There isn’t much for Peter to be upset about on this particular Friday in early May. The sun is shining and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, signalling to anyone who cares - mostly school-aged children and teenagers clamouring for any sort of break - that summer is on its way.
For his senior year, Peter’s managed to load all of his Friday AP classes into the morning to get himself the afternoons off. It just so happens to coincide perfectly with Morgan’s weekly Daisy Girl Scouts meeting. If he times it right, leaving school at 12:30 after fourth period, he can make it out of the city and to the outskirts of Upstate New York, dump his things for his weekend at the Stark’s cabin before continuing to the highly vetted elementary school that Morgan started at only a few months ago.
That’s how he ends up pulling his slightly beaten up Honda to the curb, a block away from Morgan’s school. The car was a joint eighteenth present from Tony and May. May’s since recalled to him privately that Tony had wanted to buy him a brand new Audi, but May had vehemently disagreed with that, much to Peter’s relief. May had been saving and picking up extra shifts for a year for the gift, but eventually agreed to let Tony split the cost on something within her budget with her, as well as fix it up before they let Peter out on the road in it. Everyone claims that you couldn’t pay them enough money to get in a car while Peter’s sitting in the driver's seat, but he figures if they trust him with Morgan on a regular basis then he can’t be that bad, right?
Peter has his hands in his pockets as he strolls along the sidewalk, keeping his head down as he makes his way towards the group of parents hovering around the edge of the school grounds. He has his school pick-up card tucked safely in the pocket of his jeans, but he never has to pull it out anymore. Most of the parents don't spare him a second glance, used to the sight of the gangly brown-haired teenager with some sort of unclear link to the Stark family picking Morgan up on a Friday afternoon. He leans up against the chain-link fence, pulling his phone out idly to reply to some meme Ned had sent him an hour or so previously while he had been driving. He's waiting for the moment he knows will happen any minute now, when a bunch of five-year-olds in adorned blue vests will come bursting out of the school gym where they hold their Daisy Scout meetings, giddy on a Friday high, the promise of a weekend ahead, and then the whole of summer stretching out almost close enough to touch.
Sure enough, at four o'clock on the dot, Peter can spot Morgan amongst her small gaggle of friends as they rush from the building. He can't help the grin that pulls at his lips. Tony had been worried that she would struggle to make friends when she started elementary, largely due to her above-average IQ and matter of fact nature, but his worries have never come to fruition. Even so, Morgan's eyes rove across the group of waiting parents until they land on Peter, and she pulls away quickly to barrel across the remaining stretch of the playground to get to him, throwing herself into his waiting arms.
“Hey Mo, how’s my favourite mini-Stark doing today?”
“Good! D’you know that I know what an adverb is? I learnt about it today in English” she announces proudly, letting Peter take her hand and place himself between her and the road before they begin walking back towards Peter’s car. They only make it a few yards before she apparently gets bored of explaining the difference between an adjective and adverb to Peter, who is doing a very good job of listening intently and acting interested in all the appropriate places, when she stops in place, tugging on his hand.
"Yes?" Peter raises her eyebrows at her. “I know that voice. That’s your ‘I want something voice’”
Morgan shrugs, unbothered by his observation. “It only ever works on you and Daddy.”
Peter grins. Of course it does. Pepper is an absolute force to be reckoned with, no matter how hard any of them try. “Uncle Happy took me to get this really yummy ice cream when he picked me up from school last week and I was thinking,” she tugs on his hand again to pull him down slightly so she can reach up to stage whisper in his ear “because you’re way cooler than Uncle Happy, you’d take me as well, right?”
“Are you trying to blackmail me?” Peter shakes his head fondly as they resume their walking. He presumes they won’t be making it back to his car as soon as he’d thought. “What happens if I don’t take you, huh? We could go home and have a yummy snack of vegetables instead. I bet Mom has loads of those lying around.” Morgan screws her face up in answer, not even dignifying him with a response.
“I’ll give Uncle Happy your place at my tea party on the dock on Sunday. Daddy even said he’d let me dress him up for it, so you have to be there.”
She drives a hard bargain, and Peter would quite like to keep his invite to this prestigious tea party, if only just to see Tony inevitably end up wearing Morgan's favourite pair of fairy wings. “You’re right, that does sound unmissable,” Peter concedes, “I guess you win then Mo. Lead the way.”
They end up at a Dairy Queen of all places.
Turns out the life-changing snack that Happy introduced Morgan to was the Strawberry Cheesecake Blizzard. Of course. Pepper might actually have a heart attack when she finds out, especially since she's just managed to get Morgan to start eating salads and couscous, solely by convincing her that it's what all the adults love doing. Tony and Peter have been very reluctant players in that particular plan.
But what Pepper doesn’t know can’t hurt her, and Peter figures it'll be pretty easy to pin this one on Happy anyway, so he lets Morgan go wild with requesting extra sprinkles, even adding some to his own just for the hell of it.
When they're walking out of Dairy Queen half an hour later, both of their stomachs are full of soft-serve ice cream and Peter has no regrets. Call him a sap, but he'll do anything to keep Morgan smiling. Sometimes, he's sure that she's aware of his weakness and uses it to wheedle her way to anything she wants. He couldn't even bring himself to care if he tried though. Especially as the sun is beating down on the back of his neck, bathing him in warmth and Morgan is running her mouth excitedly, babbling on about playing jump rope at lunch, and how her friend from school has invited her to go boating them with over the summer holidays - even though she quickly rushes to reassure Peter that he will always be her number one, absolute favourite best friend.
He lets himself forget about the disaster of his AP English class that morning, or the fact that he’s not even close to being half-way done with his MIT application, let alone started thinking about his ones for Columbia or NYU.
Instead he focuses all his attention in on Morgan, whose mind must be something akin to a pinball machine, because no more than second after she’s finished telling Peter her last story, she’s already launching straight into how she’s so close to earning her Outdoor Art Marker badge, and she’s sure she could have it by next week if only "Mommy would just let me paint the mailbox with her new paint set. It has so many fun colours and I know exactly what I want to do with it but she keeps saying that it looks nice the way it is!"
Peter is rummaging in his pockets for his car keys at that exact moment, but judges quickly that it's the point in the story where he's meant to make an offended noise as a notion that he also thinks it's ridiculous that Pepper won't let her loose on the mailbox.
(He doesn't. He actually thinks it's quite a nice mailbox, as far as mailboxes go. Plus, the wall space above his bed in May and Happy's apartment is covered with drawings that Morgan's done for him, and while he treasures every single one, she definitely inherited her father’s smarts and not necessarily artistic abilities from anywhere.)
“Why don’t you practice on paper first instead? Maybe if you showed Mom all your amazing ideas she might let you paint them on afterwards?”
Peter thinks Morgan might make a surprised noise of agreement to that suggestion, as if she hadn’t expected him to come out with anything actually useful, but he’s suddenly far too focused on the fact that, as he’s halfway to popping the boot to retrieve Pepper’s spare booster seat he has stowed in there for his and Morgan’s Friday afternoon adventures, the back of his neck begins to prickle.
Peter narrows his eyes. His senses play up in New York a lot, there are a whole bunch of dodgy creeps roaming those streets, Peter has always reasoned. But here? The hairs on his arms prick up as if he’s cold and trying to preserve body heat, but it’s a balmy summer afternoon and that is so not the explanation. Booster seat forgotten, Peter whirls around sharply, desperate to find an explanation, glancing around wildly but his eyes only find the concrete of the pavement, neatly-kept shrubbery and white picket fences. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that he needs to be protecting Morgan from-
Oh god. Morgan.
Panic blares through his veins, red and hot, as he reaches to haul Morgan into his arms, the urge to protect her from whatever might be out there overtaking any fight or flight instincts that he might normally give in to. His spider senses suddenly begin to scream at him and the tingling at the back of his neck becomes a stabbing pain. He's halfway towards an ice cream coma for god's sake, they're in the middle of Upstate New York suburbia, he has Morgan in his arms and when he reaches back to search for the source of the pain, he finds that there's a fucking needle of all things in the back of his neck.
