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One Second Chance

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“You’re going to love this place, kid,” Tony said to Peter as they left the city behind in the rearview mirror. “It’s right on a lake and so, so quiet. The owners threw in their pontoon boat when we bought it. I’ll upgrade at some point, but for now, it’ll be perfect for the three of us to take out.”

“Sounds great,” Peter said, shooting him a smile.

“How is the mongoose doing back there?”

Peter twisted around to look at Morgan. “Fast asleep. You were right, she conked out as soon as we got out of the stop-and-go traffic across the bridge.”

“Do I know my kid or what?” Tony said, not even bothering to not be smug about it. As much of a nervous wreck as he’d been before Morgan was born, he thought he was doing pretty okay at the fatherhood thing. He’d already logged more time with her than his father had with him in the entire first ten years of Tony’s life.

Peter didn’t say anything. He’d been strangely quiet ever since Tony had picked him up, and Tony wasn’t entirely sure why. He’d seemed excited enough about spending his first week of summer with Tony and Morgan up at the lake house when Tony had suggested it. Pepper had her first major business trip since Morgan was born, and May was working overtime due to some shortages at work.

It had seemed like the perfect opportunity to make up for some lost time. Tony hadn’t seen nearly as much of Peter in the six months since Morgan was born. Some of that was on him; he’d had Happy take over most of the Spiderman stuff, since Tony was busy changing diapers and putting an infant to bed in the evenings now. But Peter had been distant, or so Tony felt. Pepper told him it was probably all in his head, but Tony didn’t think so.

Morgan wasn’t the only kid Tony knew pretty well. Something was going on with Peter, Tony was sure. And he was going to figure it out this week.

“So how are things, Pete?” Tony asked.

Peter shrugged. “Fine.”

Tony waited, but Peter didn't elaborate. “School’s going okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Now’s Ted?”

Peter smiled but it looked forced. “He’s fine.”

“Happy says you’ve been doing really well,” Tony said. “He’s only got a few new gray hairs.”

Peter shrugged again, glancing away.

Tony waited. “Everything okay?” he finally prompted. “You’re really quiet.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, looking back at him. “Just have kind of a headache. I’ve kind of been burning the candle at both ends, between school and Spiderman. I probably just need to sleep.”

“Makes sense,” Tony said. “I’m sure you’ll love sleeping at the cabin. Did I mention how quiet it is?”

“As a matter of fact, you did.”

“Well, it is. I don’t know, I’ve always been a city person, but the first time Pepper and I stayed at the cabin, I thought, This is kind of nice. And now, with Morgan, I think it’s even better. I want her to grow up with lots of room to run around, not feeling hemmed in.”

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “I loved growing up in the city.”

“Right, of course, me too,” Tony said quickly, not wanting Peter to think he was insulting Peter’s upbringing. “But I think it’ll be good for Morgan to have both.”

“Sure,” Peter said.

Tony waited, but he didn’t say anything else. He frowned, eyeing Peter out of the corner of his eye. It felt weird to him, but then again, it’d been a while now since he and Peter had spent time together where they didn’t have a specific project to be working on. Peter had come to the workshop to work on the suit, but that was different from this.

“You hungry?” Tony asked. “We could stop.” He realized too late that with Morgan asleep, stopping wasn’t ideal, but they could at least do a drive-through without waking her up. Probably.

“Nah, I’m okay. And May packed me some stuff I can nibble on.”

“Oh good,” Tony said. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel briefly. When had it gotten so hard to talk to Peter? It hadn’t been like this before. “You want to put some music or a podcast on?”

“Sure,” Peter said, and took out his phone. He scrolled briefly. “How about this bad movie podcast Ned and I like?”

“Sounds good.”

Anything was better than the awkward small talk, as far as Tony was concerned. But it turned out that the podcast actually was really funny, even though Tony hadn’t seen the movie they were talking about. It was almost too funny; he kept glancing into the backseat to make sure their laughter wasn’t waking up Morgan, but she stayed conked out for another hour, until Tony finally had to stop for gas. She woke up in a good mood, at least.

“Why don’t you sit in the back with her?” Tony suggested to Peter as they got back in the car. “She likes it better when someone is back there with her. The bag on the floor has some books and toys.”

“Okay,” Peter said with a shrug. He slid into the seat beside Morgan’s car seat. “Hey Morgan. How you doing? Did you have a good nap?”

Morgan babbled at him cheerfully. Peter pulled out one of her books and started reading it to her. Tony had to force himself to keep his eyes on the road, because he kept wanting to look in the rearview mirror at the two of them. The kid was a natural.

Even with Peter’s best efforts, Morgan was pretty restless by the time they pulled off the highway and started winding their way toward the house via a series of increasingly primitive back roads. She started fussing, and by the time they finally got to the house, she was on the verge of a full blown tantrum.

“We’re here, we’re here,” Tony said, scooping her out of her car seat and dancing her around the driveway. “No more car, I swear to you, Lady Morguna, please don’t start crying.”

Morgan giggled and grabbed his beard.

“Ouch,” he said, pulling back slightly. She lunged forward, determined. Tony gave up and let her grab at it. “Pete, are you okay with the bags?”

“Yep,” Peter said, slamming the trunk. Tony had had a lot of baby supplies delivered to the house, so they hadn’t had to bring as much as they might have otherwise. There was still a fair amount of luggage, though, and Tony felt a little bit bad about making Peter bring it all in. But he didn’t seem to mind, and Morgan was in the sort of mood where she’d throw a fit if Tony so much as thought about putting her down, so he didn’t have a lot of choice.

“So, there are two guest rooms,” Tony said to Peter, once they were inside. “One is upstairs, which is where Morgan and I are going to be sleeping. But I thought you’d probably want the one down here. You’ll have more space, and you might have some chance of not hearing it every time Morgan wakes up in the middle of the night.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “Yeah. I guess that makes sense.”

There was a note of something strange in the kid’s voice. Tony glanced at him, but he was already picking up his backpack and his suitcase and dragging them down the hallway to the guest room.

Her highness deigned to allow herself to be set down while Tony set up the Pack-N-Play in the living room. He put her inside with some of her favorite toys, and she happily started playing, leaving him free to lug their stuff upstairs. He put everything in his and Pepper’s room. There was a room next to it, connected via a Jack-and-Jill bathroom, that would eventually be Morgan’s, but for now she was still in her co-sleeping bassinet. The room downstairs that Tony had offered to Peter was technically the master suite.

