his fingers against the glass, a soft plinking ringing from the movement. "They'll get the info they want so badly and in exchange, the media fiasco that would otherwise stretch out for another four weeks shrinks down to one."

Tony furrowed his brow, maintained eye contact with Richard for a moment longer before folding his arms back over his chest and turning his gaze to the floor. He didn't say anything, didn't contradict or outright refuse the idea because, well...he couldn't.

He'd been talking with Pepper and Rhodey for a few days now, floating the idea out a couple times in the process. Press conferences were nothing new, barely even news to him. He'd conducted so many, both drunk and sober alike, that it was hard to count. It was only logical to conduct one now, especially if it meant making things easier on Peter.

Tony took a deep breath, shut his eyes and tried to will his headache away. It wasn't working. If anything, it got louder, stronger.

Richard must have taken Tony's silence for uncertainty, for he leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. "It makes sense. Benefits all of us, including Peter. I'm sure the last thing you want is for him to be afraid to go to school with the threat of all those reporters harrassing him. An environment like that is prone to cause some developmental issues later on in life." Richard smirked and continued to tap the side of the glass with his nail. "I'm sure you can attest to that, huh?"

Tony didn't respond to the jab, didn't even look up from his staring match with the carpet flooring. He started to tap his own fingers, drummed them up against his folded arms as he listened to the sound of his breathing mingling with the soft ringing he could still hear in his ears. It had faded considerably, maybe just because he couldn't afford to focus on it. But now that it was near silent, he could hear it again, echoing around his eardrum. He could hear everything else too.

Every denial Peter had ever made, every distracting comment the kid would use to change the subject, every plea to ignore and forget, just look the other way and continue on as if everything was okay.

But it wasn't okay. None of this was okay.

("If you won't let the police protect you, then I will!")

. . .

. . .

. . .

But he could change that.

"I want the kid."

He would change that.

("Let me help you.")

For Peter.

Richard almost startled in his seat at the sudden declaration, blinking at Tony with a shocked expression. "Excuse me?"

Tony didn't falter. "You want your press conference? Fine. Whatever. But in exchange, I want the kid for the summer. Here, 24/7. He'll stay here, sleep here. He'll have no contact with you for the entire two months. More or less, this will be his home for that time."

Richard stared at him, kept blinking in a supposed attempt to understand what Tony was saying. And Tony knew exactly the moment when the words did click in Richard's head, for the man grew a huge grin as he suddenly let out a loud laugh. The noise was strange. It was sharp and unsettling, grating on the senses. Tony didn't flinch, didn't waver in his demeanor or posture as he watched the other shaking in his chair from the force of his laughter. It took a second for him to compose himself enough to speak, letting out a content sigh as he gave Tony an incredulous look

"Oh, Stark. Are you...Are you serious right now?"

"Serious as a CPS call."

That sobered Richard up just a tad, the smile not leaving from his face, but it did relax slightly as he took a few deep breaths. He didn't peel his eyes away from Tony. He just huffed another softer chuckle and licked at his lips, leaning back in the chair. "You're not going to do that." His voice wasn't threatening, but it was definitely sure.

Tony narrowed his eyes. "Oh? And why not?"

"Because if you were you'd have done it already," Richard scoffed, waving a hand in the air with a roll of his eyes and an amused snort. "You have nothing here, Stark. The conference is more of a courtesy than anything else. I don't have to do it nor is my need for it very great. I can deal with a few more weeks of this nonsense and Peter will just have to learn to live with it. Such is the price to pay for our lifestyle, wouldn't you say?" The man reached back over for his drink and downed the rest of it in one sip.

He set it down on the table and rose up to his feet, straightening out his suit. "I don't have to agree to anything." With that, he brushed his hands against his sleeves and began to turn for the door.

"You're right. You don't. You one hundred percent have the right to say no. Just like I have the right to set up my own press conference...alone."

Richard paused.

"I also have the right to announce at that press conference everything I've witnessed over the past two months, mainly surrounding the behavior of my newest intern that causes me great concern."

The man held his rigid posture before turning back around, face neutral. Tony smirked, but he didn't feel very happy. "I have the right to share these concerns with the public, share my fears that said intern's family may not be as pristine and perfect as you like to pretend." He began to stalk forward, slowly prowling along the conference floor as the distance between them shortened. He leaned closer, eyes burning. "I have the right to go up there and call you out on everything I've seen so far, to expose you as the piece of shit you really are."

Richard was silent for a moment before he turned away, shaking his head as he cracked another loose grin. He slid his hands into his pockets and leaned back with a confidence you couldn't fake. "Oh, Stark...this...this is good. I have to admit, this...this is really good. With the kind of day I've been having, I needed a laugh like that."

The relaxed look on his face took on a more sinister note before he turned back around towards the door, resting his palm against the doorknob. "Nobody would believe you."

The door cracked open.

. . .

"Is that what you told Peter?"

Again, Richard paused. This time he didn't turn around, just kept facing the door, kept his hand wrapped around the handle. Tony didn't back down, not from the chilling silence and not from the words.

"Is that how you got him to shut up for all these years? Kept him isolated and alone? Did you tell him that there was no point in asking for help, so much so that he doesn't even try anymore?"

("I didn't think you'd care.")

"Is that what you did to him? Is that the sort of shit you've been forcing down his throat for all these years?" He could feel himself getting heated again, could feel it working up underneath his skin. He swallowed down whatever runaway emotions threatened to show. He had to get this right, time this all perfectly, get each and every word placed exactly where it needed to go.

He had to convince him. He had to get Peter.

So with that, Tony cleared his throat and grabbed the back of one of the chairs, mainly to steady himself as he felt the tremors from earlier beginning to make a repeat appearance. "You're right, Richard. Most likely, people will think it's a political move, build my own company up by tearing down my competition. They'd be much quicker to believe the hard-working, charitable dad rather than the disgraced, alcoholic Avenger." He gestured to himself as he bent into the seat, grabbing for the remote on the table. He pointed it towards the TV in the top corner of the room, turning the screen onto the muted news channel, which was still tuned into Peter's school. Richard glanced up at it with an impassive glance.

"But of the millions of people who would inevitably see my broadcast...are you one hundred percent sure that not one, not a single person watching that interview will start to wonder? That there won't be at least a handful of people who are skeptical, who start to questions why I'm saying those particular things?"

Richard didn't turn to look at him, but he didn't make for the door either. He just kept his back to him, slowly bringing his arms to fold behind him. Tony couldn't see his face. He continued anyway.

"All I need is one, two, a small group of people who start to look just a little deeper, who spare it more than just a single glance." He crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned back in his chair. "Sure, most people probably won't believe it, but I don't need them to. All I need to do is place the thought in their minds, a niggling seed in the back of their heads that will slowly grow over time, that will make the kids and teachers at his school whisper, will make the people on the streets look a little closer, if only to calm their nerves and prove to themselves that I'm wrong, that there's nothing to worry about."

He narrowed his eyes, jaw tensing slightly. "Only...they won't find nothing. They'll finally see the kid for the first time, see how skinny he is, how pale his skin is, how small he is for a fourteen-year-old boy. They'll see the scars they'd never noticed before, the bruises they'd ignored, the flinches they'd chalked up to their own imaginations. Once people know what to look for...well, let's just say they get much more observant."

Richard was silent, still hadn't turned around. Tony found himself feeling relieved at the fact. It was much easer to talk with his usual snapping tongue without the man's burning stare hissing against his skin.

"Maybe they'll start doing some digging. You know how reporters just love to scrounge up dirt. Or...maybe you don't know. They've never felt the need to do it with you and why would they? You're the Father of New York, the kind-hearted billionaire spending his money on disabled orphans and blind, three-legged puppies." He spat it out with a disgusted grunt, rolling his eyes as he shrugged his shoulders in mock disinterest.

"Well, maybe they do start to dig. Maybe they find out about the ex-cons living at your house. Weird, but not incriminating. So they dig deeper, if only to prove your innocence, of course. Except, uh-oh. Now they've noticed something interesting with CPS. Six house visits in the past eight years? Not great numbers, especially since you've done some work to sweep those events under the rug." He leaned in closer, voice suddenly getting low, the words rubbing painfully against his throat as they rumbled out.

"Maybe they start to think I might not be so crazy after all. Maybe they start getting suspicious. Maybe they start asking Peter questions. Maybe he struggles just a bit more to answer them. Maybe...he slips."

Still nothing. No reaction. Now Tony did wish he could at least see the man's face, gauge how well he was doing here, how convinced he was. He tapped his fingers against the surface of the table before deciding to just double down and pray it would be enough.

"Like I said, maybe the conference I have every right to conduct gets swept away, disregarded as nothing but slander from the drunken billionaire losing his mind over the Accords. But then again...maybe not." He hoped Richard couldn't hear how fast his heart was beating, thumping up against his chest almost as strongly as his head, which pounded against his skull in thick waves of teeth-chattering pulses. "All in all, seems like a lot of unnecessary work for you to deal with. And you don't seem like the type of man who deals with the unnecessary."

He swallowed, licking his lips as he fought to quell the unease blooming in his gut.

It was a pretty big bluff.

Richard might not know about his deal with Peter, but Tony did. And he knew that going on live television and making some big declaration about how Richard Parker was an abusive father would probably go in direct violation of said agreement.

Safe to say, Tony was positive it wouldn't go over well.

Peter would hate him. There was no doubt about that. The kid would hate him and he would leave and never come back and most definitely never trust Tony, completely destroying any and all hope of getting him help. Tony knew he could never go through with what he'd just declared. Not without Peter's complete support.

But Richard didn't know that. At least, he had to pray he didn't.

Said man still hadn't turned around, just kept staring at the door with his hands folded behind him, shoulders squared and back straight. Tony resisted the urge to begin bouncing his leg and sat in the silence for a moment. Finally, he heard the sound of soft chuckling, Richard's head tilting down just a tad.

"You've given this quite some thought, huh?"

Tony pursed his lips at the sheer flippantness the man continued to display. "You've given me plenty to think about." He turned away from Richard at that, swiveling his chair to face the other wall, face the window behind him displaying the lights and the buildings below. Tony took a deep breath, shut his eyes as he leaned his head against the back of the chair.

He could feel just how exhausted he was, felt it pulling down on him like a weight in his gut. His energy levels, which had already been at poor status to begin with, were rapidly pooling down into the floor. He couldn't even keep his hands steady anymore, just left them to shiver in his lap from sheer exhaustion, his stamina reserves quickly dropping. Every other second, he felt a nagging pull urging him to head upstairs and sleep the rest of the day away. Of course, every time he did, he was reminded of the kid just down the hall and it instantly disappeared from his thoughts, replaced with a cold claw of dread and an ever-burning anger that had yet to subside.

He glanced down at his shaking hands, slowly began to brush his fingers over the scars on his palm.

"How can you do this to him?"

It was out of his mouth before he could think better of it, before he could tighten the cap on his emotions and come to terms with the fact that he didn't have the energy to keep this up for much longer.

Richard obviously was just as surprised as he was at the sudden outburst, for he finally turned away from the door and threw the billionaire a perplexed look. Somehow, it made Tony even angrier. As if the man didn't already know what he was talking about.

"Peter is..." He paused, trying to figure out what to say as he sucked in another lighter breath. He gritted his teeth, grounded himself by continuing to brush up against the scars dotting his hand, the scars that reminded him of why he was doing this. He shook his head and glared down at the ground.

"...he's smart and he's gentle and he's kind, kinder than he has any right to be, but he is and I can barely understand it at times cause who comes out of something as horrible as all this still acting so pure?" His tongue felt fuzzy. The words were thick in his throat.

"He's a good kid..."

Richard was quiet for a moment before he glanced down at his shoes. "I know that."

Tony narrowed his eyes and spun the chair around to face the man, who was now moving away from the door and approaching the table. "Do you? Cause I saw what you did to him out there, the things you continue to do to him behind closed doors. You do all of that and yet you still have the audacity to say you think he's a good kid? You're saying a good kid deserves all of that?" The grip of composure was slipping, he could feel it fading, leaving nothing to stop the bubbling, white-hot fury teeming just underneath his muscles, flaring out overtop his skin.

Richard lifted his head and Tony could see a true flash of anger spark in his eyes for just a second before the father shook his head and tensed his fists. "You wouldn't understand," he muttered after a moment of tense silence.

Tony scoffed. "I wouldn't?"

"No. You wouldn't." He snapped back, glare finally materializing full force onto his face. The man turned to fully face Tony now. "You have no idea the sacrifices you make for your child, the tough decisions you have to face, the turmoil you have to fight with every day." Richard glowered at him, face curling into a derisive sneer. "You don't understand. You can't understand. Because you aren't a father."

Tony furrowed his brows, felt something strange in his chest. "You're right. I'm not. But I'm not a pilot either. But, if I saw a plane hanging out of a tree, I could still objectively say that something wasn't right there." He pressed his palms into the table and stood up from his seat, posture rigid and muscles coiled in a tense, humming wave of hatred, nerves and exhaustion. "I may not be a dad, but I can sure as hell see that what you're doing is wrong. What you're teaching him is wrong. What you're forcing onto him is wrong. You're hurting him. Plain and simple. There's no excuses, no justifications. It's abuse. Clear as day. And it's illegal."

Richard stared at him, eyes hard and cold. His jaw tensed. Tony could actually hear the sound of the man's knuckles cracking as he rolled his fingers into fists. "I have the right to discipline my child. Every parent does."

Still not a confession. Still not an admission. Tony growled under his breath at the logic the man was using. Was he serious?

"Is that what you call it? Is that what you say to Peter when you're smashing his face into the floor? That it's discipline? That you have the right to do it?" His chest was tightening, but he forced the words through anyway. "No. No parent has the right to hurt their child."

Richard scoffed, turning away slightly. "And you have no right to lecture me, Stark."

"I don't have the right?!" Now he was shouting. He couldn't help it. "You drag that kid into my tower looking like that and you say I don't have the right?! You waltz in like everything's perfectly alright? It's just..."

Richard rolled his eyes and turned away. Tony, in turn, locked his jaw, forced the words off with a sharp breath and stared in disbelief at the sheer disdain the man was showing. He gave a humorless huff as he shook his head. "You really just don't care, do you? You don't care about him at all."

"Hey." Richard sharply turned back around, pointed a finger at Tony. "Don't you accuse me of not caring about my son."

Tony didn't back down, just curled his lip. "Show me proof of the contrary, then. Otherwise I'll stick to it."

"You don't know what you're talking about, Stark."

"And you just don't know when to quit, do you? I already told you I know about your stupid act so you can drop it."

"It's not an act."

"Of course it is! You clearly don't care for Peter!"

Richard narrowed his eyes, which smoldered so darkly in his skull they seemed to shroud the entire room in an extra level of uncomfortable heat. His voice was low and dangerous as he leaned closer to Tony.

"I love my son."

Tony threw up his hands in frustration. "Oh, quit your fucking bullshit, you piece of-

"I LOVE MY SON!" Richard slammed his hands down on the table as he roared, a loud bang echoing across the room so loudly and so suddenly that Tony actually found himself backing up. But no amount of distance seemed to be enough as Richard continued to loom over him, pressing his hands into the surface of the table as he stared with a burning fury.

Suddenly, Tony was all too aware of just how tall Richard was, just how much he towered over him. For a fraction of a second, he almost felt a twinge of fear and considered backing off just a tad, his muscles heavy and his head foggy.

His fingers brushed against the scars on his palm.

Tony gritted his teeth and straightened his back, glaring right back at the man before him. He wasn't about to let this bastard push him around the same way he did his own kid. He wouldn't give him the satisfaction. Richard continued to burn his piercing stare into Tony's eyes for another good long second of heated silence before he blinked and the look was gone, replaced instead with a chilling smile that slowly spread onto his lips like blood seeping through cloth, spreading further and further in a deep expanse of unease.

"Tell me again what you think of him." His voice was soft again, almost sweet. "What was it you said? That he's a good kid? Well how do you think he got that way?" He slowly straightened his back. "Peter is the most polite, respectful and obedient child you've ever met, isn't he?"

Tony didn't like where this was going. He didn't respond, at least not verbally. His glare remained fixed.

Richard took his silence in stride, however. "Admit it, Stark. He's all of it and more. He doesn't speak out of turn. He doesn't raise his voice or step out of line. He doesn't demand anything or act entitled in any way. He never shares his opinion when it's unwanted. He's quiet and he's attentive and he's-"

"Afraid."

Richard looked over at him. Tony stared back, his glare slowly mingling with a sudden sadness. "He's afraid, Richard."

Did the man understand that? Did he understand that what he was doing was wrong? Tony almost hoped he didn't, for at least then he could hold onto the hope that somehow, he could convince Richard of how heinous his actions were, expose him to the sheer vulgarity of it all and finally shake some sense into him. Maybe there was a chance that he could turn this around, reveal to him that he had to change his ways for the greater good.

But those hopes were quickly dashed as Richard's smile only grew, a knowing smile that held nothing but contempt and self-assurance.

Tony's stomach rolled over. This time it was much harder to swallow the bile down.

Richard knew what he was doing. And he was happy about it.

He stared back at the man with a horrified look he couldn't keep off his face, eyes scrunching as he shook his head. "What...what is the matter with you? You...you actually want that?"

