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The first time May tries to go on a date after Ben dies, she comes home sopping wet with a plastic bag of self help novels, three sheets to the wind and so jittery that she has to wrap herself in all seven of her woven pashminas have before she can even begin to articulate what happened.

Peter produces two spoons and a pint of Phish Food, and she tells him that she made it all the way to the door of the restaurant before having a panic attack and bolting. It started pouring before she could make it to the subway, and she took refuge in a bookshop attached to a juice bar, where she ordered something green, started perusing the merchandise, and stumbled upon the realization that she needed to take some time to focus on her own “mental wholeness” before she would be ready to date again. Thus the bag full of self help novels, thus the retrieval of her yoga mat from basement storage, thus the radical and ill-advised decision to get bangs. 

Later, after Peter gets her to wind down by making fun of people on Antiques Roadshow and she falls asleep on his lap, he digs into the bag of books and excavates something called Modern Mystique: Unlocking Your Feminine Chi. It contains several diagrams that give Peter traumatic flashbacks to middle school health class, which he snaps a pic of and sends to Ned so that they can experience the excrutiating pain of humiliating sexual fear together, but somewhere in between framing an illustration of “vaginal ley lines” and trying not to move his stomach when he laughs so he doesn’t wake May, Peter actually starts reading.

There’s a lot of mainstream feminist edicts about dressing for yourself and learning to speak French and doing kegels while you sit in your office chair, which as a fourteen year old boy Peter doesn’t really think apply to him. But some of the stuff actually makes sense, enough of it that, when the Thai place downstairs gets its daily delivery at five in the morning and the noise wakes them, May finds him with the book propped open on his chest. 

***

“Every woman needs her secrets. This is true of recipes and lingerie, but it is also true of life. To keep from losing our minds we must always have something which is ours and ours alone. Something which cannot be infringed upon by our husbands, our mothers, or our children. Whether this something is an affair, a career as a cat burglar, or a rooftop garden is up to you.”

Modern Mystique: Unlocking Your Feminine Chi, by Raven Darkholme, Chapter 8.

***

Peter maybe takes the secrets thing to an unprecedented level. 

He can’t imagine Raven, writing from the hostile and unforgiving landscape of Sarah Lawrence College in 1998, could possibly have had any idea that someone like Peter Parker would ever exist to read her advice and promptly begin accumulating secrets like most kids his age accumulated hairline acne. Spider-Man, PTSD, nightmares, his sexuality, the fact that he’s so in love with Iron Man he thinks his heart might actually stage a mutiny, sprout legs, and crawl out his throat in protest.

He keeps secrets for no reason at all, hides head colds and holes in his sneakers and his extreme aversion to tomatoes. Every new secret is like a new addition to a house of cards, one more twig crammed under the weight of the giant stone slab of what he gets up to at night, and illogically, Peter feels like revealing one will make the whole thing crash down — like telling May he doesn’t want tomatoes on his sandwich will start a cascading chain reaction of twigs snapping and cards falling until suddenly he’s waving his suit around the apartment singing Spider-Man, I’m Spider-Man. 

Secret-capital has been piling up for four years when Peter walks out of a lecture hall and straight into Tony Stark. He’s technically met Iron Man before, but those encounters mostly took place in the middle of alien invasions going approximately eighty miles an hour, so he’s not entirely sure how much they count, if they count at all. The Avengers have failed to recruit him on an astronomical number of occasions — have, in fact, never shown any interest whatsoever in recruiting him — so Peter’s pretty much accepted the fact that the closest he’s ever getting to his idol as Peter Parker was the Stark Expo in 2010. 

But then he walks out of a lecture hall and straight into Tony Stark.

“Oh shit,” he says. Admittedly not his best work, but he thinks he can be forgiven because it’s Tony fucking Stark. Here, touching his shoulder. Touching Peter Parker’s shoulder. “Sorry, Mr. Stark. I didn’t see you there.”

“No need to apologize.” Tony waves him off with a smile. “I mean — you saved my life last week, I think we can call it even.”

“Um.” Is Peter having a heart attack? He feels like he’s having a heart attack. “I think you’ve got me confused with — “

“Spider-Man,” Tony interrupts neatly. “I have you confused with Spider-Man. Although not really, because correct me if I’m wrong, here, but I’m pretty sure you’re actually Spider-Man. Unless there’s some sort of strange, multiple personality disorder thing going on, in which case I’m gonna need to speak with your better, stickier half ASAP.“

“Um.”

“You gotta quit saying that, kid. Millennials and their conversation skills, I swear.”

“I’m not Spider-Man.” Peter crosses his arms over his chest and shuffles his feet around, because his instincts are screaming act casual act casual even though it’s already too late. “Why would you — Why would you think that?”

“Videos,” Tony says. “So, so many videos.”

