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We were born to try, to see each other through.
To know and love ourselves and others well
is the most difficult and meaningful work we’ll ever do.

Nine - Sleeping at Last

 

 

Tony turned five on May 29th, 1975. 

His soulmark appeared at nine a.m. 

It was a small, subtle thing—tiny black numbers on the underside of his wrist. He studied the mark with curious eyes and rubbed at it with small fingers. The mark didn’t budge. It didn’t even smudge. When his nanny came into his room to wake him and dress him for the day, he greeted her with an eagerness that wasn’t usual for him so early in the morning.

“You’re already up?” his nanny asked, making her way over to his bed. “You must be excited about your birthday, hm?”

“Yup.” Tony nodded. “And this!” He held up his wrist so she could see his newly acquired mark.

“Oh!” His nanny gasped, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. “Oh my… I—I’ll be right back, okay? Stay right here, Tony.” 

Tony stared after his nanny as she quickly turned on her heel and left his room. A few minutes later, she returned with his mother at her heels. 

“Look at his wrist…” his nanny murmured to his mother as both women walked up to his bed.

Maria bent down beside him and dragged a gentle hand through his hair. “Happy birthday, mimmo .” She kissed his cheek. "Can I see your wrist?"

Tony held out his wrist for his mother to inspect.

Maria's brows creased as her eyes flitted over the numbers. "Wow… That's a long time," she said quietly.

"What does it say?" his nanny questioned.

"Forty-one… Eleven… Four, nine," Maria recited.

"My goodness! That's such a long time!" 

Maria ran a thumb over the soulmark. "Maybe it's wrong…" 

Tony tilted his head in confusion. "What do the numbers mean, mommy?" 

Maria gave him a sweet smile and said, "It means you have to wait a very long time before you meet your soulmate." 

Tony blinked. "Soulmate?" 

"The person who is destined to be in your life," Maria explained. When Tony's puzzled look didn't go away, she continued. "Think of them like a missing puzzle piece. They're the ones that complete the puzzle."

"Oh…" Tony hummed, glancing down at his soulmark again. 

"Hey." Maria brought his small hand to her face and laid his palm on her cheek. "Don't worry about it, okay? It'll happen when you're a big boy."

Tony pouted. "I am a big boy, mom!" 

"Oh, are you now?" Maria asked playfully before tickling his sides. "My big five-year-old!" 

Tony's squeals of delight were interrupted by Howard's stern voice. "Maria? Where's Anthony?"

The tickling came to an abrupt stop. His mother stood up to her full height and dusted off her skirt. "It's time to get dressed, yeah? We don’t want to keep your father waiting." 

His nanny began to move around him in a whirlwind of haste, laying his freshly picked clothes out on his bed and pulling his shirt over his head. Tony obeyed every tug and yank from his nanny and tried to prepare his mind for whatever project his father had arranged for him to work on. Birthday or not, he was still a Stark.

He absently wondered if his soulmate knew how to build a circuit board. Or if they even liked technology. 

 

41:11:4:2.

 

41:11:4:1.

 

---

 

“I’m James.”

“Tony.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of impossible to not know who you are.”

Their hands joined in a handshake before a shock of electricity made them both flinch in surprise. 

James quickly dropped his hand and said, “Whoa, sorry about that. Stupid static electricity.” 

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Tony said, distracted. His attention was on his wrist, his soulmark vanishing from his skin and returning in two consecutive flickers. Tony furrowed his brow. 

It’s never done that before.

“Haven’t met yours yet, either?” 

Tony glanced up at James, who was already watching him with a knowing smirk.

“No. Not yet.” Tony tried to steal a look at James’ wrist, but he couldn’t get a clear view with his hands in his pockets. “How much longer do you have?”

James removed one of his hands from his pockets and looked at his wrist. “Five months. I’ll probably meet them right here at MIT.” He jerked his chin in Tony’s direction. “What about you?”

“Uh…” Tony crossed his arms in an attempt to discreetly hide his soulmark. Five months was nothing compared to the amount of time Tony had to wait. “Not much longer. A couple more years,” he said with a nonchalant shrug.

“I wonder who’s the lucky person who has Tony Stark as their soulmate,” James joked.

“Whoever they are, they’re not as lucky as the person who has him as their roommate .” Tony patted James on his shoulder and pointed a finger at the bunk bed pushed against the far wall. “I call top bunk, by the way.”

“Hey, I’m older and taller than you, I should get first dibs.” 

“I can’t hear you!” Tony ran to climb up the ladder to get to the top bunk. “You’re too far down!”

James rolled his eyes as he plopped down on the bottom bunk. “I’m rooming with a two-year-old,” he mumbled.

Tony hung off the side of the bunk to peer at James sprawled on the bottom mattress. “I’m fifteen.”

An arched eyebrow. “You sure about that?”

Tony stuck out his tongue and righted himself. He sat cross-legged on his bed and glimpsed at his soulmark. It wasn’t blinking anymore. “Hey,” he called out.

“Hm?” James’ voice came from below him.

“Do you know what it means when your soulmark blinks?”

There was quiet for a moment. “Nope,” James said. “Why?”

Tony bit his lip. “Just wondering.” 

Later that night, Tony checked out as many books as his thin, teenage arms could carry and did his research on all things soulmate and soulmark alike.

He found out the soulmark will blink—but won’t run out of time or disappear—when you meet someone who will become significant in your life. Oftentimes, when the two parties meet, there’ll be a small shock to signify the two souls acknowledging each other. This person is not your soulmate, but that doesn’t make them any less important. They’re still a large part of the puzzle. 

Tony listened to the soft snores of James as he closed his book and shut off his flashlight. 

“Welcome to the puzzle, James,” Tony whispered to the dark room.

 

30:9:14:2:40.

 

30:9:14:2:39. 

 

---

 

"Try to remember the kind of September…"

The rich sound of the piano mixed with his mother's sweet, melodic singing drifted through the air and caressed his ears. His mother was a magnificent pianist—Tony loved to listen to her play. She would play whenever she got the chance—which unfortunately wasn't very often—but Tony couldn't fault her for that. With him at Stark Industries every day—and before that at MIT—he'd hardly be home to listen to her.

However, the holidays were a different story.

Maria wanted her family home during the holidays. No business trips, no time-consuming presentations, no long nights at SI. She wanted her husband and her son home, together, as a family.

Tony didn't mind being home for the holidays. Jarvis always cooked him his favorite meals and his mother would bake him her family's traditional desserts.

It was nice not stuffing his face with cheeseburgers for a change.

Yes, the holidays were a special occasion in the Stark household. Tony never thought something bad could happen during the magical month of December.

How wrong he was. 

"Was Dad your soulmate?" Tony asked, seemingly out of nowhere, as he sat up from his lounging on the sofa.  

His mother's fingers pressed the piano keys softer, and the music quieted down. "No." An enigmatic smile crossed her features. "He was not."

Tony never knew that. He saw there were no soulmarks on his parent's wrists and he had always assumed it was because they were each other's soulmates. Hearing that his father was not his mother's soulmate threw him for a loop, but at the same time, it didn't surprise him.

"Who was it?" 

Maria finished her song with a flourish—the notes resonated throughout the sitting room before they faded. She only answered him when the room was cloaked in silence. "I don't know."

Tony knitted his brow.

His mother turned around on the piano bench to look at him. "My counter faded before the time ran out." Her attention dropped to her wrist. "I never got to meet them," she said softly.

Tony remembered reading about that—the only reason why one's soulmark would fade before the counter reached zero.

"The soulmark will first appear on the fifth year of your birth," the book titled Understanding Soulmates said. "It is a minuscule combination of numbers on the underside of your left wrist. It will read left to right in this order: years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds. Everyone's soulmark varies greatly—some must only wait a few months or days until they meet their soulmate. Some must wait many years."

Tony had laughed at that part. Yeah, no kidding, he had thought. 

"Your soulmark will disappear once the counter runs out and you've met your soulmate. There is only one instance where your soulmark may fade before the time has reached its end. If that happens, it unfortunately means your soulmate has passed away."

Tony subconsciously rubbed his left wrist with his right hand. It gave him an odd sense of comfort. "What did that feel like?"

"Nothing," his mother said, before adding, "everything. Nothing and everything." She stared at a spot on the wall, her gaze faraway. "I was eating dinner with my family. A normal evening. I was clearing the plates from the table when all of a sudden, tears started rolling down my cheeks." She laughed lightly, reminiscing. "I was so confused. But then this… this wave of longing hit me. I don't know what made me look at my wrist, but I did, and I saw my soulmark fade away."

"How old were you?"

"Sixteen." 

"How much time was left?"

The enigmatic smile returned. "Four days."

A chill ran down Tony's spine. He silently pondered what would have changed if his mother had met her soulmate. Would she have still married his father? Would he even exist? 

Tony wrapped his blanket tighter around himself when his father made his appearance. He shrugged his suit jacket on, stole one glance at Tony, and said to Maria: "Who's the homeless person on the couch?"

Tony rolled his eyes.

"Are you ready to go, dear?" Maria asked, ignoring his previous question.

Howard nodded as he buttoned his blazer. "Jarvis is pulling the car around."

Tony stood and folded his arms. "I can't believe you're both breaking the one rule this family actually follows." 