Richard clearly wasn't fazed by the horror in Tony's voice, for he simply shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head. "Children should respect their parents, should listen to their fathers and obey their wishes."

He was dodging. He wasn't answering the fucking questions. He was toying like it was all a big goddamn game.

"He's a child, not a fucking robot, you maniac!"

"Youth does not grant one a free pass for disrespect and disobedience," Richard chirped back with a snide look. "And I taught Peter that as soon as I could." Tony could hear his breathing picking up, felt the clicking of his teeth rubbing together so tightly, the pressure made his temples clench in pain. Richard lifted a hand and ran it through his hair, letting out a small sigh as he glanced down at the ground.

"I care very much for my son, Stark, despite what you might think. I care enough to discipline him when he steps out of line. I care enough to teach him about the important things, molding him into a civil and humble citizen." The man smiled, not a sinister or dominating smile like before, but a real...genuine smile, full of pride and satisfaction. "Peter is a model of perfect behavior and I would expect nothing less than perfection from any child of mine."

Tony couldn't believe his ears...no. He couldn't believe his eyes. Richard was...happy. He was proud of everything he was saying. The man truly believed his actions were something to be celebrated, that his son's behavior was somehow...good?

Suddenly, he was back in the bathroom, holding in the nausea that threatened to overtake him.

"Perfection..." he whispered in a breathless puff of air. The word sounded off in his ears, warped and distorted. He shut his eyes, felt his nails digging into his palms as his fists shook at his sides. He spoke, his words tight and painful. "Is it perfection that he can barely hold a conversation with a stranger because you taught him to keep his mouth shut?"

Richard glanced over at him. Tony snapped his eyes back open and stared at the man with more hatred than he'd ever felt for anybody before. Not for Stane. Not for Ross. Not even for Steve.

This...this was all for Richard.

"Is it perfection that it took him two weeks to finally get used to looking me in the eye cause he was always expecting a slap for it?" His skin was hot, sandpaper scratching overtop his muscles in thick waves of cloyingly sharp, white-hot needles.

"Is it perfection that he can't even handle a hug or a pat on the back because of you, because of everything you've done to him?" Where was the trash can? He was sure he was going to vomit. He could feel it crawling in his throat, tiny little bugs skittering inside of him.

"That's perfection to you? The fact that your son is so afraid of...everybody around him that he can't trust anyone?"

Richard cocked a brow and threw Tony a smirk. "Trust is a very dangerous concept, Mr. Stark. And you should always be careful who you lend it to." The man paused for a fraction of a second before his smile turned sinister, a Cheshire grin that dripped with a thick, malicious venom. "I'm sure you can understand given everything that's happened with your teammates."

Tony's guard slipped for a second. And it was the only break Richard needed to snake his way right through.

"Do you really want him to suffer through the same misery of coming to terms with the fact that trust is a flawed concept built on lies and deceit?"

The billionaire readjusted his glare, though he felt it beginning to lose some of its intensity. He flexed his fingers, rolled his knuckles against the side of his leg. "That's not...that's not always the case," he muttered, feeling a slight wave of dizziness brush up against him for just a second before it was gone. It was getting harder to see straight, so much so that he opted instead to just turn around and close his eyes, discreetly gripping the back of one of the chairs for a modicum of support.

"Mm-hmm...well, if that's so...then why are you all alone?"

There was an intense flux of heat and suddenly Richard was in front of him, staring down with his huge stature and his piercing iron gaze. Tony gritted his teeth and mustered up another scowl, but even that took up more energy than it was worth and soon enough he elected to just lower his head to the floor, shutting his eyes with a tired exhale. He could vaguely hear Richard's soft puff of amusement, the sound of the man's footsteps suddenly circling around him, prowling, a lion trapping its prey.

"Poor Tony Stark, betrayed by his teammates and left all alone to deal with the crumbling mess that is the Accords. Everyone knows how fragile those things are, how close they are to tearing at the seams. Meanwhile, your teammates are out there assaulting hard-working government officials just doing their jobs."

He could hear his breathing, felt it rattling in his chest. God, he was so tired.

"And where is Tony Stark in all of this? Hiding away in his tower, cowering from the mistakes he's caused. Maybe he just doesn't want to face the fact that he put his trust in the wrong people and now he's paying for it. Now he's alone and he's miserable and he's reaching out to anything he can use just to distract himself from the reality of his pitifully pathetic life. And apparently that means my son, coming up with crazy conspiracies and delving into manic episodes out of sheer desperation. Not very helpful for my boy, in my opinion. But then again, you are really just trying to help yourself, so what's the harm?"

The footsteps stopped. Richard was beside him. It was like the man was radiating an aura of heat, an unbearable burn that seemed to rub up against Tony's skin. "You think you can help my son? When you're already failing at everything else?"

Tony opened his eyes, but didn't turn to look at the man as he backed off. Instead, he just kept his eyes on the floor, kept his ears honed in on the faded whining ringing in his head. The words swirled, hovered around the air in a fog of thick heaviness, like smoke from a cigarette. Even the smell, acrid and bitter, seemed to fill the room.

He waited a moment, two even, before Tony suddenly cracked a small smile and huffed out a laugh. He straightened up and pushed off of the chair he'd been using for support, suddenly feeling a rush of inexplicable energy as his anger reignited in a bright flash of burning rage, but not at the man's words. No...at what the man had been trying to do.

"Oh...you...you're good. You are good, Rich. I have to give you that," Tony muttered, the smile slowly dropping into a firm frown and a deep, intense stare. He saw Richard stiffen at the billionaire's sudden one-eighty.

Tony Stark was no stranger to mental manipulation. He saw it all the time, hell, he wasn't too shabby at it himself. Dealing with the press, with politicians, with stuffy billionaires with brown-nosing tactics and shit-eating grins. It was just another arsenal of war, another weapon he saw used every single day.

And he had to admit that Richard was good, could probably hold his own against the best of the best. He wasn't the most subtle, but Tony had to give the man credit. He really knew how to hit the perfect spot, just nick that little niggling seed of doubt everybody had inside of them and painfully poke at it.

And Richard, obviously sure of his own skill, hadn't been expecting Tony to not be affected by his words, for his eyes were now narrowed n sudden suspicion.

See, it wasn't the fact that Richard had tried to manipulate him that filled Tony with a newfound boiling rage. No...it was that he knew Richard had used such tactics before, only...not on Tony.

"A couple minutes of that and Peter's putty in your hands, huh?"

Richard's eyes shrunk to thin little slits in his face as he gritted his teeth. Tony matched the glare head-on.

"And if the verbal abuse isn't enough, you can always fall back on your fists, right? That probably shuts him up quick."

Richard was angry. Tony could see it in the way his teeth were gnashing and how his body had suddenly gotten stiff. His ego was nicked. He'd thrown his hooker and Tony hadn't fallen for it, hadn't folded like everyone else. Instead he'd thrown him off. He'd disjointed him.

He had to take advantage of this now, had to capitalize and see if he could get the man to slip, admit to something he wasn't supposed to, reveal a secret he'd meant to keep hidden.

He had to make this footage count.

"Or maybe you leave him to your cronies since you're apparently too lazy to do it yourself? What was it you were saying, Mr. Parent of the Year? Does it still count if you're not the one doing all the disciplining? Seems to me like your goons are better parents to Peter than you are, by your logic."

He stepped closer, closed the distance. Richard leaned back, blinked down at him with a shocked anger that made his cheeks dot with a reddish flush of frustration. Keep pushing. Keep prodding. He was close. He could feel it.

"So what is it, Rich? How does it work? You see Peter doing something you don't like and, what? You signal the Nanny Squad to descend? Let them have their way with him while you stand off to the side doing nothing, wracking up the parenting points while you really just sit there as useless as a drunken housewife?"

They were nose to nose now. The heat was back, like Tony was mere inches away from a burning fire, the sensation blowing across his skin in thick waves of boiling air. "You say you're looking out for Peter's best interests, that you're somehow a good dad, and yet you don't seem to care enough to get your hands dirty. You just pass off that responsibility to some other idiots so you stay out of the line of fire." Tony scoffed, tossed up his hands with a tilt of his head and a mocking smirk. "And you say I'm pathetic? You think I'm the one who's miserable? Cause the only miserable one I see here is you, hiding behind his excuses and his platitudes like some measly little weasel who doesn't even have the balls to own up to his actions."

Their eyes met, an intense battle of glares that filled the room and crackled in the air. "A poor excuse for a father and an even shittier excuse for a man."

Richard curled his fists, lifted a hand...

"How long has it been since Peter started to resent you?"

Silence.

Like a cushion being shoved against a speaker, the whirling noise of tension around the room silenced with a muffled hush of wind. Richard's narrowed glare jolted up into a wide-eyed stare, blinking dumbly at the billionaire before him as his lips parted ever so slightly. His fists slowly uncurled and his hand settled back down to his side.

Tony felt a flare of unease spike in his chest at the sudden change in demeanor, but he didn't relinquish the antagonizing glare on his face, didn't relieve the pressure. He wasn't about to fall for some bluff.

But the unease only grew as Richard's shocked expression suddenly turned...soft. The man swallowed, licking his lips as he glanced away for a fraction of a second. His lips carefully began to spread into another smile, but it wasn't vicious or mocking. Instead, it was almost gentle, like something a true father would use exclusively on their own blubbering child. But even so, Tony could see through it.

Richard Parker wasn't capable of compassion. Tony was certain of that now. That smile wasn't kind. It wasn't gentle. It was patronizing, a physical manifestation of the man's ideas of superiority. And it made Tony's skin crawl.

"Resent me? Stark...Peter loves me."

. . .

. . .

. . .

Lie. A lie. He was lying.

"What?"

He was trying to throw Tony off. That's all, that's all it was. Some blatant lie that would turn the tables and get the attention off of Richard, dial down the threat by making some ridiculous declaration as means of a distraction.

That's what it was.

That's what it had to be.

But as Tony stared at the man's face, heard the little chuckle he let out that just dripped with assurity and a confidence he must have accrued through years of torment and abuse, he felt his resolve slowly begin to falter.

That aura wasn't something you could fake. It wasn't something you could conjure up within a few minutes just to bluff to your competitor. It was a confidence that came through years of experience, a confidence you only held when you knew with one hundred percent certainty that what you said couldn't be poked through, that your words couldn't be denied...because it was the truth.

But...but it couldn't be.

Richard let out a content little sigh, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "Whatever notions you have in your head are fun to listen to and all, but they don't matter. You can believe all you want that I'm some vile villain who twirls his mustache while locking my son in dark, decrepit dungeons." He smirked, a cruel taunt. "But that's not what Peter believes. How can he when I'm his last living relative, his last link to true family?"

(I thought I...I c-could handle it.")

("We don't have much of a choice, Mr. Stark.")

("Nobody would believe me.")

Tony stared back at him with furrowed brows, chest bouncing up and down as he tried to suck in more air than was currently being let in. It wasn't true. He was lying. It wasn't true. "He..." the words couldn't seem to crawl out.

Richard shrugged his shoulders and leaned up against the door to the room. "He loves me, Stark. More than anything. Because I take care of him. I feed him and I clothe him and I shelter him from the horror that is the outside world. He recognizes this." Richard placed a hand to his own chest. "He knows that without me...he'll have nothing, no one. Without me, he's alone."

Tony gritted his teeth, tried to find some more anger to hold onto, something to drive out the freezing grip of ice that had now taken its place. "No, he...you torture him. He doesn't...he can't actually-"

("I...I-I love him and he loves me, alright? He LOVES me!")

Tony felt his heart sputter down into his feet.

'You don't believe me? Go ahead and ask him yourself." Richard narrowed his eyes slightly as he pushed off of the door, taking a few prominent steps forward. Tony felt himself moving backwards, the floor seeming to sink underneath him as the man approached. "You wanna know why I'm not worried? You wanna know why I know you won't go to the police?" He leaned closer. Tony couldn't help but meet the man's terrifying stare.

"Because I know Peter would never allow it." He smiled and tilted his head to the side. "He refused it, didn't he? When you offered?"

("...help me with what?")

Tony swallowed but the razors in his throat remained.

"Despite the fact that all those claims are obviously not true," Richard glanced up at the ceiling as he said this. "I know how strong his love for me is...and he would never let anything happen to me."

Tony's back hit the wall. There was nowhere left to go. Richard leaned in, his lips a few inches from his competitor's ear, too close for the cameras to see, to soft for the audio to hear.

"And if he did...I'd made him pay for it."

The man pulled back ever so slightly, but he didn't raise his voice, kept it just low enough so that only Tony could hear it. "You want the kid so bad? Fine. You can have him. Keep him all summer. Do whatever it is you wanna do, attempt whatever you're hoping to achieve. You do your best." He curled his lip into a sneer. "But if you think anything you can do will change the years of effort I've already put in, then you're kidding yourself."

Tony swore he could see the man's eyes flickering with orange light, like there was a literal fire behind the irises. "That kid belongs to me...and he knows it. How long until you do too?"

Despite the overwhelming sense of danger he felt, backed into a corner and all, despite the exhaustion he felt in his bones or the icy-cold dread sinking into his gut, despite the fact that Richard literally loomed over him like the monster he was, like a soldier curling their metal hand against his chest or driving their shield into his heart, Tony lifted his head and gave the man the darkest look he could possibly muster, a blaze of fury and rage and determination rolled up into one single look that conveyed the deep-seated hatred he felt for Rogers, for Ross, for...everyone and anyone who had made his life as hard as they possibly could, for everyone who placed themselves above all else and disregarded the mess they left behind, for everyone he'd ever been afraid of. He curled his fists, choked down the fluttering of fear and took a deep breath.

"I'm not afraid of you, you son of a bitch." He growled it softly, but the words were spit so forcefully, they could have cracked the walls.

And he wasn't. Not anymore. Now he felt nothing but resolve, an unwavering determination that could not be shaken, not by his ex-teammates, not by the politicians on Capital Hill, and not by the man he now vowed to take down.

Tony wasn't afraid, couldn't be afraid. He wouldn't allow himself to be.

Richard stared down at him and narrowed his eyes, seemed to understand the unspoken declaration now being passed between the two of them. It was clear now. This was war, and it wouldn't end until someone declared surrender.

"Maybe not...but you're not really the one who needs to be afraid of me, are you?"

A war with an unthinkable consequence...and an unknowable end.

A war Tony was not going to lose.

As if on cue from some unseen camera man, Richard leaned back up and straightened out his suit, smiling down with a crowd-pleasing grin. "Well, I think this was a very productive talk, don't you think, Mr. Stark? We do have to do this some other time."

Not one to be outdone, especially now that they'd declared the start to their little battle, Tony threw him his own million-watt grin. "Of course. Preferably when we aren't dealing with a mass media storm, huh?"

He withheld the internal grimace that arose at making small talk with the bastard. Tony coldly brushed past him and made for the door, opening it to let the other through while smiling through gritted teeth. Richard nodded respectfully at him and soon the two were leaving the room that seemed to smoke from the wounds of the battlefield.

. . . . .

The walk down the hallways was long and silent, with Tony flexing and unflexing his fingers as he tried to rein his emotions back in. He could feel the uncomfortable itch of heat wavering just underneath his skin, the same feeling he'd felt after the Bridge. It had never truly gone away afterwards, but it had lessened considerably in the days to follow. Now it was back, a itch that made his heartbeat thud dangerously loud in his ears and his muscles coil in preparation for a threat he couldn't see.

Only now he could see it.

Richard was still angry, that much Tony could tell. The man was fairly skilled in concealing his inner thoughts, but it was hard to hide it all from someone who had spent the better part of his own life perfecting the art of lying. His walk was stiff and his shoulders were tense, the veins in his neck just a bit more noticeable than normal. They were small details, but details nevertheless.

Tony narrowed his eyes, but didn't say anything, just kept his mouth shut and his eyes forward as they neared the end of the hallway. Considering the main offices for Stark Tower were so expansive, they took up their own floor, complete with separate lobby for the elevators. Their footsteps echoed off the walls as they entered.

Peter was sitting in one of the waiting chairs, with Pepper hovering close by in the seat next to him, Rhodey pacing back and forth in front of them like a guard dog on watch. Situated on one of the small tables between the chairs was a rag and a bottle of water - unopened if the sealed cap was anything to go by - and in Pepper's lap was another rag, which she was nervously wringing in her hands.

She was talking to Peter in a voice too low for Tony to make out, but the kid wasn't responding. He wasn't even looking at her. Tony could tell by the teen's body language that he was uncomfortable, hands clinging tightly to the bottom seat cushion of the chair and shoulders tight with tension. His head was down, chin tucked close to his chest and every movement Pepper made elicited another flinch away from her.

Tony could tell the woman had been trying to coax something out of the teen for most likely the better part of his absence. But it was obvious Peter wasn't cooperating, not even enough to allow the woman to clean his face considering it was still bloody with smears of dirt on his cheeks and drying blood dotting his nose.

He knew Peter had to have heard their approach, but the teen waited until Pepper and Rhodey heard it as well before lifting his head.

Rhodey was immediately on guard, squaring his shoulders as he locked his narrowed eyes onto Richard's form. He cautiously glanced over towards his friend before immediately shooting back over to Richard. "Tony, you okay, man? Everything good?"

