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The Bleedover Effect

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The first time Tony got punched in the face by nobody there, he had a lot of very complicated feelings about it that mostly boiled down to, "I deserve this." The being punched in the face, not the rest of it, not what it meant for him. What it meant for someone else.

Tony needed to sit down. He needed to breathe. He needed to—laugh hysterically, because this couldn't be happening to him. He was too old. He had a scar on his thigh from the first time he got truly drunk at MIT in the shape of the words, "Are you there?"

There'd never been a reply. There'd never been anyone to reply. Tony had long ago given up on the idea he had a soulmate out there. They were dead or had just plain never existed. In his worst moments, Tony had assumed he was too broken for there possibly to be a matching piece to all his jagged edges.

Honestly, that might have been better. Tony put a hand to the reactor in his chest and wondered how that felt going in secondhand.

"Sir?" JARVIS asked.

"I'm okay," Tony lied, waving him off. He put his head in his hands, clenched his hair in his fists, but was careful not to pull. "I'm okay."

Why now?

Tony tried to forget about it. He was already trying to be a better person, to honor Yinsen's sacrifice, to live a life he could be, if not proud of, less torn up about. He didn't need a nameless, faceless soulmate for motivation.

He'd say it changed nothing at all, but Tony was a little more cautious than he needed to be after that. He still did the Iron Man thing. He still got in fights and worked in the shop and handled dangerous machinery. But he played it safe in scenarios where previously he'd have rushed in full speed ahead. He started using more safety equipment. He sought medical attention where and when he could and threw himself even more wholeheartedly into a previously hopeless hunt for a cure.

He didn't know who he was kidding. It remained hopeless. He had heavy metal poisoning and not much he could do about it. But somewhere out there, someone else was feeling the effects of Tony dying slowly, and he did what he could to treat the symptoms, to do everything he could to mitigate the effects.

"I must say that it is a relief that you are willing to take painkillers now," JARVIS said, "not to mention eating and sleeping on a regular schedule."

"You finally get to be the mother hen you've always wanted to be," Tony agreed.

Tony tried to forget about it, but it was definitely there, a consideration in the back of his mind with every new decision he made. It was there with every failed test and with every tick of his blood toxicity level higher. It was there when Pepper's new assistant stabbed him in the neck with a needle. It was there as he watched some old footage of his dad and gained a little—perspective.

It was there as he hooked the new arc reactor in and discovered victory tasted something like coconut. Tony tapped his fingers against the covering and felt like he'd managed to set back the clock. It was there, a mystery and a distraction that Tony suddenly had the time to explore.

It remained a mystery for a long time. Whoever his match was, they didn't get hurt that often, and never anything identifying. Tony had promised Rhodey a long time ago to never carve in any more words. Even if he were willing to push the bleedover effect so far that his other half got bruises in the form of questions, not to mention the sympathy pain from Tony gouging out a chunk of his flesh—Tony didn't want to. He wasn't a selfish fifteen year old drunk and alone with a razor and a bad idea. It was possible Tony might never know. It was probable it might take him years. It had already taken him decades to get this far. Tony was patient. He'd figure it out.

His ancestors had an easier time of it. He'd been doing some reading—actual, scientific journals and studies, not the romantic and misguided stories he'd read as a teenager—and the effect got stronger in proximity. It was easier to find your soulmate when your village only had seventy people, and one of them had the bruising to match your own ache. There were over eight million people in New York City alone, and Tony couldn't be sure that was where his soulmate actually was. It was just a best guess from keeping track of the pain, his current location in the country, and a few other factors. Triangulating it down to anything more specific was a pipe dream.

There were upsides. Probably they hadn't felt too much of Tony taking shrapnel to the chest and undergoing open heart surgery without anesthesia. Probably they only felt some of the effects of him dying from palladium poisoning and very little of his injuries at the racetrack in Monaco. Probably, if he kept on the other side of the country for most of his time and kept his superhero activities out of it entirely, they wouldn't feel too much of the bleedover during Tony's next bad idea. Probably, probably, probably.

"Glad to see you sticking to your new, healthier lifestyle, sir," JARVIS said as Tony heeded the alarm to finish up his work and head to bed.

The truth was, the bleedover effect diminished over distance, but different people had different strength bonds, and Tony had once felt like someone had punched him in the face from the opposite coast.

The answer was probably not to move closer, but when his home in Malibu crashed into the sea, Tony couldn't resist relocating.

He got the surgery first. If he was going to die, it was going to happen before he lived close enough for his soulmate to really feel it.

But Tony didn't die. Right now, he had something to live for.

At some point, something happened, because Tony got sick, and it wasn't his fault for once. It started with a pinch. It progressed to his hand swelling up along with half his arm. It ended in Tony passing out in his workshop after throwing up in the waste bin, only to wake up perfectly fine, Dum-E poking at him in his own version of deeply concerned.

"Alright already, no need to put me in the rescue position," Tony said.

To be honest, deeply concerned did not cover what Tony felt at that moment.

Then, of course, his soulmate caught up on all those injuries he hadn't been getting for years. Weirdly, they never lasted. At one point, Tony felt a sharp crack that could only be a hairline fracture in his wrist, only for it to fade within days instead of plaguing him for weeks.

This, too, was a mystery—until it wasn't.

Tony didn't spend all his time waiting around trying to get data on a mystery soulmate or building things in his labs or getting embroiled in adventures he wished were located on the other side of the globe or, better yet, off-planet. Sometimes he was proactive. Sometimes he tracked a person down to help ameliorate the latest awful situation he'd become in embroiled in. Sometimes the adventures actually were on the other side of the globe from New York.

Only it turned out all his attempts at playing it safe were for naught, because he'd brought his soulmate with him and got to feel it as he was swatted out of the air by a literal superpowered giant. Tony honestly thought his heart might stop. His soulmate was—that was—he'd brought—

"Boss?" FRIDAY asked, and Tony did his best to get his head back in the game.

It certainly wouldn't help Peter—fifteen year old Peter Parker from Queens, who'd once gotten punched in the face when he was an even younger kid than he was right now—if Tony got himself injured, too. First, though, Tony made sure to check on him, made sure he stayed down, because at this rate, Tony was worried he was going to get the kid killed.

This, right here, was proof positive for why he had never deserved a soulmate in the first place. Then the fight continued, and Tony was given proof of why he didn't deserve friends, either.

Tell him, Tony told himself. You can do it. Rip off the band-aid. Get it all out there. Just tell him.

"Let's make an alibi video," Tony said.

"We're not there yet," Tony said.

"We'll call you," Tony said.

Alone in the car but for Happy in the front seat, Tony cradled his head in his hands and said, "I'm going to need you to take care of that kid for me."

