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I Would Lay My Armor Down

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Coming back to Midtown always made Peter a little nostalgic.

Not much had changed in the years since he had left. The football field was very much the same: a little too tidy to imply continuous use, although the lines were age-faded and the bleachers rusty. He’d heard that they’d updated the gym, but there wasn’t any evidence of that from the outside. Even the sign was the same, if a little bit more sun-bleached than before.

He leaned back against the hood of his car, twitching with the urge to duck into cover. Most of the time, he’d never let himself be so clearly out in the open. But, of course, picking up Morgan from school wasn’t most of the time.

For Peter, it was a rare highlight.

He’d always waited outside the car. At first, it had been a post-Thanos anxiety thing. He’d felt a need to be as close to the people he loved as possible, just in case disaster struck. Then, it had become a tradition.

When Morgan had been in elementary school, she had always come barreling out to him, sometimes with so much excitement that she’d forget her lunchbox in her cubby. Now that she was in high school, her reaction was much more reserved. Still, he was pretty sure that she still appreciated it.

The bell rang, and students poured out of Midtown’s entrance, some in packs and some alone. They scattered out across the field, most making a beeline for the subway station. Morgan appeared somewhere in the middle of the rush, three or four other girls surrounding her. Peter recognized most of them, although he wasn’t sure that they’d ever actually been introduced. He easily deciphered the moment that they spotted him, because everyone but Morgan started pointing and giggling.

Even from a distance, he could see Morgan’s eyes widen in surprise. Just when he thought she’d smile, she shook her head, muttered something to her friends, and bolted towards him, head bowed low and hands fiercely gripping the straps of her backpack.

“Hey there, kiddo,” he called. “Did I-”

As soon as she reached him, she started pushing at his arm, glancing nervously behind her. “Get in the car,” she hissed. “Get in.”

“Whoa.” He raised his hands in surrender. What the hell? Morgan was usually thrilled to see him. He wasn’t sure he could ever remember getting such a cold reception. He was a little surprised by how much it bothered him. “What’s wrong with you?”

Now, Peter.”

“Alright, alright,” he muttered, dutifully herding himself into the driver’s seat. “Your wish is my command.”

Morgan was quick to mimic him, slamming her door shut with way more force than was strictly necessary. Peter knew that if Tony or Pepper had been there, they probably would’ve reprimanded her for it. As it was, Peter was so shocked by her attitude that he just openly stared at her.

Besides, he was the cool brother. He never disciplined Morgan. In all honesty, she’d never really given him a reason to.

“What’re you doing?” Morgan finally snapped, crossing her arms across her chest. “Drive.”

“Not until you put your seatbelt on.”

“Maybe I won’t.”

“Then we aren’t going anywhere.”

She groaned, but complied. Peter carefully put the car in gear and eased it out onto the road, mind whirring.

Had he done something? He couldn’t remember doing anything that might’ve upset her. Hell, he hadn’t even seen Morgan for at least two weeks. He’d been so busy that he’d barely had a chance to breathe, let alone drop in to see Tony or Morgan or anyone.

Maybe that was what had her so worked up? Although, he’d been on missions as Spider-Man for longer than two weeks, and she’d never been mad at him then. But maybe that was different.

“Where’s Happy?” Morgan asked after a minute or two, determinedly moping out the window.

“He’s got the flu,” Peter said slowly, still turning the puzzle over in his head. “Didn’t you get your dad’s text?”

“I didn’t look.” She shifted. “Why’d he send you?”

The accusation in the question stung. He’d spent over a decade as the object of Morgan’s blind affection. Losing it now, without any warning and no explanation, made his whole perspective shift off-kilter.

“Because I had some time,” he said, which was a lie, really. He was skipping a whole afternoon of board meetings for this. “And because I miss you.”

Morgan snorted. “Yeah, sure.”

He glanced over to her, concern twisting in his stomach. “I do miss you.”

She just huffed. “Why do you always get out of your car in the line? It’s stupid. Why can’t you just sit inside like everybody else?”

“Alright, well, subject change,” he muttered. “But since you asked, I do that because I’ve always done it.”

“That’s a stupid reason.”

“I thought you liked it.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t, so you can stop it now.”

Peter couldn’t come up with a response to that. It was all he could do to swallow down the lump in his throat.

They spent the rest of the drive in tense, aching silence.

--

Peter had hoped, a little irrationally, that Morgan’s irritation might just… evaporate once they got to the Stark’s penthouse.

It did not.

She stormed through the front door, blowing past Pepper’s greeting and stalking right up to Tony, who was lounging unsuspectingly in his favorite recliner.

Despite the situation, Peter felt a tinge of amusement fill him at the sight. God, his old mentor had become such a dad. In these moments, it was hard to remember him as the battle-hardened Iron Man. Nowadays, he was all gray hairs and laugh lines and soft smiles. Sustaining the concept of him as anything else felt next to impossible.

“Why’d you send Peter to pick me up?”

Tony looked up at her in bewilderment. “Well, good afternoon to you too, my darling daughter. And since you asked, my day was fine, thank you. And I love you, too.”

Morgan just glowered. “Answer the question.”

“Maybe,” Tony started, voice slow and deliberate, “it’s because he’s your brother?”

“You have drivers, though.”

“All of whom I have to pay,” he drawled. “And yet enlisting Peter is free. You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself, and all that.”

Gee, Tony, Peter thought. Thanks.

Morgan crossed her arms. “Well, free isn’t always better.”

For the first time, Tony caught Peter’s eye from across the room. What did you do? He mouthed.

He just shrugged, helpless. He wished he knew.

Tony’s attention returned to Morgan, and Peter was more than a little amused by the fact that he seemed just as baffled as the rest of them. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Maybe it’s the fact that nobody ever tells me anything.”

“That’s not very fair, is it?” Pepper physically stepped into the argument, folding her arms across her chest as she regarded Morgan with a curious expression. “Your father did text you to let you know that Happy wasn’t going to be able to pick you up today.”

“But he didn’t tell me that he sent him,” Morgan snapped, pointing an accusing finger in Peter’s direction.

“First of all, your brother has a name, and if you don’t mind, we’re going to use it when we refer to him.” A light caution crept into Tony’s voice. “And second of all, you love Peter. I thought you’d be happy to see him.”

“Well, I wasn’t.” Morgan snatched her backpack off the floor and stalked towards her bedroom. “Whatever. I’ve got homework.”

“Morgan!” Pepper called, although the only answer they got was the distant slamming of a door. She sighed, fixing Peter with an apologetic look. “I’ll go talk to her.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Oh yes, I do.” She gestured between him and Tony. “You two catch up. Morgan can act as contrary as she wants: we’ve certainly missed you.”

He smiled, hoping that the expression didn’t come across as weak as it felt. “Thanks, Pepper.”

She headed down the same path that Morgan had taken, pausing to reach out and squeeze his arm as she passed. “Of course, honey. And try not to worry about her, alright? I’m sure something happened at school, and none of this has anything to do with you. She was snapping at us too, y’know.”

Snapping at you about me, his mind supplied, but he kept his mouth shut, just nodding in acquiescence. 

With Pepper gone, he turned back to Tony, who was studying him intently. Between him and May, Peter wondered how he’d ever managed to hide anything at all. They saw through him in a way that nobody else, not even MJ, seemed to.

“You look tired,” Tony finally said, the words soft with sympathy.

If he’d been ten years younger, Peter might’ve tried to argue the point. But he wasn’t ten years younger, so he just sighed, shrugging in agreement. After all, Tony was right.

“I am tired,” he admitted, collapsing into the worn leather couch that sat beside Tony’s recliner, curling his knees up to his chin like a little kid. He could still remember helping Tony pick it out, so many years ago now. He’d studied for the SAT in this exact spot. “Between the wedding and SI and Spider-Man, sometimes I think that it’s a miracle that I get any sleep at all.”

