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Air I Breathe

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It's the same fight all over again
It's the same bite breaking on my skin
It's the same light when you let me in
You let me in you let me in
You are the air I breathe
-"Air I Breathe" by Mat Kearney

Chapter 1
Friday, December 20

Peter’s StarkWatch vibrates on his wrist just as Mrs. Benninger, his chemistry teacher, deigns to claim that CATions are PAWS-itive in a last-ditch effort to make the topic even more cringe worthy than it already is. He stifles a laugh, which quickly becomes a short series of coughs, curses this stupid cold he has, and waits for Mrs. Benninger to have her back to the class to look at his message.

FRIDAY says your heart rate’s been high, Tony texts. You okay, kiddo?

He closes his eyes and tries to think of a response.

Truth is, his lungs feel like they’re filling with thick, heavy sludge. It’s been like this for a few days, but he’s brushed it off as indoor allergies since his school was built in the early 1800s and probably has dust from then lurking in the shadows. It wasn’t that bad until he ran for the subway this morning, the chilled December air causing his lungs to seize before forcing honking, choking coughs that left Peter leaning against a random brick building taking puffs from his rescue inhaler. He hasn’t had to use it in a few weeks, but he has an awful, nagging feeling that this morning was only the beginning of another downward spiral.

Karen, his AI, has been sending him high heart rate alerts all day, and now he knows that Tony’s been getting them, too. At first, he thought maybe it was the two large coffees and the inhaler, but then he’d hit 140 after he had run up from four floors and was subsequently late to his trig class because he couldn’t get the coughing to stop. Cheeks red and eyes watering, he went into the bathroom to wash his face, take his inhaler, and calm his breathing down. It had taken nearly 15 minutes, and he’d had to lie and chalk it up to a stomachache to avoid getting detention.

It’s not until now, in his chem classroom which has always been a few degrees below Antarctica, that he thinks he might have a fever. He had an inkling earlier, when Ned, who is never cold, was bundled up in English class and Peter felt like he was sitting on the surface of the sun, but Karen hasn’t alerted to a fever, so he’d shrugged and pulled his sweatshirt off. He’s been holding out on going to the nurse or calling home because there’s only three periods of school left before MJ’s Christmas party at her apartment in Chelsea, and Peter has been looking forward to this for weeks. He’s got an ugly Christmas sweater ready to go, one that reads “Tis the Season to Be Amazing” with Spiderman hanging upside down by his web shooters. It was going to be his conversation starter, the lead-in to telling MJ just how amazing she is and much he likes her. Tonight needs to happen. Has to happen, because Tony is having a New Year’s Eve party in a week’s time and Peter is planning on kissing MJ at midnight.

With her permission, of course.

But he can’t get her permission if he doesn’t have the chance to tell her how he feels and invite her. He’s already planned to take a quick nap, dose up on Dayquil, and catch the subway to be there by 7. It’s just a cold, after all.

He feels his StarkWatch vibrate again, but this time it’s Karen. Peter, you currently have a fever of 102.4. Shit. He rubs at his chest, which is feeling kind of funny, and sniffles to keep his nose from running all over his note packet. His pencil rolls off of the desk and it takes him a moment to register that it’s hit the tile.

“Peter?” he hears MJ whisper from the seat beside him as she tries to push his pencil on the floor toward him with her foot. “You don’t look so hot.” And Peter would laugh if he could, because he’s definitely burning up and sweating through his t-shirt in late December, but right now he’s feeling like he’s stuck in his own webbing, his muscles tight and sluggish as he tries to get his body to cooperate and react.

“Need something, man?” Ned asks from behind him.

“I’m okay,” he whispers back, but even he’s not convinced. He feels the world around him spin as he leans over and gets a false grip on the back of his chair, his body tumbling forward, and suddenly he’s on the floor, the underside of desks with globs of gum stuck beneath them and stark white ceiling tiles filling his view before his eyelids, heavy and burning from the lighting, close.

x

Peter feels like he’s stuck in a cloud when he opens his eyes, everything too bright and fuzzy for his liking. He puts a hand up and tries desperately to lift himself up with his free hand.

“Woah, there, take it easy, kid,” Tony is saying as he gently guides Peter down onto the crinkly paper of the nurse’s office cot.

Peter licks his dry lips and tries to get his eyes to adjust to the brightness, his chest muscles pulling as he struggles to breathe against gravity. “Tony?” His voice is weak, full of fear and confusion and Jesus, he feels like his body is on fire. Why is everything on fire?

“Right here, bud.”

“Wha’s goin’ on? Where’s May?”

“Still on her business trip. You’ve got a pretty high fever and your heart rate is through the roof. Gonna get you home and get both of them down, okay?”

“Did I pass out?” He closes his eyes in embarrassment because he knows he did, knows that he’s scared the shit out of Ned and Mrs. Benninger and MJ.

MJ.

Ugh.

“It’s okay, it happens. The important thing is that you’ve only got a small bump on your head. Nothing major.”

Peter grazes his hairline with his fingertips, coming up with nothing until he touches just above his ear. He hisses as he passes over a small lump.

“Got some ice for the road,” Tony says, placing the pack gingerly atop the affected area. “Happy’s waiting for us downstairs. Think you can sit up?”

Peter nods without thinking, the nurse appearing with a wheelchair. Peter wants to protest, but he barely makes a face. His head is pounding and he’s finding it hard to get enough air in, the change in his blood pressure as Tony helps him sit up making his head pound. If death was a feeling, he thinks, this is surely it.

x

“Didn’t need to pass out on us to get our attention, Pete,” Bruce jokes as he listens to Peter’s chest again in the MedBay. Peter’s kicking himself for thinking Tony would bring him anywhere but here after fainting at school. They’ve got him hooked up to oxygen in the form of an annoying nasal cannula that’s making his nose itch and a misting nebulizer mouthpiece that only seems to be making him cough. He’s miserable, hates that Bruce made him put on a stupid gown and monitors to track his heart rate and oxygen levels. Peter lost count after the eighth vial of blood that was taken, each glance over having made his stomach flip. He knows he’s sick, has something brewing in his lungs, and hopes that within the next hour he can just hide away in his room doing breathing treatments and playing video games. “I’m thinking bronchitis because of the cough, but I’ll have Dr. Cho confirm with x-rays. Have you been taking your inhalers?”

If there’s one question he hates being asked, it’s how often he’s been taking his meds. Peter never asked for a spider bite to come along and change his life, one that not only gave him superpowers, but also an overactive immune system that just so happens to impact the simple act of breathing. He likes to think that anyone who actually knows what it’s like to have asthma would never ask that question so nonchalantly, and doctors, Bruce and Dr. Cho specifically, always feel privy to what feels like very personal information to Peter. But he knows he has to give it up, that Tony thinks the data from the sensors that he’s installed on each of his different inhalers to track his compliance is some kind of insurance plan on Peter’s shitty lungs and won’t be happy to hear the truth. He’s not ready for Tony to learn that he’s just been spraying them into the air rather than breathing them in and dealing with the side effects, wishes he could crawl up into a ball beneath the scratchy white blanket over his legs and wait for everyone to leave to come back out.

He knows that isn’t going to happen, though, not with the way Tony hasn’t so much as smiled since he picked Peter up from school. He’s standing at the foot of the bed trying not to look stone-faced, but Peter can see the way his eyes are laser-focused on the monitors. On Peter. He can’t tell if Tony knows already, is angry or disappointed or scared, and it only makes Peter feel worse. He wants Tony to answer, wants him to reassure Bruce that FRIDAY has all of the data she needs to answer his question.

The room stays silent except for the beeping of the monitor and compressor of the nebulizer.

Peter pulls the mouthpiece out and swallows hard. “Not really,” he finally manages, closing his eyes. He wants to cry, but he’s not sure his lungs can handle it. At the moment, they feel like they’re about to shatter. Or burst. Maybe even both. Tears pool behind his closed eyelids, finally sliding from the edges and down his cheeks as he tries to keep himself composed. “I-I...I’m sorry. This is still new to me…and I don’t like how they make me so wired…” He takes a shuddering breath and continues with “Colleges look at your junior year grades and the meds just…make my ADHD worse…and then when I’m Spiderman, it’s like I can’t get…my brain to think…and I was afraid that I’d fu-…sorry, mess up, and I really….really don’t want you to be…mad at me…’cause…’cause…” He’s run out of air, is trying to suck in whatever he can from the oxygen under his nose, but his lungs don’t seem to be taking it, feel full even as he tries to expand them.

Alarm bells from the monitors are sounding, and he almost doesn’t hear Tony ask, “Peter? Hey, stay with me bud,” from his bedside.

Bruce is raising the bed as he says, “I need you to relax, Pete. Can you try to do that?”

He wheezes in return, his hand gripping the blanket as he uses all of his last available energy to get one decent breath in. “Can’t breathe,” he whispers as he focuses on Tony, but instead it comes out as a long, painful, drawn-out wheeze. He’s sure his eyes are opened as wide as can be, can feel his shoulder muscles tighten, lungs itching to cough as he begs them to calm the fuck down because he’s not even sure he can get the trapped air out.

Peter’s had attacks, has been in this exact bed in MedBay with Bruce listening to his chest while he takes a breathing treatment, but this? This is something entirely new. He’s never felt darkness fill the edges of his vision like this, nor has he felt like he was drowning on dry land. Scared feels like too easy of a description to use, feels worlds away from whatever the fuck this is.

He’s mouthing, gasping, the word help over and over as Dr. Cho rushes in. Suddenly, there’s a mask over his nose and mouth, and he feels the IV as it’s inserted into his hand. He can taste the saline on his tongue and grimaces, but soon, he can feel his lungs loosening just a little, listens as the wheezes grow more sporadic. Tony pulls Peter’s hand from its grip on the blanket, his fingers relaxing as they’re held tightly. He tries to look over, but the mask tugs, the mist blurring his vision and ability to focus.

“Help,” he continues mouthing, because his voice just won’t work, but he’s not sure anyone can see behind the mist that must be a double albuterol neb because Peter’s heart feels like it’s about ready to beat out of his chest. It takes what feels like hours for his lungs to settle into a pattern of longer, deeper wheezes that fill the room. He hates the way it sounds like he’s a dying seal, how he can’t control them or keep them from sounding so horrible.

“Don’t let the wheezing worry you, Peter. Take a slow breath in,” Dr. Cho instructs, and Peter feels his shoulders slump in exhaustion as he prepares to take a careful and calculated breath. It feels a lot like tempting fate, and he closes his eyes as he does it, worried his lungs will still be just as locked as they were before. He’s surprised when he’s able to comply, can feel the cool metal disc of a stethoscope moving around the front of his chest and then his back as he keeps up the pattern of slow, controlled, but still painful breathing. “Definitely pneumonia. Left lung is collapsed. Can we get Sanchez in here with a portable x-ray? STAT?” he asks as he throws the stethoscope over his shoulders.

“Pneumonia?!” Peter’s saying beneath the mask, his breaths quickening, but Tony is shushing him, brushing his unruly brown hair out of his face with his free hand.

He barely notices that Tony’s got his IV-free hand gripped tight, is rubbing his thumb over his wrist as a means of comfort. “It’s alright, kid. Just some antibiotics and you’ll be good as new.”

“Collapsed?!” Peter croaks, the fear and frustration coming out in one, long wheezy sob, and then another. One of monitor alarms sounds, and then a second chimes, alerting everyone to his shitty lungs once again. He forces his eyes closed and lets the river of panic and embarrassment flood.

“Pete, hey, hey, it’s okay. We’re gonna make this better,” Tony whispers, pulling Peter up and against his chest, warm arms wrapping around his body and rocking him back and forth. He adjusts the tubing from the oxygen and pulse ox and IV so that they aren’t stuck on the railing and pulling uncomfortably. “Relax, Underoos,” he whispers, continuing his rocking, and the nickname catches Peter off guard. He sniffles in the place of one sob, and then another, his breaths and wheezing erratic. “We need to get your breathing calm and your heart rate down.”

“I’ve gotta call Aunt May,” Peter says, leaning into Tony’s embrace, sniffling. “Gotta…let her know…’cause she’s gonna…worry…a-and…”

“We’ll call May. I’ll get Happy on that. For now, I just need you to rest. Get your mind to stop spinning.”

“But what if…what if I-” he asks into the mask, panting.

“You’re not dying, Peter,” Tony assures him, rubbing his back as he continues to rock back and forth, back and forth. “Shh. I know that was scary. I know, kid. I’ve been there. It’s not a fun place to be.”

“F-felt like it,” he whispers, not sure at first if he’s even said it aloud. The tears are still sliding down his cheeks and around the mask, pooling on his gown. He takes a sharp, painful breath in and immediately regrets it. The fast exhale leads into a coughing fit that’s got the monitor alarms going off for a third time. He pulls away from Tony, choking on the mucus that’s decided to work its way up and out of his lungs. The mask is pulled down around his neck and a basin is forced beneath his mouth as he spits out thick, dark green gobs. He’s gasping between coughs, the darkness returning to the edges of his vision, and then, just as quickly as the coughing started, it stops.

Peter is hunched over, gulping at the room air for a moment before Tony refits the mask over his mouth and nose and guides him to sit up against the bed. He’s tucking him in, rubbing his arm as they wait for Peter’s heart rate and breathing to calm.

Tony stands when a man enters the room with a portable x-ray machine, Peter instantly grabbing for his hand. “Don’t leave,” he begs weakly, the last coughing fit from just a few minutes ago having taken every sliver of energy from his body. “Please don’t. I’m scared, Tony. I-I’m s-scared.” His eyes are glassy and welling with tears, the monitor showing an increase in his heart rate.

Tony bites his lip and holds back his own tears by looking up at the ceiling to compose himself. “Not going anywhere, Underoos. Just need to let them do their x-ray and then I’ll be right back here.”

“P-promise?”

“Promise.”

By the time the x-ray is finished, and the machine has left the room, Peter can barely keep his eyes open. Tony’s back to at his bedside and he doesn’t sit until he’s made sure that the blankets are re-tucked and that the tubing and wires are untangled.

“Don’t feel so good,” Peter admits, and a pang runs through Tony, one only made worse by watching Peter struggle to breathe even with the mask, the usually high-energy teen propped tiredly against the bed, his face so pale he wonders if he might blend in with the pillows at any moment.

Bruce re-enters the room with his eyebrows knitted, and he and Tony have a wordless conversation with the shared hope that Peter is too out of it to notice how dire things have become.

“We’ve got him on a high flow of oxygen,” Bruce explains quietly. “But by the look of the x-rays, with his lung collapsed like this, we feel it’s best to go in and drain the fluid. Dr. Cho is preparing a team as we speak.”

“Go in?” Peter muses weekly from the bed. “Wha…what does that mean?”

“Peter, one of your lungs isn’t working properly because of the infection. Dr. Cho and I need to drain it so that you can breathe easier.”

“Surgery?” His heart rate rises slightly on the monitor, but he’s too tired to argue or even cry, and Tony turns in his chair to let a couple of tears fall, because how did he miss this? How did he miss the fact that Peter was getting sick to the point that he’d need surgery to correct it? “Tony?” Peter’s asking, his arm reaching out for his. “Tony, I’m scared. I d-don’t feel…well...and we didn’t call…May…and she’s t-travelling…for work…a-and…”

Tony wipes his own tears away and turns to be with Peter, biting his lip as he brushes Peter’s hair from his face. “I know you’re scared, Underoos. It’s normal to be scared. I was scared before my surgeries, too. But you have the best of the best here, and when you wake up, you’ll feel like a million bucks.”

“Aunt May?”

“I’ll call her personally, okay? I’ll make sure she knows exactly what’s going on.”

“Promise?”

Tony sniffles. “Promise, kiddo.”

“You’ll be here? When I wake up?”

“Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he insists, and Peter smiles a little behind the mask.

Bruce pulls a syringe from the drawer of the med cart and approaches Peter’s IV line. “I’m going to give you a little something to relax you, Peter. You might get a little sleepy.”

“Tony?” Peter panics.

“Still here, bud.” Tony takes Peter’s hand and squeezes it, carding his fingers through Peter’s hair in soothing strokes. “I’ll always be here.”

It’s the last thing Peter hears before he drifts off, his body relaxing for the first time since he can remember.

x

Waking up is hard. Peter’s body feels like it’s been hit by a bus, and while his lungs feel markedly better, they still feel somewhat full and achy. And whatever is by his nose seems to be breathing with him. He tries to open his eyes, but the room is bright.

“There you are,” Tony says softly, and Peter can feel him brushing his hair from his face again. “Go ahead, open your eyes.”

“I can…breathe,” Peter remarks, blinking as his eyes adjust to the brightness. He likes that there’s no mask over his mouth and nose, which is what he’d been expecting. He feels freer, better, than he did, but he’s sure it’s just whatever pain meds they’ve got him on.

“Oxygen levels have improved. Your left rib area might be a little tender, so try not to lay on that side,” Dr. Cho comments as she goes to listen to Peter’s chest with her stethoscope.

Peter brings a hand up to whatever contraption is shoved up his nostrils and marvels at how it’s able to force just enough air into his lungs to help him breathe.

Between listens, Dr. Cho explains, “We’ve got you on a positive airway pressure cannula. It’s enough ventilation to aid your breathing without taking over entirely. You were working pretty hard to breathe earlier, and with the ventilator during surgery, we thought it’d be best to give you a little help, get your lungs healed up without stressing them further.”

“Aunt May?” he asks Tony, his eyes drooping with exhaustion.

“She’s trying to get here. Her flight was delayed out of Dallas due to a snowstorm in the Midwest. Why don’t you rest, kiddo? Get some sleep so you can be ready for when she gets here?”

“You’ll wake me?”

Tony debates the idea for a moment, worries that Peter not getting enough sleep is exactly what got him here in the first place, but finally, he says, “I’ll let her wake you, okay?”

Peter nods before closing his eyes and letting himself drift off once again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2
Sunday, December 22

May hasn’t slept since Tony called her on Friday afternoon. She’s used to the night shift and being awake for longer than should be humanly possible, but it’s different when it’s her Peter that’s thousands of miles away and sick enough to need surgery.

She’s had more than enough time in an airport, and then a hotel room, to worry. She’s been getting hourly updates from Tony, who she’s convinced is a saint because from the sound of it, he hasn’t left Peter’s bedside since he picked him up from school two days ago. She trusts Tony and Pepper, knows they’re the only reason she’s able to travel for her new job. May had been waiting to take an administrative position for a global nursing company for years, but Peter’s spider bite, and everything that came with it, had changed everything.

The sneaking out. The lying. The Snap. The battles and overall danger of being an Avenger as a teenager. All of these things had been enough to make her question whether Peter was ready for her to be away so often, but in the end, it was Peter’s asthma attacks that had kept her from taking the position.

Mostly, it was their tendency to happen at night, coupled with the fact that Peter wouldn’t talk to her about how he was feeling until he was wheezing in her bedroom doorway at 3 in the morning. Over fifteen years’ experience as an emergency room nurse, and May couldn’t help but feel absolutely shaken by the sight of Peter struggling for breath.

And then Tony had stepped in and assured her that he’d be happy to look after Peter when she was away, had the technology to keep an eye on him 24/7 and get his attacks under control. It hadn’t been an easy decision, nor a quick one, but in the end, May knew it was the right choice. It had to be, because Peter.

Three cancelled flights, two nights in two different hotel rooms, and finally, finally, she’s landed in New York. Tony’s sent a car for her despite her insistence that the AirTrain and subway would suffice, and she’s caved because she hasn’t slept, needs to see how Peter is with her own eyes before she lets herself get any ounce of sleep.

Dr. Cho called her personally to give her a general update full of medical terms and medication dosages, but it’s been Tony’s text updates that kept her from falling apart completely. You raised quite the tough cookie, May and I’ve never seen this kid sleep so much in my life. Didn’t think this was even possible. The humor and care in his messages brought her to tears more than once, and she’d had to explain to more than one passenger and flight attendant that she was fine, that her baby was sick and she just wanted to be home with him as soon as she could.

She’s been let in by Happy, the driver who picked her up at the airport, and is advised to ask that the elevator take her up to the residence. May hasn’t realized just how apparent her sleep deprivation truly is until she sees herself reflected in the elevator panels. By the time she’s whisked up to the correct floor, it’s too late for her to fuss over her hair or wrinkled clothes, and as she steps out and walks quietly toward Tony and Pepper’s voices, she realizes, upon seeing them, that they, too, are just as disheveled and exhausted. Pepper, whose arms are crossed against her chest, has her blonde hair in a messy bun. Tony’s beard is unshaved, the front of his shirt rumpled. She watches quietly from afar, nervous to interrupt what sounds like an argument. She worries for a moment that something’s happened with Peter, but then she hears Pepper say, “You want to adopt Peter.” It doesn’t come out as a question, but a statement, and May’s first instinct is to pounce. Adopt Peter? She’s suddenly not so sure what, exactly, their intentions are, what they’ve been, and she’s shaking her head, can feel tears stinging her tired eyes.

“I didn’t say adopt, did I? I said guardianship. Do you know how many laws we’ve probably broken in the last three days, Pepper? If Peter’s school had sent him to the hospital, we’d never have been allowed past the emergency room doors. We don’t have legal custody over Peter, yet because we brought him here to be treated, we’ve been able to make all of the decisions while May’s been away,” Tony rationalizes, and May feels her defensive walls fall. She’s not angry that Tony and Pepper have been making the decisions, has tried to keep the imaginative scenarios of Peter going to a conventional hospital out of her mind because she shudders to think of how they’d handle his unconventional genetics and chemistry. She hates to think that her exhaustion has sent her thoughts spinning toward the negative once again, that she’s doubted the goodness of the two people who have obviously been putting Peter before themselves while she’s been away. “If something like this were to happen again-”

“May’s not going to sue us, Tony.” Pepper puts a hand up and finishes his thought. “Let’s be realistic for a moment. Her and Peter signed paperwork when he became an Avenger.”

“You said the same thing about Hank Pym, remember? And look where we’re at now, sitting in ridiculous litigation for months,” Tony reminds her. “Besides, you’re missing the fact that the paperwork May and Peter signed refers to medical decisions made immediately following an injury sustained during active duty. Falling ill in chemistry class doesn’t exactly fit the criteria.”

Pepper sighs. “But it’s not our place to overstep and just assume we can sign a few papers and make him ours, Tony. I swear, if this is another one of your crazy, overeager ideas-”

“Just hear me out, okay?” he asks.

“Tony, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I want to,” Pepper says, cocking her head. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” She’s stressed, tired, even, but Tony is too far into his head to fully notice.

“Well, if I’m being honest,” Tony interrupts, “I was expecting this conversation to go in a completely different direction.”

“Really?” Pepper raises her eyebrows and widens her eyes. “You thought I’d be entirely okay with stealing Peter out from under May’s nose and raising him as our own?”

“No, Pep, that’s not…” He sighs heavily and looks up at the ceiling. “You’re not listening to me or a word-” A hand balls into a fist when Pepper interrupts again.

“It’s one thing to play mentor and pick him up from school when he’s sick, even take care of him while May is away, but this,” Pepper says, shaking her head. “I love Peter. I really do. I’m just not sure this is appropriate Tony. I don’t know if we can even handle having more responsibility over-”

“-a damn good kid who just happens to have web shooters and asthma?”

“This is more than asthma, Tony, and you know it.”

“I know that, Pepper, but I don’t understand why that matters so much to you!”

“Because you can’t just take May out of the equation! Peter’s her life, Tony. We can’t just take him from her.

“This isn’t about replacing May or taking him out of her life! You won’t even let me finish my sentences, for God’s sake, so how can I expect you to make any sense of what I’m trying to say?” He’s raised his voice, is two seconds away from crying out of exhaustion and fear and frustration.

“Then what is it about, Tony?” she finally asks. “Tell me and I’ll say yes.”

“I don’t…I don’t know, Pep,” Tony says, throwing his hands up and shaking his head. “You’ve got my thoughts all jumbled up from interjecting.” He sighs and composes himself. “May was in a meeting when Peter passed out at school and I couldn’t get a hold of her, and then it took me an hour to get through to her again about the surgery…and I can’t help but think about what happens if we can’t wait on a decision. What happens if it’s just you and me and-”

Peter’s congested hacking and wheezy inhales steal his attention from Pepper, and in seconds he’s in Peter’s room, right at his bedside, his arms sliding under the teen’s tiny frame. “I gotcha kid,” Tony coos as he shifts Peter’s position against the pillows so that he’s more upright than slumped. Pepper stops in the doorway to check that he’s alright before heading to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee, May inching closer to Peter’s bedroom once Pepper is gone, Peter’s frame coming into her view.

He lets out a few more coughs and tries to relax. “Hate this,” he pants in Tony’s arms, catching his breath.

He’s pale, his cheeks red from coughing and hair matted in every possible direction. May’s expected him to be on oxygen, but instead there’s a positive airway pressure cannula under his nose, and she realizes, then, that this is worse than she’s let herself believe it to be. Her heart breaks as she watches him try to lift himself up from the bed.

Tony gently eases him back down puts the back of his hand to Peter’s forehead, frowning as he pulls it away. “Fever’s back.”

Peter laughs softly. “You know that’s not…an accurate way to…measure a fever, right?”

“Who says?” Tony asks in his usual dry sarcasm.

“Um, the…doctor’s association people?”

“Hmm. Sounds legit,” Tony deadpans.

“Sorry, I’m not…myself, Tony. S’hard to think. I-I promise I’m…smarter-”

“Was only joking, Underoos. I know you’re smart.” He gently ruffles Peter’s hair, getting a smile out of him. “Too smart for your own good, sometimes, but smart nonetheless.”

“Hey!” Peter protests playfully.

“Peter’s temperature is now 102.8,” FRIDAY announces. “Motrin and fluids are recommended to bring his temperature down.”

“See? Even FRIDAY agrees with my methods.”

Peter’s confused as he says, “She beat you to it. How?”

“Magic.”

“Really?”

Tony laughs. “No, kid. Wow, you really are out of it, huh? I got an alert twenty minutes ago on my watch that your fever was creeping up, was just waiting because it’s been only five hours since your last dose and I can’t have your liver going out on us now.”

Peter’s eyes widen at the mention of another organ going haywire.

Tony’s serious as he says, “Hey, not gonna let that happen, Pete. Promise.”

Peter’s not convinced, is suddenly thinking back to not being able to breathe in MedBay. He’s sniffling, a slight wheeze present as his breaths quicken.

“Peter?” Tony asks, trying to catch his eyes. “Look at me, bud. You okay?”

“N-no,” he finally answers, eyes turning glassy.

“You trust me, right? I wouldn’t let anything happen to you?” he asks, adjusting the BiPAP cannula against Peter’s face to make sure it’s snug but not too much so, Peter nodding as the tears start to fall.

“I just miss May,” he sobs softly. “S-she’s probably all…worried about me, t-trying to…get home and s-see me. D-don’t want her to...get s-scared. She’s not g-good with…this kind of s-stuff.”

Tony pulls a tissue from the box on Peter’s nightstand and wipes the tears from under his eyes. “She’s a nurse, kiddo. Nothing here she hasn’t seen before.”

“Different with me,” Peter says tiredly. “I think it’s…a lot for her. She does e-everything for me. Never for herself. Can’t…do this to her.”

“Well, even so, she can’t wait to see you. Happy texted that they’re on the way from the airport.”

“What if I’m asleep when…she gets here?” Peter worries until she steps into the doorway. “May!” Peter exclaims breathlessly.

“I’m so sorry, Peter,” she apologizes as she rushes toward his bed and pulls him into a too tight hug. It takes everything in her to loosen her grip enough for Peter to rest comfortably in her arms. “My flights kept getting cancelled.” The tears are falling already, her eyes meeting Tony’s as he gives a small, understanding smile and backs out of the room.

“It’s okay,” Peter promises. “I’m happy…you’re here.”

She cups Peter’s chin in her hands, one lifting to touch his BiPap cannula, and sniffles.