He has half a mind to scream for help, but with his metabolism attempting to fight against whatever’s just been injected into his system, he uses those precious few seconds to follow his instincts. He can vaguely register Morgan’s eyes widening in confusion, fear flickering in them, which isn’t meant to be there because she’s the fearless daughter of Pepper and Tony Stark, nothing phases her, ever, and oh dear god, this is all Peter’s fault.
His name, “Petey?”, is spoken in an inquisitive and unsure tone, and his brain goes fuzzy before he can fully think through his plan to shove her into the boot to keep her safe. He’s sinking towards the hot tarmac of the road, his hands fisting into the back of her backpack.
As his world goes entirely blank, the only thing on his mind is to keep her close. Protect, protect, protect.
When Peter first attempts to push himself out of his drug-induced state, everything is blurry. He feels like hell. He groans. Immediately, there are muffled voices all around him.
“What the hell? That’s meant to keep him out for at least another two hours. Did you even give him the right stuff or did you just decide a knock over the head would be enough?”
“Fuck off, of course I gave him the stuff. Right in the back of the neck, where you said. Maybe he just, I dunno, ate a lot of food today so that soaked it all up. That happens with alcohol, it could happen with sedatives too, right?”
“You are the most brainless person I think I’ve ever met in my entire life, Jesus Christ.”
Peter’s first vaguely incoherent thought is fuck, not this again.
He's seen at least three iterations of this in the past six months alone, the gang of unhinged abductors, sometimes a lone wolf. Usually, after Tony Stark's money, occasionally information on Spiderman if it happens while he's out on patrol. It's kind of getting old, if he's being totally honest. Plus, he's pretty sure he was having a good day up until now as well.
As he comes back into his body a bit more, he registers the fact that he’s slumped against a wall. It’s rough and hard, not exactly comfortable or five-star. He figures it must be concrete. Maybe a basement of some kind?
He’s not strapped to a chair, and while he doesn’t quite have total control over his arms yet, they’re loose at his sides, not pinned behind him. Good. They don’t know about Spider-Man then. He might not be able to fight his way out in this state but they might go slightly easier on him maybe. He hopes so anyway. He has a gym test on Monday, sprints for his athletics unit, and he would really rather not endure it at all, let alone with various bumps and bruises to contend with, thank you very much.
He tries to shift his arms experimentally, to figure out how much control over his own body he’s regained. He needs to work out who these guys are and what they want so he can get out of here. His left arm moves freely, but his right arm is pinned to his side.
What the fuck? Who do these guys think they are? Have they ever even kidnapped someone before, because what good do they think handcuffing one hand is going to do?
He's in the middle of thinking that really, they just need to commit fully. None of his hands or both of his hands. Until he forces his gritty eyelids open to snark out a complaint, glancing to his right and realising that he hasn't actually been handcuffed at all. Instead, a small form, still wearing a bright blue Daisy Scouts vest, is tucked against his side. Brown eyes, blown wide with uncertainty, stare up at him and his entire being is immediately flooded with consciousness, panic slamming into his chest at full force.
Morgan is by his side, and his first fully conscious thought is that holy fuck, Tony is going to murder him. Pepper will probably want in on the action as well. Shame curdles in his gut as the five-year-old presses herself closer to Peter as soon she registers that he's awake.
Peter scans his eyes over her small body before deciding that she looks relatively unharmed for now - not like that makes things any better - and letting his eyes flicker upwards to survey the room. It looks like it could just be a basement, a cinderblock wall to their right obscuring part of the room, stairs leading up towards a fairly heavy-duty looking door, so he guesses their kidnappers must have thought at least one thing through. Good for them.
Then, he focuses in on the figures standing in front of the staircase watching them. There are only two of them, and they look pretty standard as far as kidnappers go. They’re wearing dark ski masks, which must be freaking Morgan out, but palpable relief floods through Peter. He’s been doing this for long enough, he knows that masks are good. Masks mean that they don’t want to reveal their identity, that they’re planning on letting them go at some point.
He tugs his arm out from underneath Morgan so he can wrap it around her protectively, holding her against his chest as he narrows his eyes at them. Daring the men to try and come any closer to the pair. “Uh, hey guys. I don’t know what you want but you really didn’t have to go to these lengths just to find guests for a Friday night. Plus, I doubt we’ll be very good company anyway, we've had a pretty big afternoon so we’re kinda tired.”
He yawns to add a little bit of dramatic flair, but one of the men just talks over him, uninterested. “If I wanted company, I’d sure do a lot better than a couple of Stark’s spoiled brats.”
Peter frowns. Rude.
"Why are we here then? Look, dude, I know that Iron Man hasn't exactly been on his best form over the past few years but come on, surely you don't think he won’t come looking. You could just let us go now and we won’t tell anyone, I swear.”
“He can come pick the two of you up once we’ve got what we’re looking for.”
“Which is money right?” Neither of the men responded but they didn’t deny it. Peter pressed on. “I mean, I won’t lie to you, this place you guys have got here could totally do with a makeover. But like, you could have just applied for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, you know that right? Kidnapping two kids is literally the worst way to do this. It’s also a tiny little bit illegal as well, just in case you haven’t done your homework.”
“I don’t have time to stand here and listen to your bullshit. Make yourselves at home, I just have a few things to set up and I’ll be right back” the same man speaks up again, smirking at them through the ski mask and a chill runs down the back of Peter’s spine. This guy’s surely got to be psychotic, and that doesn't ease any of Peter’s current apprehensions about the situation.
The other guy, who must be some sort of accomplice or sidekick, has just stood there and watched the entire situation unfold with shifty eyes. Maybe he's nervous. He should be. They've just fucked with the Starks. When he does speak up for the first time though, it's clear who's in charge as the other man shoots a steely gaze towards him. The sidekick continues anyway, although he's sputtering nervously now, "uh, what am I meant to do?"
“Fuck if I know. Just watch them and try not to screw anything up.”
Peter keeps his eyes on the man as he rounds a corner of the basement, disappearing behind the cinderblock wall. The panic and paranoia residing inside of Peter's chest wants to focus his enhanced hearing in on the man to try and figure out what he's doing. But there are more important tasks at hand.
Deep breaths. Stay calm. Show Morgan that it’s okay.
"Hey Morgan, how are we doing down there?" he starts softly, turning his head so he's fully facing her. He can tell she's trying to be brave, but tears are shining in the corners of her eyes.
“I want Mommy and Daddy.”
Peter sucks in another deep breath and runs his thumb gently along her cheekbone until he reaches her hairline. He tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“I know, it’s okay, bug, we’ll see them soon. I’ll be right here until they get here. I won’t let anything happen to you” Peter promises. He lets his head tip back against the wall, eyes gazing towards the low ceiling. He hopes and prays to anyone, anything, out there that he can keep that promise.
Peter guesses it was too much to hope for that he and Morgan would be allowed to just sit curled in the corner together until help came.
Peter knows there have already been photos taken of the two of them, sent to Tony after the man had proudly announced that he’d managed to track down Tony’s private number. Peter’s first response to that had been “oh my god. You didn’t even find the phone number before you grabbed us? That’s like Kidnapping 101, everyone knows you gotta do that before you drug the poor innocent children and snatch them off the sidewalk.”
His seemingly never-ending supply of quippy one-liners dries up quickly though, as soon as he notices both the man and his side-kick beginning to look a bit tense. His whole being is on alert in a way that it never has been before when he's been kidnapped. He doesn't just have himself to look out for, because he knows he can handle a little roughing up, a punch or a kick for a one-liner that crosses the line. Morgan can't though. She's too little, too vulnerable, too precious, to be permanently traumatised for life in that way.
He’s not sure how much time has passed, but it feels like hours by the time they’re yanked out of the tiny little bubble of safety Peter was trying so desperately to create for Morgan in their corner. He was speaking in hushed tones into her hair, recalling in great detail things that he knows she ordinarily wouldn’t care less about, like the new pair of shoes he bought last weekend, or the video game him and Ned are playing through at the moment, but he just wants to keep talking. Give her a familiar sound to cling to.