“Don’t overwhelm yourself,” Tony warned. “I mean it, Pete. You’re not invincible.”

“I know.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. “I just wish I understood what’s up with Morgan. I spent the whole drive here trying to figure it out, but I don’t think I’ve done anything. Why is she so mad at me?”

Tony snorted. “Who knows, Pete? She’s a teenager. Surely you remember being a teenager. It’s more hormones than it is sense.”

“I can’t have been this bad.”

That comment won him a full laugh. “For god’s sake, Pete, I still have vivid memories of you shouting at me after showing up uninvited to one of your Decathlon meets.”

He bit back a wince. He, too, had vivid memories of that day, although his had been marinating in guilt for a solid decade since their conception.

“I didn’t shout,” he muttered, although even to him the argument sounded weak.

He’d definitely shouted.

“Oh?” Tony drawled, feigning nonchalance. “Do you young people have another word for it nowadays?”

“Well, you were being embarrassing.”

“And there it is.” Tony’s sarcasm vanished. “I didn’t bring it up to make you feel bad. I brought it up to remind you that we do irrational things when we’re kids. You weren’t immune to it, and neither is Morgan. I’m sure this whole thing will blow over by the end of the week.”

He sighed. Despite the worry still gnawing at his gut, Peter had lived long enough to know that Tony was almost certainly right. He nearly always was.

“I’m not sure how much I want kids, if this is what I have to look forward to.”

Fondness sparkled in Tony’s eyes, and he pushed himself out of his chair with a groan. “Believe me, the proud bits come along a lot more often than the frustrating ones.”

“Whatever you say. Still, I’m not-”

Peter cut himself off when Tony leaned over and winced, hand splayed against his chest. He scrambled to his feet, concern flicking through him, hot and sharp.

“What’s wrong?” He latched onto Tony’s bicep, carefully trying to take some of the older man’s weight. “Should I get Pepper?”

Tony shook his head, laughing, although the sound was just an edge pained. “No, no. Don’t worry about it, bud. Just heartburn.”

For some reason, the explanation sat strangely with Peter. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, but it did. “Are you sure?”

Tony straightened and waved him off. “Absolutely. Getting old is a bitch, kiddo. Don’t do it.”

He forced a smile, hoping that Tony wouldn’t see the nervousness underneath it. “Are you telling me to die young?”

“Alright, I take it back. Getting old is wonderful, and you should definitely try it.”

“I dunno,” he teased. “I’m thinking that 30 is long enough for me.”

“Quit it. I have an outside shot of still being alive when you’re 30, and you’re not allowed to die before me. It’s a rule.”

Neither of them mentioned that the phrase you’re not allowed to die before me should’ve been followed by again.

--

Much to Peter’s simultaneous irritation and relief, Tony’s hypothesis proved exactly right.

Two and a half days after The Incident, Morgan started texting him as if nothing had ever happened.

Foolishly, he decided that whatever had upset her so much was, at the very least, very clearly over and done with.

--

It was very much not over and done with.

--

On Morgan’s sixteenth birthday, Peter showed up at the Stark penthouse just before 8:00 am.

Tony met him at the door, crow’s feet crinkling as he grinned.

“Well, look who decided to pay his old man a visit.” Any reproach that the words might’ve suggested was overshadowed by the affection in his voice. “Careful, Pete, don’t know how much longer I have left. Might be a Halloween decoration the next time you come around.”

He glared. “You know I don’t like it when you joke about that.”

“Visit me more and we can negotiate.” Tony held out his arms, although Peter knew it was less an invitation and more an order. “C’mon. Or are you too grown up for hugs, too?”

Peter rolled his eyes, biting off a nauseatingly sentimental comment about he would never be too old for Tony or May’s hugs, even if it was true.

He was taller than Tony, now, which was something that had brought the older man a great deal of grief back when they’d realized it. At first, Peter had thought it was a pride thing. It had taken a comment from Pepper for him to appreciate that it was because it made Tony feel like he couldn’t protect him anymore.

With that in mind, Peter bent his knees when Tony pulled him in, making himself the perfect height to cradle. Tony held on for just a handful of seconds longer than usual, which Peter had expected.

Holidays always seemed to make Tony particularly sentimental. Peter had never really figured out why. He just went along with it as best he could.

He greeted Pepper once he was released, then glanced around the empty living room. “Where’s Morgan?”

Tony laughed. “Pete, buddy, clearly SI has ruined you. It’s 8:00 am on a Saturday. She won’t be up for hours.”

“Oh.” For a second, he just stood there, wondering when 8:00 am had shifted from too goddamn early to oh my god I really slept in. “Does she really sleep that late?”

“Yes.” Tony was still laughing. “And so did you, once, if you can cast your mind back that far.”

“If I remember correctly,” Pepper teased, “you slept until 1:00 on one of your birthdays. Was it eighteen?”

“It was eighteen,” Tony confirmed. “It was very much eighteen.”

“But I’d been out patrolling!”

“Yeah,” Tony muttered, “you went patrolling the night before your eighteenth birthday. Do you realize how stressful you were?”

“C’mon, you two,” Pepper interrupted,  rolling her eyes. “Peter, have you had breakfast yet?”

He forced himself not to look too amused by the question. Breakfast? He hadn’t eaten breakfast in… in, uh in a long enough time that he couldn’t actually remember when he’d last had it.

“Uh, no. But I’m alright. You don’t have to-“

“Oh, yes we do.” Tony grabbed his arm and steered him towards the kitchen. “Do I have to give you another lecture on self-care?”

Peter swallowed back a comment about Tony’s own lackluster history with the topic of self-care. “Please don’t.”

Tony pushed him into one of the breakfast barstools. “Then you’re going to let us feed you some breakfast, and you’re going to like it.”

“I’ll make him something, Tony.” Pepper pulled open the fridge and shot Tony a pointed look over her shoulder. “Why don’t you sit down too?”

Huh. Interesting. Peter’s gaze immediately flickered to Tony, studying him.

“Why does Tony need to sit down?”

“Because Pepper worries about nothing,” Tony said, obviously trying to soothe, although he did sit down on the stool next to Peter’s, which was noteworthy, especially considering that he was the most stubborn man in the world. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Yes.” Tony pinched Peter’s arm. “Now quit worrying about me. You’re the one who looks like he’s about to keel over.”

“I do not.”

“You do. And I swear to god, Pete, if you faint on my little girl’s birthday, I’ll kick your ass.”

“I’m not going to faint.”

Pepper broke into their bickering with a laugh. “Peter, sweetheart, do you want bacon?”

Tony answered before he had a chance to. “Yes, he does.”

“Do I not get a say?”

“No, you don’t.”

Peter dropped his head into his hands and groaned.

If Morgan didn’t wake up soon, it was going to be a long morning.

--

To his undying relief, Morgan came wandering into the living room just past 10:00. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could handle Tony hovering.

But now, by the law of birthdays, everything had to be about Morgan. That’s just how it was.

Thank god.

Tony caught her before she’d managed two full steps through the doorway. Peter hid a snicker behind his fist as she tried to wriggle out of his grasp, not quite succeeding before Tony planted a kiss on her forehead.

Her face scrunched up in exasperation and, yeah, Peter knew the feeling.

(Still, if she was anything like he’d been at her age, she was secretly adoring the attention.)

“Good morning, birthday girl,” Tony beamed, cupping her face. “How’re you?”

“I’m good.” Morgan peaked around Tony and caught sight of Pepper, smiling gently as her mom pulled her in for a hug of her own.

“Hi, Mom,” she whispered, so low that Peter realized he probably wasn’t supposed to hear it.

“Good morning, my girl. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” Morgan muttered, then finally took a good look around the room and noticed Peter’s presence for the first time.

“Hey.” He pushed himself off the couch, careful not to give any indication of how much his muscles protested the movement. The last thing Tony or Pepper needed was more ammunition. “You’re late to your own party, y’know.”