Tony sucked in a breath and had to try very hard to drag his gaze off of Peter to return Rhodey's question. swallowing down the automatic anger that flared seeing the boy's face again. "It's...fine. Everything's fine." He felt his eye twitch, couldn't help but aim one last jab at the man before him. "Right, Richard?"

Said man merely glanced over his shoulder at him and threw him a fairly convincing smile. "Of course. We really made some progress today that I'm very pleased with. But I do think it's time I head off."

With that, he turned his sights on Peter.

The air in the room shifted as Pepper immediately shot to her feet and Rhodey stepped next to her, the two of them effectively blocking Peter from the man's sights. But Richard wasn't deterred, merely gave a little chuckle and cocked a brow at their sudden defenses.

Neither Pepper nor Rhodey tried to hide it anymore, for they both glared at him with a distain conjured up over a much longer period of time than the fifteen minutes he and Tony were away.

Richard pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek and simply leaned back with a condescending smirk before lifting his hand and snapping his fingers with an audible click.

Instantly, Peter jumped to his feet and silently whisked around the two, coming to stand before his father in the blink of an eye. The teen didn't look up, just kept his eyes locked onto the laminate floors below him, hands fisting into the fabric of his jeans. Before any of the others could say a word of protest, Richard was latching a huge hand around Peter's slender wrist and forcefully yanking him towards the elevator.

"Let's go." Richard's voice no longer hid his annoyance as he dropped his façade. Peter must have picked up on the man's anger, for his face quickly grew an air of unease that he swallowed down with a silent glance to the ground.

Immediately, Tony was there, grabbing onto Peter's outstretched arm just above Richard's fist, fingers curling tight in a desperate hold. "Wait."

Richard turned back around with a glare, Peter staring up at Tony with wide eyes as he parted his lips in a silent question. Tony kept his gaze locked into Richard's intensifying scowl. He swallowed before tightening his jaw and hardening his own stare.

"Let him stay."

He could feel Pepper and Rhodey coming up behind him as well as the way Peter's arm trembled in his grip, but he didn't dare let go. Richard didn't either. Instead, his eyes scrunched questioningly as his brow raised.

"It's Monday. He'd be coming here after school anyway." Tony tried to keep his voice level and calm, but it was hard to keep the urgency at bay. If Richard was this angry now, he didn't want to think about what the man would do once he was alone, once he got Peter alone.

Richard stared at him for a good long while and the lobby suddenly felt as suffocating as the conference room. Peter kept flitting his gaze back and forth between Tony and Richard, probably unsure as to what he was supposed to do. So instead, he lowered his gaze back down to his shoes and tried to keep still in their grasp, like a dog on a leash. Tony realized with a sickening twist in his stomach that he was stooping as low as Richard was, physically trying to assert dominance by using Peter as a tool, but what else could he do?

He didn't break his stare with the boy's father, though, not even to spare the kid a reassuring look. He just tightened his grip and focused on keeping his breathing steady and his vision from wavering.

Ever so slowly, Richard's eyes began to fill with an unreadable look. His face grew the same teeth-grinding arrogance as he glanced down at Tony's hand, at the slight tremble in his grip that he desperately tried to quell.

The room was silent. Nobody said anything.

Finally, the man lifted his eyes back up to meet Tony's gaze and his lips grew a sneering grin.

"What do you say?"

Peter's breath shuttered ever so slightly, a whisper of a noise that Tony barely picked up on, especially when the meaning behind the man's words clicked into place.

He felt his face go flush with anger as he narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth, shoulders tightening as his body instantly shifted into a tense stand-off. Did this bastard really think he was going to beg?

Richard chuckled at the sudden angered shift in the man's demeanor, the humored look making Tony flex his other hand into a fist by his side. Their conversation had left him hot and heated, his emotions brimming just underneath the surface, inches from the top. He could feel them beginning to bubble up against the cracks, spilling out faster than he could push them back in.

He opened his mouth, ready to tell the man off once and for all right in front of his own kid. He'd done it before. He was no cowering shrew when it came to calling people out and he had no limits on who to dish it out to: his own teammates, the courts trying to take his property, even the goddamn Secretary of State had gotten several verbal lashings from him. And each and every time, he had the same thought, the same niggling idea hindering any and all restraint.

Screw the fucking consequ-

Richard's grasp on Peter's arm tightened, so much so that the skin began to twist at the sheer strength behind his grip. The teen couldn't hold back the whimper of pain that fell from his lips as he hunched in against the man's hold.

Instantly, a sharp wind blew against the flames in his chest as Tony spared the teen a quick frantic look before whipping his head back up to Richard, the man retaining his dominating smirk, a questioning brow lifting over his forehead.

The consequences...the consequences that weren't his to deal with. The consequences that he wouldn't have to live with. The consequences to this war he had chosen to take part in...

He met the man's antagonizing stare, the look seeming to poke and prod at his restraints, picking at his temper and scratching up against his self-control.

. . .

He couldn't.

He couldn't play this like a worry-free billionaire anymore, couldn't prance around carelessly with his words or his actions. The Accords proved that. Ross proved that. Steve proved that. And now Richard was proving it again, standing there using his own son as leverage.

("Don't bullshit me, Rogers. Did. You. Know?")

He wouldn't fall apart. Not again. He would never let anybody control his emotions, nobody but himself, not anymore. And if that meant putting his pride on the side, then so be it.

"Please."

The word was spat with a pointed venom, but it was said.

Peter lifted his gaze towards Tony's face as he retained Richard's stare, the two locked head-on in an intense, unwavering chain of vision. Finally, Richard leaned back and released Peter's arm.

Immediately, Tony whisked the kid behind his back, completely blocking him from Richard's line of sight. The man adjusted his cuffs again like nothing had even happened before fixing them all with a polite smile. "I'll be in touch. We'll have to schedule that conference soon. Ms. Potts. Colonel Rhodes." And with a few nods to them, he turned on his heel and stepped into the elevator, biting stare holding the room in a tight breathlessness. "Oh, and Peter?"

Tony could feel the kid tense up behind him.

Richard's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Don't be late."

The doors shut. And they were alone.

There was a brief second of silence, a modicum of peace as the air fizzled with the throngs of tension still coursing hot in each of their muscles. The silence was broken, however, by the sharp sound of sneakers squeaking against the linoleum floors.

Tony and the others barely had a chance to turn around in time to see Peter bolt for one of the metal trash cans pressed up against the side wall. And he wasted no time in wrapping his hands around the rim and leaning over before violently heaving into it.

For a single shocked second of silence, the three adults could do little more than stare at the suddenness of it all, eyes blinking dumbly and mouths agape. Their heads were still trying to wrap around the sharp dive the day had taken and each minute seemed to bring a new bout of craziness into the mix.

Nevertheless, Pepper, ever the sharp-sensed woman, was the first to snap out of her thoughts, quickly taking a few hurried steps towards the kid. Her sudden movements seemed to be enough for Tony to reboot as well, for he lunged forward and grabbed her around the waist, gently holding her back.

Rhodey, who had been ready to approach as well, stopped and matched Pepper's perplexed stare, to which Tony merely replied with a glance towards the kid and a soft little shake of his head.

Pepper held his stare for a moment before turning towards the closed elevator doors, slipping out of Tony's grasp as she turned to fully face him, a new question reflected onto her face. It was obvious what she was asking, what they both were asking.

What the hell happened?

He felt his fingers twitching up against the side of his leg, but didn't say anything, merely turned away with a little sigh and a flick of his hand.

They were worried. He couldn't blame them. They'd recieved just a taste of Richard's ruthlessness, held in a single stare that froze the room in shocking waves of uncomfortable heat.

They didn't know what had happened between them. And he knew they were nervous because of that.

He'd tell them. Just not now.

Peter was shaking furiously, so much so, in fact that he was literally leaning his whole weight against the trash can, throwing himself against it with each retch. The noise itself was painful and loud, like each heave was a punch to the stomach, a violent expulsion of pure air. It wasn't hard to see that nothing was coming up as Peter dry-heaved and panted, eyes closed and face twisted into a look of pain.

Tony spared a glance behind him at the others, who were both holding matching looks of unease and hesitation, before steeling himself and slowly taking a step forward.

"Kid...?" he murmured softly, wishing he could place a hand on the boy's shoulder and gently pry him away from the trash he was using more as a crutch than anything else. But Tony could tell just by the way the trash was literally bending underneath the teen's fingers that any sort of unexpected contact would probably send him flying through the back wall.

Finally, Peter sucked in a breath, the first in a long line of spitting and hurling. It was shaky and wet, lodging in his throat as he gasped, the receptacle creaking against the strain of his fingers curling the metal inward. Strands of long brown hair dropped down around his eyes as the teen stood in silence for a moment, panting in place as his wavering stance leaned heavily against the bin. He didn't look up as he spoke, words thick and strained in his throat.

"...sorry. I'm...I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen, for...f-for...I swear I'm not trying to make your lives difficult or his life difficult or anybody's...life difficult, it just..." he was rambling, the words falling from his mouth in jagged puffs of air. His voice dripped with emotion, and not just fear but resignation as well, a certain air of exhaustion that left the words as little more than tiny, crumbling apologies.

"I didn't know it would get this out of hand and I just wasn't thinking. I never should have taken you to Delmar's. I should have known something like this would...and I just...I'm sorry. Please, I'm so sorry, sorry, I'm sorry." The words started to jumble together as he shut his eyes, peeled himself away from the garbage can and leaned his shoulder against the wall next to it, slowly sliding down to the floor as he continued to mumble a garbled mess of apologies and regret.

Tony Stark was never one to be left speechless, but there was no other way to describe the sheer emptiness in his throat as he stared at the kid literally cowering at his feet, too drained to even stand up. It reminded him of the sudden sickness he'd felt in the car sitting idle outside Peter's house that first night, that night that had changed everything.

He swallowed thickly, taking a deep breath that threatened to lodge in his lungs before warily turning back around. Rhodey's fists were clenched and his face was twisted into a look of silent rage that the Colonel was all too skilled at keeping contained, and Pepper was wringing out her hands, eyes zeroed in on the kid as she took a few deep breaths one after the other, like she was trying hard not to cry.

Tony didn't waste any time.

"I need a second, okay? Alone."

Their separate looks instantly morphed into mirror images of disbelief, neither of them seeming to understand nor be willing to oblige, and Tony could see why. He knew that there was close to nothing that could get him to leave this room now and he was sure Pepper and Rhodey probably felt the same, especially since they kept flickering their gazes back and forth between meeting Tony's stare and checking to make sure the kid in the corner hadn't evaporated into smoke.

But he also knew that their reluctance probably stemmed from something a bit greater. He could still feel a fog hovering around his head-space, the teeming anger he still felt buzzing overtop his skin, an anger that wavered strongly like a candle flickering with each puff of air that blew past it. It wouldn't take much to set him off now, especially with his body still dealing with the after-effects of the detox...and they knew it.

Still, he knew he would never get anything out of Peter while there were this many people in the room, especially when they were all as riled up as they currently were and Peter was as agitated as he was. The tension was near palpable, after all.

"Please."

Pepper stared at him, held his gaze tightly as she scanned his face. After a moment, she crinkled the corners of her eyes and tilted her head. "Are you sure?" her voice was quiet, a whisper.

Tony didn't spare it a second of thought, nodding his head firmly.

The hesitation was still there, he could see it in both of their eyes. But a few more glances to the teen behind him as well as to the determined look in Tony's eyes finally seemed to be enough to sway them. Rhodey sighed and turned to make his way out of the lobby, Pepper delaying for just a little while longer to stare at Peter before brushing a hand against the side of Tony's arm and following after her friend.

And then Peter and Tony were alone for the first time in three days.

It took a second for Tony to find the will power to actually turn back around and was shocked to see that Peter was staring at him. He was still scrunched up with his shoulder pressing into the wall, one knee bent close to his chest as he stared out at him. His eyes weren't as scared or frightened as Tony had been expecting, instead staring at him with a certain edge, an unsettling apprehension that kept his form tense and wound-tight.

He didn't say anything. Tony didn't either. The two of them stared back at each other and for a brief moment, Tony was transported back into the penthouse, back into that dark room with nothing but bottles upon bottles littering the floor around him, staring back into the last face he'd been expecting to see, the face of someone who wasn't giving up, somehow who was willing to help.

Well, now it was his turn to help.

He took a few careful steps forward, making sure to keep his movements precise and slow as Peter followed him with his eyes, gaze sharp. He stopped a few steps away and slowly got down onto his knees, lowering his form as to not look so imposing. It seemed to work a bit, for the tightness in the kid's muscles shifted slightly.

Now that they were this close, Tony noticed that Peter's arms weren't really wrapped around himself, but instead he was cradling one against his chest. For a brief, guilt-filled moment, Tony wondered if it was the arm he and Richard had grabbed in their sick little game of finders-keepers. But as the kid shifted a bit, he noticed that it wasn't really his arm that he was cradling, but his hand, more specifically, the twisted, crooked shape of his fingers.

Tony held his breath and had to physically bite down on his tongue to keep from growling.

Slowly, he flipped his own hand, resting the back of it against his knee as he showed his palm. "Let me see," his voice was soft, nothing like how he'd spoken to Richard.

Peter stared at him, then down at his hand. The teen tensed his jaw and shut his eyes before shaking his head. "No. No...you're angry."

He had to admit, that took him by surprise. "What? Peter, no I'm not-"

"Yes you are," the kid said with a noticeable snap in his voice, not enough to be real anger, but enough for Tony to notice. "I heard you. You and my dad...you were yelling. I don't know what about. I didn't want to listen but it was loud. And..." Peter swallowed, lifting his eyes again. "And your heartbeat..."

"What about it?"

"I...I can hear it."

Tony blinked at that, furrowing his brows as he slowly opened his mouth, only for no words to come out. What were you supposed to say to that?

Peter didn't seem to mind the silence, however as he continued, narrowing his eyes slightly as he tightened his grip on his wrist before defensively tucking his arm further against his chest. "You can lie all you want but you can't fake that. I know how it sounds when someone's angry. I hear it all the time. And you're angry. I know you are." he shifted again, but this time he must have bumped his hand against the wall, for he sucked in a hiss and grimaced. Tony instinctively reached out, only for the teen to rear back and press himself harder against the wall. "Don't..."

"Peter...I-" The words faltered in his throat.

This threw him off. He'd never had to deal with something like this before, had never even heard of something like this before. Sure he knew the kid had crazy stupid-weird powers, super-hearing included on that list, but he never could have guessed it would extend so far.

And it made him nervous.

He could manage his microexpressions and alter his body language all he wanted, but he couldn't change his own heartbeat. And now that he knew it was a dead giveaway? It wasn't making him feel very good.

He lifted his eyes back to the kid and couldn't help but run his gaze across the boy's face, especially now that they actually had a minute to breathe.

The bruises had darkened in the time he'd been gone, the majority of them now deepening into a deep purplish-black, including the ones on his neck, which had morphed into a dark purplish-red. His eye wasn't swollen shut, but the skin underneath was so red and so bruised it looked like he'd been burned. His lip was cut in more than one place and there were a ton of little nicks and scratches that he hadn't seen before, each of them red and angry. The blood under his nose was drying, but it was so crooked, Tony could actually see where the break was.

He was ashamed at himself for having to look away. But it was hard seeing it all up close.

It had been different before, when Peter would show up with a black eye or a bleeding arm, Tony had his suspicions and his hang-ups, but there was always a small part of him that just wanted to believe the kid was clumsy, that he was getting these injuries while out on patrol and that nothing else was going on.

Oh, he knew, of course, knew it was a dumb idea, knew that the feelings in his gut and the clear blatant signs weren't to be ignored...but it was hard not to hold onto that hope.

Now that hope was gone, replaced with cold, hard reality. And that reality was staring up at him with a bloody and blackened face. A reality that he still couldn't stop.

Tony sighed and ran a hand through his hair. The least he could do was be honest.

"Alright. I'm angry. You're right. I am. But...not at you." He leaned closer and shook his head as Peter glanced away. "Kid, how can you possibly think I'm angry at you?"

The boy was silent for a moment, staring down at the floor as he slowly began to relax some of the stiffness in his body, maybe more at ease now that he knew Tony wasn't going to try and touch him. He brushed his fingers against the hand curled against his chest.

"He was."

Tony felt his hands twitch.

"And he should be. I caused all of this, did all of this. I caused all these problems and now you two have to deal with it all because I was stupid and didn't think about what would happen if we were seen in public!" Peter slapped a free hand against the side of his head and fisted some of his hair, growling all the while. "They're going crazy because of me, because they're interested in me, all because I was an idiot! I..." The teen sucked in a shaky breathe and shut his eyes, body instantly seeming to deflate as he rested his head against the wall. "I did this. I...I'm sorry."

Tony stared in silence for a moment, trying to digest the words without reigniting the churn that had been plaguing his stomach for days now. He itched to move forward, to get closer to the kid, but he kept his distance. "Peter...this isn't your fault, kid," he said, almost in disbelief, like he couldn't believe the boy didn't know that.

Peter continued to stare at the ground through half-lidded eyes and didn't bother in lifting the side of his head away from the wall. "Dad said-"

"I don't care what he said." Tony snapped before quickly realizing how loud he'd actually been as he noticed the teen jump slightly and stare back at him with a now fully-alert gaze. The man sighed and leaned back, trying to keep his frustrations at bay and his emotions in check, reminding himself that Richard was gone and there was no point in staying angry. He took a few deep breaths, hoping to somehow get his heartbeat back under control.

