Chapter 1: Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath
The bathtub was full of so much epsom salt that it probably rivaled the Dead Sea in salinity. Peter didn’t care. He had started taking epsom salt baths approximately a month before. Spider-Man may have given him fast healing, but it wasn’t instant healing, and since his patrols essentially amounted to five straight hours of extreme parkour that would put even David Belle to shame, he needed a way to sooth his aching muscles until his healing kicked in. Wincing slightly, he sunk deeper in the water, using the sticky base of his foot to turn the hot and cold taps on and off.
Peter had started a schedule for Spider-Man at MJ and May’s insistence. They had staged an intervention the second time he’d stayed up for longer than 72 hours straight as he tried desperately to juggle his university courses, the beginnings of his bachelor’s thesis, and vigilante work. Now, he patrolled every other night until 2:00am, with the exception of every third Thursday which MJ had set aside as date night. It was still hard work, but he slept more.
Except when he didn’t sleep—when he or MJ or Ned woke up screaming, the dusty red remnants of nightmares slipping away as they gasped for breath. Sometimes, Peter dreamed of Tony’s glassy gaze and the small gurgle of blood in his throat as he looked at Peter that last time in the rubble of the compound.
The baths, like fight training on Tuesday mornings with Bucky, Happy’s lunch hour boxing sessions on Wednesdays, and the daily routine of 1000 push-ups before bed, served more than one purpose.
Outside, in the apartment, the buzzer blared, interrupting the old episode of “99% Invisible” episode he’d had playing. Water sloshed over the side of the rub as he rushed to sit up. “There’s someone at the door!” he shouted into the hall.
“You get it!” MJ shouted back. “I’m busy!”
She heaved a dramatic sigh before shouting, “Ned! Door!”
Peter listened as Ned shuffled past the bathroom door, the spoon jangling inside his half-empty coffee mug, the ancient floorboards creaking as he moved to the buzzer. Peter knew from experience that Ned would lean on the buzzer’s intercom button, his head pressed against the ugly wallpaper, and ask the same question every time: “What’s the password?”
A sigh wheezed its way through the buzzer’s tinny speaker. “HashtagYOLO.”
“That was last week’s,” Ned replied. “Try again.”
“Goddammit, Leeds!” Happy snapped.
Ned buzzed him in. Peter sunk back into the tub, restarting his podcast.
Happy or May usually popped by at least once a week, sometimes multiple times, just to check in on them. Oftentimes, they brought Happy’s homecooking which Happy tried to pretend was no big deal but Peter knew better.
After committing Tony’s mechanical heart to the lake, Happy had hugged Peter and told May that if they needed anything at all to call him. Day or night. May, to Peter’s surprise, took him up on the offer. First, when their shower needed fixing and their landlord was too busy having an existential crisis over having been sorta-kinda dead for five years to really be much help and, second, when Peter was too busy having an existential crisis over having been sorta-kinda dead for five years to get out of bed. That night, Happy sat with him and told him stories about Tony Stark learning to change diapers, of Tony Stark allowing himself to be covered in Frozen stickers, of Tony Stark stumbling again and again when people asked how many kids he had. “Two. He always said two, Peter.”
Peter could never decide if that made him feel better or worse.
The door to the bathroom swung open. “Hey, kid.”
Peter flailed, yanking at the shower curtain and sloshing water across the floor. “Happy, I’m in the bath!”
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.” Peter groaned, blushing to the tips of his ears, as Happy levered himself down onto the toilet seat. “I got something I wanna talk to you about.”
“Can it wait until I’m clothed?”
“I’m on a time crunch.”
“I’m pretty sure this counts as pedophelia.”
“You’re legal,” Happy replied. “Though you’re not old enough to drink—don’t think I didn’t notice the PBR in the fridge.”
“That’s not ours.” he had thought about arguing that technically, according to his birth certificate, he was old enough to drink, but he was pretty sure it would get him nowhere. Now that he and May were dating, Happy had acquired her bullshit detector. Still… “A friend left it behind. We didn’t drink it.”
