Peter had forgotten how boring his life was.
There were bright spots, of course. Like the moment he'd opened the door to his apartment, stuffed full of cannolis and practically shaking with nerves, and May had tackled him, repeating, "My little hero," over and over.
"I guess you're not this excited that I finally got through a field trip without incident," he teased once he could breathe through her bear hug, giddy from sugar and relief.
She pulled away, attempting to look parentally disapproving, but she dissolved into giggles within seconds and tugged him toward the couch.
"Who else remembers?" she asked. "No one at work seemed to."
"Tony. And Pepper." He shrugged. "That's all I know for sure."
"That's all that really matters," she said knowingly.
"Not true," he countered. "I wanted you to remember too."
"You just wanted to save us both the hassle of me discovering that I'm co-parenting with Tony Stark."
She had basically hit that right on the nose. "What? No. That wasn't the only reason. I also wanted you to remember all the cool times you had as the Avengers' den mother."
Tony's moniker had stuck, and May had come to embrace it. His wonderous aunt had lived among heroes and aliens with relative ease, doling out chores and planning meals with the same warm efficiency – and occasional culinary disaster – with which she oversaw her tiny Queens' domain.
"That's BS, but I'll allow it."
She perched near the edge of the couch and patted her leg. Peter took the cue, resting his head in her lap and letting all the stress drain out of him as he sprawled out and stared up at the ceiling. This had been their routine once. Peter would come home from school and tell her about his day. Bullies never seemed strong when May was so close, nor assignments daunting. Gradually he'd grown up and told her less from a further distance. Until after Ben, when the comfort didn't seem so childish. The patterns she'd traced into his scalp had grounded him, focusing his haywire senses. Sometimes after a bad patrol they'd curl up like this, knowing that nothing could touch them in their little cocoon of safety.
It was odd to be so relaxed. There had been good times at the Avengers Compound, probably more than Peter should admit to, but the final battle had loomed like a cancer in remission, leaving them on constant high alert for the potentially fatal resolution.
"I wonder where Bruce and Nat are now," May asked softly as she threaded her hand through Peter's hair. She never called any of the Avengers by their alter egos. Peter wasn't sure she even knew what they all were. To her they were just people, and Peter loved her all the more for it.
"Tony'll find them." Truth was he wondered too. He hated to think of them hiding away, exiled and spurned by the world they had just saved. None of them did it for glory, but they deserved to be honored – respected at least.
But Tony knew how important the team was. How each and every one of them had played a pivotal role in their victory. How scattered they had failed spectacularly.
No matter how long it might take, he would bring them back together again.
Peter and May stayed up well past midnight, recounting their favorite memories as they ate half a gallon of Stark Raving Hazelnuts and fell asleep together once their blood sugar crashed.
Decathlon practice the next day was unbearably awkward. MJ shot him odd looks throughout, somewhere between pity and perplexment, leaving Peter constantly wondering just how close her memories were to the surface. It didn't help that she probably wouldn't tell him if she did remember. That she might have known he was Spiderman all along. He felt like she was constantly watching him, but he didn't know how to bring that up without making it worse.
Afterwards he took Ned back to his apartment and told him everything – from living with the Avengers to how Tony Stark had become his dad. Ned was so excited that Peter was afraid he might start hyperventilating. Every single story was the most awesome thing Ned had ever heard. But his excitement was contagious, and Peter bounced around the room, demonstrating moves he had practiced and recreating the battles he had fought. Now that he was back home the past few months seemed even more exceptional. Times had been too dire to be a fanboy, and he'd wanted the others to think he was old enough to handle what they were facing. But it was nice to be among someone who could appreciate how insane it was that he knew Black Widow's favorite cereal, and had eaten food cooked by Captain America.
He missed Tony, though, even though he was only a text away. His messages were vague and brief, and a poor substitute for spending most of every day with the man. Peter knew he was busy trying to bring the others home, and tried not to be needy. But at least a dozen times a day he opened the message from Thursday morning and stared at the photo of the two of them bent over the Iron Man suit. There was something so similar about their profiles that Peter could understand why Tony had wondered – just for a minute.
Pepper had taken the photo, and while she claimed she had only sent it to May somehow it had circulated around the Compound, and Tony had warded off jokes about his newfound paternal instincts for weeks.
"Something from the Archives," the message had said. It made no sense for there to be archives of a future that would now never be, but Peter wasn't about to argue. It gave him hope that some of his other photos might resurface. He was terribly afraid that one day he might wake up and think that everything had been a dream. It was probably unhealthy to be so attached to a timeline where half the universe had died, but he couldn't help it.
He was glad he had Ned to help remember the stories, now.
It was thoroughly unhelpful that he'd outgrown high school.
By the time the final bell rang on Friday Peter was so ready for his weekend to begin. He and Ned were going to hang out that night, and on Saturday he was going to go on patrol for the first time in ages. Anything would be better than another boring day of classes.
They had just stepped into freedom when a familiar voice asked, "Need a ride upstate?"
Natasha leaned against a pillar, wearing dark wash jeans, a leather jacket, and a smirk. Peter had long ago learned to see the fondness beneath that particular harsh expression.
"Nat!" He ran forward and hugged her tightly. "You're back!" he exclaimed as he pulled away. "You are back, right? Is it safe for you to be here?" he asked as he scanned the area. Of course everyone was staring, because this was high school and she was far too pretty.
Her lip tugged up ever so slightly. "We're back. The Accords were annulled this morning, although Ross is trying to delay the official announcement."
"How did that happen so fast?"
"F.R.I.D.A.Y. backdated some files of the world governments promising us pardons if we were able to reverse Thanos's genocide. As much as they wanted to, they couldn't argue with videos of themselves."
That seemed more like magic than technology, but Peter wasn't going to complain. He did know a couple of wizards, after all.
"Oh my gosh. That's the Black Widow, isn't it? It has to be." Ned stood a few paces back, openly staring, and Peter shook his head.
"Be cool, man," he said, but there was no bite behind it.
Nat turned toward his friend and extended her hand. "Natasha Romanoff. You must be Ned."
Ned started to put out his hand, floundered, and finally grasped the woman's hand but forgot to shake. "The Black Widow knows my name!"
Peter groaned, but Nat met his eyes and mouthed, "Cute." When she turned back to Ned she'd donned a wry smile. "Unless you're an international terrorist you can just call me Nat." She shook their joined hands once and then broke away. "I was serious about the ride. Tony asked me to pick you up."
"What's he doing at the Compound?" Peter asked. Tony had sent him a few pictures of his new penthouse in the City, and it was absolutely insane.
"He said something about a party."
Ned was practically vibrating with enthusiastic envy. "You're going to a party with the Avengers? I cannot believe your luck! You have got to send me snaps like every five minutes. I want to see everyone! I won't screenshot anything, I promise."
Peter was about to promise he would – as awkward as that would be – when Nat spoke first. "Actually my instructions were to bring you both. Unless you have somewhere else you need to be?"
All the color drained from Ned's face, and Peter thought for a moment he was going to pass out. Peter would be able to catch him before he hit the ground, but his staring classmates probably weren't oblivious enough not to think that was weird. "What could possibly be better than partying with the Avengers? Never mind. Don't answer that. I hope I find out. But why am I invited?"
"Tony said something about owing you a favor."
Ned turned to Peter and gripped his arm. "Peter, I will face down MJ every day for you if this is my reward."
Peter grinned back. He'd never thought he'd get to show Ned where he'd lived and trained and engineered.
"Apparently this is an overnight soiree. Tony's already called your parents. We'll stop by your place and then Peter's to pick up your stuff."
Peter pulled his phone from his pocket. "I'll call Aunt May."
"She's actually at the Compound already. Happy picked her up this morning."