Peter stares despondently at a point over Tony’s left shoulder while he tries to come up with something better than “Uh.” It’s not coming. His brain feels like a clogged faucet, obstructed by the insane reality of Tony fucking Stark standing way too close to him outside his 8AM Stochastic Calculus lecture, drawing awed and confused stares from passing students in equal measure.

Tony’s watching Peter like he’s a particularly simple experiment that Tony’s already seen play out half a dozen times with exactly the same results, like a puppy he knows is gonna be fucking adorable no matter whether it decides to lick his face or shit on the carpet. Peter’s heart attack quiets to something more in the region of the intestinal distress he gets after May cooks Indian food, so he drags Tony down the hall into a maintenance closet that’s locked until he breaks it open with his super strength.

“Kid,” Tony says, Peter shuffles him inside, “I gotta tell you, I stopped hooking up with college kids like two decades ago. Not that I’m not extremely flattered, but — “ 

“Okay, I’m Spider-Man,” Peter blurts, as soon as the door is shut. “You got me. I’m Spider-Man.”

“Yeah, I’m way ahead of you. Come on, keep up. Eavesdropping on that lecture, I could’ve sworn you were a genius.”

Tony Stark calling him a genius in the dark, close warmth of this maintenance closet is doing things to Peter’s body that he really can’t afford to deal with until he’s alone later, so he says, “What do you, um — want?”

Fantasy-Tony would say You, press Peter back against the shelf of paper products and proceed to ravage him six ways from Sunday, preferably with a feast of biting, a healthy helping of praise, and a side dish of hair pulling, repeatedly and with great thoroughness until Peter had to limp to his 10AM Differential Geometry recitation. Fantasy-Tony would make him walk around for the rest of the day with  hickeys on his throat and hair like he just walked off the set of a porno, whispers following after him like a cloud of gnats. Fantasy-Tony would be as clingy as Peter is in his own mind, text him when can I see you? five minutes after they parted, steal him away from campus in one of those hotrod cars that cost double Peter’s tuition and pull over halfway back to his apartment just to pull Peter over the gearstick and bite into his mouth again, too keyed up to wait five fucking minutes. 

Real-Tony says, “I need you to come to Berlin.”

The first twig’s already snapped — that’s the problem. The big secret is already out, Tony’s already stepped neatly behind the curtain and is walking around inside Peter’s hidden life like he just bought the block and is trying to decide whether this rundown property has good bones, if it can be renovated, or if it just needs to be knocked down all together.

And Peter really, honestly can’t remember the last time he met someone’s eyes and felt like they were actually seeing him. Not just Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man, not just a broke college student from Queens or a web-slinging superhero, but some unholy combination of both. He’s not sure it’s ever happened.

But it’s happening now. Tony gets an alert on his smartwatch, a tiny window pops up in hologram form on the skin exposed by the rolled cuff of his sleeve, lighting up the air between them, and Peter swears to God that looking into his eyes Tony can tell he doesn’t like tomatoes. Tony can tell Peter’s had a poster of Iron Man on his wall since he was ten years old, he knows Peter jacked off with a bottle of Lubriderm this morning, he senses the six times Peter’s re-located his own dislocated shoulder, that all his shoes are held together with duct tape and hope, that sometimes in the second before he shoots off a web he wonders whether he would survive hitting the ground, if he should try it out just to be sure. 

So instead of making excuses about the Spanish I midterm he has tomorrow or the fact that he’s about an hour away from being evicted from his apartment, he says, “I don’t have a passport.” But of course, Tony already knows that, too.

***

“Never invest more in others than they are willing to invest in you. Monetarily this is good business, emotionally it’s good for mental health. Reserve for your own self the spiritual energy that would otherwise be invested in the people around you, until you start to see equal expenditure in return. Don’t waste your tears on people who will never shed any over you.”

Modern Mystique: Unlocking Your Feminine Chi, by Raven Darkholme, Chapter 11.

***

Peter figures that the likelihood of Tony returning his feelings is about equal to the likelihood of a big purple alien collecting six pretty rocks, sticking them in a glorified charm bracelet and disappearing half the universe.

That’s not to say Tony doesn’t like him.

On the contrary, post-Berlin they start living out of each other’s pockets, because after Tony drops him off and Peter tries to go for a hug, he gets inside to find that in his absence his landlord has boxed up all of his stuff, put it in the lobby, and rented the place out to a new tenant, who’s really not at all amused when Peter insists on coming inside to retrieve the backpack of Spider-Man stuff he left hidden in the ceiling.

Stark Tower is pretty cool once Peter gets over the genetic working class guilt of living rent-free, even though he has to sneak Ned and MJ up by scaling the outside of the building with them on his back since Tony’s AI recognized Ned’s hacking signature and MJ’s frequent appearance at anti-Avengers rallies and marked them both as security threats. Most of the time he’s there, he’s with Tony in his lab, because despite flunking Spanish I Peter actually is a genius.