Morgan was still playing happily when Tony came back downstairs. He went into the kitchen and started preparing some rice cereal and mashed banana for her. They’d eaten lunch early before getting on the road, so it was probably a good idea for her to have a snack.

He was mashing the bananas with a fork when Peter emerged. “Hey kid,” Tony said, glancing up. “Want some beige mush?”

Peter’s nose wrinkled. “I’m good, thanks.”

“We’ve got other stuff, too. The local couple who watches the place for us stocked the fridge. You could make a sandwich or something. Gotta feed that metabolism.”

“I’m actually not that hungry,” Peter said. “I thought I might lie down for a while. I can’t seem to get rid of this headache.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “At least drink something, then. Getting dehydrated isn’t going to help your headache.”

Peter shrugged. He went to the fridge and got a Sprite out. “You’re okay here?”

“I think I can keep my kid alive for a couple of hours on my own, yes,” Tony said wryly.

He hadn’t thought that it was at all a weird thing to say, but Peter kind of stiffened. “Right, of course,” he said quickly, ducking his head. “Sorry.”

“No reason to be sorry,” Tony said, frowning. “Pete ––”

“I’m going to take a nap,” Peter said, and shuffled off down the hall before Tony could stop him. He wasn’t sure what he would have said, anyway. The kid insisted things were fine. But this definitely gave him evidence for his something’s up with Peter hypothesis.

Tony kind of understood why everyone had been skeptical when he’d decided to be a stay-at-home dad, but the truth was that he’d taken to it like a duck to water. Sure, it was gross and tedious and boring at times, but it was also awesome. Morgan still liked Pepper best a lot of the time –– Tony was lacking certain essential equipment that would have evened the playing field –– but he was okay with coming in a close second.

Pepper happened to have a break between her meetings, so they video chatted with her while Morgan ate her afternoon snack. She banged her spoon on the tray of her high chair and got rice-and-banana mash everywhere, including her hair. Eventually they had to hang up so Tony could clean her up.

It was about four o’clock by then. Time for some great outdoors, Tony supposed. He put a jacket on Morgan and put her in her carrier. He paused, glancing toward Peter’s room, wondering if he should wake him. But he’d looked exhausted. Maybe he really just needed some sleep.

In the end, Tony wrote him a note and left it in the middle of the table. Gone for a walk with Morgan. Back soon. Eat anything in the fridge or kitchen! –– Tony

There was a flat, shady path that circled the lake. Morgan waved her arms and kicked her feet, looking around in curiosity. “Yeah, you like this, Mongoose?” Tony said to her. “I do, too.” It would be nice to spend more time up here. He and Pepper were still debating on whether to do a true 50/50 split between here and the city, or whether they wanted to do something more like 60/40 or even 70/30 until Morgan got old enough for school. After that, they would probably have to move back full time, or close to it. At the moment, Tony was advocating for more time up here. Pepper was less convinced, but he thought he’d win her over eventually.

They spent about an hour wandering around outside. Tony kept up nonsensical commentary about the trees and the bugs and the birds that they saw, realizing as he did just how little he knew about any of it. He was going to have to learn some shit, obviously. He couldn’t just call a plant ‘the one with the white flowers that look like lace.’ Morgan was going to realize at some point that he was mostly making shit up as he went along, but he hoped to put that moment off for at least a decade or so.

The shadows had gotten a little bit longer by the time they headed back toward the house. He thought for sure Peter would be up, but he was nowhere to be found, and his note lay undisturbed in the middle of the table. Tony frowned, feeling a little put-out. He’d been looking forward to hanging out with Peter, and to Peter hanging out with Morgan. Was the kid really going to sleep the entire week away?

It was possible that he made a little more noise than was strictly necessary as he started making dinner, banging the pots and pans together as he threw together a quick spaghetti bolognese and salad. Morgan sat in her high chair with a fistful of Cheerios and a teething ring of plastic car keys, babbling. Cooking was something he’d loved when his mother was still alive that he’d rediscovered since Morgan was born, and he was looking forward to showing off a little to Peter. Even if it wasn’t the most complicated dinner ever, it was a far cry from “pizza or Chinese?”

The food was just about done when Peter finally stumbled out. He looked disoriented, as though he wasn’t sure where he was. His hair stuck up on one side, and there were pillow creases on his face. He’d obviously slept hard.

“Hey Pete,” Tony said. “Good nap?”

“I guess.” Peter dropped into one of the dining room chairs and put his head in his hands. “M’head still hurts.”

“I’m sorry, kid,” Tony said, surprised. “Do you have any of your painkillers with you?”

“Ran out.”

Tony frowned. “You ran out? Did you ask Happy to get more from you from the compound?”

Peter shrugged. “S’fine.”

“It’s not fine,” Tony said, bewildered. “It’s not fine for you to be in pain. And it’s not necessary, either. I’ll text Bruce tonight, he’ll have more for us in the morning. It’s not a big deal, but you have to tell someone that you’re out.”

Peter shrugged. He folded his arms and cradled his head in them.

Tony stared at him, confused. Why not tell someone he was out of painkillers? It didn’t make any sense.

Part of him wanted to keep poking at the problem. ‘Tinker until it’s fixed’ was the engineer’s motto. But he’d already learned that while that might make for good engineering, it didn’t always make for good parenting.

So he let it go. He turned back to the stove and finished the spaghetti. He gave Morgan a little bowl of buttered noodles with soft-cooked peas, and then dished up bowls of spaghetti for him and Peter. He put Peter’s bowl in front of him, along with a bowl of salad with tongs.

“I’m not very hungry,” Peter said, sitting up.

“Just a little,” Tony coaxed. “You won’t be helping your headache by letting your blood sugar tank.”

Peter sighed but started eating. Once he got past the first couple of bites, he seemed more enthusiastic. Satisfied, Toby dug into his own dinner.

“Good?” Tony asked after a minute or so of silence.

“Yeah, it is,” Peter said, sounding vaguely surprised. “Did you always know how to do this?”

“Somewhere in the back of my head, probably,” Tony said. “But having Morgan gave me the chance to get back into it. Even if she’s only eating noodles right now,” he added, making a face at her. She giggled and gave him a noodley grin.