Now though, Peter is hauled to his feet. It’s the main man, not his sidekick, because of course. Peter squirms in the strong grip. He could break it in a second if he puts up a proper fight, kicking and screaming, the whole works, but Morgan is at his feet now in the unoccupied space where he had been sitting. He doesn’t want to risk her getting hurt in the process. He has to wait until they’ve moved further away. Nothing could be worth hurting her.
"Stark won't send the money. Turns out the sight of you two sitting pretty hasn't done much to sway him. I bet you could help me convince him" - Peter just hopes he’s tracking them instead, somehow. The man has his eyes dangerously locked on Peter, and before he realises quite what's going on, he's being yanked away towards the cinderblock wall, but there's a weight around his left ankle that stops him from stumbling along in the direction he's being pulled in.
Morgan has her arms wrapped around his leg, in a similar fashion to how she often ends up on the front porch of the lake house at the end of a particularly good weekend, when she doesn’t want him to leave because a whole week is too long Peter! You can’t leave for that long, I’ll miss you!
Peter meets her eyes, trying to plead with her to let go.
“I’m okay, Morgan. Keep my spot warm okay? I’ll be right back.”
“Petey? Peter, no! You’re not allowed to go yet. Mommy and Daddy aren’t here yet, you can’t go!” her voice hitches, full of tears and fear. Peter hates it.
“Let go, you brat!” the man is yelling, but Morgan’s arms just tighten around his leg.
“NO! No, no, no, Peter, you have to stay” Morgan’s screaming and wailing now, entirely beside herself. Peter realises suddenly that in the entire year and a half he’s known her since returning from the snap, this is the first time he’s ever seen her throw anything akin to a typical toddler tantrum. He decides on the spot that he’ll do anything to avoid her becoming this upset ever again.
The man yanks on Peter’s arm again, levelling him with a steely glare. “You shut that brat up right this moment, or I swear to god I will shut her up for you.”
Peter’s blood runs cold. “She’s a child. You stay away from her or I swear to god I will kill you.” The word’s escape his mouth with a snarl-like sound that he didn’t even realise he was capable of making.
“Peter! ” Morgan wails for him again, small hands scrabbling for a better grip on the leg of his jeans.
Then everything that happens next happens in such a flurry of movement Peter barely registers it until it’s over.
The sound of Morgan’s yells piercing his ears in the worst way.
Peter stumbles back as his arm is let go of.
Morgan is ripped away from Peter, pulled up off the ground by the man.
Peter's spinning around to pull the man off Morgan, not caring what sorts of strength he has to use to get them out of here when something echoes around the room, but he can't get there quick enough. The harsh sound of skin on skin. Morgan's wailing stops. Her mouth snaps shut. Her eyes fill with tears.
She’s just been backhanded.
Her tiny hand comes up to cradle her cheek and something inside Peter snaps.
He already knows he’s failed as an older brother. He was probably never fit to be one in the first place. It's his fault, after all, that Morgan has ended up in this situation. But she’s just been hit, and the only person to blame is him. He can’t believe Tony and Pepper ever trusted him with their daughter.
He can’t believe he ever trusted himself.
“Take me, just don’t, you can’t hurt her, p-please.” Peter curses himself for the crack in his voice. He’s meant to be the strong one. “I’ll do whatever you want. Just leave her alone.”
“How brave, what a hero you are.” Peter barely has time to think through the ironies, the fact that someone who calls himself a superhero can't even protect his own little sister before he's letting himself be dragged from Morgan despite all of his instincts screaming not to leave her side.
Peter’s handcuffed to a wooden chair. Once the drugs fully work their way out of his system, he could snap the cool metal around his wrists without thinking about it if he wanted to, but not without giving himself away as someone with strength that is definitely outside the realm of any normal human.
Tony would be pissed. More pissed than he already will be, obviously. He puts enough effort into helping to conceal Peter’s identity. Peter stops considering the idea. Plus, if he’s over here with the man's full attention then that means that Morgan is out of harm's way. Peter lets his hands reside inside the cool metal for now. Figures he deserves it.
A blade is waved in front of him, slipping towards his neck until it slices downwards, cutting his t-shirt cleanly away from his torso. Peter’s hands grip at the sides of the chair until he’s sure that his knuckles must be white.
Peter can't have done as good of a job of hiding his fear as he thought he had, because the man crows, “don’t worry your pretty little head, just cutting this off." He brandishes the remains of Peter’s t-shirt in the air. It was an old, freebie of a shirt, the logo of one of the charities May does work for emblazoned on the front. The cotton had been soft and Peter had quite liked it. “We gotta mess you up real good, really give Daddy dearest Stark an incentive. Gotta give him a reason to give up what we want as quickly as he would for his little princess. I'd really rather be messing with her," he says, thumbing over his shoulder towards the wall that Morgan is undoubtedly still sitting behind, hurt and all alone. The idea of anyone laying their hands on Morgan more than they already have scares Peter to death. "My dumb-ass partner keeps saying that's 'too far' though so I guess I'm stuck with you to make Stark cough up the cash. I've got my work cut out for me because lord knows whatever you are to him, you’re not his real kid.”
If there’s one thing that Peter knows for certain right now, it’s that.
He doesn't give the man the pleasure of a response. He just grits his teeth and resolutely doesn't allow himself to close his eyes, staring straight into the man's gaze. A flash of confusion crosses the man's face at the lack of struggle before he apparently decides that he doesn't particularly care and swings his fist back, sending it barrelling into Peter's cheek. Then his stomach. Then his shoulder.
Peter spits blood onto the floor. His lungs feel like they’re on fire as he tries to suck in as much of the warm, damp basement air as he can. He still refuses to look away.
The fist returns.
It's late when Peter is finally let out of that damn wooden chair. Every single one of his limbs feels as if they're on fire. He's been begging them to let him at least go and sit with Morgan for hours. It's been driving him mad, sitting and staring, counting the concrete blocks in the walls, training his ears to keep focused in on Morgan, her slightly elevated heartbeat, her hitched breathing, tiny sobs. The need to be close to her, the need to comfort and protect thrums through his veins. He knows he's already proven that he's not capable, but someone needs to be there until Tony gets here.
But no one has heard from Tony yet. It must have been well over two hours ago that the man sent him a video of Peter once he’d decided that he was significantly ‘roughed up’ enough. Peter’s still sure the guy’s just a proper psychopath. He isn’t doing it solely for the money. He enjoys it. Peter can see it in his eyes, he’s come face to face with enough villains and general bad guys. He knows what it looks like to see someone genuinely enjoy inflicting pain.
Tony must have gotten the video and the demands. It must be well into the night by now and Peter is sure that he’ll come for Morgan. He could never blame Tony for leaving him here, but he has to at least come for Morgan. So why has no one heard from him yet?
Peter’s snapped out of that thought spiral by the distinct click of metal, and a roughened hand on his forearm. He’s being moved upwards, out of the chair, and he staggers forward once he’s on his own two feet.
The hand on his forearm remains as he focuses on putting one foot in front of the other. He’s not entirely sure whether it’s to steady him or to keep him from bolting, but he’s not sure even he could pull that off in this state. Not that he would ever leave without Morgan though. Never ever in a million years. Surely they know that.
That’s where they’re taking him anyway, back to Morgan, and the sight of her, curled up against the wall with her knees pulled up to her chest, is enough to soothe his frayed nerves.
She’s okay. She’s okay. She’s okay.
The hand on his forearm abandons him when he’s only a few steps away from her. He stumbles slightly, his legs giving way underneath him with the combination of having been chained to a chair for hours on end, the pain and the relief of seeing Morgan again. His arms flail out in front of him to try and catch himself, but he collapses against the concrete anyway, his head hitting the floor heavily.
