After the worst of the storm had passed, Peter found himself at the Starks’ lake house.
The storm passing took a while. Weeks, actually, and life still wasn’t really anything like normal. Peter still wasn’t in school; May was still struggling to find an apartment that could hold both of them in a city that was desperately trying to care for a population that was twice as big as it had been for five years.
That was most of why Peter was at the lake house. Well, some of it. Tony had offered to let him and May stay at the apartment he and Pepper still kept in the city, but the idea of leaving the lake house had left Peter breathless with anxiety. He’d tried to cover, but he wasn’t sure how well he’d succeeded at fooling May.
Tony had enough other things to think about that he probably hadn’t noticed. Between the chronic pain, the loss of his arm, and his daughter, Tony’s attention was pretty divided. Peter was trying to take up as little of it as possible, and to that end he probably should have gone back to the city with May. But he just... couldn’t. So May went with Happy, back to the city, and Peter stayed at the lake house.
The afternoon that she left, he stood on the porch and watched the car disappear down the road. He’d chosen to stay, knowing that she had to go, but an uneasy feeling came over him then. It was a feeling he’d had a few times since coming back, but it was stronger now than it had ever been.
It was the feeling that perhaps he wasn’t quite... real. Like maybe he wasn’t really himself but a bad copy of himself. Like maybe he’d come back wrong.
It wasn’t the first time he’d thought that. He hadn’t said it aloud yet, because he was hoping the feeling might just go away. It always had before. It took longer to dissipate this time, though, maybe because there wasn’t anything to distract him. It was minutes before he felt like he could move again.
When he finally could, he went inside. Pepper was in the kitchen, chopping vegetables for dinner. Tony was asleep on the sofa, and Morgan was watching a TV show Peter didn’t recognize. He wondered if he’d have known it if he hadn’t been dead the last five years.
Five years. Sometimes Peter would forget for a little while, and then he’d look at Morgan and remember. It was disorienting. Peter thought that was a good word for how he felt. Disoriented. Like he’d lost his center of gravity.
Maybe he should have gone back to the city, Peter thought. He hadn’t wanted to, not with Tony still recovering, but maybe there he could have found his feet again. Or maybe it would have been worse. He didn’t know because he didn’t really understand what was happening inside of him, only that it hurt, and he didn’t want to have to try and explain it to anyone.
Peter thought it was probably kind of weird that he was just standing there, so he sat down on the floor and scooted back so that his back was against the sofa. Tony’s hand was hanging off the edge of the sofa, and Peter held it gently in his, trying to remind himself of where he was, and who he was with, that everything was okay now, even if it didn’t feel okay.
The episode ended. Morgan got up. “Can I watch another?” she asked, much too loudly. Peter flinched. Tony didn’t stir.
“That’s enough TV for now, sweetie,” Pepper said, coming out of the kitchen. Peter hastily dropped Tony’s hand, even though he wasn’t sure why; it wasn’t like he’d been doing anything wrong. Pepper glanced at him, looking thoughtful. Peter wondered what she saw on his face. “Why don’t the two of you do a puzzle?” she suggested, going over to a closet and opening it up to reveal a stack of puzzles and board games––everything from Candyland to Settlers of Catan.
A puzzle actually sounded okay. Quiet. Something to think about that wasn’t being dead for five years or Tony almost dying or any of the other awful things lurking in the back of Peter’s head. He nodded.
Pepper looked pleased. “Morgan, come pick one, honey.”
Morgan knew exactly which one she wanted. She pointed, and Pepper smiled. “Good choice, sweetie.” She pulled it out and handed it to Morgan, who brought it over to the coffee table.
It was a four hundred piece puzzle––pretty ambitious for a kid Morgan’s age––that showed Iron Man and Spiderman whizzing through the skyscrapers of New York together. The Invincible Iron Man, it said at the top. The Amazing Spiderman, it declared on the bottom.
Peter stared at it. He remembered Tony showing him the artwork for it like it was just yesterday––because in fact, it was only a week or two ago for him. There wasn’t a whole lot of Spiderman merchandise, and what there was, was just crappy knock-offs. He'd thought it was so cool, even if it was just a puzzle, because it was him and Tony. They’d talked about having the artwork put on t-shirts.
Now it felt like it was mocking him. Iron Man wasn’t invincible, and Tony had a missing limb to prove it. And Peter didn’t feel amazing, not by a long shot.
“This is Daddy’s favorite,” Morgan told him, her face very serious. “Because Spiderman is his favorite hero.”
Peter swallowed. “Really? He told you that?”
“Lots of times.” She took the lid off the box and dumped all the pieces out. “Daddy says, find the corners first.”
“Yeah, that’s a good strategy,” Peter agreed, and started helping her pick through the pieces.
It was soothing, he had to admit. Morgan was pretty quiet, though Peter was given to understand that wasn’t always the case. Pepper went back into the kitchen, and after a while Peter could smell onions and garlic cooking. It started to drizzle outside, but inside it was warm, and calm, and safe, and Peter almost felt... normal.
He and Morgan had managed to do most of the frame when he felt someone watching them. He glanced up and saw that Tony was awake, and he was watching them with tears in his eyes.
“Hey, you two,” Tony said, smiling shakily. “You doing a puzzle?”
“Yep,” Morgan said, even as she abandoned it. Tony pushed himself up, and she climbed on top of him, surprisingly careful of his injuries. She snuggled under his remaining arm, and Peter tried not to feel envious. Peter had been careful to cede that space to Morgan ever since Tony had come out of his coma. “We’re doing the one of you and Peter!”
“That’s my favorite,” Tony said, sounding a little choked up.
“I know,” Morgan said smugly.
Tony looked up. “How’re you doing, Pete?”
“Okay,” Peter replied.
“Did May make it back to the city?”
Peter glanced at his phone and saw a message from May. “They’re stuck in traffic on the turnpike.”
Tony smiled ruefully. “Some things never change.”