“It’s okay, May.” He pulls her hand down and into his. “It helps, and…Tony and Pepper have been…taking really good care of me.”

“I should have been here, baby,” she cries, wiping her tears with her sleeve. “I’m sorry I wasn’t. I’ve been worried sick about you since Tony called me.”

“You’re here now.” Peter smiles sleepily, May moving to lie beside him and pull him close. “Love you,” he says, and she can’t stop the few stray tears from falling.

“Love you too, baby,” she replies.

“M’really tired, May,” he says, closing his eyes.

“Get some sleep, alright?” she whispers. He’s out before she can even look over, his facial muscles relaxed and content. She’s glad to be here with Peter, and it’s not until an hour or so later, when she’s convinced herself that Peter’s okay enough for her to use the bathroom that she slowly creeps out of the bed and into the hallway.

“May,” Tony says softly, but his voice startles her, a hand flying up to her chest in panic. “How are you doing?” He’s placed a gently hand on her shoulder and his eyes are searching hers for the truth.

“I’m exhausted, but I’m glad I got to see Peter. I know he’s not well, that this is going to be one hell of a recovery, but I’m grateful for everything you and Pepper have done for Peter while I couldn’t be here. I can’t ever repay you for all of this, Tony. This is more than keeping tabs on our boy. This is above and beyond.” She goes to open her purse as she continues with, “I don’t have much right now, but if I could write you a check-”

Tony shakes his head. “You don’t need to do anything but thank us, May. Pep and I would have done it regardless. You know that.” She sniffles and nods, a hand coming up to her mouth as she tries not to cry again.

“I’m supposed to be Peter’s caretaker, but with this new job, in trying to make enough money to get us where we need to be-”

“I’ve told you before, you’re more than welcome-”

“I can’t take your money, Tony,” she asserts as kindly as she can, sniffling. “I really appreciate you and Pepper looking after Peter while I’m working, especially with his asthma being so bad at night and all, but this is something I have to do for us. I promised Richard and Mary that I would provide for Peter the best I could.”

“I understand.”

“Thank you.”

“You raised one hell of a kid, you know that, May?” Tony says, his voice cracking as the exhaustion and worry from the last few days hits him. He’s sniffling himself now, holding back the tears threatening to fall. “He’s a good kid.”

“Yeah, he is,” she agrees.

“The only thing he’s been worried about the entire time was you. Kept asking for you, made me promise I’d call you at every turn.”

“But you were the one who was here, Tony. That counts, you know,” she explains, offering a smile. “Look, I don’t mean to overstep, but I heard you and Pepper talking. About adopting Peter. Or rather, guardianship.

Tony looks down and shifts his weight nervously. “I know how special Peter is to you, May. I know he’s your entire world and that not being here through everything must have been excruciating. I didn’t pose it to Pepper as a means of replacing you or taking him out of your life. We’d never do that.”

“I know I can’t be everything he needs right now. This weekend was a testament to that fact, and it’s killing me to know my not being here delayed his care. If he’s going to heal from this, he’s going to need consistency and attention, which I can’t do with my job situation right now. I would quit in a heartbeat, but I know that Peter would blame himself and feel guilty, which would make everything worse. I don’t want to keep asking you for things, Tony. It’s not right of me to ask you to take more legal responsibility for Peter.”

“May, I would do anything for you and Peter. Just ask, and it’s yours. You know that.”

“I do know, Tony, and I think that’s very generous of you. But this is me being selfish here. Peter has always come first, as he should, but right now I’m conflicted because I took on this job so that I could send him off to college without loans and debt, and now, here we are, trying to figure out how to get our boy healthy again so that one day he can go to college.”

They’ve been down the “paying for college” road before, May insisting that she be the one to provide the money for Peter. Tony’s hoping he can work in a scholarship somewhere to make it that much easier for them, but he knows now isn’t the time to bring it up.

“I think Peter needs you right now, Tony.” May’s looking down at her hands and biting her lip. “He needs 24/7 monitoring and care, and even if I was home for the next few weeks, it wouldn’t be enough. I think joint guardianship is a great idea. You know I’m never one to ask, but this is Peter we’re talking about. Our Peter, and-”

“You don’t have to ask May,” Tony says. “I have it all covered. We can sit down with our lawyers after the holidays if you’d like. When things settle down and Peter’s feeling better.”

“You are a very kind man, Tony.” She gives him a hug and lets out a slow breath.

“Just trying to do the right thing is all,” he says, hugging her back. “You know that you’re welcome to stay here, with the holidays and everything.”

“I appreciate that, but I should probably go home and shower, get some sleep. I have a feeling the next few days are going to be a whirlwind, and I want to make sure that I can be there for Peter.”

“I can have Happy drive you back to your place,” Tony offers, leading her to the elevator.

It’s not until Tony checks on Peter and crawls into bed himself that he feels the fatigue fully hit him. He goes to close his eyes, but hears Pepper ask, “You really care about him, don’t you?” He knows she means like a son, and all Tony can do is nod as his face crumples once again.

“I heard what May said, about the guardianship.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, and I agree with her. That Peter needs you right now. She’s trying, but with her work situation so difficult, I think it’s best that we keep Peter here for a while. I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you before.”

“This has been really difficult and exhausting for everyone, Pep. We’re all on edge and trying to take it day-by-day. I think we could all just use some sleep.”

“Sleep? What is sleep?” Pepper jokes, because when does Tony ever sleep? But Tony’s already out, is starting to snore, and she smiles to herself, can’t help but think she likes this overprotective Dad Mode Tony that she’s starting to see more and more of.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3
Monday, December 23

“Hey Pete, you ready to get up?” Tony’s asking with a yawn, but all the teen can manage from his place propped against the pillows and covered in his duvet is a groan. Pepper’s let both of them sleep in some, is off finishing last-minute holiday shopping for gifts and ingredients for their Christmas Day dinner. Peter’s been home for a full day now, has spent most of that time sleeping, Tony waking him every four hours to do a treatment, take some pills, and coax him into a lapse around the residence to get the mucus to loosen. Pepper’s made it her mission to get him to eat, but he’s barely managed toast, clear soup, and ginger ale due to the antibiotics. They’re not out of the woods yet, Tony thinks, but it’s starting to feel like they’re maybe half-way there. “Gonna switch you over to the oxygen and get you up and moving, okay?”

He’s already grabbed the tubing when he hears Peter answer, “No. Feeling…worse. Wanna keep the…the,” a hand coming up to touch his nose.

“BiPAP?”

“Y-yeah.”

Tony’s suddenly on edge. “FRIDAY, vitals, please.”

“Feels like I’m b-breathing…underwater,” Peter’s saying as FRIDAY drones in the background. He begins to cough, the rattling in his lungs audible, and Tony’s instantly grabbing for the small garbage can beside Peter’s nightstand.

“Gotta sit up, Pete,” Tony is saying as he pulls his slender frame up and away from the pillows, Peter coughing up and spitting out gob after gob of dark green mucus into the can between his legs. His weakened muscles shudder with each cough and then each inhale, the sudden ferocity of the coughing spell throwing him into an all-out panic.

“M’drowning,” Peter manages weakly between a cough and gasp, his hand pushing away the tissue Tony’s trying to hold up to his mouth.

“There’s been a sudden drop in Peter’s blood oxygen level,” FRIDAY reports, and Tony feels time slow as he watches Peter fight for air.

“FRIDAY, get Bruce up here, now! Send him all of Peter’s vitals from the last ten minutes.” He switches him from the BiPAP to the oxygen because somewhere in his brain he’s convinced that it’s what’s causing the issue, but Peter’s still choking even after he gets a few short inhales of the oxygen and Tony can’t get the dreadful rattling coming from Peter’s lungs to stop.

“Dr. Banner has been alerted. Calculating his ETA.”

Peter reaches blindly for Tony, his hand absently landing on his upper arm, squeezing it with utter panic. He’s convinced he’s drowning, that the fluid in his lungs has turned to cement, that he’s going to die right here in Iron Man’s arms in Avengers Tower. He’s scared, like really really scared, because it’s happening, it’s really happening. What transpired in MedBay just two days ago and seemed like the end of the world at the time was so much easier than this, he thinks.

“I’ve got you, kid,” Tony says as he holds him up, trying not to let Peter see how terrified he genuinely feels. “I’ve got you. I know it’s really hard to breathe right now. Just do your best for me, okay?”

Peter tries to nod, but his shoulders are locked, his chest muscles straining, each breath hitching as he works to get the old air out and new air in.

“Dr. Banner’s ETA is 8 minutes, sir,” FRIDAY updates.

“Damnit, FRIDAY, that’s not fast enough! I need him here now!” Tony yells forcefully as he twists open two albuterol nebules with his teeth and squirts them into the medicine cup of the nebulizer.

“Tony? What’s happening?” Bruce’s harried voice fills Peter’s bedroom through FRIDAY’s relay system. It sounds like he’s running, his own, soft pants contrasting with the heavy thuds of his footfalls.

“Peter’s oxygen just plummeted. Said he felt like he was drowning and now he can’t talk or breathe.”

“Did you get him on the nebulizer?”

“Working on it. I need you here, Bruce!” Tony’s voice cracks as he switches on the nebulizer and holds it to Peter’s lips. “Breathe, Peter. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” He’s pulling Peter into his arms now, watches him struggle even with the oxygen and the nebulizer, his lips tinted with blue as he gasps and chokes. Peter’s locked his eyes on Tony’s, is begging him to help, to fix it, and Tony’s heart sinks, because he feels absolutely helpless.

“I’m running as fast as I can,” Bruce assures him.

“FRIDAY, alert everyone nearby to an SME.” Tony’s voice is suddenly quaking, his eyes wide and alert, brain trying to think of next steps. Peter is no longer coughing, but his faint wheezes are starting to sound a lot like they did in MedBay, worse even, and Tony knows he can’t do this for much longer all on his own.

“I have alerted Mr. Steve Rodgers to an SME.”

Peter lifts a hand and grabs hold of Tony’s shirt, his knuckles turning white as he clings to him.

“I’m right here, Pete. I need you to be brave for me, okay?” he’s coaching.

Steve rushes in clad in pajamas, the sight of Peter in such a state throwing him directly into his military training. “What can I do?”

“Get Peter’s epi-pens. I think he’s too far into it for the nebulizer to work.”

“On it,” he replies, digging through the plastic bin Pepper gave Peter to organize his meds, and Tony closes his eyes and sends a silent thank you to Cho for not letting them leave MedBay without backup epinephrine.

Steve’s eyes graze over the pictorial instructions before he pulls the endcap off and tosses it to the floor, approaching Peter with it the second he’s sure it’s primed and ready.

“In his leg,” Tony instructs, and with a small apology directed toward Peter, Steve jabs it right into the teen’s thigh, holding it there as he slowly counts to ten before he removes it.

Tony resituates Peter in his arms, his body floppy and weak as he continues to wheeze, Steve bringing the nebulizer mouthpiece back to Peter’s lips.

“Come on, Underoos,” Tony is cooing softly as he runs his hand through Peter’s hair. “Almost there. You’re going so good.”

And just as Steve asks, “Should I give him the second one?” Peter inhales sharply, a shaky but still strong gulp of air entering his tired lungs. He’s coughing and crying, but Tony can hear the power in them, can feel hot tears of relief sliding down his own face. The coughing is worse at first, a few more gobs of that dark green mucus appearing in the tissue Tony’s found on the bed and is holding up beneath Peter’s mouth, but soon, it slows, and Peter’s wheezing takes over the room. As Bruce skids to a stop in the doorway, Tony closes his eyes, his chin hitting his chest in respite. He’s okay, he thinks. He’s okay.

“Take it easy,” Steve says, Peter reaching up to hold the nebulizer himself, Steve pulling his arm down so that it rests on the bed. “I’ve got it. Just keep breathing, alright?” He turns to Bruce and adds, “We used the epi-pen.”

“FRIDAY? Peter’s vitals, please,” Bruce is asking, but Tony can’t focus on her words, can only relish in the fact that Peter’s okay in this instant, is breathing, even if it’s not fully without support.

Bruce is scratching his head as he thinks and catches his breath, glancing over at the garbage can at the foot of the bed. “Was he coughing up some of the congestion before his oxygen level fell?”

Tony can only nod and sniffle, is still regaining his bearings.

“He probably had a few mucus plugs,” Bruce explains as he places the buds of his stethoscope in his ears and warms the disc with his hand. “Peter, slow breaths, okay?” he instructs as he places the disc under his shirt and listens intently.

“Couldn’t get it…out,” Peter’s whispering around the nebulizer, Steve and Tony shushing him.

Tony rests a hand beside Peter’s head and brushes his thumb against his cheek. “Gave us quite the scare there, Pete.”

“Heart’s jumping,” Peter comments, eyes squinting with discomfort.

“That’s from the epinephrine. It’ll go down soon,” Bruce explains. “Best thing you can do right now is relax, okay?”

Peter nods and looks up at the ceiling, chest rising and falling with even breaths of the medication.

“MedBay?” Steve asks Bruce, followed by, “I can carry him.”

“We should get Cho to look him over, keep him in observation for a few hours while we troubleshoot,” Bruce advises, but all Tony can do is tighten his hold on to Peter in his arms and weep openly because he almost just lost the kid. Even with all of the medication and equipment around them, it was too damn close.

He knows because of the terror that’s still in Peter’s eyes, the same terror coursing through his own veins.

“Let me take him,” Steve offers, but Tony shakes his head and stiffens. “Tony,” Steve urges.

“I’m not letting him go,” he insists, sniffling, eyes still wide and body stiff from being on alert.

“Just wanted to give you a break, Tony, but I understand.” Steve’s voice is soft and smooth, and he places a hand on Tony’s shoulder in support.

“The faster we get him up there, the faster I can figure out exactly what’s going on,” Bruce explains.

Tony sniffles and nods, cradles Peter in his arms, bridal style, and rises slowly from the bed. He waits for Bruce to switch off the nebulizer and take the mouthpiece before Steve grabs the oxygen tank and tubing.

“We’ll figure this out, Tony,” Bruce promises as they approach the elevator, but Tony isn’t convinced, can only replay the last few terrifying minutes in his head over and over and over.

 

Seven Hours Later

“You’ve taken biology, correct?” Dr. Cho asks Peter as she takes a seat beside his bed in MedBay. Peter’s finally up and alert after sleeping the day away, can see that the sky outside the window is slowly shifting from yellow to the purple of dusk. He’s back on the BiPAP and he’s thankful, because breathing is exhausting, Peter’s decided, and the less he has to work to do it, the better. May’s been in and out all afternoon, but even Peter can see that she’s drained and needs to catch up on sleep. Tony’s refused to leave his side, and by the look of it, he hasn’t napped. “Peter?” Dr. Cho asks to refocus him.

“Yeah, in ninth grade,” he answers from his place on the hospital bed, but the question has him on edge, because whatever he’s about to hear, he knows it probably isn’t going to be good news.

“Your immune system is complicated due to the spider bite, Peter. You have to remember that although it gave you powers, it also altered your human chemistry and genetics. Essentially, the spider bite sent your immune system into overdrive. Your immune system mistakes some of your cells for harmful invaders and that’s why you’ve developed allergies and asthma after the bite. Your lab work from both Friday and today show that your eosinophil count is very high. They’re white blood cells that-”

“Fight disease, I know. You’re saying…my asthma isn’t just regular asthma?”

“Dr. Banner and I hadn’t initially considered this, but we have good reason to suspect that the reason your asthma is so difficult to control right now is because it’s eosinophilic in nature. The inflammatory response in your lungs is caused by a specific protein, or proteins, that are malfunctioning. We are working to target which cytokine, or cytokines, specifically. We believe it might be IL-5, or interleukin-5, based on the severity of sinus involvement and your allergies. The fact that we had to use epinephrine to manage your attacks on two occasions is indicative of how serious this situation is. The good news is that we have a list of biologic medicines to treat the underlying issue, so rather than throw inhalers, steroids, and epinephrine at it after the fact, I’m suggesting that we try weekly self-injections to be preemptive, and, if need-be, switch medications to treat whichever interleukin, or interleukins, are causing the autoimmune response.”

“Injections? Like...as in needles? By myself?”

“Just once a week, for now. We’ll see how you respond to the Nucala and follow-up with blood work. The good news is that we have multiple medications we can try, and we can play with the dosages, too, so it’s all about finding the right fit. We’ll have to wait until the pneumonia fully clears, of course. The Nucala is going to weaken your immune system while you’re on it, which is what we want it to do, but that also means you’ll be prone to anything infectious.”

Tony puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder and squeezes as a means of reassurance, but Peter can only focus on the fact that he’s about to need needles on a consistent basis and could get very sick even with the medication, which doesn’t make sense. The thought has him feeling dizzy, like the rug is being ripped from beneath his feet. “There’s no pill version? I-it has to be...injected?” He winces as he says the word.

“I’m afraid so,” Bruce adds. “Stomach acid would destroy the medication before it does its job. Your particular immune system is complicated, much more complicated than we could have imagined. We need to be ten steps ahead of this in the hope that we can avoid this severity of illness in the future. You’re still very sick, Peter, and we want to make sure we get you back to baseline so that you can return to school. We also want to make sure that we’re watching closely for other autoimmune disease symptoms. We have our team running other labs and Dr. Cho’s completing genetic testing to see where we’re at with all of this.”

Peter’s too stunned to speak, is trying to process everything that’s just been said, but all he can do is sit and stare.

Bruce clears his throat. “I’m proposing that we get you started on physiotherapy to clear some of the mucus sitting in your lungs, Peter, since you’re not very mobile yet. It’s a vest that helps shake everything in your airways loose. It’ll entail some more coughing, but it’ll keep you from acquiring so many mucus plugs like you did this morning and with your healing abilities, it might even help speed up the overall process.”

This is all supposed to be good news, because they’ve finally figured out why his lungs are rebelling, but for Peter, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen after the worst experience of his life. “I...I don’t know about all of this. I-I was never...sick? Before…” he trails. The thought puts a lump in Peter’s throat as he tries not to cry. This is all too much, suddenly, the passing out at school and the non-stop attacks and nearly dying from choking on his own mucus. “I don’t want any of this?” he whispers, feeling small. “I’m…I’m really tired, Tony,” he says, looking over at him.

“I know, kid. I know.” He’s rubbing Peter’s shoulder and arm, trying to take all of this in himself.

“I’m going to check on the most recent labs,” Dr. Cho announces after noticing that Peter needs a minute, Bruce following her out of the room.

Peter’s weeping, his head in his hands before Tony can even look over. “This is the worst Christmas ever.”

“Peter,” Tony starts, moving to sit on the edge of his bed.

“It’s going to happen again,” he cries, his pale face and red cheeks streaked with tears. “It’s going to h-happen a-again...and I don’t want it to.” He drags in a breath and lets it out slowly as if he’s blowing out birthday candles, trying to calm himself down. “And now I have to do shots that are going to hurt like the epi-pens and can make me r-really s-sick.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head, repeating the candle breathing. “I can’t be Spiderman like this, Tony,” he whispers. “I can’t help people if I can’t breathe.”

“You’ve had a really eventful day. Why don’t we get something to eat, watch a movie?”

“Who am I supposed to be if I can’t be Spiderman?” he’s asking, disregarding Tony’s suggestions. He’s hyperventilating now, struggling to catch his breath.

“Peter,” Tony says again.

“W-what if there’s a b-battle a-and-”

“Peter!”

“What?!” he yells, ignoring the pull in his lungs. “What do you e-expect me to say, Tony?” He’s crying with his entire body, shoulders lifting and falling as he works to inhale and exhale. “I’m not me like this. I’m making everyone…w-worry about me and I don’t want this! I don’t…w-want this to be h-happening! I could have…I a-almost…”

Tony wraps his arms around Peter, tucking him in against his chest and rocking him as he sobs.

“I know, Underoos. I know that this has been scary and that you don’t want any of this to be happening,” Tony acknowledges.

“And it’s really hard…to cry with this…thing,” Peter weeps as he tries to pull the cannula from his face.

“Hey,” Tony warns softly, reaching for Peter’s hand. “You know you need it, kiddo.”

“I d-don’t,” he lies, letting his arm fall because he’s tired, too tired to cry and breathe and be upset, and it only makes him sob harder. “I just want to be…n-normal.” Peter chokes on the sob and nestles further into Tony’s chest, the hum of his arc reactor a steady constant that brings just enough comfort to lull Peter’s crying into sniffles.

“Normal is completely overrated anyway.”

“Is breathing?”

Tony thinks the kid has a point.

“I don’t get a choice in any of this,” Peter says, still sniffling. Tony can’t tell if it’s a question or statement, wants to think that maybe it’s both, because even as sick as he is, Peter is trying to be strong, wants to prove that he’s brave even though he doesn’t have to. Tony hates that he’s had to ask Peter to be brave for him, hates that he’s had to go through so much not only in the last year but also the last twelve hours. For a moment, Tony wishes it was him that was so sick instead, wants more than anything to take it away, and he knows it sounds cliché, but Jesus, watching the kid beg with his eyes for him to fix it had thrown him completely into despair.

“No, kiddo, you don’t,” Tony says, resting Peter against his bed and pulling a blanket up and over him. “And I’m sorry. It’s not supposed to be like this, but I’m going to try and make it right. I promise that I will try my absolute best.”

“It’s okay if you can’t,” he whispers, closing his eyes to stop from crying. “Life just happens. That’s what May always says, anyway. Life happens, and you do…what you’ve gotta do to survive. Do you think she’s right?”

Tony sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “You and May have been through a lot, Pete.”

“So have you,” Peter replies.

“Maybe this is an unhealthy strategy, but I always went with being brave in the moment and dealing with the emotions later, which…isn’t exactly the best idea, but…”

“Is that how you got through Afghanistan?”

“Yeah, kiddo.”

With his eyes still closed, Peter says, “Guess we’re a lot more alike…than I thought.”

It’s not until Bruce enters the room with the physiotherapy machine and vest that Tony feels the anger fully take root. The anger that Peter has to be so sick right now, that he’s unable to stop everything awful that’s happening to him. Reluctantly, he helps Peter off of the BiPAP and into the physiotherapy vest, closes and adjusts the buckles, and watches as Bruce inputs the settings into the machine it’s connected to.

“Feels funny,” Peter comments, his voice changed by the shaking of the vest. Within seconds, he’s coughing, face red from the force and effort as Tony holds a basin beneath his mouth, the dark green gobs from earlier reappearing.

Bruce starts a nebulizer treatment, promising that it will open his airways and allow for more of the congestion to come out, but Peter can only cry through the entire fifteen-minute process of shaking, breathing in the medicine, coughing, gagging, and gasping. He doesn’t ask for Bruce to turn it off or for Tony to make it stop, nor does he comment after it’s all done and the vest is off, and Tony’s concerned now, really fucking concerned, because this kid has gone through the absolute wringer in the last three days and he’s not sure how much longer he can sit here and feel helpless without losing it himself. He’s tried being positive and holding out for one more day, one more hour, one more minute, and he’s something beyond absolute exhaustion at this point.

Peter’s back on the BiPAP when it’s all over, face beet red from coughing, eyes closed with his head lolled to the left against his raised bed.

“You did so good today, kiddo,” Tony hears himself saying as he brushes Peter’s hair from his face.

“Yeah?” he asks, eyes still closed.

“Yeah.” He gives a small smile to keep from crying.

“Don’t have to…stay,” Peter says sleepily.

“Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“Liar,” Peter jokes with a small huff.

“Alright, so maybe there’s places I’d rather be, but I wouldn’t want to go without you, kiddo. If anyone deserves a vacation, it’s you.”

“Cali,” Peter whispers.

“What was that?” he asks, tucking Peter in beneath the blankets.

“When this is all over, I wanna…see Cali.”

Tony chuckles, because of all the places Peter could want to go after all of this, he wants to go to California? The land of traffic, smog, and Disneyland?

“Wha’s so funny?”

“Nothing, kiddo.”

“You makin’ fun of me?”

“Nope, definitely not.” He switches the lights off in Peter’s room, the glow of the monitors inside and lights outside the window giving a faint enough glow that Tony can make out the fatigue in all of Peter’s features.

“So you’re…not leaving?”

“Not a chance in Hell.”

“Language,” he warns, but Tony can sense that he’s joking.

“After today, I think both of us can use whatever language we want.”

“Gonna quote you…on that,” Peter promises, his voice drifting as his body’s need for sleep takes over.

Chapter Text

And sometimes I pray
That maybe I will change
Into who you think I am

Why do you keep reaching for my hand?
Do you see something I can't?
Why do you try to save me?
This fate is well deserved
I only make things worse
Why do you try to save me?
-“Save Me” by Noah Kahan

Chapter 4
Tuesday, December 24 - Christmas Eve

Peter finally feels well enough to shower (with help, of course, which he hates, but Aunt May doesn’t seem to mind, so he guesses it’s fine) and eat some solid food; Pepper’s made her infamous chocolate chip muffins, and he’s managed to eat the entire top off of one, which has earned him some relieved smiles from May. They’ve got him back on the cannula for continuous oxygen, but he’s happy to be on the living room couch, watching Netflix and going through the stream of unread messages on his phone while he waits for his next breathing treatment. Tony’s been tinkering in his lab, popping in to check on him here and there while Pepper and May make themselves busy around the tower preparing for dinner guests the next day. Tony’s argued against having people over at all, but Bruce thinks it’s a good idea as long as Peter stays on his med schedule and gets to bed at a decent hour.

After detailing a modified version of the last four days to Ned and reassuring him that he’s alive and well via text, Peter opens his conversation with MJ and pauses with his thumbs over the keyboard.

You okay? Super worried about you, she’s texted in every variation possible.

Just a little chest infection, no big deal, he responds, thinking that his text is the understatement of the century.

You passed out, she counters, an ellipsis appearing as she continues. That’s not little.

I’m sorry I missed your party, he adds, deflecting from the obvious. Wanted to be there.

Wish you could have been. I’m having some friends over tomorrow afternoon to exchange gifts if you’re free.

Peter’s heart rate picks up, happiness flooding through him as he tries to think of a good response. And then he remembers the oxygen line under his nose and the way his lungs are starting to get itchy again as the four hours between his last treatment and his next tick by, and he feels his whole body deflate. There’s no way he’ll be able to go, the truth painful enough that Peter closes his eyes and rubs his face to keep from crying. He hasn’t had an opportunity to think about school and Ned and MJ, has been too sick to think about anything other than breathing, and all this does is invite in the fear of how he’s going to manage being Peter, being Spiderman, if this doesn’t get better.

Tony appears in the doorway, watching as Peter sniffles and reaches toward the giant box of tissues Pepper has left for him on the coffee table. “FRIDAY gave me a high heart rate alert. You doing okay?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” he mumbles, pulling the oxygen tubing down so that he can blow his nose. “Just FOMO.”

“FOMO?” Tony asks, perplexed as he sits down beside Peter on the couch.

Peter sighs, annoyed that he has to explain, and blows his nose before saying, “Fear of missing out.” He picks up the oxygen tubing and untangles it in his lap.

“Here, let me help,” Tony offers, but Peter swats his hands away and works at lining up the notches to his nose so that they’re comfortable.

“I can do it myself.” There’s a sharpness to Peter’s tone that Tony doesn’t like, but he doesn’t call him out on it because he knows what Peter’s going through. He’s been there, knows what it feels like to have your body betray you, can remember all too well the anger and denial of what’s happening to take over your every thought. He doesn’t want to take this time to work through everything away from Peter, especially not after the last few days. This time alone, albeit monitored by FRIDAY and those nearby, is important. But Tony also knows Peter needs to talk, that he hasn’t had an opportunity to other than to verbalize his panic, and he wants to give him space to do that, too.

“I told you I was fine,” Peter snaps at Tony’s continued presence.

Tony leans back and threads his fingers across his stomach. “Noted.”

“So…you can go, then.”

“Last I checked, this is myhouse.”

“And last I checked, I’m not allowed to leave, so,” Peter throws back.

“Touché,” Tony retorts, laughing.