Peter had seen May before school, and she hadn't mentioned anything besides heading to work. She was pretty awful at keeping secrets, so Peter suspected Tony's invitation had come out of the blue. He had about as much respect for a work routine as a school one.
Ned's parents were still at work once they got to his place, so they missed the hysterics that Ned was certain were inevitable when his mom talked about getting a call from Tony Stark. Ned stared at his closet, at a loss for what to wear in the presence of the Avengers, before choosing an outfit that Peter found indistinguishable from his normal wardrobe.
Peter left him to his vacillating, and sat in the living room with Nat. Her tale of the past few days was far more exciting than his own. She and Steve remembered everything about their time after the snap, but Sam, Wanda, Bucky, and Vision did not.
"Should I bring the hat?" Ned asked, emerging from his room with a bulging duffle bag, his special occasion fedora perched on his head.
Peter was about to advise against it when he was distracted by the sound that came out of Natasha, so light and airy that it might have been a giggle. He didn't think the Black Widow was capable of such a joyous sound.
"Definitely," Nat said.
Peter took much less time to pack his bags, because there was no one at the Compound that he still needed to impress. They drove out of the city with the windows down while Ned asked personal questions Peter never had dared. Surprisingly Nat answered most of them, but from what little he did know Peter suspected her stories were heavily edited.
The drive passed quickly. Nat was a much better conversationalist than Happy, and Peter knew that each mile brought him closer to his dad, and all the people he hadn't been sure he'd see again anytime soon.
"Whoa! Is that always there?" Ned asked as they pulled up to the Compound. A large tent had been pitched in the front yard, Iron Man red and accented with gold.
"Tony went all out on this party thing," Nat explained as they exited the car. Peter wasn't sure what the point was since they'd all fit comfortably in the Lounge – though he supposed there were twice as many of them now. It looked like a circus tent – but shinier – somehow projecting wealth even though it was probably just canvas.
Peter had barely stepped into the tent when he sensed someone running at him, and he swooped Cassie up and perched her on his hip.
"How's my favorite girl?" he asked, already knowing the answer because he'd never seen her happier, all grins and curls.
"A-mazing! Daddy's friends brought everyone back, and they don't even remember they were gone!"
"Cassie, what did I say about running off?" Scott jogged up, looking a bit winded but entirely relaxed. "I take my eyes off her for one minute to look at the ice sculptures—"
"There are ice sculptures?"
"Yeah. I don't think your Dad knows how to do subtle." Unlike the others, Scott hadn't known Tony before his partner and her whole family disappeared while he was in the Quantum Realm. Abandoned and out of his depth, the Avengers Compound had seemed like the safest place to bring his daughter. He was accepted readily enough, when every advantage was desperately needed. He'd arrived sullen and withdrawn, but one morning he'd looked up at Peter over the box of Lucky Charms they'd been sharing and remarked, "I didn't know Tony Stark had a son."
Peter had stuttered out a denial, but it had been no use. While the rest of the Avengers had teased Tony mercilessly about his new paternal instincts, Scott had found Peter to be a safer target. Even now, months after they'd stopped denying the bond between them, Scott added a bit too much emphasis to the word "Dad."
"I had to say hi to Pete, Dad," Cassie insisted, and Peter couldn't help but smile. The girl had her father's sass and a dangerous amount of charm. "Have you said hi?"
Scott seemed quite incapable of resisting it as well. "No I guess I have not. How rude of me." He reached out and tweaked his daughter's nose. "Hi Peter. Thanks for the save back on Titan, man."
Peter grinned back. "No problem." It hadn't taken him long to realize how much he liked Scott, who was a solid dude and an even better father.
"Sorry about your extra suit though."
Peter shrugged. "It hasn't even been made, now. I was fine." He left off the, "You wouldn't have been," because Cassie didn't need to know that. It wouldn't have mattered, probably, but Peter was still glad that getting vaporized was one memory Scott wouldn't have to carry.
Ned cleared his throat, commandeering the attention. "Now I'm being rude," Peter said. "This is my friend Ned. Ned, this is Scott and Cassie Lang."
Scott held out his hand. "Ant-Man," he said, brimming with mirthful gravitas.
A woman had materialized by his side, slight in the same way Natasha was, with danger hiding in each sinew. Her arms were crossed, her face scowled. Peter knew of two important women in Scott's life. It wasn't difficult to guess which one this might be.
"You must be Hope."
Instead of looking him in the face she watched the way he held Cassie as if she weighed nothing. His senses tingled just enough to let him know that while she wasn't a threat, she wasn't friendly, either, though he didn't need super powers to figure that out.
"Hey Cass, why don't you run and play with Lila for a while," Scott suggested.
"Is this one of those adults are talking now moments?" She sounded so much older than her age that Peter laughed as he set her down.
"You know it my little genius."
"All right." She heaved an exaggerated sigh directed at her father, and then turned back to Peter. "Lila has two brothers now. But she says we'll always be sisters." She flung herself around Peter's waist and then departed just as quickly.
"She's in love with you, you know," Scott said, nonchalantly.
"What?" Peter choked. Cassie was awful friendly with him, but she was nine. "I'm sorry." Beside him Ned snickered, entirely unhelpfully.
"You better be. I can grow up to forty feet tall." Scott sounded gravely serious, but it was only a few seconds before he broke into a grin. "It's okay. Before you it was the Red Power Ranger. Next it'll probably be some Disney Channel star. At least you're not Justin Bieber."
"Amen, brother," Ned said. "But you could garner an Instagram following if you tried. I could run the account, as an extension of my Guy in the Chair duties."
"I'd follow you," Scott said. "But if you hurt my daughter I will smash you like the bug you are."
"He's Spider-Man," Ned and Scott said simultaneously, afterwards sharing a grin and a high five, and Peter wasn't exactly comfortable just blurting that out but he was at an Avenger's party after all. Scott clearly expected Hope to be impressed, but she was looking at Peter with an expression gradually swinging from bored to enraged.
The sound she emitted from the back of her throat was clearly disapproval. "So Scott talked about me, huh?"
Peter didn't understand the hostility the woman was emanating. She'd be pretty, probably, if she smiled, and he knew Scott cared about her, so there had to be some explanation for why she'd turned such a basic question into a trap. "We all talked about the ones we lost. It reminded us why we had to keep fighting to get them back."
"You see, how can you be mad at such pure motivations?" Scott leaned towards Peter and Ned and lowered his voice as if telling a secret. "Hope doesn't like the Avengers."
"How can you not like the Avengers?" Ned asked before Peter had a chance to say it.
"Easy. Because they pulled a couple oblivious idiots into their turf war, leaving Scott under house arrest for two years while my father and I had to go on the run." She looked pointedly at Peter, and he could feel the hairs raise on his arms. "And they're apparently recruiting children now. You're what, fourteen?"
"I'm sixteen!" Peter protested. "And they didn't recruit me so much as I volunteered."
"But no one protested, did they? They're always willing to let someone else do the dirty work and take the fall."
"Hope, that's enough," Scott said with uncharacteristic sternness. "I'm sorry, Pete. You and Ned should run along. Enjoy the party."
But Peter couldn't just leave, not when his family was under attack. "You don't understand. Not at all. Germany was a mess, and I'm sorry you and Scott got caught in the fallout. But the Avengers are just people, under the masks and the suits, and people make mistakes. But when half the world was gone they put all that aside and they came together to fix it, whatever it took. And Scott was an important part of that, and I was too. And if you would have been alive you would have been welcome. But you weren't, so you have no idea what we all went through. You have no right to judge us."
For a few moments all Peter could hear was the blood rushing in his ears. Hope had clenched her jaw but held her tongue. Peter hoped there was something remorseful in her expression, but he couldn't be sure.
"Where did you learn to make speeches like that?" Ned asked, so apparently oblivious to the awkwardness choking all of them that it had to be intentional. "Was it part of your basic training? Superhero 101?"