It was unsettling, knowing he wasn't the only one who could hear it pounding away in his ears. But he knew it was probably even more unsettling for the kid, hearing it like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in a flurry of screaming and slapping.

"It's not right, kid," he finally sighed. "He's not right."

Peter blinked at him for a moment before tightening his hold on his wrist. "He's always right."

Despite the whispered hush it came out as, it rang around in Tony's ears like church bells. He gritted his teeth and tried to block it out. "Not about this."

The teen finally relaxed his hawk-like stare once more and dropped it back down to the floor, but didn't say much else. It was obvious he wasn't convinced, though Tony wasn't surprised. He himself was having a hard time getting the image of Richard's piercing stare out of his head, like a virus lingering around for too long, he could feel it clinging to the back of his head, refusing to leave. It was hard to imagine what those eyes looked like when they were staring you down in the middle of a beating.

The teen bit at his lower lip before carefully lifting his head back up, shifting uncomfortably once more from his position on the floor. "He...my dad...h-he said conference. Before he left. What...what was he talking about?"

Tony gave a small shake of his head and waved his hand away, not in the mood to discuss the idiots outside, especially when they weren't the most pressing thing on his mind right now. "Nothing, kid. Nothing you need to worry about right n-"

"What...was he talking about?" Peter repeated, voice harder as his eyes narrowed slightly.

The man blinked for a moment, not having been expecting the sudden forcefulness. He could see that the kid was uncomfortable with his own shift in demeanor, for he was clenching and unclenching his grip on his wrist and his eyes kept flickering around Tony's face, like he was expecting the man to be upset at his sudden assertiveness.

Tony paused for a moment before tilting his head and shrugging his shoulders. "His plan, his...solution for all of this. He wants to set up a press conference between the three of us, field their questions, hopefully shrink down the amount of time this'll stretch out for."

He could see the kid's face beginning to slacken as he spoke, eyes widening slightly as his lips parted. It wasn't much news, wasn't important at all in Tony's book, especially not at this exact moment. But the look stretching across Peter's face could have convinced him that he'd just said the sky was turning green, a shocked confusion that made his eyes narrow and his brows furrow.

"He wants...what? He wants to...? I...I-I don't understand, he wants me to...to be in...?" The kid's words were beginning to tumble over each other, body regaining the same shivering tightness of nerves that had first set in minutes ago. But it was only when he started to see the boy's chest begin to bounce up and down faster and faster did Tony realize the kid was starting to panic.

"Pete, hey-"

"You heard wrong. You must have heard wrong. He would never actually suggest putting me up...in...i-in front of all those...and the cameras...why would he...he wouldn't. He wouldn't...."

In the three seconds it took Tony to scan the kid in shock, he noticed Peter was beginning to grab at his cradled hand, not the wrist but the actual hand, crooked fingers and all, clenching his grip around them so tightly, in fact, that the skin was beginning to turn white. The kid was still rambling, staring down at the floor in confusion and didn't even seem to notice what he was doing.

"He wouldn't. No...he...h-he wouldn't."

Tony lurched forward and tried to grab at his wrist, pull it away. "Peter-!"

His fingers were only able to brush up against the boy's skin before the words were cut off with a sharp inhale of choked breath, the kid slamming his back against the wall as his eyes cleared of the sudden haze they'd been gathering, replaced instead with a sharp, instinctive intensity that immediately put Tony on edge. "Don't touch me! Just don't! I told you not to touch me! S-stop touching me! Just- just don't. Don't!"

Instantly, the man raised his hands into the air and leaned away as the kid continued to yell. "Okay, okay - hey, look!"

Peter locked his jaw and kept his pointed stare locked onto the man's form. "I'm not gonna touch you, okay? See, see my hands? No touching, I..." Tony trailed off for a moment as he stared back at the look on the kid's face, the look slowly morphing from sharp anger into sullen fear.

"I...I'm not going to...hurt you."

The fact that Tony felt he had to say something at all made his chest burn again. But this time it wasn't out of anger, but sadness. Disappointment. "Peter, it's me, kid. You know I would never...right?"

The kid stared at him, blinked at him, said nothing.

Tony sighed. He thought they'd moved past this. He thought that night in the penthouse had proved that level of trust, established the baseline fact that Peter didn't have to be afraid of him anymore, that they could get past that and begin to develop that trust into something a bit more concrete.

Was he wrong?

Was this kid still as afraid of him as before?

But as the thoughts curled against his head and began to tighten the pressure buckling against his ribs, Peter's eyes slowly began to mist over as he squeezed them shut and leaned back against the wall, ducking his head and cradling his hand as his breathing hitched.

"I didn't mean to make him mad," he whispered with a choked-up sniffle.

("But you're not really the one who needs to be afraid of me, are you?")

And suddenly, Tony understood.

He sucked in a sharp breath and shut his eyes with a tight clench of his fists, slowly releasing it with a sigh as he gazed back at the boy. "Ah, kid...I know. I know you didn't." He tried to keep his voice level, keep it soft and quiet and everything Richard's never was. "But he's gone now. He's gone...and I'm not, alright?"

Peter sniffed and carefully glanced over. Tony kept their distance, held down the desire to inch closer and kept his eyes on the kid. "I'm right here. I'm just trying to help, okay? You know me. You know I just wanna help." Slowly, he reached a hand out and pressed it down onto the floor between them, Peter watching intently as Tony made sure to keep his hand far enough away so that it wouldn't accidentally touch him.

"Please?"

Tony realized he'd been saying that a lot today. This time it felt different.

Peter flexed his fingers against his wrist, thrummed them against the skin on his arm as he watched Tony slowly retract his hand back into his lap, leaving the floor clear for Peter to set his own hand down without the threat of contact. The teen's gaze flickered back and forth between the floor and the man in contemplation before he hesitantly began to uncurl his arm away from his chest.

Slowly, the teen lowered the hand down to the floor, carefully extending his shaking fingers as best he could, spreading them against the cold linoleum so that the man could get a good view without having to touch him. But as soon as he did, Tony had to try very hard to keep from lurching from his seat.

Peter's fingers were snapped and crooked, stretched so tightly, the clear indent of broken bone could be seen pressing against the pale skin, threatening to tear straight through it. There was a few flimsy bandages wrapped around his two middle fingers, scuffed with dirt and grime. The skin itself was turning black, his palm twisted and indented as it shook against the floor.

Tony sucked in a shaky breath, rubbing a hand against his mouth. "Jesus..."

Peter must have heard the sudden uptake in his heartbeat and the way his body tensed up tightly, for he quickly whisked his hand back to his chest. "Don't get mad," he said quickly, voice shaking slightly.

Tony, in return, quickly lifted his hands again for the teen to see. "I'm not. I swear I'm not." It took a second of silence and another bout of staring, but Peter slowly took another breath and gave a small nod of his head, but he didn't put his hand back, just kept it pressed against his chest and out of view.

The billionaire leaned back on his haunches for a second to think in the silence that followed. His eyes continued to trail the image of the kid's hand in his head before moving to scan the scratches still shining red on his face, the darkening bruising around his neck and the angle of his crooked nose still leaving specks of blood to trail down his lip.

Another breath, deep and long. Slowly, Tony pressed his own hands down onto the floor and pushed himself up to his feet. Peter watched him as he brushed his hands against the side of his suit and began to shrug the jacket off, tossing it down onto the floor before adding his tie as well, rolling up the cuffs of his shirt and pushing them up his arms.

There was no point in pretending for anybody anymore.

Peter watched with a renewed stiffness to his muscles, most likely over the fact that Tony was now standing over him instead of kneeling down at his level. But the man still didn't make any moves to approach the kid, didn't try to touch him or get closer. Instead, there was a beat of silence, a moment of staring.

Then a hand. A palm extending towards him.

The kid flinched at first at the sudden sight of it, only to watch as it stopped about a foot away from him, leaving a sizable gap that only Peter could close. Tony gazed down at him, but didn't do anything else, didn't say anything else.

Silence.

Peter slowly dragged his gaze from the man's face down to his extended hand, blinking dumbly for a moment before licking at his lip and shying away for a brief second, tightening the grip on his arm as he held it close.

Tony knew they both realized it: this wasn't the first time he'd extended a hand to the kid. Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, all moments of fear and uncertainty as he stretched out a hand, desperate for the kid to take it, desperate for him to accept his help and give him the little bit of trust he needed to actually make a difference, to actually do something to change things.

He knew now, though. Knew he could only extend his hand so far before the task fell on Peter to close the distance. He couldn't force it, couldn't will it to be. It was the kid's choice, his decision. He had to choose to accept Tony's help.

The teen seemed to realize this as well, for he turned his head away from the man's hand and gazed instead at the fingers tucked near his chest. He bit at his lower lip as he gingerly brushed his fingers over the bloodied and crooked knuckles, at the scuffs turning the skin red and raw. He shut his eyes, squeezed them tightly before peeling them back open and turning them towards Tony.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Peter's other hand began to peel itself away from his wrist, away from the damaged fingers he was so desperate to protect. His arm shook a bit, but he took a breath and steadied it as he hesitantly began to move it forward.

The tips of his fingers grazed Tony's palm before quickly jolting back a few inches, testing a reaction. When they received none, he carefully began to slide his own hand into Tony's, giving a small squeeze as he wrapped his fingers around the man's palm. Tony took a second to make sure the kid was certain before wrapping his own fingers tight.

They both took a deep breath at that.

Carefully, Tony pulled the kid up to his feet, where he wobbled a bit before steadying himself against the wall. As soon as he was stable, he slid his hand out of Tony's own and readjusting it back towards his chest. Tony didn't mind and just decided to take the small wins where he could get them.

So without another word, the man turned on his heel and began to walk towards the elevators. Peter only hesitated for a second before silently following. FRIDAY opened the doors without him having to say anything, the pair stepping inside and standing side by side.

"Med-bay, FRI."

"Of course, Boss."

Peter spared him a tiny look, but didn't say anything, just glanced back down at his shoes. They stood in silence as the elevator ascended, Tony feeling more than a little grateful at the brief moment of peace. The day was taking quite a toll on him, he could feel it in the way his shoulders sagged if he didn't exert enough energy to keep them up, felt it in the way his eyes automatically wanted to close it he wasn't paying much attention.

The silence, while calming on his fraying nerves, did little to distract him from the headache he still hadn't been able to shake. At least with Richard, with Pepper and Rhodey and Peter freaking out, there was enough to keep his mind off of it, to keep his mind off of everything that was making him long for a bed or a couch or even a semi-flat surface he could pass out on. But now that there was nothing, he could hear the ringing again, the annoyingly ever-present humming that bounced around in his head and seemed to echo down his eardrum.

In the corner of eye, he could see Peter perk his head up and glance over at him like he wanted to say something, but he ultimately remained silent, so Tony decided to ignore it in favor of trying to push down the grating ring making his eyes hurt.

He was able to get it down to semi-tolerable levels as the doors to the elevator opened up onto a sleek metal floor of the tower. The walls weren't a calm, pristine cream like the lobby to the main offices, but were instead a cold, sleek, shiny steel, reinforcing the sterile environment they were entering. Tony stepped out of the hallway, Peter following on his heels.

The doors opened up onto a long pathway that extended out and expanded into a large room similar to the labs upstairs, stretching up into a single huge med-bay, an open floor plan complete with dozens of high-tech machines, monitors and gadgets that seemed to fill the room from one end to the other, not to mention the handful of beds, four on one side of the room and four on the opposite side, each facing one another.

Tony noticed Peter swiveling his head around, eyes wide as he took in the sights around him. Walking further into the room, the man approached one of the closest beds and patted the top of it. Peter glanced over at him before cautiously approaching, silently hopping on top and resting his hands in his lap. Tony forced himself not to look at the kid and instead to focus on gathering various supplies from underneath the cabinets and inside the drawers.

He pulled out a few rolls of bandages, wipes, braces, anything and everything he felt he'd need to get the kid looking semi-normal again. And all the while, Peter remained silent, watching him with those bright brown eyes of his. Tony tried to ignore it, but he couldn't help the small unsettling feeling he felt traveling up his spine as he'd catch sight of the look from the corner of his eyes.

Peter was honestly acting all sorts of ways today. He hadn't said a single word while Richard was around, reminding Tony of how he'd used to act back when they first met. And even after the man left it was hard to miss the effect he had on the kid, an effect that was so strong, it left him heaving over a trash can as soon as he was gone.

But now? Now that Richard was gone and it was just the two of them, the kid's behavior shifted once again. Now, instead of nothing but nerves and fidgety anxiety, it seemed to mingle with something else, something worse. The kid wasn't tripping over his words to apologize anymore or rambling and stuttering in stress.

He was silent. Disturbingly so. Not even his breathing, which should have been strained against the crooked angle of his nose, made much of a sound. He just sat there with his eyes fixed on his lap, body still like a statue, like he could just fade into the background without a second thought, like a...like a-

("...a model of perfect behavior...")

Tony shivered.

His hand shook for a brief second, clattering against the metal counters before he quickly steadied it with a silent curse. He paused for a moment as he gazed down at the materials he'd collected before casting a small glance over his shoulder.

"I need to...there are a lot of cuts and..." he flickered his gaze over the teen's face, over the patches of skin that needed his attention, needed to be treated...touched. "Are you...okay with that?"

Peter raised his head and stared at him, stared down at the medical supplies littering the counter. He hesitated, then sniffed and gave a muted nod. Tony decided to work quickly before the teen thought better of it. So with that, he grabbed one of the towels folded beside him and reached for the sink installed against the back wall, turning the faucet and letting a few drops of water dampen the towel just a tad.

Draping it over his shoulder, he grabbed the rest of the stuff and slid it onto one of the wheeled rolling counters while using one foot to drag a nearby stool closer to the bed. He plopped down, took a small breath and grabbed the towel. There wasn't much he could do for the bruising on his face or neck, but the cuts were at least treatable, even with his meager medical knowledge.

He could see Peter's free hand curling against the edge of the bed as Tony held the towel out, could practically see the tension bleeding from the kid's veins as he gingerly began to wipe the damp cloth against one of the cuts on his forehead, clearing it of the dirt smudged around it. Trying to be as careful as humanly possible, Tony was quick with his work, making sure to keep his fingers from making direct contact with the kid's skin as much as possible.

As soon as the wound was cleared of the specks of dried blood and dirt, Tony removed one of the butterfly bandages from its packaging and gingerly laid it atop the teen's skin, making careful work of avoiding any painful tugging or pulling of the marks.

He felt Peter take a few deep breaths, saw some of the tension beginning to leave his muscles as Tony continued from one cut to the next without incident, cleaning it with the towel before applying the bandages. One by one, Peter slowly eased up and the two fell into a comfortable rhythm as the worst of the cuts to his forehead and cheek were dealt with, leaving just his nose and his hand to tackle.

But Tony had something he needed to deal with first.

"Tell me what happened."

The kid jolted in his seat at the unexpected question and the sudden break to their near ten minutes of silence. He blinked and stared at the man, who was cleaning the last few bits of dirt from the boy's forehead.

"What?"

"With your dad. Before you showed up. What happened?"

Peter seemed to take a second to let the man's words sink in and another to really think about them before he was turning his head away with an upset sigh. "Mr. Stark...you know I can't."

"Yes you can." Tony tossed the towel back onto the table and rested his elbows on his knees. "We had a deal, remember? You want this to stay secret? Then you tell me. No exceptions. No backing out. No making excuses. I don't wanna hear them."

In the back of his head, Tony knew there was probably a more tactful way of bringing this up, but he was not in the mood for dancing around anymore. Richard had given him enough of a run-around, he didn't need another from his son.

He'd made that deal for a reason, had forced himself to come to some sort of compromise. He had to at least find some benefits to it, and one of the biggest was that he refused to be left in the dark anymore, not when things like this were literally being dropped on his doorstep. That deal had to mean something. It had to count for something.

It had to make a difference somehow.

Peter continued to stare at him, continued to fidget in his seat as he stole glances behind him and around him, like he was looking for something to distract him with. But Tony held the kid's gaze, held his look with one of his own that blatantly said he wasn't about to drop it.

The teen's eyes drifted down to his hands after a moment of silence, a silence Tony longed to break. But he knew he had to at least give the kid some leeway if he was going to get anything out of him. Deal or no, Peter was still a bit of a brick-wall when it came to things like this and the last thing either of them needed was for Tony's impatience to somehow make this harder than it already was.

Finally, after a long bout of near unbearable quiet, Peter hesitantly lifted his eyes to the man's face, fingers clenching the fabric of his pants. "You won't..."

Tony leaned forward, eyes serious. "Nothing leaves this tower."

Peter stole a breath, a shaky, wavering breath that barely made it down his throat. He tightened his jaw and began to brush against his bloodied knuckles again. Tony made sure to keep a closer eye on his hands this time, if only to make sure the kid didn't start to tug or squeeze at his broken fingers again from sheer nerves.

But the boy's focus was elsewhere now. "It was lunchtime when they showed up." His voice was quiet like before, not timid or shy, just quiet. Resigned. "I was called to the office and he was already there. He was making small talk with my principal and...and the guidance counselor, just chatting away like he always does, being nice and pleasant. He donates a lot of money to the school so he has a pretty good relationship with people there. He was acting like nothing was wrong, but...I knew he was angry...I could tell."