He’d been expecting a laugh, even if it was immediately followed by a shove and a snippy reminder of, you have to be nice to me, Peter, it’s my birthday.

He hadn’t expected for Morgan’s expression to fall, a weird flash of--was that fear?-- filling her eyes. It seemed like she spun through a dozen different thoughts in a second, but Peter couldn’t find evidence that any of them were good.

“What’re you doing here?” She finally asked, gaze darting between Tony and Pepper and, finally, Peter himself.

“It’s… It’s your birthday,” he said, although the statement ended up sounding much more like a question than a fact. 

She spun to Pepper, and Peter felt a strange flush of displacement. Like he was an intruder in one of the places he’d learned to call home.

“Why didn’t you tell me that he was coming?”

“Peter’s always here on your birthday, honey. Aren’t you going to thank him for coming over to spend time with you?”

For the first time, Peter recognized that underneath Morgan’s anger was a flicker of insecurity. He just could figure out about what.

He wished he could. Maybe if he did, he could fix it.

“But my friends are coming over,” she muttered, crossing her arm protectively over her chest.

“Peter knows that,” Tony offered, shooting him a helpless look. “We’ll be making dinner while they’re here. Don’t worry, we won’t crash your fun.”

Some of the tension seemed to leave Morgan at the reassurance, although there was still awkwardness left behind. “Don’t talk to them,” she muttered, aiming the words at him.

Peter hid his hurt behind a wink and salute. “Yes, ma’am. If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen, making no noise and pretending that I don’t exist.”

The corner of Morgan’s mouth twitched up. “You’re such a nerd.”

“And what does that make you?”

“The cool one.”

“Uh-huh.” He held out his arms expectantly, hoping that he wasn’t jumping the gun too fast. Morgan certainly seemed to be softening, but lately she felt like a faulty trigger. Anything could set her off. “C’mon. Dad got a hug. Can’t I have one, too?”

Morgan strayed over to him, then paused, holding up a hand. “You promise that you won’t talk to my friends?”

Yes.” What the hell was this about? “Why do you care so much, anyway? Am I not cool enough for you?”

“Believe me,” Morgan deadpanned, finally letting Peter wrap her up against his chest, “that’s not the problem.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“Nothing,” Morgan sighed, and Peter easily recognized that no further amount of poking or prodding would get a response.

“Alright,” he conceded, words barely a murmur. “Well, happy birthday, M. You’re growing up.”

She pulled back, a tense smile on her face. “Yeah. Not that you or Dad ever notice.”

“We notice. We just don’t like it.”

He reached out to ruffle her hair, and she ducked clear of his hand, conspicuously placing herself on the other side of the room.

And for a moment, Peter sympathized with Tony’s long-winded rants about his children growing up far too quickly, because he could easily remember a time when Morgan would’ve latched onto him and never let go.

--

Peter dutifully stationed himself in the kitchen when Morgan’s friends arrived, out of sight and out of mind. They all scattered up to her room nearly as soon as he first picked up the sound of their voices, but he was sure to stay tucked away until Tony poked his head through the doorway, one of his eyebrows quirked up in amusement.

“It’s amazing,” he drawled. “I’ve seen you face supervillains, and Pepper says you’re brilliant at SI, and yet one order from your sister and you’re cowering in here. Wait until I tell the newspapers.”

“First of all, who reads newspapers? And, second of all, do you want to mess with her right now?”

Tony stepped fully into the kitchen, smirking. “So you’re admitting that she scares you.”

“Are you saying that she doesn’t scare you?”

“She’s my daughter, Pete. Of course she scares me.”

“See?” He shrugged. “Honestly, I just really don’t want to step on her toes today. That’s all.”

“Because it’s her birthday.”

Something about the way Tony said it told Peter that he knew more of his thoughts than he’d meant to convey.

“Yeah,” he sighed, knowing that he was admitting to more than the words implied. “Because it’s her birthday.”

Tony watched him, and for a few seconds, Peter was certain that he was about to get a lecture. Then, he softened, moving further into the kitchen and rubbing his hands together.

“Alright, well, at least this means that I have a cooking buddy.”

He grinned. Tony seemed to have gleaned that what Peter really needed was an hour or two of normalcy. That any heartfelt conversation they might’ve tried to have still wouldn’t help as much as that.

“Aren’t I always your cooking buddy?”

Tony grabbed a baking tray from underneath the stove and shoved it at him. “Not so much anymore.”

Nostalgia trickled through him, mind darting back to his own time at 16, when the Starks had still lived at the cabin and Peter had spent every other weekend there during the school year, then every other week during the summer. It had been after Thanos, after everything, when Tony’s scars were still tender and healing, and Morgan had acted like Peter was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Over the five years that Peter had been gone, Tony had actually learned to cook. And once it slipped out that Peter could barely scramble an egg without accidentally creating poison, his mentor had taken it on as his solemn duty to rectify the situation.

Every Saturday that Peter spent at the cabin, they’d make dinner. Every Sunday, brunch. Once Morgan started showing interest, they’d included her, too.

Some dishes had been destroyed beyond all recognition during their experiments. But they’d found some gems, too.

Even more so, Peter just remembered feeling like he was a part of something.

“Well,” he forced out, smiling around the unexpected wave of emotion, “we’re making a comeback. What’re we making?”

“Morgan wants pasta and garlic bread, but we’re gonna bake the brownies first.”

He smirked to himself. “Are we making the pasta from scratch?”

Tony shot him a look. “Don’t speak blasphemy in my house. Yes, from scratch, you heathen.”

“What about the brownies?”

The only response he got was a slap with the nearest dish towel, and he cackled.

“Y’know, Tony, some of those mixes are actually really good. MJ got a Ghirardelli one for our anniversary and it was awesome.”

“And yet not as good as my brownies.”

He pretended to consider. “I dunno… It was really good.”

“Then I suppose you don’t mind if I eat your share of this batch, then?”

He’d never backed down from an argument so quickly in his life, raising his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. I was kidding, alright? Your brownies are the best brownies in the entire world. Don’t punish me for my wit.”

“So I thought.”

They spent the next few minutes in comfortable silence, Peter taking the wet ingredients and Tony taking the dry. Once they combined them, he tried his best to get Tony to let him use the Kitchen Aid mixer, since that’s what it was for, but he just insisted that doing it by hand was Peter’s punishment for insulting his brownies.

He really didn’t mind. There were dozens of things that his super-strength was good for: mixing batter included.

Peter was so intent on his work that he jumped a little when a new, definitively not Tony voice filled the kitchen. 

“Oh, I’m sorry.” 

He jerked his eyes up and found a teenage girl standing in the doorway, staring right past Tony and twirling her hair around her finger. When she caught him looking, she beamed.

The girl shifted, eyes still on Peter. “I, uh, didn’t realize you’d be in here, Mister Stark.”

Tony smiled, although Peter didn’t miss the fact that the expression didn’t quite meet his eyes. “It’s fine, Audrey. Can I get you something?”

Oh, okay. So Tony was allowed to be introduced to Morgan’s friends, but not him. Fantastic.

“I just came to get some water.” Audrey stepped closer to Peter, tilting her head, looking for all intents and purposes as if she was examining him, although he couldn't fathom why. “Hi. You’re Peter, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” He’d met CEOs and politicians, and yet for some reason, staring down this 16-year-old child was making him embarrassingly nervous. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Morgan’s brother.”

“Oh, I know. You run Stark Industries.”

“I do.” He smiled, gesturing towards the fridge. “You said you wanted some water. D’you want a glass or a bottle? I think there are some cold ones in there.”

“A bottle’s fine. Thank you.” 

Peter turned to get it, and when he turned back around, Audrey was a few steps closer.

“You must tell people what to do all the time,” she mused.