“That’s nice,” Peter said. “My uncle and I used to cook together.”

Tony glanced back at him. It was rare for Peter to bring up his uncle at all. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Ben did almost all the cooking, and he used to let me help. His mac and cheese was legendary.”

“Well, as it so happens, mac and cheese is a huge hit with this one,” Tony said, using his thumb to indicate Morgan. “Any chance you might make it for us this week?”

Peter nodded. “Sure. I’ll have to see if May can send me the recipe, though, I don’t think I completely remember it.”

“Sounds good. Come on, Lady Morguna, some of those noodles need to go into your mouth, not on you or the floor.”

Morgan threw a handful of noodles on the floor. Then she laughed hysterically.

“She’s got kind of an evil sense of humor, doesn’t she?” Peter said, watching as Tony cleaned them up with a wet paper towel.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said loftily. “She is perfect in all ways, and definitely does not have any of my penchant for causing trouble.”

“Definitely not,” Peter agreed, lips quirking.

It was the first time since they’d arrived at the house Tony had seen him get anywhere near a smile. But then again, Morgan’s good moods were contagious. It was impossible to be sad if she was happy.

(Tony had to admit, if only to himself, that the inverse was also true: if Morgan was unhappy, then no one was happy.)

After dinner, Peter offered to clean up, while Tony took Morgan upstairs for her bath and bedtime ritual. It always took at least an hour, and sometimes much longer, but tonight she went down pretty easily. Tony was relieved; he’d thought they’d might have an issue because Pepper wasn’t there to nurse her. But she took the bottle easily and was asleep after only fifteen or twenty minutes of rocking.

Tony came downstairs to a clean kitchen and a deserted living room. He thought for a moment that Peter had gone back to his room, but then he realized that the porchlight was on. He got a beer from the fridge and went outside.

Peter was curled up on the porch swing with a mug in his hands, staring out at the water. The sun had gone down while Tony was upstairs with Morgan, but there was still a faint glow on the horizon. The air was very still. It had been spring the last time Tony was there, and still very cold. But now there was an early summer earthiness in the air, with the smell of green growing things and lake water.

“Mind if I join you?” Tony asked.

“It’s your house,” Peter said, moving his legs to make room.

Tony sat down. He pushed the swing back and forth slowly with his foot. “So what do you think so far?”

“I like it,” Peter said. “You’re right, it’s really quiet. I’m a city person, don’t get me wrong, but this is... this is really nice.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” Tony said. “Pepper was pretty skeptical at first, I think she thought I would get bored, but so far I haven’t. Not that we’ve had the chance to spend much time up here yet, but we will. She wants to start by splitting time evenly between here and the city, but that seems a waste of all the good summer weather.”

“Wait, what?” Peter said. “You’re... I didn’t realize you were going to move up there. I thought it was just a vacation house.”

“We’re thinking about it,” Tony said. “It seems like a good idea for us to raise Morgan a little further out of the public eye, at least until she’s ready for school. But nothing’s set in stone. This summer is sort of a trial run.”

“So you’re not going to be in the city this summer?”

“Probably not very much.” Tony glanced at him. Peter looked... well, gobsmacked was the only word that came to mind. “Pete? You okay, bud?”

“I’m fine,” Peter said quickly. He wrapped his arms around himself like he was cold.

“Are you sure? You look a little...”

“I said, I’m fine,” Peter snapped.

Tony was shocked into silence. He didn’t think Peter had ever snapped at him before.

Peter closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I just... I’m still not feeling very well, I guess. And I was kind of... I don’t know. Surprised that you’re leaving the city. What about Iron Man? And Stark Industries?”

Tony waved a hand. “We’re actually much closer to the compound up here than we are in the city. Plus, the new crew has a handle on things. They don’t need me all that much. I can still consult, and I won’t stop designing and building things for them. I’ll show you tomorrow where I want to set up the new workshop. As for SI, Pepper can pretty much run it from anywhere.”

“But what about...” Peter stopped.

“What?” Tony asked.

Peter shook his head. “Nothing,” he said quietly.

Tony frowned. “Come on, Peter, what about what?”

Peter swallowed. “What about Spiderman?”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “What about him? You’ve been doing great, Happy tells me.”

“Yeah, but –– never mind.” Peter stood up abruptly. “I’m going to bed.”

“Peter, wait,” Tony said. He didn’t know what to say next, only that every nascent parental instinct he had was telling him not to let Peter walk away.

“It’s fine,” Peter said. He had his arms crossed over his chest again, holding onto himself. “It’s a great house, of course it’s best for your family, it’s fine, it’s all fine, everything’s ––”

“Fine?” Tony supplied, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah. I’m just –– I’m just tired, that’s all. I’ll see you in the morning.”

With that, Peter went into the house and shut the door behind him.

“Shit,” Tony said aloud. That had gone off the rails so fast, he’d barely had time to react. It seemed obvious now that Peter would be surprised by the news that they were thinking of moving. Tony felt like an idiot for not breaking it to him a little more gently, or at least doing it in a way that assured him that he’d always be welcome here. He’d kind of thought that this visit would do that for him, but apparently not.

He desperately wanted to call Pepper and get her take on things, but it was the middle of the night in London. It’d have to wait until the morning. In the meantime, he supposed he might as well get to bed early. After a brutal sleep regression at five months, Morgan was basically sleeping through the night, but in a strange place all bets were off.

He’d talk to Peter about it in the morning, Tony decided as he drained the last of his beer, after Peter had had a good night’s sleep and was feeling better. That was the smart thing to do here.

He hoped.

***

Despite the new surroundings, Morgan did great overnight. She woke up once, but all Tony had to do was reach over into the co-sleeping bassinet to rub her back and she fell back to sleep. She was up early, though, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready for her first bottle, at just after six in the morning.

“Figures you’d be a morning person like your mother,” Tony sighed as he staggered downstairs with her in his arms.

“Buh-buh-buh-buh,” she replied, flailing her arms.

“Yes, I know you want your bottle. I have to heat it up.” And make coffee. So much coffee.

He set Morgan in her high chair with a handful of Cheerios to keep her busy, and put one of her bottles from the fridge into a bowl of warm water to bring it up to body temperature. He made coffee while he waited and tried not to fall asleep standing up. “FRI, is Peter up?” Tony asked, wondering if he could enlist the kid to come and entertain Morgan. It was early, but Peter had gone to bed early the night before.