Peter hoped that was true. So far, it felt like everything that meant anything had changed. But he just nodded and looked down at the puzzle piece in his hand. He was pretty sure it was a piece of the repulsor in Iron Man’s right hand. The hand Tony didn’t have anymore.
Peter snapped it into place.
That night, for the first time since he’d come back, Peter went to bed alone.
He and May had shared a bed every other night. They hadn’t talked about it, but she hadn’t wanted to let him out of her sight, and he hadn’t wanted to be alone. No one else had seemed to think it was weird, and it’d meant they could share a room in the overcrowded lake house. It had reminded Peter of when he was much younger, when he’d crawl in bed with May and Ben after a nightmare and they’d snuggle him between them.
From the moment he lay down, he knew that that sleep was going to be a problem. He was tired, but his brain didn’t want to shut off. Lying still and closing his eyes only gave it permission to send him spiraling down into exactly the place he didn’t want to go.
It wasn’t even getting dusted. That hadn’t been a picnic, and Peter wished he didn’t remember it. It seemed like a lot of other people didn’t. But he could handle that. What he couldn’t handle, what he was desperate not to think about, and his brain seemed absolutely determined to play on a loop as he lay in the dark, was the moment Tony had died.
Everyone had seen Tony’s arc reactor go out. But Peter had heard his heart stop, and he’d thought––he’d really thought––that that was it. That he was going to have to live in a world without Tony. And God, it had hurt. It had felt like a knife to the gut.
Fortunately, while everyone else was standing around staring, Dr. Banner had acted. A jolt from Thor’s hammer got Tony’s heart beating again, at least temporarily. Peter wished his brain would focus on that bit, and not the part where Tony’s heart just... stopped.
Peter listened to Pepper and Tony and Morgan all breathing down the hall. They were all asleep. It was just him and all the terrible stuff in his brain, and that awful feeling of wrongness waiting to take him again like it had on the porch.
He sat up. He could feel his own heartbeat in his ears, and it was beating much too fast. He paced back and forth in his room for a minute or two, then climbed the walls and hung out upside down in a corner. This had used to calm him down, before. He’d liked hiding in plain view. No one ever looked up.
It didn’t help this time.
He was dizzy from breathing too fast and covered in a cold sweat. It wasn’t even two in the morning yet. He was going to lose his mind if he didn’t figure out a way to calm down. He didn’t have to sleep, he just needed to stop panicking.
He’d been up on the ceiling for a while—he had no idea how long, but the sun wasn’t anywhere near up yet—when the door eased open and Morgan tiptoed in. She looked at the disheveled bed, and then to his surprise, she looked up.
She grinned. “You’re on the ceiling!” she said in a loud whisper, grinning.
Peter dropped down to the floor. “Morgan, what are you doing up?”
“Sleep is boring.”
“Sleep is pretty great, actually,” Peter replied with a sigh. He liked to sleep, when his brain let him.
She looked skeptical. “Daddy reads to me when I can’t sleep. Want me to read to you?”
Peter was about to say no and try to get her back to her bed when he realized that his pulse was no longer throbbing in his ears. For the first time in hours, he didn’t feel like crawling out of his own skin. “Okay,” he agreed. “Go pick some books. But be quiet. Your mom and dad are asleep.”
She tiptoed dramatically back to her room. Peter straightened the covers on his bed out and turned on the bedside light. Morgan came back in with an armful of books and a stuffed kitty with comically long limbs. “This is No-no,” she said, climbing up on the bed next to Peter. She tucked the kitty in between them.
“Why’s his name No-no?” Peter asked.
She shrugged. “I dunno. It just is.”
She was a good reader, especially considering that her fourth birthday had just passed. Peter supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that she was smart, considering who her parents were. She read him a book about a pigeon who was kind of a jerk, and then an old, dog-eared one about a hat salesman, and finally one about two gay bunnies who fell in love. She started yawning during the last book, and so Peter took over while Morgan snuggled down at his side with No-no in her arms. He picked up a Curious George book and started reading. She was asleep by the end of it.
Peter reached across her and turned his bedside lamp off. He still didn’t think he could sleep, but that seemed less horrible with Morgan sleeping beside him. She was a constant reminder of the five years he’d been gone, but she was also strangely comforting. Peter wrapped an arm around her, overcome with a fierce sense of protectiveness. Tony kept calling him her brother––had apparently been doing that the entire time he was gone––but Peter hadn’t felt it. Not until then.
He still didn’t sleep, but he also didn’t panic. Instead, he kept watch until the sun came up and he heard the shower start in Pepper and Tony’s ensuite. Then he climbed out of bed, leaving Morgan tucked in, and went to start the coffee.
The same thing happened the next night, and the night after that.
Morgan didn’t seem to think it was weird that Peter didn’t sleep. Tony hadn’t slept much before he was injured, so Peter guessed she might be used to people being up in the middle of the night.
The thing was, Tony legitimately didn’t need to sleep as much as other people, and Peter suspected that Morgan might be the same. They were both insomniacs, but neither of them seemed nearly as affected by it as they should have been. Sure, if Tony had pushed it too far, he ended up crashing, but “too far” was at least forty-eight hours.
Peter needed to sleep. He wanted to sleep. He just couldn’t. Not even with Morgan beside him. He did all right as long as he didn’t really try, but the moment he shut his eyes he got a full-sensory experience of the moment he’d heard Tony’s heart stop. Sight, sound... smell. He could even taste the air. It’d tasted metallic, like the power that had just been discharged. It hadn’t been enough to overpower the smell of burning hair and skin, though.
He jerked awake with a gasp. He’d fallen asleep for just a few seconds, just long enough. Morgan shifted in her sleep, burying her face in No-no’s fur. She didn’t wake.
Peter’s eyes filled with tears. He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep, that was all. He wished he felt like he could tell someone, because it was horrifically lonely to be this miserable and not be able to talk about it. But Pepper and Tony had enough to deal with, and so did May. Peter couldn’t add to their burdens.