His ears ring but he can pick up on the retreating footsteps of whichever man had escorted him back here. He couldn't tell you which one it was. He audibly sighs in contentment as the light flickers off, plunging the room into darkness. He forces his eyes open to try and seek out Morgan in the dark room as he props himself upright, his battered body screaming in protest. He's thankful for the darkness. It means he doesn't have to hide behind a mask, instead, allowing his face to screw up in pain.
“Petey? Is that you? Are you okay?”
No. It's my fault you're here. I'm sorry.
He sucks in a deep breath. Steadies himself for her. “Yeah Mo, just me this time. I’m totally fine, nothing to worry about.” He hopes his voice sounds as convincing as he wants it to. He winces as he shuffles closer to her, worrying that she will turn away. Morgan’s too smart for her own good sometimes. She must realise that Peter let her get hurt. Selfishly, he’s glad that they’re sitting in darkness. He couldn’t possibly make out the smudge of purple where her cheek is beginning to bruise even if he tried.
He didn’t try. He didn’t want to try.
Your fault. Your fault.
Where the hell is Tony? How long have they been here anyway?
"Hey, Morgan? Do you know what would make me feel heaps better? If you showed me how awesome your watch looks when it lights up," Peter suggests into the darkness.
He's remembered Morgan's bright purple wristwatch, the one that she's been wearing non-stop for the past few weeks. Peter had been so proud of her a few weeks ago when she had so proudly announced that she was the first in her class to fully master reading an analogue clock. Pepper and Tony had gifted her the watch as congratulations, and for the first few days after she got it, they even struggled to get her to part with it for bath time. What shocked Peter and Pepper alike was the fact that Tony even let her start wearing the purple analogue watch to school so she could prove to everyone that she could use it. Tony had never let her out of the house without her inconspicuous digital watch before.
It doubled as a tracker and vitals monitor, because of course. He was Tony Stark, certified helicopter parent, after all.
He had been meaning to install a tracker into her purple one, but of course, Peter had to go and throw himself headfirst into an apartment fire so a flame-retardant material for the Spider-Man suit had been moved to the top of both of their priority lists.
Peter would do anything to go back and change that now.
Morgan, however, is oblivious to Peter’s silent anguish and happily obliges to Peter’s request. “It does look cool when it lights up” she admits, sounding more like herself than she has in the entire time they’ve been down here and that eases the pressure on Peter’s chest ever so slightly. The watch face flashes with light, and weakly illuminates the purple on her cheek. Peter pulls his gaze away. “I can even tell you the time if you want” she announces, and Peter nods before realising she’ll barely be able to see him in the pale light.
“I’d love that.”
"The little hand is pointing to the one, and the big hand is nearly at twenty. That means it's twenty past one."
“Wow yeah, well done, that’s perfect” he manages weakly.
One am. Peter guesses that must be why they’ve finally left the two of them to it. Even child kidnappers need nap breaks apparently. They must have been here for eight hours at least. Sitting in a sticky booth inside a Dairy Queen with malfunctioning air conditioning eating Strawberry Cheesecake Blizzard’s feels like an unimaginably long time ago.
Peter doesn’t think he’ll ever step foot inside a Dairy Queen again.
It’s no wonder Morgan looks so exhausted. The excitement of a day at school, scouts and then a trip for ice cream would have been enough to wear her out to the point that she probably would have fallen asleep in Tony’s lap in the middle of their Friday movie night during any other week.
He wonders distantly whether Tony and Pepper still watched a movie tonight without them. He hopes they didn’t. It was Morgan’s turn to pick, she’ll be disappointed if she's missed her turn. This morning Peter would have sworn that he would rip his entire head of hair out if he was subjected to Inside Out even one more time. He’s cried all the tears there are to ever possibly cry over that stupid movie. Now though, he’s not sure he feels quite as strongly about that statement. He’ll sit through anything if it makes the little girl he’s holding close to his side happy.
In the back of his mind, he wonders whether he was Tony and Pepper’s movie tonight, presuming they watched the videos they had been sent. That’s quite a morbid thought though, so he tries to block it out as quickly as it came.
"D'you know what your fantastic time reading means? It must be time to shut our eyes for a little while and get some rest. I know this isn't as comfy as your bed at home but it's only for a little while, I promise." Morgan doesn't protest at this, and Peter hadn't expected her to. He can read her exhaustion easily in the way that she's been drooping against his side. She murmurs something sleepily in agreement and crawls into his lap. He wraps his arms around her protectively, one hand burrowing into her hair. It's knotty from a day running around with it loose, and he never has had quite the same knack for untangling knots as Tony seems to have mastered but he gives it a go anyway. It's the least he can do.
She buries her head into his bare stomach, and he's hyper-aware that it's covered in a sheen of sweat from the combination of the overwhelming anxiety he's fighting so hard to keep at bay, and the sweltering heat of being trapped in a basement with no air circulation right on the verge of summer. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembers Tony telling him Morgan had loved skin to skin contact when she was a baby, back when he was filling him in on everything he'd missed during the snap, everything he'd need to be the best big brother possible. All that's gone out the window now, he thinks bitterly.
He's going to spend the last little bit of time he has being a big brother being the best one he possibly can.
So Peter glances up to double-check that he's got their positioning right and he's in between her and the door, before curling up around her as best he can, pulling her into his chest and keeping her there.
Half an hour of dead silence passes but Peter can tell that Morgan isn’t asleep. He’s spent the past few hours when he was separated from her hyper-focused on listening to her breathe, so when he feels the rise and fall of her back against where he has his arms wrapped around her, he can tell her breathing hasn’t evened out enough yet. He lets her lie there anyway, hoping that the silence and his hand carding gently through her hair might eventually lull her into some sort of rest.
Morgan breaks the silence eventually. She always has been restless when she can't sleep. "Do you think Mommy and Daddy have noticed that we never came home? Usually, I'm back from school by when the little hand points to five. That's five o'clock."
“Of course they have. They would have noticed as soon as it hit five o’clock, I’m sure of it. I bet Iron Man’s out there right now, flying around right now looking for you” Peter rushes to reassure her, leaving out the fact that it’s probably Sam or Rhodey doing the aerial patrol if Pepper has anything to do with it. Peter isn’t sure when he last saw Tony in the suit.
“I don’t want Iron Man right now. I just want Daddy.”
Peter's heart shatters yet again. He's not sure how he'll be able to put it back together again after this.
"Dad's going to be here so soon, I promise. He'll be so happy to see you, so will Mommy." He pauses. "In fact, you know what? I bet Mom will be so proud of you for being so brave, she'll even let you paint the mailbox any colour you want.”
“Will you help?” Peter falters for a moment, and decides this probably isn’t the right time to break it to her that there’s absolutely no way Tony or Pepper will ever want him seeing her again after this.
His voice breaks slightly as he answers. "Yeah, of course, I'll help.
“I’ll do all the drawings though. You can just paint inside the lines. I’ll show you what colours to use, don’t worry” Morgan insists, and Peter almost manages to crack a smile at just how Morgan the statement is.
Somewhere deep down inside of him, he almost wishes this moment could last forever. It's selfish because Morgan deserves to be anywhere apart from here, she deserves to be tucked up in bed safely in her doting parent's house at two in the morning, not wrapped in the arms of a shitty pseudo brother who can't even keep her safe despite daring to call himself a superhero. Even so, the tiniest part of him can’t but dread the moment when Tony will inevitably burst in here, likely with backup because he can’t handle much activity in the suit nowadays, and rip Morgan straight from his grasp and whisk her away to safety. Which is as far away from Peter as he can get her.
By the time Peter’s finished wrestling with his own thoughts in his head, Morgan’s breathing has evened out.
Peter vows not to sleep.
There’s yelling upstairs.
For the past half an hour or so, Peter's been struggling to keep his eyes open but he's wide awake now. He gathers Morgan closer to his chest as she stirs, instantly shying back into him as she registers the commotion happening above them.
Peter thinks he hears a gunshot. He presses his palm over Morgan’s one exposed ear, the one that isn’t already squished against him.