Peter heard someone approaching and recognized the gait, breathing, and heartbeat. Something loosening in his chest, and he grinned even before Tony drawled, "He picked it up from hanging around with me."
Peter scoffed exaggeratedly and Tony rolled his eyes. "Okay, and maybe Capiscle. Man, Grandpa can talk." Tony sidled up right beside Peter and then scanned the rest of the little crowd. "Ned, good man, glad you could make it. Scott." He paused at Hope, and a warning crept into his cheerful tone. "And you must be Hope van Dyne. Enjoying my hospitality, I see."
To her credit Hope didn't flinch, even though Tony had used that tone against aliens and gods and watched them quail. "Peter here thinks you should be forgiven for your past actions on the basis of events I'll never remember. Jury's still out on whether I believe him."
"Good luck with that," Tony said coldly. "In the meantime I'm going to extract my kid from this terribly awkward conversation." He draped his arm around Peter's shoulder and winked. "Want to get out of here?"
Peter had lost count how many times Tony had referred to him as his kid, but it still left him flush with pride and overwhelming gratitude. "I really do." Peter had just enough foresight to grab Ned's wrist and tug him along as Tony steered him through the tent, past ice sculptures of the whole team Assembled and cocktail tables decorated to spotlight individual heroes.
The last thing Peter heard as the noise of the rest of the party overwhelmed him was Hope's shocked, "I didn't know Tony Stark had a son."
They headed directly for the stage at the back of the tent, but Tony asked F.R.I.D.A.Y. to lower the music as they approached the speakers. The table Pepper waited beside was Spiderman themed, the centerpiece an elaborate replica of his Iron Spider Suit in front of a patchwork of webbing. The decorations were all clearly custom made, because the public had never seen the Iron Spider suit. Technically it was still in a capsule in this very Compound, never worn in this timeline.
Peter's ninth birthday party had been Iron Man themed. They'd held it in a park and invited his whole class. May had grumbled a bit, but she'd bought Iron Man cardboard birthday hats at a party store, and a cheap plastic table cloth of all the Avengers. Peter wondered if one day there'd be Spiderman stuff in that same store, a whole generation of kids looking at his symbol and imaging they were him.
This party was not like his ninth birthday at all.
"There you are," Pepper said as soon as she caught sight of them. "Now Tony can relax and stop planning evasive maneuvers." She set her champagne flute on the tablecloth emblazoned with his sigil and pressed a quick kiss to Peter's cheek. "It's good to see you Peter."
He blushed under the attention, knowing that Ned was soaking up every interaction. "You too, Miss Potts."
"You're going to have to give that up once we're hitched, you know. If you call me Dad and her Mrs. Stark everyone's going to think we're more dysfunctional than we actually are."
"He can call me whatever he likes. But the formality is unnecessary."
She'd told him that more times than he'd bothered to count, but the politeness May had ingrained in him was a hard habit to shake.
"And I'll have you know, sweetheart, that the search and rescue was entirely necessary. Lang's girl had him cornered. She seems like a handful."
"Does she now?" Miss Potts said archly.
Peter looked between Tony and Pepper, dressed to the nines and perfectly matched. Tony's dress shirt was cobalt blue, in the exact striking shade as Pepper's gown, which was floor-length save for the high slit and the low neckline. Said neckline was encrusted with white stones, which knowing Tony might actually be diamonds.
Peter hadn't bothered changing from the jeans and t-shirt he'd worn to school. He felt terribly under-dressed, even though he wasn't that much shabbier than Scott. "Nat didn't tell me it was a fancy party."
"The dress code's come as you are. I just happen to be fabulous. What, too much?" Tony asked as Peter rolled his eyes. It was too much, definitely, but there was an ease about Tony that Peter wasn't used to. He slipped an arm around Pepper's waist and she leaned into him with a contented hum, uncharacteristically relaxed as well. There was no glow of an nanobots under his shirt, and no bags under his eyes.
"I missed you," Peter blurted, which wasn't what he'd meant to say at all, but the truth of it had just burst out of him.
The sentiment caught Tony just as off guard, but he recovered after only a few beats. "I missed you too, kid." He reached into his pocket and tossed whatever he extracted in Peter's direction. "There's a fancy suit in your room if you want to change, but if I were you I'd go down to the garage and check out your present instead. You should have a little time before the rest of the guests arrive."
Peter stared at the small black rectangle he'd caught. It took awhile for its purpose to register, and even then he still couldn't quite believe it. "Why did you just toss me a key fob?"
"Come on now, I know you're a genius. What possible reason could I have for throwing you some keys and telling you to go to a garage?"
He was so overcome by shock that Tony's sarcasm didn't even register. "You got me a car?" he finally managed to sputter.
"Pepper got you a car!" Tony crowed. "And I was too damn proud to tell her it was too much so you'll just have to accept it."
Peter turned to the woman in question, who was watching him with an expression he couldn't quite read, but it was soft and fond and joyous all at once. "Why would you do that?" he asked, because as much as Miss Potts had always been there the past few months, efficient and rational and undoubtedly Tony's rock, Peter barely knew her outside her role as the other half of Tony's heart and the organizer of his life.
"To say thank you for bringing Tony home to me. And for all the ways you helped him after. He's a better man for the way he cares for you."
Peter could hear Tony shift, clearly uncomfortable, but Peter still couldn't quite think straight. "You didn't have to. I didn't help him to get anything."
"Of course not. I'm still grateful."
"It's a gift, kid," Tony said, his voice a bit soft. "Well deserved with no strings. Pep did a good job picking it out, even if it is a bit boring. Though I did have time to make a few modifications."
"It's not boring, it's subtle," Pepper countered. It was obvious this was an argument they'd had before. "And practical. The last thing Peter needs is a car that screams, 'I'm associated with Iron Man.'"
"But red is a great color."
"With tasteful gold accents?"
"That's the spirit!"
"Why don't you let Peter decide?"
"You may be right – for now. But if we go public I'm painting the car!"
Miss Potts grinned at her victory and turned back to Peter. "There's no need for you to stand and listen to us bicker. Go on. Check it out."
Peter was still in a daze as Ned practically drug him out of the tent. "I don't know where the garage is, man," he said once they were outside. The brisk April air cleared his mind a bit; he hadn't realized how stuffy it was under the tent.
"Right. This way." Peter still couldn't believe this was happening. Getting a car of his own had always seemed like an impossible dream until he was at least 25, once he was done with school and established in some sort of career. It wasn't necessary in the city, and it certainly wasn't practical.
All the time he'd spent at the Compound the garage had been filled with a fleet of impractical cars, flashy foreign imports that Tony had promised they could work on together once they'd solved the problem at hand. They were all gone now, save for the car Tony had presumably brought to the party, and a gleaming black Audi convertible with a comically large red bow on the hood.
"Oh my God." There was absolutely nothing subtle about the car aside from its color, and there was no way he could park it within a ten mile radius of his neighborhood, but Peter didn't care. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, and even if it stayed at the Compound and he just came to visit it every once in a while he'd be content.
"Holy shit," Ned exclaimed, feigning a swoon that nearly matched the way Peter felt. "That's not a car. That's an Audi R8 Spyder. Ha. Spyder. I get it."
"I don't get it." Peter didn't know what this car was worth, exactly, but it was far too much for a pun and an inside joke. But he couldn't deny the thrill as he ran his hand across the door.
This was too much. He would have been happy with a secondhand Chevy. There was no way he could actually accept this.
No way May would let him.
But he could sit it in, just once.
Peter opened the door and slid inside before he could lose his nerve.
"Hello Peter," said a familiar, cheerful voice.
"Karen, what are you doing here?" he asked, overwhelmed by the blast of new car smell and all the leather in the interior.