“I don’t know, boss,” she said through the StarkWatch on his wrist.

Tony frowned. He hadn’t gotten around to wiring her into the house yet, but she should have been able to tell from the biometrics data in the kid’s own StarkWatch.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Peter removed his StarkWatch at 2:38 this morning. I haven’t had access to his data since then.”

This just got more and more confusing. “Why did he take his watch off?” Tony asked. He took the bottle out of the bowl and tested it on the inside of his wrist. It was ready.

“I can only hypothesize,” FRIDAY replied. “But it may have been because I said I would have to wake you if his temperature exceeded a certain threshold.”

“Wait, what?” Tony said, pausing in the middle of taking Morgan out of her high chair. “Jesus, FRIDAY, I feel like you’re seriously burying the lede this morning. How high was his temperature to begin with?”

“Buh-buh-buh-BAH!” Morgan yelled, whacking him with her tiny fist to get his attention. Tony straightened up and put the bottle in her mouth. She grabbed onto it, as she’d started doing lately –– very early, or so the books had said. Tony kept one finger on the bottom of it, so that it stayed up at a slight angle.

“A hundred and one point five,” FRIDAY said. “He was also in some physical distress. I tried to convince him to let me wake you, but he insisted that he was capable of taking care of himself. I told him that if his temperature reached a hundred and two, I would have no choice. That was when he removed his StarkWatch.”

“Goddammit,” Tony muttered. He looked down the hallway toward Peter’s room, then down at the baby in his arms. He couldn’t just let her feed herself, and he couldn’t stop feeding her now that she had her bottle. He was going to have to wait to check on Peter.

Fortunately, Morgan was a good eater and chugged down her milk pretty fast. Tony burped her, then stuck her in her Pack-N-Play. She looked up at him, seeming vaguely surprised, while he made sure she had her favorite stuffed animal, a cold teething ring, and the baby keyboard that lit up and made noises –– a gift from her Uncle Rhodey, who clearly wanted to torture Tony. “Please don’t cry,” he told her. “For the next ten minutes. Please, please don’t cry.”

She banged on the keyboard and laughed. “Exactly. Just like that,” Tony said, and bolted down the hallway to check on his other kid.

He knocked on the door. “Peter?” He waited a few seconds, but there was no response. He eased the door open and stuck his head inside. The bed was disheveled, but Peter wasn’t in it. The room smelled sour and sick. Tony wrinkled his nose, but after six months of dealing with Morgan’s bodily fluids –– not to mention Pepper’s morning sickness before that –– there wasn’t much that threw him for a loop.

The light in the ensuite bathroom was on. Tony headed there next, frowning as he noticed that Peter’s bag was still sitting on the desk in the corner. He hadn’t bothered to unpack or put any of his things in the dresser or the closet, even though they were going to be here for over a week.

He rapped lightly at the door frame. “Pete?” he said, nudging the door open. “Oh shit.”

If the bedroom had smelled sour and sick, the bathroom just smelled like straight-up puke. Peter was lying on the bathroom floor, a scrunched-up towel under his head serving as a pillow. His eyes were closed, and he hadn’t moved in response to Tony calling his name. His face was pale, his t-shirt soaked through with fever sweat.

Tony swore again and crouched down next to Peter. “Kid? Hey, kid, wake up.” He shook Peter’s shoulder lightly, then pressed the backs of his fingers to Peter’s forehead. He was burning up. “Pete, come on. Open your eyes.”

Peter twitched and groaned. “M’ssr Stark?” he slurred.

“That’s me, even though I keep telling you to call me ‘Tony.’ Can you open your eyes?”

Peter shook his head. “Lights. Hurt.”

Tony reached up and turned the overhead lights off. “Better?”

“Yeah.” Peter cracked his eyes open.

“There you are,” Tony said, relieved. He sat back on his heels. “Jesus, kid, why didn’t you have FRIDAY wake me up?”

“M’fine,” Peter mumbled, trying to shove himself upright. He groaned, one hand stealing to his stomach.

“Uh, no, you’re not,” Tony said, reaching to help him. Peter shrugged his hand off. “Come on, let me help you to your bed. We need to get some fluids into you.”

“M’fine, I can do it.” Peter grabbed onto the side of the bathtub and tried to haul himself up.

“I’m sure you can,” Tony replied, even though he was sure of no such thing. Peter looked like a stiff breeze would blow him right over. He couldn’t seem to get his feet under him. “But you don’t have to, because I’m right here.” He put a hand under Peter’s elbow, preparing to help him up.

Peter jerked away. “I don’t want your help.”

Stung, Tony pulled back. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t need it,” Peter snapped. He managed to push himself to his feet using the bathtub, and then he grabbed for the wall. With his free hand, he pressed against his forehead. “I don’t need you. I can take care of myself.”

Tony got to his feet, ignoring the way his joints popped. “Pete, you’re sick. You need help.”

“M’fine. You’ve got Morgan to take care of, don’t you?” Peter took an unsteady step toward the bedroom.

Tony hovered, trying not to look like that was what he was doing. “Yeah, but ––”

“So take care of her.” Peter made it the short distance to the bed and collapsed onto it. “She needs you. I don’t.” He rolled over so his back was to Tony.

“You can’t go to sleep without drinking something,” Tony argued. The expert that he and Pepper had brought in for private parenting classes had been very clear about the dangers of dehydration. “We’ve got ginger ale and Sprite. Not sure if I saw any Gatorade in there, but I think we might also have some Pedialyte.”

Peter looked like he was on the verge of arguing that he could get it himself. But in the end he caved. “Ginger ale,” he muttered.

“Okay.” Tony said, relieved. “I’ll be right back with that.”

He hurried back to the kitchen. Morgan was still happily rolling around in her Pack-N-Play, chewing gummily on the teething toy he’d given her. Tony grabbed a ginger ale out of the fridge, along with a packet of crackers, and headed back to Peter’s room.

Peter had made some effort to get under the covers, but he hadn’t gotten very far. Tony cracked the ginger ale open and handed it to him; the sleeve of crackers he placed on the nightstand, within easy reach if Peter wanted them. Then he started trying to straighten out the blankets so he’d be more comfortable.