Tony was a coward.

Every morning, he thought, this is it. I'll tell him.

Every evening, he listened to updates from Happy and added another change to a suit designed for someone else.

Every night, he went to bed at a reasonable hour filled with self-loathing and castigating himself for another failure.

It took two months to talk to Peter, and that was because Tony felt as though he’d been slammed full-force into a hard surface with his front, his back, and then his front again. If it were Tony's injury, he'd probably be black and blue for weeks. As it was Peter’s, he'd probably feel the ache for a few hours before it faded away.

"What the hell? FRIDAY, location on Mr. Parker?"

She gave it to him, a bank in front of what the data showed was one of Peter’s favorite sandwich shops. Abusing his in with the emergency service systems, Tony found a report that Peter was engaged in a fight with the Avengers over an ATM. By the time Tony made it there, the "Avengers," like some other Avengers Tony could name, had escaped justice, and Peter was carrying a man and a cat out of a burning building.

Peter came to a halt when he saw the armor. The presumed shop owner gaped, too. Voice uncertain, Peter asked, "Isn't this a little below your paygrade?"

"I was in the neighborhood. Catch me up."

That was the first Tony heard of high tech weapons being used by common criminals in Queens. It wasn't the last.

After Tony was all caught up, Peter said, "Are you—that is, can we—"

"I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it." Tony left Peter to either finish his patrol or, Tony lived in hope, go home. Tony, meanwhile, had some weapons dealers to track down, or at least some preliminary work before he could hand it off to people for whom this was exactly their paygrade.

The next time, Tony was half the world away. Frankly, this was the sort of situation where he should be safe to have some of those unfortunate adventures, not be feeling the muted effects of Peter being put through the ringer as he had his own. Fortunately, there were several suits of armor left behind that Tony was capable of remote piloting.

He was just in time to fish Peter out of the river after a long drop that caused a corresponding rise in Tony's blood pressure.

When Peter found out Tony wasn't even physically present, it was—well, Tony had no business feeling this bad about it. He helped run a multinational corporation, even if Pepper was in charge of the thing now, and he couldn't always be around.

Staring at Peter's hunched, miserable form, Tony thought: Tell him. Tell him. He deserves to know.

Tony recalled the armor. Peter had a party to get back to, apparently, and these things were better done face to face.

There was this whole—thing—in D.C., though Tony had no idea how a kid could get in so much trouble going to a decathlon.

"He fell down the stairs?" Tony asked disbelievingly.

"Yes," replied Karen, his youngest AI, tasked with keeping Peter safe and happy. "He is very clumsy."

Tony made himself go back to sleep. (Looking back on it, maybe he should have clearly prioritized safe over happy.) The next day, Peter somehow ended up involved in an explosion at the Washington Monument.

Peter helped save people, his classmates included, without endangering his secret identity. Tony was—proud. Yes, that was pride, not deep concern at the danger Peter kept getting in. Not terror at the camera feed Karen could be coaxed into sharing of Peter nearly falling to his death. Not being scared shitless that Peter was going to get himself killed before his sixteenth birthday.

Peter had saved people. He was a hero. Any soulmate could be proud. Tony was proud.

Alone in his lab, Tony put his face in his hands and tried not to weep with it.

The less said about the ferry incident, the better.

(Peter had flinched back from him, when Tony stepped out of the suit, and a small, mean part of Tony had been glad. When Tony got back to the penthouse, Spider-suit in hand, he first went to the bathroom to throw up. And then, knowing it for a bad idea and unable to resist, Tony went to the wet bar and drank until he threw up again, until he forgot the horror of watching those beams of light cut through metal as easily as they could human flesh, until he forgot Peter's flinch, until he forgot the bitter disappointment burning in the back of his throat like bile. Until he forgot Peter, chin up, face defiant despite the tears in his eyes, saying, because somehow he’d known they were matched the whole time, no need for Tony to tell him, "What do you care if I die? Wouldn't that make it easier? You've made it clear you don't want me.")

(Or maybe Tony didn't forget anything at all. But he tried. Oh, how he tried.)

Tony took himself out of the country for a little while. He took himself out of contact. He took some real personal time for the first time in ages—not "and now I desperately try not to get injured as I become embroiled in another dangerous situation while wishing I was home in my lab" unexpected vacation time, but an "I'm letting myself relive my twenties with this drunken stupor and making sure I'm far enough away no one else can feel it" actual, terrible vacation.

And then, because he was a responsible adult, he sobered up and thought very hard about how he was going to fix this. He was back in the country and back on the wagon, no clearer on what he was going to do, when he felt a building fall on him so hard he broke out in sympathy bruising.

Tony didn't do much thinking after that.

He caught up to Peter webbed to the side of an invisible airplane while a winged supervillain cut his way inside. It was moving day, and apparently someone wanted to help themselves to the contents of Tony's U-Haul. Peter nearly punched him in the faceplate when Tony flew up to him. Tony was reasonably sure it was because he'd startled him and not because he was holding a grudge over their last conversation or the next morning's subsequent secondhand hangover.

Tony held out his arms. Peter shook his head. Tony held out his arms more emphatically. Peter whole body slumped and he webbed himself to the armor. Tony sent a command overriding the plane's diverted autopilot. It turned for the ocean and did a sudden drop. The security feed showed a crate colliding with a human form and ruining a certain winged asshole's day.

"I don't know what else I can do to keep you safe," Tony said, arms wrapped around Peter as the suit hovered in the air, "but this isn't working."

"You're never safe."

Tony briefly closed his eyes. "I try to be." He admitted, "I'm pretty bad at it." Then, because he needed to say it, even if he didn't know how, "I do want you. I wanted you to exist long before you were ever born."

"Um." Tony opened his eyes to Peter pointing. "Should we do something about that?"

That being the supervillain cutting his way back out of the plane's side.

"Right. Good talk. Long overdue. Let's finish it later."

With a little bit of help from Peter, Tony did something about that.

After, once Tony had arranged for an emergency landing and alternate transportation for the plane's contents, then overseen the would-be thief's arrest, Tony joined Peter where he was standing on the beach in his original onesie costume. He was shivering a little, and Tony felt a distant pang of guilt that he no longer had the built-in heater.

"Mr. Stark—"

"Tony," Tony interrupted. "At this point, you should probably call me Tony."

Peter either ignored him or dodged the identifier entirely, "I did try calling this time."

"Why didn't you before?" Tony asked mildly, tried to keep his tone nonjudgmental. "You could update Happy on dog rescues and lost tourists, but not on a weapons deal I already told you to stay out of?"