"Mr. Stark installed me for your comfort and assistance. I can provide advanced navigation and parking location as well as relay messages for you. Would you like me to demonstrate stealth mode?"
For a few seconds Peter's vision seemed to blur, the car going fuzzy around him. When it cleared everything around him seemed to have faded, it's grandeur dimmed in a way Peter couldn't precisely explain, as if it had aged and worn. The seats looked like cloth now, but they still felt like leather.
"Dude, you've got to see this," Ned called from outside the car, where he was still examining it. Peter opened the door and stumbled out.
Somehow he'd left a different car than he entered. His car was now a black Sedan of indeterminate make, with a few dings and scratches on the bumpers, badly in need of a polish. This was the type of car one could park on a Queens street without getting jumped, but when Peter reached out it still felt the same.
He walked all the way around the car, but it had changed from every angle. "Wow," he said as he sat back inside, and this time Ned joined him. Peter waited for Karen to acknowledge his presence and provide further explanation, but she remained silent.
"Karen, you still there?" he asked, hoping he hadn't broken her. He could almost believe the first car had been some hallucination, except it still smelled the same.
"Affirmative, Peter. My programming dictates that in stealth mode I remain quiet unless directly addressed in case you have guests who are unaware of my presence."
"So smart," Ned said. "Can you imagine? You can drive a Spyder to school and no one will even know."
"Karen, deactivate stealth mode." Peter couldn't deny how pleased he was when the original interior returned. If he had seen the second car first he would have been absolutely content, and it still would have been too much. But after witnessing the Spyder in all its glory it was impossible to pretend that there wasn't a part of him – a large part – that preferred that despite its unnecessary extravagance. The truth of that left him with an odd, uncomfortable feeling. The car probably cost more than May made in several years.
"I can't keep this."
"Dude, Mr. Stark can't exactly take it back. He installed your own personal AI. And some crazy cloaking technology that I don't even understand. What is it, like a hologram?"
"It's probably nanobots." He hadn't worked it out yet, but that was how the suits operated so it seemed a pretty safe bet.
"Peter, I'm your friend and I love you, but don't be an idiot. Iron Man personally modified this car that his super responsible fiancé bought for you. They obviously want you to have it. And they went to a crazy amount of trouble so you can actually get away with driving it."
"But it's so expensive."
"Didn't you tell me that your Spiderman suit cost more than a million dollars? You took that, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but that's different," because he hadn't thought of that. "I use the suit to help people. This is just frivolous."
"It's a gift. Accept it. Love it. If you can't live with the guilt give it to me."
"Mr. Stark wanted me to inform you that he worked very hard on the modifications, and will be very disappointed if you don't make use of them."
"Low blow, Karen." But Peter could feel his resolve weakening. He hadn't wanted a thing so badly since the limited edition Avengers Tower Lego set, which May and Ben had never been able to afford.
"Dude, can you start it up? This has got to have some engine."
"I don't know how to drive!" Peter hissed, remembering the state of Flash's car by the end of homecoming. He couldn't accept this car and then destroy it. He'd never be able to look Tony in the face.
"You don't have to go anywhere. Just turn it on."
There was no key to put in the ignition, just a button to push. The engine roared to life, vibrating through the entire car and setting Peter's body on edge with breathless anticipation. He could feel it in his chest, urging his heartbeat faster with its perfect mechanical timbre.
"If you don't keep this car we cannot be friends anymore."
But Ned didn't need to worry. There was no way he could give it back. Some reckless part of Peter wanted to shift into gear and leave the garage, inexperience be damned, because surely Karen would help him and if this was what it was like just sitting in park he needed to know what it would be like to actually cruise. "This is so cool."
Before Peter could decide whether to go or stay the car shook, and Peter heard what sounded like the sputtering of an engine with more power and less finesse. "Karen, that wasn't me, was it?"
"Negative, Peter. A spaceship has just landed on the airstrip."
"Are we under attack?" Peter wrapped his hand around his left wrist but he didn't have his web shooters or his Avengers watch.
"Negative. This craft is extraterrestrial in origin, but is broadcasting the appropriate landing codes to be given clearance."
"You mean there's going to be aliens at this party?"
"Maybe it's Thor," Peter mused, but he thought he'd seen the Asgardian there already. "Let's go check it out!" He turned off the car, regretting the silence that followed, but he knew he'd be back. "See ya later Karen."
Peter recognized the smoking ship parked haphazardly on the landing pad, but if he'd known it was so creaky he would have thought twice about letting it carry him halfway across the galaxy.
The hatch door opened with a clash and the one who went by Starlord swaggered out. Peter tensed, remembering how the man had held a gun to his head the first time they met, but this time his mask was absent and he didn't seem to be armed. His eyes swept over his surroundings as his scowl deepened. "So this is Earth then? Lame. I thought it would be shinier."
Drax was not far behind, and he looked bigger than Peter remembered. "Actually besides Xander and Ego this is one of the shiniest planets we've been to. Most of the places we visit are quite grungy."
It was the creepy one with the antennae who noticed they were being watched. "We are not alone. And while the large one is surprised by our appearance the skinny one thinks we are familiar, somehow."
"His dad's throwing the party," Rocket said, emerging from the ship side by side with a walking tree, which somehow managed a glazed, bored expression that Peter associated with particularly tedious classes. "This place may not look like much, but he won't skimp on the alcohol, so we're in for a good time."
Finally Nebula emerged with an unknown woman following a few paces behind like a green shadow. She stalked towards Peter with obvious purpose, and all the Guardians scattered like bowling pins.
"Child. Where is Stark?" There was no patience or gratitude in the woman's brisk tone. While Peter knew there was a feeling person somewhere beneath all the gears, she always did her best not to let that show.
Peter's arms crossed instinctively. "What do you want with him?"
The corner of Nebula's mouth turned up in a wry smile. "I mean your father no harm. I owe him a debt."
Peter knew Nebula was no threat. She'd proven herself again and again. But the need to protect Tony still lingered, fierce and relentless though completely unnecessary. "He's in there." Peter pointed to the tent.
Peter followed at a distance, curious to know what had drawn Nebula here. He suspected that F.R.I.D.A.Y. had announced the Guardian's arrival, because Tony was waiting for them.
"Ah, Robo Smurf. I didn't think you'd come. Didn't peg you much for the party type."
Nebula stalked forward until she was only a foot or two from Tony. Though he was big on personal space he didn't step back. "Three days ago I woke up on the moron's ship. I should have returned to my father's dungeon with my gears torn apart."
"You were where?" The strange woman strode forward, green and horrified, and settled her hand on Nebula's shoulder. Though Nebula didn't turn, she allowed it.
Tony shrugged, as if he witnessed alien soap operas every day. "I deleted Grimace from existence along with all his goons. His ship's empty now. It would have been inefficient for you to have to break out and make your way to your sister's so I just skipped all that."
Peter watched as something in Tony's expression shifted, his casual indifference retracting like his armor. "Consider it repayment for getting Pete and I back home on time."
"It is I who should repay you for killing my father. Although I wanted that pleasure for myself, at least I know his end was suitably bloody."
Tony shifted, and when his eyes found Peter's they were filled with something that seemed like shame. Peter pushed the memory away, thought instead of his appearance outside the school, the relief when he embraced him. "Well. That monster had been haunting me for a long time. And it turns out I really don't like bastards who hurt their kids. At least we can finally answer the age old question, why is Gamora?"
"Good Lord." There was something familiar in the inflection, but Peter did not recognize the voice. It took him a few moments to recognize the man it belonged to, especially since he seemed to get the memo about the fancy party and was wearing dress pants and a tailored dark purple shirt rather than a cape and a tunic.
Of course Nebula didn't understand why this was funny. Peter wasn't sure she had enough living bits to understand humor at all. But from the way she let her sister stand close, brimming with silent questions, Peter figured she had enough to understand love, as much as she might pretend not to.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Gamora demanded.