“This wasn’t exactly my plan for Christmas break,” Peter admits as he plays with the edge of the fleece blanket May’s wrapped him in, and Tony can see the wall come down just enough to push. Gently, of course.

“And yet, you stopped taking your inhalers?” Okay, so maybe not as gently as he’d thought.

Peter’s jaw all but drops at the accusation. “What?”

“I know about the inhalers, kiddo,” Tony says, keeping his tone level. “Or rather, the fact that you weren’t taking them for the last two months.” Peter sits frozen on the couch, afraid to move or speak. He waits for Tony to continue, braces for the yelling and speech about responsibility to start. “While you were sleeping earlier, I had FRIDAY synthesize your health data from the end of August until now. Your heart rate goes up after you take Ventolin and interestingly enough, the small spikes in your heartrate all but disappeared in the months of November and December.” He grabs a couple of M&Ms from the coffee table bowl and pops them into his mouth. “You ever hear of Peak Week?”

“No?” Peter’s confused, isn’t sure he wants to have this discussion right now, but he also knows he’s stuck where he is, that he can’t carry his own oxygen tank without help. Tony’s trapped him, and he wants to resent him for it, wants to tell him to fuck off, but he holds back because he knows how much Tony’s done for him in the last few days, how much of a hassle and mess all of this has been, and as frustrating as it is to be forced into the conversation, he can’t help but feel like he deserves it.

“Neither had I. Apparently, the third week in September is prime for asthma attacks because ragweed is in full bloom.”

“My night attacks,” Peter says, remembering how he’d spent many nights in late September feeling like an elephant was sitting on his chest.

“FRI-FRIDAY?” he’d wheezed, sitting up in his bed as he pressed his palm against the pain in his sternum. “Get Tony.”

“I’ve already alerted Mr. Stark to your condition. Help will be with you shortly.” He’d managed two puffs from his rescue inhaler before Tony had barged through his door and started asking FRIDAY for his vitals.

“J-just came on,” Peter had tried explaining as FRIDAY rattled off his heart rate (138) and oxygen level (96). “Already did m-my Ventolin,” he wheezed before breaking into a coughing fit.

“Peter?” Pepper had asked from the doorway, still pulling her robe on. “You okay, honey? FRIDAY said-”

“He’s okay, Pep, just a small attack,” Tony explained as he pulled Peter’s nebulizer from his desk, where he usually did treatments after school, to his nightstand. “Why don’t you get back to bed?”

She’d pulled her robe tighter and crossed her arms against her chest. “You sure? He sounds awful.”

Peter’s coughs quickly turned into dry heaves from their sheer force, but Tony was just in time with the nebulizer mouthpiece, and after a few breaths of the medicine, Peter’s coughing had ceased, his breathing starting to even out. “I’ve got it under control. Go back to bed. I know you’ve got that early meeting tomorrow.”

Pepper debated staying for a moment, the sight of Peter so ill preoccupying her emotions, but when he gave her a thumbs up and a small smile, she let out a small laugh.

“M’okay, Pepper,” he’d stated, voice gravelly from sleep and medicine. “Promise.”

“Have FRIDAY wake me if you need to, okay?” she’d asked.

“Will do,” Tony had assured her. Once she was out of earshot, Tony sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “We’ve gotta get ahead of these, kiddo. This is your second attack this week. You trying to give your old man gray hair?”

Peter had scrunched his face and pulled the mouthpiece out. “You already have gray hair,” he’d reasoned, and Tony had just chuckled.

“And you know what FRIDAY told me this morning?” Tony continues.

“That Peak Week is at the end of September?” Peter guesses.

“That you’d had a series of night attacks in both the spring and fall when your allergens were at their peak.”

“She…predicted my attack? After it happened? That’s not really that impressive.”

“She’d noted a seasonal pattern,” Tony corrects, “which I’d coded her to do, and then it just so happened to be that right after that, I’d listened to my morning news stream. That’s where I heard about Peak Week. FRIDAY couldn’t close the gap between the two data points, but my brain did. If we’d had that information in advance, we might’ve been able to get you on higher doses of steroids before you had your attacks, before Peak Week had even begun.”

“But steroids affect my Spidey senses,” Peter whines.

“And they also help you breathe?” Tony counters, shaking his head. His tone shifts from soft to authoritative, and Peter looks down because he knows what’s coming. “Peter, we’ve talked about this before. Breathing comes before Spiderman. Always.”

“I know, I know. It’s just…that was the week that I saved those people stuck in the cable car over the East River.”

“And?”

He sighs. “And I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I was on the steroids!”

“Slow down, Atlas. You don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders,” Tony reminds him. “You’ve got the rest of the Avengers team to be there when you can’t.”

Peter gives another sigh. “I know.”

“You know, and yet you stopped taking your inhalers during the time of year when you’re most likely to get a chest infection.”

He rolls his eyes and leans back on the couch, his arms getting tangled in his oxygen tubing as he goes to cross them. “Keep reminding me!”

“Peter,” Tony says, leaning forward. “I know the high doses of steroids are making you moody, but do you understand what we’re up against here? Because I’m getting the sense that you don’t, which is truly hard for me to believe after everything you’ve been through these past couple of days.”

Peter sighs and keeps from rolling his eyes a second time; just because he doesn’t want to have this conversation doesn’t mean Tony won’t have it with him. He’s learned this, knowsthis. He loves Tony, but sometimes, he thinks, he acts too much like a dad.

Tony takes a deep breath and sets his jaw. “You have a chronic illness from a life event that’s both blessed and cursed you, and if anyone understands exactly what that feels like, it’s me. I’ve been in your exact shoes before.”

“I know, I know. Your arc reactor. Afghanistan. I just feel like this is different, Tony. You don’t have to worry about breathing!”

Tony huffs and pulls his shirt up, revealing the glow of his arc reactor. “Have you ever heard of cardiac asthma?” he asks.

“No?”

“Imagine that your airways fill with fluid and you can’t stop coughing and wheezing,” he says, gesturing at his chest. “Can you imagine that? Because I lived with it every day before I had my new arc reactor placed.” He pulls his shirt back down. “And I lived with it after, when the shrapnel around my heart was jostled loose. Why do you think Bruce stocks so much albuterol in MedBay?”

Peter huffs. “Is this your way of making me feel worse about all of this? I know it’s my fault that I’m sick right now!” he yells, pointing at himself. “So can everyone stop reminding me?! Please?!”

“I need you to understand that you can’t always do what you want in the moment, because if you do, it starts taking its toll on your future health, Peter. You need to learn to balance the things you can control with the things you can’t.”

“I don’t have any control over this right now, or anything else in my life, so I don’t know what you want me to do!” Peter yells, putting his head in his hands.

Tony takes a deep breath and puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder.

Peter sniffles, his lip trembling as he uncovers his face. “Why are you doing all of this?”

“All of what?”

“Taking care of me and spending time in your lab synthesizing my data and making me feel like I deserved all of this?”

“You didn’t deserve this, kiddo. I’m being tough on you because I care. And I promised you I’d do my best to make this better, keep this from happening again. You need someone to look out for you right now, Peter. You’re too sick to do this all on your own. It’s going to take some time for you to get back on your feet, but you’ve got a lot of people rooting for you.”

“I know,” he says, sighing. “It’s just that my brain feels like…scrambled eggs right now from the meds. It’s just…hard is all. All of this is hard and I feel like…like maybe I wasn’t meant for any of this superhero stuff…because it’s obvious I can’t handle any of it. I’m not like you, or Steve. I don’t…I’m not strong.”

“Not strong? Peter,” Tony says, chuckling, pulling Peter in close. “Are you kidding me, kid? Do you have any idea how braveyou’ve been?”

“I sobbed like a fu-sorry, freakingbaby,” Peter explains, sniffling, “and I keep crying even though it just makes it harder to breathe. I’m so tired of not…being able…to breathe.” He’s gasping at the air around him again, but he knows he just needs to wait for things to calm down, just needs a few even breaths to get him there.

“Pete-”

“Jus’…give me a second,” he wheezes, taking a few slow breaths with his eyes closed. “I just don’t get…why it has to be me,” he finally admits. “I wouldn’t wish this…on someone else, but why me? How am I supposed…to be Spiderman…like this?” He sucks greedily at the air from the cannula and gestures to his oxygen tank.

“You don’t have to have all of the answers right now, Pete. You can take your time with this.”

“How long, though? What if I can’t…be Spiderman?”

Tony’s silent for a moment.

“Thanks for the pep talk,” Peter groans in response.

“There’s no one right way to live with this, kid. It’s going to take time to heal, and that’s okay. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to start taking your meds and staying on top of your symptoms.”

“What if the medicine keeping me alive…makes it impossible for me…to be Spiderman, though?”

“Again with that question? I thought I answered that.”

“But you didn’t answer!”

“I did answer it. Remember our chat on the rooftop? About how if you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it?”

“I just wish I could ignore all of this! No one else in the Avengers has anything like this!”

Tony lifts his shirt up to reveal the arc reactor. “You think it’s easy to ignore this and everything that comes with it? Have you spoken to Steve about his asthma before the serum? Because-”

“No, but-”

“You have to decide how you’re going to live with your asthma. Dr. Cho and Bruce can’t decide for you, and neither can I. Only you, bud.”

Peter lets out a frustrated groan and raises his voice. “That sounds insanely cliché and unrealistic and it completely ignoresthat fact that I have to do injections and can’t be Spiderman if I’m on meds that weaken my powers!”

“How realistic does me instilling the fear of God into you if you don’t start taking your health seriously sound?” Tony’s gritting his teeth in irritation, can feel his blood pressure rising. “Because I’m about two seconds away from that conversation, and trust me, Peter, you are not going to like the consequences that come with it!”

“Please don’t!” Peter begs, backing down. “I-I know that what I did was wrong, Tony. I knowthat I deserved this-”

“You didn’t deserve this, Peter,” Tony says, sighing and shaking his head, because where did that anger just come from? “But you diddo something stupid and it landed you where we are now. I’m just glad it happened while you were close to home and not while we were away on a mission.”

The room goes quiet and Peter looks down at his hands, because he hasn’t considered this fact. His asthma’s affected his performance on missions, but it’s always been minimal, a couple of puffs here, a breathing treatment upon returning to the Tower and some Benadryl there. He’s never hampered the team’s ability to defeat the villain or perform, and he’s suddenly understanding why Tony feels responsible for everything that’s gone down. An emotional Tony on the rooftop that day saying, If you die, that’s on me, reverberates in his head.

“You know, I’ve been working on an algorithm and some coding that will hopefully fix the data gaps FRIDAY and Karen couldn’t piece together,” is Tony’s peace offering. He doesn’t want to fight with Peter, not about this, or at least, not right now. He wants Peter to look to him as an anchor of strength, a rock to cling to while he weathers this shitstorm that is his is lungs full of fluid and inflammation even if Tony also feels like he’s breaking into a million pieces. “I want the AIs to be able to continuously track allergen levels and air quality, along with your temp, heart rate, and oxygen levels to predict when you’ll have symptoms.”

“That’s why you’ve been spending so much time in your lab today?”

“What, you thought I was being overbearing and going through your data to find out your secrets?” Tony chuckles.

“Maybe? Yes?” Peter says, afraid that Tony won’t like his answer.

“Well, kid, I’m offended that you thought I was spending Christmas Eve trying to catch you in the middle of a lie rather than keep you breathing, but I digress.”

“No, I…that’s not what I meant, I just…didn’t think it’d be possible to get ahead of this. I’ve just been trying to…live with it for the last year and…I don’t know, I guess I figured it was one of those things that would always be…reactionary? Is that a word?”

“Ah, so the SAT prep course is working.” More like time with MJ after school, but sure, Peter thinks. “What’s really on your mind, bud?” he asks, pointing at Peter’s cell phone. “You’re clutching that thing like it’s the only thing keeping you going.”

“Just my friend. Friends, I mean,” Peter corrects quickly.

“A girl, huh?”

“No, ugh,” Peter groans, falling back into the couch. “Fine. It’s just that I had this whole plan to talk to MJ. See if maybe she liked me too.”

“That was the party you wanted to go to on Friday?”

“Yeah.”

“And then…”

“Yeah.”

“I see.”

“And she can’t see me like this, because then she’ll never ever talk to me again.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Um, the fact that I’m wheezy even on oxygen? And need to use my nebulizer like clockwork? How is that…not grounds for scaring someone away completely?” Peter’ asks, confused.

“If it was your friend in your place, would it scare you away completely?” Tony poses.

“No, but,” Peter says, trying to think of an excuse, sighing when he comes up with nothing. “Fine. Can’t I just be self-conscious? It’s bad enough that everyone’s coming for dinner tomorrow and I look like a Victorian child sick with influenza who won’t make it through the winter.”

“Cheeky, but also, not funny, Peter,” Tony quips.

“Hey, you’re the one who told me the other day that I wasn’t dying!” Peter jokes.

Tony’s eyes are suddenly watering, his jaw shifting left and right as he looks down.

“Wait, you really thought…yesterday, with the epi-pen…” Peter starts, staring in disbelief.

“Yeah, kid, I actually thought you might,” Tony admits. Peter can feel his heart ache as he watches Tony press his fingertips beneath his eyes, his hands folding together over his nose as he cries. “I know I’m not your dad, Pete, but it hurts to see you like this. You’re too good to deserve any of this.”

“Hey, I’m okay,” he promises, scooting closer so that he can wrap his small arms around Tony’s big frame. “It’s okay, Dad,” Peter says without thinking, and as he goes to take it back, Tony pulls him against his chest, rubs his arm and lets him rest there, the hum of the oxygen tank and Tony’s sniffles the only sounds in the room. “I didn’t mean,” Peter begins nervously, but Tony interrupts.

“It’s okay,” Tony says, sniffling. “I didn’t mean to be so hard on you before, Pete. I see a lot of myself in you and I want the world for you. Can you understand that?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t think I’m some crazy loon?” he jokes with another sniffle.

“Nope,” Peter replies convincingly.

“How come?”

“Because you picked me up from school and stayed with me on Friday.”

“I’m your emergency contact when May is away.”

“Yeah, but you could have gone to your lab or a meeting or something instead of staying with me, and you didn’t. And then you stayed with me last night, when I was scared and convinced I was dying, and you made sure I wasn’t alone. That’s...not something you had to do for me.”

“It was definitely something I had to do for your, Peter. I wasn’t going to just let you go through all of that by yourself.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Peter says, yawning. He’s feeling tired again, the crying and arguing having worn him out.

“For what?” Tony says, matching Peter’s yawn.

Peter’s closing his eyes, letting the whirring of Tony’s arc reactor and steady breathing quiet his mind. “Everything? Always being there? Even before this,” he says sleepily, closing his eyes.

“You got it, Underoos,” Tony says, and even though his arm is somewhat scrunched against the back of the couch, his leg jutting off at an odd angle that’s giving his foot pins and needles, he refuses to move from his sitting position, wouldn’t change a thing right now, because Peter’s called him Dad, sees him as more than just an overbearing guy in charge of his internship or being his emergency contact when May’s away, and he’s not sure what to feel.

It’s okay, Dad.

Tony lets the tears well up and fall, but for the first time in days, they’re happy. He closes his eyes and thinks about his gift for Peter, the one he’s been planning for months, the one he’s had to make changes to all morning, and wonders if it’ll be enough after everything they’ve just been through. He wants so badly for it to be enough.

Nearly an hour later, Pepper pops in to check on Peter and finds that both he and Tony are sleeping, the two sitting up against the back of the couch with Peter slumped against Tony’s shoulder and chest. She’s snapping a picture of them with her phone before she can stop herself, is careful not to wake them as she dims the ceiling lights so that the tree is luminous in the corner of the room, thankful that, for now, everything is quiet and calm. She takes a deep breath and crosses her arms in the entryway, thinking that maybe this Christmas won’t be so bad after all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5
Wednesday, December 25, Christmas Day

Pepper has a spread of coffee, May’s infamous cinnamon rolls, and an assortment of cut fruit out on the coffee table in the living room on Christmas morning. Peter’s done the physiotherapy Bruce recommended and his morning breathing treatment, is glad he’s getting some of what he’s termed “cement” out of his lungs, especially since it likes to build up overnight, which makes mornings particularly rough. They’re all still in pajamas even though it’s nearly eleven and guests are due to arrive around three, but no one seems bothered, the fatigue from the last few days lingering in the air. Tony has a virtual fire going in the fireplace with real crackles and heat that fills the room, the mood joyful and relaxed.

Peter is glad that May stayed the night, is sitting on the couch next to him while they enjoy brunch and presents. He’s gotten more than enough punny science t-shirts and socks from Pepper and May to last him a lifetime, and while it’s annoying to be tethered to his oxygen tank, he can’t deny that he’s feeling worlds better than he was. He watches as Tony opens his first gift, a 2019 slang dictionary.

“Really, kid?” Tony asks, laughing.

“I made sure FOMO was in there. You know. Just in case you forgot.”

“Cute, Peter. Real cute,” he jokes.

“This is the real gift, though,” Peter says as he hands over a slender wrapped box. “It isn’t much, but I thought you might be able to put it in your lab.”

Tony unwraps the paper and unboxes a sleek digital picture frame. When he turns it on, bright, vivid images come to life, fading in and out as a slideshow plays. There’s a photo with Natasha, Steve, Clint, and Bruce holding up peace signs on the living room couch, and one of Thor in the kitchen, smiling as he holds up a pan full of flames. There’s a picture of Peter scrunching his nose as Pepper wipes schmutz from his face with a tissue in the hallway before this year’s homecoming, and one of Peter with bedhead at the kitchen island eating a bowl of cereal and putting his hand up to avoid having his photo taken. And then there’s a picture of Tony and Peter working together in the lab, the two deep in thought, foreheads tense and gears turning as they tinker with a small electronic device. It’s followed by a tired Tony quizzing Peter for decathlon at the dining room table, and then one of Peter sleeping with his oxygen line, his head against a sleeping Tony’s shoulder, the two haphazardly sprawled on the living room couch with the faint glow of Christmas lights illuminating their calm, relaxed features.

Tony isn’t sure why he’s tearing up all of a sudden. He’s not one to cry, especially not during happy occasions like Christmas morning surrounded by family, but having Peter give him such a thoughtful gift feels really special.

“Kiddo,” he says, his voice cracking, and Peter’s there in an instant, wrapping his arms around Tony’s neck and squeezing him tight. Tony squeezes back to keep the tears where they are.

Peter pulls away, smiling. “Pepper took the last few pictures. She saw me trying to wrap your gift and asked if I wanted to add them. You know, you’re actually really hard to buy for,” Peter jokes.

Tony laughs, wiping a stray tear away before he grabs two boxes from under the tree. “This isn’t really a gift, so I didn’t wrap it, but you’re probably going to need this to enjoy your real gift.”

The first box in Peter’s hand is the size of a tissue box, and on the front is a picture of a small white and green handheld nebulizer. He crinkles his face in embarrassment because really Tony? But then Tony hands him another box with the biggest grin on his face, and Peter feels the humiliation melt away, because a portable nebulizer probably means that his gift involves traveling, and suddenly, Peter’s excited.

“Are we going somewhere?” Peter asks as he rips the wrapping paper off, opening top flaps of the box.

“Maybe,” Tony singsongs.

Peter’s eyes go wide as he looks down into the box. “Oh my God, are these Disney tickets?!” He’s holding the two tickets in his hand, examining them closely before looking up at Tony with the biggest smile.

“Maybe,” Tony repeats with a laugh, and before he can say anything else, Peter’s colliding with him and nearly knocking him over, his arms wrapping around him in another hug.

“Thank you!” Peter’s repeating.

“Of course, kiddo.”

“Is this…an itinerary?” he asks, picking up the folded paper that’s fluttered to the ground.

“Yeah, but we can always play it by ear, go off schedule if you’d like. I figured we could do Disney and then stay in Malibu for a few days.”

“May?” Peter’s asking as he turns to look at her. “Please? Can I go?”

She smiles. “Tony and I already discussed it. You guys have fun, okay?”

“Yes! When do we leave?!”

“February break.”

“Ugh, that’s so far away!” Peter moans.

“More than enough time to get you in shape for all of the walking Disney entails,” Tony explains.

“Kid needs his confidence back,” Tony recalls himself saying to May in an attempt to sell the trip a few days ago.

“Disney’s too expensive,” May had replied. “I can’t let you pay for that on top of everything else you’ve done, Tony.”

“Well, good thing I’m loaded,” he’d joked before realizing that May was having none of his usual Tony Stark bullshit. “In all seriousness, though, I think he needs this. He asked if we could go to Cali when all of this was over. It’s the only thing he’s asked for through this entire ordeal and I think it might keep him motivated to stay on top of everything this time.”

“But Tony, what if...what if it happens again and I can’t go?” Peter’s face falls as reality sets in.

Tony puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “We’ll deal with whatever comes, kiddo. If we really can’t go in February, I’ll reschedule for spring break.”

“I-I don’t know.” He’s suddenly nervous and biting his lip with anxiety. “You planned all of this and I don’t want it to go to waste.”

“We still have time to get you better and on the right combination of meds. Hell, I bet you’ll be ready to climb mountains by the time we leave.”

“Language,” Peter jokes.

“Thought we threw that rule out the window a couple of days ago,” Tony says, smirking. He pats Peter on the shoulder again and sighs. “You’re allowed to look forward to this, Peter,” he whispers.

He knows he needs something to look forward to, something that isn’t school or extracurricular activities. When he’d mentioned Cali, he was thinking of warmer weather. Of beaches and the California Science Center and Griffith Park and the Wilson Observatory. But Disney? Disney changes things, makes him want to look forward to running through the parks and enjoying rides like a child with reckless abandon.

He just needs to get the running part down.

And the breathing to do the running.

By February.

Which is never going to happen.

The excitement for the trip grows and fades like the virtual fire Tony’s conjured over the next half hour. He’s quiet as the rest of the gifts are opened, tries to act grateful and spirited for everything that Tony and Pepper have done for him, but on the inside, Peter feels like he’s crumbling, like the true panic and fear of his reality are taking root and he can’t do anything to stop it.

Because Peter doesn’t want to look forward. It’s not even about being allowed.

He has two months, which feels like forever compared to the last few days, but it also feels like it’s not enough time, because deep down, Peter is starting to prepare himself for never returning to his baseline. His rational side has taken over, has already put the pieces together and is letting it sit. He’s done some research since his diagnosis of eosinophilic asthma, and phrases like “difficult to control with standard medications” and “patients can experience a decrease in lung function over time” haven’t exactly helped to calm his anxiety. He knows that autoimmune means forever/, that the injections he’ll start aren’t exactly a cure, that those are forever, too, and they can come with their own set of issues, some of which are “sparking other autoimmune conditions” and “cancer.”

And while he knows not taking his inhalers consistently for two months didn’t cause this, he almost wishes that it had, because that would mean that he could go back and do all of this over again from the beginning.

He’s starting to wish he could go back even further, undo the stupid spider bite that, as Tony’s put it, has been both “a blessing and a curse.”

Because right now, none of this feels like a blessing, even though he knows he’s lucky in so many little ways, and he hates himself for it because Peter Parker is not an ungrateful person, has been raised to “take it or leave it” and to believe that “you get what you get and you don’t get upset” as May has always said, and right now, he just wants to be able to leave all of this behind, is willing to give up being Spiderman just to go back to normalcy.

To breathing.

He curls up on the couch and ignores May’s repeated insistence that he eat another half of cinnamon roll, lets his eyes close as he pulls the blanket from the back of the couch down and over his shoulders. He doesn’t sleep, just lets his body rest while he listens to the adults talk, to Tony talk, and he’s suddenly struck by a moment of FOMO.

A world without the spider bite and becoming Spiderman means a world without asthma, but it also means a world without Tony as his mentor, and while Peter would still trade all of it for normalcy in a heartbeat even if that meant losing his relationship with Tony, he knows that, in reality, he can’t. That the choice has already been made for him.

“This can’t possibly be comfortable,” May says, and Peter feels the cushions sink as she sits down, feels her hand on his back.

“S’fine,” he mumbles, not wanting to move, because suddenly everything is taking a lot more effort than he wants to admit to. Keeping his eyes open, staying awake, even breathing, is starting to get hard again, and he knows he needs meds and a nap if he’s even thinking of attempting dinner.

“You look shot, Peter,” May comments, and Peter opens his eyes to that, makes a face and groans. “Come on, I’ll help you to bed.”

“Don’t wanna move.”

“Up,” she commands, helping him up and off of the couch until she’s steadying him, one arm beneath his armpit while the other grips the oxygen.

By the time she’s got him situated in bed, Peter is panting and wheezy, has his head back and eyes closed as he wills the dizziness away. The back of May’s wrist stops at his forehead, and then at his cheek.

“Your fever’s trying to fight its way back, not that that’s a bad thing. It’s about time for your pills and a treatment. I can make you some pastina soup so they don’t bother your stomach, would you like that?”

“Are you gonna make me rub Vicks all over my chest, too?” Peter complains, but then his eyes meet May’s, sees how red and tired they are, and he apologizes. “Sorry, May. I know you’re trying to make me feel better, I just feel really crappy right now.” He gives a wheezy exhale that was meant to be a sigh. “Felt like I was doing better.”

“We just have to take it one day at a time,” she reminds him, tucking in the sides of his blanket. “How about we focus on being Peter right now instead of Spiderman?”

“Not funny, May.”

“Really? I thought it was pretty funny,” she says, smiling as she pats his leg. “So, how about that soup?”

Peter catches his breath. “Soup sounds…great. Thank you, May. And…I’m sorry I keep making you worry.”

“It’s my job to worry about you,” she asserts, but her attention is focused on his wheezing, remembers how he came home from school one afternoon and couldn’t get a full sentence out without making the same, awful rasp. She’d noticed as he was grabbing a bowl from the cabinet.

“I got a 105 on my math test because I…found an error in the question, fixed it, and…solved it,” he’d explained, walking to the fridge. “Mr. Hedges…he was really impressed, so he gave me an extra…5 points.”

“Are you wheezing?” she’d asked, face twisting in concern as she placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

“Just ran from…the subway,” he’d answered, pulling the milk from the top shelf and closing the fridge door as he shimmied out from under her grip. “I’m fine, May.”

“Sit,” she’d instructed, forcing him by his shoulders to park himself at the kitchen table. Peter put the milk down and rolled his eyes. “Stay,” she’d added, leaving him only to return with her stethoscope in hand.

“Told you I was…fine. And I’m not a…dog.”

“So fine you can’t even get a sentence out? Breathe normally.” She’d placed the buds in her ears and pressed the disc against Peter’s back, and while she knew what was coming, she wasn’t prepared for the extent of the whistling going on inside his lungs. She’d moved the disc around and listened closely to be sure, asking him to breathe deeply, which caused a coughing attack that lasted longer than she knew was normal.

“I can’t get sick,” Peter had insisted once he’d stopped coughing and she’d put the stethoscope down. “I have powers.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Peter, how long has this been going on?”

“A week? I don’t know.” Peter had run a hand through his hair, the wheezing intensifying. “Wasn’t that bad…’til now. Chest is kinda…tight. Feeling…dizzy.”

They’d spent the evening in the emergency room waiting for Peter’s oxygen levels to normalize, and May remembers the weeks after, how Peter would wake her up with his coughing down the hallway, how the school nurse had called and explained that she needed to come and pick him up because his peak flow was on the low side and he seemed like he was getting a cold.

And then she’d gotten the promotion. She figured it’d only be a couple of months of travel in the beginning, but then she’d been promoted, and traveling became her full-time job.

She was in Salt Lake, 2,000 miles away and two hours behind New York time, when she’d gotten the panicked call from Peter after school that his inhaler wasn’t working, and she’d managed to piece together what he was saying to make out that his nebulizer was in the living room of their apartment and he didn’t think he could get up from the floor of his bedroom to get it.