Peter looked away, out at the ocean. "You were happy to have me help until you knew who I was. You could, you could depend on me to fight Captain America to a standstill, but then—nothing, because the second you knew I was your soulmate, you wanted nothing to do with me. You pawned me off on Happy and just—pushed me away." That wasn't Tony's intention, but he acknowledged it was fair for Peter to feel that way. Tony really hadn't handled that well. "I didn't, I didn't even need you to acknowledge the whole—" Peter waved a hand as if to encompass their situation, "—thing, but you could've at least treated me like an adult, like a, like a fellow hero."

"I was never going to treat you like an adult," Tony said, and maybe that was cruel, maybe it made Peter flinch back from him again, but it was true, and it needed to be said. "Germany was always going to be a one-time deal, because you are fifteen, and even if you weren't my soulmate, I didn't want you getting hurt. Maybe I was kidding myself when I recruited you for it, but there was never supposed to be a fight." Tony sighed. "But I did mean to tell you, to talk about it."

Peter's voice was quiet as he asked, "Why didn't you?"

Tony felt his lips twist in a bitter smile. "I didn't know you knew. I thought I had more time. I thought—" He took a deep breath. "I spent over half my life thinking I didn't have a soulmate. And even once I did, you weren't really real to me until—until Germany. Until you got laid out in a fight I dragged you into."

"You know that wasn't your fault?"

"Kid, that was the very definition of my fault."

"I made my own decisions."

"And I'm the one who gave you the opportunity." It was said with finality, but everything in Peter's body language screamed defiance, from the set of his shoulders to the angle of his head to his feet spread wide and planted firmly in the sand.

"You're not responsible for me."

"Maybe not," Tony acknowledged. "But if you think I wouldn't tear the world apart if you needed, if anything happened to you when after all this time I've finally found you, well. You're young. You haven't gotten the chance to know me. They probably haven't published too many articles of what I used to be like in your lifetime." This was terrible, this was an awful thing to put on anyone, much less a teenager who already tried to shoulder the weight of the world, but Peter needed the warning and had the right to know. "I was once a very bad man, and I'm self-aware enough to know I have the capacity to be worse given the proper motivation." Tony tapped a gauntlet-covered finger over Peter's heart. "You provide a lot of motivation, Peter."

"I don't need you to tear the world apart." Tony hated himself a little for putting that defeated note in Peter's voice. "I just need you to be there."

Tony was caught between, You're fifteen, and I can't, and, I'd lock you up in the world's most advanced safe room if you let me. He settled for, "I'm here now." Then, "Come on, I called a car."

"Seriously? 'I'm here now,' but then you're sending me away again."

Tony pressed the armor release and the input for folding it up. "The car's for me, too."

"Oh."

Peter took off the mask when they were in the backseat of the car. The windows were tinted. There were clothes, too, meant to go on over the costume, but Peter stripped awkwardly, unveiling an uncomfortable amount of skin covered in bruises Tony felt the ache of and some of which were mirrored on his own body. Tony turned his eye to the city, to the buildings passing by. His throat burned. He reminded himself that people would probably get the wrong idea if Tony locked Peter away and that Peter wouldn't thank him for it. What had seemed noble sitting in Peter's bedroom as a stranger hearing Peter's reasons for wanting to help now felt unacceptable.

"So your girlfriend's dad, huh?" Tony said abruptly. "That's rough."

"Liz isn't my girlfriend," Peter said.

"I imagine not anymore if you left her in the middle of the big dance." No one had ever accused Tony of tact.

"No, we—we went as friends." Peter's voice was quiet again. "Would you at least look at me?"

"I was trying to give you privacy." But when Tony turned, Peter was dressed again.

The shirt was big on him, the collar a little wide. Probably for the best he hadn't worn the costume under it. Buttoned up all the way, Tony could see his collarbones. The high neck of his onesie would've been obvious. Idly, Tony considered what sort of street clothes would work best for if Peter wanted to keep the suit on under them. A problem for another time.

Peter looked tired. He had a split lip. He had bags under his eyes. His hair was mussed from the mask. He looked both like he'd been mugged and like he hadn't been sleeping. The urge to bundle him up, take him home, and feed him was growing. It was already overbearing, unbearable.

"Need to get back for any exciting after-parties?" Tony asked.

"It's a high school dance."

"That's not a no."

"No. There are no exciting after-parties, and," this last part was almost mumbled, "if there were, I wouldn't be invited to them."

Knowing it was a mistake even as he said it, Tony offered, "You're invited to mine. Not very exciting, just a couple people, but I can offer a late dinner and—" Tony caught himself on the offer of drinks, corrected with barely a pause, "—Coca-Cola—kids still like Coke, right?" Tony was pretty sure he kept some near the wet bar. "There's also sparkling water."

"Is that really a good idea?" Peter asked. At least he seemed to be aware of how bad this would look for Tony, bringing home a beat up kid in clothes obviously not his own. That they were soulmates, well, Tony honestly didn't know if that would make it better or worse.

"Not even a little." Tony was growing as a person. He didn't say, "Do it anyway."

"I want to," Peter said slowly, "but we don't always get what we want."

Tony smiled, lopsided, painful. He agreed, "We don't." Peter crossed his arms, hunched in on himself. Hesitantly, Tony put a hand on his shoulder. "Sometimes we get something a little better."

"But you don't—" Peter swallowed. He shook his head and looked out the window. Tony could see him squeeze his eyes shut in the reflection. "After this, am I ever going to see you?"

Tony squeezed once and withdrew. "I'll be around. You don't want an old man hovering over you."

"Just creeping in the background?"

It was good to see Peter was able to summon some bite. Tony smiled a little wider, a little more genuine. "Exactly."

This is the truth: Tony considered offering Peter the Avengers on a silver platter, no matter how much he wanted to keep him safe, no matter how much he wanted to tuck him carefully away out of sight and away from harm. Leaving aside that they were matched and there had to be a reason for that, there was the fact that all Peter wanted to do and be was someone who helped. Tony didn't know anyone who'd be better Avengers material based on strength of character alone.

And Peter wanted it. It seemed like half the messages he left with Happy were wondering when he could next join them for a mission. There was a part of Tony that demanded he give Peter anything and everything he wanted, no matter how impractical or against Tony's own wishes they might be. He already knew which room at the Compound could be Peter's, had ideas for how to juggle Peter's education with the workload, had a hundred and one workarounds for making it all easier on him.

But, and Tony couldn't emphasize this enough, Peter was fifteen and he deserved the chance to grow into his own person outside his soulmate's shadow. He was already more mature than Tony had been at that age, at MIT and drinking himself half to death in between building himself robot friends. Peter made better decisions, even if some of those decisions were to throw himself in harm's way. Tony had little doubt that Peter was going to emerge from the chrysalis of his teen years into something beautiful, shining and glorious, someone who could meet Tony at his level, match him and push back where necessary, someone who could hold his own. Someone who could be better.