Being friends with Tony is easy in a way that being friends with people in high school and college never was.

They speak the same three languages — science, pop culture, and superheroics. They fit, so perfectly and so quickly that Peter feels like he has whiplash for the first week or so, thinking back on all those dark lonely nights where he did the math and figured out his insomniac hours and his frequent unexplained injuries would preclude him from ever establishing a meaningful relationship. So yeah, Peter thinks, maybe Tony’s not about to propose marriage, but Iron Man shows up when Spider-Man’s in trouble, whether it’s a supervillian situation or a sudden irrepressible craving for pho, and that’s more than enough. 

Peter still has a stack of water damaged self-help books for middle aged women on his bedside table. One of them is Into the Storm: Finding Yourself Through Communion with Nature by Ororo Munroe, and Peter has a section bookmarked and highlighted that says, “All relationships are transitory until we choose to make them permanent.”

The chapter’s called “Choosing Your Spirit Animal,” so it’s probably not intended to help Peter with his deep-seated fear of abandonment, but he used it for courage back when he was fourteen and had a crush on MJ the size of Texas, and now sometimes when he worries he’s just a pit stop on the great road trip of Tony Stark’s life, he pulls the book out and reads that line over and over again, reminding himself that Tony’s not the only one with agency in this relationship. Peter can choose Tony as his spirit animal and stick to him like a bad batch of webbing and make their friendship permanent, whether Tony likes it or not.

Except, luckily, Tony seems to need Peter just as much as Peter needs him. 

Super-hearing means that more often than not, Peter finds himself shaking Tony awake when he has a nightmare.

Tony’s quiet when he’s in distress, just hugs himself and twitches and makes soft pained noises like he’s trying not to wake someone even though he’s all alone in a California king in the dark cool cavern of his enormous bedroom, and it breaks Peter’s heart. Someone taught him to suffer alone, and maybe Peter’s juggling stones in a glass house, but none of the rules apply here, none of the failsafes and firewalls that keep Peter cordoned off from the rest of the world cover Tony Stark. 

Siberia bubbles up over scotch, Afghanistan over blueberry pancakes, the wormhole during a 3AM test of the bleeding edge armor. Peter’s way out of his depth, but he’s also the only person in New York who Tony seems to talk to any more, so he does his best to listen and doesn’t say I’m sorry and doesn’t crack jokes, because he knows those would be more for his benefit than Tony’s. More to assuage his own discomfort than to work through the pain, and Tony’s too important to fuck up, so Peter just listens and stays with him and, when he shocks awake in the middle of the night and staggers half asleep down to the lab in his sweat-damp clothes, shaking like a leaf and feeling like a ghost, he doesn’t lie and tell Tony he’s fine.

He tells him the truth, climbs up next to him where he’s sitting cross-legged on the lab table and hugs his knees to his chest and lets the whole messy tale spill out, Vulture and collapsed building and that dark poisonous idea that he never really got rid of: that he was going to die alone, terrified, trapped under thousands of tons of concrete.

By the time he’s done talking his hands are steadier and he’s more awake, awake enough to be embarrassed about the vomit of words and emotions that just came out of him, so he says, “Sorry, that was…that was kind of whiney, wasn’t it? I know that kind of stuff comes with the territory, you probably don’t wanna hear — “

“Shut up,” Tony says, pulling him into a hug. “You better not finish that sentence, Pete, I swear.”

Peter buries his face in Tony’s shoulder and just holds on, and the weight of Tony’s body under his arms reassures him, like physicalization of the feeling that Tony’s the one thing in his life he can grab onto in a storm. The one thing that isn’t gonna disappear on him. Solid muscle under the worn fabric of his sweatshirt, a warm musky smell from two days spent in the lab, his chin resting on the top of Peter’s head and one of his hands in Peter’s hair like he’s trying to soothe a fever out of him. 

“Sorry,” Peter says again. And fists his hands tighter Tony’s sweatshirt, because he doesn’t want Tony to let go. 

“Never, baby,” Tony murmurs. “You never have to be sorry for this.”

Even though Peter knows that Tony’s only calling him baby the way Ned sometimes calls him babe — like they’re tough manly sleuths in one of those ‘80s TV shows Ben used to watch on VHS — the endearment still makes something warm and content settle in Peter’s stomach.

It sounds permanent. It sounds like Peter just got home from a bad day at NYU and found Tony already at the kitchen table with a feast of Peter’s favorite Italian takeout ready to eat, because somehow he knew, like Peter collapses into him and Tony just presses their mouths together in a long, unhurried kiss, swaying back and forth on his feet in that restless way he does when he’s standing still and feels like he should be doing more. It sounds like Tony wants to be the one Peter reaches for when he rolls over in the middle of the night, groggy and still asleep and wanting comfort he can feel, that he’ll be able to feel in the morning, like Tony wants to roll on top of him in his t-shirt and boxers and bedhead and fuck Peter into the mattress until he can’t remember his own name, only God and please and Tony. 

