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The Heart of the Starks: Downfall

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  “Leukemia?”

  Tony’s mind went blank as his wife repeated the diagnosis in disbelief. Both of them were sitting inside the doctor’s office where the oncologist dropped the news bomb on them.

  The doctor nodded with a grim face.

  “It seemed it had progressed quite a lot. And we’ve found out that it had already moved to his brain, too.”

  Tony opened his mouth to retort but his brains were in no capability to provide adequate words. Heck, they weren’t even unable to form any thoughts or functions. He was literally breaking down.

  Pepper seemed to take the news better. On the outside. But Tony could tell from her shaky voice how hard she was crumbling inside.

  “So he needs chemotherapy?” She asked. “It is curable, right? Leukemia, it’s… it’s not lethal anymore, is it?”

  The doctor pursed his lips and let out a deep sigh.

  “It is true that the mortality rate had… decreased,” he began. The way he cautiously chose the words made it obvious that Tony was not going to like what he will say.

  “But Peter’s case…. Although we can try some treatments, he is too far along with it already that none of the methods we can provide will be effective.”

  Tony was absolutely right. He did not like what he heard -- not one bit of it.

  “No…” Pepper muttered next to him. She covered her mouth with both hands.

  "Even the chemotherapy will only be able to prolong his life by a couple of months at most, and it is… painful," the doctor continued. "What we normally suggest the most is providing the best conditions for comfort as he gets ready for…"

  Tony bit his lip and clenched his fist to suppress his outburst. Pepper had buried her head in her hands and was sobbing. 

  "If you-- if Peter wants to get the treatment, he can. I'll leave that up to you and him to decide."

  Tony knew in the back of his mind that he probably had to hold Pepper and comfort her, but more part of his brain was not functioning properly. He couldn’t even cry. He couldn’t even say a word. Instead, he just sat there in the most uncomfortable chair in his life, letting the numbness take over his body. No sound was heard and no sight entered his eyes. The doctor had considerately enough to leave the grieving parents alone in his office to take the moments they needed, but Tony was hardly aware of it. 

 


 

 

  Pepper didn’t know how much time she spent crying. She knew that she had to get back to her children, but she also knew that she couldn’t do so with a tear-stained face. But she couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t a matter of effort. Her kid, the boy with the brightest energy and even brighter future no longer had a future. How could anyone tell her not to despair?

  She did return to her kids eventually with her husband, with her smile and affection pulled up on her face with greatest effort. Inside the private room were Peter and Morgan sitting on the bed. The two of them were smiling as they said something to each other in hushed voices. It was such a usual and heart-warming sight but couldn’t be more heartbreaking in the eyes of their parents. The two children turned their heads toward their parents.

  “When are we going home, Mommy?” Morgan asked instantly. She was practically twisting her entire body out of boredom. 

  Pepper had to swallow hard before being able to respond, “Soon, honey.”

  Tony quietly went over to the chair next to the bed and sat in front of his kids. Peter eyed his parents without the word. Pepper knew that her son would pick up the atmosphere sooner than later.

  Morgan hopped off the bed.

  “I wanna go to the bathroom,” she said.

  Pepper and Tony exchanged looks for a brief moment. The two agreed in silence to take care of each kid. Pepper smiled down at Morgan and took her hand. She led the girl out of the room, leaving the two men in awkward silence. She wasn't sure who she felt bad for more: herself who had to tell Morgan or Tony who was about to break the news to Peter. She was sure about one thing, though -- that it broke her heart. No, it broke her whole being into an infinite number of pieces.

  Why it had to be her Peter, she just couldn't know.

 


 

 

  When Harley came home from school that day, he noticed the uneasy air in the house. Throughout the day, he had been trying to forget about the abrupt commotion. He reassured himself that it was just their helicopter parents exaggerating and being overprotective as they ever were. It was hard to do so with his brother being absent from school for a medical examination. But he just thought whatever caused Peter’s condition wasn’t that big of a deal. He just hoped so.

  The air that greeted him in his home told him otherwise. The eerie silence crept through his nerves that it almost physically itched. He looked around the floor, genuinely wishing for someone to shoot down the uneasy feelings for him. There, however, was no one in sight.

  “FRIDAY,” Harley asked, placing his backpack on the couch in the lounge. “Where’s everyone?”

