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a fraction of a smile (a fragment of his mind)

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"MJ, hey! Hey!" Peter catches MJ just as she's leaving her locker. "Look, I'm sorry, but I have to bail on study group tonight. Something came up."

MJ swings around on him. "Are you serious? The test is tomorrow, Peter. Half our grade?"

She's usually upset these days, like everyone else, but this is really close to angry, and he takes a step back, holding his hands up. "I know, I know. But this is important."

MJ rolls her eyes. "Rebuilding of the entire Earth aside, what is more important than half our grade?" She hits him with a really significant pause. "This time?"

He actually tries to think of a super-legit, rebuilding-the-Earth kind of reason, but MJ can smell lies on him from 20 feet away, so he gives up and admit, "Babysitting."

"Babysitting."

"Yes, babysitting. For my... little cousin." He winces, but sticks with it. It's not... totally a lie. Not really.

"Oh, you have a cousin now?" MJ crosses her arms over her chest and lifts her eyebrows in not-very-polite disbelief.

"Yeah! Sort of. Anyway, her mom is in a kind of emergency situation, and she needs someone she can trust, and I'm at the end of the list, but, you know. I'm on it!"

"And you're not just making up an excuse to stay holed up in your room being depressed, or swing around the city being reckless and stupid? Because I've been seeing a lot of that lately, and Peter, it is not healthy--"

"No! Honestly. I mean, I appreciate your concern--" And he does, because beneath the anger and sarcasm, MJ's worry is sincere, and he feels bad about that.

Because maybe he has been hiding from people.

Maybe.

But it's not like he doesn't have reasons. He came back from the dead! And fought an interstellar army! And watched Mr. Stark--

And he doesn't want to think about that. Not now. Pretty much not at all. He just wants to be Peter during the day and Spider-Man at night and somehow get through it. "I know I've been hiding out, and maybe being a little reckless. But honestly, this is a legit emergency babysitting thing."

MJ tries to stare through his forehead into his brain for one more long second, then throws up a hand. "Okay. Whatever. More weirdness from Parker." She turns away, dismissing him and his weirdness, but calls back over her shoulder, "Can you at least Skype us after the kid goes to sleep?"

"I'll see. Sorry!"

*****

"Peter, I'm so sorry." Ms Potts greets him coming off the penthouse elevator, looking as frazzled as it's possible for her to look. A few hairs are out of place from her fancy hairstyle, and she only has one heel on, the other clutched in her right hand while she holds a cell phone in her left.

"No problem," Peter assures her, offering her his arm. She accepts and slips her other shoe on, taking a deep, steadying breath as soon as she can stand up straight again, and giving his arm a quick pat before moving her hand away.

"It is a problem, and I appreciate you dropping everything. I wouldn't have even asked if it wasn't necessary; I know you're already busy with two identities without dropping a third one of 'babysitter' on you."

Petter winces a little at the reference to his identities, but if anyone has a right to tease him about that, it's Ms Potts. "I think I can handle it for one night. As long as I can study at the same time."

"Of course." She looks at her phone like she'd forgotten she was holding it, then puts it face-down on a little side table. "Honestly, Morgan can watch tv or read her books while you study. Just make sure she's not eating too much sugar, or staying up too late, or building a world-destroying robot, and it'll be fine."

Given that they're talking about Morgan Stark here, that crack is both hysterically dark and terrifyingly plausible. Peter gives Ms Potts the side-eye it deserves and she actually laughs for a second before getting serious again. "That's not entirely true, though," she admits slowly.

"I sort of figured. This whole tower is full of potential babysitters, right?"

"Yes, of course," Ms Potts agrees. "But…"

"But you needed an Avenger." And it almost doesn't feel weird to call himself that any more. "So what's up?"

"I needed an Avenger who's both good with children and can be trusted with them," she corrects him. "Which is not a combination I'm finding in most of them, honestly."

That's probably fair, yeah, but-- "I'm not sure how good I am."