Happy snorted. “Look me in the eye and say that.”
Peter jiggled the shower curtain between them. “Can’t. Naked.”
Happy sighed. “Look, no one wants a drunk Spider-Man saving them. I won’t say anything to May, but I want you to keep your nose clean.”
“Yes, dad,” Peter snarked.
“Actually, that’s kinda what I want to talk to you about. I’m...I’m gonna ask your aunt to marry me.” Peter’s breath stuttered in his lungs and he felt suddenly grateful that the shower curtain blocked his panicked face from view. His stupid podcast was now droning on, filling the awkward silence between them. “Look, kid,” Happy began, sighing. “I love your aunt. I do. She’s the most wonderful, amazing, stubborn, terrifying woman I’ve ever met, and I wanna marry her. But, I wanted to ask your blessing first. I know that I can never replace your uncle. I don’t want to. He sounds like he was an amazing guy—”
“—so that’s why I just wanted to make sure you understood that I’m not trying to replace him or anything. I just want to enjoy life with the woman I love, y’know? And, it’d be really great if you wanted that for us, too. I think I’d be a pretty shit parent, but we could be pals.”
Peter drew a slow, shaky breath, and let it out slowly. “This conversation would have been way more heartwarming if I wasn’t naked.”
“Agreed,” Happy replied. “So, do I have your blessing?”
“Yeah, Happy, you have my blessing.”
“Great! Thanks, kid, you don’t know what this means to me!” Happy said. He heaved himself to his feet. “I left vegetarian lasagna in the fridge for you guys. Along with some Rice a Roni. I gotta go—go talk to May. Thank you, Peter! I love you!”
“I know, I was trying it out. It was weird. See ya around, pal.”
Chapter 2: Intervention
MJ was asleep by the time Peter crawled in through the window, using the sticky base of his foot to quietly slide it closed behind him. Retracting his suit, he sank into the fuzzy Ikea rug on the floor beside the bed. He practiced his breathing exercises, one arm gripping the mattress sheet as he took in the room—the doorway dark, the empty closet she left open at his insistence, the emptier corners. Ducking his head, he peered under the bed. As always, there was no one. The room was empty except for him and MJ. Slowly, his breathing evened out.
The chaotic noise of his thoughts and the street muffled; Peter could hear the lo-fi hip-hop drifting out of the cheap-o scent diffuser/bluetooth speaker on the dresser. It had been a gift from MJ for following through on therapy. Now, it lit the dark corners of their bedroom in a soft, blue glow.
Resting his chin on the mattress, Peter studied MJ. She looked pretty in the blue glow, one arm thrown over head head, the other resting gently on her belly. Her face, usually fixed into something hard and indifferent had softened in sleep, revealing a small glimpse of the woman Peter had found so easy to fall in love with. Most of the bedsheet had been kicked away and beat into a messy ball at the bottom of the bed, revealing she’d worn socks to bed like an absolute maniac. He smiled, watching her breath in and out, in and out, trying to force himself not to check the closet or under the bed again.
Silently, Peter set the suit’s housing unit on the nightstand next to MJ’s phone and the battered copy of The Feminine Mystique he’d accidentally dropped in the tub last week, and crawled into bed beside her.
“Hey. Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay.” She yawned, sitting up on her elbows to check her phone. “I was waiting up for my boyfriend. You seen him? Skinny, kinda nerdy, smiles too much.”
Peter pretended to mull over the description, shaking his head. “He sounds lame. How ‘bout a bad boy vigilante?”
Her face hardened. She twisted away, snatching hold of the bedsheet and turning her back to him. He could see the way she hunched her shoulders, rebuilding the barrier she kept up during the way; he could imagine her indifferent mask setting into place. The motion sparked a sharp pain beneath his sternum—a tiny knot of anxiety that tightened inside his chest. “You’re mad?”