His gaze grew a little sharper. "Mr. Morita didn't suspect a thing, of course. Why would he? He never does. Nobody ever does. I...They just talked about the reporters, about what they might do to stop it or work around it or...I don't know. I wasn't really listening at that point." The teen leaned forward, rested his elbows against his knees as he stared down at the floor, bringing an arm to wrap around his midsection. He looked tired.

"They finished up and we got in the car and started driving. He didn't tell me where we were going, didn't tell me anything really, but I had a hunch. And he just...h-he...was just so angry," he murmured, level tone finally wavering slightly as he took a sharp breath and clenched his fist. "He started talking...and then he started shouting, said something about you and then I got angry which only made things worse, of course, because-"

"Something about me?" Tony furrowed his brow and tilted his head.

Peter blinked, briefly pulled from the memories fluttering around him as he gave a small nod. "Y-yeah. I...don't know if you know this, but he really doesn't like you."

The man scoffed and leaned back on the stool. "Yeah well the feeling's mutual."

Peter glanced away and shifted slightly in the seat, only to stop suddenly and grimace, tightening his hold around his midsection as he leaned in slightly and groaned. Instantly, Tony was on edge, rearing forward slightly as he reached out before he could think better of it. "Kid? What's wrong? Is there something else-?"

His fingers brushed against the kid's shoulder and Peter quickly jumped back like he'd been burned, tightening his hold on his stomach as he ducked from the unexpected touch. Tony felt a lurching frustration build against his chest but he quickly swallowed down whatever he wanted to say as he took a deep breath and huffed a sigh, roughly sitting back down in his chair as he held up his hands in surrender again. "It's...fine. Fine." He rubbed at his eyes and tried to remind himself that it wasn't him the kid really had an issue with.

Still, it was getting a bit hard not to take it personally.

"You were saying?" he said as he folded his arms over his chest.

Peter stared at him and must have taken note of the growing frustration Tony was trying very hard to hide, for the kid suddenly lowered his gaze in guilt, readjusting the arm wrapped around his stomach as his face grew a hot wash of shame. Tony bit the inside of his cheek and mentally cursed himself for allowing his own hang-ups to make the kid feel bad, but he remained silent. There was already too much to handle here, he couldn't worry about that right now.

Said kid began to fiddle with his knuckles a little more, pressing down on the torn and bloodied skin. The billionaire made a mental note of the sight but still remained silent, not wanting the kid to clam up just as he was starting to continue.

"I...I said something," he finally murmured, fingers moving down to rub at his wrist before shutting his eyes and shaking his head furiously. "I should have just kept my mouth shut. I shouldn't have provoked him, but I did. I was stupid and I said something stupid and then we were pulling over and he was getting out of the car and there was nobody around. I kept looking but nobody ever showed up, not even when I started to get out too. I kept looking. I kept looking but nobody ever came. There was nobody there, Mr. Stark, and-!"

His frantic ramblings cut off with a sudden choke of air, the noise so startling that Tony actually leaned forward once more, itching to get up from the stool again as Peter ducked and continued to shake his head, eyes squeezed tight as he curled his fingers around his wrist with bone-crushing strength, the skin twisting white.

"...He was just so angry."

"Peter-"

The teen's eyes snapped back open and he suddenly leaned forward, making Tony jump as the kid stared at him with a frantic look. "I didn't mean to make him so angry, I swear. I swear, I really do. I didn't mean it. I swear, I didn't mean it. I didn't mean to. I was just-"

"Hey, hey!" Tony stepped forward, holding his hands out in a calming motion as the kid began to trip over his own words, talking too fast to even breathe. "It's okay! I believe you. I...I believe you. It's alright. It's okay."

Peter tucked his chin close to his chest and took a few shaky breathes, Tony leaving his hands to hover over the boy's shoulders as he took a second to just calm down. He tucked his legs closer together and wrapped his arms back around his midsection. Tony noticed and quickly realized there was definitely something he'd missed.

The man took a few deep breathes of his own as he tried not to let the sight rattle him, tried to keep calm and remain the stable adult that was needed for a situation like this. He cleared his throat slightly, if only to dissolve the anxiety beginning to block his airways. Slowly he moved forward again, keeping his hands in clear view of the kid's line of sight as he began to lower them towards the boy's shirt.

"Peter, how often does he do this? How often does he...get angry?"

The kid watched his hands, then looked back up at him and Tony could clearly see the uncertainty in his eyes. Tony gave a reassuring nod of his head, as if to affirm that their deal of secrecy was still in place. "It's okay..."

Peter dropped his gaze from Tony's face back down to the man's hands, watching as they carefully brushed one side of his open jacket away and began to curl around the hem of his shirt. He kept rubbing at his wrist, pulling the skin this way and that as he turned his gaze back on the floor. "It...doesn't happen all that often. Usually, it's the others. But, when he does..."

His voice trailed off and the second Tony began to lift the edge of the boy's shirt, Peter's hand shot out and wrapped around Tony's wrist, stilling his movements in a vice-like hold. The billionaire startled for a second before lifting his eyes to meet the boy's piercing stare. "You...you swear not to get mad?" His voice shook. So did his hand.

Tony fixed him with a steady gaze of his own, keeping his arm still in the teen's grip as he blinked calmly at him. "I swear."

Peter maintained eye contact for a moment longer before warily lowering his head again, hesitantly unwrapping his fingers from the man's wrist before whisking his arm close to his chest again. He shut his eyes and didn't say anything else.

The man didn't move right away, even as the boy let go of him. Peter's grip had been firm, shockingly so, even going as far as to leave little white marks on his wrist that slowly faded back into normal skin-tone. Another sickening twist of unease stabbed into his gut. Tony swallowed down whatever was slinking around the back of his throat as he sucked in a breath and lifted the teen's shirt.

The air quickly left soon after in one sharp punch.

The first things he noticed were the bones. Sharp and prominent, the teen's rib cage was so visible he could literally count the bones and each space between them, leading down to his stomach which curved around into a toned-abdomen so thin, Tony might have been able to put both hands around it and make the ends of his fingers touch. Other than the lean muscles that were admittedly well-defined and strong, there was not a single ounce of fat anywhere on the boy's stomach, nothing but muscle and skin and a thin, sickly skeleton.

But that wasn't what his gaze lingered on because somehow that wasn't the worst of it.

Peter's abdomen was covered in bruises, deep blackish-red swathes of color that smeared across the porcelain white of his skin like blood stains, dark and horrendously numerous, so much so that there was barely any skin left untouched by the marks, nothing but patches of red, yellow, purple, black and a sickening mix of it all.

And the scars...deep, long prominent marks running up and down his chest, his side, his stomach, criss-crossing over his skin like chicken-scratch. There were so many mingled with the bruising that Tony couldn't even tell if any if them were fresh and bleeding, for the blood would have mixed right in with the deep black of the kid's darkening skin.

"God, Peter!" Tony couldn't help the words that fell from his mouth as he leapt forward, quickly brushing his hands around the teen's skin in search of any signs of blood or broken bones in the mass of new bruising and old scarring that looked like the kid had done time with a rabid bull. But Peter didn't leave him much time to inspect before he was pushing the man away and quickly shoving his shirt back down. "You swore you wouldn't get mad!"

Tony stared at him incredulously, mouth agape as he shook his head in disbelief. "I..." the words cut off with a sharp scoff as he quickly locked his jaw, feeling the heat beginning to build back up again in sharp waves of anger and frustration. He gritted his teeth and felt his fingers flexing at his sides. "I'm not mad."

Peter wasn't buying it. "Yes you are! I can hear it!"

"Yeah! Well-" His skin was tingling again. His head was pounding and his heart was beating out of his control. His heart. It was his heartbeat, he was the only one who should be able to hear it. He already had to mask so much nowadays and now he had to hide that as well?!

He aimed his glare down at the floor and clenched his fists, unable to hold in the flurry of anger he'd been harboring deep inside. "That's cheating. I can't fucking control my own goddamn heartbeat," he growled defensively before quickly clamping his mouth shut and turning away before he could say anything more to the kid.

Tony pressed his palms back down against the surface of the counter, the sleek metal cold against his burning hands. He lowered his head and held in a groan as he felt the ringing return full-force, banging against the sides of his head in a skull-splintering whine that made his eyes blur and his teeth chatter.

God, he was so tired.

It was all getting to be too much. The noise in his head, the tightness in his chest, the ache in his muscles, the churning in his gut, all of it was wrapping tight inside of him in a heavy weight of dread threatening to send him straight through the floor. Richard had basically drained him of the last of his energy, the last of his defenses. He shut his eyes and tried to focus on breathing, focus on feeling the air entering in through his constricting, shriveling lungs.

A sudden noise broke through the ringing, mingled with it, timid and obviously confused.

"Are you...okay?"

He could feel the kid's presence near him. He didn't open his eyes. "Why do you ask?" he muttered, wincing as it intensified the shrieking.

"Your ears are ringing."

That did get him to open his eyes. He whisked around to face the kid, ignoring the way the lights wavered in his vision, blurry and out of focus. He furrowed his brows and leveled the boy a hard stare. "You can...don't tell me you can hear that," he breathed in shock.

Peter didn't respond, just shuffled awkwardly on his feet and rubbed his arm.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut once more and turned away with a harsh sigh. "Of course you can." Somehow, he couldn't find it in himself to be upset about it. So instead, he stood in the silence that followed and kept on breathing, kept his focus on each inhale and exhale and tried to push down the banging in his head, the screaming in his ears and the skipping of his heart.

But it was hard to focus on anything past the heat, the slow build-up of warmth that was pinching his chest and twisting his skin.

He couldn't hold it back anymore, the waves of rage and anger that he'd brewed in the conference room, feelings he'd been trying desperately to choke down for the sake of the kid. But he wasn't strong enough and now he could feel them all around him, hovering around his head in a piercing whine of noise that left him breathless.

It was the penthouse all over again, the tingling heat that had never fully gone away, now back full-force and with a vengeance. It was Siberia, a rage he couldn't control, seeping into his muscles and forcing his body to move without his consent, leaving him a stranded passenger defenseless against it. Now it was Richard, standing in front of him laughing in spite, laughing and smiling and staring with those eyes that left the entire room burning in skin-searing heat.

It made his fingers curl, nails biting into his palms as his muscles coiled and his arms shook. He couldn't hear anything over the ringing, couldn't feel anything past the heat and the burning and the fire wrapping around him in thick black tendrils of suffocating rage.

. . .

Then a hand.

Only this time...it wasn't his.

He snapped open his eyes, forced them to blink and focus as he turned his head. Peter was next to him now, tiny form leaning against the counter as he rested the tips of his fingers against the back of Tony's hand, which was still curled into a tight fist atop the surface. His touch was soft, almost hesitant and yet still grounding in a sense. His skin was still as icy as ever, a sharp contrast to the steaming heat that seemed to bubble against Tony's own. Peter stared up at him with those bright brown eyes of his that seemed to swallow everything else, blocking out the wavering lights and the pulsing black encroaching on his vision...and the ringing, left it a muted whisper to swirl around his ear.

"Are you okay?" Peter repeated, but this time his voice was quiet, gentle.

For a minute, Tony said nothing, just listened to the sound of his own breathing instead of the numbing whine, kept looking at the kid's shining irises instead of the anger he craved so desperately to release, just kept his mind on the cold resting atop his hand and not on the warmth slowly receding back to the center of his chest to sit and stew.

He glanced down at the kid's hand and couldn't help but swallow the dryness in his throat as he realized the kid was attempting to return contact again, even if it was something as small as the tips of his fingers. It was still something. He lifted his gaze and noticed that Peter's eyes hadn't left his face.

He sighed before giving a small smile, a strained little thing that probably didn't do much to mask his weariness as he leaned up against the counter. "I'm alright, kid," he said softly before scoffing with a roll of his eyes. "Figures you come in looking like you fell off the back of a truck doing 80 on the highway and ask if I'm okay. You know you're weird, right?"

"So I've been told." Peter sniffed, grimacing slightly as the air violently entered his crooked nose.

Tony pursed his lips and straightened up, leering down at the broken feature. His work still wasn't done, despite his sudden lack of self-control. He shuffled awkwardly on his feet for a moment before gesturing. "I, uh...I need to set that thing, kid. Last thing we need is your freaky healing fusing that thing incorrectly." He had no idea how fast the boy's healing actually worked but he didn't plan on finding out today.

Peter didn't need to be directed back to the bed as he sat back down himself, tilting his head slightly. "You don't have to. I can do it myself. I've done it loads of times."

Tony sighed and leveled a long look up at the ceiling. "I'm just going to pretend I didn't hear that."

Peter blushed. Tony approached and held up his hands, once again attracting the kid's eye sight and making clear view of his movements before slowly reaching for the kid's face. He gingerly began to brush his fingers against the boy's nose, poking around the sight itself before garnering an approximation of where the actual break was from the kid's small hisses of pain. He leaned back a bit.

"Now, I know how to do this. Trust me, I've had so many accidents and have had to learn so many different ways to deal with said accidents that I'm a paper cut away from a medical degree. But if you'd rather I get one of my on-calls to do this, I-"

"No." Peter said quickly and sharply before clearing his throat and glancing away nervously. "I...I don't want anybody t...I don't think I can handle, uh...just the...I don't want anyone else to...to touch me and...I, um.." Tony could see the kid beginning to get flustered, cheeks reddening in embarrassment.

"Okay, it's alright. I understand," he said quickly.

It wasn't hard to see that the kid's aversion to contact was especially strong today and Tony couldn't blame him. Despite the recounting, he still had no real idea of what it was like with his father. Just talking to the bastard was hard enough, so he really couldn't imagine what the kid had gone through in that car. It made sense that his normal fear of anything and everything physical would be amplified today. But Tony was damn well not about to let the teen feel embarrassed about it.

"I wasn't just blowing air, you know. I do know how to do this."

The teen nodded and didn't say anything else as Tony carefully began to reposition his hands on either side of the kid's nose. "'Kay, you ready?"

A stiff nod.

"Okay. On three. One-"

He quickly jolted his fingers, snapping the bone back into place and aligning the structures back up again. Peter shut his eyes and briefly sucked in a muted hiss, but other than that, there was no reaction. No cry of pain or stiffening of the joints. Somehow, that made Tony feel worse but he quickly dismissed the thoughts as he whisked his hands a safe distance away from the kid and stared down at him. "You okay?"

Peter blinked a bit and wrinkled his nose slightly before staring back up at him. Once again, he gave a small little nod.

Tony held his gaze for a moment, couldn't help but mark the stark differences between Peter's eyes and his father's. Despite the piercing hold they both had, Peter's gaze was soft and bright, nothing like the dark uncomfortable tingle that accompanied his father's stare. And as he gazed at the kid's eyes, he couldn't help but jolt back to the last time he'd held that look, the last time he'd held that stare.

Had it really only been three days ago?

Swirling the thought in his head, Tony was unable to hold in a slight, sudden laugh as he lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, the stress he'd felt before seeming to settle for unexpected laughter as its release rather than violent rage. "Jeez kid. Do all of our interactions have to be so dramatic?" At least there was no rain or thunder to accompany them this time.

Peter lifted a brow and cocked his head, voice level. "I thought you liked dramatics."

"I like when I'm causing the dramatics. It's no fun when it's somebody else hogging all the glory."

The teen leaned back in his seat on the bed and rested his damaged hand in his lap. "Right. Guess I should have gotten that from all the flashy metal suits."

Tony scoffed. "Alright, Mr. Red-and-Blue-spandex."

"Says the guy who made my suit."

"I...alright you got me there."

He chuckled and noticed that Peter cracked a smile, the first Tony had seen from him all day. The billionaire retained his smile and even felt it widen as he noticed the air of tension that had filled the air since Peter's arrival finally seemed to be wavering, fading bit by bit, leaving traces of the real Peter to peek through.

He began to fiddle with the bandages on the cart again, lining his fingers against the edges as he lifted his head and gestured around at the room, which he'd noted Peter taking an interest in before. "I don't think we ever made it this far when I was showing you around the tower, you know...two lifetimes ago. What do you think?"

Peter swiveled his head to gaze around the room. "I didn't even know you had a med-bay here."

"Course. This did used to be Avengers Tower and we weren't known to be the safest bunch. But once we moved HQ over to the Compound, we downgraded here in favor of upping the scopes over there." He was finally able to unpeel a good enough strip of bandage away from the protective packaging. "So if you're ever planning on cutting off an arm or anything, you're gonna wanna make sure to do it near the Compound, kay?"

Peter held up his smile. "I'll keep that in mind. But this is downgrading? It's like a hospital in here."

"Exactly. You expect something from Tony Stark to look like it came out of a government funded public hospital? Please! We can print you new organs at the Compound."

"Seriously?"

"Okay, well I might be overexaggerating a bit, but whenever Cho stops by to brief me on her requirements for new tech upgrades, she updates me on her work." Tony held up both his hands and the bandage in clear view of the kid again, showing him exactly what he had in his grasp. Peter eyed it up for a second before seeming to mark his approval. The man approached and gingerly began to lay on the first strip. "Soon enough, she'll be able to regrow your own organs from leftover shred samples. That's what she was working on with her Cradle."