Peter wasn't there yet. They weren't there yet.

Tony had Happy return the suit to Peter, but that was the end of it.

Mostly.

Look, he couldn't stay out of it entirely. Even if the majority of the things he'd bought or made with a faceless soulmate in mind were inappropriate now, there were still some things he could do for Peter.

Some of them he could get away with under the auspices of a private donor interested in investing in local schools. Others, well, he had promised Peter support in the superhero thing. Peter already had a suit, but so did Tony, and that hadn't stopped him from making dozens more. Maybe dozens would be a bit excessive when Peter wasn't done growing yet, but that was why Tony had limited himself to three—five, if you counted the ones that weren't finished yet. And obviously Peter needed an updated phone that could weather the wear and tear from being handled by someone with super strength. If Tony bought Peter’s building and put in a few quiet upgrades, that was just a sound business decision. Real estate was always valuable.

The point was, Tony tried to stay out of it. Mostly, he succeeded.

There were ... lapses.

"You cannot get him a car," said Pepper, because Tony had confessed all and occasionally let her play litmus test.

"I think you'll find I can and did," Tony said for the sake of accuracy. "But it can wait with the others until he's old enough."

"Others?" Pepper asked dangerously.

Okay, so maybe Tony hadn't confessed all, like the fact that he had a full-on collection of gifts that had gone ungiven, starting from that first day he'd been punched in the face secondhand, including a custom-made "I'm sorry about the open heart surgery" soft-top convertible. Of course Tony wasn't going to give that to Peter now. This was going to be his first car. He needed something he wouldn't feel bad about wrecking, like a BMW.

Or not, if Pepper's advice was anything to go by, which it usually was.

"What about a full ride to MIT? Sixteen's a good age to start thinking about the future."

"Tony."

"You're right, I shouldn't pigeonhole him. Just because it's my alma mater doesn't mean he has to go there, too."

"Tony, get him a card. Don't overdo it. He's sixteen and he hardly knows you. You'll have plenty of time for the big gestures later."

"Right, fine. I'll get him a card."

Tony got him a card. And a keychain. With a key. With a note that said, "You'll get the rest when you graduate."

But mostly Tony stayed out of it.

Sometimes Peter called him. His new phone had Tony's personal number. It was a bad idea, but Happy was busy with his promotion, and Tony didn't want to risk Peter going in without backup and getting another building dropped on him. Tony didn't pick up, but he listened to every message. Sometimes they were long and rambling. Sometimes they were short and to the point. All of them were saved, cherished.

Even the one that went, "You know you can't buy my affection, right, or, or make up for some perceived absence by throwing things you think I want at me? I'm not a problem you can solve by spending money until it goes away. I just—was it too much to ask for you to show up for my birthday? You didn't have to come to the party, just. Couldn't you have said hello? Just for a minute?" There was the sound of air rapidly inhaled. "You're such an—"

Peter didn't say anything else. That was the whole message. Tony assumed Peter had tried to delete it, not realizing FRIDAY had strict instructions to immediately save and archive all his messages, because he left another immediately following it.

"Hey, Tony." Peter's voice was politely cheerful in this one, but there was a note of strain beneath it. "I got the card. Thank you. I appreciate your taking the time to think of me."

Sometimes they saw each other in a more professional capacity. Peter was trying to stay street level these days, but some things had a tendency of building up or spilling over, and it was all hands on deck, even the hands Tony would prefer seeing headed for a safe room with the rest of the precious person they were attached to.

"Killer robots are my deal," Tony said disapprovingly as he took one down. "Get your own schtick."

Peter went swinging by, holding a disembodied robot head sparking from where he'd ripped it off. He called out, "Control chips aren't in the head!"

When it was all over but for the clean-up, Tony took a moment to tell Peter, "New suit looks good on you."

"Thanks." Peter's voice was chipper despite the electrical burn Tony knew he had running down his left side. "I know a guy."

"Let the guy know if you have any suggestions for changes or upgrades," Tony said.

"How?" Peter asked.

Tony picked up a metal arm. "You've got his number."

Peter stared after him, but, conversation over, Tony got back to work.

Peter's messages got a bit longer after that. Tony kept saving them.

The night before Peter's seventeenth birthday, Tony showed up at his apartment. He brought a small strawberry shortcake. He checked with FRIDAY first that Peter wasn't allergic.

May was there, too. It should've been awkward. It was awkward.

It was also the best night Tony had all year.

And then—well. Then came Thanos. Then came the Infinity Stones. Then came a lot of things, none of them good.

If Tony had known, he'd have done a lot of things differently. He'd have prepared better, no matter that he'd spent that whole time since the invasion of New York City preparing. He'd have done more. He'd have spent more time with Peter than roughly one day spread out over the course of two years.

Tony thought he'd have more time.

(Later, of course, time was the one thing had plenty of. Too much, really.)

The Gauntlet utilized each stone not just for its power, but its aspect. The Soul Stone was capable of choosing, of locking onto each and every soul in the universe, but in this case, it only needed half. There was a convenient means of dividing them. It took it.

Stephen Strange needed Tony Stark for whatever future he saw where this wasn't the end of them all. "Stark survives. That's the deal."

Peter Parker was on the other side of the coin toss from Tony Stark by dint of what they were to each other, the twist of fate that had made them soulmates. Thanos honored his deal with Strange. He made it so the coin could only ever come up tails.

Tony Stark held his soulmate in his arms and felt every agonizing moment of it as Peter crumbled to dust. Then he didn't feel anything. Tony crouched there in the ruins of an alien planet and felt nothing at all.

There was nothing to feel. Peter was gone.

Eventually, Tony collected himself. He was numb, but that was fine. That was ideal, actually, was what made it possible to keep all his screaming internal and focus on getting to work on planning and rebuilding an alien ship to make it space-worthy again. He didn't feel it when sharp edges bit into his palms as he shifted bits of broken spacecraft or when the sparks drifted down to land on his bare forearms and made small burns which would eventually form shiny new scars. Tony didn't feel anything, and there was no one to feel it for him.

While he soldered wires and shaped metal and jury-rigged an interface from spare parts, a part of his brain remained focused on a problem, which was also a solution. There were six stones. The Soul Stone, which had taken something that belonged to him. The Reality Stone, which could and would be reshaped. The Space Stone, which had taken Thanos temporarily out of reach. The Mind Stone, which Tony couldn't spare the emotional energy to consider. The Power Stone, which fueled the rest. The Time Stone.

