It’s a normal Friday afternoon, or as normal as Peter’s life gets now that he’s declined an offer to join the Avengers (for now) but still regularly hangs out with Tony Stark. In fact, that’s where he is right now: sitting in Tony’s lab, supposedly working on the last of his chemistry homework, while Tony chases Dummy around and tries to get the ‘bot to sit still long enough for a ‘quick and painless’ upgrade. Dummy’s having none of it.
Forget homework, though. Peter can’t concentrate. Even the sight of Dummy getting a hold of a fire extinguisher and pointing it threateningly in Tony’s direction fails to make him smile. He’s too preoccupied by a thought has been gnawing at the back of his mind for the past several weeks, if not months. He’s tried to ignore it, but it’s like a sore tooth: he can’t stop poking at it.
“Mr. Stark?” he says, dropping his gaze to his chemistry book. It seems like a safer thing to look at.
“Yeah?” Tony says, sounding somewhat distracted. He’s wrestling the extinguisher out of Dummy’s claw, so fair. Besides, Peter immediately wishes he hadn’t said anything. This is something he’s deliberately avoided bringing up with Aunt May, and he can’t really fathom talking about with Tony either.
“Nothing,” Peter mutters.
“That didn’t sound like a nothing. It sounded like a something.” Tony exhales loudly, points a victorious finger in Dummy’s camera, and strolls back to the table. He sets the extinguisher out of Dummy’s reach and throws himself into a chair, obnoxiously putting his bare feet up on top of Peter’s books. Peter lifts his head and glares, but Tony just grins at him.
“It’s just… what does it mean when you’re happy that a girl moved away?”
“A girl… you mean like someone bullying you?” Some of the amusement drains out of Tony’s face, replaced by something more serious that makes Peter’s stomach flip.
“No, no. I mean, she was popular, but she wasn’t a bully. She was nice.” Nice enough that Peter thought he might be able to date her. Nice enough that he’d asked her to the dance, though obviously that had gone sideways. Nice enough that she didn’t deserve Peter not being able to act sad about their ruined night.
“Okay,” Tony says slowly. “I’m a little confused. Why would you be glad she moved away?”
“I asked her out to the dance and she said yes,” Peter says, eyes still fixed on what he can see of his book. Even with Tony’s feet in the way, it’s a safer target.
“Still confused, buddy. Did you decide you didn’t like her? It is easier when outside circumstances end things –”
“No, I don’t think I ever liked her,” Peter blurts out, maybe a little too fast. “She was just, she was nice and everyone seemed to think she was pretty and… and sometimes I don’t think I’ve ever liked anyone the way everyone else does, but she was a safe target until she said yes. I know what happens after dances and I didn’t want –” He cuts off the rambling by snapping his mouth shut, but he feels like he’s already said way too much.
“Peter.” Tony’s feet disappear as Tony sits straight up in his chair.
Yeah, no. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have – it’s late, I have to go.” Peter leaps up, deeply regretting that he said anything to begin with. “Aunt May’s making tacos tonight.”
Peter has no intention of waiting. He grabs his books, grabs his backpack, and legs it out of the room. Tony could stop him if he wanted to, they both know that: the only way out of Tony’s workshop that Peter knows of is to go through the elevator, which FRIDAY controls. He holds his breath the whole way up, half-expecting the elevator to lurch to a stop or suddenly reverse its trajectory and head back down to the workshop. He feels both relief and, unexpectedly, a little bit of disappointment when the doors open on the main floor.
He takes the subway home and vows never to bring up the subject with anyone ever again. He can’t believe he brought it up with Tony in the first place. That’s way crossing over the lines of whatever it is he and Tony have. A mutual love of science? Tony’s pride in everything that Peter geeks over? A billionaire taking pity on a poor high school student? Whatever you want to call it, Peter’s taken it a step too far.
He deliberately avoids visiting the tower for the next couple of weeks, pretending that he’s just so slammed with school work and patrols that he can’t go. In reality, he’s hoping that Tony will have forgotten all about their weird conversation by the time they meet up again. That hope dies a quick death the night that Peter is sitting on a rooftop, watching the stars while being pathetically grateful for the heater in his suit, and the Iron Man armor lands four feet away.