Peter twitched his face slightly, seeming to adjust to the new bandages stretching over the bridge of his nose as Tony began to tear off another strip to apply. "I read about that when I was in elementary school. Artificial cell regeneration. She was the first to figure out how to bond microencapsulated STEM cells to organic human skin cells with a complete one hundred percent success rate, no immune system defenses, rejection cycles, degeneration effects, anything. She wrote a paper on it." Tony threw the kid an impressed look and Peter glanced away with a shy smile as he lifted his prime hand to rub against the back of his neck. "I, uh...I did a science fair project based on her research back in fifth grade."

"Yeah? You win?"

The kid actually gave a little pout at that. "No. I got second place, but it was totally rigged. Tommy Garafalo's mom is lead judge despite having no expertise in any scientific field and her D-average kid just happens to win with his paper-mache solar system that, I would like to add, forgot Saturn? I'm calling bull."

Tony scoffed and began to lay a second bandage over the bridge of his nose. "How do you forget Saturn? It's like, the flashiest planet there is. It's - it's the Tony Stark of planets, oh my god."

Peter actually laughed, leaning back as he shut his eyes with a lopsided grin. Tony smiled as he watched the kid crawl out of the cocoon his father had wrapped him in, reemerging back into his normal self again. It made the tightness in his chest recede as the core of heat sitting in his gut kept getting smaller and smaller, releasing him of the staggering fury he'd been wrapped in for the better part of the afternoon. This was better. This was...right.

Tony sat back down on the stool and carefully reached for the boy's hand. Other than assessing it for the individual breaks in the fingers, Tony tried not to spare the sight too much of a look, not wanting to get angry again now that he was finally calming down and Peter was finally getting comfortable again.

But still...there were questions he couldn't keep ignoring.

"So...you gonna tell me why you're so worried about this press conference?"

Peter seemed unprepared for the question, blinking with furrowed brows for a moment. "What?"

Tony reached for another clean towel sitting on the counter and began to carefully wipe the boy's bloodied knuckles with the wet cloth. He tried to keep his head down and his eyes focused on his work, hoped that the lack of eye contact might make the boy less uncomfortable. But he doubted it.

"Come on. You didn't actually think I was going to just drop it and forget, did you?"

Despite his efforts, he could still feel as the kid tensed up, muscles slowly recoiling as he glanced away and tried to keep his voice light. "I...it's nothing. Really, I just-"

"Pete."

"I...I just think it's a bad idea, that's all."

That wasn't all, couldn't be all, not when the very idea of it had freaked the kid out so much that he'd literally begun to crush his own broken fingers. That type of visceral reaction didn't come from nothing. But, Tony still didn't understand.

"Why? It makes sense. You want those reporters gone, don't you? Well, this is how we do that."

Suddenly, Peter's hand was whisking out of his grasp, the billionaire jolting slightly at the sharp movement as the kid held it close and glared at the floor, face suddenly agitated. "I just don't want to, alright?" he snapped with an anger Tony wasn't expecting.

...Nor was he fooled by it.

He hesitated for a moment, taking a deep breath as he watched the boy refuse to meet his gaze once again. The man chewed on his lip and glanced down at the towel in his hand, running it along his fingertips, along the scars lining his palm, important scars, scars that actually meant something to him, something other than betrayal.

Tony carefully flipped the towel onto his shoulder and stood up from his seat. Peter didn't watch him this time, didn't keep laser-focus on his movements, not even when Tony settled down and took a seat next to him on the bed, a mere couple of inches away. The kid just...didn't react. He just kept his sharpened gaze on the floor and his arm tucked close to his chest. Tony let the kid sit for a minute, wondered if he would look at him on his own. When he didn't, the man finally decided to speak, making sure to keep his voice soft.

"Hey..."

Just with one word, Peter was shutting his eyes and turning his head away with a pinched frown, like he was afraid of the noise, of the weight of his voice. But with a slow, shaky breath, the kid blinked open his eyes and carefully turned to stare up at the man. Tony made sure to hold the boy's stare, hold it so he couldn't slip away, couldn't hide in his shell again.

"What are you so afraid of?"

Peter's lips parted, quivering slightly even as his mouth shut and his jaw tightened. His eyes remained dry, though, retained their careful, glass-like quality of fragility and carefully, constructed composure. His free hand fisted at the bed sheets underneath them before unfurling, fingers twitching against the covers. He took another breath, softer this time, and his face slowly began to relent its tightly-wound resistance.

"...It's just...I...I've never done it in front of so many people before."

Tony carefully squinted his eyes, making sure to show no anger as he took deep even breaths, heartrate slow and composed in both his chest and in Peter's ears. "Done what, kid?"

"...Lied."

The man said nothing. Peter turned away again, like he couldn't bare to keep staring back at him. "It's easy when I just have to smile for my neighbors, or push my sleeves down before class, or shrug and say 'nothing much' when people ask me how things are going, cause I know they don't really care. And...and that's fine. It's fine. Second nature at this point. But..." His gaze flickered down as he pulled his bloody hand away from his chest, staring at the bent and crooked nature of his fingers. "But doing it in front of all those reporters, those cameras, everyone who will see from their TVs or hear from the radio. I just..."

He gritted his teeth before huffing a sharp, forceful breath. "What if...what if I slip up and say something wrong? What if people start getting suspicious? What if they ask questions I'm not ready for and I don't have an answer prepared or a good enough lie to tell? Those people are literally trained in sniffing out liars and uncovering the truth. I just..."

He trailed off for a moment before lifting his gaze back towards Tony. 'What if they figure it out?"

Tony couldn't help it, couldn't help the bloom of frustration that appeared at the kid's questions. Still, he kept his voice level, kept his heart steady and calm. "Would that really be such a bad thing?"

Peter said nothing, just sighed and angled his head away again.

The billionaire tapped his fingers together before leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he let his hands hang between his legs. Peter Parker, despite his young age, was never an easy kid to read. Tony liked to think himself somewhat of an expert in detecting a person's inward thoughts just by their body language, their facial expressions and outward appearance. Usually it was easy, most people not knowing what to hide and what to conceal to keep themselves truly private.

Not Peter though. Peter was like him, like Richard, only showing what he wanted people to see. Even when his emotions seemed to be bare on his sleeves like earlier that day, there was still a factor of mystery, an unknown element Tony could never pin down. He could never tell exactly what the kid was thinking, what was going through his head at a moment's notice. Those eyes, despite their warmth, despite their brightness, were sealed tight, a piercing steel barrier unwavering in its guard.

But now? As Tony watched the kid's fidgety movements that seemed just a bit less controlled than before, as he watched the careful tapping of the boy's fingers against the edge of the bed and the way he kept trying to hide his now faltering guarded gaze, Tony knew exactly what the kid wanted.

Reassurance.

Tony sighed and tilted his head towards the boy, who still hadn't looked up yet. "Kid...I-I know what you want me to say. I know you want me to reassure you that everything's going to be fine and that you'll convince them like you've somehow convinced everybody, and that protecting your dad is the right way to go about this, that...that lying is your only shot, but..."

("I care very much for my son, Stark.")

"But I can't. Because I promised not to lie to you."

The kid didn't lift his head, but he did throw a small tired glance Tony's way before dropping his gaze back down to the ground. Tony watched the kid fiddle with his fingers, carefully scraping his nail against some of the caked-on blood smeared against the back of his hand. The man sighed and tapped his knuckle against the edge of his hand.

"Peter, I wish you would tell someone...tell someone who actually has the tools to do something about it. I wish you'd see that you don't have to keep doing this, don't have to...put up with all of this. I...to be honest, I just wish you'd stop being so goddamn stubborn and listen to reason, kid."

The teen still didn't say anything, but now he looked frustrated, sullen gaze turning sharper as he scoffed.

"But I know it's not that simple."

Peter blinked, then carefully raised his head, brows furrowed as if he wasn't sure he'd heard the man correctly. Tony met his gaze and then very carefully reached out to grab the kid's damaged hand, gently pulling it forward so that he could get better access to it. Peter didn't fight his hold, didn't tug to free his hand. He just watched as Tony took the towel still hanging from his shoulder and began to finish cleaning the scratched skin.

"I know you're scared. I know you've been doing this for years now, dealing with things I don't even want to think about. And I know you've been doing it alone." He set the towel down and turned to look the boy in the eyes again, drinking in that questioning, wavering gaze that couldn't help but listen, a gaze he hoped would understand.

Tony could practically hear Pepper in his ear, hear the words she'd spoken to him days ago, acknowledging his fears, bringing them to light, and wiping them away all in one sweeping go. He wondered if he could do the same. "But you don't have to do that anymore. It's not just you. It's Pepper and Rhodey and Happy. It's your friends and May and...it's anyone and everyone you can count on now, even if it's not a lot of 'em." He smirked and reached for the table again, grabbing the bandages from the surface. "And that includes me. Cause like it or not, I'm here to stay, Pete."

Said boy still didn't say anything, not even as Tony began to work on his hand, not when he warned him to prepare for the bones to be popped back into place, not when he did pop said bones back into place (which was fairly easy considering how clean and obvious each break was), and not when he carefully began to wrap his fingers in a more secure binding, looping around his palm and down his wrist.

Tony didn't put the kid's hand down as he finished. He set the bandages down, pushed the little cart away, but he didn't drop the hand. He just kept tapping his fingers against the top, played with the new wrappings looped securely against his skin. Peter didn't fight his grip, just kept watching him in silence.

The man swallowed, took a breath and sat up a little straighter. "So...if you tell the world about your dad, then great. If you don't...then...then that's okay too."

He stared at the kid, their gazes meeting in a tight, meaningful hold.

"Cause whatever you decide...I've got your back."

For a moment, nobody said anything. Peter kept his gaze locked tight, eyes not even flickering around his face. They stayed set on Tony's own gaze, like they were searching his stare for any signs of deception, any hints of deceit. Tony knew the kid would find none. He meant every word.

He knew he couldn't force Peter to comply, couldn't force the teen to give up and turn in his father. The boy had made that clear in his ten years of silence, a record he was unlikely to break anytime soon. But he could show the boy something else, he could give him something else, something Tony knew to be important, something he had in Pepper and Rhodey, something he'd been craving ever since Steve, ever since the others had uprooted his life. Something neither he nor the kid could do without anymore.

Support.

Support from people they could trust.

Peter finally glanced away, but his face wasn't nervous or unsure as it had been moments ago. It reminded Tony of how he'd looked in the penthouse, calm and collected and gentle. When he spoke, his voice was the same.

"I, um...I saw the news. Washington DC. I...I heard about what happened with...you know."

Tony did know.

The kid gave a little shrug of his shoulder, but his eyes remained steady in their gaze, clear and confident in a way they hadn't been for hours.

"I've got yours too...if you need me."

Tony held his stare for a second, drank in the seriousness in the kid's tone, the assurity. For a brief second, a flash of a flash, barely even a fragment of a moment, Tony thought of something. It was a small little thought, almost too small to even notice, but it was there.

It was a memory, a wavering haze of fog that was hard to decipher. He saw a booth, a diner, too-big glasses of milkshakes and cheesy songs from the 70s playing on a jukebox in the corner. A song he recognized, a classic. Steve didn't know it, but that was common.

("My version of a classic can't even be played cause nobody owns gramophones anymore.")

Before he knew it, the thought was gone, the memory dissolved and it was over. But the feelings it left behind remained, the same feelings he'd felt sitting in that booth bonding at 2am with the only other occupant in the tower that couldn't sleep that night. The one person he thought could understand.

Steve didn't understand. Tony realized that now.

But Peter did.

Tony couldn't help but smile, gave a little chuckle as he patted the kid's shoulder. Peter smiled, a sure smile that didn't falter in any way. The man turned and glanced around the room, a small huff of air blowing long and tired from his lips. He lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck, glancing up at the ceiling before turning his head.

"You hungry?"

Peter tilted his head back and forth before settling on a nod.

"Great. Hey FRI?"

"Yes, sir?"

"What's the closest Chinese place around here?

"There is a 24-hour Chinese-based restaurant located 0.5 miles down 34th Street along the East-"

"Ah, okay- going for the rhetorical there. Just order three of everything off the menu, okay?"

He paused for a moment of consideration before sparing Peter a once-over.

"You are okay with Chinese, right?"

"Only if you don't get mad at me for putting ketchup on my egg rolls."


Monday - May 2, 2016

Stark Tower - Common Floor

01:42 PM

"This is Meagan Sanders coming...ugg-attempting to come to you live from-"

"WHOO!"

"M-Midtown School of Science and Technology, recently discovered school of Peter Parker, son of Parkstem CEO Richard Parker and source of-"

"Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!"

"-controversy over the past few days with many speculating over the story behind his relation to Tony Stark, figurehead of Stark Industries and his father's top competitor. And as you can see...right now we are in the middle of a massive demonstration of..."

"GO TIGERS!"

"-M-Midtown stud-"

"What's up, everyone! Flash Thompson here! Follow me at FlashMob4Life and-"

"Give me that! Goddamn it, KYLE! Put down that stupid camera and help me deal with these fucking kids!"

Peter took a bite of his dumpling and tilted his head, watching the reporter currently trying to push another group of kids out of the camera's frame and failing miserably.

"Are you allowed to swear on national news?"

Rhodey leaned back in his seat and scrunched his face slightly. "I don't think so."

"Eeshh. Hang in there, Meagan."

Happy grunted and fiddled with his container of rice. "I'd be more worried for Kyle. Mobs always pick off the slow, fat guys first. Dude doesn't stand a chance."

Rhodey chuckled and Peter just shook his head before popping another dumpling.

The smell of kung pao chicken and chow mein wafted through the air of the common floor, hovering over the massive spread of dozens upon dozens of Chinese food containers, boxes, and take-out bins all overflowing with food which had been rightfully picked apart over the past hour and a half, the majority of which had been spent flicking through the various news stations all circling around the same story: Midtown.

Nearly every station they flicked to had reporters out in the field: vans parked and personnel planted outside the school which was now overflowing with freshman, juniors, sophomores and seniors all basking in the newfound freedom and limelight they were relishing in, making complete fools of themselves like any high schooler would when confronted with national news spotlights.

They all sat around on the couches, Pepper and Rhodey sharing one of the side couches while Happy sat in an opposite armchair. Peter sat alone on the larger sectional, legs folded under him in a crisscrossed tuck that kept him small and out of the way. But the atmosphere in the air was anything but tense. In fact, the room had been ringing with laughter for the better part of the afternoon, mainly due to the chaos unfolding on the TV.

Pepper shook her head as she watched a group of boys begin to take off their shirts and twirl them over their heads like flags. "How long do you think they'll keep this up?"

Peter shrugged. "Eh, you'd be surprised. It's a school full of nothing but nerds and tech geeks." He gestured to the screen. "This is the most exciting thing that's happened since the last pep rally."

Rhodey scoffed and rested his arm against the lip of the couch, grabbing a bottle of water from the floor and twisting the cap off with one hand. "Really? Pep rally?"

"Oh yeah. Sarah Geretsky crowd-surfed from the top bleacher and broke her leg falling on our mascot. It was pretty wild."

Happy cocked a brow and set his container down on the table, blowing a sigh through his lips. "They can't possibly stay interested for very long. They're teenagers. Don't you all have attention spans of - what, like 30 seconds or something?"

"We're kids, not...goldfish."

Rhodey snorted and Pepper chuckled as she shook her head and grabbed her empty plate, standing up from her seat and stepping away from the couches. Peter smiled and turned back to the TV. "Trust me, it's a crowd of angsty, lonely teenagers with nothing on their schedules but homework, projects, robotics club and chess. They'll be there all night."

The Colonel smirked. "Perfect."

Tony watched from the kitchen with a smirk, leaning against the counter as he watched the TV and waited for the coffee machine to finish brewing its latest batch. His cravings for something warm and filling had finally won him over, but with the mere thought of alcohol still stirring nauseating discomfort, he'd settled for his second favorite and only slightly less troubling but more socially acceptable addiction.

He noticed Pepper approaching and gestured to the machine. "Need a cup? Get it now, cause I'm pretty sure I'm not even going to wait for this stuff to cool down before chugging straight from the pot."

The woman rolled her eyes with a smile as she dumped her plate into the trash can, cleaning her hands with a napkin before coming around the counter to stand next to Tony. He scooted over to make room for her as she rested her own elbows next to him and leaned against the marbled surface, shoulder pressing into his.

They didn't say anything for a moment, just listened to the gurgling of the coffee pot mingling with the shouting from the TV and the laughs and scoffs coming from the boys on the couch. Tony tapped his fingers together, matching in time to the dull throbbing he could still feel lurking behind his eyes, a soft ache that had lessened to a manageable level since that morning.

Pepper didn't turn to look at him as she stared out into the living room, voice low as the tips of her fingers began to trace the edge of her sleeves. "How's he doing?"

Tony knew who she was talking about. His eyes drifted over to the kid, who was still pressed into the corner of the couch, subtly staying far away from both Rhodey and Happy respectively while maintaining a nonchalant demeanor. Despite his posture though, his face was lax and his tone was happy. Shockingly (or maybe not, he really had to read up on the kid's powers), the bruises on his face were already beginning to discolor into a less-vibrant purple, the little nicks on his face shrinking with each passing hour. His hand was still bandaged and tucked close, only straying out whenever he grabbed for more food before quickly hiding away again.