“May,” he’d wheezed. “I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe…”

She’d been trained to stay calm in the midst of panic, but even so, hearing the way Peter struggled to get enough air to be able to speak had filled her with the deepest dread. May added Tony in on the call, and she’s sure someone was looking out for them that day, because Tony had picked up, had gotten there just in time to get Peter set up with a treatment and breathing again.

He’d taken him back to the Tower for the night, just to be safe, and May had sobbed like an idiot on the phone later that evening, feeling like a failure for not having been there. “He can stay here for as long as he needs to,” Tony had insisted. “It’s really not a problem, May.”

Tony had gotten involved and he’d promised to make sure Peter saw the best doctors at SHIELD, that MedBay would be stocked with everything he could ever need. She’d seen an improvement almost instantly, watched his wheezing disappear for weeks at a time, felt things shift back to normal.

And things had stayed that way ever since.

“Dunno how long I can…keep my eyes open for,” Peter admits, rubbing his eyes. “Have a headache.”

“Soup. Right,” May says, coming back to the present. “Be right back.” She leaves the door open and Peter closes his eyes to alleviate the pounding behind his eyes.

“Hey, Tony. You okay? You look stressed,” Peter hears May ask in the hallway.

Tony sighs and Peter imagines him rubbing his temple. “Work stuff. I promised Grumman that I’d reschedule our meeting for a video conference tomorrow afternoon, and on Friday I have to go to Baltimore for a few in-person meetings with Lockheed. Depending on how that goes, I might need to be gone Saturday as well.” There’s another sigh. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be unloading all of this on you. I told Pepper to tell them there’s been a family emergency, but I don’t know how long I can keep holding off on work without some serious ramifications. It’s the end of the fourth quarter and the board is up my ass right now about not being on top of everything.”

The stress in Tony’s voice is enough to make Peter feel like an asshole, because Tony has been present at every turn since this nightmare began despite his usual schedule of non-stop meetings and hours hidden away in his lab. He picked Peter up from school on Friday and stayed with him in MedBay, was the first face Peter saw after his surgery, even held Peter while his airways closed and filled with mucus the other morning, all while reassuring him that he wasn’t alone, that he was doing such a good job, and reminding him to keep breathing.

Tony’s cancelled all of that for Peter, and Peter hasn’t even thought of it until just now. He closes his eyes and turns away from the door, not wanting to think about any of this because it’s too much. Too much guilt and sickness and feeling like crap. He dozes for a short while, feels himself going in and out, and when May returns with his soup, a can of ginger ale, and pills, he finds that he can barely keep his eyes open. She organizes everything on his nightstand and sits at the edge of his bedside so that she can help him up.

“Easy,” she soothes as Peter struggles to sit up and against the pillows.

“Really wanna sleep,” Peter groans.

"Just a little soup and then you can sleep,” she says, taking the bowl from the nightstand and stirring the soup with the spoon. She spends the next ten minutes bringing spoonfuls of broth and pastina to his lips, waiting patiently between mouthfuls for him to chew and swallow. He wants to complain that he isn’t a baby and can do it himself, but his arms feel like bricks and he can feel the fever working its way back into his system. When he’s finished, she coaxes him into taking the handful of pills she’s brought and gives him a few sips of ginger ale with a straw before she gets him started on a breathing treatment. He’s trying not to show how miserable he feels, but he’s sure he’s failing because May knows him much too well, can tell him what he’s going to think before he even thinks it sometimes.

“You know, when you were born, you were small enough to fit in your mother’s hands,” May reminisces with a small smile. “She called you her peanut. You had these big, dark eyes that would take everything in like a sponge. I used to warn her that you’d be trouble, that you were too smart for your own good.”

Peter side-eyes her and she laughs.

“You heard my conversation with Tony in the hall, didn’t you?” she finally asks, and Peter just nods, tries not to cry because the guilt of all of this is starting to become unbearable and he’s tired of being on the brim of tears all of the damn time. She nods knowingly and takes a moment to think. “You know how you’re taking what he said personally?”

Peter quietly curses May’s ability to read him like a book.

“He’s thinking the same about your being sick,” May explains. “He’s blaming himself.”

Peter’s forehead crumples in confusion. “Not anyone’s fault,” he whispers.

“Exactly.” She smiles and pulls the mouthpiece away from Peter’s lips to make sure there’s still medication coming out. “Almost done. I’ll be back in a few to check on you.”

“I see what you did there,” Peter says with a small laugh as she leaves. “Very clever, May.”

And even though he’s barely managed to whisper and she’s already halfway down the hall, he knows she’s heard him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6
Wednesday, December 25, Christmas Day (Part 2)

By four in the afternoon, the Stark household is in full Christmas swing. FRIDAY is blasting Christmas jams in the kitchen while May helps Pepper put the finishing touches on dinner. Tony, Steve, Natasha, Bruce, Clint, and Thor are all enjoying a glass of wine in the living room, Peter laughing along to their banter from his place on the couch. He’s wearing his “Tis the Season to Be Amazing!” Spiderman Christmas sweater that was meant for MJ’s party, and while part of him is still bummed that he didn’t get to go, he’s glad that he felt well enough to shower after his midday nap and be part of the Avengers’ annual Christmas soirée this evening. He hates that everyone has to see him on oxygen, that he’ll probably have to do a treatment or two while everyone is still over, but Tony’s assured him that no one will comment, that they’re all just happy he’s doing better and that he can be present for the evening.

“Baby of Spiders! That garment is perplexing yet humorous,” Thor comments, sweeping his arm toward Peter, the wine in his glass splashing over the top. “What is it that you call such a sweater for Christmas?”

“T-thanks,” Peter manages, annoyed that Thor’s called a baby. Again. “Um, a Christmas sweater?

“Aye! That’s the name! Wouldn’t it have been comical if Baby of Spiders had worn such a sweater during our mission this past evening?” Thor asks, addressing the group.

“What mission?” Peter’s asking, sitting up straight on the couch.

“Thor!” Bruce is chastising with a glare.

Peter feels tears pressing, the happiness from the day disappearing in one swift moment. “Y-you went on a mission? Without me?”

“Nothing crazy, kiddo,” Clint assures him. “Just a small wormhole-”

Tony is staring daggers at Clint, who is throwing back a look that screams please don’t kill me!

“A small wormhole?! There’s…no such thing… You went without me and didn’t even tell me, Tony?!” Peter’s near tears now, is overheating all of a sudden. He fumbles with his oxygen tubing and grabs the tank with both hands, rising from the couch and pulling it behind him to his room with such drive that even Peter surprises himself. It takes him a moment to situate it inside of his room before he slams the door shut and locks it, but he feels oddly accomplished for a few seconds as he leans back, lets himself slowly slide down until he’s sitting on the ground.

That’s when the tears hit.

“Peter,” he hears Tony behind the door with a small knock.

“Go away!” he yells, running the sleeve of his sweater beneath his nose.

“Come on, Peter. Let me in before I have Friday override the lock.”

Of course he can override the damn lock, Peter thinks, his anger rising. “Just leave me alone! Please!”

“Gotta calm down, kiddo,” Tony’s saying softly as he jiggles the knob. “Let’s talk about this.”

“You don’t get to tell me to calm down!” Peter yells, incredulous. How could Tony have kept this from him? After everything?

Tony signs and puts his forehead to the door. “Can you at least let me in so that we can talk?”

“I really wanna…be alone,” Peter says, hiccupping. “Please go away!”

“I’m giving you five minutes and then I’m coming in, okay?”

Peter doesn’t answer, just sits against the door with his forehead on his knees, his hands pulled into the sleeves of his sweater as he sniffles and focuses on breathing because the crying fit he’s just had is making his lungs feel heavy.

It’s not until he hears the lock unclick behind him and the door push against his back that he realizes his time is up, and with that, Tony’s half inside of the room looking so sorry that it’s borderline pitiful.

“We should talk about this,” Tony says, face creased with guilt.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Peter insists, wiping his eyes and using the wall to help himself up off of the floor. He takes a breath, thankful that his oxygen line is long enough to span his room, and starts toward his bed.

“Well, we could talk about how your team went on a mission without you and then kept it from you.”

“I can’t go on a mission anyway, so it doesn’t even…it doesn’t even matter!” Peter argues as he sits on the edge of his bed.

Tony closes the door and goes to sit beside Peter, careful to leave some space between them because he knows Peter’s about ready to explode, is surprised that he hasn’t had a full-on fit of rage yet. He’s been angry, sure, and upset, but he still hasn’t seen Peter completely lose it, and there’s a part of him that knows it’s coming, is worried that it hasn’t come yet. He keeps his voice soft and sighs. “It does matter. We should have…I should have told you, Peter. I’m sorry. This one’s on me.”

“I don’t even know why I’m so upset!” Peter cries, his voice hoarse as he tries to stop the tears that are falling.

Tony rubs his back and says, “I can think of a laundry list of reasons why anyone in your shoes would be upset.”

“I can be an asset to the team, it’s just that, right now, I can’t, and it makes me feel absolutely worthless.”

“You’re still getting your strength back, kiddo. Once we get your PFTs up, you can start some local patrols a few nights a week.”

“But we don’t even know if I can be Spiderman like this, let alone go out on patrols.”

“Patience, young grasshopper.”

“Can’t exactly swing between buildings with an oxygen tank,” Peter posits. “And the meds interfere with my spider senses, so either way, it doesn’t work and we both know it.” Peter bites his lip and sniffles. “I know you’re trying to help Tony. I know you want me looking forward and thinking all positive, but right now, I just feel like I need to be in it, you know? Swim around in this for a bit while I adjust. It’s the only thing that feels right. I know it doesn’t seem productive. It probably isn’t even healthy, but it just feels…right, I guess.”

Tony thinks back to what things were like when he returned from Afghanistan. How he struggled to adjust to real life again afterwards. He’d refused any and all medical treatment in the beginning, because that meant that there was something wrong, that all of the digging around that they’d done in his first reactor surgery could have had negative consequences. He’d always struggled with sleep, but immediately after coming home was when the real sleepless nights began, followed by a lack of appetite. His coffee habit exploded, as did his penchant for spending days at a time in his lab. His fight or flight response had taken over while he was in it, stuck in a cave with strangers keeping him captive, and he couldn’t figure out how to turn it off once he was home. He remembers the cave being the easy part, even though it was by no means or definition easy, the after the confusing mess that he, admittedly, feels like he’s still trying to figure out sometimes, even after all of these years.

Because sometimes, he still looks over his shoulder, thinking that someone is there, watching and waiting. And sometimes, when Peter is trying to help in the lab and his clumsy self knocks a knee into a metal workbench, he jumps and has to slow his racing heart. There are the nightmares that wake him from the deepest of sleeps, have him screaming out and sweating through his pajamas, and the panic attacks that, due to intensive therapy and Ativan, have stayed away for the last three years. Pepper calls these moments his aftershocks, and it makes Tony think that there’s been some kind of earthquake that’s misshapen his landscape, his life, forever. It’s an analogy that he doesn’t mind, because it deflects from the fact that he had little to no control over what happened to him. It gives him the energy to focus on the now, the things he can control.

He knows that his struggle with PTSD has not been what he imagined PTSD would be, but then again, is anyone’s, he thinks? He can openly talk about explosions and fight in battles where people leave this world, all without breaking down, but then he comes home and things like Pepper dropping and shattering a coffee cup on the kitchen floor can keep him on edge for hours, has him checking over his shoulder repeatedly, eyes wide and searching for a danger that he knows isn’t really there. Sometimes, he can’t turn it off, sees things that aren’t threats as threats, and he’s had to apologize one too many times for starting fights with Pepper that have no basis because he just can’t get the scanner in his head to turn off sometimes.

Peter doesn’t understand why missing a mission was so distressing, but Tony does. It’s an aftershock caused by the earthquake that is having multiple near-death experiences, being diagnosed with a chronic, life-altering disease. At some point, Tony knows that Peter is going to need to talk with someone about what’s happened. What’s happening. He knows Peter will refuse to not because he doesn’t think he needs to, but because he doesn’t know what to say, how to make any sense of what’s happening.

Peter sniffles, wipes the tears from under his eyes, and takes a deep breath.

“You’re allowed to be angry, Peter,” Tony says. “Not that you need my permission to feel angry. I was angry for a really long time after Afghanistan. Sometimes, I still am.”

“I guess I’m angry, but I’m also really sad? And scared? And my mind keeps replaying our conversation on the rooftop, about how if I’m nothing without the suit, then I shouldn’t have it.” Peter looks up at the ceiling and licks his lips, eyes glossy with tears. “I keep thinking that I don’t deserve it not because I can’t use it, but because this is all my fault. I’ve put my team at risk because now they’re down one man, I’ve disappointed May and you and Pepper, and I just feel really…numb. You know that’s not like me, Tony.” He looks over at him, his lip trembling. “And while I want to focus on Disney and getting back to school and patrolling and missions, it all seems so distant. Like another life, almost. And then I worry that I’m never going to get there, because realistically, that could happen. It might get better, but it might not, too. I might be stuck like this, sick like this, for the foreseeable future, and I’m not sure how to do this for the next few days, let alone forever.” He inhales sharply to keep from sobbing, does it again, is trying to keep it together because he wants to cheer up, wants to get his breathing under control because his lungs are aching and angry from crying.

“You’re right,” Tony reasons. “This is much more complex than thinking positively and looking forward. You might only need the Nucala once a week and your rescue inhaler for emergencies, which is our best case scenario, or you might need to keep up your current regiment every day, but even if that was the case, I’d find a way to get you back to school and patrolling. And to Disney. Already working on it, kiddo.”

“I don’t know if I’d want to get back to all of that if this wasn’t better,” Peter whispers, fidgeting with his oxygen tubing. “And honestly, as excited as I am about Disney, I’m scared of what will happen if I’m still sick. I don’t want to do Disney like this. Or school. Or Spiderman. I really, really don’t. I’m not…me like this.”

And suddenly, Tony gets it. Remembers why he hid away in his lab and refused to see anyone but Pepper and Happy for months after he’d come home. If people didn’t see him, they couldn’t judge him, and if they couldn’t judge him, they couldn’t change the way they saw him.

Which meant that Tony could avoid changing the way he saw himself.

Because watching your body change and learning your new limits by testing them and being beaten down by them repeatedly, Tony had learned, is frustrating on the deepest possible level. And having everyone watching and worrying had only made things worse.

“How about this. If there’s another mission and you can’t come along, I’ll have FRIDAY include you on the channel. This way, you can hear us and chat, maybe even do some armchair special ops for us.”

Peter looks up with a hopeful smile and tears still in his eyes. “I think I’d like that.”

“I should have told you about the mission, Peter. I’m sorry. I was trying to avoid making you upset. I wanted you to rest and enjoy today.”

“I know. It’s okay. I shouldn’t have freaked out. A mission was going to happen sooner or later, but I…God, I cried in front of everyone!” Peter covers his face with his hands.

“Well, I can attest that Thor, if not everyone else, is three sheets to the wind right now and will probably forget everything that just transpired in the living room,” Tony says, gently prying Peter’s hands from his face. “But also, they’re your team, Peter. They just want you better and out there kicking butt. They don’t care if the journey there looks like this. Did you know that Natasha’s been texting me non-stop asking how you’re doing? Or that Bruce has been trying to come up with ways to equip your suit with albuterol and epinephrine? Just in case?”

“No,” Peter admits.

“I’m honestly surprised Natasha hasn’t knitted you a blanket by now.”

“Black Widow…knits?” Peter asks, laughing through his tears.

There’s a knock on the door, and Steve opens it to pop his head into the small crack he’s created.

“Hey, Tony. Pepper needs some help in the kitchen,” Steve explains. “Natasha and I were trying, but-”

“Pepper’s particular, I know,” Tony says, shaking his head with a laugh. “Last year, she banished me from the residence until our guests arrived after I shattered a glass and nearly destroyed the turkey, so I’d say it’s progress that she’s letting everyone hang around while she preps. Let me guess: You offered to help, and she sent you away because you didn’t set the table properly?”

Steve is taken aback. “How did you know?”

“Like I said, Pep’s particular. I’m going to go and save Christmas before it’s too late,” he jokes. “You think you’re okay, Pete?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” he says, and it feels like a half-truth and half-lie at the same time. Tony pats his shoulder twice before he gets up, awkward silence blanketing the room the moment Tony exits.

“So, Christmas movie?” Steve asks from the doorway. “Most of the Avengers team is heavily under the influence right now, so a movie and a nap might be a good idea before dinner,” he says, laughing.

Peter laughs back, wiping away any evidence of crying. “As long as it’s not Elf, I’m good.”

“Hey, what’s wrong with Elf?” Steve says, pretending to be offended.

“It’s one of May’s favorites and I’ve been subjected to that movie more times than I care to count.”

“I’m sure we could find something on Netflix,” Steve says.

“Deal.”

By the time everyone has found a place on the couch or floor to get comfortable, Peter can feel his eyelids drooping. His chest is getting heavy and he knows it’s time for a treatment, but he wants to watch whatever Natasha’s ended up picking out, knows that he can nap later, after the movie and dinner.

Tony pops in as the opening credits roll, the new nebulizer and a package of medication in his hands, and he knows, then, that Tony isn’t going to let him off the hook for even one treatment. He gets why, but he also hates that his team is around, that they’ll see. He pulls the blanket from the back of the couch up and over his head in a fake effort to hide.

Tony sits and pulls the blanket away. “You can hate me for this later,” he says, squirting a nebule of medication into the top of small, handheld nebulizer from earlier.

“I don’t hate you,” Peter corrects, sighing. “I just don’t want to drown out the movie with this.”

Tony smirks, closes the green top, and clicks the device on. Mist appears, but there’s no sound.

“Wait…is this…for real?” Peter asks, confused. There aren’t any wires or clunky compressors, just a small, white handheld cylinder with a small mouthpiece jutting out.

“Yup,” Tony says, giving a small smile. “It’s silent and it’ll cut your treatment time down from 15 to 4 minutes.”

Peter’s eyes light up. “4 minutes?!”

“I told you I’d find you a way to get you back to school and patrolling,” Tony says, smiling as he hands the device over to Peter, who places the small mouthpiece between his lips. He’s impressed with how small and lightweight it is. “No one will even know you have it in your backpack, and if you need a treatment, you can just take it without having to worry about noise or the time it’ll take. It’s supposed to last 30 treatments before needing to be recharged.”

Peter tries not to think about how much the nebulizer has cost Tony, because he knows that he has more money than he knows what to do with, but he also can’t help but think about how May could never afford this. How he was going without inhalers in the beginning because they were nearly $80 a pop with insurance. He shudders to think about what would have happened if he’d never met Tony or gotten the Stark internship.

“Stop thinking about the price tag, kiddo.”

“M’not,” Peter grumbles around the mouthpiece.

“Sure,” Tony answers with a laugh, getting up from the couch. “Enjoy the movie. Let me know the ending.”

“You should stay with us, Tony,” Natasha poses. “Pepper’s two seconds away from banning you from the kitchen anyway.”

“Ah, but I have to wait for her to ban me,” Tony points out. “It’s the rules of marriage. Once I’m banned, I can leave. Until then, she owns my soul.”

Everyone laughs, and Tony winks to Peter on his way out as he holds up 4 fingers. Peter smiles, feels like 4-minute treatments sound a hell of a lot better than what he’s been doing. He still hates that he has to do it, but 4 minutes? 4 minutes is doable, even if it’s multiple times a day. 4 minutes is one song through his headphones. The amount of time it takes him to gel his hair. A commercial break. The time between bells at school.

He calculates his original every-four-hour breathing treatment schedule, multiplies 15 by 6, because that’s the number Bruce has him doing every day, give or take. That’s ninety minutes, or 1.5 hours attached to a box plugged into the wall. It doesn’t seem like much time, but Peter can think of a million ways he’d rather be spending his time. This new system is 24 minutes total, though, and 24 minutes feels doable. Feels a little more normal and a lot less like limits.

“I told you I’d find a way to get you back to school and patrolling.”

He’s been afraid to admit that he doesn’t want to go back to his old life like this, because that means that he’s accepted this, that it’s somehow okay when it’s not, but he’s also afraid of adjusting. Or rather, not adjusting. Peter is used to having boundless energy, used to going from school, to decathlon at 2:30, and then to patrol, finally getting in around ten, sometimes later, and staying up past midnight to finish homework.

He knows going back to school won’t be like that, that he won’t even be able to patrol for a while if his lungs keep doing their thing. But something shifts inside of Peter as he does his silent treatment, and while he doesn’t want to admit it, he does feel a little lighter. A little more hopeful.

“Hey, can’t wait until you’re back in the game with us, Spidey,” Natasha says quietly with a smile from her place beside him, giving Peter a soft punch in the arm. He smiles and curls into a ball against the back of the couch, letting himself get lost in the movie while he finishes his treatment.

He doesn’t realize he’s fallen asleep until he wakes up groggy and confused. He sees that his nebulizer is off and sitting upright on the coffee table, can feel that there’s a knitted blanket on top of the couch blanket draped over him, and his first real thought is that he wants to tell Tony that Natasha has, in fact, made him the blanket he mentioned. Even though the movie is still playing, Steve is the only one awake. He’s moved so that he’s sitting right beneath Peter’s place on the couch, and he glances back when he hears Peter shift to readjust his oxygen tubing.

“You missed the best part,” Steve jokes. “But then again, so did everyone else. Can’t say I blame them. Thor’s attempt at homemade wine should be labeled as illegal moonshine.”

“Ever see this really old movie called National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?” Peter asks, glancing around the room at the sleeping Avengers. “This reminds me of the scene where Cousin Eddie spikes the eggnog. This is exactly what I imagined as the end result.”

“No, but I like your jokes and pop culture references. Haven’t heard them in a while,” he’s doing the smiling laugh thing he always does. “Keeps me young.”

“You’re not old, Steve,” Peter says.

He laughs. Again. “Keep telling me that, kid.”

There’s silence between them as the movie plays and Peter fiddles with the corner of Natasha’s blanket.

“Um, I didn’t get to thank you yet. For the other day?” He pulls the blanket tight around his shoulders. “But thank you, Steve.”

“Hey, no thanks needed.”

“You stabbed me in the thigh with a needle,” Peter jokes quietly, but beneath his words, he’s anxious. Uncomfortable.

“That’s what teammates do, right?”

“Yeah, they do, but…I don’t know…this whole thing has been really weird and confusing, and I guess I just don’t feel like a part of the team anymore?” Peter squints and grimaces as he says it, is unsure about admitting something so personal.

“Peter, no matter what happens, you’ll always be an Avenger,” Steve assures him. “I think I can speak for everyone when I say that. We’ve all had our own mountains to climb. This one just happens to be yours.”

“Think Bruce and Tony can engineer a super serum to fix my cra-cruddy immune system?” Peter asks with a laugh, careful not to curse in front of Steve.

“You don’t need a super serum, Peter. What you need is time and support, and thankfully you’ve got a lot of both of those things.”

“It’s just hard is all,” he says, shrugging.

“I remember when breathing was hard,” Steve says softly, knowingly. “It’s been a long time, but I still remember. I used to do a lot of hiding under blankets and pretending that I could do all of the things I couldn’t do when I couldn’t breathe.”

“You beat it, though.”

Steve points a finger at himself. “I did something stupid and it worked out. There’s a difference.”

Peter sighs. “You were resilient, though. Fought to get where you are by pushing for what you wanted. Reached your goal. Hence, breathing.”

Steve shakes his head. “What I did wasn’t resilience, Peter.”

“It was,” Peter insists.

“It wasn’t, because to me,” Steve says, his eyes meeting Peter’s, “resilience looks a lot like this.”

“Like being attached to an oxygen tank and covered in blankets?” Peter asks, skeptical. “Sure, Steve.”

“Resilience looks a lot like someone trying to figure out how they’re going to do the things they want to do regardless of the things they can’t control, not someone looking for a quick fix. Resilience takes time and effort. It takes persistence and planning. And it takes failure. A lot of it.”

“Isn’t that exactly what you did, though, failed until you figured out how you were going to do the things you wanted when you decided to take the serum?”

“No. See, I went chasing for a quick answer and I lucked out. Sometimes ambition can blind you. In fact, I was the only one chasing some kind of cure that day who didn’t have any negative effects. And yes, I didn’t have the medication you have today that would have allowed me to do some of the things I wished I could do. But you? You’ve been dealing with asthma for over a year now and showing it who’s boss by putting that suit on despite your fears and getting out there to stick up for the little guy,” Steve says. “You have been amazingly resilient in ways you don’t even know. It’s gotten ten times harder in the last week, no doubt about that, but we know you, Peter. Your team knows you well enough to know you’re going to find a way back to being Spiderman, and we’re here to help you. Part of resilience is having the right supports in place.”

Peter looks down. “Did Tony tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

Peter’s slow to look up because he doesn’t want to say it out loud, doesn’t want to acknowledge the truth. He takes a breath and sighs. “That I can’t be Spiderman with all of my meds? They affect my biochemistry. My webshooters aren’t even functionable right now. I’m essentially useless.”

“You could never be useless, Peter. I know that this is not the most fun you’ve ever had by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that difficult experiences shape people to be better.”

The thought grinds against Peter, doesn’t feel right, because he doesn’t feel like a better person because of any of this. In fact, he feels a million times worse than he’s sure he’s ever felt about himself before. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to agree with me right now, or ever, for that matter.”

“To me, this sort of feels like that song by Kelly Clarkson. The one about “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” Peter says.

Steve thinks for a moment and Peter imagines him humming the chorus in his head to check if it’s the right song. “The one that Tony plays during group workouts?”

“Yes, that’s the one. After all of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that what doesn’t kill you actually gives you some really unhealthy coping mechanisms and a very dark sense of humor.”

Steve’s confused. “Is that supposed to be funny, or…”

Peter laughs, because of course his joke has fallen completely flat for Captain America. “Honestly, it was supposed to be both…”

“You know, I’ve lived more lives than most get to live. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you see the world a little differently. When I look at you, I see the definition of resilience. Even if that means an oxygen tank.”

“I still don’t get how you can think that you weren’t resilient by finding yourself a cure,” Peter poses. “I mean, you’ve never had to deal with asthma again, or any of your other health stuff. If I could undo this or cure it, I would in a heartbeat. No questions asked.”

“I think I was more resilient when I faced things and lived with them, not when I fought against them. I know society uses war terminology to talk about illness, but fighting against it day-in and day-out can burn you out, kid. It’s the living with it that truly makes someone resilient. And resilience isn’t this flashy thing everyone assumes it is. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“I don’t want to have to be resilient.” Peter feels like he’s been trying to say that for days now, just couldn’t pin the emotions down and find the words to until now.

“Well, we don’t get to choose our cards, that’s for sure. But, like I said, you have a whole army of people here who want to help.”

“I guess I just don’t feel like I’ve been doing any of that. Facing or fighting, with or without help. Again, I’ve been absolutely useless. I couldn’t even help in the battle last night.”

“Stop with that. You are not useless,” Steve reiterates quite sternly, and Peter looks away, feeling embarrassed. Steve sighs and softens his tone. “Hey, look at me, Peter.” Peter looks over begrudgingly, unsure if he wants to hear any more. “I’ve never seen anyone fight like you did the other day. I mean, you couldn’t even breathe, and yet you were trying so hard to communicate. Immediately after I gave you the epi-pen, you were trying to advocate for yourself and help problem-solve, try to figure out why it had happened. You, sitting here, trying to be a part of the holiday fun while on oxygen and having to take medication that you’re afraid to take in front of people because it’s different? That’s facing things and living with them. It’s about fighting to keep moving forward, not to undo the past. That’s resilience.”

Peter sighs. “I was so weak, though. Tony had to carry me to MedBay, and then I kept falling asleep...”

“You are so darn stubborn!” Steve laughs. “You, my friend, need to learn to take a compliment. Anyway, resilience doesn’t mean doing it all alone, kid. Sometimes, resilience is letting people help you. You have to make sure you’re not fighting your best allies because you never know when you’ll need them the most.”