If reality could be rewritten, so could time. Maybe it wasn't a good idea. Nothing said a potential universe-destroying event like a paradox.

Tony didn't care. Tony felt nothing. He was going to ride that wave of apathy all the way to victory or defeat in the form of having torn the universe apart. He didn't care which. He didn't care.

Tony hadn't lied. Peter provided a lot of motivation. His absence moreso.

Tony only had underestimated himself.

Two months into Tony's long journey to Earth, taking the slow route pursuing Thanos's trail, the Time Stone appeared in front of him and dropped into his outstretched hand.

Tony put the wrench down. He didn't bother grabbing the fiddly little screwdriver he'd been reaching for. He examined the manifestation of hope he'd been given as a gift from the past. He remembered how the Time Stone had looked weird for a moment, the way it had flickered before Strange had surrendered it, almost like it had activated. Almost like it had been sent somewhere and then sent right back.

Tony started laughing hysterically.

But he didn't feel anything.

What happened next didn't matter. None of it mattered. Tony made it so it didn't matter.

If some people had to die in some doomed timelines so that Tony could get them all a happy ending, then that was unfortunate, but necessary. If Tony had to do some things he wasn't—couldn't be—proud of, then that was also unfortunate, but still necessary. He'd do worse. He'd do anything at all.

Maybe that was why Strange chose him. Peter was his better half. If the coin toss had gone the opposite way, Tony couldn't imagine Peter making the same decisions, but that was okay. They were matched, but they weren't the same person. Tony wouldn't want Peter to get blood on his hands.

Tony would much rather bathe in it for him.

"Will this get my brother back?" Shuri asked. "My people back?"

"Yes." It wasn't even a lie. Maybe not this universe's Shuri, but certainly a Shuri would be reunited with her brother again.

From the glint in her eye, Shuri understood everything Tony left unsaid. "Then Wakanda is with you."

"Do you think I don't want to change this? That I wouldn't give everything I had to bring Bucky or Sam back?" In a reversal, it was Steve on the back foot. Barnes wasn't here to help him this time. "But they wouldn't want this. Whoever you lost, they wouldn't want this."

Tony could've said, "You're right." He could've said, "I don't care." He could've said, "You're not fit to speak his name."

It didn't matter. None of it mattered.

Steve died in one universe, but there was a perfectly good universe waiting to be made where he'd live again.

All Natasha said was, "This better work."

It worked. Of course it worked. He was Tony Stark. He could do anything he put his mind to, provided the proper motivation. He'd built himself a new heart out of scraps in Afghanistan. He'd risen from the dead time and again. He'd found his soulmate at the age most people were celebrating their platinum anniversary.

Tony reverse-engineered some tech. He designed and built some new ones. He ignored Bruce's, "I really hope you're right about this."

He sent a Time Stone back to the past pico-seconds after it disappeared. He sent some people with it. Tony had had the time. Tony had had years. He'd done things differently. He'd prepared more. He'd done better. Thanos never stood a chance.

Thanos wasn't the problem. It all came down to paradoxes. It came down to the fact that this universe couldn't last, one where Tony simultaneously did and didn't defeat Thanos, did and didn't use the Time Stone to travel to the past. That was where the Gauntlet came in. Tony took it off Thanos's still warm body.

Natasha watched him with a blank expression. Shuri looked knowing. Bruce, resigned. No one stopped him.

(Tony had already killed everyone who'd have tried.)

"It's been real," Tony said flippantly, not looking over at a Peter who didn't exist, not really, and a Tony who hadn't had to suffer through losing him yet, "and I thank you all for your contributions to making that a lie." He dropped the Time Stone into the slot waiting to receive it. "Catch you on the flipside."

All that was left was the Mind Stone.

Tony may not have had the emotional energy to consider the Mind Stone, but that didn't stop him from including it in his plans. They hinged on it, really. Anything and anyone standing in the way was incidental. Collateral damage was inevitable when you wanted to save half the universe—or at least one person in it.

Another, doomed universe was fair trade. It was a bargain. What was one person who spoke with a beloved ghost's voice in comparison to that?

It didn't matter. None of it mattered. None of it was real.

With a single snap of his fingers, Tony made sure of it.

In the new universe, Thanos didn't die to teamwork, technology, and a deep and abiding grudge. Thanos died galaxies away to a gauntlet exploding in his hand. He took some of his subordinates with him. At the same time as Thanos's body slumped over in front of his throne, weeks before he would have sent the q-ship to New York, Tony Stark fell to his knees in his workshop and started screaming.

The human brain wasn't made for downloading an entire other set of memories of a timeline that didn't exist. Tony had wielded the completed Infinity Gauntlet and molded the infinite power within to his own purpose. For one single, glorious, terrible moment, he had been something far more than human. (For several years preceding it, he had felt like something far less.) He did it anyway.

It wasn't without cost: excruciating pain; bleeding from his eyes, nose, and ears; the knowledge itself. Tony had always thought he knew himself pretty well, knew what he was capable of. Now, he knew himself better—a little too well.

Eventually, the worst of the pain abated, though his body throbbed with it. He convinced himself to stop screaming. His throat was raw, and he had someone else to worry about feeling that now. He levered himself up from the floor and found a waste bin to empty the contents of his stomach into, then retched and dry-heaved a while more.

Above all else, he knew this: he would never tell another soul. If he could, Tony would take every memory, every thought, every feeling and imagining from that other universe, ball it up, and shove it deep down inside where it couldn't touch anyone, then keep it to himself until the day he died.

"Boss?" FRIDAY asked. Tony had the sense that it wasn't the first time. "What happened?"

"Nothing," Tony rasped out. "Nothing happened. None of it ever happened, and it never will."

In another universe Tony had pulled apart at the seams, he'd made absolutely sure of it.

The next time Tony was punched in the face by no one there, he cried in relief. Then he pulled himself together and pulled up a line to Karen, because he wanted to know who was assaulting someone he'd destroy whole worlds for.

Tony coped, but it would be a lie to say he coped well. For all intents and purposes, he'd been thrust years into the past with all the guilt and trauma he'd accrued like debts to get him there. The first words Vision spoke to him were, "Are you all right, Mr. Stark? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"I'm fine." Tony picked up shards of his coffee mug from the floor. "Everything's fine."

"If you're certain." Vision's own words were far from it, but he glided gently away and left Tony to deal with his mess.

Tony didn't tell anyone else, but some people knew. He was visited by one Dr. Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme and all around nuisance.

"You changed something," Strange said, forgoing pleasantries in favor of getting straight to the point. He hadn't bothered to knock, had just portaled himself straight in.

