The ocean at night is black waves, sometimes dark blue, rippling up, licking the sand and Peter's bare feet. On a good night, when the sky is clear, and the moonlight shines bright, there's stars in the water, if he looks close enough, but lately, he's not been preoccupied with what's below, or even what's above. His eyes are set on the horizon. It fascinates him. The expanse of black, dark blue that goes on and on and on until there's just the equally black sky, separated by just a thin, flat line.
It's quiet on the beach, when everyone else is sleeping, and there isn't any noise to be heard, inside or outside his head. Just the gentle yet crashing and willowing waves, constant and consistent but most of all, soothing. It's the most fantastic kind of quiet, and it's what draws him out of his bed and calls him to stare out at the sea. Not restlessness. Not nightmares. Not even insomnia. Just this peaceful quiet that accompanies and pacifies his sorrow.
"It's not selfish," Dr. Walters told him, after she dragged these concerns from his head, his concerns that sometimes, like tonight, he's still so sad over what he's lost, even after he's gained so much. "You have a very fortunate life now, but it will never replace the one you lost."
Peter Parker, for example, is still lost. Legally. He doesn't want the name back, prefers to let it die with the past, to be buried in rubble just like New Life Research Facility had been when Tony made good on his promise to turn the building to dust. Becoming a Stark permanently doesn't tear at his conscience or weigh him down. It's not a betrayal to the family he lost. It's a fresh start, a new chance, and if the dead get to watch the ones they leave behind, they all understand. Well, almost of all of them would.
That's something else he worked out in one of his sessions with Dr. Walters. He doesn't like to admit it all of the time, and most of the time he still hates going initially, has to be practically dragged out of the penthouse by Tony or threatened by Pepper, but therapy is helping.
Peter rubs his hands up and down his arms. It's chilly here at night, and he never remembers to grab his jacket from the hotel room before leaving through the sliding glass door near his bed. He backs up, away from the wet sand, and sits down where he's safe from the tide. His eyes are still on the horizon as he wonders what's out there.
He hears them coming. Tony's fast, erratic, always worried and Pepper's slow, steady heartbeats creep closer, gets louder, until they nearly overpower the crashing of the waves. It figures they would catch on to his nighttime activity. It's day five of their vacation, and this has been his secret routine since day two.
Nothing stays secret for long in the Stark family. Even without FRIDAY to tattle on him.
"Thinking of going for a swim?" Pepper is the first of the two to join him in the sand. She's in her pajamas and is wearing a throw blanket over her shoulders, but her hair is elegantly pulled back. Almost as if she were prepared to go stomping along the sand at night.
"Just in my thoughts."
"A dangerous place to be by yourself," says Tony, also in pajamas but his bedhead isn't as classy. His hair sticks up at odd angles. He lowers himself to sit on the other side of Peter. "Easy to drown."
"Good thing I'm not alone then," says Peter. He makes his voice purposefully light and offers up a small smile. He doesn't want them thinking he's being sarcastic, the native Stark language, because he does appreciate their company now that he has it.
Pepper and Tony seem to get it. That it's the quiet Peter came out here to seek. They're both perfectly content not saying anything. Happy to just stare at the ocean with him sandwiched between them. Their presence transforms the quiet, adds their breathing and their heartbeats to the ocean's collapsing waves, and he'd been wrong before.
This is the most fantastic kind of quiet.
Instead of drawing him out of his bed and towards the sea, this is the quiet that drives his sorrow from his soul, speaks it out loud and lets it come to a rest.
"I still miss them," says Peter. "Even my dad, even after all the awful things he did."
The response isn't verbal, but it's loud. Tony scoot closer, pulls his arm over him and squeezes his shoulder. Pepper removes the blanket from her own shoulders, stretches it across the three of them and puts her arm across his back, under Tony's. Warmth is immediate and overwhelming and threatens to lure him off to sleep.
Three Starks on a beach, huddled together under a blanket below the stars, watching and waiting for the sun that will come for all of them eventually.
By breakfast it's hung in the sky burning bright and hot.
Peter leans back in the wicker chair on the patio. A salty breeze blows through his freshly cut hair as his thumbs work furiously on his phone. The food laid out on the table, fresh fruit and pancakes, is ignored, at least by him, as he manages several text conversations. He's so caught up in it he doesn't sense Tony's a glare until it's too late.
"I'm having your phone shut off," says Tony, and it's enough to break Peter's attention.
"It's been ten minutes since you've looked away from it."
"It hasn't been that long," says Pepper. She's also on her phone. Probably, she's answering emails.
"I'm texting Ned," says Peter, in his own defense. He picks up his fork and stabs at the pancake pile on his plate. He doesn't doubt Tony will actually temporarily suspend his phone service. "Since I can't see him at school."
"And you haven't told him anything about Harry, right?"
"Oh my god," says Peter. He drags his words. He drops his fork again. "This is only the tenth millionth you've mentioned it."
Tony raises an eyebrow, still looking for an answer.
"No. No I haven't told him anything about Harry."