"I saw you at the… at the funeral, playing with Morgan and Nate Barton. You'll be fine." She sighs, checking her hair with one hand as if she'd like to be raking her fingers through it instead. "And if anyone tries anything… Damn it, this trip into the city was supposed to be kept very quiet, just internal face time at Stark Industries and one very secret meeting at the UN. But someone leaked, and the usual threats have come out of the woodwork."

"Let me at 'em," Peter offers, mostly seriously. The thought of anyone threatening Morgan and Ms Potts, after everything they've been through, makes him want to punch walls, or people. "Just tell me where to go and they'll be webbed for a week."

Ms Potts gives him what he thinks is a tempted look, but shakes her head. "No, thank you, Sam and Bucky are already on it. Honestly, everyone is on it. Okoye keeps offering to send two of her War Dogs to be undercover bodyguards, which I hope isn't really necessary, and Happy is actively trying to get Stark Biomedical to hurry up and create a cloning program so he can be two people -- one driving me and one watching Morgan."

Peter starts to snicker at the image, then thinks about it and gulps instead. "They can't… actually do that, right? Duplicate people?"

"No, no," she says reassuringly, then ruins it by frowning. "Well, not yet. We're strongly discouraging them from trying, but, well. Scientists." Which is not as comforting as she'd probably hoped it would be when she started talking.

"The point is," she resets with visible determination, "that Morgan likes you, and I know you'll protect her. I also know you won't feed her Pop-Tarts at bedtime -- which Thor did, the night before the funeral! -- or teach her how to hotwire the doors, which three separate people have done so far. I'm not naming names."

"I can kind of guess." He can actually think of about five Avengers who both could and would, no problem. "But you don't have to worry, Ms Potts. No Pop-Tarts before bed, no hacking, and no bad guys getting anywhere near her."

He holds his arms out enough that the webslingers around his wrists show under his shirtsleeves, then taps his chest where the rest of the compressed nanosuit lies against his skin. "I got this."

Peter must sound more confident than he feels -- he is confident about holding off the bad guys, not so much about the rest of it -- because Ms Potts smiles and actually looks relieved. "I know you do, Peter. I have total faith in you."

Okay, that's not any pressure at all.

"And Peter? All of the other Avengers call me Pepper."

"Oh. Right. Okay. Pepper." Wow.

"So, Morgan's already had dinner and her bath," Ms Potts -- Pepper -- says, brushing her hands together as if to get into business mode. "If you could entertain her until bedtime at 7, then just read her a story and tuck her in. She'll tell you exactly how to do it, trust me."

"Sounds good."

"The kitchen is yours, obviously," she continues, leading him around the couch and across the room towards said kitchen. "I know you're always hungry, eat whatever you'd like. After Morgan's in bed--"

"Peter!" Morgan, clad in pink Frozen pajamas and bouncing in place, greets him from the door of the kitchen with more enthusiasm than he expected, since he's only met her a few times. He did play with her and Hawkeye's youngest after the funeral for a while, when all of the adults really needed a break, but he didn't think he'd made that much of an impression.

But her face is shining when she flings herself across the room into his arms, and he swings her up automatically. "Hey, Morg. Are you ready to have fun tonight?"

He sounds awkward even to his own ears, but Morgan nods happily, her long hair flopping around her head. "Yes! I want to watch Mythbusters!"

Peter had been braced for Disney princesses, and prepared to bargain for Moana or one of the Toy Story movies, but he rolls with it. "Okay, cool, Mythbusters. Um, if your mom says it's okay."

"Mythbusters or Bill Nye are both fine." Pepper gives permission with the resigned expression of a woman who never had a chance. "No episodes with explosions, though; Morgan, you got enough ideas from Princess Shuri in Wakanda last month. You don't need any more."

"No explosions rules out, like, 98 percent of Mythbusters," Peter points out.

"Then that leaves two percent for you to watch, doesn't it?"

There's only one response possible.

"Yes, ma'am," Peter and Morgan say more or less together; they grin at each other in pleased solidarity, and maybe this won't be so hard.