"You had to be there," Tony answered dismissively. "But it's nice to finally meet you. Your fellow's an idiot, but I suppose you already know that."
"Hey! Are you talking about me? That's uncalled for. We don't even know each other. What if I told you your house was stupid? It doesn't even have any rooms."
"You should have left me on my father's ship," Nebula said with a groan.
Tony chuckled. "Eat. Drink. Relax. The music will be starting soon and I think that knucklehead might like it. Afterwards I understand if you want to get the hell out of here and never look back. But if you ever need allies – or friends – you know where to find us."
Nebula blinked twice, slowly, and Peter waited for a response that never came. With a curt nod she spun on her heels and stalked away.
"Delightful," Doctor Strange said dryly, stepping forward into the space she had left, looking every bit like a man who belonged at one of Tony Stark's cocktail parties.
"Harry," Tony said with a nod of his head.
"My name is Stephen."
There was something so effortless about Tony's grin that Peter felt an echoing joy well up inside himself. So often his father's jokes were a mask or a suit of armor. Right now he just seemed pleased with himself, and that ease was a relief to a stress Peter hadn't even been aware he was carrying. "Potter. Come on now. Too easy?"
Peter found himself coming forward, the need to stand beside Tony almost instinctive now. He also wanted to see the wizard up close, and know his rescue had not been in vain after all.
He was more intimidating, somehow, with all the flamboyance stripped away. "Doctor Strange," Peter said solemnly.
The man nodded in acknowledgement. "Spiderman." His smile, though controlled, seemed genuine.
It took Peter a beat to comprehend the wry humor in his tone. "Wait, how do you know that? No one who disappeared remembers what happened."
"I've been the guardian of the Time Stone for many years. It seems I am immune to its effects."
"You have no idea, do you?" Tony interjected.
"None. But didn't that sound convincing?"
It sounded good to Peter, but Tony didn't seem impressed. "I have a better theory. When I wielded the Time Stone I subconsciously chose who I wanted to remember the time I was erasing. I included you so you could tell me why."
Every part of Peter was hyperaware, because he'd wondered that too, as much as he was endlessly grateful for it. Tony didn't like to talk about what happened on Titan, but Peter knew, because he heard whispers too well and they all tried so often to cobble together some sense out of the events that doomed half the world.
"Why I traded your life for half the galaxy, you mean?"
"Yes." There was no joke, no deflection. Tony was uncharacteristically serious, and Peter couldn't help but picture him just moments from bleeding out. Tony's heart had slowed significantly, but Peter's was racing, blood beating too loudly in his ears until Tony reached out and squeezed his arm and then everything calmed.
"Isn't it obvious? This is the future I saw. Right down to this party, which you didn't invite me to, by the way."
"But why did this future need me?"
"Because you were the catalyst who brought the Avengers back together. It was only as a team that you were strong enough to defeat Thanos."
Peter wanted to say something clever, to make a joke about Tony's diplomacy skills so it wouldn't be awkward even though Peter knew he had struggled to get past all the ways Germany had broken them. Peter was proud of the way Tony had repaired the damage, but he didn't think Tony would want Doctor Strange to overhear that. His train of thought was derailed when he sensed someone watching him and found the wizard staring at him in his intense, mystic way.
Tony's grip on his arm tightened. "You saw that I needed to lose Peter to be motivated."
"Quite the opposite. There were many timelines where the boy died, in battle or in ash. They all ended in utter defeat. Rarely did you leave Titan alive, and never as more than an alcoholic shell. You never channeled your rage effectively, and you pushed away every remaining ally. It was protecting your ward—"
"Son," Tony and Peter both corrected. They shared a look that broke the tension, and Peter found that he could breathe again, the awful picture the wizard had painted losing its power.
"It was protecting your son that kept you from giving up." The wizard's tone and emphasis implied he'd understood the distinction all along, and maybe he had. "You were determined to engineer a better future for him to grow up in, and here we are."
"Well." It was rare for Tony to be speechless, but he tugged Peter into his side, ruffled his hair, and said nothing more.
"So basically you're saying I'm the reason Thanos lost," Peter quipped, tone clearly teasing even as he reeled at the implication that he, insignificant Peter Parker, could have such an impact. It was hard enough to believe that Tony's fate depended so heavily on his, when back on Titan they'd barely known each another. But the entire world …
Tony chuckled, just as Peter had intended. "Sure, champ. Though maybe we keep that among ourselves so the others don't feel bad." He turned back to Strange. "Turns out wizards are quite helpful. I may suggest that the Avengers recruit one."
"I'm flattered, but I have no interest in joining your little band."
"I was talking about Wong." Peter snorted. The man in question was currently arguing animatedly with Starlord by the buffet table in an outfit that was perfect for a gathering of superheroes but not for a cocktail party.
"Charming. May our paths not cross again anytime soon, Stark."
The moment Doctor Strange turned away Peter shifted, throwing his arms around Tony and holding tight.
"I don't think you're trying to strangle me kid, but I can't breathe."
Peter laughed, pulling away and bounding over to Miss Potts. He was more careful about his super strength this time, and her heals and her dress made him approach the situation a bit more gingerly. "Thank you," he whispered into her shoulder. "Thank you thank you a million times."
"Hey, how come she gets a thanks for saving the world hug?" Tony grumbled. Peter laughed at his petulance and found that he couldn't stop.
"The hugs were not for saving the world on my behalf," he corrected, because that was something he still couldn't fully comprehend and would have to repay with more than a hug, somehow. "They were for giving me the most insane car I have ever seen."
"You like it then?" Pepper asked.
"Are you kidding? How could I not like it? It's too much, but it's amazing!" He turned towards Tony, who was watching him with a contented smile. "When did you have time to do all those upgrades? We've only been back for two days."
"Sleep's overrated. And I'd already worked out most of what I wanted to do. Had Fri backdate some schematics along with our favorite government vlogs."
"I can never repay you for this."
"It was a gift, Peter," Miss Potts said firmly. "Well deserved and very joyfully given."
"What she said," Tony echoed. "Always good to listen to the Boss Lady. Also at her genius suggestion, I'm going to tell Happy he has to give you driving lessons. But after he sweats through a session or two I'll take over. You can keep the car at my place until you're able to drive on your own. All the training wheel protocols will come off as soon as you get your license." He turned to Ned, who was watched the exchange with wide eyes and a slack jaw, like he had for most of the evening. "No hacking the car, young man!"
"Got it, Mr. Stark. I am sorry about the suit, Mr. Stark."
"Water under the bridge. But I did make the Iron Spider suit unhackable, so there's no getting the training wheels and the baby monitor off that one."
"Is that a challenge?"
"It most certainly is not!"
But Peter and Ned shared a look, and while Peter now trusted any safeguards Tony had built in he was still curious to see if his friend could crack them. As much as Tony wanted to be the smartest person Peter knew, he knew some pretty brilliant people.
"Whatever you're thinking, just stop. You two should scram. Eat. Mingle. Introduce Ned around. We're still waiting on a few people and then the band will get started."
Time passed quickly. Ned was surprisingly cool through most of the introductions. There were plenty of people for Peter to meet at well. Steve proudly showed off the rest of his team, properly smiling for the first time since Peter had met him in the waiting room in Wakanda. "Are you going to shave off your sadness beard now?" Tony cracked as he drifted by with a glass full of what Peter suspected was tonic without the gin.
Steve rubbed it, pensively, looking absolutely ridiculous. "I dunno. I kind of like it."
Wanda giggled from her place on Vision's arm.
The android seemed to take the matter a lot more seriously. "Research shows that a beard can make a man look ten years older. But you still look remarkably young for your age, considering you were born in 1918."