He really wished someone would notice, though. He couldn’t help thinking that before Thanos, Tony would have realized something was wrong. Peter was doing his best to hide it, so he guessed it wasn’t really fair to resent Tony for not noticing it, but that didn’t stop him from wanting it. Especially in the small hours, when Morgan had drifted off and the nightmares loomed and Peter tasted power on his tongue. When he felt less and less real, less and less like himself. When he wondered if this was just how he’d come back, all wrong in his own skin and never able to sleep again. Then he longed for someone to tell him that wasn’t true, that it would get better and they would help him.
Help me, he thought then. Please, Mr. Stark. Help me.
The next morning, while Peter was doing the dishes after breakfast––which mostly consisted of washing the same pan over and over again, because he was so damn tired––Pepper asked if he would be okay on his own with Tony for a while.
“Um, yeah, sure,” Peter replied, finally putting the pan in the drying rack. “Why?”
“I want to get Morgan out of the house for a few hours,” Pepper said. “I thought I’d take her to the park, maybe get lunch and do some shopping. We’ll be back before dinner.”
Peter nodded. “Yeah, that sounds fine.”
Morgan was pretty excited about her girls’ day out with her mom. She made Peter come upstairs and help her pick out what she was going to wear for it. Peter tried to smile for her, even as the headache he’d had since about five o’clock that morning moved over and took up residence behind his left eye. She ended up choosing a sparkly purple top with a cartoon character Peter didn’t know and green pants and orange shoes. The overall effect made Peter a little dizzy, but that might’ve been the sleep deprivation.
Pepper smiled when she saw Morgan. “Well, I definitely won’t lose you in the crowd. Peter, Tony should take his painkiller with his lunch, and do not let you tell him he doesn’t need it, because he does. If you need anything, just call. ”
Peter nodded. “Got it. Have fun, you guys.”
Without Pepper and Morgan, the house was quiet. Tony was asleep on the sofa. He usually napped for an hour or two in the late morning, then woke up for lunch. Peter curled up in the armchair and stared out at the lake. He could have gotten his phone and texted May or Ned; they would both have probably liked to hear from him. He knew he was kind of isolating himself, but he couldn’t help it.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, staring out at the lake. His headache and dizziness weren’t going away. He felt woozy and nauseous, and the world felt fuzzy around the edges.
He had a new thought, sitting there. Not just, Maybe I came back wrong, but, Maybe I never came back at all.
Maybe he was still in the soul stone. Would he even know if that were the case? Did it matter?
It didn’t really make sense, Peter knew. Why would he have invented Morgan in the soul stone? Or the lake house, which wasn’t like anywhere Peter had ever been? He’d have May with him, if he dreamed up his own reality in the soul stone, wouldn’t he? And Ned, and maybe even Ben?
He knew it didn’t make sense, but in some ways it was easier to think that the world was wrong than to think that he was wrong. Because he still felt wrong, and the longer he went without sleeping, the more wrong he felt.
Finally, after about an hour, Tony woke up. He seemed to be feeling pretty good today. His eyes were clear of pain as he blinked himself awake. “Hey, kid,” he said with a yawn. “Pep and Morgan leave already?”
“Yeah. A while ago.”
Tony smiled ruefully. “Sorry you got stuck babysitting me.”
“It’s fine,” Peter said, frowning at him. “It’s not babysitting.”
“Yeah, it is, but that’s okay. Besides, we haven’t had a lot of time together, just the two of us, have we?”
They hadn’t. Peter didn’t think he’d been alone with Tony even once since Tony had woken up. “I guess not.”
Tony’s smile faded. “You used to be chattier, didn’t you? I definitely remember you way chattier. Are you okay, Pete?”
Peter managed a smile. “Yeah. Sorry. Um.” He forced himself to sit up, put his feet on the floor. “You want anything? Like tea or something?”
“Tea sounds okay,” Tony replied. “Coffee sounds even better.”
Peter raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m pretty sure Pepper wouldn’t want you to have coffee.”
“She definitely wouldn’t, but there’s really no reason for me not to. I’m not having heart palpitations or stomach problems. It’s still early, so it won’t keep me up tonight. Just one cup, Pete. Please?”
Peter discovered it was hard to say no to the person who’d saved the universe and brought you back from the dead. “Yeah, okay.” He stood up––too fast, it seemed. His head swam and his knees went weak. He had to steady himself against the chair.
“Whoa,” he heard Tony say, as though at a distance. “Peter? You okay?”
Peter took a deep breath. “Yeah. Just. Headrush.”
“You’re really pale, kid. Why don’t you sit down?”
“I’m fine,” Peter mumbled, and stumbled into the kitchen before Tony could physicaly make him sit back down.
It took him a few seconds to remember what he was there for. Coffee. He got the filters down, and took the grounds out of the freezer. He should have some, too, maybe it would help him feel more with it. He spooned grounds into the filter and slid the filter into the pot. He hit the button for it to start brewing. It beeped at him angrily.
“You forgot the water, kiddo.”
Peter turned. Tony was leaning against the kitchen table, watching him, brow furrowed in concern. “What?”
“You have to put water in,” Tony said gently. “Remember?”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course.” Peter took the pot over to the sink and filled it, then poured it into the reservoir. This time when he hit the button to turn it on, it started to brew. Peter leaned against the counter and stared at a knot in the hardwood of the floor.
There was silence in the kitchen. “Peter,” Tony finally said.
“I’m fine,” Peter said, too abruptly, refusing to look at him.
“I don’t think any of us are fine, Pete. The world isn’t fine. We all went through a hell of a lot the past few years.”
Peter bit his lip. He heard Tony come closer. He really shouldn’t be on his feet, Peter thought. He should make him go lie down while the coffee brewed. But he couldn’t say a word.
Tony put his hand on his shoulder. “Peter, will you look at me?”
Peter shook his head, biting his lip again, this time so hard he tasted copper. He realized then that maybe he hadn’t been letting Morgan snuggle with Tony just because she had first dibs––she was Tony’s real kid, after all, and she was younger. She needed him more. It hadn’t occurred to Peter until just that moment that he was avoiding letting Tony touch him for other reasons.