  “Boss is currently in the science lab with Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho. Mrs. Stark and your sister are currently in your sister’s room. Shall I alert them of your arrival?”

  Just then, the elevator door opened. Harley turned around to see Happy walking out of it.

  “Hey, kid,” Happy greeted him. Although it looked different from his usual ones, for there was a shade of darkness looming over his face.

  “Hey, Happy,” Harley returned.

  Happy opened his mouth as if he was about to say something. He wasn’t so subtle with the way he changed his mind and shook his head. Harley glanced at him.

  “What?” He said.

  Happy sighed.

  “I think it’ll be better for you to hear from your parents.”

  Harley frowned.

  “What is it, Happy?” He said. He was fully aware that he more or less snapped at the man. It was probably the ungrounded fear in his heart. “Did something happen?”

  Happy didn’t answer.

  “What is it?” Harley said again. Then it clicked in his head. “Is it about Peter?”

  There were soft footsteps behind him.

  “Harley,” his mom softly called.

  Harley turned around.

  "Is something wrong?" He said.

  He could see that his mother was very clearly trying to manage the media smile (it was a name that he and his brother gave her all-business smile and facade she wore in press conferences). She never put on that face at home.

  “Mom, what is it?”

  Pepper refused to answer.

  “How was school?”

  “Mom, just tell me,” Harley said. He was slowly losing his patience. “What’s going on?”

  “Your brother….” Pepper began but stopped herself. Harley felt something falling hard within him. So it was about Peter. He waited for his mother to finish her sentence. She took a deep breath before she continued. “Peter has… leukemia.”

  Harley could only stare at her as if she had just announced that she was a secret Hydra agent. The words that he had just heard were pure nonsense.

  “What?” He blurted out.

  Pepper’s eyes welled up as wordlessly nodded. It didn’t take more than a second before she began crying.

  Harley thought back on the word.

  Leukemia.

  It all made sense now. All the symptoms that he had seen, all the signs that he had noticed, all the dots that he failed to (or more like chose not to) connect. They all made sense with one simple word.

  And Harley hated it. He hated that it all made sense. He hated that it all had to make sense.

  “He has leukemia?” Harley repeated slowly. “Cancer?”

  Once again, Pepper could only nod as tears fell down her cheeks. That was enough indication for Harley to see the severity of the situation.

  “Is… is he dying?” He asked -- and frankly, he didn’t want to hear the answer.

  Pepper wiped her tears away and swallowed hard. That was just enough answer in itself.

  “The doctor…” she said. “The doctor said that he has a month. Two at most.”

  Harley could only stare at his mother.

  That was just bullshit.

 


 

 

  Slowly, the news spread among the people around him. Of course, it was kept a secret from the media and everything, but Tony and Pepper alerted the school. Ned had to be notified of the fact, no matter how painful it was for Peter to tell his best friend that he will be perishing within a month or so. One by one, the Avengers were told of it as well.

  So many changes were made. Everyone began to walk on eggshells around him. Suddenly he became the most fragile being on Earth. Pity was permanently present in everyone’s eyes. Numerous questions were asked. Most of them were variations of constant “are you okay?”, “how are you?”, and “are you feeling sick?”

  Peter was getting sick of it all. It had only been about a week since they all found out about Peter’s illness, and Peter was already tired of everyone just constantly hovering over him. Maybe it was due to the fact that he had refused to take any extra means other than the basic medication prescribed for the occasional pain, but really, he didn’t want to go through the pain and suffering just to prolong a couple of months of his already fucked up life. He was dying. That was an established fact that everyone just needed to accept. When he’s going down, he was going down with dignity and not in desperation for false hope. He made it clear to everyone over and over again.

  So he was really okay. Or rather, he had to be when everyone else was freaking out and doing the worrying for him. He felt fine so as not to be eaten alive by the fear of death or the sorrow that he will be all alone while all his family and friends were left behind. He decided to be fine so that his family wasn’t shattered because of him. 

  His family was breaking down, alright.