"Dude, we HAVE to throw him a 100th birthday party this year!" Ned gushed. "Who's in?"
"Yeah, I'll celebrate that this man is old," Falcon agreed. "As long as Stark buys the food."
Thor practically bounced around the party like an untrained puppy, with a bad ass woman and his sulking brother by his side. He was wearing an eyepatch, although Peter saw Rocket toss him a glass eye which he pocketed with a fleeting look of disgust.
"This is Stark's son, Peter," Thor boomed, greeting him with a manly slap to his shoulder which sent Peter stumbling forward a step even with his super strength and firsthand knowledge of what was coming. "This is my brother, Loki, resurrected and restored, and Brunnhilde, a mighty Valkyrie."
Peter was pretty sure Loki had been a villain during the Battle of New York, but he'd heard enough of Thor's loud, rambling stories about his brother to understand that it was complicated. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Loki. This is my friend Ned."
Loki raised a single sculpted eyebrow. "I did not know that Stark had progeny."
There was something unsettling about the way an actual god was looking at him both critically and with disinterest. "Uhh. He'd not my actual dad, by blood. It's sort of complicated."
"Stark adopted him into his family much like father adopted you!"
"He stole the boy from a hostile world where he was left to die? Were his parents a great enemy?"
Peter choked as Ned cackled uncontrollably. "Oh my God, no! It wasn't anything like that."
"That should totally be your origin story though," Ned suggested. "That would be so badass."
They had finally made it to the buffet table when Peter heard a familiar pattern of deliberate footsteps and rustling beads. "No way!" He turned and there she was, her hair more elaborate than normal, her dress less so.
But it was the grin splitting her face – and the tall man a few steps behind her – which was truly remarkable. Peter felt it anew all over again – what had been lost and what had been regained – and how miraculous it had been to turn back death. Joy overrode all rational thought, and he swept Shuri into a hug and spun her around like she weighed nothing.
"Put me down, peasant," she shrieked, but her protests soon dissolved into laughter, wild and unpredictable like her. It wasn't PC or prudent, but he didn't care, because here was the future some stilted part of himself had never been able to believe in.
"We did it!" he breathed, and when he finally set her down she clutched onto his arm to steady herself.
"Of course we did, you silly boy."
"You must be Peter Parker." As Shuri's brother stepped forward it was impossible to miss the fondness in his eye or the authority in his tone. Peter stepped back and stood up a little straighter. "Your Majesty," he acknowledged, wavering too long on whether he should bow so he ended up with an awkward head nod.
King T'Challa smiled, and Peter could sense something of Shuri about him – effortless authority and an underlying warmth. "There is no need for that among friends. My sister tells me you were a very good friend to her during the time that I was gone, and that is a debt I can never repay."
"Oh it was nothing, really. Your sister's brilliant, and she saved Mr. Stark's life—"
"And yours, with the remote suit—" Shuri chimed in.
Peter shook his head with fond exasperation. "—And mine."
"These two are trouble, let me tell you." Tony glided into the conversation, Pepper on his arm, and nodded at the king. "And now that all the doom and gloom is over with the levels of brilliant teenage nerding out we're going to be subjected to is going to be off the charts. Steel yourself."
"T'challa. Glad you could make it. Though you are late."
T'challa was utterly nonplussed, exuding a level of coolness that Peter could never hope to achieve. "Some of us have countries to run."
"After I told him what happened he and Nakia ran off for a day and came back engaged. Guess her cold feet were warmed by the months spent without him. Then yesterday we binged the entirety of Westworld."
"Sister!" His veneer cracked, just a little, and Peter was glad to see that he wasn't the only one Shuri was able to unsettle.
"You shouldn't fib, brother. Though I suppose it is true that today you did have some matters of state to attend to before we left Wakanda."
"You came all this way just for a party?" Peter asked, and T'Challa shot him a grateful glance for steering the conversation in another direction.
"Officially. I personally came to say I told you so."
While Peter was certain she was addressing him, she looked very deliberately at Tony, leaving Peter utterly baffled. "You have to be more specific. You've told me a lot of things."
T'Challa laughed, but Tony looked surprisingly serious before disappearing behind one of the tables and returning with a thin red box topped with a bow very similar to the one that had been left on his car.
"Now that everyone's here we might as well really get this party started. This is for you."
Peter hesitated before taking the gift that was offered him. "You didn't have to. You already got me a car."
"Pepper got you a car. This is different. Open it."
There was something in Tony's voice that made Peter apprehensive. He could feel everyone watching him, and he didn't like how they knew something that he didn't.
But this was his dad, who he knew wanted only the best for him.
The lid of the box came off, bow and all. Inside, on a bed of red tissue paper, was a stack of documents. Peter skimmed the top one, curious but almost put off by the officious looking letterhead and ostentatious legalese. I, Tony Stark, do hereby designate Peter Parker as the legal heir to my personal fortunes and my ownership shares in Stark Industries.
Peter dropped the lid but the grass muffled the sound. He could hear his own breath hitch and his heart pound in his chest, but when he looked up to find Tony the man was making his way onto the stage.
Peter tried to read on but he couldn't make it past that impossible first page. Tony was right – this was different than the car. Because the Spyder was frivolous and inconsequential in the scope of Tony's entire fortune, but this inheritance was so much more than just money – though it was far more money than Peter could even fathom. But this was also responsibility – a responsibility that represented trust and value and love. Tony had said those words before – had even told him, once, that he was going to do this – but it hadn't seemed real when he hadn't been sure that the world would ever get back to the way it was supposed to be. The fact that he had kept him promise – that he felt strongly enough to make it in the first place – it nearly sent Peter to his knees.
All he'd wanted since the day Tony Stark showed up in his apartment was to make him proud.
Somehow, someway, he had managed that.
He felt a steadying hand on his arm and found Miss Potts standing very close, watching him with a soft smile. "I've watched Tony make a lot of decisions through the years. Rarely have I been so convinced that he's made the right one."
Her confidence buoyed him, because Miss Potts was practicality and execution, and if she thought it was a good idea, then surely it must be so.
Tony tapped on one of the three mics set up on stage. "Well this is old school." The audience chuckled. Peter couldn't help but think it was unnecessary, because there were only maybe 40 people there, tops, but then Tony looked right at him and smiled and he simmered down.
"Before the band starts I'd like to say a few words. Yes I'll limit it to a few. It's been a long time since I've thrown a good party. Glad to see I've still got it."
He was effortless in the spotlight. While Peter had gotten the sense that Tony didn't like it there was no denying how he shined. "My reasons to bring you all here today were threefold. The first is obvious – to celebrate the most massive victory the Avengers have ever – and hopefully will ever – achieve. To the roughly half of you that helped, we couldn't have done it without each and every one of you. To the other half – maybe pitch in a little next time."
Pepper wasn't the only one who gasped, but her disapproval was easy to separate since she was standing so close to him. "What, too soon?" Tony did sober after that, into the man who'd led briefings and ran through the settings on his suit without a single joke. "In all seriousness – we weren't a team when Thanos came and he kicked our ass. But every one of you that remained put our differences aside for the greater good. The Avengers are stronger – and more numerous – than ever, and you all have my endless gratitude for that. Which might make my second reason for calling you here a bit surprising. Effective immediately, I'm retiring Iron Man."
If Peter had tried he could have pinpointed individual reactions – who gasped, who whispered to the person standing next to them, who accepted the news in silence. But he was too focused on Tony. On the way his heart sped up just slightly, and his hand clenched around the microphone, and he looked, just for a second, at Pepper, before deliberately not looking directly at anyone at all.
"I know, I know, I've said that before. But I'm really going to try and make it stick this time. My non-enhanced body is getting a little old for this. And I have promises to keep. I'll still be available for a little pro bono consulting, if necessary, but I'd appreciate it if you kept the sky from falling. Don't worry, you can stay at the Compound. I'll even waive the rent.