There’s more yelling. “What’s gonna happen to us?” Morgan asks. Her voice is still heavy with sleep but the fear is back as well. Peter rushes to reassure her.
“We’re okay.” He doesn’t know what else to say. He repeats it over and over as he hears footsteps thunking in their general direction. He thinks they sound like metal on wood, but doesn’t let himself get too hopeful because it must have been nearly twelve hours by now, and if someone was going to come, surely they would already be-
The door is kicked in.
Tony and Rhodey come rushing down the narrow stairs in their bulky metal suits and Peter doesn’t think he’s ever been so relieved to see anyone in his entire life.
“Is that Daddy?” Morgan whispers to him. Peter forgets that Morgan isn’t half as used to seeing Tony in the suit as he is.
“Yeah, Mo. Told you he’d be here.”
Morgan still looks unsure, eyes darting around until Tony seems to kick himself into action, instead of just standing at the bottom of the stairwell. He flips his faceplate up before deciding to disengage the suit entirely. He’s wearing the same clothes Peter saw him in briefly when he dropped in to dump his weekend bag before heading out to pick Morgan up. He doesn’t look like he’s slept.
“Daddy!” Morgan throws herself out of Peter’s lap as soon as she recognises her father outside of the suit, and tears towards him with a certain amount of agility that only a five-year-old could possess after spending the night on the floor. Peter tells himself that he isn’t hurt by how quickly she rushes away from him.
Tony bends down to scoop Morgan up into his arms. "Hey, baby. Dad's so happy to see you. We missed you so much."
Peter briefly contemplates trying to pull himself up as well, but his body aches whenever he moves. Plus, he’s pretty sure that he can see tears in Tony’s eyes and he doesn’t want to interrupt his moment with his daughter. He looks away before anyone can catch him staring.
“I missed you too. Wanted you,” Morgan whispers in Tony’s ear as if she’s telling him a huge secret. “And Mommy,” she adds after a seconds thought.
“Mommy’s here too. She’s just outside, waiting to see her favourite girl.”
“Can we go get her?”
Tony glances behind him at Rhodey, who’s moved over to Peter’s side to assess any of his injuries, and allow Tony his moment to reunite with Morgan. “Go,” Rhodey nods, “I’ve got Peter.”
Tony looks conflicted, glancing between Peter and Rhodey. Peter keeps his eyes trained on the crack in the concrete directly in front of him, ignoring Rhodey's comforting hand on his shoulder. He’s not quite sure whether he’s welcome in their reunion. He probably isn’t.
Tony nods stiffly eventually. “Peter?” he asks as he’s half turning back towards the stairs. Peter startles at hearing himself addressed in such a gentle tone. He can’t make sense of it. Why hasn’t he been disowned yet? “Pete? I need you to look at me buddy, I know you can do it.”
Peter meets his gaze tentatively. Tony’s eyes are still swimming with worry. “I’ve just gotta take Morgan up to Pep okay? Rhodey’ll be with you. I’ll see you up there,” Tony promises.
Something in Peter’s chest settles slightly. But Tony’s generous, Peter supposes. Maybe he might even let him take a shower before he sends him away. He shouldn’t get his hopes up though.
Rhodey’s hovering as Peter watches Tony’s retreating back. The child inside of him wants to call out and ask Tony to stay, to father him too. But Morgan’s a child, and he’s the adult that got them into this mess in the first place. So instead, he accepts Rhodey’s hand to pull him up, wincing as he stretches out his limbs, stiff from cold concrete for hours on end and Morgan’s weight pressing on top of them.
He manages to stay upright for all of five seconds before he’s collapsing inwards, the pain washing over him in sharp waves now that he doesn’t have anyone to be strong for anymore. Rhodey is there though, the stable ever-present figure that he’s always been for Tony, and now for his children as well.
“Hey Pete, you’re alright. I’ll take you out to Tony okay? You think you can walk?”
The older man's tone is hushed as he speaks to Peter as if he's a wounded animal and he straightens up. "I've had worse, I'm okay - promise." Rhodey looks like he wants to argue for a second but clearly thinks better of it. Peter likes Rhodey in that way. He doesn't think he can deal with coddling right now.
You don’t deserve it, the voice in the back of his sneers at him, your fault.
When he finally emerges from that godforsaken basement, after limping gingerly up the stairs with the support of Rhodey, he's lead through a hallway and anxiety buzzes low at the base of his skull. It's dark and damp, the wood rotting at the edges but he supposes that's probably typical of psychopaths who abduct kids as a cash grab. He doubts they make time for petty chores like floorboard maintenance. Peter thinks he catches sight of a body splayed out on the floor of what must be the kitchen as they pass by but Rhodey just steers him purposefully away, out onto the porch.
He doesn’t want to think about it anyway.
So he stands on the front porch of the house of horrors dumbly, vaguely taking in everything going on around him. They're in the middle of the suburbs, significantly more rundown than the suburbs surrounding Morgan's school where they had been taken, but still. He didn't know what he expected. Maybe some desolate cabin in the woods?
He can see curtains of the surrounding houses shifting slightly every so often, indicating the neighbours keeping a stealthy watch of the activity. It's not surprising really, it's not every day that swarms of police, detectives and Tony and Pepper Stark descend on your doorstep.
Tony and Pepper's car is haphazardly parked across a nearby driveway as well, Peter notes. It's black, maybe the Mercedes but he honestly doesn't care which one of Tony's cars it is. It's not the bright orange Audi and that's probably all that matters. A few police officers are milling about, inspecting a van that Peter presumes him and Morgan must have been shoved into yesterday.
He doesn't want to think about that either though, so he focuses in on the way Rhodey has a hand placed firmly in between his shoulder blades. To steady him or press him further, down the porch steps and towards Tony, he isn't sure. He's too caught up in the way that Morgan's screaming and wriggling in Tony's arms. Her screams are frantic but not scared. She just wants her Mom, and once Tony gets close enough to pass her over, Peter notices Pepper has tears in her eyes. They catch and glint in the early morning light. It must be nearly six in the morning because the sun is just rising, and it's too early for this shit. Six am is too early for anything, ever, but picking your kids up from their overnight kidnapping sleepover? Definitely too fucking early.
Pepper and Tony have a way of comforting Morgan that he was never able to do while they were stuck in the basement. They wrap around her like an impenetrable force, hands on her back, deft fingers smoothing down her unruly hair. Peter suddenly feels undeniably like an outlier, and he turns around to face Rhodey before he can change his mind like a coward. “Uh, do you think you could take me back to the compound with you? Only if you’re going that way, obviously, actually uh, you’re probably going home with the Starks right? I can totally just make my own way there, that's fine too. I mean, you never know, Happy might be around, I could always call and ask him-”
Rhodey frowns at the way that Peter labels Tony, Pepper and Morgan as ‘The Starks.’ While it’s technically true, he can see what the kid is doing. Separating himself from them. It’s bullshit and it would break Tony’s heart. If Rhodey knows one thing for sure, it’s that Peter’s been a Stark since the very first second he was brought back from the snap.
But Peter doesn’t have a chance to process the meaning of the forlorn look on Rhodey’s face before there’s a hand on his shoulder and he’s spinning around frantically on instinct, only to find Tony standing there. The lines in his face are deeper up close. They’ve gotten worse since Peter last saw him.
“Tony,” he breathes out, not entirely sure what to expect before he’s being yanked towards a warm chest, arms wrapping around his shoulders securely. Safe.
"Peter, Peter, Peter," Tony mutters his name over and over again like a prayer. Peter can feel his quick breaths against his neck. "Holy shit kid, you're okay, oh my god. You're okay. You are okay, right? I mean, of course, you're not-"
Hands push against his shoulders and Peter just goes with it, letting his body become pliant even though he so wants those arms wrapped around him. They feel like home, everything that Peter’s gotten so attached to over the past few years.