“Stop it,” Peter said peevishly. “I told you, I’m ––”

“Fine, yes, I know,” Tony replied, undeterred. He managed to get the kid’s comforter out from underneath him. “You keep saying that, but I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

“What do you know, anyway?” Peter muttered.

Tony threw his hands up. “Pete, I’m trying to help, but you’re not making it easy.”

“Because I told you,” Peter snapped. “I don’t want your help. I don’t need you. You’re Morgan’s dad, not mine.”

His voice broke at the end of the sentence. He turned his face away, but not before Tony saw his eyes fill with tears.

“Pete...” Tony said weakly, at a loss.

“Please go away,” Peter managed, his voice thick with tears. He wouldn’t look at Tony. “Please, just... just leave me alone, all right?”

“Okay,” Tony said, not wanting to argue anymore. “I won’t insist on being here if you don’t want me. But I need you to wear your StarkWatch, all right? Just in case. Where is it?”

Peter sniffled. “In the bathroom. On the floor.”

Tony poked around in the bathroom until he found it hiding under a towel. He handed it to Peter and stood there until he’d put it on. “If you need anything, just ask FRIDAY, all right? I won’t be far.”

Peter nodded. Tony couldn’t resist the urge to lean down and straighten his covers one last time. Peter didn’t say anything. He wouldn’t look at Tony at all.

“Feel better, Pete,” Tony finally said, and left, pulling the door shut behind him.

Morgan shrieked when she saw him, raising her arms to be picked up. Tony detoured briefly to the kitchen to wash his hands thoroughly before acceding to her demands. He settled her on his hip and let her pull at his facial hair while he paced the living room.

“I knew something was going on with Peter,” he told her. “Your mama said it was all in my head, but I knew something was going on.” Pepper didn’t know Peter as well as Tony did, after all. She was a Morgan-expert, but Tony had gotten pretty close to being a Peter-expert, before. He still didn’t quite understand it, though. Peter had never shoved him away like that. If anything, the kid had constantly been finding ways to tunnel under and rappel over the walls Tony had constructed to keep everyone out.

He needed another Peter-expert, Tony thought. And there was really only one of those.

Tony grimaced. May Parker still scared the hell out of him. She’d never really forgiven him for the Germany thing, or for helping Peter lie to her. He hadn’t talked to her much in the last six months, but she’d agreed readily to Peter coming to stay the week at the lake house, so maybe she’d take pity on him about this.

It was only 7:30 in the morning –– not a civilized time to call anyone, usually, but May worked odd hours. She’d sent Tony her schedule for the week, so that he and Peter would both know when she was available. Tony pulled it up on his phone and saw that she’d finished a shift an hour earlier. She was probably just getting home.

“FRI, call May Parker for me, would you?” Tony said. “Send it to my bluetooth.” He sat down on the floor by the sofa and started unpacking a bag full of colorful blocks for Morgan to mess around with. She was too young to really build things yet, but she liked banging them together, and she really liked knocking over things that other people built.

“Sure thing, boss.”

May picked up on the third ring. “Stark,” she greeted him.

“Parker,” he returned.

He could almost hear her rolling her eyes. “What’s going on? Is everything all right with Peter?”

“Well, he’s still in one piece,” Tony said. “But he’s kind of sick. He had a headache yesterday, and now he’s running a fever and living on ginger ale and crackers.”

May sighed. “That happens sometimes when he’s not getting enough rest. He gets some time off and just kind of crumbles. It’s usually pretty short-lived. He should be fine by tomorrow.” She paused. “Unless you’re calling because you want me to come and get him.”

“No, no,” Tony said hastily. “Not unless he wants you to. It’s just... I feel like there’s something else going on with him. I know he wasn’t feeling well, but even before yesterday, I felt like he’d been distant. Moody. Is there something going on I should know about?”

May was quiet for a moment. Then she sighed. “Tony, did you ever talk to Peter about Happy handling his Spiderman calls after Pepper had the baby?”

“I did,” Tony said, blinking. May didn’t say anything. Tony thought about it harder and realized he didn’t actually remember the conversation. “I must have. I did, didn’t I? He was coming over for our last lab session before the due date, and he was going to stay the night. I was going to talk to him about it the next morning over breakfast. But then... oh shit. But then Pepper’s water broke that afternoon, a week early, and we canceled the lab session, and I never –– oh my God, I never talked to him about it.”

“No, you didn't,” May said flatly. “You left him a message saying that your lab session was off because Pepper was in labor. That night Peter called Happy to check in after patrol, figuring you wouldn’t be available, and he told Peter that he’d be handling all his Spiderman calls from then on.”

“Oh God,” Tony said, closing his eyes. “Please tell me that Happy was sensitive about it.”

May snorted. “I like Happy, all right? He seems like a good guy, and I can tell that deep down, he likes Peter. But no, he wasn’t terribly sensitive about it. He told Peter not to bother you, that you had other things to think about. And Peter being Peter, he internalized that faster than you can say ‘abandonment issues.’”

Morgan whacked Tony in the thigh with a block. He looked down at her, and she pouted up at him, obviously dissatisfied by the amount of attention he was paying to her. He started building a tower she could knock down. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” he asked May.

“Because Peter didn’t want me to. He didn’t want me to stick my nose in. And even though I’ve never been the parent of a newborn myself, I see a lot of them in the NICU, and I know that you tend to have tunnel-vision those first few months. So I was willing to cut you some slack.”

Morgan knocked down the tower Tony had built and shrieked with laughter. She grabbed two blocks and started knocking them together. “But?” Tony prompted.

“But, it’s been six months. I was hoping that this trip meant that you’d started to pay attention to things other than your kid and your wife again. But let me make one thing crystal clear to you.” She paused.

“I’m listening,” Tony said.

“If you want to be in Peter’s life, you need to commit to it. You can’t do it only when it’s convenient for you. He’s had too many people leave him, starting with his parents. What happened when Morgan was born pushed every single one of his buttons. I’ve been dealing with the fallout from that for the last six months. You get one more shot at this. I don’t think he’d forgive you again, and I know I wouldn’t. Capiche?”

Tony cringed, thinking of the conversation they’d had the night before. Peter had already been feeling abandoned, and then Tony just blurted out that they were moving, like it was nothing. “Capiche.”