"This is important," Howard said. "We can't miss it just because you want us to stay home and play house." 

His mother's voice was stern when she said, "Howard." 

Tony swallowed his retort.

"It's only for a couple of days." Maria moved closer to him and put a gentle hand on his arm. "We'll be back before Christmas Eve." 

"This is your rule, you know," Tony muttered under his breath, loud enough for her to hear. "You're breaking your own rule."

His mother rubbed his arm in soothing circles. "I know," she replied, her volume matching his. "I'm sorry."

"Where are you going, anyway?" Tony questioned.

"The Pentagon is having—" his father started, but Tony cut him off with his hand held up in the air.

"Ah, that's all you had to say." He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned towards his mother. "Don't worry, you're gonna love the holiday menu at the commissary," he said, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"Hey,"—Tony's eyes snapped to his father—"do me a favor?" Howard plucked the santa hat off of Tony's head and tossed it somewhere behind him. "Try not to burn the house down while we're gone." 

A sly smile. "I make no promises." 

Howard sighed tiredly. "I'll go get the bags." He turned on his heel and left.

With her hand on his back, Maria spoke, "He really does miss you when you're not here."

Tony scoffed. "I doubt it. Dad hates when I'm around. One board meeting with me is all he can handle before he locks me in R&D for the day."

His mother's lips turned down in a slight frown. "You know how your father can be."

Cold? Controlling? Critical? Able to find every single fault in everything he did? Never once expressed his pride in any of his achievements? Always expecting more and more, always wanting something better, nothing was ever good enough—

Yeah, he knew. 

Tony presented his mother with a strained smile, to which she kissed his cheek and said, "We love you."

He closed his eyes. "Yeah. I know."

"Maria? Let's go!" Howard's impatient voice called from the hallway.

His mother spared him one last glance before she walked away. Tony watched her go, committing her sky blue blazer into the depths of his memory. Part of him wanted to go back to his penthouse, if only to be stubborn and petty. Maybe he'd throw a party—combat his loneliness with pretty strangers who'd cling to him in hopes of getting something in return.

He quickly dismissed that thought—it sounded terrible. He did enough of that in college. 

24:5:23:23:56:48

He decided to stay home with Jarvis and wait for his mother to come back. She'd only be gone for a couple of days, anyway. It wouldn't be long before she came back. 

24:5:23:23:56:46

24:5:23:23:56:45

His parents died in a car crash that night.

24:5:23:19:17:7

He should've told his mother he loved her too.

24:5:23:19:17:6

 

---

 

"Tony, there's someone I want you to meet." 

Tony lifted his head from the diagrams scattered all over his desk. He wasn't surprised when he saw Obie stroll into his office. No, what really captured his attention was the woman who walked in behind him. 

Tall, slender, red hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail. She wore a black blazer with a black skirt to match, wrapped around long legs, elevated by red heels. 

She was cute. Very cute. 

Tony stood up and walked from around his desk. He held out his hand and said, "Nice to meet you, Miss…?" 

"Potts." She shook his hand and smiled. "Virginia Potts."

"Ms. Potts was recently hired as a…"

Obie's voice fell on deaf ears. Tony wasn't listening to him—he couldn't listen to him—not with the way his hand was tingling, prickling with a thousand tiny needles. Ms. Potts immediately pulled her hand away as her blue eyes widened. It was like they were stuck in a vacuum—time stood still and all sound ceased to exist for a few moments where they just stared at each other. 

She felt it too

Tony has shook hundreds, maybe thousands, of hands in his life so far. But he hadn't felt that jolt in years. 

He hadn't felt it since he was fifteen.

He didn't have to look at his soulmark to know that it was blinking.

She's a part of the puzzle. 

"...I just wanted you two to get acquainted with each other," Obie finished his spiel, completely oblivious to the fact that Tony had tuned him out after his first sentence.

"Yeah, yeah..." Tony said, feigning attentiveness. His attention was still on Ms. Potts, who was standing there, straightening out her skirt and worrying her bottom lip. 

He wanted to— had to—keep her close. 

Which is why he asked, "What are they paying you, Ms. Potts?" 

Her head snapped up. "Excuse me?" 

"Tony, what does this have to do with—"

"Whatever they're paying you," Tony interrupted, "I'll pay you double as my personal assistant." 

"What?" she gasped.

"What are you doing?" Obie asked, annoyed. "Ms. Potts has an MBA, what could she possibly do as your personal assistant?" 

Tony ignored him. He narrowed his eyes at her and simply said, "Triple." 

"Tony—" Obie tried again, but instead of Tony cutting him off, it was Ms. Potts.

"You'll pay me triple?" she asked, a daring glint in her eyes. "That's it?"

Tony blinked in surprise. So did Obie. Both men watched her with stunned faces.

"What else would you like?" Tony questioned, folding his arms. Two could play this game. 

"I just moved to California for this position, and I'm currently staying with a friend…" She raised her eyebrows, expectant.

Tony nodded. "I'll get you your own apartment. About a thirty minute commute from here. Sound good?" 

Ms. Potts gave him a small smile. "Okay. I'll do it."

Obie blew out an exasperated sigh. "God, Tony! What the hell is this about? If you wanted a PA, I could've gotten you one!"

"Nope." Tony took a step back and leaned against his sleek desk. "I wanted Ms. Potts."

"And why is that? When you didn't know who the woman was five minutes ago?" 

"Because, Obie," he dramatically put a hand over his heart and stated with a sappy voice, "she's my soulmate."

Ms. Potts covered her grin behind her hand. 

Obadiah rolled his eyes and turned on his heel. "Every beautiful woman you meet is your soulmate, apparently," he grumbled as he left his office. 

Tony laughed at the man's departure. Obie was so easy to rile up. It never failed to amuse him.

Once the glass door shut with a click, Ms. Potts spoke up. "I actually met my soulmate in college. During my undergrad studies." 

"Is that so?" Tony tilted his head, and from where he was, he could see the underside of her left wrist peek out from the sleeve of her blazer. There was no mark. 

He crossed his arms tighter, to conceal his own soulmark, still counting down like it's been doing for the past seventeen years. 

Ms. Potts inclined her head. "It is. She's my best friend and I love her dearly." She inhaled a breath. "But when I shook your hand, I felt this… spark . I've—I've never felt anything like that before."

Tony raised his brows. "No?"

"No," she confirmed. "Did you feel it too?"

He smirked. "Are you flirting with me, Ms. Potts? Because I've heard that line a million times, but with you it just might work," he joked. 

"Oh, no—no." She chuckled. "It was a genuine question. I'm a professional, Mr. Stark. I would never flirt with my boss."

Tony snorted. "Right. Well, my professional answer to your question is, yes." His eyes softened as he looked at her. "I felt it too."

"Do you know if it means anything?" 

It means you're someone special.

"I think it means we'll get along just fine," he said with a quick twist of his mouth. 

She smiled warmly. "I'm glad." Taking a quick glance around his office, she said, "Well then… Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"That'll be all, Ms. Potts."

 

24:1:20:3:45:26 

 

---

 

Death was no stranger to Tony Stark. It had forced itself into his life on multiple occasions. Never with warning. Always unwelcomed. 

Yet it came.

It had always evaded him and claimed the people around him—his father, his mother, Jarvis.

There were times when he waited for it to claim him too—collapsed on the floor, clutching an empty bottle of whiskey, silently weeping and waiting. Waiting. 

Don't leave me here, he'd beg. Take me too. Please.

It never came.

Until it did. 

He swore he could hear the derisive laughter of death as he laid out on the desert terrain, sand in his hair, in his mouth. He could hear it laugh at him when that fateful bomb landed a mere foot away from his face. He remembered thinking, death has one hell of a sense of humor, when he happened to glance at the bomb and saw his own name staring back at him before it went off.

Everything went black.

That was supposed to be it. His story was meant to end there. 

But it didn't. 

He survived having shrapnel embedded in his chest, he survived a complex surgery in a dark and dirty cave, he survived being tortured and held hostage. He survived. 

And due to the undeserved kindness of Ho Yinsen, he escaped and lived to see another day. 

Tony was gone for three months. Radio silence for three months. Any normal person would have assumed the worst and moved on. There was no use putting your life on hold for three months to chase after a ghost. 

Unless your name was James Rhodes.

"Next time you ride with me," Rhodey quipped, pulling him into a bone-crushing hug. 

Closing his eyes, he burrowed into Rhodey's shoulder and breathed him in. Tony was so exhausted he could barely smile, let alone laugh . He was dehydrated, he was starving, he was in so much pain—but most of all, he was grateful. Grateful for Yinsen, grateful for Rhodey, grateful he was given another chance after being so careless for so long. 

Don't waste your life, Stark, Yinsen had told him. 

Tony listened. In that moment, he made an oath to himself—he'd do everything in his power to make things right. 

He wouldn't waste another minute

 

5:10:25:5:17:43

 

---

 

They called him Iron Man.

It wasn't technically correct—the suit was titanium alloy, not iron—but it had a nice ring to it. 

He went from being seen as a merchant of death to a protector of lives seemingly overnight.

It gave him whiplash if he thought about it for too long. 