But according to every elementary school teacher at PS 107, Peter’s always had an overactive imagination. So he just holds Tony tighter and says, “Thank you. Thanks, I, um — I think I really needed a hug.”

Tony doesn’t take the past tense as an opportunity to step away, because he knows Peter too well. “Anytime. I mean it.”

So Peter figures: Tony might not be about to propose marriage, but he’s certainly shedding as many tears over Peter as Peter’s shedding over him, which is a strange feeling, because apart from May — and somtimes, even with May — Peter’s always felt like he had a disproportionate amount of skin in the game. And maybe he’s wrong about everyone else, maybe they’re all just as willing to die for him as he is for them — just as eager to — but with Tony he knows he’s right. Tony’s all in. He’s proven it a thousand times.

That he doesn’t return Peter’s romantic feelings doesn’t matter. Peter will take what he can get, will count himself lucky that he’s getting it, will do whatever he can to keep it. Someday…someday, he’ll figure out how to take someone to bed he doesn’t love.

***

In what feels like the blink of an eye, they’re on Titan. Peter’s run out of breath to beg, his voice trapped in his throat as his throat turns to dust, and he digs his fingers into Tony’s shoulders, only he doesn’t have fingers any more, doesn’t have teeth to grit against the pain, his body scrambling to heal itself while it disintegrates like a boat taking on water too fast to patch the holes in the hull.

Peter focuses on Tony’s eyes. Just Tony’s eyes, wide and terrified but God, so familiar. Those eyes have a free pass straight to his heart, like they know some sort of shortcut, and Peter has a moment to think that he’s grateful it’s him, that he doesn’t have to stare into those eyes and watch the light go out like Tony’s doing right now, because it looks like it hurts a lot worse than dying.

Impossibly, he can still feel Tony’s hands on him, even though there’s barely any him left. 

And he can still hear. 

“I love you, Pete,” Tony says, sounding like he’s too shocked to cry. “I love you so fucking much, you gotta fight it — “

Then there’s nothing.

Unfair, Peter would think, if he were still around to think anything. Fucking cosmically unfair that he doesn’t get the chance to tell Tony his feelings are reciprocated, reciprocated tenfold.

He’s never really sat down and seriously thought about dying, because he’s Spider-Man and sometimes heroes have to die to save the day — the reality of it has never bothered him much. But he suddenly understands what bereaved parents are talking about when they stand up at their children’s funerals and struggle to sob words like missed potential, taken from us, bright future. Because he could’ve had years with Tony, decades, waking up next to him and fighting next to him, grumbling at him in the pre-caffeine morning and whooping with him when they solved a tricky problem in the middle of the night. He feels robbed, he feels cheated, he feels exactly like he felt when he got evicted from his apartment and found all his stuff in boxes in the lobby, like someone’s picked up his life and rubbed their grimy fingers all over it without his consent.

Or he would, if he could feel anything.

As it is, he’s barely even aware that he’s dead before he’s alive again. Alive in the middle of a battlefield, but alive, and he’s so busy trying desperately to stay that way, to keep everyone around him that way, that by the time he finds Tony he already has the gauntlet on. Thanos is already turning to dust, the power of the infinity gems is already working its way up Tony’s arm to his heart —

Peter skids to his knees at Tony’s side, already crying so hard he can barely think because he feels like he has emotional whiplash, but he’s not about to let the tears in his throat stop him from saying this a second time. 

He holds Tony’s face in his hands and says, “I love you. I love you, Tony, please don’t leave me. Please don’t — “

“Peter,” Tony murmurs, barely audible. 

And then he’s gone.

Everything seems to freeze. All the motion in the universe stops when the last breath goes out of Tony’s body, and Peter just kneels there, feeling the hot flood of tears on his face and not really understanding, just staring at Tony’s face, so familiar even with all the life gone out of it, even with a lot more gray hair than Peter remembers and blood dribbling from his ears, his nose, his mouth. Peter’s hands curl on Tony’s shoulders, gloves scraping on the Iron Man armor, and he just keeps staring. If he stares long enough, Tony will wake up.

He doesn’t know that people are calling his name, trying to pull him away. He doesn’t know that he’s latched onto Tony with his super strength, that he’s holding him so hard it takes the combined efforts of Thor and Captain America to drag him away. He doesn’t know that he screams, that he shoves at them, that he staggers away into the rubble of the compound and vomits even though there’s nothing in his stomach, heaves and heaves until the dirt under his hands is splattered with blood. He doesn’t know that they have to get Mantis to sedate him, that he left bruises the shape of his hands on Tony’s skin even through the armor, that Rhodey carries him off the battlefield in his arms, that Pepper sits by his side for eight hours still covered in the grime of the fight because Tony’s gone and the one thing she feels like she can do, now, is take care of the kid he loved enough to turn back time for. 