“So,” Tony says, the armor opening and allowing him to step out. “Let me tell you a story.”
“A story?” Peter says warily, eyeing him. “I’m a little old for stories.”
“Humor me. It’s a story about a dumb kid who had a lot of sex.”
“Sounds like a pretty typical story. I’ve probably heard it before.” Peter goes to get up, but Tony’s hand clamps down on his shoulder. He looks up into Tony’s unusually reserved expression.
“Peter. Please. Give me five minutes.”
“… Five minutes,” Peter concedes, because he owes Tony at least that much. Tony sits down next to him, apparently not cold even though he’s only wearing a dark blue suit jacket, and looks out at the city rather than at Peter.
“When I went to MIT, I was young. I know that sounds like bragging, but it’s not. I was twelve years old and legitimately out of my depths. Thank god for Rhodey, he was my boat and kept me from drowning.” Tony sighs, breath visible on the wind. “Anyway. Obviously I didn’t start having sex until everything was nice and legal. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
“Okay,” Peter says slowly, still not sure where this was going.
“I never really wanted to have sex.”
“It was just something that everyone else did, so I figured I should do it too. And it was… it was okay. It wasn’t bad or anything like that. It felt nice and it made people like me and it pissed my father off so I did it a lot. A lot,” he adds for extra emphasis, grimacing. “There are some sex tapes out there that I will kindly ask you to never look up.”
“I promise,” Peter says immediately. He has zero interest in looking at Tony’s sex tapes. Ew. That would be like watching Aunt May have sex.
“Good. Anyway, I thought for a while that maybe I was gay. Or bisexual. I could look at a man or woman and see that they were attractive, so it made sense. I just never felt attracted to anyone. I didn’t really know there was a difference until I was talking to Rhodey once. He was head over heels for this woman in his troop, like really gone on her. I was listening to him talk about her, and I realized I’d never felt any of the things he was talking about. Romantically or sexually. And I never have.”
Peter turns to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“There’s this thing called asexuality,” Tony says, stuttering slightly on that last word. “It means you don’t feel sexual attraction to anyone. Pepper’s the one who told me about it, actually.”
“She’s asexual too.”
Peter feels like he’s missing a lot of information in this conversation. “Wait, what? You and Ms. Potts dated for like two years.”
Tony nods. “That we did. I was convinced there was something wrong with me for the longest time. Then this lovely redhead walked into my office and told me that she was my new personal assistant and that she was asexual, so if I hit on her I’d regret it.” He smiles to himself, the same secret smile he seems to wear a lot around Pepper. “I was baffled and enlightened all in the same conversation.”
“But you guys dated,” Peter says again.
“We were friends, Pete. Close friends. People expected it of us. And Pepper wasn’t interested in dating anyone at the time, so it was an easy cover for the both of us. Kept us both officially off the market and meant we had dates for everything. I needed that.”
“You’re not dating anymore, though.”
“No. Pepper fell in love with Happy and I was happy to step aside. I couldn’t give her that, and she wanted it.”
Peter looks at him. “Give her what?”
“That kind of love. I’m aromantic, too. That means I don’t get crushes or fall in love with people.”
“Wait. So… wait.” Peter pulls his mask off so that he can better see Tony. The mask has crystal clear vision so it’s a little silly, but the wind feels good against his hot face. “You’re… asexual. And aromantic.” The unfamiliar words taste funny. “Pepper’s asexual. And that’s…”
“I know it’s weird,” Tony says, finally looking back at Peter. He looks old and tired in the moonlight. “The only people who know about me are Happy, Pepper and Rhodey. I’m not sure who else knows about Pepper, but I’ve talked to her a lot and she gave me permission to tell you provided that you promise not to repeat this information to anyone.”
“I won’t,” Peter promises, feeling a surge of pride that he’s been trusted with this. With something so personal. He knows it’s probably only because he’s successfully kept his identity a secret for so long, but still.