That title, it held weight. It was heavier than any responsibility he had ever received. So much more was expected from him. No longer could he sit by and blindly reap the benefits of destruction.

Destruction caused with weapons he had helped create.

No more. 

No more weapons. No more ignorance. 

He was making things right.

 

5:10:23:1:7:10

 

---

 

"I am Iron Man." 

 

5:7:15:4:19:30

 

---

 

Maybe this is it, Tony thought as he sucked the blood from his finger. He was dying.

Again. 

But this time was different.

Maybe this was how he was meant to go. Slowly, like a dwindling candle, or a fading bulb. Not with a bang, but gradually. Forced to watch himself deteriorate. Become a shell of the man he once was. 

Too bad he's Tony Stark. 

Instead, he'd stare death right in its face and do whatever the hell he wanted with the time he had left.

 

5:16:4:14:38

 

---

 

“What are you looking at?”

“I’m looking at you. You wanna do this whole lone gunslinger act and it’s unnecessary. You don’t have to do this alone.”

“You know, I wish I could believe that. I really do. But you’ve gotta trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.”

 

5:11:20:50:13

 

---

 

He made Pepper CEO. He raced in the Monaco Grand Prix. He threw a disastrous birthday party. He fought Rhodey. He pushed away everyone he cared about. And then he gave up.

 

5:10:15:13:54

 

---

 

But Nick Fury wouldn't let him give up. Natalie—or Black Widow, rather—wouldn't let him give up. 

His father made sure he couldn't give up.

 

5:10:9:21:5

 

---

 

Iron Man: Yes.

Tony Stark: Not recommended.

 

5:8:5:46:37

 

---

 

Aliens were invading New York. 

Out of all places in the world to invade, Tony supposed New York was the least questionable. New Yorkers saw crazy shit every day. Aliens couldn't be too far off. 

Except these aliens were nothing like the ones from the movies. They weren't skinny, little green things with too-big eyes and balloon-shaped heads. They didn't want the humans to take them to their leader. 

They wanted to destroy. To kill everything in their path. Mankind stood no chance against remorseless beings like these. 

Which is why they were created. 

The Avengers. Earth's mightiest heroes—or something like that. Tony thought it all sounded like a load of crap. A Russian super spy, a radioactive scientist, the literal Asgardian god of thunder, Legolas' less attractive brother, a star-spangled supersoldier from the 40s, and him: The narcissistic, self-destructive billionaire.

They couldn't even save Phil Coulson—let alone the entire world.

Yet, somehow, they were doing it. They were working together like an actual team. They were saving the world.

And then the idiots at the World Security Council decided to send a nuclear missile to Manhattan.

Tony knew what he had to do.

“Stark, you know that’s a one-way trip.”

He had to do it.

“Sir. Shall I call Ms. Potts?”

Millions of lives were about to be lost. He couldn't let that happen.

He had to make things right.

 

4:1:5:1:6:10

 

---

 

Tony had seen dark before. The kind of dark that was consuming. Absorbing. Black matter that slipped into every crevice of the mind and left you blind. Lost in a void without a sense of direction. Tony had seen dark before.

But space—space was different.

Space was silent. Space was cold. It was dark. It was empty.

Or so he thought.

An armada of alien ships hung in the sky before him, completely still, as if they were statues. Others swam through the inky blackness with an effortless grace that could only be described as beautiful.

Beautiful. Terrifying. Horrifying.

What else was out there?

Tony watched as the nuke flew up to greet the fleet of alien ships. He stared as the ships imploded into a fiery, colorful supernova. He gazed at the explosion as his suit began to freeze and he started to fall backwards. Tony kept his eyes open until he couldn’t anymore. 

As his eyelids grew heavy and his body succumbed to the pull of gravity, his mind’s final thought was of his soulmate. 

Forgive me, Tony silently pleaded.

And then he plummeted. 

 

4:1:5:1:2:1

 

---

 

Tony couldn’t catch a break.

His home was blown up—his fault, he’ll admit it—Happy was in a coma, his suits were out of commission, he lost connection to J.A.R.V.I.S, he was stranded in the middle of wherever-the-hell Tennessee, and everyone thought he was dead.

Again. 

A mere six months after the Battle of New York.

He knew he was pushing himself past his limit, but there was no rest for the wicked. If he stopped—even for a moment—and something like New York happened again, it’d be his fault for not doing all he could to stop it. 

No one went through that wormhole but him. No one understood the nightmares that tormented him every time he closed his eyes. If he stopped building, stopped preparing for the inevitable, those nightmares would become reality. 

He’d never be able to live with himself if he let that happen.

 

3:5:18:2:19:14

 

---

 

“Just breathe. Really, just breathe. You’re a mechanic, right?”

“Right.”

“Why don’t you just build something?”

 

3:5:15:18:9:48

 

---

 

Tony did what he did best. 

He built. He deciphered the undecipherable and unraveled the most complex of issues.

He removed the Extremis from Pepper’s body, then took the cure a step further—always enhancing, always improving—and used it on himself. 

The chestful of shrapnel was just slowing him down anyway.

Besides, he didn’t need an arc reactor to protect his heart. The two halves of his heart were standing right behind the glass of the operating room.

Laid out on the operating table, he gave them a thumbs up.

Rhodey returned it. Pepper smiled.

He could breathe a little easier.

 

3:5:13:8:4:41

 

---

 

“Remember when a hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space? Well, guess what? We're standing three hundred feet below it. We're the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there?” Tony pointed heavenward. “That's… that's the endgame. How were you guys planning on beating that?”

“Together,” Steve said simply. Everything was so simple to him.

“We’ll lose,” Tony stated.

“Then we'll do that together, too.”

 

1:1:7:4:42:3

 

---

 

"Rhodey. Rhodey—Rhodey!" 

"What's up, Tones? I gotta go."

"Give me five minutes, yeah?" 

Rhodey slowed his pace as Tony caught up with him. They stood together in a secluded hallway of the New Avengers Facility in upstate New York—otherwise known as the Compound. The Avengers (or what was left of them), frolicked here in between missions to train, upgrade their weapons, heal their wounds, or just get some rest.

Tony never imagined himself spending much time at the Compound, content with funneling funds and resources into the operations and equipment. He'd check in every now and again to make sure everyone was happy and things were running smoothly, but after Ultron, he was done avenging. He was satisfied with helping from the backlines. Nat and Cap had everything under control. 

Then things turned sour with Pepper, and he found himself with more time than he knew what to do with. 

So to combat the emptiness of the tower, he'd head up to the Compound and tinker in his lab for hours on end. Prototype new weapons and design better suits for everyone. When he was particularly bored, he'd ask F.R.I.D.A.Y to run the "Neighborhood Watch" protocol. 

Rhodey stopped walking. "Fine. Five minutes," he said. "It better be good."

"Oh, it is." Tony pulled his StarkPhone out of his pocket and shook it once so the screen would project holographically. A video started playing.

A video titled "SPIDERMAN CATCHES SPEEDING CAR". 

"You've seen this?" Tony asked, watching Rhodey's face for his reaction. 

Rhodey furrowed his eyebrows as a red blur swung into the shot and caught a speeding car, head-on, before it could crash into a city bus. "More wannabe superheroes?" Rhodey questioned, eyes still on the video. 

"This one might be the real deal. People are calling him 'Spider-Man.' He's already made a name for himself." 

Rhodey looked at him suspiciously. "You were poking around the city’s CCTVs again." It wasn't a question. 

Tony shook his head. "Didn't have to. This guy has videos all over the internet."

Rhodey scoffed.

"What do you think?” The hologram shuttered before the video repeated itself. “With Bruce missing, Clint retiring, and Thor off-world, we could use a few more hands."

“We can’t just take in anybody, Tony.” 

“Anybody? Look at this—” Tony pointed at the footage. “That car was going forty miles per hour— at least. A three thousand pound vehicle ,” he stressed, voice low. “He caught it like it was a baseball. This isn’t some tryhard from down the street.”

Rhodey shrugged. “If you say so.”

Tony poked Rhodey’s shoulder like a petulant child. “I know so. Imagine what he could do suited up with our equipment. We could use a guy like this on our side.”

They stood in a ruminative silence, their attention on the looped footage of Spider-Man.

Rhodey tilted his head as Spider-Man swung out of the frame in a hazy shape of red and blue. 

“Is he wearing pajamas?” 

 

0:1:5:22:58:54

 

---

 

“The Sokovia Accords. Approved by one hundred and seventeen countries, it states that the Avengers shall no longer be a private organization..."

 

0:0:4:5:34:29

 

---

 

“Thirty-six hours, jeez.”

“We're seriously understaffed,” Natasha said, then paused for a beat. “I have an idea.” 

“Me too. Where's yours?”

“Downstairs. Where's yours?”

Tony smirked.

 

0:0:1:5:38:59

 

---

 

The Parkers lived in a charming, little apartment in the middle of Queens. It was easy for Tony to make himself comfortable on their couch as Mrs. Parker—May, as she insisted to be called—boiled tea and warmed up a dessert to go with it.

“I’m on a small health kick currently, so I made a dessert with dates in it,” May said as she set the loaf down on the coffee table. The smell of walnuts mixed with May’s sweet perfume wafted into the air. “Sorry if it’s not that good.” 