"Once upon a time one of you told Fury I was unsuitable to join the Avengers. The rest of you probably thought it. And that was true, in the beginning. And off and on in the middle too, to be honest. I tore us apart when I should have kept us together. But I think we got it right, this last time round. And even though I was never much of a team player, you all taught me not just what it was to be a better hero, but a better person, and I'll carry that lesson with me whatever the future holds."
"Here, here," someone shouted, and it sounded like Steve, but Peter was still watching Tony, baring his soul in a way Peter knew made him extremely uncomfortable, and Peter didn't think he'd ever been more proud.
"If you thought I was done with the sappy stuff, you were mistaken, because my final reason for gathering you all here is, selfishly, my favorite. And that's to announce – among friends – that as of this morning Peter is now my legal successor as CEO and majority owner of Stark Industries."
Peter wasn't expecting the cheer that went through the crowd, or the way the attention shifted in his direction. "I know, some kid right? Peter and I may not share DNA – despite what some of you may think – but he's everything that I could ever ask for in a son. My old man used to talk about legacy, and I thought it was a publicity stunt. Maybe it was. But I finally understand. Because I've tried to make Stark Industries a company that's good for humanity. But there are mistakes I've made that I'll never be able to undo. There is red in my ledger, as a friend once said. But when I look at Peter I see the potential for a world that doesn't need a man flying around in a suit of guns. The kid was ready to change the world in a hoodie and a pair of googles. All he's ever needed was the right resources. I'm proud that I can give him that. So, if you'd all join me in a toast. To Peter."
Somehow there was a champagne glass in his hand, but Peter wasn't sure how it had gotten there.
"Dude, how did you not tell me Mister Stark was giving you Stark Industries? When are you taking over? Are you going to finish high school?"
He hadn't meant to keep it from Ned, he'd just honestly kind of forgotten, because when Tony had brought it up that potential future had seemed so distant, and he'd never expected anything like this honestly, and how was this actually his life?
"Speech!" someone shouted, and then there was suddenly a chorus echoing the sentiment which sounded like Clint and Scott, who were bound to be trouble together now that neither of them was depressed.
Peter looked toward Tony, feeling like he was caught in a floodlight on a mission that was supposed to be stealthy, but his dad just smiled and tilted the microphone in his direction.
"You don't have to go up there," Miss Potts said. "But you'll have to get used to making speeches someday. Might not be a bad idea to practice among friends."
Knowing it was his choice made it a little easier. As did the way May flashed him two thumbs up from across the tent.
He bounded up to the stage, hoping the energy might give him courage. Tony tossed him the mic and he caught it smoothly. From up here the tent seemed a little empty, and while some of the faces were a tad unfamiliar they were all smiling.
Suddenly the nerves seemed silly. He had helped save the world, after all.
"So I think Tony actually threw this party for me," he said. "He was embarrassed when I called our first night at the Compound a party. I will admit, I never had my own ice sculpture back in Queens." It seemed to work, starting with humor. By the time everyone was chuckling he knew what to say.
"None of you came to listen to some kid ramble on, so I'll keep this short. Mostly I just want to say thank you. To all the Avengers – and the honorary Avengers – who spent the past three months here with me – thanks for being gracious and welcoming to me and my aunt, even though we were all having a pretty rough time. I know I was out of my league, but none of you ever made me feel that way. It meant a lot. And to those who weren't here – I don't get to say this often, but Mister Stark is wrong. Because you did help. You were the reason we kept fighting. That we couldn't give up and adapt to the status quo. Without your loss we wouldn't have kept going. So thanks, for meaning that much to us."
He caught Ned's eye in the crowd and hoped he'd really been listening. He'd glossed over Ned's loss when he'd been recounting those missing months, too glad to have him back to want to remember how much it had hurt when he'd been gone. They didn't do mushy – they did Star Wars marathons and Pokemon strategizing – but that didn't mean Peter hadn't felt all those mushy things he was too uncomfortable to say. He wanted Ned to know he was important. He'd learned that from witnessing his dad's insecurities.
"And of course the biggest thanks of all is to Mister Stark – Tony." Dad almost slipped out but he held it back. "He told me he was going to do this and I was still surprised."
Tony's gaze could have melted iron, it was so warm and fond and brimming with emotion that Peter felt warmth well up behind his own eyes, unhelpfully. Peter had to look away, unwilling to do something so mortifying as cry during his first big speech, especially when it wasn't nerves affecting him now.
"My Uncle Ben always said that with great power comes great responsibility." He tried looking at Aunt May next, but he couldn't do that either, not when she wiped a tear from her eye.
His gaze settled on Pepper, fond and proud but also calm and steady. It was no wonder she was Tony's rock. "That's a motto I've tried to live by. I want to thank Mister Stark for trusting me to take over what he's built. I confess that I have no idea how to run a company, but I do understand how important it is, and I'll do my best to learn and make him proud."
Then he was tossing the mic back amongst warm applause, and Tony said something that redirected the attention away from Peter.
"Sorry you got put on the spot," Tony said once they'd left the stage. "I should have realized that could happen. I'm used to being surrounded by people who want to be the center of attention."
He was touched Tony had noticed his discomfort, but Pepper was right – he would have to get used to it. "It's all right. Did I do okay?"
"You did great, champ." He shifted his weight and blew out a labored breath. "This isn't conditional. I just want you to know that. I expect great things from you – but that isn't meant to be a burden. You'll make mistakes, do things I don't agree with. That won't make me love you any less. I'm already proud, and I always will be."
Peter could guess where the need for that little clarification came from, and Peter thanked the stars, for the dozenth time, that Tony was far less like his father than he feared. "Love you too. And I'm proud to be your son."
"All right. Enough mushy stuff. This is supposed to be a party," Tony said, but his eyes were bright and he was grinning. "Sometime soon we'll have to figure out a timeline for announcing your appointment. Pepper has some thoughts. Neither of us is looking to step down anytime soon but we want to make sure you're prepared when we do. Pepper's offered to give you CEO lessons. And I thought an actual internship at Stark Industries would be wise. Eventually you can test out the different departments. Obviously you could do great work in R&D. But to start I just established a new branch of the Stark Industries Foundation focused on hands on projects to turn communities around. I was thinking Queens would be a good place to start – and you could run it."
There was something about that which was better than new cars and million dollar suits, but also harder to comprehend. "Wow. Mr. Stark. Tony. Dad. That's. Really?"
"Did I break you, kid? Yes, really."
It was only once the idea and its implications made it's way across his brain once or twice that realization struck. "Is this an excuse to keep me out of the suit?"
It came out a bit more accusatory than he meant it to, but Tony didn't shy away. "The thought may have crossed my mind, honestly. But it's not what you think. I know you love being Spiderman, and I've seen firsthand that you're capable of far more than stopping muggings and saving cats from trees. But there are going to be times when you're not right around the corner to stop a holdup, and darker stuff that I really hope you aren't in the middle of. There are things that can be done to make the neighborhood a little friendlier on its own, and I think you can help find them. There will still be opportunities for Spidey, but there's ways that Peter Parker can help too."
Peter was in awe of the way Tony got him – how he really must have listened, that first afternoon in his bedroom, and every night in the Compound when all he could do was ramble of cry about some snippet of news he'd managed to get hold of – about devastation and misery and how nobody did anything. All Peter wanted to do, at the end of the day, was help. And yes, Spiderman was SO COOL, and yes, he loved swinging around his city and talking to old ladies and seeing the faces of the people he's helped, but Tony was right. There were ways he might be able to help more people all at once. Ways to decrease crime and increase resources and his mind was already spinning with ideas and he couldn't wait to work them out. Because Queens could be just the pilot; with Stark Industries anything that worked could spread EVERYWHERE. "This might be the nicest thing you've ever done for me."