*****

And it's not that hard, not really. Morgan is a cute kid and she knows it, and Peter can definitely see her dad's influence in the way she maneuvers for just a little bit of ice cream, just a few more minutes of TV, just one more story. But she loves the old episodes of Mythbusters, understands a scary amount of the physics involved in making a lead balloon, and cheers the start of a new Bill Nye episode on Netflix like it's another Frozen sequel. She sings a happy little song to one of her stuffed animals, then looks up to ask if Peter knows why compasses don't work at the North Pole, because she knows about the Earth's magnetic field and wants to share.

If he didn't need to study, he'd be tempted to brave Pepper's wrath and let Morgan stay up a little later. But she crashes right around when she's supposed to, and he tucks her into bed with two stories, a drink of water, and a plush, battered Hulk toy clutched to her chest.

After he's sure she's asleep, not faking it, Peter makes a probably totally unnecessary patrol of the penthouse. Everything is clear, of course, so he debates with himself for a few minutes, then settles for asking Friday to put video of Morgan's room on a display in the living room: close enough to get back there fast, but with enough room to spread out and study. Skyping MJ and Ned seems like splitting his attention too many ways, so he texts a quick apology and ignores MJ's follow-up demands, which she's probably (definitely) going to make him pay for later.

He loses himself in Newtonian physics as much as he can while still keeping an eye on the monitor, but the quiet of the penthouse lures him deeper. So he's a little startled when he suddenly catches motion out of the corner of his eye.

Okay, yes, he yelps. Once. Quietly. But he does manage to stop himself before he accidentally webs a five-year-old.

"What are you doing up, Morg?" he asks, trying to steady his breathing and force his muscles to relax without making a big deal of it.

She takes the question as an invitation, crossing the room and climbing up on his lap with the confidence of a child who has never been refused. Her pjs are maybe half a size too big, and very pink. Peter puts his arm around her in a way that feels awkward, but she snuggles right in. "I had a dream."

"Yeah? What kind of dream?"

She shrugs a little, burying her head in his shoulder. "I had a dream about Daddy. Then he went away again and I didn't want to be alone."

"Oh." Okay. So, time to be an adult. How is he supposed to do that again? "Was-- Was it a good dream? Or a bad dream?"

"He sat on my bed and told me a story."

"Oh. And, um, how did that make you feel?" He winces a little, but Morgan doesn't seem to notice the weirdness. She doesn't answer, either, just shrugs a little, twirling a strand of hair around one tiny finger and staring fixedly into his chest.

Peter thinks for a second, then tries again. "You know, my dad died when I was really young, too, and I still dream about him every once in a while. I kind of like it; it's like he comes to visit me sometimes. Just to make sure I'm doing okay."

Morgan's face twists in thought. "Do you think my daddy comes to see me? In my dreams?"

Peter stops and thinks furiously, trying to choose his words really, really carefully. Man, the physics exam isn't going to be anything after this conversation. He wishes he'd been briefed for this mission -- what has Pepper been saying about death and all that? Is he going to scar Morgan's psyche forever if he says the wrong thing? What's the right thing?

And where are the bad guys when you really need them to come storming in and save you?

In the end, he takes a breath and goes for it. "I think... I think that people who love us never really leave. We keep them with us when we think about them, or remember them, or dream about them. So that's pretty nice, huh?"

And yeah, it is. Kind of.

Maybe.

Morgan gives that a moment of deep thought, then nods. Then she yawns, and Peter reaches up to smooth the strand of hair away from her finger and out of her face. She snuggles in a little deeper.

"Do you want to go back to bed?" he asks quietly.

She shakes her head without lifting it.

"Do you want to watch more Mythbusters? Just for a little while," he tacks on hastily. "Until you go back to sleep."

She nods against his chest, eyes already half closed, and squirms until she's facing the other way, towards the monitor.

"Do you… Do you want to watch one of your dad's episodes?"

A pause, then another nod, before her forehead crinkles and she looks back over her shoulder. "Except there's always explosions. Mommy said no explosions."

"Well... they're never 'til the end. It'll be okay."

"'Kay."

It's ten minutes and a still-pretty-funny intro of Iron Man shooting toilets with his hand-repulsors as Adam Savage giggles hysterically before Peter dares to move enough to free one hand. He shoots a web to bring his tablet back over, and tries to concentrate on physics again.