“Good.”

“Any advice? He doesn’t want me around at all, it seems like.”

“He’s lying through his teeth,” May said. “He’s just afraid of getting hurt, that’s all. You’re going to have to work to win back some of his trust. How you do that is up to you.”

“Right,” Tony sighed. “Okay.”

“Good luck,” May said. “Call again if you need to. And have him call me at some point, all right? He knows my schedule.”

“Will do. Thanks, May.”

Tony disconnected, then sat looking at Morgan. He built her a tiny tower, and she knocked it over again, gleeful in her destruction. How was he going to do this with Morgan around? He couldn’t responsibly put the two of them in the same room together as long as Peter was sick, and he couldn’t just stick Morgan in her Pack-N-Play for long stretches. Jesus, how did parents of multiple children do it, anyway? It would be one thing if Pepper was there, but she wasn’t.

As though he’d managed to summon her, his phone buzzed with a text from Pepper. How are things? I miss you two.

Tony started to try and type everything out, and then just gave up and called her. “I’m a disaster parent,” he told her as soon as she picked up.

“I don’t think that’s true,” she replied, sounding amused, “but go ahead and elaborate.”

“I never talked to Peter about Happy taking over his Spiderman calls again,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his face, “and apparently that triggered all kinds of issues for him. And last night I blurted out that we were thinking about moving, and he got really upset, and now he’s sick as a dog but he keeps insisting he doesn’t need me. I’ve got Morgan, and I can’t have her around him, so I genuinely don’t know what to do. What do I do, Pep?”

“Slow down, honey,” Pepper said. “This does sound like a bit of a mess, but I’m sure we can figure things out. What do you need to do to make things right with Peter?”

Tony had to stop and think about that for a second. It was obvious but also, at the moment, logistically difficult. “I need to be there for him. He says he doesn't want me around, but May says he’s just afraid of getting hurt again. I need to be able to look after him until he’s feeling better, and I need to... I need to apologize for fucking up so badly when Morgan was born.”

“And in order to do that, what do you need?”

“Someone to keep an eye on Morgan.” Tony chewed on his lip, thinking. “Rhodey’s at the compound this weekend, I think. Natasha, too. Either of them could probably come up and look after Morgan while I take care of Peter.”

“There you go,” Pepper said. “See? Not a disaster parent at all.”

“I don’t know,” Tony said, slumping down. He picked up Morgan and set her on his chest. She immediately cuddled close, laying her head on his shoulder. “I feel like the stuff with Peter is pretty bad. I meant to talk to him, Pep, I swear, but then Morgan came a week early and I just –– I didn’t do it. I can’t believe I didn’t do it.”

“It was a mistake, Tony,” Pepper said quietly. “A bad mistake, even, but still a mistake. And if you apologize to Peter and reassure him that it doesn’t mean you stopped caring about him, I’m sure things will be okay. It might just take some time.”

“Yeah,” Tony said morosely. He heaved a sigh. “All right. I’m going to call Rhodey and see if he can come watch Morgan.”

“Okay. And, honey? Even very good parents screw up on occasion. Because all parents are human.”

“Right. Thanks. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Pepper hung up. Tony looked at Morgan. “Well, what do you think, Mongoose? Want to see if your Uncle Rhodey or Aunt Tasha can come play with you?”

“Tah-tah-tah-tah,” she said, kicking her feet.

“Great,” he said, shifting her up to his shoulder so he could stand up again. “FRIDAY, get me Rhodey.”

***

Fortunately, both Rhodey and Natasha were available and more than willing to come watch Morgan while Tony took care of Peter. It took them about forty-five minutes to get to the lake house from the compound. Tony spent most of that time playing blocks with Morgan until she got bored, and then they switched to reading books. By the time they arrived, she was almost ready for her nap.

“The bottles are here,” Tony said, opening the fridge. “Rhodey knows how to warm them up. She’ll probably fall asleep while she’s eating, but still try to burp her.”

“We got this, Tones,” Rhodey said, waving him off. He already had Morgan in his arms and was swaying gently back and forth. Rhodey had six nieces and two nephews and was old hat at putting babies to bed. “Go check on Peter.”

“I’ll put on some ginger tea,” Natasha said, moving toward the stove. “You can take it to him later. And don’t forget his painkillers.”

“Thanks,” Tony said, scooping the bottle of pills off the table. He hesitated again, ever so briefly, but in the end, he grabbed another bottle of ginger ale out of the fridge and headed down the hall to Peter’s room. FRIDAY had said he wasn’t asleep, and his temperature was hovering at around a hundred and two –– hardly life threatening, but still really uncomfortable.

“Pete?” Tony said, knocking lightly. He opened the door slightly. “Can I come in?”

Peter grunted. Tony decided to take it as an invitation. He let himself in and closed the door behind him. “Mind if I open the window to let in some fresh air?” he asked.

“I guess,” Peter said sullenly.

Tony set the ginger ale and Peter’s painkillers on the nightstand and opened the window, though he kept the blinds mostly shut. Then he sat on the edge of Peter’s bed. Peter was curled up facing him, clutching a pillow in his arms, but he wasn’t looking at Tony.

“So,” Tony said. “How much of everything did you hear?”

“I heard you call May,” Peter mumbled. “And Pepper. And now Natasha and Rhodey are here.”

“Right.” Tony should have known better than to do all of that in the living room. “Pete, I owe you a huge apology.”

Peter’s shoulders hunched up around his ears. “No, you don’t. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just stupid.”

“You aren’t stupid,” Tony said, reaching out to put his hand on Peter’s shoulder. Peter didn’t immediately throw him off, so he tightened his grip, squeezing a little, trying to get him to loosen up a bit. “You’re the furthest thing from stupid. I just... I fucked up. I was so scared about screwing things up with Morgan that I screwed things up with you. I am so fucking sorry.”

Peter swallowed. “I’m not your kid. You’re not my dad.”

“No, I’m not.” Tony took a deep breath, feeling his palms start to sweat. “But, kid, you have to know that before I met you, I never thought about being a parent much at all. It was knowing you, being around you, that made me think I could do it. So I’m not your dad or your uncle. I couldn’t replace either of them even if I wanted to. But that doesn’t mean that our relationship doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t...” God, this was hard. Why was this so hard? He said these words to Morgan every day. “It doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

Peter didn’t answer, but his eyes welled up. Tears slipped down his face, and he didn’t even bother to wipe them away.