“I know you won’t. That’s why I told you. Look, kid. Peter.” Tony sighs. “Orientation… it’s hard. It’s not easy to figure out what you’re feeling. Believe me, I know. It’s even harder to quantify the lack of a feeling. I just thought… when you said you’d never felt that way for anyone…”
“Oh, yeah. I haven’t. Ever.” Peter makes a face at his lack of eloquence. “I mean, I’ve tried. When the guys at my school, the way they talk about girls, I try to see it, but…” He shakes his head. “It just… doesn’t. I don’t get it. With boys or girls.” He doesn’t mean to sound as frustrated as he does, but it’s hard. This has been weighing on him for a while now.
“I understand,” Tony says quietly, and it feels like he really does. “You should do some research on asexuality and aromanticism. Look up the different kinds of attraction. Like, I didn’t figure out aesthetic attraction is a thing until I was in my thirties, but it cleared up so many things.”
“It means I can appreciate how someone looks without wanting to fuck them. Look at it this way. I look at a chocolate cake and I think it looks very nice, but I don’t feel the urge to do anything. I just… appreciate the cake for what it is. Someone else looks at a chocolate cake and thinks it looks nice, but they also want to –”
“Fuck it?” Peter asks, giggling.
Tony swats him across the back of the head playfully. “I was going to say eat it, you little pervert, but yes. That works too.” He’s grinning.
“So there might be a label for me too,” Peter says, amusement draining away to be replaced by a kind of potent relief and gratitude. He’s not a freak. There’s not something wrong with him. This might even be normal.
“There might be. Only you can decide that for yourself, Pete. We’ve run all kinds of tests on you when we were quantifying what you’re capable of, and there’s nothing physically wrong, so…” Tony trails off and shrugs. “This seemed like most realistic answer.”
Peter nods. “Does this mean I’ll never get married?”
“Oh, kid. I can’t answer that for you. But even if you are asexual and aromantic, there’s nothing stopping you from loving and marrying a really good friend. I would’ve married Pepper, but she wanted something different.” Tony sighs again. “I probably won’t get married or have a partner. It’s not in the cards for me, but that doesn’t mean the same for you. If you want it, it can happen.”
“It could still happen for you too,” Peter points out. He doesn’t like the way that Tony talks sometimes, as though Tony is a hundred years old and ready to be put on a shelf for the rest of his life. He wonders if maybe he and Harley need to get together and start brainstorming ways to get Tony dating. Pepper and Rhodey would probably help too.
“Yeah, maybe,” Tony says, waving a hand to dismiss the subject. “The point is, there are way more orientations out there than just straight or gay. I can send you some sites to look at that might help. Someone might as well benefit from my years of experience.”
“I already am,” Peter says, meaning it. “Thank you.” He already feels a lot better, more comfortable with the idea that he might never feel the way other people do. If Tony and Pepper are like this, it can’t be a bad thing. It’s a heavy weight off his shoulders, and he resolves to do as much research as he can over the next couple of weeks until he understands this orientation thing inside and out.
Tony looks a little embarrassed. “It’s nothing, really. Oh, and I also wanted to say… I’m sure you’ve had the birds and the bees talk from your aunt, so I’ll save us both some grief and not even go there. But you don’t owe anyone sex, Peter. Believe me. I’ve been there. I know what the pressure feels like. I know how you feel afterwards. It’s not worth it. You don’t owe anyone anything. And if anyone tells you that you do, please give me their names so Iron Man can visit them.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Peter says quickly. “Liz wasn’t – she didn’t –”
“Good, but my point still stands. Don’t put that pressure on yourself, either. No date ever has to end in anything more than a handshake.” Tony pauses. “Actually, scratch that. You don’t even have to give them a handshake.”
Peter smiles a little. “I should just… what? Push them out of the car?”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Peter says, laughing. Tony snorts and then starts laughing too, reaching out to ruffle Peter’s hair. Peter shoves his hand away with a squawk of protest – it’s hard enough to deal with mask-hair without having Tony mess it up further – and Tony just smirks at him.
“You’ll be fine, kid,” he says confidently. “You got this.”
For the first time, Peter thinks he might be right.