“Do you know what time it is?”
Peter looked around. He felt that this was maybe a trick question. There was no clock in the room and outside it was still dark, the streets illuminated in a hazy yellow blur of artificial light. “No?”
MJ sighed. “Go to sleep, Peter. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Stumbling into the apartment kitchen in his underwear, Peter dropped down into the battered chair they’d yanked from a dumpster and accepted the mug of hot, black coffee MJ slid in front of him. On the counter, Ned’s old clock-radio was tuned into NPR. Peter listened quietly as he sipped his coffee, taking in the news about upcoming elections, the issues of homelessness for the reappeared citizens of the world, and the continued lack of peace in the Middle East. He ignored the feeling of MJ and Ned’s eyes on him, focusing instead on the cheap copy of Sister Corita’s “X” print hanging over the microwave. The little speech bubble demanding he “give a damn” glared down at him. His hands shook as he clutched his coffee tighter.
Slowly, MJ sat down opposite him. She looked over her shoulder briefly at Ned—who nodded but didn’t leave his place at the cooktop where he was reducing tomatoes in a saucepan—before turning back to Peter. “This is an intervention.”
“Aw, c’mon, another one?”
“Do you know what time it is, Peter?” MJ asked.
Again, he got the sense that this was a trick question. He shifted, trying to catch a glimpse of the clock-radio. She moved with him, blocking his view. “Um, ten?” he replied.
“It’s two in the afternoon,” MJ replied. “You got back at 4:22am.” Peter squirmed, staring down at his coffee. “This is the fourth night in a row. You missed date night. You’ve missed therapy. And Bucky says you’ve been doubling up on sparring.”
“You’re killing yourself!” she snapped.
They both froze, looking away from each other, blinking away tears. The kitchen was silent except for the sizzle and pop of the eggs Ned cracked into the tomatoes and the gentle murmur of Terry Gross on the clock-radio. The moment held. Peter felt the tension harden, becoming a solid mass that hung heavily in the air. The old feeling of anxiety tightened like a fist in his lungs as he looked back at MJ, watching her struggle, her face open in a way only he and Ned had the privilege of seeing most days.
Finally, she took a huge lungful of air. “You promised to keep up with therapy. You can’t keep punishing yourself like this.”
“I know about the injuries. You think I don’t notice, but I do.”
He nodded, swallowing a fat lump of tears. Setting the mug down, he pressed his trembling hands into the tabletop. He’d saved a woman from a drunk man last night—yanking him away as he pushed her against a wall, one hand wrapped around her throat, the other up her dress. He’d stopped himself after knocking the guy’s front teeth out, webbing him up and turning back to the trembling woman. She stared at his bloody knuckles as he told her it was all okay. His hands shook the whole time, twisted into fists, eager to beat the guy, to beat anything, to make the guy bleed, to make himself bleed.
Give a damn! shouted the art print over the microwave.
I can’t! Peter wanted to shout back. I can’t feel anything. It’s nothing and anger. Nothing and dusty red.
“You have to promise to go back to therapy,” MJ said.
“You gotta stop this.”
“I can’t.” He licked his lips, looked away. Away from the art print, away from MJ and Ned. “He didn’t have to die.”
“It wasn’t your fault. We talked about this.”
“I had the gauntlet. I’m strong. I could have done it.”
MJ leaned forward, grabbing hold of his hands and squeezing tightly. “You would have died.”
Slowly, he nodded, looking back at her. “The world needs Tony Stark more than Peter Parker.”
“You don’t get to decide that,” MJ replied. “Now, we’re gonna eat, and afterwards you’re gonna call your therapist, and then your Aunt, and you’re gonna talk to them.”