Peter lets that thought sink in. It’s obvious that May, Tony, and Pepper are willing to help, that the whole Avengers team is, but he hadn’t realized just how much he’d been pushing them away until now. It’s been so hard for him to let people see him like this, so vulnerable and terrified of not knowing what might happen next. He thinks of the crying and whining, of the anxiety living in his chest. He feels like his airways are a ticking time bomb ready to take everyone around him down with him one wheeze at a time, and it’s wearing him thin even more, he thinks, than the physical limitations of this stupid disease. He wants to tell Steve that he feels too guilty right now to let anyone help, that he’s angry he’s had to put everyone in this situation to begin with.

He’s so used to feeling responsible in good ways, but this feels like the burden of all burdens. And he hates this it’s so complicated. In the beginning, back in chemistry class, he’d been so focused on making it to the last bell, to MJ’s party. But now, he just wants his life back, wants everything and everyone go back to the way it was before, and he hates that he knows just how impossible that is. It’s enough to make it hard to breathe again, to make him feel utterly worthless and like he can’t fix this disaster he’s created or the disasters that just keep coming.

But he also knows that Steve is right. That he needs to let May, Tony, and Pepper in. Let his team in. He’s been trying, mostly because he’s been so weak that he hasn’t been able to do everyday tasks independently, but he knows what Steve really means; it’s not so much about the physical things as the emotional ones. Hearing Tony all stressed out and unloading on May in the hallway had really done a number on Peter, as had finding out about the Christmas Eve battle. And while he knows without explanation that Tony did those things to protect him from the truth as a means of helping, he also knows that in the end, it had honestly only hurt. Nearly everything that’s happened since Friday has been emotionally painful on a level Peter has never experienced before, and he knows that’s saying a lot because he and May have had their fair share of heartbreak, but for the first time, this is Peter’s mountain, and even with the help, he fully understands that in reality, it’s his mountain alone.

All of the help in the world doesn’t change the fact that he’s the one with the crappy lungs and no breaks from reality.

 

He knows this. Knows it so deeply that he wonders if that’s really the ache buried beneath his ribcage keeping him from being able to breathe without support. Letting May help him shower or allowing Tony to set up his nebulizer is one thing, but to fully let them in on the emotional turmoil that’s only going to make them more worried than they already are?

Peter’s not stupid enough to let things get there, would rather lie until he’s blue in the face.

He rethinks his last thought, hates the morbidity of it, and settles on lying for just a little bit longer, until things settle down with the hope that he never has to tell anyone about the way his anxiety is spiraling far beyond anything he thought possible. It’s not really lying if you’re just keeping it to yourself, right?

He can do the emotional part all on his own, doesn’t need to add that to the list of responsibilities on everyone else’s plate. And it’s not only because he wants to, but also because he knows he has to. Seeing May cry again and apologize for not being here? Peter’s not sure he can handle that right now, nor can he handle the way Pepper stops in his doorway throughout the night to check on him or having Tony get in trouble with work because he’s been too busy keeping Peter breathing to keep Stark Industries running.

So he’s going to tuck it away, keep it safe.

For now, at least.

Just for now.

X

“All right. Everyone to that side of the table,” May says, taking her phone out for a picture.

“May!” Peter groans as everyone assembles, albeit haphazardly. He pulls his oxygen cannula off so that it’s not in the picture and tries to find a place where he fits. Everyone is mid-conversation, wine glasses and beers in hand. The disorganization makes Peter blush. “We literally look like that painting of The Last Supper from grandma’s kitchen like this!” he directs toward May.

“The da Vinci one?” she asks.

Peter is nearly dying with embarrassment over the fact that May has asked the Avengers to assemble for a picture. “Ugh, yes, the da Vinci one!”

“Does that make me Jesus?” Tony asks jokingly from the middle, the room exploding into a burst of laughter. “But also, May needs to be in the picture. Dummy, where are you?” he calls out.

Dummy whirs in and Tony walks over, takes his phone out. He places it in the robot’s hands, sets up the camera feature, and adjusts the height until it’s ready to go.

“Alright, say cheese!” Tony directs once everyone, himself and May included, is posing and ready.

The flash goes off and Tony goes over to make sure the picture is decent. “Looks good to me,” he comments as he zooms in and out. “Time for food!”

That’s everyone’s cue to sit down. Tony clinks a fork against his glass to get everyone quiet once the disorganization of the picture dissolves into everyone having found their seat.

“So, I’ve never been a very religious person, but over the years, I’ve realized the importance of giving thanks, so here it is. While it may not always seem so, there are many things I’m grateful for. I think today is the perfect time to acknowledge and be thankful for family, friends, and this beautiful and savory spread that Pepper and May have spent all day preparing for us. So thank you, to whoever the powers may be, for allowing us to share this day and food together. Amen.”

“Amen!” everyone repeats with such gusto that Peter is sure that the wine Thor has made is definitely the moonshine Steve said it was.

Plates begin to get passed around the table, glasses clinking, forks and knives scraping as everyone digs in.

It’s when Peter’s finished half of his plate that Pepper slides a pill over, discretely, of course, but a pill, nonetheless. It’s his antibiotic, and he needs to take it, but he’s tired and full, can’t imagine downing it with a large gulp of water because is there even anywhere for it to go? He knows it’s going to make his stomach hurt, that it’ll slow down his thinking and essentially kick his ass for the next few hours, but he also knows he needs it. That it’s helping, at least, which makes it worth taking. He grimaces, popping it in his mouth quickly before downing it in one, swift gulp of water.

He’s not supposed to have his phone at the table, but he feels it vibrate in his pocket, pulls it out and looks down to a text from Tony.

Proud of you, Underoos.

For popping pills? Peter texts, smirking to himself.

For doing the things you don’t want to do but have to.

Yeah, well, didn’t have much of a choice, did I?

You’re damn right you didn’t!

Peter is taken aback, looks up to see Tony smiling slyly at him from across the table, and smiles himself. They both look down at their phones again.

Still proud of you, kiddo.

Thanks, Dad, he goes to type, erasing the last word, because why does he keep wanting to say that? He’s not even used to calling anyone Dad. Not since…

He doesn’t want to think about that. Not on Christmas. Holidays have always been hard, but this is the first time he’s been so distracted that he hasn’t really focused on what life would have been like if things had been different. He tries not to get lost in what ifs, but his brain likes to go there sometimes without his permission. Peter knows that the holidays are hard for May, too, because she didn’t ask for any of this, for the full responsibility of Peter when he was just four years old. She’s always putting him first, making sure he has what he needs, even after the bite. He knows that it isn’t easy, that it hasn’t been, that while she’s just as overbearing as Tony sometimes, she’s doing it out of true, unconditional love.

“Did you thank Natasha for the blanket?” May’s behind Peter, has her hands on his shoulders.

“Huh?” Peter asks, rubbing his forehead. His brain is feeling muddled, which means the antibiotics are already kicking in.

“He already did,” Natasha vouches from his left, and Peter’s confused, because he hasn’t had a chance to thank her yet. What is going on?

“You look about ready to conk out on us, Pete,” May jokes. “When he was little, he used to fall asleep in his food. Spaghetti, cake, you name it, Peter fell asleep in it!”

“May!” he groans, rolling his eyes. “Can you keep from embarrassing me for like five seconds?”

“Not until you’re 18, and I can’t make any promises to stop after that,” she says, her, Natasha, and Pepper laughing at the joke together.

“Did you guys have Thor’s wine or something?” Peter’s asking, which only makes the women laugh even harder. They’re hysterical, every look at each other or comment sending them into new a new laughing fit.

It only makes Peter’s head pound harder.

Go lay down, kiddo. You’ve got two hours until your next treatment, Tony texts.

Don’t wanna miss out.

FOMO?

Very funny. Peter gives a small huff of a laugh and excuses himself from the table. He pulls his oxygen tank behind him, grabs Natasha’s blanket from the living room to drape over his shoulders, and heads for his dark bedroom where he plops onto the bed belly down and promptly passes out.

He wakes in a panic when he feels the blanket move, screams out when he sees a large, dark shadow from the lamp on his nightstand displayed against the wall.

“Shh, hey, just me, kid,” Tony’s saying softly in the lamplight from his place on the bed as he adjusts the blanket so that it’s covering Peter. “Your fever’s back. It’s low, so I’m not too worried. Bruce said it’s from the antibiotics doing their thing, but I wanted to check on you.”

Peter’s heart is about ready to bounce out of his chest, but he maneuvers so that he’s on his side, the blanket pulled around his shoulders as he lets his eyes meet Tony’s. “Scared me,” he pants, letting the oxygen help him catch his breath.

“Bruce said that the fever’s a good thing, but also recommended Motrin to keep it from spiraling. Think you can sit up?”

It takes Peter a moment, and he can see Tony itching to help, but he gets himself sitting up against his pillows all on his own, takes the pills and water from Tony and swallows them.

“You’re about ready for your next treatment,” Tony says, and Peter groans, because that means he’s been out for over an hour and a half, that’s he’s probably missed dessert. He just hopes May hasn’t had too much wine and…

He hears the opening bars to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” come from the living room.

“Oh God, no,” Peter moans, pulling the blanket over his head.

“Peter? What’s wrong?” Tony’s asking, half-panicked.

He moans again as Tony rips the blanket away. “Did May ask to do karaoke?”

“Maybe?” Tony asks, confused.

Fuck.”

Tony takes a steadying breath and puts a hand on his chest. “Peter, you just scared the shit out of me! You know I have a heart condition!”

Peter does puppy eyes to keep Tony from yelling. “Sorry! It’s just that May, when she gets drunk, she likes to do classic rock karaoke a-and…”

“Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world, she took the midnight train going anywhere,” May sings, and while Peter will always think May has a great voice, it’s still embarrassing.

Tony catches on quickly. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Pepper cuts in with, “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit…”

“Oh no,” Tony says, covering his face.

“We have to put a stop to this,” Peter says, moving to get up.

“You, my friend, are staying right where you are. Let them have their fun,” he says, gently pushing Peter back against the pillows, laughing when Pepper’s voice cracks on the word anywhere. “I think everyone could benefit from a night out, no?”

“But it’s not a night out?” Peter asks.

“The stress level in this household has been critical for five full days and I think a little karaoke won’t hurt anyone.”

“But Thor’s moonshine might!” Peter says.

Now Tony’s really confused. “What?”

“It’s homemade! Steve said so!” Peter’s genuinely concerned, but Tony has a smile on his face.

“That…would explain a lot,” Tony says, laughing. “But I’m not worried. He does this all of the time. You, however,” he continues, tone changing, “I’m still slightly worried about.”

“You said you weren’t worried about my fever.”

“You have asthma and a nasty bout of pneumonia right now,” Tony explains, pulling Peter’s nebulizer from his nightstand into his lap. He removes a clean mouthpiece, one that Pepper’s probably sterilized in the giant pot that’s been parked on the stove in the kitchen for days, from the pocket of his sweater. “I said I wasn’t too worried, but I’m still worried, kiddo.”

“So Iron Man does have a Dad Mode,” he jokes.

“Peter,” Tony says, giving him a look, but Peter can tell that he doesn’t hate it. Not really.

“Hey, how come you and Pepper never had kids?” he asks, instantly hating himself for it, because who even asks that, Peter?

“Well,” Tony says, thinking for a moment as he connects the nebulizer tubing to Peter’s mouthpiece and the compressor. Peter goes to stop him, feels like he should really work on filtering his thoughts, but then Tony sighs and tilts his head like he’s actually going to answer, and Peter holds back. “I didn’t exactly have the best father figure, nor did I have the best relationship with him. I guess I just always thought I’d make a shitty dad. I’m egotistical, overly caffeinated, don’t sleep for days, am always in my head and away on business,” he explains, ripping a nebule from the packet from earlier, twisting open the top, and squirting medication into the reservoir on the mouthpiece. “I’m used to letting people down,” he continues, making a face, “Which, sounds crazy, right? I’m Iron Man. All I do is help people, save the world from aliens and bad guys. But it wasn’t always like that. I wasn’t always the Tony I am now, and I’m not even sure that this Tony is Dad material, to be honest.”

“I-I didn’t really get to know my dad,” Peter starts, because he feels like he owes Tony something personal after he answered such an intrusive question. “But May has this photo album…under the coffee table? And she pulls it out now and then, tells me stories that go with the pictures. There’s one of my dad and me…at the Bronx Zoo. I think I’m a little over a year old. He’s holding my…little arms with two fingers each, just enough to keep me…upright but also enough to let me try to walk on my own. I think about that picture a lot, actually, wonder what kind of dad…he would have been.” He doesn’t realize that a tear has fallen until he goes to wipe it.

“Whoever your dad would’ve been, he would’ve been lucky to have you as a son, Underoos,” Tony admits, looking up at Peter with glassy eyes and a small smile.

“You think?” Peter asks, sniffling.

“I don’t just think it, I know it.”

“Okay,” Peter laughs through his tears. “Now I know you’re lying.”

“First of all, I’m offended,” Tony says with his usual sarcasm, but Peter can sense a smile trying to break through. “And second, you really need a treatment. You sound like you’re trying to climb Everest and you haven’t even left this bed in two hours.”

“I do not!” he argues.

“Do you remember that time you blatantly disobeyed my orders, hitched a ride on an alien ship into the stratosphere, and started running out of air?” Tony pretends to be reminiscing as he plugs the machine in.

“When you told me to let go…and you’d catch me?”

“Yup. That’s exactly what you sound like right now.” Tony doesn’t want to admit that Peter’s slight fever and his wheezing has him on edge, so he plays along, keeps the sarcasm up.

“For the record, you didn’t…catch me.”

“For the record, you passed out and I had to have FRIDAY send you home with a parachute, so,” Tony throws back as he hands Peter the mouthpiece and flips the nebulizer switch. “Treatment, kiddo.”

“I like the other one better,” Peter says between inhales of the medication. “S’quieter.”

“Well, I like that this one drowns out that mouth of yours,” Tony says, laughing.

“Hey!”

“You know I love you, kid,” Tony adds with a smile.

“I know.”

The doorbell rings, and Tony sighs. He waits to see if someone else will get it, and just when he realizes that everyone else is too busy singing along to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” in the living room, he hears it again. “That’s my cue,” he jokes, lifting from Peter’s bed.

“Hey, Tony?”

“Hmm?”

“Anyone would be really lucky to have you as a dad,” Peter says, smiling as he returns to his treatment.

Tony chuckles and takes the comment to heart before he leaves.

Peter flops against the pillows, thinks about pulling out his phone to keep him occupied.

“Looks like we’ve got a visitor,” Tony comments from down the hallway, which leaves Peter confused until he hears footsteps and a voice outside of his door. Her voice. He knows Tony is tipping him off, is giving him time, but Jesus, why did she have to come tonight of all nights?!

“Hi Mr. Stark, I’m sorry to come on a holiday, but I wanted to drop off a gift for Peter.”

“No,” Peter says, ripping off the oxygen and shutting down his nebulizer. “No no no!” He rushes to hide everything under his duvet, finds that he’s moved too fast getting up and his head is spinning from the lack of oxygen. He grips the framing of the doorway and tries to catch his breath, but without his oxygen, his lungs feel like deflating balloons.

“MJ!” he says, completely panicked as she appears, fuzzy, from the doorway of his bedroom. It doesn’t help that his lungs are aching already, that he can feel the wheezing growing in his chest.

Tony gives him a look that screams are you fucking kidding me when he sees that Peter’s pulled his oxygen off, but he rolls his eyes and leaves them be, figuring that a couple of minutes without the oxygen won’t hurt. He knows Peter will give in. Hopes he will.

“W-what are you doing here?” Peter’s asking, rubbing the back of his head.

“I got you something and didn’t want to wait to give it to you. Also, I like your sweater. It’s…cute.”

“Thanks,” Peter says, looking down at his Spiderman Christmas sweater. “You didn’t have to get me anything, MJ. I-I don’t have anything for you.”

He feels stupid, suddenly, like he should have thought ahead, just in case.

“You sure you’re okay?” she asks, concerned.

“Actually,” Peter starts, groaning internally because he really really doesn’t want MJ to see his oxygen, but he’s struggling more than he wants to admit and he doesn’t like the way his fingers are tingling. He heads toward his bed, pulls out the tubing and adjusts it under his nose, then over his ears, taking in a few slow, deep relieving breaths. “I’m getting better but I’m also having a really hard time, so I kind of…need this.”

“Why did you think you had to hide this from me?” MJ asks, entering his room.

“Because it’s weird?” He shrugs, sitting on the bed. “I don’t know. I just wasn’t expecting to have to show anyone, so…”

“It’s not weird, Peter.”

“It is. You don’t have to lie to me, MJ.”

“Shut up, loser. I’m not lying to you.” She’s smiling, but it’s not fake, not like the one Flash throws him when he’s mocking him from across the room.

Peter can’t stop smiling and blushing. “It’s just been a really scary couple of days and it’s…really nice that you came, MJ.”

“Things weren’t really going well at my house anyway, so I figured maybe I should spread some holiday cheer.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Seems like everyone here is having a good time,” she notes, and Peter’s brought back to reality, can hear Thor attempting “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer.”

“That,” Peter says with a breathy laugh, “is a bunch of drunk adults that you should try and ignore…because they’re super embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing or future revenge material if caught on camera?” she asks, holding her arms out like she’s weighing the options. Peter laughs. “Here, open your gift,” she insists, throwing a small, flat present wrapped in Grinch paper at him. He nearly misses, panics as he fumbles with it, before finally holding it still with both of his hands. He pulls the paper away and sees the title of the movie.

Home Alone?” Peter asks, looking up.

“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal!” she quotes.

He grins. “This is…perfect actually. Thanks, MJ. How’d you know…this was my favorite?”

She narrows her eyes on him. “You sure you’re okay? You sound like you’ve just run a mile in gym.”

“Um, I’m kind of supposed to be doing a…breathing treatment right now? But I didn’t know…you were coming and I…really didn’t want to do it in front of you…so I sort of…hid it?”

“So, let me get this straight: The only reason you’re doing that not-breathing thing is because I’m here? Peter, you really are an idiot,” she says, shaking her head. “I told you that I don’t care about any of this!”

“Are you sure, though? Because-”

She sweeps her hair behind her ears. “I mean, I do care, just not in a judgmental way, you know?”

“MJ, please tell me you’re serious…and that you’re not just here to pry…because I’m really…not ready for everyone at school to know…about this and…”

She crosses her arms over her chest and glares at him. “Peter, I walked here on Christmas so that I could see how you were doing. Do you know how many blocks that is? In negative degree wind-chill? You know the MTA is shit, especially on holidays. I brought you a movie as a gift because I missed seeing you at my party and figured that you still weren’t feeling so hot. I don’t care if you’re sick and your lungs suck! I’m not here so that I can turn around and tell everyone at school that you look like a pale, pasty mess. You really think that about me?” She looks hurt, like maybe whatever happened at home was really shitty and now she’s been let down again, and Peter suddenly feels like an asshole for assuming that she’d be here just for gossip.

“No, MJ, that’s not… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“Is it really that hard for you to believe me when I say that I’m here because I kind of like you and I’m just glad that you’re okay? I’ve been worried sick about you, Peter.”

Peter’s shocked. “Wait, really? You like me?”

“Yes, loser!” she asserts. “Why do you think I invited you to my Christmas party?”

“Because you invited everyone?”

She pauses to think. “I did invite everyone, didn’t I? Shoot.”

“I mean, technically you didn’t invite…everyone, right? Because that’d…be impossible.” He laughs, and then MJ laughs, and while it only makes his breathing, or struggle with breathing, more prominent, he’s thankful it’s lightened the mood.

“How about we watch the movie and you do your breathing thing? You’re starting to scare me a little with that…”

“Wheeze,” he finishes for her, feeling his lungs pull. “It’s called wheezing. S’just part of…asthma.”

“You know, you were doing that in chem, before you passed out.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of part of…why I passed out… Anyway, my nebulizer, which…helps with the wheezing, is kind of loud,” Peter says as he motions toward it, hoping that MJ will help him talk himself out of finishing it.

“So is the sound you’re making, so, breathing thingy and movie?”

Peter still can’t understand how none of this is weird for her, because he’s sure that he’d be a little freaked out if he were in MJ’s shoes, but he takes a shaky breath in and nods, pulls his comforter flat so that his bed isn’t a mess, and fluffs his pillows. MJ kicks her shoes off and crawls over toward the window before he can even say anything, so he wordlessly grabs the movie and pops it into the DVD player in his TV. By the time the movie is on and he’s back under Natasha’s blanket, he can feel his lungs screaming for a breathing treatment. He turns the machine back on and takes slow, even breaths of the medication as he tries to remember how Kevin ended up being left home alone.

The door swings open and Peter sees that Tony’s appeared with a giant bowl.

“Thought you guys could use some popcorn,” he says, plopping it right between them on the bed as if it’s a marker for how much space should be between them, or rather, shouldn’t be. He pulls a soda can from each sweater pocket and leaves them on the nightstand. “I know it’s loud out there, but if you could just keep the door open this much…” Tony trails, pulling the door closed so that only his head is between the door and the fame, “That’d be great.” He winks before he leaves, and Peter blushes, isn’t even sure he has oxygen to do anything close to what Tony’s just hinted at. Not that he’s thought about that with MJ.

Okay, so maybe he has. But he doesn’t expect it, knows that he’s not that guy and she’s not that girl and he’s literally just been cock blocked by Iron Man, of all people, and-

“Peter?”

“Hmm?” he asks with the mouthpiece between his lips, eyebrows up as he listens for what she might say next.

“Soda?”

His hand is sweaty as he goes to grab one of the cans, feels it slip a bit as he tries to lift it, but he hands it over to MJ and watches as she pops the tab.

“Thanks,” she says, getting comfortable, her knee touching his despite the popcorn bowl between them. “Is this okay?”

“Y-yeah,” Peter answers, feeling the shakiness from the medicine and being next to MJ setting in. He hopes she can’t feel it, doesn’t notice.

“Breathe, Peter,” she jokes with a small laugh a moment later, and he it’s not until he exhales that he realizes he’s been holding his breath. “If anyone should be shaking with fear, it’s me, because I’m the one who hijacked Iron Man’s Christmas party and now I’m sitting and watching a movie with Spiderman.”

He wants to explain that it’s the medicine that is making him so shaky, but he stops himself, thinks for a moment.

He hates that being around MJ turns his brain to mush.

Hates that it’s taken him a few moments too long to register that she’s just admitted that she knows he’s Spiderman.

What?!

Chapter Text

Chapter 7
Wednesday, December 25, Christmas Day (Part 3)

“Oh, shit,” she says, putting a hand to her mouth when she realizes what she’s just said.

“Wait, what?” he’s asking, turning off the nebulizer. He feels his heart rate rising beyond what the medication usually does and hopes Tony doesn’t get a high heart rate alert from FRIDAY.

“That was not supposed to come out like that. I…I know you’re Spiderman, Peter, and I was planning this whole elaborate way of telling you and then I just went and…shit.”

“I’m not Spiderman,” he says, and he feels a little too confident as he says it. More confident, in fact, than he’s ever been saying it.

“Cut the bullshit, Peter. I’m not stupid. I mean, you live with Iron Man.”

MJ is the smartest person Peter’s ever met, bar Tony, and even though he wants to argue with her to prove his point, he holds back because he knows he’s lying, and she knows he’s lying, which means there’s no point in wasting breath arguing about this.

“I’d never say you were stupid, MJ,” he says slowly. “I just…how did you know I lived here, exactly?”

Peter is kicking himself for not questioning how she knew he’d be here.

And why Happy let her up to the residence on Christmas in the first place.

Tony?

His heart sinks at the thought that Tony doesn’t think he can even handle a crush without his help.

MJ shifts on the bed. “After you passed out, Mrs. Benninger called the nurse, who showed up with a wheelchair. You were having a really hard time breathing and I was afraid that you’d be all alone, so I grabbed your backpack and followed you guys down to the nurse’s office. They couldn’t get through to your aunt, so I offered to look through your bag for your phone, and at the bottom-”

“Was my suit,” Peter says, deflating. He’s always been so protective of his suit, especially at school, and it pains him to know that his asthma has once again interfered with his ability to keep all of this under wraps.

“And then Tony came. He was really gentle with you and seemed like he knew you personally, much more personally than he would just from the Stark internship. He said something about getting you home, and I knew he meant here. Don’t ask me how, I just knew, and things just kind of…clicked for me, I guess,” she says, looking regretful. “I’m…sorry, Peter, I didn’t mean for it to come out like that. I got nervous and it just slipped. I wasn’t going to tell you right away. Or ever. I hadn’t…decided, exactly.”

Peter swallows, tries to breathe. His heart is pounding against his ribcage, which he knows is impossible, but it feels so real. She knows she knows she knows is repeating over and over in his head, which isn’t helping him calm down at all.

“So,” Peter tries to say, but it comes out slow and somewhat garbled. “Y-you’re just here because I’m Spiderman, then?” He takes a breath, waits for her to respond.

The seconds tick by, painful and slow, and Peter spends that time holding back the sob building in his chest because he really likes MJ, was afraid that he’d completely missed his chance and then she’d shown up at his door on Christmas, of all days, and-

“No,” she finally says, licking her lips and nervously brushing her hair behind her ears. “But can I at least explain before I walk myself out? So that I don’t look like a complete asshole?” She places her can on Peter’s windowsill beside the bed.

“You’re not an asshole, MJ.”

“Only I am, because I wanted to come a few days ago and see how you were, but then I was afraid because I didn’t want you to know that I knew. I thought you’d be mad at me because I’d gone through your bag, which I shouldn’t have done in the first place, so you can totally be mad at me about that. I was just trying to help and all I did was end up making things a thousand times worse. I do that a lot. You probably don’t even remember everything that happened that day, but you were making that wheezing sound that you were when I got here and it had the nurses all worried because they couldn’t get it to stop, which made me worry,” she’s continuing, and Peter can see now that her hands are shaking. “You were gasping like a fish out of water and they were giving you medicine like you were just taking and I was really confused because I didn’t even know you had asthma, didn’t even know asthma could get that bad, didn’t even know Spiderman, of all people, could have asthma. And then you passed out in the nurse’s office, again. So for the last few days I’ve been kind of panicked about the fact that I knew about the Spiderman and asthma stuff, and I’d already bought you this stupid movie weeks ago and was waiting and waiting to give it to you, spent my whole party worrying about you, and then you finally texted me and I had this weird feeling that something was really wrong, that you were underplaying everything because I saw how sick you were, and I knew I had to come see you myself and make sure you were actually okay.” She’s out of breath by the time she’s finished, is looking like she’s just about ready to sob herself.

“Y-you…came because you thought I wasn’t okay?” The thought has stolen his ability to breathe, is hard to comprehend and let settle.

“Have I not said that, like, ten times already?” she asks.

Peter laughs nervously and shrugs innocently. “I thought it was a metaphor?”

“Peter,” she laughs, wiping under her eyes. “You’re such an idiot! I’ve been trying to get that point across since I got here!”

“So, just to clarify, you’re not here because I’m Spiderman?”

“Peter, if you make me say it one more time, I’m walking right out of this room and-”

“Okay, okay,” he says, putting his hands up, because he doesn’t want her to leave, knows it would feel like his heart is just as shattered as his shitty lungs are right now if he let her. “I um…I really like you too, MJ, and I promise that I’m doing better than I was on Friday, but I’ve been…it’s been really bad the last few days. Today’s actually the first day I’ve felt anything like myself since this started. Things got really…complicated…because of the Spiderman thing…and right now, we’re not even…not even sure I can be Spiderman like this.” Peter rubs his forehead because how did he just tell her his deepest and darkest secret?. And how is he going to explain this, the fact that MJ knows, to Tony? “I probably wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that. Please don’t repeat that. Don’t repeat any of this. Fuck, Tony’s gonna kill me when he finds out that-”

“I’m not going to tell anyone, Peter. I actually,” she says, laughing to herself as she shakes her head and wipes under her eyes again. “I actually thought to myself, later that day, that I had literally no chance because Spiderman...dating this? I’m not exactly superhero material.”