"You're hurt," Tony states, eyes scanning down Peter's bare torso and up to his face. Peter's barely looked at it himself, but he knows a few cuts and bruises are marring his skin. The skin surrounding his left eye is a bit tender, so maybe that's a bit of a black eye situation but none of it is anything to be worried about as far as he's concerned.
“I’ve had worse.”
“Had worse … Peter, what the actual fu-” Tony cuts himself off and shakes his head. Sucks in a deep breath. “You’re hurt,” he repeats, “it matters. I don’t care if you’ve had worse. We’ll get you checked out at home okay? For now just… just take this. You’ll catch a cold.”
Tony’s shrugging off his sweater as Rhodey deadpans, “Tones, that might be the most dad thing you’ve ever said in your entire existence.” Maybe it’s meant to lighten the mood but Tony doesn’t grace him with a reply, instead he just unceremoniously shoves the bundle of fabric into Peter’s arms. It’s still warm and it smells of the cologne Pepper bought Tony for his birthday. Peter pulls it over his head and Tony nods in satisfaction.
“Yeah,” Peter mumbles, wrapping his arms around himself to try and mimic the comfort Tony had been doling out a minute ago.
Tony turns to the nearest police officer, seemingly satisfied now Peter is wrapped up in warmer clothing. “Can we just take them home already?” Impatience is etched into his face. He wants his kids home where they can feel safe. Get Morgan into bed, maybe have Pepper disinfect some of Peter’s worse wounds. He hates that he's not considered qualified to do any of the first-aid himself anymore, considering the tendency of his damaged nerves to cause his hands to shake without warning.
Peter watches with weary eyes as someone in a suit approaches Tony. His mouth moves but Peter doesn’t bother to tune his ears in. Clearly whatever he says, Tony disagrees with because he steps back, his mouth set in a hard line. “ No. Come by tomorrow if you really need to. Or actually, don't. Our team could deal with this in a fraction of the time it would probably take your lot."
“Mister Stark, the Avengers are not authorised to interfere with law enforcement matters. I can assure you we are doing all we can to-”
“Tony, honey. Are you sure this is the best idea?” Peter glances around at the sound of Pepper’s voice to find her standing only a few steps behind him. He’s not sure how long she’s been there. Morgan is still in her arms, face buried into Pepper’s neck.
“I need to - I can’t… I can’t take care of them here Pep. I need to take care of them.” Something in her eyes softens with understanding and she nods.
"I'll take them to the car" she concedes, tilting her head slightly towards the man in the suit that Tony had spoken to before continuing in a hushed tone, "but the poor man looks like he's about to have an aneurysm, Tony, at least give him our address so he can come by tomorrow if he needs to."
Tony huffs out some sort of agreement, probably knowing better than arguing with Pepper but his eyes linger on Morgan and Peter before he turns reluctantly. Once he’s gone, Pepper places a hand on Peter’s shoulder.
“Hey sweetheart,” she leans down to press a gentle kiss to the crown of his head “god, it’s so good to see you.”
Her voice is wracked with emotion and Peter doesn’t understand why she’s being so nice, especially not when she uses the arm that isn’t holding Morgan to securely wrap around his shoulder and lead him gently towards their car. He got their daughter kidnapped for crying out loud. Plus, even though he loves Pepper endlessly, like a mother, it's always been more of a responsibility shoved onto Tony to keep him out of trouble. Pepper has absolutely no obligations to him whatsoever. But regardless, she's at his side, keeping him steady when Tony can't. Tears pool in the corners of his eyes but he blinks them away furiously. He's not the one that needs taking care of right now.
Peter zoned out for most of the car ride once Tony had slumped into the back seat, pulling Morgan into his lap in a blatant show of disregard for any child car safety rules. Peter was itching to reach out and intertwine his hand with Morgan’s small one, the residual need to protect and comfort still flowing through him. He didn’t though. She had Tony, she didn't need him. So he had stared resolutely out the window for the rest of the journey, ignoring the way that he could see Pepper’s eyes flick up to glance at him in the rearview mirror every couple of minutes.
There was a flurry of activity once they had pulled into the gravel driveway and stepped inside the front door. A rush to fetch first-aid kits, snacks, painkillers, blankets and fresh pyjamas as Morgan was immediately swept up the stairs by Pepper. Tony had followed not far behind, as soon as he had stopped to promise Peter that he would be right back as soon as he had helped Pepper with Morgan. Coming home had obviously overwhelmed her because heart-wrenching wails had returned, echoing through the cabin.
So now, Peter just sits on the edge of the couch, Tony’s jumper still wrapped around him and his own arms hugging his torso in a weak attempt at self-comfort.
He hasn’t slept in twenty-four hours and with that combined with the overwhelming guilt and ache in his bones, he can feel himself beginning to shut down despite his best efforts. The self-deprecating thoughts that he’s been trying so hard to keep at bay because he can’t afford to have a break-down, not now, begin to creep into his mind. He digs his nails into his palms, screwing his eyes shut as the enormity of everything that’s happened in the space of a day hits him.
Morgan was kidnapped in your care, on the way to your car, after you agreed to take a detour from the planned route just for cheap soft-serve ice cream. Morgan spent what must have been close to twelve hours in a dingy stone basement. Morgan was backhanded by some creepy middle-aged psychopath, had to be carried out by her father with a bruise on her right cheek.
He knows his breathing is speeding up and he’s not getting enough oxygen but he’s too wrapped up in his own head to remember the breathing exercises he uses to calm himself down when he gets worked up like this. So he lets the panic drag him further into its hold, vaguely registering the way his legs are tingling and his lungs burn with each heaving breath that rattles down his throat.
Then there’s a voice somewhere in his periphery. “Kid? I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone, fuck.”
The voice sounds panicked. Join the club.
The couch dips beside him and now instead of being somewhere vaguely surrounding him, the voice is right next to his ear. Soothing, gentle. All of the panic has disappeared from it. Then there's a hand resting on the side of his head gently, pulling him back against the solid chest that Peter's missed so much. There's a heartbeat. Even in the throes of panic, he recognises it.
“Ton-, Mi-Mister Stark, I’m so sorry” Peter gasps out, eyes still screwed shut. “I tried, I-I tried so hard to protect her but I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t-”
Peter’s cut off by a quiet shushing noise, a hand pulling him closer and winding through his hair. Somehow, his own hand has found its way to fist in the worn cotton of Tony’s t-shirt but he can’t bring himself to let go once he’s realised. Pathetic, the voice in the back of his mind supplies. He whines in response, but he’s quietened by the feeling of blunt nails against his scalp. He lets his eyes screw closed again.
"You hear my heartbeat, Pete? I'm sure your freaky spider-kid hearing can pick it up loud and clear. Try and match that, just breathe in and out."
“I c-can’t .”
“Yeah, you can, it’s much easier than it sounds, I promise” Tony soothes, inhaling a few consecutive deep breaths to demonstrate. Peter’s head rises and falls slowly against his chest at the movements.
It takes a few minutes of Tony’s over-exaggerated breathing before the panic clawing at Peter’s chest finally begins to loosen and he can follow suit, trying to draw as much oxygen as he can into his deprived lungs. “There we go, told you you’d be able to do it kiddo.”
Peter just makes some sort of half-hearted noise of agreement in response, but Tony can feel his puffs of breath against his neck coming at a steady pace so he's content to let the kid revel in some peace and quiet for a few minutes. At least he was, until his hand continues its path through Peter's hair and when he's not distracted by trying to pull Peter out from the clutches of his own mind, he notices specks of blood. Tony reasons with himself that it could just be from Peter running his own blood-stained hands through his hair but regardless he digs deeper into the thick curls. The closer to the scalp he gets, the thicker the blood becomes but he's trying his best to as gentle as he can as he attempts to find the source.
It doesn’t take long, and Peter lets out a sharp gasp when Tony’s fingers stumble across the wound at the back of his head. Tony squashes down his own panic. Peter’s had injuries far worse than this as Spider-Man, he reasons, but this is different. This didn’t happen to Spider-Man, this happened to Peter Parker. Peter probably wouldn’t see a difference but Tony does. This is his son.