It's the topic of every headline. A mystery the world is obsessed with. Where is Harry Osborn? Everyone wants to know, but only the right people do. They're plenty of conspiracy theories out there on YouTube, plenty of people who believe they know what happened to Harry once his father was put away. Peter and Harry are entertained by all the speculation. Sending each other links to the newest, craziest theories on his whereabouts is their favorite way to pass time.
"Speaking of Harry…" says Peter. "Clint says it's okay if I spend a week at the farm with them… you know, since I'm not allow at school yet and all. Plus Dr. Walters says it's good for engaged couples to spend time alone."
"Oh Dr. Walters says that?" says Tony. He turns towards Pepper. "Did you hear that, Pep? She's a marriage counselor now… guess it's time to fire her."
"We're not firing her," comes Pepper's bored response. She's put her phone down on the breakfast table, but still can't be bothered with Tony's dramatics.
"She knows we can afford it," says Pepper. "I think it's a great idea for Peter to go spend time with his friend. It's the perfect chance for you to work on letting go."
That last part is said with over emphasizes, said in way that makes Peter believe it's in reference to a conversation where he hadn't been included, and it isn't hard to figure out what that conversation was about. He doesn't need to be there for private conversations to understand Tony struggles with being overprotective. Peter wasn't the only one traumatized by the events that happened in the training room the night they first met, and Peter can only wonder if Tony will ever stop looking at him and seeing the boy from that room, instead of the teenager that sits in this chair.
"A weekend. You can have a weekend," says Tony. Peter beams, until Tony checks his watch and his smile crashes to a frown. He knows what's coming. "Almost time for your skype session with the engagement expert. Hurry up with your breakfast."
Online sessions with Dr. Walters while they're away on vacation was Tony's idea. A schedule, he keeps insisting, they need to keep up with the schedule.
Instead of his pancakes, Peter reaches for his phone on his instinct, to tell Harry about the good news.
"Alright enough, hand it over," says Tony. He extends his arm across the table and opens his hand, waiting for Peter to give up his phone. After his helpless look at Pepper yields no defense from her, he drops it into Tony's hand and eats his breakfast.
When his session with Dr. Walters is over and he reemerges from inside, it's raining. It's a soft rain, and the sun is at a weird angle in proportion to the clouds, casting its light despite the water falling from the sky.
A sun shower.
He takes a moment, and he remembers Laney, and he remembers the rest of them who didn't make it, then heads to the beach to enjoy the both the sunlight and the rain.
Life changes fast, and sitting in the Barton barn, bundled up in a heavy winter coat and thick winter hat, this has never been more transparent. Just last week he'd been shirtless in the Caribbean trying to body surf on the waves, now he's freezing to death despite his many layers while Clint teaches Harry martial arts in an obviously and criminally unheated barn.
It's even more transparent when he remembers, as he often does, just four months ago he was stuck inside metal walls.
His cold nose begs him to go back inside. Laura said something about cooking hot cocoa over the stove, and nothing sounds better to Peter in this moment than hot cocoa. He stays in his spot sitting by the hay, though. He doesn't want to look weak. Especially since both Clint and Harry aren't even wearing coats. They're both in long sleeve, but thin, thermal shirts, the kind meant to work out in. To add to his wounded pride, sometimes he thinks he sees them sweating.
The thing is, Harry's getting pretty good at throwing punches, at dodging them, at planting well timed kicks, and in a few years, when the world is finally reintroduced to Harry Osborn, Peter feels sorry for the first person who thinks they're going to push him around.
Peter's pride doesn't hold out much longer, and neither Clint nor Harry notices him leaving the barn.
He helps Laura with the hot chocolate in the kitchen, listening to the Barton kids shouting in the living room over whatever game they're playing. He'd been right. A love for video games is a Barton trait, and they'd all been happy with the system upgrades.
After Harry and Clint finally come inside, after Peter and the family drink hot chocolate and eat warm, gooey cookies in front of the fireplace, him and Harry retreat to his bedroom. Well, attic. That's where Harry lives now. The attic, but it's easily the coolest room in the house.
The ceiling is split into two sides, both angled up, like a triangle and Harry's artwork is displayed all around the room, taped to the wooden ceiling. It's like being in an art museum, or a comic book store, and it gives Peter the best idea.
Hours later, when Harry is finished drawing the thing Peter describes to him, he holds up one of his marker pens.
Peter shakes his head. It's not quite right.
"How about this one?"
It's the most brilliant shade of bright red.
Harry takes the correct pen to the sheet of paper and begins to fill it in, so Peter can imagine what being an Avenger would be like, even if it's just on paper.
Another week flashes by, and Peter is reminded again how abrupt life is with its changes, that spending four years stuck, or nine years, in Michael's case, can be erased in just seconds, in just the amount of time it takes to enter a number sequence on a computer.
He dodges one Michael's punches with a grin, watches as his arm, still covered with metal instead of fire, sails by and misses him.
"Too slow," says Peter. He ducks away from the follow-up punch, and Michael gives an angry growl in return.
"You're letting him bait you." Steve coaches from the sidelines, but it's not for Peter's benefit. It's for Michael's.