“Why not?” Tony asked. He slid his arm around Peter’s shoulders, pulling him into his side just like he’d done before everything had happened. They’d had a lot of these sideways hugs back then. It’d never quite been enough, but Peter hadn’t wanted to push, hadn’t wanted to ask for what he’d wanted.
Peter didn’t answer.
“Why not?” Tony repeated.
Peter swallowed. The words were choking him. “Because then you’ll know,” he whispered.
“Know what?” Tony asked. “That you’re not sleeping? Kid, I already know that. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your little sister’s a snitch.”
Your little sister. Peter’s eyes filled with tears. He shook his head.
“Then what?” Tony asked. “Talk to me, kid. What are you afraid I’ll know?”
Peter forced himself to meet Tony’s eyes. “That I came back wrong,” he whispered.
Tony looked momentarily speechless. “What the––no, you didn’t.”
“I did,” Peter insisted. “I don’t––I don’t feel right. I don’t feel how I used to. It’s like... there are these times when I feel like I’m just––like I’m not really here. I’m like a bad copy of myself.” He wrapped his arms around himself, like he was trying to hold himself together. “Some of it’s the not-sleeping,” he admitted. “But I felt like this before then. I really think––somehow I got fucked up and came back wrong.”
Tony didn’t say anything. He did, however, turn so that he was facing Peter straight-on and fold him into a hug––a real hug, full contact, no more sideways distance––using his one arm. “I’ve really got to get around to making that prosthesis,” he muttered into Peter’s hair. “I hate only being able to hold you and Morgan with one arm. And I hate having to choose which one of you to hold, and don’t think I haven’t noticed you letting Morgan monopolize me.”
Peter ducked his head, pressing his forehead into the crook of Tony’s neck. “I just thought... she’s your real kid.”
“You’re my real kid, Pete,” Tony said fiercely. “I’m sorry I haven’t had the bandwidth to do anything about this until now. I knew it was getting bad, but I didn’t realize just how bad. You are my real kid, and I love you.”
Peter let out a shaky sob. “I love you, too.”
“And you did not come back wrong.” Tony pulled away and looked at him. “Do you hear me?”
Peter looked away, not wanting to deny it outright, but also unable to actually agree.
Tony swayed suddenly on his feet. Peter caught him. “Whoa, hey,” Peter said. “You shouldn’t be up.”
Tony growled. “I’m fine. I’m not the one who hasn’t slept in three nights.”
“No, you’re just the one who almost died,” Peter snapped. He pulled Tony’s arm across his shoulders and started walking him back toward the sofa. “Pepper left me in charge, remember?”
“Yeah, I don’t know if you realize this, but you were kind of set up.” Tony let Peter lower him down onto the sofa and cover him with a blanket. “Pepper might’ve left you in charge, but she took Morgan out because we realized you were never going to crack if they were around.”
Peter crossed his arms over his chest. “I didn’t crack.”
“Not crack up, kid.” Tony sighed, looking up at him. “You’ve been walking around with everything all bottled up inside of you. No one’s gotten more than two or three words out of you at a time for days, except maybe Morgan. Something had to give, and I didn’t want you to have an audience for it.”
That was... weirdly thoughtful. Peter looked down at his feet. “You still want your coffee?”
“What kind of question is that, Pete? Of course I still want my coffee.”
“I’m just gonna go... get that for you, then.” Peter escaped back to the kitchen, where he got Tony his coffee in his “World’s Best Dad” mug. It had an unbelievably tiny red footprint on it, and Peter smiled, imagining Pepper giving it to Tony for his first Father’s Day, or maybe his first birthday after Morgan was born.
He didn’t feel like coffee was a good idea for him anymore, even though he still wanted the caffeine. His stomach felt off again, and he didn’t need anything making him more anxious than he was already. He got himself a bottle of ginger beer from the fridge instead––the super fancy, extra gingery kind that Peter had never had before he started hanging out with Tony––and took it back to the living room with Tony’s coffee.
“Thanks, Pete,” Tony said, accepting the mug and smiling when he saw which one it was. He took a sip and his eyes fluttered shut in obvious joy. “Oh, that is delicious. Sweet, sweet coffee, I have missed you.”
Peter smiled for what felt like the first time in days. “Would you like me to leave you two alone?” he asked, sitting on the floor where he could be close to Tony.
“Don’t sass me,” Tony muttered. “I almost died, and this is the thanks I get.”
Peter’s smile vanished instantly. “Don’t joke about that.”
Tony looked contrite. “Sorry, kid. It’s just how I cope.”
“I know.” Peter picked at the label on his ginger beer. “It’s just... I have, um. Really vivid memories of it. Like, really vivid.”
“Ah.” Tony was quiet for a moment, sipping his coffee. “I don’t. I remember making the decision and being afraid. I was so sure that was gonna be it for me, and I didn’t want it to be. And I remember sliding on the gauntlet. But after that I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the hospital.”
“Count yourself lucky,” Peter said softly.
“I do. In so many ways. Is... is that part of what’s keeping you up at night?”
Peter nodded. “When I close my eyes, I get a––a full-body memory of it. I can even remember how the air tasted. And I just––I couldn’t do it anymore, so I stopped even trying.”
“Yeah,” Tony sighed. “I’ve been there.”
Peter looked up at him. “You have?”
“Yeah, kid.” Tony looked down at his coffee and frowned. “Seriously, we need to talk about the prosthesis. It sucks to have to choose between holding you and drinking my coffee.”
Peter gave a tiny smile. “I won’t be offended if you choose the coffee.”
“No, no, here, put this on the table.” Tony handed him the mug, and Peter set it on the coffee table. “Now come here.” He held his arm out and Peter climbed up onto the sofa and tucked himself underneath it, right onto Tony’s side. “There we go,” he murmured, curling his arm around Peter’s shoulder. “That’s what I’ve been missing.”
Peter’s throat was aching. “Me too. I just—you had enough to worry about without me adding to it, and I thought that if you hugged me, you’d somehow know.”