  Tony spent most of his time of day locked up in the lab with Dr. Helen Cho and Dr. Bruce Banner. Although he didn’t really disclose any detailed information, everyone knew that he was searching for a way to cure his son. Pepper was cutting down her workload. She was only taking on the minimum role and responsibility as the CEO and tried to spend as much time with her kids as possible. Of course, the ‘minimum’ work was still a lot, so she was basically cutting down on her rest and sleep more than anything. Harley always kept Peter within his eyesight whether they were in school or at home. He got extra sensitive about any sign of discomfort or harm with Peter and was on edge at all times to the point of being obsessive and dysfunctional. Still, the two of them were in different grades. So, when he couldn’t be at Peter’s side, that role was passed onto Ned who was just as paranoid and worried as Harley himself. Morgan was probably the only person in the family not to have so visibly changed, but that didn’t mean that she hadn’t picked up on the uncomfortable atmosphere. Peter could clearly see that even she was cautious and scared of approaching Peter.

  These, all combined, caused the unseeable yet very present tension and friction, with every single one of them on the verge of blowing up and snapping at one another with just the slightest disturbance. Peter hated that. He hated seeing everyone being stressed out. He hated that it was him who caused all of those. Fear, pain, sorrow, and frustration. He had caused that crack in his family and the entire thing was about to break apart.

  Thus, he became fine. He couldn't afford feeling all those things himself. He had to keep the balance -- even if he was the only one doing so. Nobody could know how scared he was to die. No one could know how desperate he wanted to hold on: how badly he didn't want to go. He couldn't do more damage than he already had by showing that he was crumbling within.

  “So just shut up and stop asking me that!” He finally snapped after Harley’s hovering.

  Harley immediately closed his mouth shut. He stared at Peter, who was breathing hard from the sudden burst of energy and emotions. It did make him a little light-headed, so he turned away from his brother -- both out of the decency to feel a little guilty and to hide his dizziness.

  “I said I’m fine,” he mumbled with his back turned toward Harley. He pretended to sort out the books in his lockers without the actual need to do so. Even when he was completely turned away from Harley, he could feel his gaze on his back.

  Peter sighed quietly to himself and closed the door of his locker. He began to walk away from his brother, but the moment he took one step, he stumbled. It was very brief and more of a flinch than a full-on stumble, or so he thought -- which was why Peter hoped Harley didn't notice. Unfortunately, it turned out that either he wasn't so subtle in his physical state or Harley was indeed highly sensitive to Peter's condition to let it slide, for he instantly grabbed Peter's arm.

  "Whoa," was Harley's vocal reaction, with a sprinkle of concern. "You ok--"

  There was an abrupt stop in the middle of the sentence. Clearly, Harley took Peter's outburst to his heart. Peter hung his head low in frustration. Annoyance was very much present that he was not confident enough to look at his brother without another emotional breakdown.

  “You’re fine, obviously,” Harley’s voice came from behind his back. The usual sass and sarcasm had returned. 

  “Don’t,” Peter managed to say through gritted teeth. “Not now, Harley. Please.”

  The sudden rollercoaster ride of emotions really wasn’t pleasant, especially with the headache that had been already plaguing him throughout that morning.

  Harley, surprisingly, didn’t respond immediately. Peter knew that he had his piercing gaze still locked on him. It made him want to squirm out of his grasp and vanish out of his sight. Sadly, he didn’t have enough energy to fight Harley.

  The class bell rang and Peter took it as a chance to escape.

  “See you later,” he said before trying to take another step. Only to fail.

  Harley didn’t let him go. In fact, his grip on Peter’s arm tightened. He used the momentum to pull Peter back and turn him around. Peter hated that he couldn’t even fight and obliged to the force.

  Harley looked at him sternly. Peter glared back. He looked at his brother scan his face with a clenched jaw. Then, without a word, Harley started to pull Peter in the opposite direction.

  “We have class,” Peter grunted. It was the best way he could protest as he was dragged along by his brother. 

  “I don’t care,” Harley simply said. 

  This time, Peter sighed out loud. He knew so well that there was no way to get out of it; he could never win Harley when he was determined even in his full health. That didn’t mean it didn’t piss him off. 

  The two of them passed through the stream of students in the opposite direction. Harley was still grabbing Peter’s arm tightly and didn’t stop or look back at him even once until they reached one of the storage rooms in the deserted side of the school. Harley locked the door before facing Peter.

  “Spill,” he said.