"All things considered?" He watched Peter laugh at something Rhodey said, his shoulders bouncing and strands of hair falling down around his eyes as he smiled. "Better than he should be. But I can't really complain, honestly."

Tony kept his voice low, though he knew it was pretty pointless. Peter would probably be able to hear him from three floors away. Still, he wasn't too concerned about the boy listening in on their conversation. At most Peter would probably just let the words wash into background garble. He was too polite for eavesdropping.

Pepper hummed, a simple response that let him know she'd heard. Her fingers continued to run along the sides of her sleeves, pushing the fabric up her arms. "He won't let us get close."

"Noticed that, huh?"

It was hard not to. Even with the much more relaxed setting, it was painfully obvious that Peter was still acting a bit...off. The kid was fairly subtle about it surprisingly enough, keeping his movements slow and inconspicuous. But sparing the boy a second glance would show the bare hint of tension still present in his shoulders, the almost protective way he kept his bandaged arm tucked close to his chest or how he constantly kept flicking his eyes back and forth between each person in the room, as if to keep tabs on them all.

She tilted her head slightly and twitched her lips. "I don't think he even knows he's doing it."

Tony let out a low breath, bringing a hand to run through his hair before dragging it down the side of his face, feeling the calloused skin of his palm rubbing against his temple. "It's...it's nothing personal, Pep. He doesn't mean...It's just...today, with everything that's happened-" He couldn't bring himself to continue, the words seeming to exhaust him just by rattling around in his head.

"I know." She glanced away. "It's just..."

The man gave a small, muted nod. "Yeah." He did know.

Pepper sighed and straightened up, turning so that her back was now pressing against the corner of the counter as she folded her arms over her chest and glanced down at him, expression lighter. "How are you doing?"

"Still trying to wrap my head around the fact that it's only one in the afternoon and not three in the morning."

The woman huffed out a little chuckle. "Tell me about it. It's been the longest morning of my life, and that's counting that Dallas Meeting Riot back in 2013."

Tony cocked a brow. "Well, I don't wanna say that's what you get for going to Dallas, but-"

"We are not having this conversation again."

The man snickered, Pepper doing the same before they fell into another comfortable silence. Tony fell back into watching Peter, smiling as he noticed the kid talking animatedly to Rhodey and Happy about something on the TV. It took a bit longer than it should have, but Tony finally blinked out of it and turned away from the scene, straightening up and glancing over at the coffee machine that seemed to be getting slower and slower with each passing second.

"I can't believe I never saw it before."

Tony turned back around at Pepper's voice, the woman staring down at the floor with her arms still folded tight over her chest.

"Saw what?"

She narrowed her eyes slightly, tightening her grip on her arms. "Him. Richard. How...just...what he is."

It was almost impressive, the sudden, visceral reaction Tony felt churning in his stomach just by the sound of the man's name. He pushed it down and remained silent as he spared a glance back out at the living room. Peter hadn't turned around, hadn't stiffened or anything. He might have heard, but he still wasn't listening, which was good.

Pepper pushed a strand of hair out of her face. "I wasn't lying when I said we'd met before. We had...at that gala." Her lips curled slightly as she shook her head in disbelief. "And he just...he seemed so nice, so...normal." Her face pinched as she glanced away.

"I shook his hand."

Tony sucked in a tight breath and scoffed. "Come on. You can't do that. He's spent his life building that persona, that idea of perfection. You're not supposed to see through it. He's...he's good at it. The lying." He narrowed his eyes slightly and pointed his sharp stare at the floor. "Guess it was something he passed down."

It was hard to remember that Richard's white-knight schtick wasn't as see-through for everybody else as it was for him. Even before he'd met Peter and received an insider's look, he could always tell that Richard was full of shit, clear as day. Of course, the guy threw enough charitable deeds and volunteer work around to completely cover himself in a shiny protective coat of public love, so the chances of anybody else ever figuring out the truth were slim to none. So it shouldn't have been surprising that Pepper had fallen for it just as everyone else had.

Her face remained troubled as her eyes hardened. "Doesn't make it any better."

Tony said nothing, just lifted his head back up to the living room. He noticed Peter shifting from his seat as the boy rose up to his feet and grabbed his plate. Pepper must have noticed as well, for she straightened up and leaned closer to Tony. "Safe to say, summer can't come soon enough," she whispered before stepping away from him and out of the kitchen.

She spared Peter a smile as she walked past, the boy doing the same while simultaneously adding a few inches of distance between them as he side-stepped her. Tony pretended not to have noticed as the kid reached the kitchen and made his way over to the trash.

"Well? Any updates?" Tony asked with a smirk as he glanced behind him at the TV.

Peter smiled as he began to push his empty paper plate into the garbage. "Yeah. One of the seniors pulled up with a van full of water guns so now the reporters are barricading behind their news vans."

He rolled his eyes and leaned up against the counter again. "Jeez, those guys love to overreact. A bit of water never hurt anybody."

"Oh, it's not...water."

Tony blinked then carefully craned his neck back over towards the TV, narrowing his eyes before straightening back up again. "Oh."

"Yeah."

The man scoffed which quickly devolved into a laugh, Peter mirroring the sound as the billionaire folded his arms over his chest. "Gotta give you kids points for creativity. Where do you even get that much tomato juice on such short notice?"

The teen shrugged. "I don't know, but Ned says it's crazy down there."

"He's there?"

Peter wiped his hand on a stray napkin. "Yeah. Him and Michelle, who I'm not so sure didn't coordinate this whole entire thing."

Tony reached over towards one of the food containers, plucking out a stray egg roll. "Your little girlfriend?"

The kid threw him a dirty look, to which Tony smirked and gave an exasperated roll of his eyes. "Your little friend who happens to be a girl? Why do you say that?"

"Well, cause every time I ask her about it, she just tells me to not ask questions I don't want the answer to, so I mean..."

Tony chuckled as he took a bite before pointing the now half-eaten roll at the teen. "Well, whether she did or didn't, it's all very much appreciated. Not much quality TV on at this time of day, but watching camera men dodging water balloons full of..." he glanced at the TV. "...what I can only assume to be cat food...is pretty entertaining."

Peter grinned as he finished washing his unbandaged hand in the sink and began to dab it on one of the towels laying on the counter. "Probably almost as much as being there. Honestly, it's a good thing I'm not or I don't think I'd be able to resist joining in."

Tony watched as the boy finished drying his hand before eyeing the bottles of water still lining the counter from that weekend. "What's so wrong with that?"

The teen shrugged with a snort. "Ha, my dad would kill me if he saw me acting like that, especially in public and definitely if it was in front of cameras."

Tony's smile faltered and his stomach immediately clenched, his appetite dwindling as the small comment dragged him back into a reality that had been hiding underneath the past hour of food, TV and laughing. Pepper's words had made him itch, sure. But Peter seemed to have a special skill in making him feel sick to his stomach with nothing but a few passing words.

The kid must have noticed the way his face fell as he turned back around with a bottle of water in his hands. He blinked up at him, tilting his head slightly. "What's wrong?"

The billionaire looked up, looked at the kid's face, the kid's scarred face.

The bruises were still there. He could try to pretend all he wanted, could watch the kid laugh and joke and watch TV like nothing was wrong, but it wouldn't change the fact that the bruises were still there, black and ugly against the pale white of his skin. It wouldn't change the fact that his hand was still swathed in thick, medical bandages leaving his fingers stiff and unbendable. It wouldn't change what had happened that morning. Nothing could change that.

Still, not wanted to reprieve the tense, awkward uncomfortableness of earlier, Tony wiped away whatever unease was marring his face and gave the kid a smirk. "Nothing. It's...it's nothing, kid. Don't worry about it."

Peter, however, didn't seem to be so quick to forget. He held his stare for a moment before his eyes narrowed and the teen leaned his own elbows down against the counter, throwing the man an unimpressed look that Tony was surprised he had the confidence to muster. "Okay, if that doesn't work on you, it most definitely isn't going to work on me."

Tony paused for a moment before scoffing, unable to keep a genuine smile from slipping onto his face in place of the fake one. "Okay, that's how we're playing this?"

"Oh, that is so how we're playing this."

Neither of them could hold back their laughs as Tony shook his head and Peter glanced down at his water bottle, passing it back and forth between his hands as he slid it against the counter. The teen rapped his knuckle against the side of the bottle as they settled before gazing back up at the man, voice soft. "So what is wrong?"

Tony took a breath, took a second to compose himself. Like sand slipping through his fingers, the joyous energy that always seemed to build up whenever he was messing around with the kid slowly began to drop, falling down to weigh heavy in his stomach.

There was something wrong.

(Resent me? Stark...Peter loves me.")

Something he still couldn't get out of his head, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how distracted he tried to become, it burned bright.

("You can believe all you want that I'm some vile villain who twirls his mustache while locking my son in dark, decrepit dungeons. But that's not what Peter sees.")

He could feel it pressing against the side of his skull, pressing down in his stomach, a permanent mark that wouldn't go away until he knew for sure, until he heard it himself, confirmed it before his own eyes.

("He loves me, Stark. More than anything")

He had to know.

The man hesitated for a moment, buying himself some time as he grabbed one of the stools and sat down. Peter remained standing, fingers slowly running up and down along the side of the bottle, condensation dripping down onto the table in a small puddle.

He had to know.

He had to know.

("Go ahead and ask him yourself.")

"Are you angry?"

Peter reared back slightly at the question, obviously caught off-guard. He narrowed his eyes and tilted his head with a perplexed smile. "At you? Why would I-?"

"No, no." Tony shook his head, holding up a hand in emphasis before lowering it back down to the table as he noticed the slight tremble in his fingers. The billionaire took a breath, licked his lips and carefully began to tap his knuckles against the counter, if only to release some of the nervous energy now pooling into his appendages. He focused hard on keeping his heartbeat level and calm. "I mean are you upset...at your father?"

Peter's smile disappeared.

"Are you angry at him for...for what he did?"

He knew what to expect. Peter would get nervous, get fidgety, probably look away and give him some half-hearted excuse that steered clear of a straight answer and then mumble out a string of sorry replies before hastily looking for a way out of the conversation. At this point, Tony felt he was finally starting to get the hang of it.

Which was why he was utterly shocked when Peter did none of that.

Instead, the teen seemed to consider the question for a moment before his smile reappeared on his face, light and genuine and not-at-all angry.

The teen gave a little chuckle. "Heh...no. Course not." He picked up the water bottle with his free hand and began to gesture with it. "I...okay, yeah, it freaks me out a bit whenever it happens, of course. It's always pretty intense in the heat of the moment, you know?" The boy paused in his movements and gave a little shrug of his shoulders. "But after a bit when I stop being so dramatic, calm down, gain my senses, it's...it's fine. He was only doing what every parent does. It's not like he doesn't have the right to."

Peter made to open the bottle, only to pause as he realized his current bandaged predicament. He gave a nervous chuckle and sheepishly glanced up at Tony. "You think you could...?"

Tony had to take a second to register the request, his brain seeming to churn sluggishly through what he was hearing. He blinked a few times and dragged himself out of it. "Right. Sure." His voice was soft, distant, distracted. But he unscrewed the cap and shakily handed the bottle back. Peter didn't seem to notice his unease.

"Thanks." He took the bottle back but didn't take a sip right away as he let out a sharp breath "Look, does it suck? Yeah. No doubt. It's the worst. But I'm not like...angry about it," he scoffed with a smile. "He was just, like...being a dad, doing all that parenting stuff I don't understand cause I'm young and stupid."

"You're not stupid." It was automatic, the words softly coming out of Tony's mouth in a breathy whisper before he could think better of it.

Peter paused for a moment before letting out a chuckle and glancing up at the ceiling. "Oh, you'd be surprised. And anyway, it was my own fault. I was wrong and he was right, simple as that. Besides, considering how rude and disrespectful I was being, I really can't blame him for doing what he did. I was basically asking for it."

He made to turn away, only to hesitate as he lowered his gaze to the bottle in his hands and let out a little sigh, finally displaying a slight sense of unease. "It's just...a lot of people probably wouldn't understand that. They just don't get it, you know?" His face grew another gentle smile that made Tony's fingers clench.

"I just wouldn't want him to get in trouble for something he does out of love."

Tony watched the kid finally take a sip from the bottle, suddenly unable to feel the cold surface of the counter underneath his fingers, which seemed to burn with an intensity hot enough to melt the ceramic. He tried to swallow the sudden sharpness that had returned to his throat, prickling along the inside, tiny needles that dug into the flesh. He could hear Richard in his ear, feel the overwhelming presence of the man standing over him, looming above him in a suffocating heat.

"You really love him...don't you?" But he didn't need to ask.

Peter turned his gaze from the TV back over to him, tilting his head innocently with a bright look in his bruised eyes and a smile parting his split lip.

"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"

Tony said nothing, was too afraid to.

"Hey, kid! Get over here!"

Peter jolted a bit at the shout and craned his neck to glance over his shoulder. Rhodey was gesturing back to the couch, tilting his head at the TV. "You're our play-by-play commentator for this mess."

The teen grinned before glancing back over at Tony. "I gotta-" he jabbed a thumb behind him, Tony nodding absentmindedly before the boy was throwing him a smile and walking away.

He took a breath, took a couple of them, let them out shakily and leveled a hard stare at the counter below his hands, trying and failing to block out the sound of Richard's voice echoing around his ears.

It was hard to deny it now, no matter how much he wanted to. But this did make things much more complicated, if that were even possible.

The idea of getting Peter to turn on his father had been plausible while he'd been under the pretense that the kid held some sort of resentment for the man, some burning hatred bubbling deep inside for everything he'd ever done to him. God knew that's how it had been for Tony. Not once had love ever even entered the billionaire's mind as a possibility. And now that it was...? Now that there was no hate and rage to shape into reason and realization?

He lifted his head, watched Peter hop onto the arm of the couch and fold his legs underneath him, purposely angling himself so that Happy and Rhodey were in his line-of sight, at least visible to the corner of his eye. The boy turned to the TV with a grin, explaining something or other to the two men about the details of what was going on.

Tony should have known.

Peter couldn't hate anybody. He was too pure for that, too strong for that.

The man felt his fingers slowly curl against his palms, brushing against the scars.

It didn't matter. Tony didn't care because it didn't matter. What he'd just heard, what he'd just learned didn't matter. It wouldn't stop him, wouldn't stop his efforts to save this kid. Richard Parker was just another asshole that needed to be put in his place and Tony was damn well prepared to face him head-on for however long it took to get Peter free of him, free of his influence and his lies and his false affections.

He was in this for the long haul and nothing was going to sway him now.

Pepper chose that moment to re-enter the room, pulling her phone away from her face and slipping it back into her pocket as she approached. Her eyes narrowed in on the TV as she took in the scene being displayed, scoffing slightly as she shook her head in disbelief. "Where did they even get the gravy from?"

Peter glanced up at her. "Probably from the cafeteria. Our lunch-lady is pretty chill. Probably even put chunks in it."

Happy cocked a brow. "Chunks of what?"

The teen shrugged. Pepper rounded the couch and stood next to where Rhodey sat. "Well whatever it is, it's burning a hole in the side of the Channel 13 news van."

Rhodey grinned. "If this is what you kids eat, it's no wonder you're all as messed up as you are."

Peter pursed his lips while the Colonel threw him a teasing smirk, the reporters on the screen rising in volume as they tried to be heard over the noise of the roaring crowds.

"There's has still been no word from either Richard Parker or Tony Stark on the recent developments leading many to speculate on their own as to the reasoning behind the strange occurrences and, just...ugg! Can we cut? I can't...I can't fucking do this. I've covered war zones more peaceful than this!"

Whatever the man planned on saying next was cut off by the sharp slap of a water balloon exploding against his face. Everyone in the room winced simultaneously at the sight before the camera cut to black. Rhodey shook his head and flipped to another channel, where the other stations and their respective reporters weren't fairing much better. He picked up his own newly-empty plate and rose to his feet.

"Something tells me these reporters better start fashioning a white flag out of someone's underwear."

"Or at least get their own tubs of chili to return counterfire," Happy muttered as he stood up to follow the Colonel, Pepper rolling her eyes as the three of them entered the kitchen to finish cleaning off their plates right as Tony approached the couches and plopped down in the middle of the nearest one, which happened to be the same one Pete was currently perched upon, legs still folded as he watched the screen from his seat atop the arm rest.

Tony let out a sigh as he leaned back against the seat and tried very hard not to fall asleep right then and there, helped somewhat by the manic chanting of the students on the TV. His eyes drifted across the screen, taking in the sight of the news vans lining the streets, the reporters frantically bustling along the grass and the scrawls of text scrolling along the bottom of the screen. Despite the auras of chaos radiating from the scene, it was hard not to remember exactly why it was happening.

And they did have a potential solution.

He rested his head against the couch cushions and lazily glanced over at the kid who had yet to acknowledge his presence. "You know, they bring up some fairly good points," he ventured carefully, making sure to keep his voice disinterested and calm.

It seemed to work well enough, for Peter didn't turn to look at him, but he did raise a brow and scoff. "What? You think chili's going to stand a chance against two-month-old gravy?"