All Peter knows, when he wakes up the next morning, numb and unsure that he’ll ever be able to make himself feel anything again, is that all relationships are transitory until we choose to make them permanent. 

***

“The most dangerous thing in the world is a powerful mind with nothing to occupy it. It will tear itself to pieces, like a bear with its leg stuck in a trap. It will retreat into itself at the expense of our bodies and our social lives, seeking sustenance. As career-oriented women, we must feed our minds exactly what they crave: outside stimulation. Projects, problems, progress.”

—The Phoenix Method: Staying Sane in an Insane World, by Jean Grey, Chapter 1

***

Peter agrees to join Fury’s time travel task force — T-cubed, for short — mostly because he has a lot of very bad and unhealthy ideas about meddling where he ought not meddle and telling the butterfly effect to go screw itself. Also he hasn’t left Tony’s lab in a month, he could build a lifesize Pyramid at Giza with the empty redbull cans piled up in the corner, FRIDAY keeps trying to lock him out with the Ultron Protocol so he keeps having to rewrite her base code, and the closest he’s gotten to replicating the time travel model that Banner won’t let him within a hundred meters of is a looping machine that can turn one of DUM-E’s smoothies back into a bunch of fruit and a splash of motor oil.

Under normal circumstances, this would be pretty exceptional progress for a month’s work, but Peter knows Tony built a time machine the first time in less than a week and he’s getting frustrated that it’s taking him so long to figure out something that’s apparently simple fucking interdimensional quantum mechanics. Working for Fury can’t be that bad.

T-cubed is a three man team, except that two of the men are women. Peter’s there because he’s the only one who’s really equipped to understand the time machine other than Banner, and Banner — for reasons partially unknown and partially having to do with the tests SHIELD 2 ran on the Hulk while he was asleep — refuses to work with Fury. Wanda’s there because she can wipe minds and Fury’s apparently a big fan of Men In Black who thinks the entire city of New York isn’t already desensitized to seeing a half dozen weird unexplained things before breakfast. Hope’s there because if shit goes sideways and they get stuck in the past, she can make it back to the future without the aid of one of the nifty little watches the other two have to wear.

And yeah, Hope and Wanda give him shit for needing a haircut and being a 24-year-old virgin and keeping a stack of women’s self-help books on his bedside table, but Ned and MJ have been giving him shit for those exact same things for the last decade, so what does it matter? None of it matters. Not that they’re doing SHIELD 2’s shady bidding, not that Fury treats Peter like gum on his shoe, not that Peter sleeps a maximum of three hours a night. 

Because the first time Peter steps into the time machine and comes out in the year 2077, all bets are off. Because — if the incontrovertible rules of linear time don’t apply to him anymore — he can do anything. He can get Tony back.

He can do this.

***

Iron Man saves Tokyo from a sea monster in 2008.

It’s pouring rain, clouds hanging low over the city like fog. The Mark IV armor flashes in and out of the gloom like a phantom, red and gold flickering bright and proud and somehow jubilant, like Peter can hear Tony laughing and cheering inside the helmet as he twists through the sky a half mile out over the sea, blasters firing and bits of tentacles flying and the whole city watching, holding its breath. Peter, for his part, feels like he may never breathe again.

He’s paralyzed, clinging to the side of a skyscraper, soaked to the bone in his stealth suit and unsure if he’s shivering from cold or from the invisible vines of grief that are creeping up his legs, through his stomach, wrapping around his heart. He’s not even really close enough to see Tony, but for the first time in what feels like forever, he exists in a world where Tony Stark is alive, where one of the billions of hearts beating belongs to the man he loves. 

“Parker,” Hope says, over the comm in his ear. “Clock’s ticking, we need to get inside that building before Hydra does. You good to go?”

Peter shakes himself and tears his eyes away from the fight as one of the tentacles snatches the Mark IV armor out of the air and drags it underwater. They’re not here for Tony. He can get Tony later. “I’m good,” he replies. “Let’s do it.”

Later, Wanda’s cutting his hair in her room on the SHIELD 2 helicarrier, scissors snicking around his ears, chopped curls accumulating on the shoulders of his t-shirt.

Beachfront Bargain Hunt plays on the TV, and normally they’d be unwinding by making fun of the couples, berating them for bad financial decisions buried in the fluffy blankets on Wanda’s bed, but tonight it’s like she can sense that Peter’s heart wouldn’t be in it, because they’re silent. Peter stares through the TV without really seeing it, still lost in Tokyo and 2008 and droning rain like a veil between worlds. Wanda drags her short, glittery purple nails over his scalp and murmurs, “Don’t think I don’t think about it, too. I’d give — I’d give anything to have my brother back, or Vision. But it doesn’t work like that.”