“Well,” he shifted closer to Tony, wishing that the man would stop grinning at him and actually say something to make this conversation even a tiny amount less awkward, “I… try not to do that, actually.”

She took another step towards him, and he inched back. “Morgan says you’re super busy.”

“I am. I’ve got… a lot to do.”

“I’m sure.”

“He’s also planning his wedding,” Tony said, loudly, and Peter blinked at him in surprise. Why’d he bring that up? “He and his fiance Michelle are getting married in a month.”

Audrey blushed. “I, uh, I know. It’s all over the news.”

Ugh. Peter had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. Of course it was.

Tony nodded to the stove. “We better get back to cooking. And I bet Morgan’s missing you by now. Don’t you want to get back?”

“Oh, yeah,” Audrey muttered, sounding reluctant. “Bye, Peter. It was nice to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” he answered, although the sentiment wasn’t really there. Frankly, he was ridiculously grateful that the interaction was over, even if he didn’t fully understand why.

Tony was silent until they both heard Morgan’s bedroom door open and close, then he burst out laughing, obviously in on some joke that had passed right over Peter’s head.

Typical.

“What?” He asked, crossing his arms over his chest and ignoring how immature the position made him feel. “What is it?”

“Well,” Tony finally forced out, covering his face to muffle another snicker, “aren’t you a ladies man.”

“Huh?”

Tony stared at him for a few seconds, as if waiting for him to reveal that his ignorance was some hilarious joke of its own. Then, he groaned, shaking his head in a mimicry of disappointment.

“Y’know, buddy, I’m usually embarrassingly grateful that Michelle was both your first and your last true love. Seeing you heartbroken isn’t exactly on my bucket list. But in moments like these, I worry that you’ve been a little too sheltered.”

“I’m… still confused.”

Tony sighed. “You’re gonna make me say it, aren’t you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Have you really never noticed that girls, and a fair share of boys, for that matter, flirt with you anytime we go anywhere?”

Peter blinked. He quickly buzzed through as many memories as he could of being out and about with Tony. And, well, no. He hadn’t noticed that. He hadn’t even thought of the possibility of that.

“I… no.”

“Oh, Pete.” Tony shook his head. “For a genius, you can be shockingly dense. Audrey didn’t come down here for water. She came to see you.”

Peter sputtered. “But… But why? They’re sixteen.”

“Yeah, Pete. They’re sixteen. And you’re Morgan’s attractive older brother. It’s not a hard equation to understand.”

“I’m getting married!”

“Which makes you all the more alluring. Pete, buddy, come on. You must’ve paid at least a little bit of attention in high school.”

“I was... busy.”

“Doing what?”

What had he been doing in high school? Certainly not having as many friends as Morgan had. Certainly not having girlfriends. 

He’d always thought that if he and MJ hadn’t fallen together when they had, he would’ve spent his entire life alone, at least romantically.

“I-I don’t know,” he finally said. “Doing homework. Being Spider-Man. Spending time with you.”

“Ogling at Michelle.”

“Well, yeah,” he hissed, trying not to pout. “I’m… entitled.”

“I’d ask Michelle about how entitled you were, and see what an earful she gives you.”

He glared. “Is there a point to this?”

“I’m just pointing it out to you. And suggesting that perhaps we’ve finally discovered what’s been bothering Morgan so much.”

Peter blinked. “What? Audrey?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Pete. Why do you think that Morgan was so desperate to keep you away from her friends today?”

“I don’t know. I… I didn’t really think about it.”

Tony leaned against the counter, resting his chin on his fists. “I do love you, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody so brilliant in my life, but sometimes you manage to overlook the simplest things. If Morgan’s friends are all not-so-secretly in love with you, then she must hear about it all the time. Can you imagine what that’s like for her?”

Oh. Oh.

That… That made a lot of sense, actually. This whole thing had started when Morgan and her friends had spotted him outside of Midtown, and Morgan had instantly settled earlier once Peter promised to stay out of sight in the afternoon.

“It doesn’t sound like she has very good friends,” he finally commented.

Tony’s lips pursed. “I know. I’m not a big fan of this group, but you know how it goes. If I say anything, it’ll just make things worse.”

He leaned back against the counter with a sigh. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize that before you did. Why am I so stupid?”

“I used to do the same thing,” Tony offered, straightening with a laugh. “I was so caught up in my head that I never noticed anything around me. It’s not so easy to do once you’ve got kids, though. You learn to occupy yourself with the practical pretty quick.”

“You bring up kids a lot.”

Tony held his hand over his chest in mock offense. “Are you implying that I, the great Tony Stark, is dropping hints?”

“I don’t think I said anything of the sort, but it’s interesting that you brought it up.”

“Me? Wanting grandkids? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I literally didn’t say anything about grandkids.”

Tony winked, not a hint of remorse on his face. “Didn’t you?”

“Can’t you let us get married first? You’re so impatient.”

“I’d be impatient too, if I were you. You might not get a chance, otherwise.”

“Why?”

“D’you really think that Audrey’s going to go back to Morgan’s room and pretend she didn’t talk to you?”

Oh no.

He groaned, covering his face with his hands. “She’s gonna kill me, isn’t she?”

“You can certainly hope she’s that merciful, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch. You always seem to forget that you’re the nice one in the family.”

“But I didn’t even do anything! It’s not my fault!”

“Good luck telling Morgan that.”

--

Sure enough, as soon as the front door shut out the voices of Morgan’s friends, she charged into the kitchen, Pepper following helplessly behind.

“Morgan, please, it’s not Peter’s-”

Why did you talk to Audrey?” She snapped. “I told you not to, and you promised.”

“In my defense, she came to me. What’d you want me to do? Hide in a cabinet until she’d gone?”

“If that’s what it took! I’m gonna be hearing about that for weeks now!”

“Well,” he glowered, already knowing that his next words were a mistake before he’d spoken them, “maybe if your friends are so annoying, they shouldn’t be your friends.”

Morgan physically flinched at the comment, and he could see Tony facepalm out of the corner of his eye.

“You know what?” Morgan spat, visibly seething. “That’s so easy for you to say, isn’t it? You’re perfect. Everybody likes you. And you had seventeen long fucking years to make as many friends as you wanted before the Stark curse came barreling in.”

“Morgan,” Tony warned, although his voice was more tired than commanding, “don’t curse at your brother.”

“What is your problem?” He knew that it was his job to control his anger, that he was an adult and Morgan was a child, but goddammit.  This whole thing was starting to wear on his nerves, and he was tired. “It’s not my fault that you’ve got shitty friends. Why do you have to be such a bitch about it?”

Tony slouched back against the counter, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Peter-

“Oh, it isn’t your fault? If you weren’t around, then my friends wouldn’t be shitty! Thanks to you and Dad, I’ll always be the daughter of Iron Man, the sister of Spider-Man. D’you know how annoying that it?”

“Kids,” Tony tried, taking a half step forward before he winced and hunched, palm splayed across his chest.

Peter’s whole attention zeroed in on him all at once, spider-sense stirring. Not quite activating, but not quite docile, either. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, right,” Morgan grumbled. “Now that we’re actually talking about something that makes you uncomfortable, you have to change the subject.”

He brushed the comment off, reaching out to touch Tony’s arm at the same moment that Pepper reached him. “Tony?”

“I’m fine,” he gasped, offering Peter a strained smile and pushing himself upright again. “Don’t worry about it. Just a weird twinge. Please, go back to arguing with your sister. Don’t you two be civil on my account.”

He’s the one who started it,” Morgan muttered.

He turned to glare at her. “Oh, and who came in here and decided to shout at me, huh? But that obviously wasn’t starting it.”

Morgan seemed to wilt under the comment, and she bit her lip, voice low and bitter. “Just go away. I don’t want you here.”

“Fine,” he said, pushing down the fact that the words made abandonment sting in his stomach. “I’ll go.”