“And you think I am?”

He expects her to side-eye him, throw him some sarcasm, but instead she’s completely candid. “Honestly? Yeah.”

Peter’s taken aback. “Really?”

“Everyone thinks I carry the decathlon team, but I’ve looked at the data, Peter. It’s all you. You’re fucking brilliant. And you’re kind. You let Flash beat you down but you don’t take revenge on him no matter how embarrassed he makes you. And if you’re really Spiderman, which, we both know you are, you’re obsessed with doing the right thing even if it means you might lose out in the end. You’re not macho. You don’t boast. You love helping people. You’re Spiderman material, sure, but you’re also…you’re also just Peter and I think that makes it even better.”

“Peter and Spiderman are not the same.”

“Oh,” she says, sarcasm kicking in. “I get it. So like, you transform when you put on your suit and suddenly your mindset and personality just switch?” He knows she’s fucking with him, is trying to prove a point, that if this was Tony, he’d be arguing already, but with MJ, it just makes him blush.

“No,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like Spiderman like this, I guess. S’been kinda…hard. You know?” he asks, as if she’d know.

As if she’d somehow know what it was like to be Peter for the last few days, worrying everyone he loves with his wheezing and penchant for not breathing, having them ask him to be brave for them and be okay with oxygen and breathing machines and needles that, now that he thinks about it, fucking hurt and still have his leg aching, all because he needed it in order to be here, in this moment, and it’s a lot, it’s a fucking lot, all of a sudden and his heart is pounding, lungs are failing him, and he feels like he’s drowning again, only it’s different this time, because it’s like this part of him that he’s been suppressing is trying to break lose and he’s been working so hard to keep it from interfering with just getting better and-

“It has to be hard, Peter. How could any of this not be hard?” She puts a hand on his. “I wasn’t even here for any of it and one look at your face right now tells me that this has to have been insanely difficult.” And at that, his heart skips a beat, melts a little, because no one has said that to him yet, at least not in three short sentences that didn’t require back-and-forth conversation that was somewhat argument, somewhat Peter just giving-in so that he could keep from losing his mind.

“I’m not…ruining the Christmas vibe with my…negativity?” He’s holding in something larger than a sob now, tries to keep his wheezing down because damnit, he really does need that stupid treatment right now but he doesn’t want to have to give up this moment with MJ for it.

If that isn’t a metaphor for all of this, then he doesn’t know what is.

“What negativity?” she asks, confused. “You mean your honesty?”

And she’s being real with him. She’s being so real with him right now that he wishes he could kiss her, wishes he could just cup her face with his hand and have the confidence to actually go for it.

“Peter, I saw how sick you were in the nurse’s office on Friday. There was no way this could be just a little chest infection. I knew you were lying when you texted that. You really don’t remember me being there with you? At all?”

Peter shakes his head. He doesn’t remember being wheeled down or MJ rifling through his backpack or having a breathing treatment, just remembers Tony being there when he opened his eyes, talking about his high heart rate and fever. He’s had a full-on attack in front of MJ and he doesn’t remember any of it, which is unsettling to say the least, but he wonders if that’s why she was so good about the oxygen and the breathing treatment, wonders if she’s done some research so that she can understand. It makes his heart flutter. “But I wish I did remember, because that would have helped make all of this feel just a little bit better a lot sooner. A little bit more okay instead of confusing and unnerving.”

He hopes it’s enough. Wants so badly for that to be enough.

“You probably wouldn’t want to remember much of Friday anyway,” she explains, shrugging, and Peter can see that the side of her lip is curling into a small smile. “You may have thrown up all over one of the nurses.”

“I what?!” Peter asks, suddenly embarrassed.

“You were coughing and then you just barfed. It was…” she says, laughing hysterically all of a sudden. “It was everywhere.” She can’t contain her laughter, and for a moment, Peter’s in shock, but then he’s laughing, too, because even though his first thought was that she was making fun of him, he knows that she isn’t, that she’s trying to find something in all of this to just laugh about, and Peter can get on board with that. “And in true Peter fashion, you…” she says, breaking into another fit of hysterics. “You apologized and offered to clean it up, and I remember thinking what a freaking dork, but also, I found it absolutely adorable even though…” she continues, hunched over as she laughs, “even though it was everywhere.”

They laugh together for so long, one going back into a laughing fit that pulls the other in whenever there’s a lull, and Peter loses track of time, doesn’t even realize that the movie is still playing in the background and karaoke is still going on in the living room. And then he coughs, hard, and it won’t let up.

“Oh my God, please don’t!” MJ yells, and while she’s half-joking, still laughing, she’s also dashing for the garbage can by his desk.

He wants to laugh, too, is having a hard time not laughing, but he’s also trying so hard not to gag, not to let his lungs go there even though they’re already there, already spasming. Without another thought, he flips his nebulizer on and puts the mouthpiece to his lips.

“Should’ve…finished this,” he says, trying not to laugh, because he barfed all over one of the nurses and this girl that he’s absolutely head over heels for is laughing hysterically with him about it.

“Promise you’re not going to barf?” she asks, her arms around the garbage can as she hops onto the bed.

“No promises,” he says, and fuck, why can’t he stop laughing? He coughs again, feels everything in his chest shift, and suddenly, he can breathe better, feels like the medication is actually working its way through his lungs. He’s still wheezing, but it’s not that barking, dying seal sound he’s gotten accustomed to, and he’s thankful. He takes a few more breaths, just to be sure, and smiles. “But…I think I’m good. Just need this,” he says around the mouthpiece.

He doesn’t ask her if all of this, the oxygen and wheezing and breathing treatments and barfing, is okay, because it’s obvious that it is, even though it makes no sense to Peter. She doesn’t ask him how he feels or look at him with sad eyes, just leans against his pillow with him and rests her head on his shoulder while he takes slow breaths, in and out, in and out.

They refocus on the movie, but he can tell neither of them are really paying attention because there’s an electricity between their bodies, wild and growing with every second.

“Is this okay?” she asks, looking up at him.

He smiles around the mouthpiece. “Yeah. This is more than okay.”

There’s a beat, and then, “You smell good.”

“Thanks.” Peter blushes.

“Have you ever wondered what the McCallister parents do for work? Like, look at their house,” she says, gesturing toward the TV. “And then to be able to pay for everyone to go to Paris? Do you think the husband or wife are drug dealers? I think they both sell drugs.”

Peter lets MJ do all of the commentating because his lungs are still recovering from the laugh they’ve just had and he hasn’t been up this late since before. She catches on, doesn’t question his lack of comments, and Peter appreciates that, loves that she’s just going with this new sense of normal that Peter has been kicking and screaming against. He can feel his eyelids drooping, is blinking just to stay awake, but at some point, he fades, wakes during the scene where Kevin is reunited with his parents. MJ is still against his shoulder, only now she’s asleep. His nebulizer is off, the mouthpiece on his nightstand, and he wonders if Tony came in to check on them or if MJ took it upon herself to set it aside. Either way, he can’t stop staring at her, marveling at how peaceful and calm she is, can’t stop the happiness flooding his system at the fact that she’s here, for him, and is so okay with all of this. Is so okay with all of this, in fact, that she’s stayed.

She’s stayed even after everything that happened on Friday in chem and the nurse’s office.

Even after he asked her if she was only here because he’s Spiderman.

He knew she wasn’t.

MJ just isn’t like that.

He likes to think that counts for something.

Something uncountable, maybe.

Something more.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Thursday, December 26 - Friday, December 27

MJ returns on Thursday, and then again on Friday. Peter wants to question why she doesn’t want to spend some of the break at home, but he’s nervous to go there. Truth be told, he’s afraid that if he asks, she’ll leave, and with Tony in Baltimore while Pepper handles things in the office a few floors below, he’s nervous to be by himself.

Not that he’s truly been by himself.

Bruce comes by a least three times a day to see how he handles short spurts of time off of the oxygen, and Steve and Natasha check-in on him in person in the mornings and evenings to make sure he’s eating. And May’s stopped by between business trips to make sure Peter’s taking his meds and actually resting. The check-ins seem orchestrated, though, like there’s a kind of rotation that’s been scheduled via an Excel spreadsheet, and he doesn’t put it past Tony to have put that into motion. Tony’s been checking-in via text and FaceTime every four hours or so, right around the times he should be doing breathing treatments, and it’s that fact alone that’s convinced him that Tony’s the one behind the elaborate check-in schedule. Peter knows he wants to be here, but he understands why he can’t.

So MJ and Peter have been setting up camp in the living room, eating popcorn and going through a list of Disney movies that Peter’s never seen. On Thursday, they finished The Rescuers, The Rescuers Down Under, and Oliver and Company. Now that it’s Friday, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is on, soon to be followed by The Aristocats. Depending on how Peter feels, of course. He doesn’t want to admit it, but trying to stay awake while MJ was over late on Thursday is catching up to him; if he wasn’t so damn exhausted, he’d probably have the energy to be angry about it, but instead he’s blinking to stay awake, his eyelids closed more than they’re open.

He lays on his side, cheek against a couch pillow as MJ sits comfortable on the attached lounge of the sectional, adjusts his oxygen tubing so that he doesn’t end up with a mark on his face. He’s actively trying to ignore the fact that his lungs feel worse today and failing. It’s the weaning off of the oxygen, he figures, which he’s happy about, but it hasn’t been the clear-cut victory he was hoping for. “Might fall asleep on you,” Peter comments with a yawn.

He can see MJ fighting a frown as she pauses the movie. “I can go if you’re not feeling well.”

“No!” he’s quick to say. “No, I-I want you to stay, I just didn’t think you’d want to watch me nap. You know, in case you had better things to do. It’s Christmas break.”

“This is my better things to do, Peter.”

He smiles sleepily and looks over at her. “You sure about that?” It comes out breathy.

“More than sure. We can watch something else, you know.”

“No, I like it, but I think it’s putting me to sleep. Keep me awake?”

“Keep you awake, huh?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” he replies, cheeks going red as he laughs. “I mean, like…talk to me or something. Have a conversation?”

She puts the movie back on and lowers the volume. “We could make a summer bucket list.”

“I hate summer.”

“Excuse me, you what?!” MJ asks, head snapping to face Peter. “First of all, hate is a strong word. Second, summer in New York is the best thing ever. It means no school, not getting up at the crack ass of dawn. It means sun and free public pools and reading in the park. How can you not love summer?!”

“Okay, so I don’t hate summer, but my last few summers haven’t exactly been so great and…”

Ben died three summers ago, right as school was letting out for the year. Then, the summer before ninth grade, Peter spent six weeks in a sweaty cast after falling off of his bike and breaking his arm. And if last summer, his first summer with asthma, was any indication of what future summers might be like, he’s afraid that this one is going to be a repeat of days spent inside in the air conditioning avoiding air quality alert days.

“Peter and MJ’s Summer Bucket List,” she narrates as she types into a note on her phone. “You need this. We’re doing this.”

“Do we have to?” he groans. “Can’t we just sit inside and watch movies? Like we are now?”

“Oh, the High Line!” she says, ignoring him as she types it into her phone.

He scrunches his nose. “Isn’t that super touristy?”

“Yeah, but who cares.” She shrugs. “It’s the best view, they’ve got popsicles, and it ends around Chelsea Market, so we can grab something good and cheap for lunch or dinner if we want.” She grabs a handful of popcorn from the bowl between Peter’s head and her hip with one hand, shoves it in her mouth, and chews. “Your turn.”

“Things to do during summer…in New York City,” he starts. “Let’s add standing on a…subway platform that feels like a sauna, the smell of rotting garbage the…night before trash pick-up…and watching May navigate…alternate side parking rules.” He takes a couple of breaths, hopes MJ hasn’t picked up on how shitty his lungs are today. “Oh, wait! I know, let’s add…watching the debt counter…walking avenues during a heat wave…and experiencing no service between Penn and Jamaica…after lightning hits the tracks!”

MJ lowers her phone and raises an eyebrow. “Wow, you okay, Pete? That was pretty dark and twisty, especially for you.”

“I just really…ha-dislike summer, MJ.” He doesn’t want it to come out as a whine, but it does, and he’s not sure if it’s because he’s feeling worse than he did when they started the movie or if he’s having an aversion to discussing summer, but it’s definitely harder to breathe than it was an hour ago. “Summer…reminds me of Uncle Ben dying, a-and breaking my arm…”

“Well, maybe I can make this summer different,” she offers softly, scooting closer. “There’s gotta be something you love about summer in the city. What’s your favorite summer memory?”

He thinks for a moment, shifts again on the couch. He doesn’t want to talk about Ben, but all of his memories of summer include him because May was always working. “Um, Ben used to take me to Mets games in the summer? It was our…thing.” He laughs quietly to himself before adding, “May hates baseball. Says she only went to games to get ice cream in those plastic baseball hat cups.”

MJ smiles in response. “My dad used to take me to Mets games. Before his promotion to detective. He used to run security at Shea, before they knocked it down and built Citi Field.”

“Oh my God, Shea Stadium! My first Mets game!”

“See, I told you there was something you liked about summer,” she says, not an ounce of force in her voice. “If you want, we can go to a Mets game this summer. But only if you think you’re ready.”

“Y-yeah,” he says, because while he had pretty much vowed to never set foot at Citi Field ever again since Ben died, going with MJ feels…right. He knows they’ll have a nice time and he suddenly can’t imagine going with anyone but MJ. “Yeah, that’d be…awesome.”

“Alright,” she says, typing into her phone. “Mets Game. I’m going to add a trip to the Museum of Natural History, because science.”

“Haven’t been there…since a trip in third grade,” Peter adds.

“What?!”

“Stop looking at me…like that!” he says, laughing. “Not my fault! Didn’t live in Manhattan until…a couple of months ago.”

Her face contorts in confusion. “Wait, really? I thought…”

“May lives in Forest Hills.”

MJ nods slowly, trying to put the pieces together. She knows a little about Peter’s family situation after overhearing an awkward discussion between him and their Spanish teacher, Senora Rodriguez, last year. Peter had tried to explain that his family tree assignment wouldn’t meet the requirements on her rubric because he didn’t have at least five people in his family to list and write about. His parents, he’d said, died when he was four. “I live with my Aunt May. S-she’s my guardian?” he’d explained nervously, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “My Uncle Ben used to live with us, but he died a year ago, and now it’s just us two. I don’t have any grandparents or extended family.” She’d let him add and write about friends, but that had been hard, too, since Ned was his only real friend at the time, so he’d written about Mr. Delmar, the deli owner down the street, and Murph, the deli cat, and taken the hit for points on the rubric. She knows because she’d studied his poster with the attached rubric on the bulletin board, had watched as Peter pulled his poster down one day after class when Senora Rodriguez wasn’t looking. She remembers feeling a pang of guilt over the fact that Peter had felt it necessary to explain his family situation to the teacher so that he didn’t fail the project, that he’d been so self-conscious about how it had come out that he didn’t want others to see it.

She refocuses her attention on him, sees that he’s staring up at her with soft, tired eyes. She hates that he’s been so sick, that right now, he’s working harder than yesterday to breathe. She wonders if maybe she should leave, let Peter get some actual rest, but she really doesn’t want to. Being around Peter, even with him like this, makes her feel like things are okay for just long enough to keep her from falling apart completely. She knows it’s selfish, but part of her has stayed because without her here, Peter’s pretty much on his own, and though she knows that isn’t entirely true, she’s convinced herself that that’s why she should stay. She looks around and takes in the grandeur that is Tony Stark’s living room: Marble fireplace, ten-foot Christmas tree with pristine glass ornaments and soft white lights, garland wrapping the mantel and elaborate, lighted Christmas figures that scream Pepper having hired a personal designer. It’s the pictures in tasteful frames around the room, though, of various Avengers and a few too many with Tony and Peter in everyday clothes, that prompt MJ to ask her next question. “So then, you live with Tony because you’re Spiderman?”

“No.” It comes out as a dejected, small puff of air.

“No? Okay, so then you live with him because…” she tries, coming up with nothing, and it’s in the silence that she realizes this isn’t her business, that maybe asking isn’t appropriate and she should stop now.

Peter licks his lips. “It’s because May travels for work,” he starts, “and I had a pretty severe asthma attack…while she was away last April. It was…bad…so now Tony kind of…looks after me while she’s away. It’s not really conventional…but then again, nothing about my life is…so I guess it’s fine. I really like Tony and Pepper…so it…works.”

“I guess I just thought…after I saw the Spiderman suit…”

“That I lived some…kind of glamorous life?” He’s wheezy now, looks even more tired than he did five minutes ago, and MJ feels the worry creep in, watches as Peter adjusts the cannula under his nose and closes his eyes.

“You just seem so happy all of the time,” she comments, sliding from the cushion so that she can sit on the floor in front of Peter. She knows it must be hard for him to keep tilting his head back to look at her, and now with his eyes closed, she’s worried he won’t tell her how awful he’s really feeling. “It’s like nothing bothers you. You never complain. You’re just…quiet.”

Peter’s eyes stay closed as he says, “I am happy. Doesn’t mean…my life is…glamorous. And I do complain, just not…to you.”

“You can complain to me, you know,” she says, and it feels vulnerable for both of them, enough so that there’s a beat before Peter answers.

“About what?”

“About not feeling well.”

He lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “M’just sick right now, MJ.”

She pauses and bites her lip, finds herself wanting to know more about the boy in front of her, the one she’s been hoping for over a year would notice her. She’s been in most of his classes and lunch period for the last two years at Midtown, has been his lab partner and on the decathlon team, and yet, she’s never noticed his breathing sounding like it did on Friday in chemistry or the nurse’s office, like it does right now. “Was it always like this?”

“This is like…the first time…I’ve ever had pneumonia, so-”

“I meant, did you always have asthma.”

“Not until…after.” He makes a crawling spider motion with his hand on his leg.

She’s confused. “After Uncle Ben died?”

“After the spider bite…that gave me my powers.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?”

He takes a shaky, wheezy breath in, eyes still closed. “Yup.”

“I’m sorry, Peter,” she says, taking his hand.

“Not your fault.”

“I’m not apologizing because I think it’s my fault, I’m apologizing because I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. You look absolutely miserable. Can I get you anything?”

“Stop worrying about me,” he huffs, but MJ can see a small smile on his lips. His eyes flutter open and meet hers. “Can’t decide if it’s patronizing…or cute.”

“Well, I see a smile, so I’m gonna go with cute.”

“I do feel…like crap,” he finally admits, rubbing his chest with his free hand. “Bruce had me off of my oxygen earlier…twice…for a half hour at a time…and I feel like my body…hates me now.”

“That’s supposed to be good, though, right?” she asks, rubbing her thumb over his knuckle. “They want to wean you down?”

“Yeah, but my lungs…seem to have other plans.” He turns away to cough, gives in when his lungs don’t want to let up rather than fight it. It takes him a few minutes to catch his breath, but he’s happy that MJ is there, sitting beside him and holding his hand as the movie plays. None of this feels patronizing, at least not like his conversation with Steve on Christmas. He knows Steve meant well, that he was trying to help Peter reframe all of this, but it still isn’t sitting well, makes Peter nervous when Steve’s around because he’s afraid he’s going to bring the conversation back up. MJ though? MJ acts like needing oxygen while half-asleep watching Disney movies on the couch is almost normal, like loud breathing treatments and coughing fits are things everyone does. She’s worried, sure, but she’s also respectful about it, just like Tony’s been. Only, MJ doesn’t have to be here, doesn’t have to be worried about him. She barely knows him despite all of their time spent together at school, and that’s what’s making him feel like putty in her hands, fills his chest with some of the only good feelings he’s felt in a week.

And yeah, maybe Tony doesn’t have to be here either, worries a little too much and takes way too much responsibility for Peter, but he’s also in Dad Mode, feels like it’s his personal mission to get Peter back up and running, both literally and figuratively.

“Just like they had other plans on Friday?” MJ jokes when his coughing and breathing have settled down.

“Well, I knew I was sick on Friday…and I didn’t say anything…’cause I wanted to go to your party,” he admits with a laugh and smirk.

“What?!”

“Didn’t think…I was that sick. Thought…it was a cold.”

“Peter,” she says, squeezing his hand. “You’re such an idiot, you know that?”

“Everyone’s told me that at least…once this week, was just…waiting for you to say it…again.” He gives a small smile, adjusts his hand so that his fingers are weaved between hers.

“Well, you’re my idiot now,” she comments. “Is that too…territorial?”

“No, kinda like it,” he says. “Makes it feel like we’re…”

“Dating?”

“Yeah. Is that okay?” he asks, a flurry of nerves suddenly wild in his stomach.

“Of course it is, loser,” she says, inching closer so that their noses are almost touching “Is this okay?”

And Peter doesn’t answer, just closes his eyes, moves in, and plants a kiss on MJ’s lips, their hands still interlocked as the credit screen rolls.

 

Saturday, December 28

Tony returns a little after one in the morning from his meetings in Baltimore with Lockheed, thinks briefly about heading to bed but decides on coffee, emails, and projects instead. His “to do” list has grown exponentially over the last few days, and while he knows FRIDAY tried to be helpful by automating some of the more brief email responses, the deadlines looming over his head refuse to let him sleep.

“You’re working yourself to death, Tony,” Pepper comments as she comes up behind him and places her hands on his shoulders so that she can massage them with her thumbs. He’s surprised she’s up, but then again, she’s a light sleeper, probably heard him banging around in the kitchen trying to get a pot of coffee ready. “Come to bed.”

He checks his watch. “At this rate, I could just work through the next four hours and shower before my first morning meeting, finish the schematics Grumman keeps hounding me for. They want them for our brunch meeting on Sunday.”

She stops. “I thought Sunday was a no-work zone? Tony. We’ve talked about this.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t plan on losing three critical workdays right before the end of the quarter,” he says, sighing. He squeezes the bridge of his nose. “What am I supposed to do, Pep, just close up shop and go into the New Year with a shit ton of paperwork and defense contracts hanging?” He talks wildly with his hands, but it’s more subdued than usual, is a sign that he’s sleep-deprived and running on caffeine and guilt.

“Sleep, Tony,” she says softly. “That’s what you should do.”

“Sleep is for the weak.”

“Sleep is for humans. You, my love, are human. And you’re not that young anymore. You need to take care of yourself before you stress your system. You’re running on empty. Remember what happened last time?”

He rubs his face as if that will help him keep his eyes open and sighs. “That was years ago, Pep, and yes, I remember.”

“Did you talk to Bruce?”

“About Peter?” he asks.

“About you.”

Tony turns to look at her. He loves when she wears her hair in a wispy, messy bun, how she looks when she takes her makeup off and has that classic Pepper glow that melts his cold, steel heart, even after all of these years. She’s wearing cotton lounge pants and a baggy t-shirt, isn’t the put-together Pepper most people get to see, and yet, he thinks she looks perfect just like this. “After,” he assures her as he takes her hand in his. “When everything with Peter and work settles, I promise I’ll have Bruce take a look.”

“You say that like you want to mean it, but I know you,” she explains with a sly smile, wagging a finger in the air. “I know you much too well, Tony Stark, and I know you’re ten minutes from falling asleep at the kitchen table.”

“I am not!”

“The hypnic jerks you’ve been doing for the last twenty minutes say otherwise.”

“That was just me stretching my neck. Besides, Tony Stark doesn’t do sleep.”

Pepper hums. “Maybe the Tony Stark from ten years ago, but not this old man.”

“You calling me old?” he jokes with a small, tired smile.

“With all that gray hair?” she jokes back, ruffling it. “Come on, Grandpa. The emails can wait.”

He returns his focus to his StarkPad. “Just a few more.”

“Bed, or I’ll tell FRIDAY to lock you out of your email until sunrise.”

“You know I can override that, right?”

“I know something else you can override,” she says, wagging her finger again with a clever smile and raised eyebrow before turning and heading toward the bedroom.

x

“You have a low oxygen level alert from Peter,” FRIDAY reports sometime around four in the morning.

Tony’s clambers out of bed and nearly takes the duvet with him, doesn’t even look at his alarm clock or respond to Pepper’s half-asleep murmur, and by the time he’s actually sitting beside Peter and switching his lamp on, he already knows that the kid’s okay, that he isn’t wheezing or breathing too heavily. He rubs his face and exhales. The kid’s okay.

“T-Tony?” Peter’s asking as he comes to, blocking the lamp light with his hand, his oxygen cannula hanging off of his face. Peter blinks sleepily. “W-wha’s wrong?”

“Your oxygen dipped, kiddo,” Tony says, fixing the tubing so that it’s securely in Peter’s nostrils. “You’re okay. You can go back to sleep. Gonna stay up for a while and make sure you come back up, though.”

“H-how l-low did I go?”

“Don’t worry about it, Pete.”

“S’that why I’m sweating and feel like I ran a marathon?”

Tony rubs his face, exhaustion blanketing him. He doesn’t have the patience for Peter’s thousand questions right now, especially not with back-to-back early morning meetings scheduled. “Probably, but you’re fine now.”

“FRIDAY woke you up?”

“Mmhm. Go back to sleep.” He clicks the lamp off and stumbles his way through the dark so that he can sit at Peter’s desk. He checks the time on his watch and sees that it’s a little after four.

He has to be up in an hour.

He’s never really been one for sleep, but lately, he’s starting to feel like he can’t just bounce back after two hours of sleep like he used to. He pulls Peter’s oxygen levels up on his watch and sees that he’s at 92 and rising. He decides that he’ll leave when he’s sure it’s at least 96.

“S’you’re…just gonna…watch me s-sleep?” Peter asks with a yawn.

“Go to sleep, Pete.”

“Kinda hard to sleep when-”

“Shhh.”

“Did you just shush me?!”

“No.”

“Yes, you did! You just-”

“Oh, for fucks sake,” Tony says, getting up and clicking the lamp back on. “Kid, you’re killing me!” He’s trying to hide his rage, but it’s an unstoppable force. “I’m running myself ragged here, trying to keep Stark Industries afloat after missing three days of work before the end of the quarter, all while keeping you from…” Tony puts the breaks on, stops himself from saying it, doesn’t want to pile the rest of his exhaustion on Peter, who’s been panicked about going back to school soon, about having another attack, about...

“Dying?”

He sighs and rubs his face. “Not what I meant, Pete.”

“That’s exactly what you meant.” And Tony can see the pain in Peter’s words, knows that the kid has been majorly affected by the last week’s events. He knows he had a nightmare Thursday night, a short one that FRIDAY didn’t wake Pepper over. But Tony had gotten the alert in his hotel room 200 miles away and had been up for hours after, watching Peter’s vitals. He knows that Bruce has been weaning Peter off of his oxygen, that it’s fine for the half hour intervals here and there but that it leaves Peter struggling later, and he’s been realizing more and more just how arduous this recovery process is truly going to be. It’s all he could think about in the car rides between his hotel room and Lockheed, while trapped in his meetings as figures were discussed around him.

For Tony, it’s made not being here for the last two days difficult in ways that he can’t even get into words, and here he is, taking all of that out on the one person besides Pepper that he knows he can’t live without.

“I’m sorry, Pete. Didn’t mean to go there. I’m ten steps beyond exhausted right now, I’m not making any sense, and I wasn’t expecting that low oxygen level alert. FRIDAY got me all worked up over nothing. I’d be…I’d be devastated if something ever happened to you, Underoos.” He bites back tired, emotional tears as he pulls Natasha’s blanket up over Peter’s shoulders, and he doesn’t do a good enough job, because he can hear it in his voice as he says, “I had to make sure you were okay before I let myself go back to bed, kiddo. That’s why I stayed.” He gives a teary smile, sees Peter’s features soften in the lamplight.

“Can you keep it on?” Peter asks, looking back at the lamp.

Tony nods without needing an explanation.

He stays for another ten minutes, checks his watch over and over for Peter’s oxygen levels, only leaves when he sees that golden 96. It’s not where he wants him, not where he should be, but it’s progress. The smallest baby steps of progress that even Tony can’t deny.