"No..." Jeez, this kid. "I mean the reporters. What they're saying."

"About...?"

Tony sat up just a little bit. "About any official word. They're technically right. We haven't put anything out publicly...yet."

The smile left his face. Peter turned his head. He didn't look nervous or uncomfortable, not outwardly at least. He stared at the billionaire for a moment before turning a sidelong glance back at the TV. "Right. The...conference."

The man drummed his fingers against the empty couch cushion next to him, watched them make light indents in the surface. "You up for it?"

Peter furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"Wasn't that strange of a question. Do you want to do it?"

The teen started watching the man's fingers now. "My dad wants-"

Tony stopped. "I didn't ask about what your dad wants. I'm asking what you want."

"Well what difference does it make?" the teen said without much venom yet still scrunched his nose the same way he always did when he was getting frustrated. He turned away again. "If he wants to do it then we're doing it. End of story."

The billionaire pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. "Yeah, no. I don't think so. He might be able to boss you around but he's going to find it a bit more challenging to do the same to me."

Peter looked back at him, gave him a doubtful look. Tony sighed and sat up, resting his elbows on his knees as he gestured to the TV. "Look, I know this isn't ideal, especially since there's not much we can do about it other than roll with it. But that doesn't mean I'm going to force you up onto a stage with a bunch of cameras in your face and those idiots spewing questions when they can barely even counter-attack against a gang of nerds. I mean, seriously, does your school even have a football team?"

"Yeah, but they also double as the Mahjong Club."

"Right... Point is, I know how intimidating it can be. Hell, even I hate press conferences. So if you don't want to do this, then we aren't doing it." He scooted a bit closer to the teen's perched seat. Peter didn't squirm. "This entire mess has you smack-dab in the middle, so regardless of what Richard says, you do have a say in this. At least...you do with me."

The teen didn't say anything, didn't show much on his face. He swallowed and glanced down at the bandages on his hands, running his fingers along the seams. Finally, he scooted off the arm rest and slid down onto the actual cushioned seats below it, right next to Tony, the closest he'd been to anybody in the past two hours. He kept his legs tucked underneath him as he rested his back against the arm rest and scratched at one of the bandages on his cheek. "My dad won't like it."

Tony pulled the boy's hand away from his face, ignoring the kid's puff of protest. "Tough. If he has a problem with it, then he can take it up with me. I'll just say I had second thoughts. "He shrugged. "I am pretty flaky so it won't be much of a stretch."

Peter cracked a little smile, letting out a little breath as he rested the side of his head against the back couch cushion, keeping his eyes locked on Tony. "What do you wanna do?"

He shrugged. "Personally, I can take it or leave it. If it'll end this nonsense sooner then I'm all for it. Then again, seeing as how I've basically become a hermit who never leaves his tower, it's not like they really bother me, not as much as they do you, at least."

"Yeah, something tells me my dad's gonna keep me from school for a few days."

Peter didn't say anything after that. Tony decided not to push, simply leaning against the backrest as he lazily pretended to focus on the TV, interwoven fingers sitting on his stomach. He watched the screen, watched the colors beginning to bleed into one another as his brain took the moment to relax and focus on nothing but breathing and staying awake. Everything else seemed to fade slightly, muddying and mingling into barely tangible noises, swirled colors, dulled senses. He could feel the pressure still present behind his eyes but it was softer now, quieter. Everything was.

. . .

"If..."

His brain clicked back on. He turned and focused back in on Peter, who was fiddling with his hands again, or at least, as best he could with three broken fingers. This time he did look a bit more unsure, a bit more like the usual nervousness Tony was used to seeing on his face.

He had to admit, he hadn't missed it.

"If we do...go through with it...you'll be there the whole time?"

Tony smirked. "I am kind of half the attraction."

Peter didn't smile back, just kept staring up at him with a long, searching gaze, hand clenched tightly around his jacket. Tony dropped the smirk, replaced it in favor of a more serious, more calming look of certainty, of assurance.

Of support.

"Yes. I'll be there."

"...the whole time?"

Tony gave a little smile. "The whole time."

Peter nodded and quickly glanced away, swallowing thickly once more as he blew out another breath, slower this time, more deliberate. "Okay. I, uh..." He paused again, scrunching his face slightly before rubbing the look away with his free hand and turning back to Tony.

"Okay."

The man tilted his head a bit. "Okay?"

They shared a look, ignored the noises from the TV still echoing around the room. It was obvious it didn't matter anymore, neither did those reporters or those students or Richard. And if they really tried hard enough, if they really put effort into it, they could almost pretend that the day had started with the two of them sitting on that couch, doing nothing but watching TV and talking and worrying over nothing and nobody. No fighting or screaming or sleeping on the bathroom floor.

Somehow, it made them both feel just a little bit better.

"Okay."


Have you guys ever had crippling, paralyzing anxiety before that literally just sucks all the motivation out of you and leaves you going to bed early cause doing anything else gets bogged down by irrational, repetitive paranoid thoughts?

No? Well 10/10 highly recommend.

So no joke, this chapter probably would have been out last month if it wasn't for this. I guess it's just the start of college in a fast-paced medical field that's starting to affect me but it was literally nothing I'd ever felt before. Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't diagnosed anxiety disorder or something serious like that, so I'm not trying to pound out the sympathy bingo card or anything. But you all seem to enjoy when I talk to you so I figured I'd update you on why this chapter is a bit late with some Real Talk.

Anyway, it's not fully gone but it's getting a bit better, evident in the fact that this chapter is even out at all. Now, I don't want you guys to worry or anything. I'm not depressed or have a diagnosed mental issue. It's just a little something I had to work through and I think I'm getting the hang of it, taking medicine, all that jazz. I also don't want you all to think I'm putting this story on hiatus or anything cause I'm not. While my schedule is pretty cramped nowadays (seriously, it's schoolwork from 9am to 9pm), I still take the time to write most days (with some days for mental breaks in between to hang with the fam) This story isn't going away so don't worry!

Anyhoo! Onto the important stuff!

***Main Point: I need your help again!***

I've recently been rereading my previous chapters and read through the narrative I added at the end of Chapter 22: All the Lonely People Part III and I realized I wanted to tweak it a bit. I honestly wrote it thinking of the narrator as Peter but as I read through it, I noticed it wasn't really obvious, especially since it was written without any personal pronouns to emphasize it.

So I rewrote it to show more that Peter was speaking and I honestly really like it! I'm thinking I want to add more of these narrations into the story. They won't be in every chapter, only for important chapters and even in them, they'll only be small portions of a single chapter.

Now, an important thing to add is that these narrations aren't to change the story into first person. The narration is just a little something I thought of and wanted to add in to help emphasize the point that this is Peter's story and this is his recounting. If you want an example in how these narrations will be, go back to Chapter 22 and reread the final narration at the end to get a taste of how it would be.

So my question to you all is this: what do you think of the revised narration? Do you like having Peter speaking like a narrator for specific, important moments? I do, but if you guys don't then I'll find a way to revise it and come up with something that you all like. So please let me know!

Normal Points:

1. So this was a lot. You know what I think is great? Reassuring you all that long chapters will have a lot of line breaks to give you pauses and then creating my longest chapter to date and barely having any line breaks. Isn't that just awesome? So, sorry about that, but this chapter had a natural flow that I didn't want to mess up by adding different POVs and other subplots like cutting to the Rogues or something like that.

2. It's also not that common to have a chapter that only focuses on one character's perspective for the entire chapter but this was a pivotal chapter to Tony's character and the plot in general so I wanted to emphasize that by having Tony be the main character in this chapter. All in all, this chapter was mainly about Tony so that's why.

3. No joke, the scene of Peter talking about how much he loves his dad and justifying everything he does to him literally made me ask "what the fuck did I just write?" So that's good.

4. How'd you all like Richard in this chapter? This was the first main chapter that really focused on his character and dialogue. So how do you all like his character so far? Is it making for a convincing villain?

5. So I'm really excited for the next chapter. To preview: press conference, more Richard vs. Tony, a repeat interaction with Steve and Spidey and one of my favorite Steve-centered chapters to date. So look forward to seeing more from the Star-Spangled Man!

6. Also what was the case with that diner memory Tony thought of? Keep that in mind when going into the next chapter ;)

Thanks to everyone for favoriting and/or following: Nimondor, Ravenclaw smarty, ShirouTheHero, Thanlok, Ecubed92, anaticulapraecantrix, HangryLei, Osquiddy, Son of Perseus, Copper Hillier, Joanyg, Macdisney123, adara2006, owlzilla, songbirdMage, , 15, .frogs, Princesspeach6584, SuperFlarrowLover, Madeyn07, Fazigod 2004, Bree1627, IVO9, ishikeshi ayay, Courtney Elizabeth1, arriettylove, Avenginggrace, PercyUzamakiPotter, ThatTinyRedhead, Varjak76, Flamebarisa, ranlynn, eehw, Russetmoth2786, cleolikesoreos, ideasthatican'twrite, 95, Trigiy, idekwihta33, bassoongirl14, Yuuki Tsukiyomi, Micam9, tabi24, osmosethecat, Dark Exodus, Llevremos, I ain't got a favorite fanfic, Z3r0XmC, bounbybooks, emblememble, Joker16, SilentTruthBehindLies, scylla646, JPrideA, Shade1357, f3arsentinel, Tjy49; WolfLawyer, Yawning Chasm, .together, CVDubs13, SilverRobin15, Areanna Solo, mariacarapretsch, Langy5972, Melu211, Runic-Reader, I Found A Reason, eehw, Maidenoffireandice, MaxSunGazer1997, Micam9, Riqsajakka, Aastraea717, Lady Rin06, Lion Assaulter

Reviews:

Potatokarate: Yeah, safe to say they were a bit...upset with each other lol

MrDiddle: Glad to hear you approve of the longer chapters. I'll probably vary them up between extra long chapters like this one and potentially shorter chapters like the ones I used to put out.

AoifeMorris7: Aww, hope your surgery went well! Glad to know I was able to bring you a bit of joy.

WolfLawyer: Dude, you're not the only one. With each of these chapters, I keep getting more and more excited. Yeah, hopefully the length of the chapters makes up for the longer waits. Unfortunately it's usually one or the other so I hope the longer chapters are worth it!

Marvelcufan14: Gotta love those cliffhangers.

Rosie dragoneel: Yeah, I get that. I hate when I wait a few months for a story to update but the chapter that comes out is super short so I hope the longer chapters make the waits worth it. And unfortunately, Tony's a bit restricted to LEGAL ways of obtaining evidence. So wiretapping is a bit out of the question. And New York is a one-party consent state so unless Peter agrees to be recorded, any conversations between him and his father are illegal to record. And for Tony, if Richard is on his property, he can't be recorded without his permission, so no illegal cameras in his house. And yeah, gently caressing my readers isn't usually my style lol.

a banshee: Dude, I love how aggressive your comments are. They're hilarious.

TheDoomedDreamer: Isn't it great to have your happy reading experience completely flipped on its head. And in terms of painful chapters, there shouldn't be any more physical abuse but we aren't cleared of the angst just yet. But don't worry, we'll get to the fluff soon! And yeah, I don't know why I love hurting my favorite characters. I think it has something to do with the sympathy factor that comes from them interacting with others when they're suffering, seeing other characters in the world caring for my favorite characters just as much as I do.

This MARVELous galaxy: Where the heck to you live? Your summer is like a full month shorter than mine and that totally sucks! Aww, man I'm really sorry to hear that and it really makes me happy to know that I can help you relax and unwind with my story. Glad to hear you all love the cliffhangers just as much as I do haha!

Asilrettor: I really do try and create a pretty positive and happy environment in my story and comment sections so I'm happy to hear you agree with my ideas! And you're amazing too!

darkdestiny2000: So how'd you handle the long-awaited showdown?

kaycanada: Yeah, I try to make up for the long wait times with longer chapters as a show of appreciation to you all. And writing that scene with Peter, Ned and Michelle made me so frikkin happy. And don't worry, for the time being and the next forseen chapters, the physical abuse should be taking a back seat to make way for more intimate moments between Peter and Tony and even Steve and Richard. And yes, I have received it!

SailorSea: Hope you enjoyed this one!

animagus-thevampireslayer: If you're excited for more Steve, you're going to love the next chapter

Sofia: Not gonna lie, I love talking to you guys. It's the frikkin best getting to interact with you all!

Ahenix: Yeah, hopefully you weren't too troubled with this recent chapter because there weren't too many breaks here but I didn't want to disrupt the natural flow the chapter was taking.

astateofmind: I love the longer chapters too in all honesty, they're really fun to write and plan out.

Loftcat27: Hope you don't mind this chapter, especially since there aren't many breaks.

Loptr'sSolace: I mean, you do you, man.

Ori: Literally one of my biggest pet peeves is when author's have months in between chapters but the newest chapters they put out are incredibly short. So I try to make up for the long wait times with longer chapters to give you all more substance.

Twinclock: Bringing my readers to tears? Been a good day. Pat on the back. And I keep meaning to get back into ATLA. I watched like the first two or three seasons but never got around to the last one so I need to try and watch it again.

Dobby and Padfoot: Yeah man you do whatever you wanna do when reading. It's all good, man.

SARzFanfiction: Hopefully you enjoyed it! And no joke, writing Peter defending his father and talking about how he still loves him made me mist up a bit. So, success!

Polly: Aww! One of my favs is whenever I post! I love waiting to see how you all receive the latest chapter!

Karmitara: Oh that's a good way to pad out the wait times! I never even thought about stretching out the reading times to make up for it! That's a great idea.

Loved this story: That's the thing, man. I don't want this story to be one that alienates anybody who agreed with Steve because Civil War basically split people down the middle in terms of who agreed with who. So I'm happy to know I was successful in keeping this story neutral enough to allow people from both sides to get enjoyment out of it.

AtypicalMedia: You got the popcorn?

DreamCatcher06: Give him all the hate! He laps it up! And yeah, I really hate that too. That's the perfect way to alienate literally half of your audience. And I haven't seen many stories tackling Tony's detoxxing so I wanted to add in how much of a struggle it really was, especially in this chapter.

Manswithaplans: Awesome to see you've been with me for so long!

mdybls: To put it shortly, this story entails the entire Avengers team for a reason, so Steve really is a precursor for what's to come. And even though I tried to keep this story as neutral as possible in terms of what side it preferred in Civil war, Steve getting punched was pretty fun to write lol. And Peter just turned 14 in this story. So a bit younger than what is canon (which was 15 in Homecoming)

ThatTinyRedhead: Aw, girl I'm so glad you like my story! I really wanted it to be unique and different from all the other awesome Irondad and Spiderson fanfics on here by really expanding upon their relationship and a twist on a different AU with more difficult things like abuse, grief and depression. So thanks for your support! And as I've said before to others, I really hate bashing fics. Even though I'm a huge Team Iron Man girl, I absolutely hate stories that bash on Steve, shit on the Rogues and portray Tony as being completely right because they're boring and pretty immature in my opinion. It's fine if others like that but I personally like expanding on the nuances of Civil War and showing how both sides feel and think about the others, including those who are blindly angry like Clint, Wanda and Rhodey, and then others who are regretful but still feel betrayed like Steve, Natasha and Tony. And then people like baby Scott who are pretty much along for the ride. God I love Scott.

Russetmoth2786: Thank. You. So. Much! And yeah, Richard isn't really the picture of dad of the year. Same for my dad, he's really supporting and dorky and loves whenever I spend time with him so it's really different writing a dad that's the complete opposite of him. It makes me appreciate him even more lol!

OneStoryOneWorld: Thanks! I'm crying now!

Micam9: I love that you're crying. And thank you so much for your kind words! Well lucky for you, Richard Parker isn't a character that's typically expanded upon in canon or fanfics so there isn't much of a character for me to taint like if I wrote a story about an evil Steve or Tony or something. In other words, he's a bit of a blank slate to work with and mold into a more unique character. And what you said about Tony making mistakes is the exact reason why I hate stories that bash on Cap and portray Tony as perfect because that destroys the nuances of his character, which is complex and deep. And for Cap, he's never been my favorite but he is in the top five so I really wanted to do him justice that he might not get from other Irondad fics.

I ain't got a favorite fanfic: How'd you guess?

dew: I totally get where you're coming from and if this was a story that only had like 30 or 40 chapters then you'd be totally right with the imbalance of plot. However, this story is set to have over 100 chapters, so we're still technically in the first quarter of the story, more or less finally starting to get out of the beginning portion. This story is definitely a slow-burn, building up the characters by exploring their intrapersonal thoughts and emotions before developing them in the context of other people. For example, to set up Peter's character, I had to show how he originally was without Tony - shy, quiet, reserved and isolated. Then I have to show how it shifts slightly when introduced to Tony. Then I show how it continues to develop further and further while in time with Tony's own development. Then you have characters like Steve, the Rogues, Ned, MJ, and even Richard and the Cons to expand upon and develop.

So while your complaint is completely valid and a real and genuine criticism that I accept, I think I'm going to continue to develop these characters deeply and slowly to help make the intense moments of life-threatening situations or moments of emotional pain all the more intense because now you know the characters on a deeper level and relate to their pain more. Of course, if this isn't for you then I completely understand and won't be offended if you don't continue. I'm just happy you took the time to leave a comment and say what your issues were in a polite and respectful way. Thank you for that!