From what Peter understands of the science, she’s right and she’s wrong.

Right in that they can’t change the world they’re living in now — right in that Peter can’t just go back and use the gauntlet himself, because that’ll just create a parallel timeline where Tony lives, but Peter won’t be in it, he’ll be dead. Wrong in that he’s pretty sure there’s nothing in the math that prevents him from snatching Tony from another timeline and bringing him into this one, except that he’ll have to be very careful about how he does it, when he does it, careful that he’s not dooming that other timeline to destruction at Thanos’s hands. 

Since he’s playing the long game here, he doesn’t say any of that to Wanda. Instead he says, “I know.”

She pinches the shell of his ear. He yelps and pulls away. “What the hell?”

“Don’t lie to me,” Wanda snaps at him, severe and terrifying even though she’s in yoga pants and a Power Puff Girls sweatshirt that has to be eight sizes too big for her. “You think I can’t tell when you’re planning something stupid?”

“Um.”

“I can tell, Parker. I can so tell, even without telepathy.” 

She looks like she’s about ready to rip the truth out of him by force. But when Peter doesn’t argue, just crumples and buries his head in his hands, back to that awful shivering he was doing earlier, she just slides onto the floor next to him and brushes the chopped hair off his shoulders, gentle and quiet. “I know sometimes the moving on is harder than the grieving,” she says. “Sometimes it’s — it’s scarier to let the wound heal than to keep picking it open, but you can’t keep living like this.”

Peter nods and wipes his eyes, holding onto her knee like a lifeline. “I won’t do anything stupid,” he lies. 

But three days later, after everyone’s asleep, Peter finds the backdoor Tony left in SHIELD 2’s security systems and lets himself into the time machine room unsupervised. He puts on his stealth suit and his collectible cereal box Back to the Future watch, and jumps into the quantum realm with his heart in his throat. He steps out in 2018 on the edge of a lake he still has nightmares about. 

A hundred yards away over the water, the lights in the lakehouse are on. 

Peter stands rooted to the spot for a long moment, heartbeat racing like he’s running for his life. Then someone moves in the window, and it feels like a punch, like hitting the ground, all the air shocked out of his lungs.

Peter’s feet start carrying him toward the house without any input from his body, and he’s terrified and excited and hopeful and ecstatic and still broken in half with the magnitude of his loss, a big mess of feelings tumbling around in his body like a blender, and he doesn’t think he processes that he’s really here, that he’s about to see Tony — real, in the flesh Tony — until he’s on the porch, until he’s tugging off his mask, knocking on the door. 

It takes a few minutes for Tony to answer. Peter can hear him shuffling around inside, opening and closing cabinets, muttering to himself, tripping over things. He’s been drinking, Peter realizes. He might not even think this is real. He might not remember.

Then the door opens and Tony’s there. 

He’s too thin, flannel lounge pants and robe hanging off him, thin enough that he looks sick. There’s more salt than pepper in his beard, there are deeper bags under his eyes than ever before, there’s a tremble at the corner of his mouth when he looks at him that Peter doesn’t recognize, like the opposite of holding back a smile. But his eyes are the same eyes Peter stared into while he died, the same eyes Peter saw the light go out of, the same eyes that cut straight through all of Peter’s bullshit the first time he met him. 

Tony doesn’t say anything, but Peter can’t take standing so far away, so lurches forward and hugs him. “Tony,” he gasps, already halfway to ugly-crying. “God I missed you so much, I missed you so much — “

He feels the levees give way under his hands, and then Tony’s arms are around him as tight as they’ve ever been, squeezing. 

“Pete — you’re here.” His fingers dig into Peter’s hair, his side, greedy to feel him. “How are you here? You can’t be here.”

“I’m here,” Peter assures him. “I’m here, I promise.”

Tony presses a kiss to the side of his head, tears streaming quietly down his face. Peter fumbles their mouths together, inexperienced and earnest. It isn’t until he murmurs, “I love you, Tony, I love you, I love you,” that Tony surges forward and kisses him back.

Every touch is like lemon juice on an open wound. 

They end up in Tony’s bed, both too woozy and overwhelmed with emotion to do much of anything.

There’s a bottle of scotch open, half-drunk, on Tony’s bedside table, and Peter thinks maybe that’s a blessing, that Tony either won’t remember this in the morning or will think it was some sort of alcohol-fuelled fever dream. Because the time is ticking down on Peter’s Back to the Future watch, and he can’t stay here. He can’t stay and he can’t bring this Tony back with him, no matter how much he wants to, because this Tony hasn’t figured out time travel yet. This Tony has his own Peter to resurrect, his own universe to save. Peter can’t have him.

But he can have this; he can give this. He can lay wrapped up in Tony, listening to the steady march of his heartbeat in his chest while he runs his hands up and down Peter’s back, counts his fingers, presses kisses to his palms, like no part of Peter is real until Tony touches it. He can bump their noses together, smile at the fond, affectionate look in Tony’s eyes, listen to him say, “Don’t explain it to me, baby. Don’t tell me how you’re here, just — keep looking at me like that.”