“Peter all right?” Pepper mumbles half-asleep when Tony slides back beneath the covers.

“Yeah, he’s fine. He’s gonna be just fine,” he answers with a yawn, wrapping an arm around Pepper, refusing to think about the half hour he has left before his alarm goes off.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Sunday, December 29

“Do you want to call Lockheed and tell them that we can’t finalize the numbers today because you’d rather I take the day off so that I can…do what exactly?” Tony asks from the kitchen table with his usual sarcasm.

Pepper puts the sponge in her hand down on the kitchen island and sighs. “Be with your family, Tony. It’s Sunday!”

“I’m with my family right now,” he argues, but he turns to wink and smile at Peter, who takes in another spoonful of Cheerios and smiles as he chews.

This isn’t the first time Peter’s witnessed this exact conversation, and he’s sure it won’t be the last.

“I’m just saying that it would be nice if you could let work go for a little while and relax. I swear, it’s like the word isn’t even in your vocabulary!”

“I did relax that one time, when I nearly had a psychotic breakdown? After New York?”

“What, you mean when you admitted you were a piping hot mess and later told me I’d find something to complain about even without the tinkering and the suits because I’d somehow convinced myself that being with you was the best option?”

Peter lifts his eyebrows and makes a mental note to never get on Pepper’s bad side. “I’m just gonna…” he says, gesturing to the living room before placing his empty bowl and spoon in the sink.

“Ooh, right in the heart with that one,” Tony says, rubbing his chest as he rises from his stool and goes to Pepper to make amends. He waits for Peter to be clear of the room before he says, “Hey,” in the softest tone he can manage and brushes her hair so that a lock is secured behind her ear. “You know I have to work today because of Peter’s appointment tomorrow morning.”

“I just wish you’d let yourself rest.” She tries to get her eyes to meet his, but he won’t let her. “And you know what happens when you get like this.”

“Like what?” he comments with a quick laugh, but Pepper knows that tone, squeezes his shoulder in reassurance that it’s okay for him to open up.

“You’ve gotta let me in, Tony. You were in your lab until three in the morning. FRIDAY says you’ve downed two full pots of coffee in the last 24 hours alone. You promised me no more suits until 2020.”

“It’s not a suit,” he says, shaking his head, and Pepper can see in his eyes as they meet that he’s being honest with her.

“Then what on earth are you working on?!”

Tony looks toward the living room for a moment and rubs his chin, sniffles to keep the tears from building, and forces a small smile that fails. “I keep seeing that look on his face, begging me to fix it and help him breathe, and I don’t think I can handle...” he admits, his face twisting as a lone tear slides down his cheek. He wipes it away and sniffles. “I’m scared we’re gonna lose him, again, Pep. If he has another attack like that last one… I can’t bear to lose him again.”

“Hey, you said yourself last night that Peter’s going to be just fine,” she reminds him, her arms suddenly around his neck, forehead and nose against his.

“You heard me?” he asks, sniffling.

She nods. “I’m worried about him too, Tony, so is May, but he’s doing infinitely better than he was a week ago. We’ve got this. Peter’s got this.”

Tony nods, as if persuading himself that Peter will be just fine. “Wanna keep him safe, you know?”

“Is this the part where you give your ‘threat is imminent’ speech?” she jokes quietly, and Tony grins. She wipes his tears and kisses his forehead, fixes the collar on his dress shirt and straightens his tie. “I know it’s not easy being away from him right now. I’m sure May’s feeling the same thing.”

“He needs me, Pep.”

“And you need him. I know.”

Tony nods, rubbing his face.

“Go wash your face and head to your meeting,” she whispers, kissing him by the ear. “Just make sure you’re back for lunch, okay? Gotta take care of all my boys, even if some of them are all grown up.”

He nods, wiping his face and exhaling slowly as he buttons his jacket.

x

Ned texts Peter that he’s woken up with a cold, apologizes about having to cancel their plans to work on a new Lego project, and promises to come by after school sometime soon to get started on it.

Peter stares at the text and falls back from his sitting position on the living room couch. He sighs, his now cancelled plans only deepening his anxiety about his appointment with Bruce and Dr. Cho tomorrow.

Peter wants good news, but he knows his body, feels just about as far away from the type of good news he’s been wishing for as one can get. He’ll have to skip his morning meds for the pulmonary function tests, which means he’s going to feel like he’s half-breathing until his appointment is over. That, and he’ll probably be forced to discuss the dreaded Nucala injections. Even the thought of weaning down his oxygen use isn’t enough to keep his stomach from doing somersaults

Ned has a cold, he texts to MJ. No plans and super bored.

Still stressing about tomorrow?

Yup.

Need a distraction?

Please.

She sends a picture of a four-quadrant graph with two snakes graphed and the caption Snakes on a plane. Peter smiles for the first time all day, watches as a bubble and three dots appear below her last text. If I were an enzyme, I'd be DNA helicase so I could unzip your genes. ;)

Thanks. Needed that last one for sure. ;)

They spend the mid-morning sending punny texts back and forth as a distraction, and Peter’s glad that he took the time and effort to shower right after getting up, because MJ shows up unexpectedly with a movie and a box of Insomnia Cookies around eleven thirty.

“I thought you had that thing with your dad?” Peter asks, taking the cookies from her.

She shrugs as she enters the residence. “He got called into work.”

The Day After Tomorrow?” he says when he sees the movie in her hand. “Really?”

“I know the science is kind of shitty,” she says, looking at the cover. “But I love Jake Gyllenhaal too much to let it go.”

Peter laughs and lifts up the cookies. “We better hide these; Pepper’s busy making lunch. Did you wanna stay to eat?”

She smiles. “Sure.”

He calls out to Pepper in the kitchen, who okays MJ staying for lunch, and they start the movie in the living room. A half an hour in, they’re snuggling on the living room couch, secretly munching on cookies.

“No oxygen today?”

“I’m supposed to go back on after lunch, but I feel good today. Kind of hoping Tony will let me stay off longer.”

“I’m glad you’re feeling good today.”

“Me too.”

They stay like that until Pepper calls out that lunch is ready. They spend a moment untangling from each other before getting comfortable at the kitchen island, where they help themselves to the plates and spread of cold cuts and salads before them.

Tony appears, pulling off his suit jacket and leaving it on the back of a dining room chair. Pepper places the last of the water glasses out and gives him a kiss.

“Hey, do you know what Sin City is?” MJ asks Peter as she builds a cheese sandwich on rye bread.

“Vegas? he answers, filling his plate with macaroni salad.

She nods. “Good. Do you know what Den City is?”

“No?”

“Mass over volume.”

Peter laughs and shakes his head.

“Wow,” Tony comments, eyebrows lifting, his tie hanging around his shoulders as he unbuttons his shirt. “That was nerdy, even for me.” He grabs a pack of cold cuts from the fridge and brings it over to the table.

“Oh, this is just the beginning. I have more,” MJ offers as she scoops fruit salad onto her plate.

“Oh yeah?” Tony asks, playing along as he takes a plate. He points as he asks, “MJ, right?”

She nods.

“Tony,” he introduces, putting a hand out. She shakes it, looks like she’s forgotten to breathe, and Peter can see her confident shell waver for a brief moment before she brushes her hair out of her face and picks up where she left off in filling her plate. He gets it; he used to get starstruck in the beginning of his internship, back when Tony was more of a boss than a mentor. Peter watches as Tony piles turkey and cheese onto a brioche bun already covered with greens while he details his morning to Pepper, thinking nothing of it until Tony places the sandwich on Peter’s plate. “Gotta get your weight up, kiddo.”

He goes to argue but remembers that MJ is over. “Did you put extra cheese on it?” he asks, lifting the bun to check.

“Yup. As you like it. And I took some of the greens off, but shh, don’t tell Pepper,” he explains quietly, winking.

“I heard that!” Pepper yells from inside of the fridge where she’s grabbing a jar of mayonnaise.

Tony turns to face MJ. “So, you spend a lot of time making horrible science puns?”

MJ grins. “I share them periodically.”

Tony laughs; he can’t deny a good retort.

“I’m really in my element with these chemistry puns,” MJ continues, and the water Peter’s just sipped comes out of his nose, spraying into his cup and on the counter. “Shoot! I’m sorry, Peter!” She goes to pat him down with a napkin, and he goes to answer, but starts to cough, has to turn away while he waits for the fit to die down. She grimaces at how painful it sounds.

“I’m good,” Peter finally says, his voice hoarse and breathing wheezy as he grabs a napkin to wipe the table and then his nose.

“I always seem to mess everything up,” MJ says, rubbing her forehead in embarrassment. “I’m really sorry. I’m like a walking Murphy’s Law; anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And before you say anything,” she says, putting a hand up, “it’s usually attributed to correlation rather than actual science, but it does have a basis in science, like the theory of unmeasurable uncertainty?” She sounds unsure, and it’s not because her information is wrong, but because she knows she’s doing that thing, the rambling that her parents always warn her not to do. Peter gives her a smile and nod to continue. “H-heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle comes to mind.”

“Props for citing an actual scientific theory.” Tony gives an impressed nod.

“T-thanks,” she stammers shyly, blushing.

“MJ’s really smart,” Peter adds, lighting up. “She’s the captain of the decathlon team.”

“There’s, um, a mathematical proof for Murphy’s Law involving statistics?” MJ continues, picking nervously at the food on her plate with her fork. “It’s all based in probability, is basically risk-management, but it’s real. An absence of proof is not proof of an absence, which NASA learned the hard way with the tiles on the space shuttle missions, but....I’m rambling. I should…stop rambling.”

“Well, if the adage for Murphy’s Law suits anyone, it’s Peter,” Tony jokes as he constructs a bologna sandwich for himself.

“Oh really?” Pepper asks, her back facing the island as she stirs sugar into her coffee. “Says the man in a can who makes a suit of armor meant to be lifesaving that often tries to do the opposite. How many times have I had to save your butt?”

“Going there, are we?” Tony asks playfully, cocking his head.

“Can we…not have a repeat of this morning?” Peter asks, scrunching his face in response to the tension.

“Only if we lay off the bad science jokes for a little bit,” Tony adds before biting into his own sandwich.

“Sorry, I only make bad jokes because all of the good ones argon,” MJ says, covering her mouth the moment the words come out. “Sorry!” she mumbles between her fingers. “I am so sorry! I’m not usually like this, I promise, I’m just really nervous!”

“It’s okay, kiddo,” Tony says with a chuckle between bites. He wipes his mouth with a napkin and takes a sip of his water. “Just didn’t want Murphy’s Law over here to choke on water again.” He nods toward Peter.

“Hey!” Peter protests.

“You know I love you,” Tony says, laughing.

“Is that a bologna sandwich?” Pepper asks when she’s finally settled on a stool. “I go and buy premium cuts and you’re eating bologna? Is that Oscar Mayer?!”

“Maybe,” he says while chewing, shrugging, reaching to grab and hide the packaging.

“Was that in the fridge?”

“Maybe.”

“I swear, Tony, sometimes you really outdo yourself,” she says, shaking her head.

Tony rolls his eyes. “So, MJ, I wanna hear more about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” he prompts before taking another bite of his sandwich.

“I’m, uh, a little more well-versed in chaos theory?”

“You mean deterministic chaos,” Tony tries.

“We’re using the scientific names. Got it,” MJ notes as means of humor, but her palms are sweaty and her heart is beating hard in her chest because Iron Man is staging his own little quiz bowl while eating a bologna sandwich and she knows she needs to measure up. “So, most people know chaos theory as the Butterfly Effect, which meteorologist Edward Lorenz coined. But it’s interdisciplinary, as it applies to many fields of study.”

He wipes his face with a napkin again. “How does deterministic chaos work in a pinball machine?”

“Tony,” Pepper warns, glaring at him.

“A pinball machine,” MJ repeats, her mind completely blanking as she tries to ignore Pepper. She takes a deep breath. Gravity, she thinks. “T-the final outcome is unpredictable, since the launching of the ball and the subsequent collisions are randomized?” She pauses, takes another breath. “People assume it’s predictable, but the very things that make it seem predictable make the outcome variable.”

Pepper’s jaw nearly hits the quartz of the island countertop.

“Keep a lock on this one, kid,” Tony comments with a grin to Peter; he had a sense that MJ was brighter than she’d been letting on. “Have you applied for any internships?”

“L-like the Stark Internship?”

“Exactly like the Stark Internship.”

“I thought there was only room for one student? From Midtown. With…a 4.0 GPA…” she trails, confused.

“Seems like there might be two now,” he says, putting his hand out to shake hers.

“You’re not…serious.” MJ’s breathless, feels like she might fall from her stool. “He’s serious, right?” she asks Peter, who is beyond confused and trying to figure out what, exactly, is happening. She struggles to swallow, has to gulp to keep herself from choking.

“I know you applied for the internship,” Tony says. “I went through your application. Impressive personal statement you had there.”

She takes his hand, lets him shake her hand because she’s too stunned to speak. “T-thank you?” she says. “I mean,” she corrects, sitting up straighter. “Thank you, Mr. Stark.”

“Tony, please,” he says, getting up from his stool.

“Won’t people think…with me hanging out with Peter…that…”

“I’ll handle it,” Tony promises, and she wants to believe he will, has to.

“But what if we…break up…” she trails, and Peter’s eyebrows knit.

“That’s what you’re worried about?!” Peter asks.

“No, I just…what if we…what if I can’t…keep up? I-I’m not exactly…I ramble, like a lot?” she says, and she’s sure her hands are shaking. The Stark Internship.

“Don’t kid yourself, kid. You know your stuff. Gotta trust yourself,” he says with a smile, pointing at her as he grabs his jacket.

“Yes…sir,” she replies, eyes wide as she looks at Peter.

“I have to spend some time in the lab,” Tony says to Pepper as he throws his plate away. He plants a quick kiss on her cheek. “Thanks for lunch. Don’t count on me for dinner. It was lovely meeting you, MJ.”

Before she can respond, Tony’s already down the hallway.

“Love you too, honey,” Pepper yells after him, laughing to herself. “I swear, he drives me crazy. It’s a good thing I love him, right?”

“What just happened?” Peter asks.

“When you figure it out, let me know,” MJ replies, still in shock.

Pepper starts to clean up the salads and re-wrap the cold cuts, MJ and Peter pitching in. When the kitchen is finally clean, Pepper drops five pills and a glass of water in front of Peter. He groans. “Oh,” she says, tossing the yellow Oscar Mayer packaging into the trash. “And I know about the cookies.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10
Monday, December 30

Tony scrolls through a file on his StarkPad at the kitchen island and sips from the cup of black coffee in his hand. He’s trying to concentrate on a proposal that he meant to brush up on the night before, but Peter’s loudly chomping down on bowl of Captain Crunch, is slurping at the milk, and the sounds are enough to make his own stomach churn.

“Slow down or you’re gonna choke, kid,” he warns.

“M’hungy and you said I needed to get my weight back up!”

“That’s from the steroids. And yes, I’m glad you have your appetite back, but slow down, okay?”

He drinks the last of the milk from the bowl and places it down on the table. “When’s my appointment again?”

“Nine. We’ll go up together. I can’t do dinner, but maybe we can watch a movie later? To…celebrate?” He tries to concentrate back on the file but pauses when he realizes how weird his sentence just sounded. “Wow, not the right word, Tony, um,” he says, putting his StarkPad down and sighing. “You know what I mean, kiddo.”

“You really don’t have to come, Tony,” Peter says. “I-I know you’re busy, and it could be a while, with the tests, and you’ve already missed so much work-”

“Did you hit your head again? You’re not going to this appointment alone.”

“But Tony-”

“None of this ‘but Tony’ business. May can’t be here, and I can’t send you with Pepper because she doesn’t do well with medical stuff, so I’m going. End of story.”

The first part of the appointment goes well enough. Bruce and Dr. Cho both listen to Peter’s lungs and ask him about his symptoms, let him have a break from his oxygen to see how he does in the office, which he’s excited about because it’s been getting easier to breathe without it, but the appointment quickly progresses into a ten-vial blood draw, x-rays, and a series of pulmonary function tests.

It’s the pulmonary function tests that do him in. They always have, even before the pneumonia fiasco. He has to skip his inhalers and nebulizers the morning of each time because it interferes with the testing. The clip on his nose during the test may as well be a vise and the white cylinder connected to the computer is heavy in his weakened state. He coughs and gags between rounds of inhaling and blowing with all of the energy and lung power he can muster. His face is red and hot from the force, lungs and diaphragm sore. He’s starting to get a pressure headache when they ask for one last set. He can feel his fingers tingling, but he doesn’t want to say no, so he steadies his breathing, tells himself he can do this, and nods.

“Two normal breaths. Just like that. Alright, really deep breath in, and blow. Keep blowing, keep blowing,” Bruce instructs, but Peter feels a cough rip through the little tube he’s got between his lips and as he pulls away, rips the clip from his nose, he feels the coughs deepen, feels the Captain Crunch from breakfast come up. He barely makes it to the garbage can, needs Tony to help hold him up as he coughs and pukes and coughs.

“It’s okay,” Tony’s comforting as Peter heaves into the can. “I’ve got you.” He can’t get his coughing or breathing under control, is dragging in raspy, painful breaths even after the puking stops.

There’s a flurry of activity around him as Tony tries to wipe his mouth with a paper towel. They transfer him to a bed, raise the back and decide on a nebulizer treatment to get his tight wheezing under control. Peter closes his eyes, feels woozy from the strain on his lungs and the rapid beating of his heart. He’s used to this feeling, and yet, at the same time, he’s not. What’s happening right now isn’t even that bad compared to the last few attacks, but it’s also the first time since the pneumonia that he’s pushed his lungs to this limit, and he’s angry that he can’t get his breath back.

“Doing great, Pete,” Bruce is commenting as he places a nebulizer mask connected to oxygen over his mouth and nose. “Let me know if you feel like it isn’t helping, okay? Cho, can you get a pulse ox on him?”

“Dizzy,” he moans, fighting to stay conscious.

“Told you to slow down on that cereal,” Tony jokes softly, and he’s there, brushing Peter’s hair from his sweaty forehead. Peter’s eyelids flutter. “I know that sucked, but I need you to stay awake for me, kiddo.”

Peter blinks his eyes open, but everything is fuzzy, so he closes them again. His fingers are tingling. No, scrap that, his whole body is tingling, and he feels himself drifting.

“Tony, I don’t…don’t feel so good…” His eyes aren’t focused enough when he opens them to catch the sheer panic on Tony’s face when Peter utters those familiar words. “Gonna…gonna pass out. T-tony? Tony…”

The bed is flattened, and pillows are placed beneath his legs to help bring the blood back to his upper body. There’s a cuff on his arm inflating, squeezing, and a clip on his finger that’s making something beep too fast for his liking, and he tries to focus on not passing out, on making this unpleasant feeling that’s everywhere go away. He swims in a dazed pool of wakefulness and sleep for a few moments, feels Tony brushing his hair out of his face again. It’s helping, makes him cling toward attentiveness. He works on slowing down his breathing, as hard and loud as it is, and fights to stay awake.

“Still want to go to this appointment alone?” he hears Tony joke softly. Peter gives a pitiful huff in response beneath the mask.

“Your blood pressure dropped,” Bruce explains after he listens to Peter’s lungs and glances at the monitor beside the bed. “And you had a small attack. But you’re okay. I think the PFTs sent your nervous system into overdrive. We call it a vasovagal reaction. It happens. Don’t sweat it, kid.”

When the nebulizer’s finished and he’s finally feeling like his lungs aren’t collapsing, they sit him fully upright. He feels his blood pressure adjust and grimaces.

“Color’s coming back,” Tony says. “You went full ghost on us, kiddo. Thought we’d lose you against the sheets.”

“Why does my body always have to be so dramatic?” Peter groans. “Tired of this.”

“You’re pretty rare, Peter,” Dr. Cho explains. “In the Spiderman sense, but also with your asthma. Only 5% of people have eosinophilic asthma.”

“Great.” He doesn’t even try to hide his lack of enthusiasm. “This just keeps getting better.”

Bruce cuts in. “I think it’s important to note that, at some point, this exacerbation was going to happen whether or not you took your inhalers consistently. Your lungs were a ticking time-bomb; we didn’t have you on the right medications because we didn’t know about the extent of your immune system involvement, which was a failure on our part. I don’t want you to beat yourself down if you still have attacks, Peter. Even with your healing factor kicking in and all of the medication changes we’re going to discuss today, this is going to take time. We need to be patient. That’s going to be the hard part.”

And he wants to snort at Bruce’s suggestion that being patient is the actual hard part in all of this, but the reality of his words, what he’s really saying, sinks in a little too deeply. “I’ll still have attacks?” His heart drops into his stomach, fully and completely, because he thought he was getting better, thought that the wheezing would fully disappear soon, that the tightness in his chest would be a thing of the past once he got over this infection, just like all of the other times.

Bruce gives his classic half-smile-half-grimace, the one he uses when he has to deliver news he doesn’t want to. “E-asthma is tricky. And it’s different for everyone. Thankfully, you do okay on the steroid inhalers. Not many people do. We just need to get you on the right combination.”

“E-asthma makes it sound like I enjoy vaping,” Peter grumbles.

“Peter,” Tony warns, but it’s soft. Peter knows that his moodiness is heightening the already tense tone in the room, so he stares at his hands in his lap and lets the adults talk. They pull up his PFT results and x-rays on the computer, compare them to those from the past year. They decrease the amount of time he’s supposed to be on oxygen so that he’s only using it at night and as needed during the day. There’s debate over whether they should add Singulair pills to help with the fact that a chemical called leukotriene likes to team up with over-eager eosinophils. They deliberate over brands and dosages for his daily steroid inhaler and whether they should keep him on the prednisone or switch him over to prednisolone, whether it should be increased or tapered, if he’s at risk for rare lung infections on the steroids, especially once they add in the Nucala. There’s discussion of how many treatments he should be taking a day and what medications he should be doing them with, if they can be combined, if he needs prophylactic inhaled antibiotics or if they should wait until it’s absolutely necessary. They’re trying to calculate all of it against Peter’s metabolism, genetics, and healing factor, which has finally kicked in, and then Dr. Cho brings up how often they’ve needed to use epinephrine to get his more severe attacks under control, and it’s too much. It’s all way too fucking much. He feels himself zone out, wishes he could run far away from everything that’s happening because he knows they’re going to talk about the Nucala injections next and he’s not ready for that.

He’s not ready for any of this, honestly, but he’s really not ready to talk about injections.

He feels woozy again, so he rubs his sweaty hands on his jeans and works on steadying his ragged breathing.

He’s been doing some reading and the side effects of Nucala can be scary. Biologics, he thinks, are fucking scary. They’re the big guns when it comes to autoimmune disease, and they come with a whole host of side effects that would make anyone turn and run in the other direction if they could. He’ll be immunocompromised, which will be a field day for his already compromised lungs. And he could get site reactions the size of sand dollars and nausea and headaches and sepsis with even the simplest of infections.

And it could help him be Spiderman again, help him wean off some of the other meds once the loading doses have settled, be a stroke of luck. Or it could blow up in their faces, be months of wasted time and pain. Physically and emotionally.

Peter feels like his luck ran out a long time ago.

And while he’s thankful they’ve chosen to forego low dose chemo in favor of the Nucala, which Peter assumes they’ve talked about without him because his digging online indicated that it’s considered a strong treatment option for his exact situation, he’s nervous. Because low dose chemo is scary, too, and he never in a million years would have thought that he’d be in the position he’s in now. He didn’t even know any of this existed a week ago. And he knows that if the Nucala doesn’t work out, if the few other biologics don’t work out, that the chemo med is later on the list, that’s it’s ridiculously effective against a whole host of autoimmune diseases, and while it’s supposed to be good news because it means there’s a back-up plan, it still hasn’t helped to settle his nerves in the least.

It’s a low dose of a chemo drug, he knows, not chemo itself in the general sense, and they’re not even there yet, might never even be there, but he knows his biology and basic chemistry. He’s read more than enough to be panicked about failing the Nucala and the short list of biologics after it.

Not only because losing some of his hair and feeling like crap for days is high up on the side effects list even for the lower doses of the chemo meds, but also because they have to call it failing the meds, as if you were the one who failed and not the medications that have failed you.

His head is swimming and he feels himself getting overheated even though the room is ice cold. This is too much too much too much and he needs to get out, needs air.

He’s up and out of the room, running down the hallway before anyone can stop him. He lets his feet guide him and pull him as far as they can, as far as his lungs can, before he collapses into a puddle of tears on the tile floor. It feels like he’s in a maze he can’t get out of, realizes that there is no way out, and he can’t bear the thought that this isn’t going away.

“Hey,” Tony’s saying, so softly that Peter barely hears it as he feels Tony’s arms wrap around him and rock him as he sobs between wheezes. “Shh. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

“Go away!” he’s yelling, trying to break free, but Tony refuses, holds him so tight that he can barely move an inch.

“Relax, Peter. It’s okay,” Tony soothes as Peter kicks his legs.

“It’s not okay! None of this is okay!” he screams. He’s using every ounce of energy in his body to use his arms and legs to escape, but Tony has one hell of a grip on him. “It’s not okay! It’s not okay!”

And he doesn’t care about who is watching, doesn’t care if Tony’s not going to let go, because he needs to get it out, all of it. Needs to let everyone know that he wants to be anywhere but here, be anyone but Peter.

He doesn’t want to do this.

“I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to do this!” he’s sobbing, and he wishes he had the energy to keep going because he doesn’t want to stop, feels his brain ready to fight as his body deflates on him. He’s holding his hands over his ears now, pulls his legs in as close as he can, hears himself as he repeats, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

He doesn’t know how long they sit there in the middle of the hallway listening to him repeat make it stop like a mantra while his breathing hitches because when he opens his eyes, he’s in his own bed, curled into the smallest ball possible, Natasha’s blanket covering his shoulders and back, oxygen line back on. He expects to be alone but sees Tony shift in his peripheral at his desk, focuses his eyes to see that he’s hunched over his StarkPad with his glasses perched on his head, is not in the meetings he was supposed to be in this afternoon, and total and complete humiliation is the only emotion he can feel.

“Hey there,” Tony says, gentle and nonchalant like Peter didn’t just have a complete and utter meltdown in the middle of the MedBay wing earlier in the day. “Feeling any better?”

“I want to crawl in a hole and die,” he responds, pulling the blanket up and over his head. Tony sits beside him but doesn’t pull the blanket away or put a hand on his back, just sighs quietly.

“I had a feeling that today was going to be a lot for you. I know it was a lot for me,” Tony admits.

“Calling today a lot seems like the understatement of the century,” he mumbles. “I was all dramatic with my blood pressure dropping and then I went and had a meltdown while you guys went over all of my meds. A full-on, nuclear meltdown. In front of people,” Peter complains. “In front of SHIELD people.”

“May said you haven’t had an anxiety attack in a while.”

“You called May?!”

“She called me and asked how everything went.”

“And you told her. Great,” Peter moans. “All of this is just fucking great. Can I go crawl in that hole now?”

He feels Tony put a hand on his back. “Why didn’t you tell me about your panic attacks, Peter?”

“Because it hasn’t happened in a long time? Did you…did you give me something? Head feels funny.”

“Bruce had to give you one hefty dose of Ativan to get you to calm down. We thought you were going to send yourself into another attack.”

“Right, because everything is about my asthma now! Oh, I’m sorry, my e-asthma.”

“Been waiting for that anger to rear its ugly head. You need to get it out, kiddo.”

“Like you’d understand.” And he knows as it rolls off his tongue that it’s cruel and probably not true, but he doesn’t apologize, just stays still beneath the blanket.

Tony chuckles. “I love that you think I’ve never had a medical or mental breakdown. In front of SHIELD, no less. It’s cute, in a way.”

“Because you haven’t,” he says, pushing the envelope.

But Tony doesn’t take the bait, just cranks up the sarcasm. “I’ll take ‘things that have happened’ for $1,000, Alex.”

“I still want to crawl into a hole and die.”