“I’m sure it’s delicious.” Tony smiled politely.

She poured him a cup of tea and placed it on a coaster before taking her spot next to him on the couch. 

Tony popped a piece of the loaf in his mouth and instantly regretted it.

Their chatter was stilted at first. May navigated their conversation carefully, trying her best to understand Tony’s intentions with the surprise visit. He didn’t blame her. It wasn’t every day that Tony Stark showed up at someone’s house to personally deliver a scholarship. 

It wasn’t even sometimes. It was never.

Which was why Tony had to dial the charisma all the way up to the point where he had charm seeping from his pores. 

He couldn’t blow this opportunity. He needed to meet Spider-Man.

Tony answered all of May’s questions. He choked down some more of her walnut date loaf, drank her tea, complimented her home, her cooking, her everything, until the taut line of her shoulders relaxed.

“It’s a sizeable grant,” Tony explained. “Completely funded by Stark Industries.”

“Wow,” May said in awe. “That’s… Wow.”

“Yeah.”

“Peter’s gonna be… speechless.”

“Kinda like his aunt?” Tony joked.

May laughed lightly, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “Kinda like me, yeah.” Her laugh faltered as her eyes flickered over to the hand he had hanging off the back of the couch. 

Tony thought nothing of it as he leaned forward. "It's so hard for me to believe you're someone's aunt."

She smiled coyly. "Well, we come in all shapes and sizes." Another glance at his hand. 

"Should I—?" Tony lifted his arm from its perch on the back of the couch, uncertain if she was uncomfortable with his overly familiar position.

“No—no, you’re fine! I’m staring. I’m sorry—I know this is none of my business, but your soulmark...”

His eyebrows rose.

“There’s only twenty minutes left,” she clarified.

“Oh?” Tony twisted his hand to view the underside of his wrist, and lo and behold—there were only twenty minutes left on his counter.

0:0:0:0:20:42

Huh. 

He hadn’t noticed. To be honest, he hadn’t noticed his soulmark in years. The black numbers had become a normal part of his body. A regular tattoo that he had become so desensitized to seeing when he took a shower, dressed for the day, and slid a watch around his wrist. 

Forty-one years. He spent more than half his life staring at the numbers imprinted on his skin. Seeing them, but not really registering what they meant. He’d grown so numb to the idea of meeting his soulmate. Four decades of waiting had all but eroded the previous excitement he felt when he was younger. 

At that point, he could never meet his soulmate and he’d be fine with it. 

There were more important things to focus on.

“Are you sure you have nowhere else to be?” May asked, picking up her mug of tea. “Peter sometimes takes detours after school. I never know where he goes.” She took a sip and then mumbled into her cup, “I assume he’s being a teen, doing teenager-y things.”    

Tony narrowed his eyes. She doesn’t know about his spider gig. 

Deciding it’s not his secret to tell, Tony sniffed and gave a curt nod of his head. “Don’t worry about me—I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

May lowered her mug to her lap. After a brief silence, she asked, “Are you excited?”

“To give Peter his scholarship? Ecstatic.”

“No—to meet your soulmate.”

Tony rubbed his left wrist, an instinctive gesture that gave him peace, if only for a moment. His lips quirked up into a wry smile as he said,  “I think the anticipation has worn off at this point.”    

There was a confused line between May’s brows, but before she could question him on his vague statement, Tony asked, “Were you excited?” 

May followed his line of sight to her own blank wrist. “Oh. Uh—yeah. Yeah, I was. He was everything I didn’t know I needed.” She ran her thumb along the rim of her mug, a wistful expression on her face. “I miss him everyday.” 

Tony didn’t need May to elaborate—he understood her grief. Deep-rooted, shown by the way she closed in on herself, suppressed sorrow scraping its way up to the surface despite her best intentions to keep it at bay. 

He didn’t pry any further. Instead, he picked up another piece of May’s dessert and changed the topic. 

“This walnut date loaf is exceptional.”

 

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0:0:0:0:0:1

 

0:0:0:0:0:0

 

---

 

“May, I’m home!"

“Hey, hon. How was school today?”

“Okay. There’s this really awesome car parked…” 

The boy’s eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw Tony.

Tony just grinned at him.

Peter slowly took his headphones out of his ears, mouth agape and stars twinkling in his doe-like brown irises. He blinked a few times in quick succession. “Uh… What? What are you—what? I— what?”

Tony stood up in a swift motion and rounded the couch to stand before Peter. “Mr. Parker,” he greeted smoothly. “It’s about time we met.”

Even in the fog of disbelief, Peter managed to remember his manners. He held out his hand and sputtered, “I’m—I’m—I’m Peter.”

Tony gripped his hand and shook it. “Tony.”

He felt the jolt in its entirety before he reacted to it. An intense stinging sensation ran up and down his arm, prickling and warming his skin. The pain didn’t make him want to flinch, it made him want to rip his sleeve off and dump his arm in a bucket of ice. It was nothing like the small shocks he’d experienced with Rhodey and Pepper. Comparing the two was like comparing a pinch to a punch. 

The muscles in his hand tensed, causing him to drop Peter's hand in an awkward end to their handshake. 

Burning. His left wrist was burning. The wrist with his…

His soulmark. His counter had reached zero. After forty-one years of waiting, his soulmark was fading right before his very eyes. 

Tony clenched his jaw and shot an alarmed glance at Peter.

Who was clutching his own wrist and staring at him like he was a hallucination.

"Peter?" May's concerned voice brought Tony back to the present. "You okay?"

Peter's wide eyes darted to his aunt. "Yeah?" He cleared his throat and tried again. "Yeah—I'm… Uh, I—" he stuttered, glimpsing back and forth between Tony and May.

Tony looked over his shoulder and pointed at Peter. "Can I have five minutes with him?" 

May nodded warily. "...Sure."

Peter's room was small, with clothes strewn all over the floor, various electronics and notebooks scattered on his desk, and an unmade twin bed pushed against the wall. 

A room fit for a teenager.

Tony knew Peter was young—that's why he made up the scholarship story to meet him—but the kid looked so much younger in person than he did in the school picture F.R.I.D.A.Y dug up. It was disconcerting.

Once Peter was in his room and the door was closed behind them, Tony snapped his fingers and said, "Wrists. Let me see your wrists."

Peter furrowed his brows. "Huh? My—what?" 

"Your wrists, kid. Hold them up. Lemme see."

Peter rolled up the sleeves of his hoodie and held up his wrists for Tony to see.

Not a single speck.

"Where's your soulmark?" Tony asked, already knowing the answer.

Peter looked at his left wrist. "It was here this morning…"

A breath blew past Tony’s lips. "I can't believe this…" he mumbled. 

The weighty silence from Peter told Tony everything he needed to know.

Incredulous laughter bubbled from his chest, the sound was clipped and breathy. "After all these years… I can't believe Spider-Man is my soulmate."

Peter's jaw almost dropped to the floor. "How—? How—how do you know I'm Spider-Man?" 

Tony couldn't help but smirk. This kid was definitely a beginner. "You just told me." 

Like a rubber band that was pulled too hard, Peter's mouth snapped shut. The color faded from his face as he tried to backtrack. "No—no, that's not what I meant—"

Tony held up his hand. Peter stopped talking. "I already knew, kid. That's why I'm here. I needed to find Spider-Man, and you're not very good at keeping your identity a secret." 

"I'm not that bad at it," Peter said, crossing his arms. "No one knows I'm Spider-Man."

Tony gave him a look. 

"Well—no one except you, apparently."

"Why not tell your... unusually attractive aunt?"

Peter's eyes went wide. "May can't know! She'd kill me!" He paused. "Wait—did you tell her?" 

“Relax—relax. Your secret is safe. I told her I was here to give her nephew a scholarship.”

“A scholarship?” 

“The September Foundation,” Tony explained as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I thought it’d make sense—seeing as the grant is for gifted students. You go to Midtown School of Technology and Science—one of the top high schools in the city. Marching band, robotics club, and the decathlon team? Sounds pretty gifted to me.” 

Peter squinted his eyes at Tony, skeptical. “How do you know so much about me?” 

Tony waved a dismissive hand. “Not important.” 

“Uh, yeah? It’s kinda important when—”

After a long inhale, Tony blurted, “Ever been to Germany?”

“Uh, no?” Peter said, clearly confused at the sudden topic switch. “I don’t have a passport… Or a driver’s license.”

“It’s a beautiful country,” Tony said, looking around Peter’s room. “Lots of history. You’ll love it.”

Peter plopped down on his bed as if his knees gave out on him. The mattress springs squeaked under his weight. “Are—are you taking me to Germany?”

“I am.”

“Why?”

Tony twisted his mouth to the side. “Can’t say. Just know your webbing skills are needed there.” 

“Mr. Stark, I—I appreciate the offer, but I can’t go to Germany.”

It was Tony’s turn to ask why.

“Because…” Peter watched his fingers for a short moment. “I… I have homework.”

Tony’s forehead creased. “...I’m gonna pretend you didn’t say that.”

“I’m—I’m being serious!” Peter exclaimed. “I can’t just drop out of school!”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You’re not dropping out of school, kid. You’ll miss one day. What? Do you need me to call your principal or something?”