He can lick into Tony’s mouth and feel the weight of Tony overtop him and he can let both of them lose themselves in the fragile intimacy of hands and lips, the newness of rucking up clothes to pepper kisses across pale, body-warm skin. He can laugh at nothing and run his fingertips over the curve of Tony’s smile and dash away the tears that cling, iridescent, to the dark smudge of his eyelashes — and if he can’t do anything else, if he can’t be here in the morning, can’t take away years of pain or promise Tony that it’s gonna be alright, he can hold him while he falls asleep.

When he reappears in the time machine room, Hope’s waiting for him. She chastises him with a single steely look and asks, “Did it help?” Her voice doesn’t sound kind, but when Peter’s legs give out right there on the steps, she catches him.

***

“Sometimes being told what we should do isn’t enough. Sometimes we have to discover the edges of right and wrong for ourselves, jump off the bed and break our ankles for ourselves, because the world so often tells us we can’t that we don’t know when to trust it anymore. The freedom to make bad decisions is as important as the freedom to make good decisions — if not moreso.”

—The Phoenix Method: Staying Sane in an Insane World, by Jean Grey, Chapter 15

***

Peter loses his virginity to Tony Stark in a private room at a strip club in 2003. This Tony doesn’t know Peter, doesn’t tell him he loves him while he bends him over and presses his face into a velvet couch and slams his hips against his ass like a piston. He doesn’t have a scar on his chest and he wears his hair slicked back like he used to in all the tabloids, but his eyes are Tony’s and his hands are Tony’s and the dick rearranging his insides is Tony’s, the voice moaning fuck you’re so tight I wanna marry you is Tony’s.

It is — hilariously — exactly how Peter pictured his first time when he was a teenager who had an Iron Man poster on his wall, and he comes so hard his arms go out from under him, face mashed into the scratchy velvet and mouth sloppy with drool. “Holy shit, Tony,” he declares, and Tony laughs smugly and pulls Peter up so they’re chest-to-back and just keeps driving into him until Peter’s an oversensitive, whimpering mess.

Tony teaches Peter to suck dick in a hotel room in Singapore in 1997, eats Peter out until he actually screams in London in ’91, sticks his fingers in Peter’s mouth while he ruts against him in a country club bathroom in 2006. Peter feels bad about it sometimes, most of the time, all the time, having sex with Tony when Tony doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t know that in a decade, two decades from now he’ll be holding Peter while he turns to dust, saying I love you, Pete. I love you so fucking much, you gotta fight it —

So he makes rules for himself, only goes to Tony pre-Iron Man, in his playboy phase, never propositions Tony first, just puts himself in Tony’s path and makes himself available and waits to be pulled into a parked car, a maintenance closet, a dark hallway, never overstays his welcome or asks for more than these versions of Tony Stark can give. It’s not hurting anyone. Every Tony he runs to has their own Peter they haven’t met yet, and it’s hardly like they’ll remember him — at least not as more than a convenient body, pretty brown eyes, and deft hands that somehow knew exactly where to touch to make them fall apart like the losing move in Jenga. 

***

Peter figures it out because of one of those fucking self-help books. Into the Storm: Finding Yourself Through Communion With Nature by Ororo Munroe. Chapter 4. “Trust your own wisdom. Listen to yourself — you are your own best counselor.”

It makes sense. It makes a lot of fucking sense. The only person willing to help Peter steal eternity with Tony is Peter. 

He finds himself on the battlefield at the compound, in those breathless terrifying minutes before Tony got hold of the gauntlet, when he was still running around like he was in some cosmic game of high-stakes keep away. He grabs the other Peter and pulls him under a section of rubble to buy them a few seconds while Captain Marvel smashes the aliens above them.

The other Peter’s eyes are wide and disbelieving, but Peter only has a few seconds and if he can’t trust himself then who can he trust, so he just lets it all come out of him in a nonsensical rush. And the noise is deafening and the world is ending all around him, but the other Peter gets it. He gets it — that no matter what they do, only one of them makes it out of here alive. Peter or Tony.

The other Peter puts the gauntlet on right then and there, and Peter scrambles across the battlefield as fast as he can, dodging aliens and falling spaceships and the hazy streak of Captain Marvel rocketing through the fray until he gets to where Tony, Rhodey and Pepper are fighting back-to-back in a triangle, blasting away at everything that moves. He rips his mask off just in time to avoid getting decapitated by one of Iron Man’s blasters, and Tony pulls him into a hug as the rest of Thanos’s army starts turning to dust. 

Peter pushes away from him and fumbles Wanda’s watch out of his pocket. “Tony, put this on.”