But it's a lot harder now, with Mr. Stark's little girl sleeping on him, maybe even dreaming about her dad. He gives up eventually and lets his head fall back on the couch, feeling Morgan's chest rise and fall against his, half-listening to Mr. Stark's voice expounding on myths about clean energy, and waiting for the explosions to start….

****

He wakes up with a stiff neck and a heavy weight constricting his breathing, in a strange, dim room with someone bending over him. "It's okay, Peter, it's just me."

Pepper's calm voice is enough to quiet his suddenly galloping heart rate, and he opens his eyes enough to realize he's still on the couch, with Morgan draped limply over him. Friday has switched the entertainment over to music, quiet and soothing.

"I put her to bed on time," he defends himself automatically, instincts kicking in before he's even half awake. "She got back up."

"She does that. Friday, can we have a little more light, please?" The lights come back up enough that he can see Pepper's face. She seems tired, and a little rumpled, but it looks good on her.

"Did it go okay?" he tries to ask through a yawn that sneaks up on him. Morgan murmurs and shifts, and he freezes.

"It went fine. Looks like things went fine here, too?"

"Yeah, we're good." He winces a little in realization. "Sorry I fell asleep; I guess I'm not such a good bodyguard after all."

Pepper gives him a look that makes her seem spookily like Aunt May for a second. "It's two in the morning on a school night. You needed your rest."

She manages to lift Morgan off of him without waking her, and carries her easily back to her room, walking silently in bare feet; he twists around and spots her heels next to the elevator, where she must have dropped them first thing.

He twists back around and takes the opportunity to hiss quietly at Friday, "You should have woken me up!"

Friday's lilting voice drifts back in a matching whisper. "The boss said to let you sleep if you wanted. I was watching the whole time and could have woken you in a jiffy."

"Still, I was supposed to be--" He breaks off when Pepper comes back, and starts shoving his stuff into his backpack instead. "I should head home, man, 2am, really?"

"You're fine." Pepper takes his backpack away and sits on the coffee table in front of him. "I texted May when I knew how late I was going to be. You can sleep here if you want and I'll have a car drive you to school in the morning. A lot of Avengers have crashed here, we have all kinds of spare clothes."

"Oh, that's--" He yawns again, almost cracking his jaw, and rethinks. "Yeah, if Aunt May knows, that's probably a good call."

"Then we have a plan." Pepper pats his knee, then starts to stand back up. Peter grabs her hand before she can.

"I should. Um." He gives up and blurts it out. "Morgan woke up because she dreamed about Mr. Stark. Um, Tony."

He's not sure what he expected, but just Pepper sighs and sits back down. "I know. She does, sometimes." She shakes her head a little, and looks down and away at nothing. "She doesn't ask for him, or cry. She just dreams about him. I try not to worry, but..."

"It seems like she's doing okay, you know," Peter tries to reassure her. "Like she's happy."

"She is. She's doing so well, most of the time. Better than I am."

Peter isn't sure what to do with that, and settles for patting her hand, like he saw people doing at the funeral. She turns her palm over and holds on; Peter squeezes back, carefully, then surprises himself by admitting, "I dream about him sometimes, too."

Pepper tilts her head sideways, but he can see a tiny smile, so that's probably okay? "Oh, he'd love that. Is he taking you to nightclubs? Or casinos?"

"No." Peter laughs a little. "No, he talks about the Spider-Man suit, or nano-technology, or why he still can't find a decent shawarma place since the other one closed."

"Oh yes, the eternal problem," Pepper nods pseudo-wisely. She'd probably heard that one a few times; Peter sure had.

Before.

"I wish--" And he thinks in the back of his mind that he's not supposed to be saying this to Pepper, that he's supposed to be the one supporting her, but he feels really young all of a sudden, and she's the closest he can get to telling Tony Stark anything now. "I wish he knew how much he meant. How much all of it meant. To me."

"He knew." Her answer is so immediate, so certain, that his breath catches.