“Pete,” Tony whispered, face still pinched with pain, “c’mon, you don’t have to.”

“No, no. It’s her birthday. Clearly, I’ve already ruined it enough.” 

He pushed past Morgan, who didn’t move an inch to let him through, and swallowed down the lump in his throat. He was a grown adult, and grown adults didn’t cry in front of their little sisters.

“I’ll see you later,” he muttered, mostly to Tony and Pepper, and bolted for the door before his heart could convince him to stay.

--

He hadn’t expected MJ to be at the apartment, but he wasn’t exactly startled to find her slouched out on the couch, a bag of Cheetos in her lap. If anything, his whole body slumped in relief.

At least he knew that somebody in the world was still on his side.

“You’re back early,” she commented, barely even glancing in his direction. “I thought you’d be stuck over there for dinner and board games and all the other Stark-holiday bullshit until, like, midnight at least.”

He hung his keys on the hook with a heavy sigh. “I had a fight with Morgan.”

“You’re kidding.” When he didn’t do anything to contradict her, MJ burst into laughter. “You had a fight with a sixteen-year-old girl? You? As in, Spider-Man, the savior of New York?”

He collapsed onto the couch next to her, swiping a Cheeto from the bag before she could snatch it away. “Yes.”

She was still laughing, eyes bright and amused. “And you lost?”

“How do you know I lost?”

“Uh, because you’re here?”

He sulked, sinking further into the cushions and half wishing they’d just swallow him up. “I made a tactical retreat.”

She nodded. “So you lost.” 

A few seconds passed in silence, with Peter brooding and MJ studying him. 

“What was it about?” She asked. “Y’know, the fight you lost.”

He groaned, but didn’t correct her. “Morgan’s friends think I’m hot, and she hates me for it.”

“Oh, no,” MJ said, oozing fake concern. “Should I be jealous?”

“Can we not?”

“Easy, Tiger. It was a joke.” 

She offered the Cheeto bag as an unspoken peace offering, and he grabbed a handful gratefully, shoving it in his mouth.

“You should go back, dumbass,” she murmured while he chewed. “Avoiding it is just gonna make it worse for everyone.”

“No,” he said, mouth still full. “No, I… Listen, can we please just… lay here and eat junk food and watch some awful CW crime drama? Please?”

MJ shrugged, reaching over him for the remote, disapproval written all over her face.

But she wouldn’t fight him. He knew that much. She’d let him avoid and avoid until he self-destructed, and then she’d magically emerge to tell him that he should’ve listened to her in the first place.

“Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

--

Peter managed to masterfully bypass all interactions with Morgan or Tony or Pepper for the next two weeks.

He told himself that he was giving Morgan time. In reality, he knew that he was doing exactly what MJ told him he was doing: avoiding the confrontation.

--

He was in the middle of a meeting with seven R&D engineers when his phone rang.

There were exactly four people on Earth who could bypass his Do Not Disturb setting: May, MJ, Morgan, and Tony. And considering the fact that one of those people refused to talk to him and the other three knew he would be busy at this time of day, the call must’ve been important.

“Sorry,” he muttered, standing and gesturing to the hallway. “I’ll be right back. It’s a, uh, it’s a family thing.”

He pressed the door shut and checked the caller ID, groaning inwardly when he saw who it was.

Fantastic. Tony was the exact opposite of MJ. While his fiance was happy to let him dig his own grave, just so long as he didn’t use it in the end, Tony had a relatively short bout of patience for Peter’s bullshit. Frankly, it was a miracle that he’d managed two consecutive weeks in hiding.

He could decline the call, but he knew that Tony would only call back. And then if he didn’t answer that call, he’d probably just show up at his apartment and refuse to leave.

He hit answer. He’d been playing this game long enough to know that it was easier to accept the inevitable instead of strain against it.

“Is this important?” He asked, not even bothering with a greeting. “I was in a meeting.”

“Oh, I know,” Tony drawled, clearly amused. “I checked your calendar.”

“Then why did you-”

“Didn’t I tell you that I checked your calendar? I know you’re busy all day. Besides, I claim a right to you whenever I feel like it. Do you know how many SI meetings I walked out of because you called me?”

No, because you never told me that you were busy.”

“Precisely.” Tony chuckled. “Now, you’re coming over for dinner tonight.”

An uncharacteristic pit of dread settled in his stomach at the thought. “I’m supposed to go out with MJ.”

“Yeah, see, I checked your calendar. Anyway, I called her, and she’s released you.”

He pulled the phone away from his face to stare at it, wishing he could transfer his indignance through the line. “You called my fiance to ask her if I could drop out of our date?”

“That’s exactly what I just said. Do you ever listen to me?”

“Tony, why on Earth would you-”

“Just get over here, Peter. It’s not a request. If you aren’t waltzing through my front door by 8:00 pm sharp, I’ll send a suit to carry your ass. Are we on the same page?”

He slumped against the wall. He wasn’t foolish enough to miss when he was defeated, and in the face of Tony’s stubbornness, he knew he’d be outmatched.

“I want it on record that this is a bad idea.”

“Noted,” Tony answered, sounding positively chipper. “See you tonight.”

--

Peter spent the rest of the day feeling like every minute was leading him closer and closer to the metaphorical chopping block.

When he called MJ to tell her just that, she’d laughed. “How do you know it’s a metaphorical chopping block? Morgan’s smart enough to make a real one if she wanted to.”

Needless to say, that phone call didn’t exactly help.

He got the impression that it wasn’t meant to.

--

The first thing Morgan did when Pepper all but shoved Peter into the dining area was cross her arms over her chest and glare.

“I’m not apologizing,” she snapped, aiming the words at Tony, who was sitting next to her. Peter was grateful, if a little guilty, that he’d managed to avoid being the first person on the receiving end of her anger. “You can shove us together all you want, but it’s not gonna work.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Tony sighed, gesturing for Peter to take the place across from Morgan, which he did reluctantly, “especially considering the fact that I told F.R.I.D.A.Y. not to let anybody leave this room until you two have properly forgiven each other.”

“What happens if one of us dies first?” Morgan muttered.

“Are you planning on keeling over?”

“I might.”

Pepper sat down next to Peter. “Well, I suppose she could be reasoned with.”

“Oh, awesome.”

Tony held his arms out, as if announcing a gladiator match, which felt uncomfortably fitting. “Alright. Who wants to go first?”

Morgan poked at her fork, refusing to look up from her empty plate. “Peter does.”

He pulled a face. “No, I don’t.”

“Buddy,” Tony murmured, a pleading edge to his voice.

Damn it. Not the nickname. That wasn’t fair.

Fine,” he grumbled. “Listen, M: I’m sorry I complained about your friends.” Tony raised his eyebrows, clearly waiting, and Peter blew out a breath, feeling every bit like a chastised child. “And I’m sorry for calling you a bitch.”

“Okay.”

Morgan,” Pepper scolded. “Don’t you have anything you want to say?”

“Not really.”

“This isn’t going to work if you don’t try, sweetheart. You don’t really want to be mad at Peter, do you?”

“Maybe that isn’t my choice.” Every inch of Morgan was keyed up, and it occurred to Peter for the first time that she’d inherited Tony’s temper: a mythical beast that he’d only seen a handful of times, and never once direction at him. “Maybe for once in this family, everything isn’t actually my fault.”

Tony straightened, tone firm. “Oi. Nobody said that this was all your fault. Peter’s already apologized.”

Morgan laughed, sharp and loud and startling in the quiet. “Of course he did. And of course I’m supposed to do exactly what he did, aren’t I? Listen to Peter, Morgan. Do you what your brother does, Morgan. Your brother’s just trying to help, Morgan.”

“Hey,” Peter whispered, a spear of genuine ache lodging in his stomach. “I am just trying to help you. That’s all I want to do.”