  Peter looked at anywhere but where Harley was standing. 

  “I don’t have anything to say, Harley,” he said. “Leave me alone--”

  “’Cause you’re fine,” Harley stepped in to finish the sentence for him. He crossed his arms across his chest. “I get it, ’cause you’ve been saying that for weeks now. But I don’t buy that bullshit. You’re not fine, Peter.”

  “Since when do you know how I feel?” Peter snapped. He felt instant guilt but tried to ignore it and focus on how annoying Harley was being. But when he looked up at Harley, the wall that he was trying so hard to build crumbled under his brother’s gaze.

  “Always,” said Harley after a pause. “Now start talking.”

  Peter rubbed his face with his hand. Yes. He knew that Harley knew he was not fine. He knew that Harley just cared that much about him. Harley loved Peter enough to know. He knew that there’s no hiding about it anymore. 

  But, at the same time, that was exactly why Peter couldn’t just break down before him. Then it was also exactly why Peter couldn’t help breaking down before him.

  That was exactly why Peter had tears that he couldn’t hold back any longer.

  “Just…” he said, his voice breaking. “Can’t you just leave me alone?”

  “Well, is the sky green?” The sarcasm was present but it didn’t contain any humor or laughter.

  Peter looked away. He didn’t want to be any weaker than he already was.

  “I’m fine,” he repeated. But it was too late as his voice was shaking and choked up.

  “Pete,” came from Harley. Peter should have been surprised at how his voice was also breaking. Then again, it was Harley, the annoyingly hovering helicopter brother. So it didn’t shake Peter when he said, “Why are you so fucking stupid?”

  Peter pursed his lips as if he was trying to restrain himself from bursting. He was fully aware of it -- he knew he was being stubborn and headstrong. But then, who wasn’t? His dad, his mom, and even Harley (or rather, especially Harley) were all being stupid at this point.

  Peter pondered for a moment if he should give an honest answer. It seemed like the easiest and the only option available, considering how those words were lingering on his tongue, just ready to spill out. Yet, at the same time, a part of him was against throwing any more chaos to the already messed up situation. That was his rationality speaking. 

  However, the subconsciousness of his heart and emotions took over him before he could even attempt any kind of control over his mind.

  “I have to be, don’t I?” He mumbled. As the words came out, his mind cursed himself and warned him not to say any further. But it was a losing battle. Once the first drop managed to seep through the crack, the entire dam broke and all the pent-up emotions flooded out. “I’m sick of ruining everything. I don’t want to ruin everyone’s life anymore!”

  “You’re not,” said Harley. It came out so immediately and quickly that it sounded more automatic and meaningless than heartfelt.

  “Really?” Peter snapped, looking directly at Harley for the first time that day. “Don’t you dare try to deceive me, Harley. You’re not fucking blind. You’re not stupid. You see what everyone is like. You see how tense every single day is. Heck, you walk on eggshells around me, always hovering like I’m just going to drop dead all of a sudden! All of you are!”

  Peter felt his eyes watering with warm tears. Harley didn’t even try to answer. Peter looked away like he didn’t want to show his tears. It seemed like the sudden explosion of emotions used all the energy he had. His emotions were still overflowing but his body seemed to be giving out. He took a shaky breath as he leaned against a large box that was placed right behind him.

  “I hate it,” Peter continued ranting but with a voice toned down a notch. “I hate how you guys always have to care for me. I hate it so much that I’m ruining everyone’s lives.”

  Harley opened his mouth with a small flinch as if he was trying to object, but it didn’t stop Peter.

  “I hate being sick, Harley,” he choked. “I hate it so much that I don’t have time left.”

  Harley took a short gasp of breath as he rubbed his face with his hand. There was no way this conversation was not being a heavy one. This was exactly why Peter had been avoiding this kind of situation for so long -- that is, until Harley stupidly tried and succeeded to pull it out of him. Peter shook his head with a humorless laugh.

  “I can’t…” He said. “I can’t… I know I shouldn’t, but… I just keep thinking, why me?”

  “Peter.” Harley’s voice was nothing more than a whisper.

  “Just why does it have to be me?” Peter continued. 

  Silence fell between them. Yet, before it could last, Peter found himself being embraced by his brother. Tears finally streamed down his face.