She stood up, pulling plates from the dishrack and lining them up for Ned. Peter watched them work—Ned frying sourdough with one hand, dishing up a fat slice of the tomato and eggs with the other, while MJ made a second pot of coffee and sliced an avocado. He studied the hunch of MJ’s shoulders, the looseness of Ned’s limbs. He saw him nudge her with his shoulder, as if propping her up, encouraging her to stand taller, braver, as they danced around each other on dirty, bare feet. They were a two-person army with the daunting mission of keeping him alive and sane. He didn’t envy the job.
Chapter 3: Mothering Day
“This is an offense to God,” Ned announced halfway through rolling his fifth vegan meatball. It was the third recipe they’d tried in an as many days and the only one that held up to being stabbed with a fork without completely crumbling to pieces. “Who ever heard of vegan meatballs? Someone needs to inform the beautiful ladies in our lives that pork is amazing.”
“For real, though,” Ned argued. Perking up, he twisted towards Peter, the vegan meatball still cupped in his hands.“Wait, have you ever had spam musubi?”
“Don’t knock it until you try it, man.”
Peter had tried a lot of things in the past few days, as he and Ned test kitchen’d dozens of recipes, and watched what felt like a lifetime of cooking videos. In the end, they had settled on garlic and parmesan spaghetti with spinach and basil, vegan meatballs, caprese salad, and an orange cake for dessert. Peter had every intention of making the perfect dinner for Mothering Day.
Mothering Day—to be celebrated the day before Mother’s Day—had been partially MJ’s invention. Peter’s experience with mother figures had been just slightly left of normal for most of his life and, anyway, MJ had insisted she should “get at least partial credit for taking care of your stupid ass.” Last year’s celebration, fresh after the battle with Thanos, had been impromptu, with all of them going out for poke bowls. It had been nice, even if he disassociated halfway through the meal, “coming to” in the back of an Uber, tucked against Ned’s side while MJ pet his arm. He still wasn’t sure what had set him off, but he’d avoided poke after that.
He didn’t plan on freaking out over his vegan meatballs today.
The apartment door swung open and MJ stumbled through, a paper grocery bag in her arms. “I got you guys’ fancy mozzarella, and a bottle of cab sav—it was on sale.” She dropped the bag on the table and pulled the wine out. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna drink-watch Jeopardy! until our moms and Pepper get here”
By the time May and Ned’s mom, Nancy, arrived, MJ was tipsy and shouting at the contestants on the screen like a football match. Her mother, Deondra, arrived moments later, still in her court suit and clutching her briefcase. She took in MJ’s shouting with a small “mm-hm” before plopping down beside her on the sofa and taking a slug from the wine bottle. “What is the War of the Roses, dumbass!” Ms. Jones shouted. MJ high-fived her.
Smiling, May wrapped Peter in a hug. He turned away from slicing tomatoes to bury his face in her shoulder. His fingers dug into her sides, deep enough to bruise—she held him tighter, squeezing until it was almost difficult to breath. Sometimes, it was difficult to remember seven years had passed when it barely felt like two. The fight on the dusty mechanical graveyard of Thanos’s planet still felt fresh, and the sensation that any moment he could fall apart, turn to ash and dust, was a constant nagging fear. May, willowy and small, seemed like the only solid thing sometimes. “Happy Mothering Day,” he mumbled into her sweater.
“Thank you, sweetheart.” She stepped back, pushing his hair back from his face. “You need a haircut.”
“What is Mount Bazarduzu!” MJ shouted from the living room.
Peter smiled. “Ned and I have been working on this for days, so it shouldn’t completely suck.”
“I’m sure it’s going to be perfect,” May assured him.
“Who is Phineas Gage!”
“Can I help with anything?” May asked.
Peter followed her gaze over his shoulder to where Ned was bent over the cutting board, chopping garlic into wafer-thin slices with a comically large knife. There were two Captain America band-aids wrapped around his fingers. Mrs. Leeds hovered behind him nervously.
“We can handle it,” Peter assured her. “Why don’t you get Mrs. Leeds to go have some wine with the Joneses.”