He takes these training sessions so seriously, and Peter can't understand why. It's not life or death, so Peter isn't meaning to bait him with his commentary, with his grins during combat. He's just having fun, which seems to make all the difference, because when Michael comes at him again, controlled by nothing more than Peter's harmless comments, he takes easily him to the ground using a trick Nat taught him.
"Alright, guys that's enough," says Steve.
Peter offers up his hand to help Michael up, and for the first time, he accepts.
"Just one more round?" asks Peter, as Steve is checking his watch. There's another thing he doesn't understand. Why all the adults around him are so obsessed with schedules and time.
"Nope. Time to head out."
Peter's shoulders drop, and he sighs before walking back to the side of the gym with Michael. Days at the compound always go by too quickly. Peter only gets to train every other Saturday, except it isn't listed on the schedule as training. Tony writes it in as visitation rights, refusing to acknowledge Peter is being trained for combat and instead preferring to think about it as the rest of Avengers wanting to see him. It's both, Peter's sure, but he doesn't mention that to Tony.
After all, he doesn't want the man to amend the custody agreement, make his training days once a month instead of twice.
Peter and Michael wait in silence as Steve and Bucky discuss something in the distance.
They never really talk much. There isn't much to say. Peter knows better than to jinx his progress by saying out loud how much healthier he looks, by commenting he knows firsthand how much better it feels to actually not be starving and how he didn't know the difference until he woke up with an IV in his arm. And besides health, there's less edges to Michael then there were before, less anger, until they're in the middle of a mock fight.
"It isn't…" says Michael and Peter fights to keep the surprise off his face. They don't make small talk while they're waiting around. Usually. "It's not completely horrible here."
"Just the regular of horrible amount then?"
"A cut below regular."
As Peter walks out of the gym with Steve, he takes a look over his shoulder at Michael and Bucky. It is, apparently, normal for them to talk. Leave it to Michael make friends with the person it took Peter so long not to hate.
It's a Sunday afternoon when Tony returns home to his penthouse and finds a disaster zone in his kitchen.
The table is littered with paper bags from various chain fast food restaurants, the food that came from said bags, and in the middle of it, Peter and Pepper, eating a lunch buffet of America's finest and most greasy foods. He blinks a couple of times to make sure he's seeing correctly, but the sight doesn't change. Pepper, who tells Tony he needs to eat better, sits next to Peter eating french fries.
Peter shrugs. "I've never had any of this before."
"So you've decided to try it all in one afternoon?"
"I guess so."
Tony turns to Pepper. "And you agreed to this?"
It's been so long since Tony has had to deal with Peter's aversion to certain foods, his weird, picky eating habits and his fear of being poisoned, he finds it hard to believe this is necessary for therapy. He finds it more likely Peter is using this as an excuse to binge out on gross food, the same way he brings up he's not in school to attempt to guilt Tony into letting him have his way. It's only effective sometimes, and he can't honestly blame the boy for trying.
"Don't act like you're above it. We got you some cheeseburgers," says Pepper. She nudges Peter, and he tosses him the Burger King bag.
He sits down with them at the table, unwraps one of the cheeseburgers and points a finger at Peter. "You're a bad influence."
He does eat the cheeseburgers though, and later when the table is cleared away and the evidence of the weirdest lunch Tony's ever seen is gone, his feet automatically travel to Peter's bedroom. His door is open, and he's lying on his back, controller in hand, mindlessly looking at the TV. He looks at Tony, before quickly putting his eyes back on the game.
"So. Full." Peter tells him.
"I didn't think that was possible."
His metabolism keeps going and going. It's all the grease that's probably making him feel full. Grease and salt.
A drawing on Peter's desk catches his eyes and moves across his room to see it fully. It's a man in a red and blue costume. Above the figure block letters spell out Spider-Man, and below, in the corner of the paper, Harry's initials are written in cursive. He picks it up slowly, gently, as if the slightest mishandle will break it.
"Hey Peter," says Tony, holding the paper up. "What's this?"
He pauses the game, then squints. "Oh. Well Harry drew it for me. You know, like what my suit would look like, if I were an Avenger? I know it's dumb, and it's not going to happen, it was just… for… pretend."
Peter goes back to his game, and Tony snaps a picture of the drawing while he isn't looking. He heads down to his workshop, prepared to spend the evening there. He's got a lot of work to do.
A/N: ... I really can't believe this is over! And that I've written this much over the last couple of months. I've just been soooo attached to this story, and it's gotten me out of a huge battle with writer's block. I hit a place with my novel this year and just could not continue, but this story saved me, which is why I'm sooo thankful for every sub, comment, favorite or whatever. THANKS so much for reading!
And thanks to SongNoFound, cargumentluv, Wisdomsqueen, waves, for commenting last chapter!
I'm going to be posting a few one-shots in this series, and maybe a few longer ones (like 1 to 3 chapters) until I can think of something new to write, and splitting my writing time between these fics and that novel I should probably get back to, so my updates might be slower.
I do have a Christmas one-shot in this series I'll be posting the day after Thanksgiving, then who knows from there. If you have any ideas, feel free to comment them!
waves: Awesome! Thanks so much! There will def be more coming!