“Guess what, kid? I knew anyway. I’m just sorry I couldn’t do anything about it sooner.”
“It was okay when May was here,” Peter mumbled. “Or not as bad. I still felt... not right, but I was able to sleep. But ever since she left, I’ve been...” Falling apart. “It’s gotten worse. I just don’t feel... I don’t feel real. I know you don’t believe me, but I really think I came back wrong.”
Tony sighed. “Okay, kid. Are you listening?” Peter nodded. “It sounds to me like you have PTSD. That’s why you feel like you came back wrong. And it's nothing to be ashamed of. There’s a hell of a lot of it going around right now. What happened was traumatic as hell.”
Peter sniffled. “You seem fine. You’re not having nightmares or anything. I’d hear it if you were.”
“Well, first of all, I’m still knocking myself out with painkillers at night. We’ll see what happens when I’m not anymore. But also I had nightmares for five years about you turning into dust in my arms. So I’m not fine. None of us are.”
“Oh,” Peter said dully. He didn’t know why that surprised him. He’d heard from both Happy and Pepper while Tony was still in the hospital that Tony had invented time travel to save him––not the universe, him. It shouldn’t have been so surprising to hear that Tony had been that affected by what had happened on Titan.
“It sounds like you’re dissociating,” Tony said. “When you feel like you’re not real, or like you’re not really here, that’s what it’s called. And the really vivid nightmares––or daymares, since you’re awake––sound like flashbacks. Both are pretty classic PTSD symptoms. Any panic attacks?”
“A couple,” Peter admitted. “Mostly when I can’t stop the flashbacks from happening.”
Tony nodded. “I had a lot of flashbacks and panic attacks and nightmares after New York. Took me a long time to start feeling better. But I did, finally. Pepper helped, once I was able to talk to her about what was going on. So I know it’s tempting to keep it all bottled up, but you can’t, kid. You have to let the rest of us help.”
“I want to,” Peter admitted. “But I don’t know how. Especially with you still recovering. It’s not that bad, you know? It’s not...” Peter swallowed. “It’s not almost dying. It’s not losing an arm.”’
“Pete, you haven’t slept in three nights,” Tony said flatly. “No, you didn’t lose an arm, but PTSD is serious. Mental health is health. And I know it sounds crazy coming from me, but you gotta take care of this shit, or it bites you in the ass at the worst possible moment.”
Peter looked down. He knew that Tony was right. But it was still hard to wrap his mind around the idea that his “injury”––and he still found himself putting mental quotes around it––was serious the same way a broken arm or a broken leg would’ve been.
Peter’s phone buzzed while he was still trying to figure out what to say. He glanced down at it and saw a message from Pepper.
How’re my boys doing? she’d asked. Did Tony take his painkiller yet?
“Oh crap, it’s lunchtime,” Peter said. Past it, actually, by about forty-five minutes. “And you need your painkiller.”
“I’m feeling pretty good, actually, I think I could probably skip it today.”
Peter gave Tony an unimpressed look. “Pepper told me you’d say that. She also told me I should ignore it.”
“Traitors,” Tony muttered. “Fine. I’ll take my pill.”
Peter stood up––carefully, this time––and went into the kitchen. There was leftover chicken parm from the night before, so he heated that up for both of them. He was still exhausted in a bone deep way, but he felt lighter than he had before. Less alone, he supposed, now that he knew that Tony knew how bad he felt. Tony wasn’t going to just let him suffer.
Peter texted Pepper back while he was waiting for the chicken parm to finish heating up. We’re doing okay. Eating lunch now.
And you’re feeling all right? You looked tired this morning. Tony can be a handful.
Peter rolled his eyes. Pepper might’ve thought she was being subtle, but she wasn’t. Tony told me Morgan snitched. Yeah, I’m fine. Tony and I talked.
Good. We’re all here for you, Peter.
Peter swallowed against his suddenly aching throat. I know, he managed to type, even as the screen blurred with tears. Thanks, Pepper.
“Everything okay, Pete?” Tony asked as he padded into the kitchen, empty coffee mug in hand.
“Yeah, just...” Peter wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. “Pepper’s pretty awesome.”
“She is,” Tony agreed. He got down two glasses, filled up the first one with water from the tap and handed it to Peter, then filled up the second and drank it himself, leaning against the counter. “I have an idea for after lunch, by the way. A surprise.”
“I’m not sure I’m super into surprises right now.”
“It’s not much of a surprise. More like a project.”
Peter still wasn’t sure he was up for it, but Tony was obviously excited about it. Peter shrugged. “Yeah, okay. In the garage?”
“No,” Tony said. “That’s the real surprise. Enough questions, kid. Let’s eat so we can get started.”
They ate their reheated chicken parmesan in the living room. By the time they were done, Tony was starting to look pretty tired, though, and Peter wondered if this was such a great idea, whatever it was. But Tony insisted.
“I’m gonna make you do all the heavy lifting, but it’s great, I promise,” Tony declared. “Grab that tablet––yeah, that’s the one.”
“Are you sure you don’t want the––”
“No. I don’t want the wheelchair.” But Tony did let Peter tuck himself under his arm and take some of his weight as they went down the path toward the water.
Down at the lake was a little boat house that Peter had never been in. It had an actual boat in it, plus a couple of kayaks and some flattened out floaties. It was early still for swimming, though Peter had been assured that in a month or so the water would be warm enough. He was looking forward to it. He hoped he’d get to spend a lot of time here this summer, and maybe some of it would be better than the last couple of days.
Tony sat down on a crate and directed Peter to open up a large plastic bin. Inside was a pile of very thick fabric. “What am I looking at?” Peter asked.
“It’s a hammock,” Tony said. “A really big one, for two people. Well, one and a half if one of them is Morgan. It always surprises me how much room someone that small can take up.”
“Oh,” Peter said. “That’s cool. Where do we hang it up?”
“There’s a really good spot down the shoreline a bit. Come on.”