  “That,” he felt Harley’s voice through the vibration of the skin on his neck. “That is the question, isn’t it?”

  Peter remained still as he felt the warmth of Harley’s hug. To be able to feel it seemed like a proof that he was still alive.

  “I don’t want to die, Harley,” Peter muttered against Harley’s shoulder. He then raised his hands and clutched his brother’s cloth. “I don’t want to die like this. I want to go to college, I want to drink, I want to drive... “

  He felt Harley’s grip tighten around him.

  “I want to be sixteen,” said Peter. “I want to live.”

  There was a muffled sniffle. Peter could easily guess that Harley was probably crying as he was. 

  “I want you to live,” Harley said. “I don’t… I can’t lose you, Peter. I can’t.”

  Peter buried his face in Harley’s shoulder and cried, not thinking about how wet his shirt was going to be. Nothing really mattered at the moment. Not even time itself seemed to be present in that small storage room in the wall. There were just two brothers, clinging to each other and trying to defy the inevitable fate -- wishing harder than anything for victory while knowing that there was nothing but defeat awaiting them.

  Still, Harley said sternly.

  “I don’t want you to go.”

 


 

 

  It was three weeks after the visit to the hospital when Peter was moved to the medical floor of the building. It was the day when FRIDAY said Peter and Harley’s school called. Not soon after the alert, Morgan saw her father frantically run to the elevator. Later, Morgan was told that he got so sick at school and had to stay in the medical recovery room from then on. Peter spent the whole day sleeping. Or, that was what everyone said about her brother, but she knew that there was something more that the adults opted not to tell her.

  Morgan asked her mom if she could go visit him five times a day. And that was when she was very patient. Mostly, she just stayed around Peter's room all day long. It was because, of course, Morgan liked her brother Peter very much. Yet, that was not the only reason why she loved spending time in his new room. That was the only room she could get away from all the uncomfortable tension of her family.

  Ever since Peter got sick, everyone easily got angry. Harley spent less time playing with Morgan. Even when he did, he didn’t really seem to concentrate on what he was doing. Her dad spent all day every day in the science lab. Not even Morgan could make him smile anymore. Her mom was a little better than everyone, but even when she was smiling, Morgan felt like she was secretly crying. Other adults, including the Avengers and Happy, tried to act as usual around her, they were never the same as before. If anyone was the same as before, it was Peter.

  Thus, she chose to spend more time in Peter’s room than anywhere else. Even if Peter couldn’t sit with her while she drew or build different things with Lego blocks, just being with Peter was relaxing -- even if Peter was getting thinner and weaker everyday. Whenever Morgan opened the door, Peter turned his head from the book he was reading and smiled at her.

  “Hey, Mor,” Peter would greet. “What you got there today?”

  Morgan grinned as she walked up to Peter’s bed and sat on the chair next to it.

  “I made another paper flower,” she said, stretching her arm out and handing him the said object.

  “Ooh,” said Peter, receiving and observing it. “Yellow today?”

  “Yup,” Morgan answered.

  “Thank you,” her brother said brightly. “I’ll keep them well with all the others.”

  Morgan watched her brother turn to the bedside table and place the paper flower on top of it. 

  “Peter?”

  “Hmm?” Peter looked back at her as he returned to his former sitting position. 

  “Get better soon?”

  Peter hesitated a little before he pulled a small smile on his lips.

  “I’ll try,” he answered.

  Morgan looked at him with her best pleading eyes.

  “I want to have cheeseburgers with you again,” she said. “And go to the park with Harley and mom and dad.”

  Peter’s eyes turned a little sad.

  “Me too, Mor,” he said. “Me too.”

  The look on Peter’s face stirred Morgan. She was suddenly terrified and overwhelmed with the need to hold him.

  “I love you,” she said, more instinctively than out of intention.

  “I love you, too,” Peter replied. He reached his hand out to Morgan. And she held onto him.

  “Promise you won’t leave?” She asked quietly.

  Peter paused for a moment and looked at her without saying anything. Morgan also looked back at him with a pouty face. 

  “I won’t,” he said. “I’ll always stay with you.”

  For some reason, Morgan couldn’t really believe him. Yet, she slowly nodded.

  She didn’t realize that he would break his promise only less than a week later.