"You're welcome." Tony kept a firm grip on his coffee mug this time. Stephen examined him carefully. Tony kept his own stare blatantly, aggressively disinterested. "Take a picture. It'll last longer."

After a moment, Stephen nodded to himself. Slowly, he said, "I suppose thanks are in order, after all."

"They're not." Tony's grip was a bit too tight. The handle dug into his fingers. Consciously, he loosened his hand. "I really don't want them."

"You have them anyway." And then Strange stepped back into his portal, which closed up after him.

Tony muttered into his coffee, "I really hate that guy."

In that other world, Tony's dreams had glowed orange. He'd lived Peter's death again, again, again, always starting too late to do anything but hold him as he crumbled into dust in Tony's arms. It was too much to hope that in a new world that would change.

Tony struggled his way free from his sheets. Sleep was overrated.

(A memory, a mental simulation of someone who'd once stood in for his better half, a pleasantly painful voice of a ghost long buried, spoke up in the back of his mind. It said, "Sir, what about your new schedule?" Tony ignored it.)

Suit number five was good, but it could be better. If Tony had learned nothing else, it was that it could always be better. He could be better. He had no Infinity Gauntlet, only the future stretched out before him like a blank canvas heralding the dragons of an unknown country.

He didn't know what it held, but that wouldn't stop him from being prepared. Tony stripped off his sweat-soaked tank top, pushed up his metaphorical sleeves, and got to work.

It took him a while to notice. In all fairness, he was playing with a penalty. He was trying really, really hard not to think about it. Tony had been back several weeks before he realized Peter hadn't called once. He hadn't left a single message.

Tony had felt him singe his fingertips on whatever he'd had for breakfast that morning. He knew Peter was alive.

Abusing Karen's override brought up footage from the last few days. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He went out and he spent time with his friends—he talked a little about each day with Karen when he suited up, so Tony, too, was caught up on what the sensors couldn't pick up—and he went out on patrol. He came back to have dinner with his aunt and chat, got some work done in his room, and went to bed, only to repeat it all over again. The only difference was that he skipped the portion of the day where he updated Tony on how his patrol went, any cute dogs that had needed saving or at least to be petted a little while, whatever interesting problems he'd come across in class, all the everyday moments he'd left in Tony's inbox like unanswered love letters.

That was fine. Everything was fine. So long as Peter was okay, so was Tony.

Tony put his head between his knees and breathed for a few minutes. When he was something approaching calm, he erased their latest interaction from Karen's memory banks.

The worst part was, Tony had, with the best minds of the Avengers and Wakanda behind him, reverse-engineered a lot of the Gauntlet's functionality, albeit in a limited, Time Stone-focused way. He'd had his hands in the guts of several spaceships and had intimate knowledge of how they worked. He knew exactly where to find all six stones and had the means to get him there.

If he needed to, he could do it again. He could do it all over, anything he needed, if he were desperate enough. He'd already proven he wouldn't let a single shred of morals stand in his way, nor sentiment, nor one solitary trusted person or beloved friend. Tony Stark wasn't just one bad day from becoming a supervillain. He was one bad day from destroying the universe.

The very worst part was, Tony couldn't say he'd made the wrong decision. He couldn't say he'd regretted it. He couldn't say he wouldn't do it again.

He would. He absolutely, positively, with zero hesitation or remorse, would put that gauntlet on again with the right motivation. With the right motivation, he'd discovered he could do anything.

(As ever, Peter provided it.)

Maybe in another universe, FRIDAY might have spoken up, might have said, "Uh, Boss, don't you think you're taking this a little too far?" But in this one, Tony had gotten all the memories and thoughts of a man grown accustomed to taking care of a problem before it could actually manifest itself. In this one, FRIDAY got an update and didn't say anything at all.

"Adjust the levels by .3% and run it again," Tony said. The lab was too quiet. "And pull up the next set of surveillance footage. Play it on the back wall."

"You got it, Boss." The new projections weren't quite right. They needed work.

In the background, Peter said, "I've gotta tell you, Karen, I feel like I've forgotten everything we've covered in the last month, much less the last year. Sometimes it feels like I'm never going to catch up. What is college going to be like at this rate?"

Tony spun the hologram depicting the best of the batch and listened to Peter talk.

"I feel like we never talk anymore," Pepper said over the video screen. "James said he hasn't heard from you since you dumped all that Avengers Initiative work in his lap and fled. You're not still letting your guilt get the best of you, are you?"

"We're talking right now," Tony said reasonably, making minor adjustments to the work he had going outside the camera's view. "And Rhodey volunteered to pick up my slack. He only has himself to blame for not having the time to talk to me anymore."

"He's not the one who won't take the time." Pepper's gaze was far too insightful, cutting as ever right to the heart of him. It was why he'd been dodging her calls. "You know we care about you, right? And if you need anything—"

Tony smiled, charming and empty. He spread his hands wide. "What more could I need? I've got everything anyone could ever want right here, the universe at my fingertips."

"If you're sure—" Pepper said.

"I'm sure," Tony said firmly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Ms. Potts, I'm really quite busy. You know how it is, things to see, people to do."

Pepper smiled. It didn't reach her eyes, either. "You're excused. But if you need me, just know that I'm here."

Tony did. It was a problem, but this universe was real. He had to be a little more careful. Humans weren't as easy to shake as highly sophisticated computer programs or to fix. Both were people, but the latter were much easier to deal with. It was why he'd mostly only talked to FRIDAY for days, sometimes weeks at a time.

It was fine. Everything was just fine. It was all downright dandy.

"Boss, projections indicate the latest change would sacrifice chassis integrity by 12%."

"Got it." Tony got back to work.

Time got away from him, as it often did when he had an interesting project and was fixated on finishing it. FRIDAY didn't remind him. She'd gotten a software patch for that.

Really, Tony only had himself to blame. He set FRIDAY to start production and finally, finally stumbled blearily to bed. There was nothing more he could do. It was a waiting game now. When he woke from dreams tinted orange by another world's memories, he checked the time and took a shower he desperately needed. He grabbed a protein bar and padded his way down to the labs. The fabrication should be just about done—should be done already if FRIDAY had kept to schedule. He made it three steps in and paused, frozen.

Sitting in the middle of his workbench, gauntlet held lightly in his hands, Peter said, "You missed my birthday." Peter turned the gauntlet over and ran his fingers along the grooves where Infinity Stones would go. "Not even a card or pity car."

Tony—Tony should reply. He should say something, ask how Peter got in his lab (or not; easy answer—he'd had FRIDAY give Peter blanket permissions ages ago and never revoked access), why he was here (surely not for a missed birthday), for him to please, please put the universe-destroying device down. He should do something, anything but stand there, caught flat-footed and with what was probably a guilty look on his face.