“Jeez, I’m sorry for laying all of this on you when you’re not feeling well,” Tony said. “Let’s get some more fluids into you, all right?”

This time, Peter let Tony help him sit up. He still wouldn’t look at him, but he didn’t flinch away when Tony touched him. And when Tony handed him the bottle of ginger ale, he took it and sipped at it. Tony offered him one of his pills, and he swallowed it without complaint. “How are you feeling?” Tony asked.

Peter wiped his eyes. “Like shit.” Tony handed him a tissue. “Thanks.” He blew his nose, then let his head fall back to rest against the headboard. “You really didn’t do anything wrong. You and Ms. Potts had a baby. It’s not your fault I’m a mess. It just... it really sucked when Happy told me that I couldn’t call you anymore.”

“Pete, I never, ever intended for you to think you couldn’t call me anymore,” Tony said. “Is that really what Happy told you?”

“I dunno,” Peter said with a one-shouldered shrug. “Maybe not. May kept telling me that wasn’t true, but it was what I heard. And then, you called me again, but it was always for Spiderman stuff, and you never asked if I wanted to stay over or watch a movie or do any of the stuff we used to, and I thought...” Peter’s voice cracked. He drew a wobbly breath. “I thought you just didn’t need me anymore, now that you had Morgan. You had your real kid, and I was always just a place-holder.”

He started sobbing, the kind of tears that Pepper called “ugly crying.” Tony felt his heart clench, the same feeling he’d had when Morgan had had her first ear infection and was in so much pain, and he couldn’t stop it. The difference was that in this case, Tony had caused it.

“Pete, I’m so sorry,” Tony said, shifting closer to him on the bed. “Can I hug you?”

Peter nodded shakily, and Tony pulled him into his arms. The kid was uncomfortably hot in his arms, pressing his face into Tony’s neck. “It’s okay,” Tony murmured, rocking them slowly back and forth. “Everything’s going to be okay. I make a lot of mistakes, but I’m pretty good at learning from them at this point. I’m very trainable, just ask Pepper.”

Peter laughed weakly. He turned his head to the side. “I heard you tell Ms. Potts you were a disaster parent. That’s not true.”

“Mmm, jury’s still out.” Tony pulled away, but he didn’t let go of Peter. He did get him another tissue. “Tell you what. You drink that ginger ale, and let’s put on a movie or a show or something. I’ll watch anything you want, even Star Wars.

Peter nodded. “I’d like that. And Morgan’s really okay with Rhodey and Natasha?”

“Yes,” Tony said firmly. “I mean, Rhodey’s probably telling her terrible stories about me, and Natasha might be training her to be a secret baby assassin, but I’m reasonably confident they can keep her alive for a few hours.”

Peter smiled weakly. “Okay.”

“Scoot over.” Tony kicked his shoes off and climbed onto the bed. He leaned against the headboard, and Peter leaned against him, just like he used to on movie nights. Tony put his arm around his shoulders. “Comfy?”

“Yeah.” Peter sniffled. “I’m really tired. Not sure how long I’m going to last.”

“That’s okay, kiddo, you had a rough night.” Tony paused, holding the remote control in his hand. “But before you conk out, I just want to say –– you were never a place holder, Pete. Never. I know I’ve been kind of oblivious, but I really want Morgan to grow up knowing you as her older brother. If that’s okay with you.”

“It’s super okay with me,” Peter said, knocking his head against Tony’s shoulder.

“What do you want to watch?”

Peter shrugged. “Queer Eye? I know it’s not really your thing.”

“Hey, after the last six months, a bunch of stuff that was ‘not really my thing’ is suddenly very definitely my thing,” Tony said, using the remote to find the show on Netflix. “People can change. Any particular episode?”

“Nah, just pick one.” Peter yawned and slouched down so that he was basically lying down. “I’m gonna fall asleep.”

“Okay.” Tony picked a random episode. He hesitated, then rested his hand on Peter’s back. Peter went still for a moment, and then relaxed. Tony started rubbing circles on Peter’s back, the same way he did for Morgan when he was trying to get her to go back to sleep. Peter made a sort of humming noise, almost like a cat purring. “This okay?” Tony asked.

“Yeah. S’what May does, too,” Peter mumbled, face half-smashed into the pillow. He took a deep breath and his whole body relaxed.

Tony kept up the soothing sweep of his hand, back and forth across Peter’s back, while half-watching the TV. “Go to sleep, kiddo,” he murmured. “I’ve got you.”

Peter curled closer, head coming to rest against Tony’s hip, and fell asleep.

***

Peter slept most of the day. Tony stayed until he was sure that he was well and truly out, and then he turned off the TV and crept out of the room. He kept a close eye on his temperature via FRIDAY while he made chicken soup and hung out with Rhodey and Nat and Morgan in the living room.

By the time the two of them headed back to the compound in the late afternoon, Peter’s fever had just about broken. His stats indicated that he was on the mend, though Tony supposed the real test would be when he woke up.

He finally shuffled into the kitchen. Tony was reheating soup on the stove with one hand and holding Morgan with the other.

“Hey, it lives,” Tony greeted him.

“Yeah, kind of,” Peter said, rubbing his eyes.

“Nat made you some ginger tea. It’s in the fridge, but we can heat it up. Or you could mix it with Sprite or ginger ale and it’d probably be pretty good cold.”

“I’m gonna do that,” Peter said, going to the fridge. “Did you make chicken soup?”

“I did, from a real chicken, even. It’s just about ready. You want some?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Peter sat down at the table with his drink in front of him.

Tony put Morgan in her high chair. He hesitated briefly about having them so close together, but Peter’s bug appeared to have been short-lived. It was probably a bit late to worry about exposing Morgan anyway, what with them all having driven up in the same car together. He’d managed to keep them apart during the worst of it, but at this point he just had to hope that Peter wasn’t contagious, if he ever had been.

“What about you, Mo?” Peter asked her. “How was your day?”

“Doh!” she exclaimed, and held out a handful of Cheerios to him.

“Thanks,” Peter said, accepting them. Morgan looked at him expectantly. “Uh...”

“You don’t have to eat them,” Tony said with a laugh.