“Well, maybe I’m tired of your help. And maybe I’m just tired of always having to live up to you,” she snapped, half rising in her seat, fists clenching in the tablecloth. “You’re not even Dad’s real kid, but I always have to hear about Peter this, and Peter that. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be what you are!”

“Morgan-”

“You’re exactly what he wants, you know,” she whispered, her voice low and cruel. Something about it made Peter miss the yelling. “You’re perfect. I’ve seen you two together in the workshop, and every time I think, oh, Peter looks more like Dad’s child than I ever have. I'm barely making a B in Algebra II. Do you know what my best subject is? Art. Just think of that. Tony Stark, the greatest engineer to have ever lived, and his daughter is good at art. What a disappointment for you all.”

Morgan.” Pepper leaned forward, hurt and determination mingling in her expression. “Your father and I have never been disappointed in you, and we’ve never once expected for you to follow in Tony’s footsteps.”

Morgan laughed, bitter and cold. Tears shone in her eyes. “No, why would you? You had him.”

Tony’s hand fisted over his chest, expression clenching. “Morgan, Peter isn’t a replacement for you-”

No, Peter thought, almost against this will. No. Morgan was a replacement for me.

“Isn’t he?” Morgan turned back to face him, volume rising with every word. “I still remember when you came back, and everyone just… suddenly expected me to be fine about my dad loving some other kid I’d never met. He always looked at you like you were-like you were some kind of miracle, and I-”

He stood abruptly, pain narrowing into something piercing and steely. “I died, Morgan! I know that you were a little kid when all that happened, so you’ve grown up with this twisted idea that that was normal, but it isn’t! I died, and then I came back five years later and you were here and everything was different! How do you think I felt?”

“I don’t care how you felt,” she snarled. “I was a kid!”

“So was I!”

“Can… Can you two please just… just stop shouting?” Tony gasped. He hauled himself half to his feet, then tottered, silverware clattering as he brought a hand down hard on the table for support. “Please.”

Tony.” Pepper lunged to her feet. “Tony, sit down.”

For a second, his eyes seemed to glaze. Then, slowly, he looked up, found Pepper, a gray pallor creeping across his face.

“Pep,” he rasped.

Peter’s spider-sense screamed.

The next moment seemed to happen in slow motion.

Tony heaved, body pitching forward, and a spray of bright red blood erupted over the table. He heaved again, and more blood came, this time dark and viscous, nearly black, and his knees gave out, chest banging against the edge of the table as he fell.

And then Pepper was there, grabbing his elbow and easing him to the floor. Morgan was up, out of her seat, staggering away instead of towards, looking for the life of her like she couldn’t process a single piece of the chaos.

And across the table, away from it all, feet rooted to the spot, Peter realized that he couldn’t quite believe it, either.

“Morgan, call 911,” Pepper ordered, and not for the first time, Peter found himself immensely grateful for her grace under pressure. It felt like his own brain had short-circuited. All he could do was stand there, watching, waiting. “Peter, come help me. We have to lay him on his side.”

“Morgan,” Tony rasped, reaching a weak hand out for her as she fumbled for her phone. “My...”

“Shh, my darling,” Pepper hushed, looking back up. “Peter! Now!”

“Right,” he gasped, surging forward. 

He… This wasn’t his first medical emergency. He came across them all the time as Spider-Man. He made sure that all his first aid certifications were up to date, never let them slip.

But this wasn’t a random person on the street. This was… This was Tony.

He’s dying, his brain whispered as he dropped to his knees beside Pepper, eyes wandering over the blood covering every inch of Tony’s face. He’s dying again, and it’ll happen this time, because how many times can someone cheat death before their luck runs out?

“What do I-What do I do?”

“Keep him on his side,” Pepper ordered, grabbing his hands and forcibly placing them on Tony’s shoulders. “Try to breathe.”

In the background, he could hear Morgan talking frantically on the phone. His brain whirred. What was the response time for an ambulance in the city? He knew it. He knew that he knew it. But why couldn’t he remember?

“Pete,” Tony gasped out, seizing every ounce of his attention. More blood bubbled up between his lips. “‘S okay. Good boy. ‘S okay.”

“It’s not okay,” he whispered, choking on a sob. He felt so small. So much like that same little kid on a battlefield, begging for the last father he had left to stay. To please, god, don’t leave me. Not you too.

“My boy.” Tony fumbled blood-stained fingers around Peter’s wrist, a weak smile pulling at his mouth. He could tell that the expression was supposed to be comforting. That even now, Tony was trying to tell him that it was alright. “Peter.”

“You need to be still, Tony.” Pepper wiped his chin with a napkin, touch gentle even as her voice stayed firm. “Don’t talk.”

“Pep,” he rasped, studiously ignoring the command. If they’d been in any other situation, Peter would’ve laughed. It was so typically Tony. “Love you.”

“I know, my love,” she murmured back, bloody hand cupping Tony’s cheek. “But you can tell me again later.”

“Kids.”

“Yes,” she soothed. “And the kids too.”

Morgan dropped down beside them, eyes wide and fixated on the blood staining Tony’s lips, his shirt, both Peter and Pepper’s hands. The fear-struck expression on her face reminded Peter of years and years ago, when some asshole kid had jumped out at her during trick-or-treating and she’d made Peter carry her all the way home, crying.

He’d fixed it then by feeding her candy and watching Halloweentown until Tony forced them both into bed.

He didn’t know how to fix this one. If anything, he was desperate for someone to fix it for him, too.

“They-They said the ambulance would be here in a few minutes.”

Pepper nodded. “Go to the door and make sure the paramedics know where they’re going when they get here.”

Morgan’s eyes lingered on Tony’s face. Peter could see her fingers twitching, as if she wanted to reach out for him but didn’t know how. “But-”

Go, Morgan.”

Peter barely remembered the next few minutes. All he knew was that there was blood, blood, so much blood, and that his hands trembled against Tony’s shirt and that he was so afraid of losing control, losing focus, and accidentally hurting him.

The paramedics came barging in, with bags and stretchers and shout after shout, and Pepper pulled him back with hands that trembled, too. In the midst of the pandemonium, he realized that she’d done the hard thing so that he and Morgan didn’t have to.

Pepper shook him, and it wasn’t until that second that he realized that he’d zoned out. They’d gotten Tony onto a stretcher, now, were wheeling him towards the door, and somehow he hadn’t seen it happen. Where had he been?

“Peter,” Pepper said, rushed and laced with importance. “Peter, I’m going to go in the ambulance with Tony. Can you bring yourself and Morgan to the hospital? If you don’t think you can drive, call Happy.”

“No, no.” Waiting for Happy would take too long. “I’m good. I’ll drive.”

She let go of him, turning to hurry in the wake of the stretcher, only pausing long enough to shout a quick “be careful!” over her shoulder.

And then the apartment was quiet, and empty, and all that was left was him and Morgan and the blood, the blood, the blood.

Morgan grabbed his sleeve, tugging like she used to, when she was small enough to hold. “We-We have to go. Peter, we have to go.”

“Right.” He nodded. Yes, they had to go. “Right. Fuck. C’mon, M. Let’s-C’mon.”

They sprinted down to the parking garage, ditching the elevator in favor of the stairs by some unspoken, mutual agreement. 

Halfway down, Peter realized that he’d forgotten to lock the door behind them. Then, he realized that he didn’t care.

He fumbled with his keys twice before he managed to unlock his car, hands shaking as he gripped the wheel, trying desperately to wrestle his adrenaline down enough to focus.

He had to pull it together. If he didn’t, he’d get them into a wreck, and he couldn’t do that. Not with Morgan in the car.

Breathe in, breathe out. Do it because you have to.

“You’re gonna speed, right?” Morgan asked, glancing anxiously in the rearview, as if it might reflect some meaning back at them.

Peter nodded, turning the ignition and clenching his jaw.

“Yeah, I’m gonna speed. Don’t tell Dad.”

“I won’t.”