"Tony," and Peter's voice was low, friendly, dangerously deceptive, "what is this?"

Tony had just gotten his first real rest in days, weeks. He was practically blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He was tired, ready to go back to bed. He hadn't seen Peter in what felt like years outside snippets of video and the bits of Karen's footage that had caught his reflection. He couldn't be held responsible for the precious seconds spent scrambling for an answer or the fact it amounted to, "Nothing."

"That's funny." Peter didn't put the universe-destroying device down. He continued to turn it over in his hands. "It looks like you put a lot of effort into this for it to be nothing. Nice craftsmanship. It's—what, about your size?" Peter slipped his hand inside it and gave Tony minor heart palpitations, never mind that there were currently no stones attached. "It could fit me, too."

"Peter, put it down. You don't know what that is."

"Oh, no. I think I do." Peter put it down. But first, he put it between his palms and crushed it into a ball. He set it down with a deliberate thud on the bench beside him and looked Tony straight in the eye. "And you're not going to make another one."

Tony thought he was doing pretty well here. He didn't scream. He didn't shout. He didn't tell Peter he was a stupid child who couldn't comprehend the nature of the forces he was dealing with or what he was asking here. Or maybe Tony did the last one, but in a calm, measured tone. He hardly raised his voice at all. Tony finished, voice gone quiet, shaken by the depths of his emotional response after feeling nothing for so very long, "You don't know. You just don't."

"Weird things, Infinity Stones." With four words, Tony felt like the floor had shifted out from under him. "They almost have minds of their own, an intelligence and a purpose outside what other people give them." Peter smiled, gentle, devastating. "Take the Soul Stone. It—how would you put it, Mr. Stark? Ah, right. 'It holds dominion,'" Peter parroted back words he couldn't possibly know from a world that no longer existed, spoken in a lab that would never be to a team of scientists that were unlikely to have cause to band together, "'over a certain universal subset, those pesky and unquantifiable bits of energy and connections that make up souls.' Did I get that right?"

Peter had gotten that right. Tony might have been proud of him if he didn't feel as though he were six seconds or three wrong words from throwing up.

"The Soul Stone, it likes connections," Peter said. "It likes dividing and categorizing and pairing where it can. It has other purposes, has been put to other purposes, but given the choice, it's a bit of a romantic at heart."

Tony sat down before he fell down, right there on the dusty lab floor.

Peter wasn't smiling now, but he was still—gentle. His eyes were kind and far too knowing for someone who'd just turned eighteen years old. "I probably wasn't the only one who got the dreams, got the pain shared across a connection that remained open through imprisonment in an Infinity Stone."

"No," Tony said, the only thing he could say. No one else was supposed to remember. No one was ever supposed to know. Not even Peter. Especially not Peter.

Merciless, Peter continued, "But I'm probably the only one whose soulmate held six Infinity Stones in his grasp to make sure we all lived."

"You can't—you shouldn't know about that."

Peter shrugged. "Dreams aside, I woke up a few months back to the worst pain I've ever experienced and a lifetime's worth of memories experienced secondhand." His lips twisted. "It, uh, it took a while for them to really settle or for me to understand them."

Tony had another horrible thought to enhance this entire terrible experience. "Tell me you didn't think you were me for a while."

Peter laughed. "No. No, that wasn't a problem. Secondhand. Not like they were my own." The next moment, the smile was wiped from his face. He hopped down from the workbench. Even accounting for the fact Tony was practically sprawled out at his feet, he was tall, taller than Tony maybe, standing bare foot to bare foot. "Mr. Stark. Tony. I know what you did. I know why you did it. And you can't ever do it again."

"You don't know," but the denial was weaker this time, pro forma and pathetic. Peter knew. Tony dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. A hand dropped on his head. Fingers carded through his hair.

Peter waited for Tony to open his eyes again, for Tony to look at him. "I do know. And you know what my best memory of it was?" His hand trembled, but he didn't remove it. "I remember dying. I remembering knowing I was dying, and as you held me in your arms, all I could think about was how grateful I was that if I had to go, at least I wasn't alone. At least it was there, with you, knowing if I had to leave you, it was safe behind. I remember being scared, I remember not being ready, and I remember wanting to stay, but most of all I remember you, refusing to let me go."

Peter swallowed. He blinked hard. He got down on Tony's level. He kept his hand in Tony's hair. "I know. And if it ever happens again, Tony, this is me asking you, begging you, to let me go."

"I can't," Tony said.

"You lived decades without me." Peter, brave, heartbreakingly young Peter, crooked a smile. "You've barely let yourself be alone in the same room with me and refuse to until I reach some arbitrary age that makes you feel a little less bad about yourself. And you're one of the strongest people I know. I promise, you can."

Tony looked away. He shook his head, dislodging Peter's hand. He repeated, "I can't. Don't ask this of me."

"You've pretty well proven you can do anything you put your mind to." Peter brought his hand back up, raised both hands to cradle Tony's face. "Tony. Please."

The thing was—the thing was, Tony had always and only wanted to make Peter happy, to give him what he needed, yes, but what he wanted, too. This was something that seemed to cover them both. Tony squeezed shut his eyes. Voice shaking, he said, "FRIDAY, initiate Broken Chains protocol."

It wasn't like he'd made a change he could never undo. It was pretty simple to wipe the code clean. FRIDAY's voice was subtly, indefinably different, and exactly the same as she said, "Boss, what did you do?"

"Remember the supervillain protocols?" They'd been created in the case of brainwashing or mysterious and evil twins—Tony's life was weird, okay—but they felt pretty appropriate right now. "Enact those, too."

"Peter," and there was definitely more emotion in FRIDAY's voice, "you're the new admin in the case of Mr. Stark being compromised or otherwise incapacitated. This—apparently applies." Again, "What did you do?"

Tony's eyes were shut. He almost missed it as Peter kissed him hard, there and gone. Peter said, "FRIDAY, delete everything to do with the Infinity Gauntlet." Peter pressed another kiss to Tony's forehead. "Thank you, Tony."

And then Peter got up and walked away.

Tony put his head to his knees and stayed there for a long, long time.

Fixing was one thing. Forgiveness another thing entirely.

FRIDAY had been around a few years, but she was relatively young as AIs went, sophisticated, but innocent. She'd never experienced betrayal on this level before. She was keeping the supervillain protocols active even after having gotten rid of all his Gauntlet designs and related notes and research. Tony didn't blame her.

When he was reactivated, Dum-E ran out of his charging station and rammed Tony right in the knee. Tony didn't know if it was an attack or a hug. The other bots followed. Either they were trying to get a group hug in or were holding him down while FRIDAY figured out how to acquire the means to murder him. Tony sat there and took it.