“You don’t have to call—I mean, a note would be fine…”

I have to write an absence note for Spider-Man, Tony thought, amused. “Alright. I can have that arranged.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” 

“Don’t mention it.”

“Wow…” Peter breathed, laughing a little. He ran his hands up and down his face and said, “Today has been crazy.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked, then immediately questioned why he asked it. He was done—he got what he wanted. Spider-Man was coming to Germany to help him catch Cap. That was all he needed. Yet, there was something in him—small, barely there, but enough to influence him—that wanted to keep talking to Peter. He was an interesting kid. 

“Yeah. I usually miss my train, but today? Right on time. Then there was this perfectly good DVD player just sitting there! And I’m pretty sure I nailed my algebra test, too,” Peter said with a proud smile. “Then I come home, and Tony Stark is sitting in my living room. Not only that—but he needs my help. Iron Man needs my help.” His head fell in his hands. “Unbelievable.” 

All of a sudden, Peter’s head whipped up. “I almost forgot—we’re soulmates! Mr. Stark, you’re my soulmate! That’s insane! When May saw how low my counter was this morning, she told me I’d probably meet my soulmate at school today—then we got a new girl in my homeroom, so I definitely thought it’d be her, but it wasn’t! It’s you!” Peter’s breathing was becoming rapid, his gestures becoming erratic. “What are we—what are we supposed to do?” 

Tony felt his own heart rate pick up. Peter’s panicked state was rubbing off on him. “There’s nothing to do. We just—we live our lives like we were before.”

The intensity in Peter’s eyes dimmed a bit. “That’s it? We just act… normal?”

“Exactly.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.” Peter played with the hem of his sleeve, his voice low and earnest when he said, “You’re my idol, Mr. Stark. This is—uh, a really big deal for me.”

Tony coughed into his fist to ease the tightening of his chest. A soulmate is someone who is destined to be in your life. However, Tony had no idea what a kid like Peter Parker could add to his life that he didn’t have before. Perhaps Tony could play a pivotal role in Peter’s life—materially, with the grant and the help with Spider-Man—but how could Peter help him?  

He didn’t know.

So yeah, after everything was said and done, Tony would go back to living his life normally. Maybe he’d even forget he had a soulmate, now with his soulmark gone. His life was already complete, with or without Peter.

“I appreciate it, kid. Really. Let’s just… take it one day at a time, okay? Don’t give yourself an aneurysm thinking about it too hard.”

Peter pressed his lips together. “Right—right,” he said quietly. “One day at a time.” 

Tony swallowed. Feeling the atmosphere changing, he reached for the door. “I’ll send someone to pick you up tonight. Tell your aunt I’m taking you on a field trip. Weekend internship for SI.”

“Yeah, I’ll—I’ll tell her,” Peter confirmed half-heartedly. He was staring at his carpet. 

“Alright. I’ll see you later.” Tony twisted the doorknob.

“See you—wait, wait, wait.” Peter’s eyes darted to Tony. “Did you say tonight?” 

   

---

 

Knock, knock, knock. Tony rapped his knuckles against Peter’s door.

Happy had texted him saying that he and the kid had arrived at Kurhotel Ströszek about twenty minutes ago. Tony gave Peter time to get into his room and get settled a bit before he came barging in. He had some things he wanted to tell the kid—and a new suit he wanted to gift him—but he didn’t want to overwhelm him. 

He had to keep reminding himself that Peter was a kid—not a battle hardened soldier, or a centuries-old being from another planet—but a teenage boy who suddenly found himself in the big leagues.

Tony had to go about this the right way. For the next two days, he had to look after this kid. Keep him safe and return him to his aunt in one piece. 

Not that Tony thought Cap’s crew would do much hurting. That’d go against Steve’s righteous American morals.

There was shuffling on the other side of the door, and Tony straightened up, put on a confident demeanor. 

The door opened to reveal Peter on the other side, his chestnut hair disheveled and his eyelids drooping while his phone dangled from his hand. It took a second, but once he registered who was at his door, he no longer looked sleepy. “Oh! Mr. Stark! Hey—I uh, I thought you were Happy.”

Tony sized up Peter in the doorway. “You okay, kid? You look worse for wear.”

“I’m fine, just a little jet-lagged.” He rubbed at his eye. Tony thought he looked even younger when he did that. “But I’m okay, really.”

“How was the flight?”

“It was really cool. Awesome plane, by the way,” Peter said. “Self-flying—that’s so awesome.”

Tony smiled and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Happy give you any problems?”

“No—no problems. He was pretty quiet for most of the trip—aside from his snoring.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah, you get used to it after a few years. I’ll get you some noise-cancelling headphones for the flight back.”

Peter took a step back. “Oh, Mr. Stark, you don’t have to do that! It didn’t bother me—it was kinda funny, actually.”

Tony was going to get them anyway. Happy’s snoring was no joke. Peter would thank him later. 

“Mind if I come in?” Tony asked, already stepping into Peter’s room.

Peter took another step back, giving Tony as much space as possible. “Sure—sure!” 

The room was white, modern, and spacious; with contemporary art pieces hanging on the walls, and a king-sized bed stationed in the middle of the room. The early morning sun illuminated the space from the windows on either side on his bed.

Tony walked over to the dresser and picked up a menu that was lying next to a bowl of complimentary mints. “You hungry?” he asked Peter, eyes perusing the menu. “I could go for some waffles.”

“Um, I like waffles,” Peter said, hesitant.

“Waffles or crêpes?”

“I’ve never had a crêpe…”

“We’ll get both, then.”

Breakfast was a smorgasbord of different foods—from sweet waffles and crêpes to savory eggs and bacon and sausage. Tony and Peter sat on the edge of the bed with their plates laid out on the round table in front of them. 

The light clinks of utensils hitting porcelain filled the quiet between them. Tony hated silence. He always felt the need to disturb it with sound. When it was quiet, his mind wandered. He didn't think about new inventions or upgrades for his suits—but life. 

He didn’t like to dwell on his past. To be trapped in his head. So whenever there was silence, he had to break it.

“Did May believe the internship thing?” Tony asked as he cut a piece of his waffle.

“Huh?” Peter’s cheeks bulged with food. Apparently, the kid had an endless stomach. Tony never would’ve guessed that by looking at him. He cleaned three plates already, and he was working on a fourth. 

Once Peter chewed and swallowed his food, he said, “Oh—yeah, May believed it. She was so happy for me.” He looked off to the side. “I feel bad for lying.”

“Don’t think of it like that.” Tony leaned his fork towards him. “You’re just bending the truth a little, that’s all.”

A small smile. “That’s still lying, Mr. Stark.”

“Would you rather her know about Spider-Man?”

“No way!"

Tony directed a glance at Peter over the rim of his glass as he drank from it. 

Peter wore a defeated expression. “Yeah, I know,” he said in reply to Tony’s look, pouring syrup over a new set of waffles.

“Hey, speaking of Spider-Man—talk to me about those webs.” He put down his fresh-squeezed juice and said, “I’ve seen the videos of you jumping from buildings, swinging through the city—that tensile strength is off the charts. Who manufactured that?”

Peter poked at his eggs. “I did.” 

Tony’s brows rose. “Impressive.” He set his fork down. “Climbing the walls—how do you do that? Adhesive gloves?”

“Uh, no, not exactly… It’s part of my—” Peter ran his hands in circles around each other. “—my abilities? My powers? I can, um, stick to walls, and stuff.”  

“Right. Right. The name makes so much more sense now.” 

Peter laughed. “Well, Sticky Man just sounded weird.”

Tony smirked. He popped a blueberry in his mouth before he said, “I gotta know something.”

“What?” Peter asked as he bit the waffle piece off his fork.

“Why do you do this? This whole hero act. You’re young—you could play a sport, maybe use your powers as a party trick. That’s what I’d do at your age. But instead, you use your free time to go around helping people.” Tony studied Peter’s side profile. “Why’s that? What’s your M.O?” 

Peter folded his forearms over his lap and stared straight ahead, not looking at anything in particular. “Because…” he started, “because I’ve been me my whole life, and I’ve had these powers for six months.”

Tony hummed in understanding.

“I read books, I build computers—and yeah, I would love to play football. But—but I couldn't then, so I shouldn't now.”

“Sure, because you're different,” Tony said.

“Exactly. But I can't tell anybody that, so I'm not. I have to be the same Peter I was six months ago.”

Tony nodded.

“I am the same—nothing about me has changed. Except now I have the power to help people.” A somber expression shadowed his face. It held the same kind of pain his aunt carried. Tony felt his chest start to ache. “I just feel like… When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen…” Peter’s eyes found Tony’s. “They happen because of you.”

That sounded familiar.

How many times had Tony holed himself down in his workshop, working himself down to the bone, all because of that same self-reproach? That same self-blame that told him if he didn’t figure out a way to atone for his sins, save those he loved, save everyone, it’d be his fault when calamity emerged and they got hurt.

The entire world would point one finger and it’d be at him. 

Yeah. Tony understood Peter more than Peter could probably comprehend.

“I get it,” Tony said. “You wanna do your part. Help make the world a better place, and all that, right?” 

“Right,” Peter said, bobbing his head. “I just wanna help out—in any way I can.”

Intelligent, resourceful, and a heart of gold. 