He trusted that, one way or another, she wouldn’t.

--

Peter hated hospitals. It wasn’t hard to understand why.

After the Infinity Stones had nearly torn Tony apart, Peter had spent 36 straight hours in the hospital waiting room. Every sound had made him flinch. Every opening door had convinced him that this was it. This was the doctor who would tell him that Tony was dead.

Ben had died in the trauma bay, just minutes away from the OR that might’ve saved him. It didn’t matter how many times they had tried to shock his heart back into rhythm. He’d left too much of his blood on the sidewalk for a chance.

His parents hadn’t even made it to the hospital. They’d taken their bodies there, after, though, and it was where May and Ben had come to collect him.

God, he hated hospitals.

“You should change,” Morgan muttered. They were curled up next to each other in the waiting room. There were other people there, although the chairs were spaced out in a way that at least allowed some semblance of privacy. “You’re… bloody.”

He looked down at his red-streaked hands. “I know.”

He didn’t move. She didn’t suggest it again.

“Thank you for bringing me,” she whispered. “And for… for driving fast.”

“Of course,” he answered, matching her volume. “He’s… Well, he’s, y’know…”

Morgan pressed closer. “He’s our Dad.”

Yeah, Peter thought, a weird wobbliness pressing up his throat. Yeah, he is.

“D’you think he’s gonna be alright?”

“Of course,” he said, feigning as much confidence as he could. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t much. “He’s seen worse.”

Unbidden, images of the worse flashed through his head, remnants of just how bad it had been.

He was glad Morgan barely remembered it. More than anything, he was glad she hadn’t been there.

There were a few seconds where Peter could feel Morgan rolling words over in her mouth. He stayed silent, letting her get there on her own.

He tried not to think about the fact that he’d learned that trick from all the times Tony had used it on him.

“I’m sorry,” she finally whispered. “I didn’t mean to be such a shitty-”

“Language.”

“Shut up,” she hissed, although there was a hint of laughter in her voice. “I’m trying to apologize. I don’t know why I got so worked up about all of it.”

“Yeah, well, at least you have the excuse of being sixteen. I’m an adult.”

“But you’re still my brother. And in your defense, I was trying to piss you off.”

“Lang-”

“If you say language one more time, I’m taking the whole apology back.”

He smiled, relieved, although the tinge of fear didn’t leave. As far as he knew, he’d gotten one family member back just in time to lose another. 

“Okay. And, listen, I really am sorry for calling you a bitch.”

“Well, I was kinda acting like one, so you weren’t wrong.”

He snickered. “Y’know I only brought up the friends stuff because I want you to be happy, right? You deserve to have people that are better than that.”

“I know,” she breathed, much to Peter’s surprise. “But it’s hard to make friends when you’re me. Everybody wants something from you. And… And it’s easier to pick a group and just… go with it. Otherwise, you’re alone. And I’m not very good at that.”

“And the other stuff?”

Morgan sighed. Peter hated how world-weary it sounded. “I was only really mad about my friends. I swear. The other stuff just… came out.”

“It came from somewhere, though.”

“Maybe, but it just… doesn’t seem to matter so much, now. Not after this.”

“I still don’t want you to stew in it.”

“It was stupid. Just ‘cause you’re better at relating to Dad than I am… well, it isn’t your fault. And everything I said about the Snap wasn’t fair. I mean… I know that Mom and Dad wouldn’t have even had me if it wasn’t for you.”

“First of all, I’m not better at relating to Dad than you. I’m just… good at building things. That doesn’t mean I’m better than you. And it doesn’t mean that your parents aren’t proud of you. And second of all, Tony would’ve had you whether or not I was around.”

“I really don’t think he would’ve.” She let out a long breath, voice going so quiet that he imagined a normal human would’ve had to strain to hear it. “You were right, you know.”

“About what?”

“I’d never really thought about what it must’ve been like for you, after Dad Snapped. You were just a kid. I think I’ve always thought of you as so much older, but you were only my age, and I’m… I dunno, I still feel like a child most of the time.”

“It was confusing,” he admitted. “But you helped.”

“Did I?”

“Mhm.” He paused. “Just so you know, the next time something’s eating you up like that, you can always talk to me.”

“You’re busy.”

“I’m never too busy for you.”

A few beats of silence stretched into minutes, both of them content to wade through their own thoughts. Then,

“I really hope Dad’s okay.”

He closed his eyes, turning his head into Morgan’s hair and wondering if his world would ever stop splintering.

“Me too.”

--

Someone was shaking his shoulder.

“Peter, honey. Tony wants to see you.”

He blinked awake at Tony. Huh. Wait. Tony. He… There was something important about Tony. He was worried about him. He needed to…

Oh. Oh shit. Tony.

He straightened all at once, although he had to scramble to not drop Morgan when he realized that she was curled up in his arms, fast asleep. Pepper was kneeling in front of them, a look of pure fondness shining in her eyes.

He glanced around. The waiting room was empty, the windows dark. He wondered how long he’d been asleep.

“It’s alright, Peter” Pepper murmured. “Everything’s alright. And before you ask: Tony’s alright, too. He had surgery a few hours ago, but he’s up now and doing well.”

It took him a lot longer than he’d like to admit to process that, but Pepper was patient. She just watched him passively until he nodded, a yawn nearly popping his jaw out of its socket.

“What… What was it?” He finally asked, feeling rather proud of himself for having thought up such a relevant question.

Pepper sighed. “Let’s wake Morgan. I’d rather tell you both at once.”

All it took was a few gentle prods from Pepper before Morgan was bolting upright against Peter’s chest, head nearly making a sudden and bruising contact with his jaw.

“Is Dad okay?” She asked, reaching blindly out for her mom. “He is, right?”

“He’s fine. He’s awake and talking. Asking for you both.”

Morgan tried to lunge out of her seat. “We should go, then.”

“Easy.” Pepper pushed her back with a light hand. “I want to explain what happened, first, because I know he won’t.”

“Okay.” Morgan shifted closer to Peter, fingers tangling in the hem of his shirt. “So...  what did happen to him?”

“It was a perforated ulcer.”

Peter blinked, churning the diagnosis over in his head. Slowly, his memories of the past few months slotted together. Tony’s heartburn, the obvious pain. All of it made sense.

And yet…

He shook his head. “But... how did they not know that there was an ulcer before now?”

“They did know before.” Guilt washed over Pepper’s face, and she sighed. “We both knew.”

Morgan jerked back, and Peter could hear his own betrayal reflected in her voice. “What?”

“Tony started having pains in his stomach about two months ago, and I forced him to go to the doctor. They did an antibody test, which was inconclusive, so the doctor decided to do an endoscopic biopsy.”

Alarm shot through him. “A biopsy?”

“It’s a very simple procedure. We did it outpatient that same week, and it didn’t even require general anesthesia. We wanted to be sure that the ulcer wasn’t caused by cancer, which-”

This time, it was Morgan’s indignation that interrupted the story. “Cancer?”

“Really, you two,” she breathed, shaking her head with amusement. “If you keep asking questions, you’ll never let me finish.”

Peter wrapped a placating arm around Morgan’s shoulders, drawing her in. “But it wasn’t cancer, right?”

“No,” she soothed, and Peter could feel a shocking amount of tension desert him at the single word. “It wasn’t cancer. We still aren’t entirely sure what caused them, but the doctor doesn’t think there’s anything alarming. These things happen as we age.”

“But what made the perforation happen?” Morgan asked. “That’s… That’s not normal, right?”

“No.” Pepper spoke slowly, adopting the same tone she often used when circumventing a dangerous question in one of her press conferences. “There are... many reasons why ulcers can worsen, even when they’re being treated, which your father’s were…”

“It was stress,” Peter muttered, shame coiling in his stomach. “Stress makes ulcers worse.”

And, yep. He could tell that he’d hit the nail on the head solely from the look on Pepper’s face.