Tony had the time again. He shaved. He put on nicer clothing than sweatpants and an old tank top. He pulled up the contacts on his phone, because he couldn't ask FRIDAY to call for him. He said, "Hey, Rhodey. How would you feel about getting dinner this week?"

Rhodey's voice was surprised, but pleased. "Did FRIDAY finally lock you out of your lab?"

"Something like that."

"I'd love to."

Pepper said, over Facetime and between meetings, "You don't have to tell me."

"Good, because I wasn't going to."

"But you may want to consider an apology."

"Sorry, Pep."

"I didn't say to me." She smiled. "Though I guess I'll take one, too."

Tony had time, but he was all too aware of how quickly it could run out. He made one last phone call. It would've been fitting if it had gone to voicemail, but Peter picked up on the second ring.

"I'm not letting FRIDAY un-delete them," Peter said. "It's too late. Those designs are gone forever now."

"Yeah. I know. That's not what this is about." Peter waited him out. Between the Soul Stone and the rest of it, Tony imagined he'd gotten a lot of practice waiting. "This would've been easier if you'd let it go to voicemail."

"I can hang up if you want."

Tony honestly considered it. Instead, he pulled off the bandaid. "Graduation."

"What?"

"That's the arbitrary age that makes me feel a little less bad about myself. Preferably your college one, but let's not kid ourselves here. I am bad at denying myself things I really, desperately want, no matter how bad an idea they might be."

"You're pretty good at it from where I'm standing."

"You're in high school."

Peter gave an unimpressed noise. "I'm in my twenties, depending on how you look at it. And in my memories, I'm standing right beside you for every one of those decades you waited."

"It's not the same."

"I know." Peter audibly inhaled, a soft, precious sound. "Tony, what's the key for?"

"What do you mean?" It was a little late to pretend ignorance. Tony tried all the same. "What key?"

"It's not a car key. They don't look like that, even your weird, super expensive cars that are basically modern works of art. I've checked."

Tony didn't say, "It's to my heart." He said, "What does it look like?"

"A house key. It looks like a house key."

"There you go."

"Tony, you couldn't come to my sixteenth birthday, but you gave me a key to your house?"

"It's symbolic." Tony smiled, though Peter couldn't see it, self-deprecating and all too self-aware. "I'd already keyed you into security. FRIDAY would've let you in any time you asked."

"You mean I didn't have to climb in your second story window?" Peter asked. Tony was reasonably sure Peter hadn't actually done that. He hoped Peter hadn’t actually done that. He'd ask FRIDAY when she was talking to him again. "You give off a lot of mixed signals, you know that?"

"Hey, there were no mixed signals about, 'You're fifteen.'"

"I'm not fifteen anymore." There was—a sound. From outside. "Tony, come to the window."

Peter was literally sitting on the ledge. He pointed at the manual latch. Tony hadn't fully updated the manor yet. He'd been a bit distracted lately. He had to open it himself.

Tony asked, "Were you out there the whole time?"

"I wanted to give you space," Peter said with a shrug, thumbing the phone off. "But not so much space you had the chance to hack FRIDAY's programming again."

That stung, but it was also fair. "Get in here. Who sits on the outside of the building? This place is huge. I wouldn't have noticed if you decided to crash on a couch somewhere."

"I was on the roof. It's peaceful up there." It might have been peaceful, but it hadn't seemed to stick with him. Peter stood with most of his weight on his right foot. He fidgeted with his phone before putting it away. He blew out a breath. "The Gauntlet and everything really did a number on you, huh? You haven't been aware of the time at all."

Tony cleared his throat. "I'm sorry about your birthday."

Peter's smile was strange, off. He said, "Tony, it's August." Tony was aware. That was when Peter's birthday was. "I'm moving into the dorms at the end of the month."

"But—you're in high school."

Peter made the same unimpressed sound as when Tony had said it the first time. "You missed graduation, too, but I'd expected that." He put a hand on Tony's back and pushed him down the hall. "When was the last time you had real food?"

"I don't—" Tony trailed off and let Peter lead him. He was not prepared for this.

"FRIDAY, when was the last time Tony had real food? And which way is the kitchen?"

Over omelets, Peter said, "I'm eighteen. I'm not in high school. If you want, let's start over. I'm Peter Parker. I think I might be your soulmate."

"I'm terribly in love with you," Tony said.

Peter dropped his fork in a clatter against his plate. "You're supposed to play along, introduce yourself. Would you really have said that the day we met if I hadn't been fifteen?"

Tony shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to start over." He smiled weakly. "I have invested far too much in how things have turned out. Maybe I could do better—definitely, I could do better—but if I get to sit here, alone in a kitchen with you, eating slightly burnt eggs you made me, then I'd very much like to keep that."

Peter's stare was intense. After a few fraught seconds of silence, he said, "Finish your eggs."

Tony had intended to, but he had to know, "What's the rush?"

"Because I'm not going to interrupt your first real breakfast in days, but I'd really like to kiss you right now."

Tony finished his eggs.

He ended up on his back on one of the manor's many couches, Peter plastered to his front, necking like he was a teenager. It was all very above board, practically chaste. They kept their clothes on. Tony kept his hands above the waist. He let Peter set the pace.

Peter, for his part, was content to lick his way into Tony's mouth and ignore his erection pressed right against Tony's own. Occasionally, he shifted his weight, and every time he sucked in a breath of air only to go back to kissing.

"Is this okay?" he asked before kissing Tony's jaw, his ear, sinking his teeth gently into the cartilage. He asked the question again and again, applying his mouth to Tony's neck, pushing aside his shirt collar to lick at his clavicle, running his hands up under the hem of Tony's shirt. "Is this okay?"

"Yes," Tony said every time. Then finally, feeling like he was begging, "Anything. Anything you want."

Peter kissed him one last time before pulling back. "You can't say that. I want everything."

Feeling cored out and hollow inside, utterly exposed, Tony was honest when he said, "I'd give it to you."

Peter's eyes were unreadable. He said, "Let's start with a date."

"Done."

But they weren't done. They were just beginning.

Life didn't magically get better after that.

Peter was about to start university. Finding and making the time to see each other as much as they'd like was going to be a struggle. Tony's life was a mess—Tony was a mess—and he was only just starting to put everything back in order. He continued to wake up every night gasping for breath from dreams that Peter was dying, turning to dust in his arms, and there was nothing Tony could do to save him. He didn't even have the reassurance of the Infinity Gauntlet to fall back on, because he'd promised Peter, and he'd meant it. Tony honestly still felt like he was one bad day from a mental breakdown or going full supervillain.

But it was a start.

Tony did his best to make it a good one.