"Wow. That bar was already pretty high. Did you see the car? And your suit?"
"This tops them all. I can never repay you for this."
"There's a hell of a lot I can't repay you for, Pete. Let's just say we're even and call it square, okay?"
He couldn't fathom how it could possibly be even. He knew that Tony appreciated his admiration and affection, but it came so easy, almost always. Even after he took the suit away and Peter had to face the Vulture alone, the next time he'd seen Tony the anger had faded. But that's all Peter had to offer, while Tony had resources and connections. He could choose anyone in the world to mentor, or he could choose no one at all. And he'd chosen Peter.
But there was no part of him that wanted to protest. He might not understand it, but he believed it. He'd helped Tony somehow, in some fundamental way, and he'd keep doing it each and every day, because the man deserved to escape from the demons that plagued him.
"Good. Now why don't you go say hello to your aunt because she's staring daggers at me for monopolizing you." Tony stepped close enough to ruffle Peter's hair, then pulled him into a quick half hug before pushing him in the direction of his aunt.
May was standing next to the Bartons, but she excused herself as soon as Peter started approaching. Her hair was sleek and curled, and she was wearing a shimmering emerald dress Peter had definitely never seen before.
"Oh sweetheart." She wrapped him in a bear hug, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "I'm so proud of you."
"Thanks." May's approval had always been easy to gain, but it flooded him with warmth. He could barely remember a time when she hadn't meant home.
"You look gorgeous," he said when she finally released him. "How come me and Ned were the only ones who weren't told this was a fancy party?"
"Tony bought me this dress. He was trying to butter me up, I think." She smoothed her hands down her sides unconsciously, and Peter noticed the glint of matching gemstones around her wrist. "I must admit it kind of worked. I feel fabulous."
"You look fabulous," he agreed.
"Your dad and I had a long talk, about the inheritance and co-parenting and whatever comes next."
She must have noticed the way his mouth dropped open because she stopped, her eyes narrowing. "What? Do I have something on my face? I put on non-running mascara for this very reason."
"You called him—"
"Your dad?" she finished when Peter couldn't. "That's not a big secret, is it? Because I've heard seven different people draw that connection tonight, and everyone did it constantly back when we lived here. Plus you call him that all the time."
"Not in front of me. To spare my feelings." He didn't know how May had figured out so easily something that he'd been struggling with for months. It was one of her special talents, and sometime it came in handier than web slinging.
"How did I end up with such a sweet kid?"
Peter blushed, not sure how to answer that. It wasn't exactly how he'd most want to be characterized, especially in a tent full of Avengers.
"I know I haven't always been Tony's biggest fan. But that man has convinced me time and again that he would do anything for you, and it's clear you adore him right back. You never have to hide that on my account."
"I love you too though. You know that right?"
"Of course I do. They're not mutually exclusive. Kids are supposed to have two parents."
She reached out and twined their fingers together. They'd just started getting used to being just the two of them against the world when Tony came into their lives. It hadn't always been that way.
"When we lost Ben I worried about a lot of things. One of my biggest concerns was you growing up without a man around. A boy needs a father. Maybe that's not PC to say in 2018 – but he deserves one, anyway. I never thought in a million years that Tony Stark would be the one to step up to the plate. But he's doing a good job."
"I still miss Ben. Sometimes I would imagine how he'd react if he was in the Compound with us."
"I used to think about that all the time! Would have been nice not to be the only normal person."
"Miss Potts is normal."
"She might not have super powers, but she's hardly normal."
It was hard to argue with that. Peter allowed himself a few more moments in the fantasy – Ben and Clint arguing over whose pancakes were better, Ben whispering to May that he couldn't believe he'd gotten into a debate with a raccoon. But it faded quickly, as it always did. Ben's image in his mind was getting a little blurry around the edges. It was time to pull the photos back up on his phone.
"One day I won't be normal either. Are you okay with that?"
"You cruised right past normal the day you got the spider bite, I think. But I know what you mean." She fingered the emeralds clasped around her wrist. "This excessive wealth, and the fact it'll all be yours someday – it'll take some getting used to. But I've always wanted to be able to give you more than I could. What right have I to be jealous that someone else can?"
"Did Tony show you the car?"
"The car that no one in their right mind she give to a sixteen year old? Oh yes."
"I can keep it, right? I mean, I know it's a lot—"
"Lucky I already knew Tony wasn't in his right mind. IF you drive at a safe and respectful speed and IF you always keep it in sci fi stealth mode when you drive it anywhere near home or school and IF you take me on at least three joy rides once you get your license, then yes you can keep it."
"As if I could keep that car away from you," she said with a chuckle. "Ben would come back and haunt me from the grave for sure. He would have loved to drive that car."
Peter squeezed May's hand and then pulled her into another hug. A breath shuddered through her, and then a second, but when she pulled away her eyes were dry.
"There's just one thing that I ask."
"Don't let it all go to your head, okay? The money and the company and the cars? I want you to remember that humble kid you are now, who knows the value of every dollar. Don't lose yourself."
"I'll try. You have permission to smack me if I seem to be failing."
"Remember you said that!"
"Guys, Adam Lambert is here!" Ned bounced up, his hat askew. "I was talking to Scott, and the band was getting ready, and I was curious so I looked up and there was Adam Lambert!"
"It's not Adam Lambert!" Tony corrected, joining them as if he'd been summoned by Ned's incorrect conclusion. "I mean, it is. But it's Queen." Tony said it like the name carried some great gravitas, and May laughed as if she understood, but Peter was lost.
"Oh come on. Please tell me you know who Queen is. You're not a baby."
"They're a band. That have some songs… I think I've heard."
"Unbelievable, kid. You're in for a treat."
"You invited Queen to a private Avengers party?" Ned asked.
"Have you seen the seventeen custom ice sculptures?"
"This is so badass. Have I told you how utterly thrilled I am to be a part of this, Mister Stark, sir?"
"It's about to get more badass. We're going up on stage." He pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it to Peter.
Inside the small box were a pair of earbuds. "It's gonna get loud in here," Tony explained. "Those should make it a little more comfortable."
"Thanks," Peter said, touched, but he wasn't sure what was going on. "Why are we going on stage?"
"Because they're opening with a special request. This is our song."
"Our song?" He put in the earbuds and followed. As the first few notes rang through the tent Peter heard Starlord say, "Hey, I know this song."
Turned out Peter did too, once Lambert got a few lines in.
"You have got to be kidding me."
"Nope." Tony's grin was impossibly wide, and Peter loved seeing him this way, without a shadow of a care weighing him down.
By the time the chorus hit Tony had grabbed a microphone, his rich baritone surprisingly on key as he belted "We are the Champions" along with Adam Lambert. In a life that had become increasingly surreal it was still an odd moment, especially as others joined in. Starlord and Ant-Man rushed the stage. Aunt May flung an arm around his shoulder and belted, voice strong but a bit flat. Tony goaded him on from his other side, holding out the microphone, and the energy was infectious. Soon he was singing his heart out in discordant jubilation.
"I cannot believe this is happening," Peter said in between songs, because apparently Tony had paid Queen some insane amount of money and made them sign non-disclosure agreements so the Avengers could basically join them for karaoke.
"This is your life now kid. Hanging out with superheroes amid excessive displays of wealth. Any regrets?"
That barely scratched the surface of what it was, really, though in the moment that description was quite apt. He looked around himself, surrounded by friends and family who believed in what he could do outside the suit just as much as what he could do in it, and was overwhelmed by just how strongly he felt for all of them.
And there we have it! So sorry that it took me so long but this chapter just kept growing.
Thank you so much to each and every one of you who took the time to review, favorite, or follow my story. The encouragement means a lot, and I hope you got the same joy out of reading this as I did writing it.
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