“Not exactly, Peter,” she said, but he knew that she was just saying the kind thing, not the true thing. “There are dozens of things that could’ve brought it to this.”

Morgan shook her head, twisting to stare up at Peter with wide eyes. “This whole time, he was sick and we didn’t even notice. Why didn’t he tell us?”

“He didn’t want either of you to feel as though you couldn’t come to him,” Pepper explained, gentle. “He knows that you’ve both been struggling, in your own ways, and he just wants to look after the both of you.”

“He could’ve told me,” Peter muttered, trying to smother the sting of hurt in his chest. “I’m not a child.”

“Neither am I,” Morgan added. “I mean, I’m not a baby.”

“He knows that, but you are his children, and that means that he’ll always look after you before himself. Morgan, you’ve been so angry at the world for weeks. And, Peter, honey, you look more and more tired every time we see you. You try to balance too much. The last thing that Tony wanted was to add to either of your loads.”

“He still should’ve told us.”

“Well, just for the record, I agree with you. But he’d made the decision, and it was his to make. All we can do now is pick up the pieces.”

Morgan’s shoulders fell, a clear sign that she saw what both Peter and Pepper did: once Tony made a choice, there was no walking him back from it. They’d been doomed from the start.

He pushed aside his frustration at being kept in the dark. He understood why Tony had done it, even if that didn’t mean he liked it. For now, what mattered was exactly what Pepper had said: picking up the pieces.

“How do you even treat a perforated ulcer?”

“They did a laparoscopy, which means it was very noninvasive. They managed to patch the hole in his stomach and the surgeon told me that he’s confident he shouldn’t need another operation. We’ve changed his antacid and switched his antibiotics to something stronger. What I want you both to take from this is that he’s going to be fine. Grumpy, considering the diet he’ll have to follow, but fine.”

“Once he’s better,” Morgan grumbled, “I’m gonna make his life hell for not telling us. Peter, are you in?”

He scoffed. “Clearly.”

“No, see, I’m going to tell you two what you’re going to be doing,” Pepper said, tone brooking no argument. “You, Morgan, are going to learn to talk to us about your feelings. And you, Peter, are going to visit more and rest. It’s hypocritical for either of you to be upset with Tony for this, considering you’ve both been doing your own versions of the same thing for weeks.”

He winced. As much as he hated to admit it, Pepper had a point. He’d been doing everything in his power to conceal just how drained he was from, well, from everyone. He’d been so certain that he could handle it on his own, that he didn’t need help, that he’d been driving himself into the ground with no hope of respite.

“Fine,” he grumbled, voice overlapping with Morgan’s own concession. “But only because I know it’ll make Tony stress less.”

Pepper smiled at them, all tiredness and gratitude. “Thank you. Now, c’mon.” Pepper stood with a frankly remarkable amount of grace, considering the ordeal of the past few hours. “Let’s get back there before he breaks himself out to make sure you’re alive.”

He wants to make sure that we’re alive?” Morgan squawked, hopping up and dragging Peter along behind her. “He’s the one who’s in the hospital.”

Pepper laughed. “You know how he is.”

“Yeah,” Peter muttered. “Unfortunately.”

Morgan must’ve heard him, because she glanced back and grinned.

--

The first thing Tony said when Pepper shepherded them into his hospital room was:

“Why is Peter bloody?”

Peter glanced down at his hands, suddenly remembering that he hadn’t gotten around to changing his shirt, or taking a shower, before he and Morgan fell asleep. His skin was still stained red, small tendrils crawling up his sleeves.

“It’s your blood.”

“Yeah, I know that,” Tony drawled, acting like Peter was the one being unreasonable here. “Why the hell hasn’t anybody cleaned you up?”

He thought about commenting that he was an adult, thank you very much, which meant that he was perfectly capable of cleaning himself up, but then he realized that his current state of dishevelment was a big mark against that theory.

“We fell asleep,” Morgan said, striding right up to the edge of the hospital bed. “Sorry.”

“I can tell,” Tony joked, ruffling her hair. “You’ve got bedhead. What a beautiful testament to your concern for your dear old dad.”

“We were concerned.”

“I know,” Tony soothed, peeking around Morgan to gesture at Peter. “C’mere. I want both my kiddos, and since I’m an invalid you have no choice but to humor me.”

He held up in hands in mocking surrender, wandering up to join Morgan. “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.”

Tony’s brow furrowed once Peter was within arm’s distance. For a second, the inspection actually made him feel a little self-conscious.

“Seriously, can I have a washcloth or something?” Tony asked suddenly, turning his head to find Pepper. “There’s blood on his face, Pep. Come on.”

Sure enough, Tony wouldn’t rest until Pepper had scrounged up a towel and wet it in the bathroom. Peter tried to snatch it out of her hands before Tony could, but Pepper didn’t let him, shooting him a glare.

Yeah, yeah. Keep Tony happy, even if it was humiliating. He got the message.

Tony brandished the washcloth like a trophy, reaching out and grabbing Peter’s chin. He leaned over, careful to come close enough that Tony didn’t have to strain.

“That’s better,” Tony murmured after a minute, brushing a thumb over Peter’s cheek before relinquishing his grip. “Now, hands.”

“I can do it myself,” he tried, even as he let Tony run the cloth over his fingers. “There’s literally a bathroom connected to the room. I could just… wash my hands.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Begone with your logic.”

He shot Morgan a helpless look, and she just shrugged. “He’s got a good point, Dad.”

“Begone with your logic, too. From now on, only my opinions are accepted in this room.”

Peter could hear Pepper’s eyeroll in her voice. “I thought that was how it always was.”

“Ah, only in my dreams.” Tony returned his attention to Peter, frowning. “You know what the worst part about this whole thing is?”

“I don’t know,” Peer deadpanned, already knowing that whatever it was, it would not coincide with his own perception of the worst part. “What?”

“I can’t drink,” Tony grumbled. “Your wedding’s just a month away, and I can’t even join in the toasts.”

He shook his head. “We’re postponing the wedding. I’ll talk to MJ about it when I go home. We aren’t going to have it until you’re better.”

“God, Pete, don’t do that. I don’t want you to-”

“You won’t talk him out of it,” Morgan said. She was gnawing at her lip, which was a nervous habit Peter had thought she’d kicked years ago. “You scared us, y’know. I thought you were dying.”

“I wasn’t dying.”

Peter bit his tongue. That wasn’t what you thought then.

“You looked like it,” he muttered instead.

Beside him, Morgan nodded, and Tony’s expression softened.

“Hey, I’m sorry, you two. In my defense, I didn’t plan for that to happen. Although,” a triumphant smile came over his face, “it does look like it did the trick. Did you two have a sweet hospital make-up session? I’m sorry I missed it, now. Too busy having my stomach stitched back together. A real bore.”

“That’s not funny.”

“It’s a little funny.” Tony shifted, looking a little more serious. “Okay, but really: are you two okay? You made up, hugged and kissed, the whole nine yards?”

Morgan glared. “We didn’t hug or kiss, but, yeah, we’re fine. No thanks to you.”

Pepper poked Morgan’s shoulder, smirking. “Are you sure about the no hugging, Morgan? Because when I found you two, it looked like you were hugging to me.”

Tony’s face lit up. “Oh?”

“They were all curled up together, fast asleep. It was precious.”

Peter huffed. “We’ve never been precious a day in our lives.”

“Oh, hush,” Tony said, waving a dismissive hand at him. “You’ve literally never stopped being precious. Morgan, on the other hand… now she can be scary.”

Morgan jerked her chin up, clearly pleased. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Tony smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling with the force of it. “I’m glad you two worked it out. I hate it when you’re fighting.”

“Don’t worry,” Morgan chirped. “I’m sure we’ll find something else to bicker over soon.”

Tony and Pepper both laughed.

“Oh, I’m sure you will.”