Tony couldn’t fathom how he was destined to be in this kid’s life. He’d only taint him.

“Uh, Mr. Stark? Could I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Why am I here? What’s going on?” Peter questioned. “I asked Happy if he knew, and he said something about Captain America going crazy.” He dropped his voice and leaned closer when he asked, “Is that true?”

“Not entirely,” Tony said. “He’s not crazy—he’s wrong. But he thinks he’s right. That makes him dangerous.” 

“Okay,” Peter said with narrowed eyes, looking thoughtful. 

“He broke the law and now he needs to face the music. Him and his merry band of criminals—we’re gonna bring them in.” 

“We? Meaning, me and you?” 

“Me, you, and a few others.”

Awe transformed Peter’s face. He sat back with a leg folded on the bed, a surge of exhilaration making his body come alive. “Are other Avengers gonna be there?”

“Yeah, a couple of ‘em,” Tony said, biting back a grin at Peter’s excitement.

“No way! This is an Avengers thing? That’s so cool!” Peter ran a hand through his hair. “What do you need me to do? Anything—I’ll do it. Whatever you need.”

“I need you to do two things.” Tony held up two fingers.

“Sure—what?”

“Keep your distance and web ‘em up,” Tony said. “Especially Cap. Go for his legs, that’s his weak spot,” he added.

Peter’s smile wavered. “That’s—that’s it? That’s all you want me to do?”

“That’s it.” Tony put his hands on his knees and stood up. He walked around the table of half-eaten breakfast as he said, “We need your help to slow them down.”

“But I can do so much more than that!” Peter protested.

“I’m sure you can, Spider-Man, but these aren’t your average bike thieves or carjackers. They’re trained combatants with the potential to harm if provoked.”

“I’m just as strong as them,” Peter said, standing from the bed with a determined stance.

“I don’t doubt it. Who knows? Maybe you’re even stronger.” Tony shrugged. “But you’re still wet behind the ears—so I’m not taking that chance.”

“Mr. Stark, c’mon!” Peter strode over to him, stopping right in front of him. “You can’t fly me to Germany, put me in the middle of an Avengers conflict, and then tell me to stay as far away from it as possible!”

“That’s weird.” Tony cocked his head to the side. “Because I could’ve sworn that’s what I just did.”

“That’s not fair—!”

“Ah-ah!” Tony shook his hand and Peter quieted. “This isn’t up for debate! You came here with me, so you play by my rules. Got it? If you can’t do that, let me know so I can tell Happy to take you home.”

A muscle in Peter’s jaw twitched as he glared at Tony. Tense silence stretched on for a few beats where they waited for the other to break, but Peter ended up relenting first, huffing air out of his nose and turning his head away. “Okay. Fine.” 

“Okay, then,” Tony said, relaxing his posture. “Good.” He rubbed his hands together for something to do. “I’m gonna—I’m gonna head out. You should get some rest. We got a big day ahead of us. Happy will wake you up when it’s time to go.”

Peter sat down on the bed again, falling on his back. “Yeah, I think I’m gonna take a nap.” He closed his eyes.

Tony made his way over to the door. “You need anything, don’t be afraid to ask Happy. Remember—room service is on me, order whatever you want.”

A noise of acknowledgement sounded from Peter’s throat.

“Alright, I’m gone.” Tony paused, waiting to hear a farewell from Peter, but his ears were only met with the soft breathing from the body sprawled on the bed. 

Jet-lag, a full stomach, and a comfortable bed will do that to a person.

Out in the hallway, Tony softly shut the door behind him and began the short trek to his room. “FRI?” He lifted up his wrist and spoke to his watch, “Remind Happy to tell the kid about his new suit.” 

“Will do, Boss.” 

 

---

 

“Alright, I've run out of patience. Underoos!”

A web attached to Steve’s shield, pulling it out of his hands, and then faster than a blink, another swift web bound his hands together.  

Peter flipped into the scene with Captain America’s shield in his possession. 

“Nice job, kid,” Tony complimented.

“Thanks. Well, I could've stuck the landing a little better. It's just the new suit... Well, it's nothing, Mr. Stark. You didn’t have to—but—yeah. It's—it's perfect. Thank you.”

“We don't really need to start a conversation…”

“Cap... Captain. Hi. Big fan, I'm Spider-Man.” Peter waved.

“Yeah, we'll talk about it later. Just—”

“Hey, everyone.” 

“—Good job.”

Steve had the gall to look entertained. “You've been busy,” he said to Tony.

“And you've been a complete idiot.”

 

---

 

Tony never anticipated the fight to grow as chaotic and out of control as it had become. 

Tony’s focus was split between three things—stopping Steve, keeping Peter safe, and his throbbing arm (which was probably fractured, courtesy of Wanda). 

Regardless, he continued to fight through the pain. 

He fought and fought and fought—until the kid got knocked back, the momentum from his swinging causing him to flail through the air. 

That’s when Tony stopped.

He disengaged from the fight and flew towards Peter, who was curled up on the ground a few feet away, unmoving.

He wasn’t moving.

Why wasn’t he moving?

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Tony retracted his helmet as he landed next to Peter, his face ashen with fear. “Kid,” Tony called out. He didn’t respond. Tony kneeled next to his body. “Kid?” He shook his shoulder. “You alright?”

Peter startled to life with a gasp and a weak fist thrown haphazardly in Tony’s direction. “Hey! Get off of me!” he yelled, thrashing. 

Tony caught his arm and let out a relieved sigh. He was fine. Thank God. “Same side!” Tony caught another fist aimed for his face. “Hey—hey! Guess who? It’s me!”

Peter stopped squirming and concentrated on Tony. Recognition dawned on his half-covered face. “Oh.” His rigid body slackened under Tony’s hold. “Hey, man.”

“Hi.”

“That was scary.”

“Yeah... You’re done, alright?” 

Peter froze. “What?”

Tony stood up to his full height and said, “You did a good job, now stay down.”

Peter tried to sit up. “No, I’m good—I’m fine.”

“Stay down, kid.”

“No—no, I gotta get him back!”

Tony heard the explosions and fighting going on in the background. He didn’t have time to argue with Peter, he had to rejoin the fight. He had to stop Steve. “You’re going home or I’ll call Aunt May!” Tony shouted, pointing a firm finger at Peter. “You’re done!” 

Peter’s strained, “Wait—Mr. Stark, wait!” was all he heard before he took off into the air. 

 

---

 

Holy shit, was the only thought going through Peter’s mind.

What else was there to think when you just fought Captain freaking America? 

He’d never view those Captain America PE videos the same way again.

Peter sat in the empty terminal of the Leipzig/Halle Airport, clutching his side as he waited for Happy to pick him up. 

The pounding booms and metallic blasts had died down in the ten minutes Peter had been in the terminal. Or maybe it’d been fifteen minutes. Or twenty. Peter didn’t know anymore. Everything had happened so fast, it was impossible to keep track of time.

Despite the dwindling sounds of battle, it took all of his willpower to not run back outside and return to the fight. An immense amount of adrenaline was coursing through his veins. It made him jittery, antsy, unable to keep still. 

There was so much more he could do. He knew it. 

If only Mr. Stark would let him help.

Peter groaned and pulled off his mask to run his fingers through his messy hair. 

Mr. Stark treated him like a child. He went out of his way to dig up all this information on him, came to his apartment, asked him for help—only to baby him and take him out of the fight after one bad hit.

It was so unfair! He was fifteen, not five!

Whatever. He did what Mr. Stark asked. He kept his distance—as best as he could—and webbed them up. I guess he’s done with me now.

Peter felt a twinge of sadness at that thought. Sadness mixed with disappointment. 

He bounced his foot and stared at his gloved hands, opening and closing his fists in a repeated movement. Hopefully Mr. Stark would let him keep the suit, if nothing else. 

Echoed footsteps floated to Peter’s ears, and he scrambled to put his mask back on, not sure if it was Happy or someone else. 

It turned out to be Happy.

“Kid,” Happy called as he crossed the terminal to reach him. He moved in a hurry, urging Peter with a hand gesture. “Let’s go.” 

Peter shot out of his chair. “Okay," he said and took a step towards Happy.

All at once, a sharp pang of anxiety pierced his heart. Peter halted and bent over, grabbing his chest. 

His spider sense did not feel like that. It was more like a brief tickle, enough stimulation to warn him that something dangerous was about to occur. It was never painful. 

What he was feeling now was painful. 

“What? What’s up?” Happy sounded concerned.

“I don’t—I don’t know,” Peter said, his voice tight and his face screwed up. “Something’s—happening...” 

“Are you hurt? Come on, I’ll get you looked at.”

“No, that’s not it…” Peter drew in a shuddering breath. Like an invisible rope, an inexplicable pull had him taking two steps back. A strong force—stronger than him —was tugging him back to the runway. Back to the fight. “I have to go back—I have—”

“Oh, no, no, no,” Happy said, moving closer to him. “You’re not going back out there.”

Another step back. “But Mr. Stark could be in trouble! I have to—”

“Kid, you’re not going back. Boss said you were done. That means you’re done.”

“But I can help! I can—”

Happy gripped his upper arm. “We need to go.” He started walking with Peter’s arm in his hand. “Now.” 