Peter wasn’t thrilled with the amount of walking this involved for Tony, but he seemed determined, so Peter followed him. And the spot Tony was talking about wasn’t far away at all. Just a little ways down from the boat house, there was a huge tree whose branches overhung the water.
“Right here,” Tony said, pointing out the two branches where Peter was supposed to attach either end of the hammock. It was a nice, shady spot, with a view of the lake and not much else, not even the house. Tony watched as Peter set everything up, then nodded in approval. “Looks good. Let’s test it out.”
He handed Peter the tablet before sitting down on the hammock. He kicked his shoes off and swung his legs over. The hammock engulfed him almost entirely. It swung gently back and forth, though not as much as Peter had expected. “Okay, kid,” Tony said, slightly muffled. “Come on in.”
Peter shrugged. He kicked his own shoes off and climbed in, careful to stay on Tony’s uninjured side. Tony was lying on his back; Peter curled around him, mostly on his side, resting his head on his shoulder. It was roomier and more comfortable than he’d expected, more like a cocoon than a hammock, a safe little world with just him and Tony in it. But when he looked up he could still see the trees overhead, moving slowly in the breeze, and a patch of sky with clouds scuttling across it.
“I bought this when Pepper was pregnant with Morgan,” Tony said, once they were both comfortable and settled. “She loved being out here. And now Morgan loves it, too. Sometimes she even takes a nap, and if you know Morgan, you know that’s a goddamn miracle.”
“Yeah, she seems to take after you that way.”
“Oh believe me, I know. Even before she was born, she never seemed to sleep very much. Kept poor Pepper up at all hours. She called her my demon baby.”
Peter laughed unexpectedly. If smiling had felt good, then laughing felt amazing. He wasn’t sure he’d laughed since he’d heard Tony’s heart stop.
Tony smiled at him, a little sadly. “God, Pete, I’ve missed hearing that. You okay? Comfortable?”
“Yeah,” Peter said. “But you promised me a project. Is this it?”
“Nope.” Tony set the tablet on his stomach. “FRIDAY, open Project: Hug My Kids and project it. 3D.”
“Yes, boss,” FRIDAY said, voice tinny from the tablet’s speakers.
A full 3D model of a metal arm was projected over them.
“Whoa,” Peter said, and reached up to spin it around. It was beautiful––silver and sleek and somehow deadly looking, even though it was just an arm.
“T’Challa’s kid sister sent me this,” Tony said. “It’s the arm she made for Barnes. I definitely want to make some changes, but she’s personally promised me the vibranium for it.”
“Wow. A vibranium arm. That is so cool, Tony,” Peter breathed.
“It is pretty cool. And I have to admit, a lot of her tech is better than anything I could’ve done. The neural-interface is incredible, and it has touch sensitivity that’s about 95% of what a flesh arm would have, though Barnes said it still took some getting used to.”
“You need a different color scheme,” Peter pointed out. “Black and silver isn’t right for you at all.”
Tony smiled at him. “I was thinking the same thing.”
“You could match your skin tone,” Peter said, still spinning it idly overhead.
“I could. But I’ve never been subtle before in my life, so why start now?”
“Fair point. You want it to look like an arm of the suit?”
“Not exactly like it. More like... inspired by it.”
Peter hummed thoughtfully. He and Tony started taking the arm apart, talking about possibilities––whether a hidden repulsor was a good idea or just asking for trouble, whether it was possible to hide tools in the fingers without it looking like a cheesy Edward Scissorhands knock-off, whether rose gold might be a good option for a slightly more subtle color scheme.
It was, without a doubt, the safest Peter had felt since he’d woken up the morning of his field trip to MOMA. He started yawning, his eyelids growing heavy. Tony started taking longer to respond, too. Peter could hear his heartbeat starting to slow, his breathing getting longer and deeper. Peter’s eyes drifted shut.
“Shut it off, FRI,” he heard Tony murmur. Peter might have been dreaming by then, but he could swear he felt Tony’s lips brush the top of his head.
“Sweet dreams, kid.”
Peter woke to the splatter of rain against his face. “Argh,” he said, wiping it off, only for more to trickle down on him.
“What the––” Tony mumbled. “Oh shit.”
“Yep, we’re about to get drenched,” Peter said, now very thoroughly awake. The rain was picking up noticeably. They were slightly sheltered beneath the tree, but not really––the drops were fewer but bigger, filtered down through the leaves. “Dammit, how do you get out of this thing?”
“Yeah, that’s the tricky part,” Tony said. “I’m actually not sure how I’m going to do it with one arm. It’s possible I didn’t think this through.”
Peter managed to wallow his way out of the hammock, then turned and hauled Tony out. Together they dashed up the path to the house, with Peter keeping a firm grip on Tony so he didn’t fall in the increasingly slick mud. They made it inside just as it started coming down in sheets.
“Yikes,” Peter remarked, as they stood dripping in the living room. He stared out at what had been a pretty spring day. He could barely see the lake through the rain.
“Yeah, that happens sometimes,” Tony said. “In the summer, we get some pretty impressive thunderstorms. Come on, let’s get changed.”
They squelched upstairs and parted ways to go to their bedrooms. Peter stripped off his wet clothes and towel-dried his hair in the ensuite, then went digging in the dresser for dry clothes. Everything was new––apparently a lot of his things had been stored at the compound––but after six weeks, most of it had been washed a couple times and was starting to feel more familiar. He chose a hoodie that said “I make science puns but only periodically” and the pair of sweatpants that had become his favorite.
It was a little after five o’clock when Peter shuffled back downstairs. He and Tony had been asleep in that hammock for almost four hours, and he hadn’t had a single nightmare. He was still tired––a nap wasn’t going to make up for three nights of no sleep––but his head felt clearer. He put water on for tea and opened the fridge to see what they might make for dinner.
Tony came downstairs a minute or two later. “Pep says she and Morgan are picking up Chinese food,” he said, when he saw Peter standing in front of the fridge. “We don’t need to worry about cooking. They should be home in an hour or so.”