“Eh, it’s fine. I eat hot dogs form random carts all the time.” He shoved them in his mouth. “Om nom nom,” he said, chewing dramatically. Morgan shrieked with laughter.

“You’re a big hit, kid,” Tony said. He ladeled soup into two bowls and brought them over to the table. He put a bowl of mashed up peas and carrots and macaroni in front of Morgan, and started spooning them up and feeding them to her. Every few bites he’d take a bite of his own dinner. “How are you feeling? Your fever’s almost gone, according to FRIDAY.”

“I feel way better. Could still sleep for about twelve hours, though.”

“Well, you’ll get some good sleep tonight. Actually, I was thinking.” Tony paused while he got Morgan to take another bite. Most of it spilled back out again, but some of it stayed in her mouth. He hoped. “Why don’t we move you upstairs? I’d rather have you close by.”

Peter didn’t answer right away. “I feel like I should say no,” he finally said. “I’m feeling better. I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of last night.”

“Do you want to say no?” Tony asked.

“...no.”

“Then say yes. You can always move back downstairs once you’re feeling better.”

Peter nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” He ate a spoonful of soup. “This is really good, by the way.”

Tony tried not to preen, but he suspected he didn’t succeed. “Thanks. You seem like your appetite is back.”

“Yeah.” Peter winced. “Might be a while before I eat spaghetti bolognese again, though.”

Tony grimaced in sympathy. “Oof, yeah, I can imagine.”

After dinner, Peter tried to get Tony to let him do the dishes again, but Tony shooed him off to the living room with instructions to choose a movie for them to watch. He put the dishes in the sink to soak, and then took Morgan upstairs for her bath and bedtime. She was a little fussier tonight, but Tony knew better than to panic by now. He broke out the white noise machine and sat with her in the rocking chair until she stopped fighting how tired she was and conked out with her head resting on his shoulder.

And now came the tricky part: the transfer. Tony got smoothly to his feet and walked her very carefully over to the bassinet. One hand on the back of her head, he laid her down. She stirred briefly, fingers flexing, then settled. Tony breathed a sigh of relief and tip-toed out, baby monitor in hand.

To his surprise, he found Peter in the hallway. “Hey,” Peter said, a little awkwardly. “Sorry, I thought I’d bring some of my stuff up, but then I realized I didn’t know which room you wanted me to use.”

“I thought this one,” Tony said, opening the door to the third bedroom, which wasn’t directly connected to the one he and Morgan were using. “There’s no ensuite, but you can use the bathroom across the hall.”

“Thanks,” Peter said, setting his backpack down. He sat down heavily on the bed. “I can’t believe how wiped out I still feel.”

“Just how little sleep were you getting?” Tony asked, frowning at him.

Peter shrugged. “Not enough, I guess. I was, um. I was kind of messed up about everything.”

Tony sat down on the bed beside Peter. “I’m sorry, kiddo. I really am.”

Peter was quiet for a moment. “Do you really want to move up here?” he finally asked, in a very small voice.

Tony hesitated. “I don’t know. It’s tempting. Being a kid in the public eye is really hard. I want to spare Morgan that, if I can. But that isn’t the only factor. How do you feel about it?”

Peter shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s your family ––”

“Peter,” Tony said firmly, turning to look at him. “You’re also part of my family. How do you feel about it?”

“Not great,” Peter admitted, averting his eyes, “I know you’re kind of semi-retired now, but I always felt better, knowing I had you as back-up if I needed it. Knowing you’d be there if I got hurt, or got in over my head. I’m sorry I freaked out about it last night,” he added. His voice sounded a little rough. “I just thought... I thought when you invited me up here that maybe things were finally going to be normal again. But then you told me you were moving, and I just... I didn’t know what to say.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “That was not my finest moment. I should have known better. I’m sorry for springing it on you. I don’t want you to feel like you don’t have back-up, or that I won’t be there if you need me.”

“It’s not just the Spiderman stuff,” Peter admitted, as though it was some great secret. “I could get used to coming up here to see you, I guess, but it’s not the same as having you in the city. I’d miss you.”

“I’d miss you, too.” Tony put his hand on the back of Peter’s neck. “We’re going to figure this out, kid, I promise you. Whether that’s you spending every other weekend up here, or me coming down to the city a couple times a week. Pepper isn’t super gungho about the idea of being up here full time anyway, especially in the winter. We’ll figure it out.”

Peter looked up at him. “Really?”

“Really, kid,” Tony said. He pulled Peter in for a hug. Peter clung back, pressing his face into Tony’s shoulder. “Now,” Tony said, pulling away. “Very important question. Did you pick a movie?”

“I did, but I’m kind of exhausted,” Peter said with a sigh. “I think I’m going to pass out in about twenty minutes.”

“Tell you what,” Tony said. “Why don’t you put your pajamas on and get ready for bed? We can watch a movie here. That way, if you pass out, you pass out in a bed.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, sounding relieved. “That sounds good.”

Tony went downstairs while Peter was changing, because he couldn’t remember if he’d locked the front door. He caught sight of the dishes in the sink and very, very briefly thought about doing them, before deciding that was a problem for the morning. He got a ginger ale for Peter and a beer for himself from the fridge, turned the lights in the kitchen off, and trudged back upstairs.

Peter was tucked up in bed, wearing a Midtown Tech sweatshirt despite the warmth of the early summer evening. He was scrolling through the streaming options on the TV. Tony settled on the empty half of the bed and handed Peter his ginger ale. “What did you pick?” Tony asked.

Princess Bride,” Peter said, landing on it.

“A classic. Think you’ll last until Buttercup’s kidnapping?”

“Unlikely.” Peter hesitated, then slowly rested his head on Tony’s shoulder.

Tony put his arm around Peter’s shoulders, pulling him in. Peter relaxed against him, just as trusting as he had been that morning in the throes of his fever.

“G’night, T’ny...” Peter mumbled.

“Good night, kid,” Tony whispered back, sweeping his thumb back and forth across Peter’s shoulder.

He wasn’t Peter’s dad but damn if it didn’t feel like he was in that moment. He felt the same warm glow of satisfaction he did when Morgan fell asleep on him. He’d missed that somehow, before, or maybe he just hadn’t been ready to recognize it. But now –– now, he was ready. He wasn’t going to miss it again.

Fin.