The heart-shaped second hand is ticking down. Tony looks at it, frowning. “What? Pete, what the hell — “

“Just put it on, please,” Peter says, mortified to find that he’s sobbing, desperate for this last-ditch insane fucking plan to work, to please work. “Just put it on, I’ll explain everything in a minute, just please do it.”

“Okay.” Concern’s etched all over Tony’s face, but he takes the watch. “Okay, baby, okay.”

The armor melts away from his wrist, and he tries to put the watch on but he fumbles the clasp in his armored fingers. Peter slaps his hands away and does it himself, the second hand ticking down fast because Peter didn’t want to be here long enough for Tony to figure out what was going on and stop him, fixes the clasp just in time for the second hand to hit twelve noon.

Everything melts away into the insanity of the quantum realm, and a minute later they’re standing in SHIELD 2.

Peter’s still holding on tight to Tony’s hands — one armored, one bare — shaking like a leaf in a thunderstorm. Shock drops over Tony’s face like a shroud as he takes in the room around them, the wide-eyed T-cubed techs, the clouds out the windows, Hope and Wanda gaping at them from the bottom of the stairs, Fury standing at his command post with his arms crossed, looking murderous. He grabs Peter’s hands, hard, and stares urgently at his face, like he’s reading the truth written in the fucking molecules of Peter’s soul: that he meddled where he ought not meddle. “What the hell did you do, Pete?” he asks. 

“Don’t be a hypocrite,” Peter quips, on autopilot. “You did the same fucking thing.”

Tony’s mouth shuts with a snap. “Um.”

Peter presses a short, angry kiss to his mouth. “You died, but I cheated and got you back, because I love you.”

When he pulls back, Tony looks more than a little bit dumbstruck. He stares at Peter like he’s — like he’s simultaneously the best thing in the world and the embodiment of the phrase I’ve created a monster. “You cheated. How did you cheat, exactly?”

“You don’t wanna know.”

“Jesus fuck,” Tony breathes. “You’re right, I so don’t want to know.”

And then he’s pulling Peter into a kiss, breathless and desperate, so unlike anything Peter’s shared with any Tony before, an affirmation of the fact that they’re both alive, they’re both here and they’re together. Peter digs his fingers into the Iron Man armor hard enough to bruise and clings to him, like he clung to Tony’s body years ago, only this time it’s gonna take a lot more than Steve or Thor to pry him away. Tony smiles into his mouth, and Peter laughs, relieved. He did it. He did it. 

Fury and a cohort of SHIELD 2 security officers cart them off the time machine in handcuffs and make a good show of locking them in interrogation rooms on opposite sides of the helicarrier, but Hope sneaks Tony a StarkPad and he uses his backdoor to paralyze every system he can get his hands on, down to the plumbing and the WiFi, so in the end Fury has no choice but to let them go.

Peter’s fired from T-cubed, but he gives it a week until Wanda and Hope are so frustrated with the inadequacy of the SHIELD 2 techs that they stage a mutiny. He doesn’t think he’ll come back. He got what he wanted out of T-cubed — gets to take Tony home to Stark Tower, hide in the kitchen while Tony discovers that everything’s almost exactly as he left it, except for the closet full of his old hoodies in Peter’s room, the pyramid of redbull cans in the lab, the NYU diploma stuck to the fridge. 

He comes back into the kitchen with a tender look on his face, something close to pity but really more like understanding. Peter’s been to the lakehouse. He knows Tony sees himself here, as much as he sees Peter, each of them struggling to cope without the other. Picking the wounds open, building their lives around that empty space in the middle, unwilling to fill it. 

Peter drifts around the counter and falls into Tony’s arms. Tony kisses the crown of his head. “God, baby, I’m sorry.”

He’s solid and real under Peter’s arms. “Don’t apologize,” Peter murmurs, face mashed in his shoulder. “Just don’t do it again.”

“I don’t think I could if I wanted. Doesn’t seem like you’d let me.”

“Definitely not,” Peter agrees. “Zero percent chance.”

They make blueberry pancakes and share a pint of Chunky Monkey, because Tony’s a heathen who doesn’t like Phish Food, and every time Tony smiles at him Peter lets a little bit of the guilt go. Guilt that he got Tony back when May didn’t get Ben, when a million other people in the universe didn’t get their soulmates. Guilt that there’s a version of Peter Parker who’s dead, burnt out by the power of the infinity gems, laying on a battlefield under a slab of concrete, the last place Peter would ever want to die.

Guilt that he deserves to feel, that deserves to be felt, but Peter thinks — fuck it — because life’s never been fair, no matter what timeline you’re living in or what version of Tony Stark or Peter Parker you are or whether you’ve been abusing time travel for personal gain. Life’s never fair. So maybe this is as fair as it gets, going to bed with the man he loves and waking up breathless from a nightmare reaching for Tony, finding Tony already reaching for him.