Peter could’ve fought him off. It would have been easy to rip his arm out of Happy’s grip and run outside. But the invisible rope that was pulling him back dissipated, the pain in his chest subsided, and suddenly Peter felt very light. Like he weighed nothing at all. Exhaustion took residence in his body, in his mind, in the marrow of his bones, and he let Happy haul him out of the terminal and push him into the black car parked on the tarmac.

He slept the entire way to the hotel.

 

---

 

When he heard the knock, Peter nearly somersaulted over his bed in a hurried attempt to get to his door.

He hadn’t seen Mr. Stark since the airport, and it’d been five hours since Peter got back. 

Aside from his short adrenaline crash in the car ride over, Peter hadn’t been able to rest. He hadn’t been able to sit still. He had paced his room over and over until there were permanent tracks in the carpet. The phantom pain from the stifling anxiety he felt earlier would not leave him. It clung to him like a stubborn child.     

He just couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad had happened. 

So when he heard the knock, he couldn’t get to his door fast enough.

He yanked open his door, and exclaimed, “Mr. Stark—!” He stopped himself when he saw Happy standing there in a white robe. “Uh, Happy?” Peter knitted his brows. “Where’s Mr. Stark?”

“He’s not here,” Happy said. A somber mien had replaced his usual exasperation. “Rhodey got hurt. Tony is with him now.”

Peter frowned. His intuition was right. Something bad did happen.

Happy continued, “After Rhodey, he’s going to go visit Secretary Ross. There’s a good chance you won’t see him tonight, or tomorrow for that matter.”

Peter was disheartened, but he did his best to hide it. “Okay.” He gave a jerky nod of his head. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Yeah,” Happy said in a dry tone. “We leave for New York tomorrow, so make sure you’re packed.” 

“Got it.” 

Happy left without another word. 

 

---

 

Peter couldn’t sleep. 

He laid in his too-large hotel bed, enfolded in three layers of sheets, and stared at the ceiling. His room was submerged in total darkness, save for the soft glow of the moon shining in through the windows. 

If he concentrated enough, he could hear Happy snoring in the next room over. He could hear the wind blowing outside. The drip of the sink in his bathroom, the TV playing in the room underneath him, the low dings of the elevator—he could hear it all. 

He tried to listen for Mr. Stark. 

He listened for the familiar lilt of his voice, for Happy’s phone to ring, for a knock at his own door. Anything that gave him some sort of clue to Mr. Stark’s well-being. If something terrible happened to him and Peter was just lying in a hotel room, useless—he’d never forgive himself. 

“Calm down, Peter,” he muttered to himself. Mr. Stark wasn’t just Mr. Stark—he was Iron Man. 

Iron Man had saved countless lives—including Peter’s. Mr. Stark had been a hero for as long as Peter could remember. He’d been his hero for as long as he could remember.

There was no need to worry.

Yet…

Peter turned to one side, and then turned to the other side in a fit of restlessness. 

He couldn’t do this. 

Peter tossed the covers off his body and climbed out of bed. He had to make sure Mr. Stark was okay. His head wouldn’t shut up until he did.

Pacing his room again, Peter racked his brain for a plan of action. How could he figure out where Mr. Stark was when he had no form of contacting the man? Peter never received his number, only Happy’s. There was no way to track him if he didn’t want to be followed. He was an enigma—he showed up when he wanted to be seen, then he left without a trace.

Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been cool. But at that moment, it was incredibly annoying.

Sitting down on the corner of his bed, he rubbed at his forehead, thinking. Maybe he could break into Happy’s room and steal his phone? Contact Mr. Stark that way.

Then again, if he did that and Happy woke up to find him snooping through his phone… 

Peter shook his head to clear his mind of that thought. No. He’d have to figure out another way.

Ruling out Happy’s room left him with Mr. Stark’s room. Happy’s room was next to Peter’s. Mr. Stark’s room neighbored Happy’s. 

Peter looked at the window beside his bed and got an idea.

 

---

 

The idea was stupid.

But somehow it worked. 

Peter knew not to question the rare luck that showed up in his life, so he didn’t. 

With Peter’s strength, the awning window opened easily, and Peter slinked inside of Mr. Stark’s room as quietly as he could. He stuck to the wall before smoothly dropping down to the floor. Tugging his mask off, he let his eyes adjust to the dark before he looked around.

Peter thought his suite was large.

Mr. Stark’s suite was huge. The bedroom alone was as big as his entire apartment back in Queens. Not only was it enormous, it was immaculate. There were no signs of living—no suitcase, no clothes on the floor, not a single wrinkle in the bedsheets. It looked like a picture out of a magazine. 

Did Mr. Stark even sleep in here? Peter thought as he walked around.

There was nothing in the room he could use. Not a single clue that could get him in contact with Mr. Stark. No cellphone, no computer, nothing. 

Peter blew out his cheeks, frustrated. This was all for naught. He was back where he started.

Then, like a lone star in the night sky, a small glowing dot glimmered next to Mr. Stark’s bed. 

Peter ran to the gleaming dot and picked it up, surprised to see it was a watch. A square watch with a smooth, glass panel that covered the face. Numerous tiny dots blinked in succession, and Peter was almost hypnotized by their electronic dance until the watch started talking to him.

“Hello, Peter Parker,” a disembodied female voice with an Irish accent greeted.

“Uh, what?” Peter gawked at the watch. “Are you talking to me?”

“I am,” the watch said. "That's your name, isn't it?"

“How—how do you know my name?” he whispered.

“I know a lot about you.”

Peter opened and closed his mouth, unsure if he should be creeped out or flattered. He decided on a combination of both. 

“May I ask what you’re doing with Boss’ watch?” the female voice questioned.

“I—I just…” Peter licked his lips nervously. “I want to make sure he’s okay. I haven’t seen him and—and I keep getting this weird feeling. Like, something bad is happening, or about to happen. Do you, um, have any idea where he could be? If he’s okay?”

A beat of silence, then, “I can assure you that Boss is fine. He is currently on his way to Siberia.”

“Siberia? Why?”

“There was a situation regarding Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier that required Boss’ attention.”

“And he's going there by himself?” 

“Correct.”

Peter grounded his jaw. “I can’t let him go by himself. I have to help him.”

Except he had no way to get to Siberia. He took one step forward, but ended up two steps back.

Time was ticking and for every second Peter wasted in Berlin, Tony got closer to Siberia. Desperate, Peter asked the watch, “I’m sorry—I know this is crazy, but is there any way you can help me get there? I want to help, but I can’t if I’m—if I’m stuck here.”

The face of the watch lit up, illuminating Peter’s distressed face in the dark, and the voice said, “I have a location on a helicopter that is operating, but presently not of use. I can bring it to a nearby field. Will that help?”

Peter’s breath caught in his throat. “Yes, yes, that’ll help, that’ll help so much. Thank you—thank you!”

“Of course. Estimated time of arrival is fifteen minutes. I’ll direct you to the field.”

 

---

 

“Did you know?”

“I didn't know it was him.”

“Don't bullshit me, Rogers! Did you know?”

“...Yes.”

 

---

 

Tony had no idea what rage could do to a mind. He didn’t know it could blind you, take control of your body and eradicate all forms of resistance. Fury was his driving force. Grief and anguish was his poison. 

Steve had betrayed him. The Winter Soldier had murdered his parents and Steve knew. He knew and he didn’t say a word. He benefited from everything Tony gave him—his home, his resources, his friendship—all the while harboring a secret he knew haunted Tony for years. A secret that haunted him since that one fateful night in December when Jarvis told him his parents had perished in a car crash. 

Tony had blamed himself for their deaths. 

What a way to get closure. 

Steve straddled Tony as he laid out on the snowy concrete and punched him repeatedly. Tony struggled to gather his bearings. Sure, he was in a metal suit, but Steve’s strength was nothing to play around with. He was on the offensive, so Tony had no choice but to defend himself. 

Unfortunately, defending wouldn't do much, because Steve knew how to disable and disarm him. He knew that the armor was the weapon. Remove the armor and reveal the very vulnerable man inside. That was the surest way to defeat Iron Man.

So when Steve used his shield to bash off his helmet, Tony knew what was coming. The copper taste of blood filled his mouth as he glowered up at Steve, face fully exposed. Using the last bit of strength he had left, Tony lifted his arms to protect his face as Steve brought the shield up for the fatal blow.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut and waited.

Thwip! Thwip!

Tony opened his eyes just in time to see Cap’s shield yanked out of his hands by a long, white web. He followed the line of web to its origin—Spider-Man, donned in his suit, nestled in a high crook between the ceiling and the wall. He caught Steve’s shield and shot another web, used it to propel himself towards Steve, knocking him off of Tony with a flying kick.

Tony couldn’t move. He laid there, transfixed on the sight before him. 

Spider-Man was fighting Captain America with his own shield.

Peter was fighting Steve. Peter. Peter was here. 

How? Tony thought, over and over again. How, how, how? How is he here? Why is he here? He’s going to get hurt, I can’t let him get hurt.

Cap threw punch after punch at Peter, but Peter was a split-second faster. He dodged every blow, ducking and weaving out of the way and using Cap’s shield as a barrier. He was a little unsteady on his feet, but he was keeping up. 