“No, you don’t.”

“You don’t get to tell me how I feel? When I clearly feel like crawling in a hole and dying? Anyway, no one else, in the history of the Avengers, has ever had a nuclear meltdown like I did today.”

“Or,” Tony proposes, rubbing Peter’s back in small circles, “how about we stop assuming things about other people? Especially those on your team? On your side? Hmm? What’s all this comparison about anyway?”

“You should be in your meetings.”

“I should be doing a lot of things. Drinking more water, eating less red meat, sleeping better, but could’ve, should’ve, would’ve, no?”

“Not funny.”

“I cancelled my meetings.”

“That makes me feel worse.”

“Those meetings ended up as emails, which they should’ve been in the first place, so it’s fine.”

“Why does everyone keep lying to me?!” Peter pulls himself into a tighter ball beneath the blanket.

Tony’s hand stops on Peter’s back. “No one is lying to you, Peter. What are you talking about?”

“I know those meetings were important! And I know that what happened is not how Steve or Natasha or Bruce would have handled today’s appointment if they were in my shoes, and I know that you and Dr. Cho and Bruce talked about the low dose chemo option without me, I know it, and-”

“Hold up. Chemo?” Tony, wide-eyed, tilts his head to the side and blinks away his confusion. “Wow, that Ativan really did a number on you, kiddo.”

“I’m not stupid, Tony.”

“Never said you were. But what’s all this chemo talk about, hmm?”

“I did some research about my asthma. I know more than I want to know. So much more than I want to know, a-and some of the literature-”

“Peter, I can promise you that we did not discuss low dose chemo, with or without you. I read about it, too, but we know the exact protein causing your issues. You don’t need to worry about low dose chemo right now. You’re going to drive yourself crazy if you keep reading things online. You’re going to send your anxiety into overdrive.”

“I don’t have anxiety!”

“Ah, so, you’re allowed to be upset when you think I’m lying to you, but you can lie to me and it’s no problem?”

“No, Tony, I…my anxiety isn’t the issue right now.”

“Ah, so now you do have anxiety?”

“Ugh! You’re really frustrating, you know that?!”

“Are you really that sure about your anxiety not being an issue right now? If what happened today wasn’t anxiety, then what was it?” Peter shifts uncomfortably beneath the blanket. “You can tell me. I want to be able to help you.”

“I don’t know, I just…want all of this to stop,” he says, sniffling. “I need it to stop. And we didn’t even…we didn’t even talk about the Nucala injections yet! I don’t want them. I know I n-need them, but I don’t want them!”

“Well, maybe…” Tony starts, and Peter knows that he’s trying to say that maybe it won’t be so bad, but he stops and sighs, rethinks his strategy. He’s not great at this, this heart-to-heart stuff, probably because he never had anything akin to this with his own father. And although Pepper’s taught him how to be a bit more understanding of her feelings and emotional trials, it’s different with Peter. He’s too…smart. Too much like Tony to fall for thinly veiled phrases meant to comfort. “They’ll probably hurt, yes,” he finally admits. “And we’re all worried about side effects. I can understand why that’s making you nervous.”

“I just want the attacks to stop,” Peter manages. “I want the wheezing and coughing to stop. It’s been getting harder, not easier. I thought this was supposed to be getting easier!”

“It will get easier, kiddo.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“And if it doesn’t, then we find a way to make the absolute best of it. You know I would go to the ends of the earth to make sure of that, Pete. But I have a good feeling about all of this. I really do. Bruce and Cho are the best of the best.”

Peter doesn’t answer, just stays beneath the blanket, and Tony doesn’t pull it away. He’s noticed that Peter’s defense mechanism throughout all of this has been hiding beneath blankets, and while childish at first glance, Tony knows there’s much more going on beneath the surface. He knows Peter and May have been through more than enough, that Peter’s seen and experienced things most people his age could never imagine. May had detailed Peter’s anxiety situation on the phone as Peter slept off the Ativan, Tony responding in a hushed tone from just outside the bedroom door, keeping watch for fear that Peter might wake in the midst of panic and confusion.

“He used to have nightmares, too,” May had shared. “About plane crashes, car accidents. You name it, Peter dreamt it. The anxiety attacks themselves got worse after everything with Ben, but seeing a therapist helped, along with the low doses of Ativan here and there. It was rough couple of months. He hasn’t had one as bad as you described in nearly two years, though. Do you think I should come home? Be with him? Maybe I went back to work too soon?” She’d sniffled. “I should have been home for his appointment today. I knew it was going to be upsetting. Maybe I could have explained some of the medical stuff? Do you think that would’ve helped?”

“Don’t beat yourself up, May. I think this was going to happen regardless. He’ll be okay once he’s up. I’ve said it before, you raised one hell of a tough cookie, that’s for sure.”

“The panic attacks are going to keep happening, Tony.”

“Bruce recommended a therapist.”

“Can’t say I disagree. You know Peter, though. He’s going to fight it.”

“I have someone in mind.”

“How do you know we can trust them?”

“Because I saw them for years after Afghanistan and New York. After I thought I lost Peter.”

He rubs his temples, wills away the headache growing from a lack of coffee. He hates that Peter feels so isolated, so different, like he has to do this all on his own. He thinks back to what he told Peter in MedBay the other night, hours after they’d had to give him the epi-pen.

“Maybe this is an unhealthy strategy, but I always went with being brave in the moment and dealing with the emotions later, which…isn’t exactly the best idea, but…”

“Is that how you got through Afghanistan?”

“Yeah, kiddo.”

With his eyes still closed, Peter says, “Guess we’re a lot more alike…than I thought.”

Peter’s in the after of Afghanistan, of New York, Tony thinks. Metaphorically speaking, of course. He’s in it, clawing his way back to normalcy. Tony remembers feeling like nothing would ever be okay again, like he’d never be able to accept the hunk of metal in his chest, or the gaping hole that Peter’s absence left. He’d been so trapped in the panic of making it out of both experiences alive that he hadn’t been able to imagine an actual after. And then he’d gotten home, was thrust back into the normalcy he’d been so desperately craving, and Tony had felt anything but normal, anything but himself.

He’s not sure he ever got those parts of himself back.

But to Peter, Tony just woke up and got over all of that in one fell swoop. To Peter, Natasha shrugged her past off like the blankets she knits, and Steve found the quick cure for all that ailed him, and Bruce controlled his anger by focusing on the present and his human emotions without any trial or error.

But that’s not reality. Tony knows that, was there when Natasha had her night terrors and when Steve doubted his intentions and Bruce lost complete control. Over and over and over.

And even though Peter’s been through so much in his short life, Tony’s aware that this time, it’s different. Because this time, Peter knows that there’s no timeline for healing, can’t stop focusing on the word chronic, and honestly, Tony doesn’t blame him for wanting control, for wanting there to be some kind of positive end result in all of the confusion.

“You’ve never seen me when my heart goes into an arrhythmia,” Tony says, looking down as his hands.

Peter pulls the blanket down just enough to look at Tony.

“It’s quite dramatic, actually,” Tony continues slowly. “My arc reactor shorting, me falling to the ground all helpless, chest heaving so badly that I swear my reactor is going to burst from my chest. Bruce calls it an arrhythmia like it’s subtle and innocent, but it’s the opposite. And the first time it happened, I said the same thing you said today when I was trying to calm you down in the hallway.”

“Make it stop?”

Tony nods. “Exactly. Only no one could hear me because I didn’t have enough breath to get the actual words out, so I looked like a babbling idiot.”

“Was Pepper there?”

“No, but SHIELD was.”

“How’d they get it to stop?”

“They had to shock me.”

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

“Like hell.”

Silence.

“Is…is this supposed to be comforting or something?” Peter asks.

“Look, Pete,” Tony says, sighing. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to. Everyone does. It’s cliché but it’s the truth. And I know that today was rough. I knew it was going to be and that’s why I didn’t want you to go alone. I always went to my appointments alone, and then I’d hide away in my lab afterwards because I would get these panic attacks that made me feel like the whole world was caving in on me. I’d go in fine and then I’d just shatter afterwards. Bruce and Cho are good at what they do, but they get to leave after the appointment, go back to their regular non-medical world, while you go home with new medications and therapies and crushing anxiety.”

“You take medication? I…never knew that.”

Tony nods. “I’m getting older and my heart isn’t what it used to be, plus, I’ve got all of this scar tissue from the hack saw job they did in that cave in Afghanistan. The surgeries have helped, but they don’t fix the root cause. Bruce has been trying to convince me to yank my reactor for years, and maybe he’s got a point, that I’ve been avoiding it because I don’t want to do it. Because I’m scared. Because I’m used to feeling like this and I’m nervous that even with the surgery, I won’t feel any better than I do now.”

“If you don’t want to, then you shouldn’t have to.”

Tony shakes his head. “Doesn’t work like that, kiddo. It’s gonna have to happen sooner or later. It’s going to force its hand one day, and I’d rather it be my call and on my terms than leave it up to fate.”

“But you need it to run your suit.”

“Not anymore, I don’t. Not with the nanotech.”

“But…what if…”

Tony gives him a knowing smile, pats him on the back. “We might be superheroes, Underoos, but we’re still human. We can still break.”

Peter lets the thought ruminate. He’s not used to feeling human, feels like this asthma stuff has him feeling a little too human and broken lately.

“You hungry? I’m thinking Top Gear re-runs and lo mein,” Tony says, and Peter’s happy that his health is no longer the topic of conversation. He nods, pulls the blanket down a little more so that he can sit up. Chinese food sounds great, seems like just the thing to pick up his mood enough to get his mind off of his embarrassing meltdown.

The guilt creeps in, though, during the lull in their conversation.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” he says, rubbing the back of his head.

“About your panic attack?”

Peter shakes his head. “About everything.”

“Kiddo,” he says, sighing and shaking his head. “You don’t need to apologize about any of this. It was going to happen sooner or later. Your immune system was rearing to go. Not your fault. Neither is the anxiety. No more apologizing about any of this.”

Peter nods his head, feels Tony’s words roll off of him because he still feels guilty, still feels like he should have known better, like he could have prevented all of this drama if he’d just done what he was supposed to do even though he knows that wasn’t what made this happen.

“I want to hear you say it.”

“Hmm?” Peter asks.

“Repeat: It’s not my fault.”

“B-but it is, Tony. This is my fault!”

He shakes his head. “No, kiddo, it’s not. You didn’t cause this, didn’t deserve this, and it’s not your fault. Say it.”

Peter clenches his jaw and tries not to say anything stupid in response. He knows what Tony is getting at, but he doesn’t feel it, which is why he doesn’t want to say it. But he knows Tony’s going to make him. He’s in Dad Mode, and Peter has to play along.

“I didn’t cause this, don’t deserve this, and it isn’t my fault?” he asks like it’s a question. It feels awkward, like a shirt that’s too loose fitting.

“Again.”

He groans. “Tony.”

“Again, kiddo.”

Peter takes a deep breath, his exhale bordering a sigh. “I didn’t cause this, don’t deserve this, and it isn’t my fault.”

“Awesome.”

“Can we order food now?”

Tony ruffles his hair and smiles. “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11
Tuesday, December 31, New Years

Tony’s cancelled his infamous New Year’s party in exchange for a few last hours of work and a quiet, family affair at home.

The quiet family affair at home being Pepper’s insistence, of course.

But Tony’s not complaining. Not about that, at least.

Bruce has had him back on amiodarone to stop his heart from going into abnormal rhythms for exactly one day and the effects have been less than desirable. He’s spent much of the early morning nursing the garbage can in his lab, hiding away from Pepper. He’s barely slept as it is, can’t keep much beyond bland bologna sandwiches and coffee down. The headache that’s been pounding since he took those first few pills has been holding him back from making nearly any progress on any of his projects and he knows the tremor will return once the dosing has settled in his system.

“Neurotoxicity or a heart attack, Tony? Those are your choices if you don’t let me yank that reactor,” Bruce had explained late last night, glasses off, after FRIDAY had called him down to the lab for palpitations beyond normal parameters. Bruce had called it a cardiac event, but to Tony, it had felt like he was being stabbed in the chest, felt his breath coming in short spurts from the sheer pain. “You need to cut back on the coffee. And the stress.”

Tony had huffed.

Coffee. His lifeline. The thing getting him through all of this. No coffee equals…sleep. Or rather, it should. In a normal person, Tony thinks, less coffee means quality sleep, if one’s at that perfect place between exhausted and relaxed and not ten steps beyond a potential collapse and functionally manic like he is.

And stress? With Peter fighting a serious case of pneumonia and severe asthma to boot? And his company running full speed ahead with him hanging on for dear life? And Pepper on him about balancing work and home?

“Amiodarone makes me puke. Profusely.”

“It keeps your heart beating at a normal rhythm. It’s only temporary, Tony.”

He’d shaken his head. “You’re not taking my reactor.”

“Stubborn, as always. Not like I expected anything less. Let me do a full work-up.”

“Over my dead body.”

“Not funny. And the tremors will go away once we stop the oral meds.”

Tony knows that was code for reactor removal.

He doesn’t want to admit it, but having his feet up on the couch feels right. Times Square is live on TV, the volume low because there’s still three hours until the ball drops. Pepper and May are drinking wine across the room while Peter and MJ play some kind of card game on the floor. He closes his eyes despite the noise, is woken by Pepper sometime later.

“Did I nod off?” he asks, inhaling quickly and stretching to wake himself up.

“Yup. Got about a half hour until the ball drops,” she whispers sweetly.

“Why’d you let me sleep for so long?” he asks, voice rough.

“Because you needed it, honey,” she says, fixing his hair. “You sure you’re okay? Your coloring is off.”

He hasn’t told Pepper about the amiodarone yet, doesn’t want her worrying about him and Peter.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting sick, too.” She sighs.

“Just needed a break.”

“Finally listening to me?” she jokes, but Tony can see the concern behind her eyes, can sense the way she’s studying his face for any signs of illness.

When the ball drops and everyone is clinking together champagne glasses, Pepper leans over and gives him a long, powerful kiss, reminds him that the new year is about more than just the new. Tony’s never been good at new years, was usually blackout drunk by this time of the evening in his younger years, but being at home with people he considers family is more than enough to keep him steady right now, keep him feeling like he deserves these people in his life, and he’s thankful.

For the first time in years, Tony is thankful for a new year, for family, for hope.

 

Thurs, January 2

Peter stands in the doorway of Tony’s lab in pajamas at a little past one in the morning, his hair messy from sleep.

Or rather, the tossing and turning associated with not sleeping. He has a burst of energy, and even though it’s nearly two in the morning, he can’t get his brain to slow down. He’s tried his usual strategies: soft music, his Calm app, making his brain go blank, but his anxiety is compounding because he took his steroids later than usual, all at once rather than in short spurts throughout the day. Combined with the medication from his inhalers and breathing treatments, it’s created the perfect storm of anxiety and hyperactivity.

“You should be sleeping, Peter,” Tony advises without looking up from his worktable, and Peter’s sure he hasn’t made any noise coming downstairs. In the quiet, though, he realizes he’s wheezing slightly.

Stupid lungs.

“Can’t. Steroids have me wired,” he replies, taking Tony’s acknowledgement as an invitation to enter. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his pajama pants and nears the worktable. “Whatcha working on?”

“None of your business. Where’s your oxygen?” He doesn’t look up again, just continues working.

“You really think I’m gonna drag that all the way down here? Plus,I’m not sleeping.” He lifts his arms up, mimicking Tony’s penchant for talking with animation.

“His oxygen level is 95 and steady, boss,” FRIDAY chimes.

“Is it a new suit?” Peter asks, ignoring FRIDAY.

“Nope.” Tony uses a stationary magnifying device to get a closer look at the intricate metal in the new nano arc he’s holding. His hand wobbles and he stretches it to get it to stop, but the moment he goes back to tighten his grip on the arc, it goes back into the tremor.

“A new algorithm for FRIDAY?”

Tony sighs and turns toward Peter, pausing his work. He holds the solder gun in his hand up. “Does this look like coding to you?” He knows there’s an edge to his voice, that his fatigue is wearing him thin and making him snappy, but if Peter’s aware, he doesn’t make it obvious.

“No,” he shrugs, putting his hands in the pockets of his pajamas. “But I figured I’d ask because you’ve been spending so much time on the Boomerang Protocol and it sounded interesting.”

Tony’s eyebrows knit beneath his safety glasses. “How do you know about the Boomerang Protocol?”

“FRIDAY told me about it,” he explains nonchalantly as he takes the stool beside Tony. “Why’s it called Boomerang, anyway?”

“FRIDAY, why does Peter know about Boomerang?”

“You didn’t fully classify it, sir. Would you like me to classify all files associated with Boomerang according to your security standards? Shall I place it on your private server?”

“No,” he says, sighing. “Would you prefer I call it the Leash Kid Protocol?” he asks Peter.

“Wait…the protocol involves me? Please tell me that this isn’t another Baby Monitor thing.” He groans in annoyance.

“Remember Peak Weak?” Peter nods. “Well, I needed an algorithm that could keep cycling through new and old data, such as your heart rate, oxygen levels, breaths per minute, body temperature, local allergen levels, weather conditions, etc. etc., even as new data was presented, rather than be a one-and-done kind of system, thus, the name Boomerang. There have been a few snags, but I’m already getting some consistent trends. I’m hoping it helps us get ahead of things. Planning to roll it out fully soon.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Soon as in next week, or like-”

“Peter, I love you but you’re testing my patience right now with your endless questions.” Tony has to stretch his neck and take a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart and the nausea building from his medication.

“S-sorry,” Peter offers, pulling back. “A-And I love you, too.”

Tony smiles, his stress level decreasing for a moment before it returns.

“But this isn’t Boomerang,” Peter comments, pointing at the arc.

Tony shakes his head. “Nope.”

“Can I watch?” Peter asks as Tony grips the solder gun and turns it on.

“Nope.”

“Then can you tell me when we’ll get back to the mentoring?”

“What is this, 20 questions?” Tony asks, sighing again as he turns the soldering gun off and places it on the cradle. He wants to say when you’re feeling better, but he knows Peter’s already there for some of the small stuff, that it’s Tony who has kept the mentoring paused.

Tony and his much too human and broken body.

“I think I’ve already asked more than 20 questions,” Peter says, smiling sheepishly when he realizes he’s making it worse. “Sorry, I…get like this sometimes? May says it’s called hyperfocusing? The meds make it worse, a-and I took my steroids really late because I napped through my lunch and afternoon doses, which pushed my inhalers and treatment later, and-”

“Kid.”

“S-Sorry, Tony. I’m…I can’t get my brain to slow down when it’s like this, and-wait, that’s an arc reactor?!” he asks, focusing intently on the device in Tony’s hand. He leans in closer. “With little robots? Nanotech? That’s so freaking cool!”

Tony blinks in fascination. “Wow, that was…unlike anything I think I’ve ever seen before. Hyperfocused and distracted all at once. You sure you’re okay kid? Between the rambling and the anxiety, I’m not sure if I need to physically put you back to bed or-”

“I need to be busy right now,” Peter’s practically begging as his hands fidget in his lap. “Please let me help, or at least let me do something productive.”

“Alright. Pop quiz,” Tony says, carefully placing the arc down and turning the light on the magnifier off. “Get the answers right and you can stay.”

“Answers? There’s more than one question?!”

“I could send you back to bed-”

“Okay, okay, multi-question pop quiz. Go for it.”

Tony takes his gloves off. “Define ion.”

“An atom or group of atoms that has a charge.”

“Correct. Next question,” he says, taking his safety glasses off. “A neutral atom loses an electron. What would we call this ion?”

Peter tries to think back to his chemistry class, because they’ve definitely covered this. He’s picturing Mrs. Benninger’s notes on the SmartBoard, but for some reason, all he can think about is cats.

“Tick-tock,” Tony prods.

“I know this! We…we must have covered this when I…” Peter says, looking down at the floor, his heel lifting and falling on the foot rail of the stool as he thinks. “Okay, um, an atom loses an electron, so now it’s positive.” Paw-sitive, he thinks, and suddenly, he has the answer. CAT-ion. “Cation!”

“Bingo! One more, for good measure. What do we measure ionization energy in?”

“Kilojoules per mole!”

“And to think that a week ago you believed I could measure your fever through magic.”

“Hey! I was really sick! Not a fair comparison,” Peter argues.

“True.

“I may not have earned the Stark Internship by competing against my peers, but I promise I’m smart, Tony. I promise I can keep up.”

Tony narrows his focus on the kid. “That’s about the fifth time this week you felt the need to tell me that you’re smart. Care to elaborate?”

“I don’t know,” Peter says, shrugging. “I guess I just don’t feel smart most of the time. The meds make my brain fuzzy sometimes.”

“Bruce just switched a bunch of your meds up. I’m sure that will help.”

“And all of my friends are…smarter.”

“Not possible, kiddo. Except maybe MJ,” he jokes.

Peter shrugs and scratches his head. “I don’t know, I guess this past two weeks just made me feel really stupid.”

“Stupid?”

“Like I made some bad choices and needed to make it up to you?”

“You don’t have to make anything up to me, Peter.”

He looks down at the floor. “Just feels like it is all, especially after my appointment.”

“Hey, we’ve gone over this,” Tony says, placing a hand on Peter’s forearm and squeezing it. “You did make some poor choices, but we know your asthma would have done what it wanted anyway. Even Bruce said so at your appointment. What did he call it again?”

“A ticking time-bomb.”

“Exactly. And now that your healing factor has kicked in, you should be back to patrols in no time.”

“I’m kind of scared to go back to school,” Peter says, his voice small.

“After everything you’ve been through, you’re worried about school?” Tony asks, trying to lighten the mood.

“It’s one thing if my lungs lose it here and a completely different thing if they do it at school.”

Tony’s confused. “It already happened at school.”

“No, Tony. I mean…”

“Ah,” Tony says. “You mean the epi-pen.”

Peter nods.

“You’re worried about what MJ thinks?”

“No,” Peter says, shaking his head. “MJ’s been…great. About everything.”

And she’s been coming over nearly every day to see you.”

“She has.”

“And Ted?”

“It’s Ned. And he’s been okay about it, too. For the most part. He hasn’t actually seen me yet. But it’s also the rest of school that has me worried. Like stairs and gym and keeping up with the work. My brain still feels like it’s been abducted by aliens.”

“We’ll, you’ve got a few days until you’re back at school, if all goes according to plan, and you just aced my pop quiz, so I’d say you’re right where you need to be, Underoos. And you’ve been signed off of gym and Bruce said he’d write you a note for an elevator pass.”

“I’m not taking the elevator.”

“Says the kid who’s supposed to be on oxygen right now.”

“I’m awake, though! Bruce said I only need it when I’m sleeping!”

“Do you know why you need it at night?”

“Because…your breathing slows when you’re asleep?” he tries.

“Because your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone, at night, which can worsen the inflammation in your airways. The hormones that protect against an attack during the day are at their lowest points at night.”

“My night attacks during Peak Week?”

“Exactly.”

“But the steroids lower my cortisol levels, right?”

“Even so, your lungs are working hard to breathe, kiddo. I can hear it.”

“M’always wheezy,” Peter says, shrugging. “Stop worrying so much.”

“I’ll always about you,” Tony admits, ruffling his hair. “And there’s nothing you can do about it,” he jokes. Peter smiles, pulls his head away.

“So, you’re working on a new arc reactor?” Peter asks.

“Key word is working.”

“Does that mean you’re going to have Bruce take yours out?”

Tony pauses, breathes to stop the swelling of nausea overtaking him. “At some point, yeah, but I have to have this ready long before that happens.”

“But you said you don’t need it to run your suit.”

“Don’t need the reactor, but I do need something to run it. That’s where the nanotech comes in.”

“What’s the problem, then?”

“If I knew what the problem was, I’d be able to fix it, kid,” Tony says, laughing. “Do you know how my current reactor works?”

“Something about hydrogen atoms and plasma?”

“Close, but no. What kind of education are they giving you at Midtown, anyway?”

“I’m only a couple months into chemistry, Tony. We haven’t exactly covered…Iron Man yet.”

Tony laughs. “Think you’re up to helping me figure this nanotech out?”

Peter’s face lights up. “Really?!”

“Yes, but first, a science experiment. You need to understand fusion before I can let you anywhere near my reactor or my worktable.”

x

“Grapes?” Peter asks, confused, as Tony sets a bag of them down on the kitchen island. “We’re microwaving grapes?”

“We’re causing a fusion reaction. But also, yes, we’re microwaving grapes.”

Tony slides the glass tray in the microwave slightly off of the plastic turners, places two grapes side-by-side on top. He sets the timer and pulls Peter back across the kitchen.

“What am I looking for, exactly?” Peter asks, curious.

“Plasma.”

“Plasma?” he asks, confused. “Wouldn’t that be dangerous? And what’s with the oven mitts?”

Flashes of light emanate from inside the microwave for a few seconds before there’s a ball of fire that shorts the device.

“Woah! That was awesome!” Peter yells, covering his mouth immediately when he realizes how loud he’s been.

“So, that, the flash you saw, was plasma, and it happens because the microwave has to concentrate energy into a small space. The waves get trapped in the skin of the grapes and form a hotspot. My current reactor utilizes ionization, which also creates a plasma that…” Tony gives an elaborate explanation and Peter’s doing his best to keep up, but sleep is pressing. The hyperactivity from the steroids is finally wearing off and Peter tries to come up with a question to prove he’s been paying attention, but he can’t get his brain to think.

“We tell Pepper it was Thor,” Tony finally whispers, but Peter can see the wide smile on his face as he pops the door open, removes the glass tray, and sprays the evidence into the disposal with the sprayer.

“But Thor isn’t here right now.”

“Okay, so we tell Pepper Thor came over and tried to microwave grapes.” He wipes the glass tray down, places it back in the busted microwave, and puts the oven mitts back in the drawer.

Peter thinks about it, feels fatigue wash over him. He yawns again. “Deal.”

“Ice cream?” Tony asks, opening the fridge.

“Um,” Peter answers, suddenly on edge. “No, thank you, I’ll…pass.”

“Bed?”

“Y-yeah, but I don’t need to be tucked in, Tony. I can get myself to bed.”

“May will kill me if she knows I had you up until three in the morning, and I want to make sure you don’t forget your oxygen.”

“You mean May and Pepper will kill you.”

Tony considers it, tilts his head. “I’m about 75% sure Pepper has already plotted my potential murder with all of the shit I’ve pulled over the years, but I could see May getting involved if she found out I kept you up so late.”

“May would totally get involved. Probably for the fun alone.”

“They’re a force to be reckoned with together, that’s for sure.”

“Pepper’s still mad about the bologna, by the way.”

“Oh, trust me, I know. It’s been days and I still haven’t heard the end of it.”

x

Peter grabs his cannula, adjusts it beneath his nose and around his ears before Tony turns the oxygen on. “Thanks for letting me help. Made me feel useful. I don’t feel really useful right now, as you could imagine.”

“Well, gotta prepare the next Tony Stark somehow,” he jokes.

Peter pulls his duvet up and sighs. “I could never be you, Tony.”

“What makes you say that?” Tony asks, sitting on the end of Peter’s bed.

“What makes you think I could be you?”

“Well, let’s see. “Tenacity. A willingness to do good. Charmingly good looks.” He holds a finger up for each quality.

“Maybe not the last one,” Peter says with a laugh.

“MJ seems to think so.”

Peter blushes.

“You wanted to be me, kid, and-”

Everyone wants to be you, Tony. And you wanted me to be better than you, I know. I’m trying. I promise that I’m trying. I just tend to make everything worse when I’m actually doing everything in my power to do the exact opposite. It’s like MJ says-”

“Ah, so now we’re quoting the girlfriend. Thought we’d give it at least a few more weeks…”

He blushes again.

“Get some sleep, kiddo,” he says, patting the bed as he goes to leave. “You look like you need it.”

“Love you too,” Peter quips as Tony turns the light off.

“Love you, Underoos,” he hears him say softly with a smile as he closes the door.