"He was so proud of you, Peter. No," she stops him when he tries to brush that off, blushing. "Tony, he did a lot of things in his life -- a lot of things," she adds wryly, "--that he wasn't proud of. But you -- you were one of the good things. One of the reasons we tried for Morgan, after the Snap, was because he finally believed that maybe he could be a better father than his father had been. And you showed him that."

Peter shakes his head wordlessly. He wasn't that important, not really, Mr. Stark wouldn't have--

"Losing you was the hardest part of the Snap for him." Pepper's voice gets unsteady for a second, but only for a second. "One of the reasons -- the big reason -- he took the chance and risked the time travel, risked everything, was to get you back. He did, and he wouldn't have regretted anything after that. You were safe, Morgan and I were safe, the world was safe. That was all he needed to know."

"He… He would have done it anyway." Peter clears his throat roughly, really not wanting to cry in front of Pepper, even though he knows she'd understand. "Undone the Snap. Mr-- Tony would have done the right thing."

He knows what he sounds like; the internet is forever and he knows more than he's supposed to about those "a lot of things" and he's overheard the other Avengers's indulgent comments about hero worship. But he can also still see Mr Stark's face that day, still hear his voice insisting that he wants Peter to be better, and he knows.

Pepper knows, too; he sees it as she smiles to herself and nods a little, then takes a deep, steadying breath. "Peter, what do you think Tony's legacy will be?"

"Um." The question is unexpected, but Peter tries to focus, tries to answer, because it seems important. He wishes he was a little more awake, a little less tired from sleepless nights. "Genius inventor, built the Iron Man armor, saved the universe?"

Pepper blinks. "God, you sounded just like him then. That is exactly what he would have said." She shakes her head slightly, as if to clear it. "Okay, yes, those are true, but do you know what I think his legacy will be? What it is?"

Harder question. "Morgan?" he tries, a little desperately.

"Yes, Morgan. Of course. God help us. But also Harley. And you. All of you. He took you under his wing, and he helped give the world something special, something that will outlive him for a long, long time." She smooths Peter's hair back from his face with one hand, and squeezes his fingers with the other. "You are the proof that Tony Stark had a heart, because he wanted nothing but the best for you, and because he loved you. Never, ever forget how much he loved you."

"I won't," Peter whispers, forcing the words through the tightness of his throat. "I won't forget, Pepper. Not ever."

"Good. Then I want you to make me a promise." She looks at him with such seriousness that he makes himself look back, even though he kind of wants to either cry or hide. "Peter, promise me that in the future, in your darkest moments, when everything looks hopeless... you will never, ever ask yourself, 'What would Tony Stark do?'. Because that will almost always be a very bad plan, and you can do better."

Peter blinks at her for a long, uncomprehending second, then collapses in almost painful laughter. Pepper actually giggles, and lets him lean his forehead against her shoulder, and holds his hand tightly.

It's really close, but the laughter never quite turns back into tears.

****

"How did it go with your 'cousin'?" MJ asks the next morning outside his locker, pronouncing the quotes really clearly.

Peter rolls his eyes. "It went fine. Maybe too well, actually; I'm on the permanent baby-sitting roster now. But that's okay."

"Your 'cousin', though? Really?"

Peter sighs, then pulls her to the side and lowers his voice, pulling out his phone. The picture he brings up is embarrassing, because Pepper Potts is a very sneaky woman, but it is absolute proof. "Look, you know she's not my cousin, but I was babysitting. For Morgan Stark."

"Oh." The word comes out almost silently.

"Yeah. Her mom needs people who can protect and take care of her, and the rest of the Avengers are all over the place right now, so…"

"Yeah. I get that. Morgan Stark, huh? Well, she is cute." MJ studies the picture of Peter and Morgan, passed out on the couch in a tired huddle of limbs, pink pajamas and brown hair. You can see his left webslinger, but only if you know to look for it. "Is she... I don't know. Is she doing okay?"

"Yeah." Peter says after a second. "Yeah, she's going to make it."

He takes a deep breath, and looks at the picture one more time before putting his phone to sleep. "Maybe we all will."

Maybe.

FIN