Peter nodded and let the fridge door swing shut. Tony put his arm around Peter’s shoulders, and Peter let his head drop to rest against Tony’s clavicle. “I feel better,” he said, before Tony could ask.
“Good.” This time, when Tony kissed the top of his head, Peter knew he hadn’t dreamed it.
Peter thought about admitting that he didn’t know what would happen that night when he tried to sleep, but the kettle whistled, so he let it go. He made two mugs of tea, and they went into the living room. It was still pouring rain outside, but now that he was warm and dry, Peter didn’t care so much.
“You want to watch some TV?” Tony asked, sitting down on the sofa with his tea.
“We could,” Peter said. The coffee table, with its half-completed tableau of Spiderman and Iron Man caught his eye. “Or... we could finish the puzzle Morgan and I started. If you don’t think she’d mind.”
“She doesn’t have the patience for the full puzzle anyway. But I dunno, Pete,” Tony said wryly. “This is a little meta even for me.”
“Please?” Peter replied. “It kind of makes my mind go quiet.”
Tony’s face softened immediately. “Yeah, sure, kid. Whatever you want.”
Peter pushed the coffee table closer to the sofa so Tony could sit there and work on it. Peter sat on the floor again, cross legged, and lost himself in the soothing process of sorting through the pieces, letting thoughts surface and pop like soap bubbles. He kept quiet until one surfaced and didn’t pop, refusing to leave, and then he cleared his throat.
“Um. You said before that you had nightmares for five years about... about me getting dusted. Is this... am I always going to feel like this?”
“No, kid,” Tony said quietly. “You can actually get out ahead of PTSD. I was going to suggest that we go see Sam next week, see what he thinks we should do. You don’t have to just live with it. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, or a quick fix. You might have nightmares for a while. But nightmares and flashbacks are two different things.”
Peter nodded. He snapped in a piece of Spiderman’s arm. “I’ve had nightmares before. I can handle those. It’s the—the full body memory with all five senses and surround sound that I’m pretty tired of.”
Tony nodded. “We’ll talk to Sam. And I have some ideas to help between now and then.”
Peter relaxed. He trusted Tony to help him. He always had.
“So, uh, how did you end up with one of these puzzles anyway?” Peter asked. “I didn’t think they were making them yet.”
Tony sighed. “They ended up being a very limited run—like five or six hundred, maybe. Only what they made before the first snap. They sent me one, and I shoved it in a closet because I couldn’t bear to look at it, but then we had Morgan and moved here, and somehow it ended up in the game closet. One day, when Morgan was about two, I guess, she pulled it out. She knew about you, of course.” Tony swallowed painfully. “I remember missing you so much, Pete. It’d been three years by then, and it still felt like I’d been stabbed in the gut when she brought it to me. But it also reminded me of how much fun we had together.”
Peter ducked his head, his own throat tightening in sympathy with the crack in Tony’s voice. “We did. So much fun.”
They were both quiet for a moment. “Anyway,” Tony went on at last, his voice still a little rough, “the puzzle is a collector’s item now. I’m probably the only person who lets a four-year-old play with it,” he added with a smile.
Peter shrugged. “We could re-release it. Now that I’m back.”
“Maybe,” Tony said, sounding a little doubtful. “You don’t need to ride my coattails, though, kid. You’re going to be amazing all on your own.”
Peter shook his head. “That’s not it. I just think—I don’t know. I like that people thought of us as a team. And I... I know you’re done. I know you’re hanging up the suit. But maybe just... just this one last time for Spiderman and Iron Man.”
Tony set down the piece he’d been playing with while they talked and reached over to squeeze the back of Peter’s neck. “Maybe. We can talk about it. But, Pete, it’s not one last anything for us. You’re going to help me build the arm, right?” Peter nodded. “Right, so, you see? We’re still a team. The fact that I’m not going out in the suit anymore doesn’t change that.
Peter nodded again, unable to speak. Instead he leaned over and rested his head against Tony’s knee. Tony buried his fingers in Peter’s hair, and Peter squeezed his eyes shut.
It took him a few minutes to recover, but finally he sat up and the two of them kept working. By the time Pepper and Morgan returned, they had most of Iron Man and the lettering on The Amazing Spiderman filled in.
Morgan ran in ahead of Pepper, yelling, “Daaaaaaaaddyyyyyyy!” and threw herself at Tony.
Tony caught her expertly, even with one arm. “Morguna! Did you have a good day with Mom?”
“Yep. We went to the park and we got our hair cut and we went shopping and we ate lunch. I had a cheeseburger and a soda and Mommy had a salad and a min—a mim—a mimoose.”
“A mimosa,” Tony corrected, shooting Pepper a grin. Pepper, setting bags of Chinese food on the kitchen table, winked back at him. “Treats all around, then.”
“Yeah! And we got ice cream, too. And Chinese food for dinner!”
“That sounds like a very good day,” Tony remarked.
Morgan nodded. “‘Cept we missed you and Peter.”
“We missed you guys, too,” Tony said, and kissed her on the forehead.
“Did you two have a good day?” Pepper asked, coming to perch on the arm of the sofa.
“We did,” Tony said, glancing at Peter. “We had lunch and took a nap in the hammock.”
“Mmm,” she said. “Anything else?”
“Played around with the prosthesis for a bit?” Tony said, looking faintly puzzled. “Came in when it started raining and worked on the puzzle?”
Pepper gave him a wry look. “You forgot to wash the evidence out of the coffee pot.”
“Oh,” Tony said. “That.”
“Yes, that.” Pepper sighed. “Well, it doesn’t seem like it hurt you any. You were able to nap this afternoon?”
“Yep,” Tony said. “Though to be fair, I think I only had about half a cup.”
“Text Helen tonight and get the official go-ahead,” Pepper told him, “just for my peace of mind. But if it didn’t cause you any problems, I guess there’s no point in restricting it.” She leaned over and kissed Tony, then kissed Morgan. She got up, and to Peter’s great surprise, she kissed him on the top of the head as she passed by. “Dinner in a few minutes, all right? And then family movie night.”