“Shit Pete, we gotta get you checked out. How long has this gash on your head been here, huh?”
Peter scrunches his face up in thought. “Um… oh, I fell. Hit a wall I think, maybe the ground, I was, uh, I was trying to get to Morgan. It’s fine really,” he mumbles.
“We really need to work on your definition of fine, kid.”
Tony knows there are multitudes of problems here that he needs to deal with. Peter’s clearly wrestling with far too much misplaced guilt for his liking, but his first priority is getting Peter cleaned up, comfortable and out of pain.
Maybe it’s selfish, but he can’t card his hands through Peter’s curls properly when they’re so matted with blood and the action alleviates anxiety almost as much for him as it does for Peter, although he’ll never admit it to a soul. He’s softened in parenthood and old age, but he has to draw the line somewhere.
“We’ll get Bruce up here tomorrow to take a good look at it once your healing has given it a good crack but for now, I like to think of myself as a sort of bona fide post-kidnapping self-care expert. We both know the drill by now kid, and we gotta set a good example for Morgan right? She’s already ahead of the curve though, y’know. She’s had a bath and she’s tucked up in bed for a nice long rest. I can think of someone else who desperately needs both of those things. How does that sound? A nice hot bath, get all this uh, dirt n’ stuff out of your hair and we can both go have a nice long lie down. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.”
For some reason, the last statement is all Peter seems to hear, and definitely the only one that garners a reaction. "I'm sorry" he mumbles, "you're right, of course, you're tired. I should get out of your hair. Morgan needs you. I'll have a shower or something, clean myself up. I'm sure I could get someone to come pick me up after that."
"Now you're just being silly, buddy," Tony says gently, his hand never leaving where it's moved to soothe up and down the back of his own jumper that Peter has on, smoothing out the creases. "First of all, a shower? With a head wound? You've gotta be kidding me, the heat and steam will have you passing out on the bathroom floor, you know better than that, kiddo. My old man back can't handle picking a heap of spider-kid up off the floor, especially with this goddamn growth spurt you're having. Up we get, bath it is. I insist."
“You don’t have to do this Mister Stark.” Peter sounds so desolate it breaks Tony’s heart.
“We’re back at Mister Stark now, are we?” Tony chides gently. Peter dropped that moniker for good after the snap. Now it only tends to appear when he’s high out of his mind on enhanced pain-drugs or feeling particularly insecure about their relationship. Tony doesn’t get a reply, not that he was expecting one, but he presses on anyway. “I want to look after you Pete, I just need you to let me. Please?”
Peter just stares up at him for a second, and Tony's seen that look in his eyes before. The way they latch onto his own, beg for comfort, beg Tony to make everything better, to take the pain away, even when the rest of Peter is stiffened up and closed off to try and protect himself.
Much to Tony's relief, after a moment he allows Tony to help pull him up from the couch with his proffered good arm. He only attempts to take a few steps on his own before realising that his entire body has stiffened up again after only an hour on the couch, so he gives in and lets Tony wrap an arm around his middle to support him up the stairs.
Peter doesn’t remember much from his bath, just Tony helping him out of his grimy clothes until he was left in his underwear. The initial sting of the warm water when he first submerged his chest. The sensation of warm steam surrounding him, cleansing him. The scent of Morgan’s strawberry bubble bath. Fingers against his scalp. Water running down the sides of his face as his hair was rinsed. It was safe, and Peter let himself drift away.
He didn’t register that he was cold all of a sudden when the water drained from around him, when Tony wrapped a soft towel around his shoulders or when his limbs were manipulated and contorted to be slipped into a pair of his softest plaid pyjama pants.
It's not until he's propped on top of the closed toilet seat that he comes back to himself with a sudden jolt, the realisation that Pepper's kneeling in front of him, a first-aid kit in hand and worrying her lip in-between her teeth. "Oh, uh, hey?" Peter gets out unintelligibly. Pepper laughs softly at that, and a smile tugs at her lips but it’s tense.
“Hey honey,” her voice is tender in a way that Peter’s only ever really heard her use to calm Morgan down. He finds he doesn’t mind all that much when it’s directed towards him. It’s nice. “I’m just going to clean you up a little, is that okay?”
Peter nods. She’s done this for him plenty of times before, stitched him up after Spider-Man accidents when Tony couldn’t, disinfected minor wounds from lab accidents, and more recently smoothed band-aids on scraped knees after days of playing on the dock, so Morgan doesn’t feel childish for being the only one who has to have one. He appreciates that she asks though.
She talks him through everything she does anyway, and as she dips cotton balls in the hydrogen peroxide, getting to work at cleaning the few scrapes and cuts on his front, Tony stays at his side, resting a hand on the nape of Peter’s neck, a grounding pressure. He closes his eyes and lets Pepper work, allows the two of them to take care of them even though he knows he doesn’t deserve it. He wants to soak it all up in case it’s ripped away.
He’s boneless against Tony’s side once Pepper finishes, washing her hands and letting Peter kiss her cheek in a silent thank you. “Follow your little sisters lead, get some sleep” she instructs, before leaving the two of them alone. She knows Tony is potentially the most qualified person in the world when it comes to making Peter Parker feel safe enough to sleep.
They’ll be fine.
And they are, mostly. Eventually, Peter’s finally brushed his teeth, been helped to stuff his arms through the sleeves of yet another jumper that smells like Tony - this time a Stark Industries hoodie, and gathered enough strength to leave the bathroom. When they make it into his room, the curtains have been pulled to block out the daylight outside and there are two of his spider-strength painkillers waiting on the nightstand, along with a glass of one of Pepper’s green smoothies.
“Okay, kid, drink up. We’re gonna get some nutrients in you, a few pills then we’re both knocking out for the rest of the day. That’s non-negotiable.”
He doesn’t have enough energy in him to argue even if he wanted to. Tony makes himself comfortable on the side of the bed closest to the door as Peter downs the smoothie in a few gulps, washing the pills down with it. As soon as he’s done, he leaves the empty glass on the nightstand and crawls over into Tony’s waiting arms, laying his head in the crook of his neck.
They lie there in silence for a few minutes, Tony’s arms firmly wrapped around Peter in a way that he desperately hopes will make the kid feel safe enough to sleep. God knows he needs it. But Peter’s eyes aren’t even closed. Instead, they’re darting around the room as if he’s trying to ground himself, reminding himself of where he is. Tony can practically hear him thinking from where his forehead is pressed to the skin of his neck. He waits patiently, either for Peter to fall asleep, or to voice whatever’s floating around in his brain that’s far too big for its own good.
“Why am I here?” Peter mumbles eventually. They’re going for the second option then. Peter’s sleep-deprived mind is finally letting the thoughts that have been bouncing around in his head since they escaped that basement slip out to break the still silence of the bedroom.
Peter feels Tony flinch back slightly at the question. The older man has never quite gotten over his deeply ingrained fear that he will always be inadequate as a parent, never quite able to do or be enough.
“What?” Tony sounds genuinely confused. “If you really wanted to leave and go back to the city to be with May and Happy all it would have taken was a phone call kiddo, I could have made it happen.”
“No, I meant-” Peter starts but Tony steamrolls over him, rushing to try and rectify the situation with insecurity-laced words.
“I know it took me too long to get to you but I promise we were working as fast as we could, burner phones are just a bitch to track, even F.R.I.D.A.Y couldn’t get a good read on it for a while there but we worked all through the night, I-”
“No, stop” Peter huffs out, “you don't get it, that’s not what I meant. I mean why are you letting me stay here?”
Tony just stares at him for a second, brow furrowed in confusion as he tries to decode the meaning behind Peter's words. He sputters for a second. "I - what? Of course, you're here Pete, there's nowhere else I'd want you to be."
“I mean, I just thought you’d want time with your real kid? Y’know, as far away from me as you could get. She’s not safe with me, I couldn’t protect her. I knew something was wrong, my senses, they were going crazy but I couldn’t - I just, I was so stupid , I couldn’t think fast enough. She’s your daughter, and I let her get hurt. She needs you.”