Setting back to work, Peter arranged the caprese salad on a plate, trying to mimic the photo he’d found on the internet. He had never been much for art—that was more MJ’s area of expertise—and by the time he had finished putting the last tomato slice in place, the attempted spiral of cheese and vegetables appeared lopsided, smooshed together in some places, widely spaced in others. He poured the oil on liberally, hoping it would disguise the less-the-perfect arrangement. Ned arranged the pasta in a bowl far less artfully.
A brief knock was the only warning anyone had before a shrieking blur of pink sped through the apartment door. Morgan threw herself at Peter, latching onto his arm like a limpet, or maybe a leech. Peter looked down at her—the familiar brown eyes, the dirty fingernails, the bandaids dotting her arm—and felt the familiar tightening inside his chest. She looked so much like Mr. Stark. She tugged roughly on his arm.“Up! Pick me up!” she demanded.
“How about we try that again withe magic word, Morgan?” Pepper said, coolly slipping inside, a bottle of wine held in her hand.
Her face pinched together, the tiniest pout, before she beamed up at him, eyes wide, turning on the full charm. “Pleeeeease.”
Curling a kindergartener was easy for Peter and he made a big show of yawning exaggeratedly as he lifted her first up and then high into the air over his head. Morgan squealed and giggled from near the ceiling as the women traded pleasantries. Pepper leaned over the back of the sofa, looking at the final Jeopardy! question before placidly answering, “What is a Sesto Elemento.” MJ looked up at her with an adoring sort of awe as Trebeck repeated the answer back on the television. Pepper shrugged. “Tony liked cars.”
“Okay, soups on!”
“It’s pasta,” MJ pointed out.
“Don’t be pedantic.”
They all sat down, Morgan whining when Pepper insisted she sit in her own chair instead of Peter’s lap. “On your bottom, please.” Morgan heaved a huge, put-upon sigh, plopping down heavily into the seat. Mrs. Leeds said the classic prayer of a lapsed Catholic—quick, perfunctory—while Ned dished everyone up.
“You boys did a wonderful job,” Ms. Jones praised.
“More than that, you’re wonderful boys,” May added. She looked at MJ, amending, “Wonderful kids. Not every college student would take time out their day to cook for their moms. Or aunts, as the case may be.”
Peter felt his ears growing warm. “May, stop.”
“Actually, that reminds me,” Pepper said, reaching down into her purse. Slowly, she pulled out three manila envelopes and slid them across the table. “I had meant to give them to you earlier, but, well, we don’t make it to the city too often these days.” Peter, MJ, and Ned stared down at the envelopes, shocked and silent. Peter caught MJ pressing her hands into her lap to hide the trembling. “Well, go on! Open them!”
Ned dove for his envelope, tearing it open before Peter and MJ could blink. Three slips of paper shook loose.
“What is it?” whispered MJ.
Slowly thumbing through the papers, his mother leaning over his shoulder with wide eyes and a pale face, Ned replied, “It’s an employment offer in SI’s coding department, a letter of recommendation, and...and a cheque. I’ve never seen so many zeroes in my life.”
Leaning across the table, Pepper took hold of Peter’s hand. “Tony never could wrap his mind around you being gone. I think as much as he didn’t want to, he couldn’t help but have hope. Your offer is for R&D—it’s there waiting for you whenever you want it. And, if you don’t, that’s what the recommendation letter is for. I know that it hasn’t been easy for any of you, getting back on your feet in a completely different world then the one you left, so that’s what the cheques are for. It’s what Tony would want for you. It’s what I would want for Morgan. Security.”
Peter blinked. “But it’s Mothering Day.”
“Exactly,” she replied. “Let me mother you.”
Everyone at the table was now crying, May, Mrs. Leeds, and Ms. Jones offering tearful thank yous as Peter, MJ, and Ned sat in stunned silence, holding their respective envelopes.
“What’s burning?” Morgan said.
Ned leapt to his feet. “The cake!”
At the table, Mrs. Leeds began to laugh.