“Yay, movie night!” Morgan yelled, throwing her arms up in the air and nearly breaking Tony’s nose.
Tony followed Pepper into the kitchen. Morgan put her hands on the coffee table and surveyed the work Tony and Peter had done on the puzzle. Peter gave her the last of the pieces for the Amazing Spiderman lettering, and she snapped them into place. She looked a bit like Tony when she concentrated, Peter thought; they had the same forehead wrinkle. But she also scrunched up her nose and stuck her tongue out, neither of which looked anything like Tony.
He was aware that Pepper and Tony were talking about him. At one point, Tony left the kitchen, and Peter somehow knew that he was going to go call May and let her know what was going on. He might’ve also been calling Sam; Peter was less sure about that.
He could’ve listened in on any of those conversations, if he’d let himself. But to his surprise, he wasn't really tempted to. He was awfully tired, and he was so, so glad to let Tony and May and Pepper handle things for a while. Tony had been where he was, after all. He knew the way out.
Tony returned just as they were dishing out Chinese food. They ate at the table, since Tony was feeling up to it, and then they all piled on the sofa to watch Moana together. Tony stretched out with his head in Pepper’s lap and his feet in Peter’s. Morgan scrunched up on Pepper’s other side, except for when she jumped up to dance during the musical numbers.
She knew all the words to every song. She couldn’t carry a tune, but what she lacked in musical ability, she made up for in enthusiasm. And volume. Peter tried to hide his wincing, but from the knowing grin Tony shot him, Peter suspected he hadn’t been entirely successful.
It was nice. It made Peter feel like part of the family in a way he hadn’t quite felt yet. But the later it got, the more he realized that at some point, they were all going to go to bed, and nothing about today had changed his fundamental problem. He couldn’t fucking sleep.
Tony fell asleep toward the end of the movie, and somehow, that made things worse. By the time the credits rolled, Peter was back to being a ball of nerves and anxiety and feeling like he couldn’t say anything about it. There wasn’t anything anyone could do, after all. And he’d slept four hours that afternoon; that was a lot better than nothing. He could get by on four hour naps if he had to. It wasn’t that much less than he’d gotten when he’d been juggling school and Spiderman.
(All right, so four was less than six, and he’d always made sure to get at least six, because he was kind of a zombie on less than six hours of sleep. But four was a lot more than zero, so the point was, Peter could deal. Peter had no choice but to deal.)
Peter volunteered to put the dishes in the dishwasher, mostly to avoid going up right away. Pepper gave him a smile and kissed him on the cheek, and then shepherded a sleepy Tony and a complaining Morgan up the stairs to bed. Peter took his time putting everything in, then wiped down the counters and rinsed out the coffee pot for good measure.
Finally, he really had no choice. He turned off the lights and went upstairs.
At the top of the stairs, he paused. He could hear Pepper and Morgan’s voices in her room. The door to Pepper and Tony’s room was shut, and Peter stood for a few seconds looking at it. Tony was probably already asleep, and Peter knew he couldn’t wake him up. He sighed and went into his own room.
Tony was sitting on the bed, in his pajamas. “Hey, kid.”
Peter blinked at him. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be asleep by now.”
Tony patted the spot next to him on the bed. Peter sat down. “So, I couldn’t help but notice that you slept pretty well this afternoon. Why do you think that was?”
“I mean...” Peter glanced away. “You were with me. I’m pretty sure that was it.”
Tony nodded, looking unsurprised. “So, we need to work on long term solutions, and we will, but in the meantime, how would you feel about me staying here with you at night?”
Peter stared at him in surprise. “But––I can’t––you and Pepper––”
“Pep and I talked about this,” Tony said. “So did May and me, for that matter. It’s a temporary situation. But you’ve gotta sleep, kid, and if me being here makes that possible, then we’re all on board. How do you feel about it?”
Peter tried to sort out how he felt about it. “I’m... kind of embarrassed, I guess, that you have to,” he finally admitted. “But I’m also relieved. I was stressing out about being awake all night again.”
“So it’s all right with you?”
“Yeah, Tony,” Peter said, giving him a small, grateful smile. "It’s more than all right with me.”
Tony looked relieved himself. “Good, I’m glad. Go get changed. I’m gonna crash pretty soon.”
Peter changed in the bathroom into a pair of pajama pants that were almost but not quite the same as the Hello Kitty pants that Tony had bought him after the ferry debacle, along with a soft, long sleeved henley. He came out to find that Tony had gotten into bed, leaving Peter the space between him and the wall, where Tony would be able to put his arm around him. Peter climbed over him and crawled under the covers. Tony slid down on his back and put his arm around him, and Peter snuggled up close like he had in the hammock.
It’d started raining again. He could hear it pattering on the eaves of the house overhead. The house was a little chilly, but inside Peter felt warm and protected, just like he had that afternoon.
“Wake me if you need to, kid, all right?” Tony murmured in a drowsy voice.
“Mmm,” Peter said, promising nothing, and fell asleep.
He woke once in the night, to Morgan crawling into bed with them.
“Sweetheart, remember what we said?” Tony mumbled, sounding only half awake. “If you couldn’t sleep, you’d go stay with Mom, remember?”
“But Mom’s asleep,” she whispered. “You and Pete don’t sleep.”
“Baby, we were all asleep. Come here.” Tony wriggled over, shifting Peter just a little, and Morgan climbed up. “One book, all right?”
“All right,” she said. “I brought Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus, ‘cause it’s your favorite.”
“It is my favorite,” Tony agreed. “Are you comfy? I’m sorry I can’t hold you. Peter needs my arm right now.”
“That’s okay. I can hold you,” Morgan replied. Peter felt her throw her arm across Tony’s stomach. Her hand landed on his head.
“Careful, Morgan,” Tony said. His hand smoothed Peter’s hair back. Peter had the feeling Tony wasn’t fooled in the slightest but was willing to let Peter go on faking it.
Tony started to read. Peter pressed his face into his side, listened to the rain on the roof of the house, and slept.