Tony knows this conversation. They’ve had it before. No matter how much time passes since the snap, Peter has always had this niggling insecurity at the back of his mind that he doesn’t belong. Disappearing for five years while the world moves on without you will do that to someone.
It lies dormant mostly, but every so often it rears its ugly head. No matter how many Christmases, Thanksgivings and birthdays that Peter spends at the lake house, or that he dropped Morgan off to her first day of school alongside him and Pepper. That he spends almost every weekend here without fail. That when he's with Morgan, he calls Pepper and Tony Mom and Dad, which he claims is just to avoid confusing her. Despite all that, despite everything, Peter has never fully been able to accept that he is one of them. One of Tony’s kids, his firstborn. And it makes Tony’s chest ache whenever they have to have this conversation because all he wants in life is for his kids to know they are loved. Always.
“You’re both my kids Pete, you know that. You didn’t let anything happen to her, those two nut-jobs put you both through something really shitty and that's on me, but you're okay now. Trust me when I say this, and I really need you to listen to me," Tony glances down, and sure enough, Peter is watching him with wide eyes, hanging on to each and every word. As if he needs to hear this, needs Tony to tell him that none of this is his fault so he can even bear to live with himself. “There is no one in the world, not Happy, not Rhodey, no one, that I would rather have had with her last night than you. I will always trust you with her because you always keep her safe. Last night was no exception, and Morgan trusts you endlessly because you’re her big brother. She needs you."
“I just - god, I just love her so much, I-I want her to be safe. She always needs to be safe,” Peter gets out, voice breaking, but he’s curling further into Tony’s side so Tony takes that as a step in the right direction. It hasn’t always come naturally to him, but now, comforting his kids is something he knows how to do like the back of his hand, as long as they let him.
“I get it, kid, I do. God, that's how I feel about the two of you, all the damn time. But she is safe, thanks to you. Pepper’s with her now. I’m right here, and May and Happy are going to come up first thing tomorrow morning so we’ll all be together. We’re okay Pete, I promise you.”
Peter thinks maybe there’s a tiny part of him that could believe those words.
There’s a tentative knock on the door a few minutes later when they’re both inevitably still awake, relishing in the peaceful quiet. Tony glances down at Peter, murmuring reassurances that it’s probably just Pepper and waiting for Peter’s nod to confirm that it’s okay to let someone in before he calls out softly, “Yeah? We’re both still awake in here.”
Sure enough, the door swings open to reveal Pepper standing there, Morgan in her arms.
"Morgan," Peter breathes out, and it's as if the last tiny bits of tension finally leave his body. Tony can't believe he didn't think of this earlier. Of course, the kid would feel better being able to see Morgan, he just spent the entire night wired to look out for her above all else.
“Hey Maguna, come to join our nap party? Sorry we started without you” Tony says easily and Morgan nods slowly. She has her ear of her favourite stuffed giraffe in her mouth. It’s been a while since she's resorted to that for comfort.
“Wanted Petey. I woke up and he was gone. Thought the bad man had taken him again. I didn’t want that.”
“I’m right here Mo, I’m okay,” Peter rushes to reassure her, but he can’t meet her eyes. Instead, he’s fixated on the mottled purple of her cheekbone. Pepper catches him staring as she moves to sit both her and Morgan on the edge of the bed.
“I just put some Arnicare on it earlier Peter, it brings out the bruising. Her healing isn’t quite as fast as yours but it looks worse than it is, it’ll be gone in a few days” Pepper says in an attempt to put his mind at rest. He doesn’t have time to dwell on it either, because as soon as Morgan is within reach of him, she’s climbing into his lap where he’s still leaning against Tony.
“I know Pete makes a great jungle gym but maybe not today baby, we have to be careful with your brother, he’s still a tiny bit hurt” Tony reminds Morgan, and she nods solemnly.
"I know. Mommy told me. I thought cuddles would make him feel better though. Can I cuddle you, Petey?"
“Of course you can, I could never say no to my Morgan cuddles” Peter assures her, and she slings her tiny arms around his waist as soon as the permission leaves his mouth.
Pepper settles down on Morgan’s other side, her and Tony bracketing the two kids in the middle of Peter’s double bed, and it’s a little squashed but none of them would have it any other way. Peter’s the most relaxed he’s been since he’s been home, still tucked safely into Tony with his little sister lying on his chest once again, just like last night but now, everything feels right with the world. Well, until Morgan pipes up again.
“Mommy? Petey said that when you found us you’d be sooo happy that you'd let me paint the mailbox? Will you, please?”
Pepper glances at Peter over the top of Morgan's head. She looks exasperated, and Peter almost ducks away from the gaze until he sees the fondness in it. It's an expression Peter's seen on her so many times. When Peter gives in to Morgan's puppy dog eyes and fetches her a juice pop before dinner. When Morgan leaves broccoli stalks and a bowl of water out for the rabbit family that she's sure lives under the porch. When Tony updates the Rescue Suit software for her birthday and she insists all she really wanted were those earrings from the jeweller on Fifth Avenue, but secretly she wouldn’t have it any other way.
He returns her look with a sheepish grin and a slight shrug. Sorry.
“I’ll think about it” Pepper promises, and Peter knows that’s a yes. Pepper never has to think about anything really, after years as a CEO she can make decisions on the spot. Morgan will be thrilled.
Morgan settles further into him, satisfied with the answer to her question and content to just sleep now that she’s got her entire family around her. As she falls asleep against him, Peter lets himself think that maybe Tony was right, maybe everything is okay.
So, as some of the heavy weight of guilt crushing his chest lifts ever so slightly, he lets Tony thread his fingers through his hair, still damp from the bath and listens the beat of his heart, steady and stable, as it lulls him to sleep.
The next weekend, Peter and Morgan stand at the end of the driveway, drenched in the summer sunshine. They're both wearing old clothes. Morgan has one of Peter's hand-me-down Princess Leia tees on, and it nearly comes down to her knees.
They have paintbrushes in hand.
"Did you really mean it when you said you'd let me help you colour in the lines?" Peter asks with a fond smile fixed on his face. Morgan doesn't answer him straight away, too focused on mixing Pepper's red and blue paints together to make a bright purple. The same colour as that damned watch, Peter can't help but think. He and Tony had put a tracker in the stupid thing as soon as Peter was on his feet the day after his and Morgan's ‘worst sleepover in the world,' as it had been dubbed in an attempt to avoid scarring Morgan for life.
Peter almost envies her ability to bounce back, because he’s been having nightmares every night since. But he could never envy her for that, not really. He would take every ounce of pain from her and bear the weight himself if it meant she could stay this pure, open and optimistic forever.
Morgan looks up at him with a bright smile once she’s satisfied with her purple. “Yeah! You can help me paint inside the lines once I draw everything on. I’m gonna draw a flower, and then maybe an elephant, and a tiger and a zebra!"
Morgan’s in her jungle animals phase this week. She wants to be a zookeeper.
“That sounds like the best mailbox ever.”
“The mailman will never miss us” Morgan declares matter of factly, and Peter couldn’t possibly disagree. He hopes the poor guy doesn’t have a particular aversion to bright colours, or jungle animals.
Morgan gets her Outdoor Art Maker badge the following week at her Daisy Girl Scouts meeting, and she shows it off to Pepper, Tony and Peter when they pick her up from school. Peter's not sure he'll be able to do the Friday school run without at least one of them for a while now.
Her blue scouts vest has been through the wash numerous times during the week to rid it of the grime and few patches of Peter's blood that had stained it, but it looks as good as new as soon as Pepper carefully sews Morgan's hard-earned badge over a small hole that had been ripped in the front.
A picture of Peter and Morgan grinning and standing in front of that multicoloured monstrosity of a mailbox becomes Tony's new lock screen.
He’s not sure he’s ever been prouder of his two incredibly strong children.