But then Barnes started to move. The man was bloodied and missing an arm, but he was still conscious, and used his one good arm to grab at Peter’s legs.

Tony moved. He rolled to his side and shot a repulsor blast at him, missing his arm by a tiny margin. This caught Steve’s attention. Peter’s too. Cap used the small window of distraction to ram his body into Peter, hard, slamming him into the wall. The shield crashed against the ground. 

Steve picked it up in time to block the beam Tony fired at him. Tony kept firing beams at him, one after another. Then he switched it up and zapped him with a blast of energy, sending his shield flying. Cap decided to forego the shield and rush him instead. 

Things moved in slow motion.

Steve wound up a punch and Tony whirred up his repulsors. Cap’s arm moved in a purposeful arc, looking to land on its target, but out of nowhere, Peter dropped in front of Tony and caught Steve’s fist. There was a clash of strength—Steve pushed his fist forward as Peter pushed it back with all his might. 

“Stop—stop it, stop!” Peter demanded, his voice cracking on the last plea.

The tough, unrelenting exterior of Captain America melted, and Steve Rogers showed up in his place. His eyes softened as he let his fist fall out of Peter’s hold. He looked at the kid, then looked at Tony, who stood behind Peter.

“Go… You have to get out of here,” Peter said to Cap. 

He didn’t move. 

“Get. Out,” Peter ordered.

“Tony…” Steve started, but didn’t get to finish.

“GO!” Peter bellowed, the word echoing off the walls. 

Steve took a step back, cautiously watching them. He moved towards Barnes and helped him to his feet, slinging his arm around his shoulders. They limped away silently. 

Tony stared after them as they left, stone-faced, not killing the charge in his repulsors until they were completely out of view. He allowed his gaze to travel then, taking in the desolate area of the facility they were in. The wind started to pick up, swirling and blowing the snow in through the gaps in the wall. 

Tony let out a frustrated breath, the frigid temperature nipping at his nose, his ears, the cracks in his suit. He needed to go—to leave—to get out of here and…

The labored breathing of Peter made his blood run cold. 

Peter. 

The kid stood with his back to him, so Tony grabbed his shoulders and turned him around so they were facing each other. Peter’s chest rose and fell with rapid breaths. He was hyperventilating, so Tony wasted no time in pulling the Spider-Man mask off so he could breathe easier. 

He blanched at what was hidden underneath.

Peter’s bottom lip was bruised and bloody, and a slight purplish circle marked his left eye. Disobedient tendrils of hair hung in his face as he looked up at Tony with wet eyes and a shaken expression.

Tony’s heart broke for the second time that day. “Peter…”

“I’m sorry,” he uttered in a rasping tone. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I felt like—like something was wrong. I felt it and… and I had to find you. I just…” Peter closed his eyes tightly. “Why… Why would he do that? Why would he do that to you, Mr. Stark? I—I don't get it… I'm—" A tear fell loose. "I'm so sad but—I don't know why? I'm just—I'm sorry." He sniffled. "I'm so sorry."

I felt like something was wrong.

And just like that, Tony was struck with an epiphany. 

Peter hadn't just felt any disturbance. He was feeling Tony's disturbance. He was feeling the gut-wrenching sorrow Tony felt. It explained why he felt the need to find him. Peter couldn't sit by and let a bad thing happen. Not when he knew he had the power to help. 

"Soulmates can be completely different from each other in every aspect of their lives—but they'll always share one thing: an emotional connection. They are your other half. Your soulmate's happiness is your happiness. Their woe is your woe. It is a spiritual link that can never be broken."

The book called it the “soul connection”. Tony read about it four decades ago, but he never thought he'd experience it. The concept scared him back then. Truthfully, it scared him now. It made him feel exposed, uncomfortable. He was a broken man. Flawed and scarred with a myriad of mistakes on his record. Peter was good. He was too good to have to endure Tony’s brokenness. The kid was brimming with the brilliance of youth. How could Tony be in his life and not make a mess of it? Tony didn’t know how to correctly foster Peter’s integrity. With his upbringing, he didn’t know if it was possible for him to learn. 

A tremor shook Peter’s body as he ducked his head to hide his tears. Tony watched him, numbly rooted to the spot. He didn’t know how to assuage his fears, to alleviate his pain, to give him the comfort he clearly yearned for. 

He didn’t know how to, but he knew he had to try.

For Peter, he had to try.

It felt like muscle memory—the way his hand came up and clasped Peter’s shoulder. The contact made Peter’s head jerk up in surprise, but Tony didn’t shrink away like he normally would’ve; instead, he brought Peter closer and threw an arm around his shoulder. Then he looped his other arm around.  

He said nothing. He just stood there with his arms around the kid.

At first, Peter’s entire body stiffened as his arms hung loosely as his sides, his head pushed against Tony’s shoulder. His hesitancy didn’t last long, though. His arms flew around Tony’s middle only a few seconds later, the movement so fast and forceful it made Tony stagger back a step even though he was still in his Iron Man armor.

A ball of warmth spread throughout his body. It started from the middle of his chest and swirled from his fingertips to his toes. Emotion had his chest swelling, bursting at the seams with a feeling that was foreign to him. The sensation was strange but familiar at the same time. Like a missing piece was just slotted into place. A piece he had no idea he lacked. 

A final piece to reveal the picture.

Admiration, awe, affection—Tony was overcome with it all. There was a clarity in his mind that wasn’t there before. Tony hugged Peter tighter, pressed his cheek to his hair, and stared straight ahead with glossy eyes. 

"Think of them like a missing puzzle piece. They're the ones that complete the puzzle."

He understood now. 

At long last, his puzzle was complete. 

 

---

 

The muffled whoosh whoosh of helicopter blades cutting through the sky calmed Tony as he was carried across the ocean. He leaned back in his seat and gazed out the window at the turbulent sea. The waves rolled and tumbled and crashed against each other, looking anything but tranquil.

So different from the peaceful boy who slept beside him, slumped over in his own seat, head propped against the armrest. 

The heat was on in the cabin, but the winds were brutal and the flight above the ocean did not help to combat the cold. Peter was huddled—knees to his chest and arms folded together—but his position failed to contain his body heat. Tony glanced over at Peter just as he shivered, and much like the chopper they rode in, Tony moved on autopilot.  

He slid off the leather jacket he was wearing and laid it over Peter. The shivers stopped immediately.

Tony breathed out a sigh of relief as he watched Peter’s body relax. The sight would’ve been a wholesome one, had Peter not sported a bruised lip and eye. Tony swallowed down the guilt that climbed up his throat. Getting hurt came with the territory—Tony’s arm throbbed as if to prove a point—but it still bothered him to see such harsh marks on a face as young as Peter’s. 

Marks that were partially his fault.

“I’m sorry, kid,” Tony muttered to Peter’s sleeping form. He was sorry for many things. He was sorry he failed to protect him, sorry he brought him into this Accords mess, sorry he couldn’t be a normal fifteen-year-old kid worrying about dates and not the state of the world—but most of all, he was sorry it took him this long to find him. To meet his soulmate. 

Forty-one years. He’d been half himself for more than half his life.

Not anymore. Right there, in the dark cabin of his chopper, Tony made a vow to be there for Peter. He would provide whatever help the kid needed, whenever he needed it. Spider-Man trouble, school trouble, girl trouble—Tony would be there. He wouldn't waste another minute. 

“Incoming call from Happy Hogan,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said quietly. 

Tony pressed a button and a holographic contact card for Happy popped up in the space between him and Peter.

“What’s up, Hap?” Tony asked in a subdued tone, mindful of Peter.

“I can’t find the kid,” Happy said in lieu of a greeting. “I’m searching everywhere but I can’t find him. I don’t know where the hell he could’ve gone but he’s not in the hotel and I don’t know where else to look,” he huffed. His stress was palpable over the phone. “Do you have any idea where he could be? Because I’m out of them. Actually—where are you? It’s been hours since you said you were gonna go see Ross.” 

“Hap.”

“Yeah?”

“The kid’s with me.”

A beat. Then, “He’s with you?” Happy uttered in surprise. “How in the world did he manage to get to you?” 

“I’m guessing he snuck out,” Tony said as his gaze traveled to Peter. His gauntlet watch was strapped around the kid’s wrist, over his suit. “Probably broke into my room, took my watch, and used F.R.I.D.A.Y to find me,” he deduced with an air of nonchalance.

Happy made a perplexed noise before he used his words to express his thoughts, “Why the hell would he do that?”

Because he knew I needed help, Tony said inwardly.

Outwardly, he shrugged and said, “Teenagers.” 

“...Huh. He’s a weird kid.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah. Listen—we’re on our way back, so relax, okay? I’ve seen your cardiogram, you don’t need to be stressed out.”

“Yeah—yeah,” Happy said and exhaled heavily. “So… you’re okay?”

“Always.”

“And the kid’s okay? You got him?” Happy asked.

As if he knew he was the subject of their conversation, Peter stirred from his slumber. His brows creased as he lifted his head from the armrest. He sluggishly blinked at the empty space in front of him, half-asleep, then closed his eyes again, tugging Tony’s jacket tighter around himself.

Tony observed him with a fond smile. “Yeah. I got him.”