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And Again and Again

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Peter is starting to have second thoughts about the value of super science.

Here’s what he knows so far: Three days ago, he was hit by a burst of mysterious energy from an equally mysterious machine, which had been humming quietly all summer, unexplained, in a corner of the cramped Oscorp lab he and the other interns are relegated to. He was the only one caught in the blast, and at the time he’d thought it wasn’t worth worrying about. It knocked him over, sent a shock through his system, and left a nasty bruise, but that was all. It was fine.  

Except obviously that was not all and he is definitely not fine, because three days ago is also today. Again. For the third time. He’s living in Groundhog Day, and he has no idea how to make it stop.

The first repeat, it had taken him almost two hours to notice what was happening. (Which probably means he needs to vary his morning routine more, but that’s a problem for some future version of himself, one that isn’t living in a Bill Murray nightmare.) Once he’d realized the problem, he’d spent about five minutes freaking the fuck out, and then he’d done the logical thing and went through the day exactly as he had before, only this time dodging the blast. But apparently that’s not the solution, because when is anything in his life ever that simple?

Day two, he’d tried asking his lab supervisor what the machine was for, but despite flashing his most charming smile and evoking as much enthusiasm for learning as he could muster — which normally gets him pretty far with adults eager to explain their projects to someone who actually wants to listen — he’d been shut down, and when he was caught poking around the machine later in the afternoon he’d been given a harsh lecture and kicked out for the rest of the day.

Clearly Oscorp isn’t going to help, so he’s not even bothering going in today. There’s one obvious solution: he has to tell Tony.  

He’d really been hoping to avoid that.

It’s not that he doesn’t trust him. Of course he does; he’s probably the person he trusts the most in the world, other than May, who isn’t exactly going to be a help here, and Ned, who’s on the other side of the country living out his Silicon Valley dreams. But this is a little embarrassing. He’d really rather not have to admit to his mentor that he’s managed to get stuck in the kind of wacky misadventure that’s normally reserved for hokey movies.

Sure, he moved past the stage where he’d forget how to form words whenever he was in the same room as Tony years ago. They’ve graduated to first name basis and everything. Growing up, plus, oh yeah, literally dying, will do that. But no matter how much changes, it’s still Tony Stark. The coolest person he’s ever met. The man whose approving smile makes his heart skip a beat (which is not something he needs to dwell on, like, ever; just one of those annoying facts of life he acknowledges, then puts in a corner and ignores). He’s never quite gotten over the urge to impress him, and this situation is the opposite of impressive.

But he’s a genius, and definitely Peter’s best bet at getting this thing solved. With a resigned sigh, he hops on the subway toward SI’s midtown labs. On top of everything, he’s totally going to get a lecture about how he should’ve interned at Stark Industries this summer.

***

Fortunately, Tony is there and more than willing to make time for him. (“Skipping out on your internship, Mr. Parker? You do know the juvenile delinquent phase is supposed to happen when you’re still a teenager, right?”) To his relief, when he explains the outlines of the problem Tony takes it in stride, and even manages to keep the jabs about Oscorp being second rate to a minimum. Without hesitation he cancels the day’s meetings and sweeps Peter up to his private lab.

“We’ll crack this thing in no time,” he assures him with a wide smile, clapping him on the back, confident.

So Peter sketches out everything he can remember about the machine, and describes the sensation of being hit in as much detail as possible, which unfortunately doesn’t amount to more than, “I don’t know, it was shock waves but…fuzzy, I guess? Kind of warm and tickling.”

That earns him a raised eyebrow and a snarky, “Very precise. They’re sure teaching you observational skills over at Oscorp,” before Tony gets to work feeding it all into his computer, setting up some sort of complex analysis, which he, in his distracted way, doesn’t bother to explain.

Normally this is when Peter would point out that Tony needs to use his words if he wants Peter to be able to follow along, but after two days of living life on repeat, he’s too drained to protest. It’s kind of relaxing to have the smartest person he knows do his thing while he absently swivels in his lab chair, letting his mind go blank. It feels safe.

When Tony hits enter with a definitive flair and declares, “Done and done. We just need to sit back, relax, and let this guy sort things out for an hour. Lunch?” Peter happily accepts, and doesn’t even point out that it’s only 10:30 in the morning, way before any normal person eats lunch.

***

Tony’s computer comes up with a solution that involves Peter swanning back into his internship that afternoon, making an excuse about being sick, sneaking over to the machine, and hitting a few buttons. He’s yelled at again, but not fired, so that’s fine. Great, even. He goes to bed elated.

It doesn’t work.

***

So here he is, explaining the whole thing to Tony again, including the failed attempt. It’s weird, going through almost the exact same conversation, Tony wearing the same Black Sabbath t-shirt, same grey slacks, nursing the same MIT coffee mug. Surreal and discomforting.

But Tony flashes him an encouraging smile, hand landing on his arm and squeezing tight when Peter can’t get himself to smile back. He assures him that it’s all a matter of trial and error. “The more information, the better, right, kid? Experimentation. Or have you forgotten the scientific method over at Oscorp?”

Peter rolls his eyes, but manages to smile back, the firmness of Tony’s grip grounding him. It’s okay. He has Tony Stark working on this for him. It’s okay.

Plus, he gets another free lunch out of it. Which is nice, even if Tony does tell the same anecdote about an engineering project gone wrong that he told yesterday.

***

Later that day Tony’s computer spits out a slightly different code for Peter to type into the machine. It doesn’t work, either.

***

Neither does try three.

***

Or try four. And as much as Peter loves spending time with Tony — he does, he really does — the engineering story is starting to get a little stale.

***

He can hear the slight edge of hysteria in his voice the fifth time he explains the situation. It must be obvious to Tony, too, because he’s much more serious as he takes notes, and this time he puts Peter through a series of scans to see if there’s any clue about the energy burst embedded in his body.

“I didn’t do this last time?” Tony wonders aloud, frowning at the screen as Peter stands awkwardly in the middle of the lab, arms and legs spread.

“Nope.”

“Huh.” He taps at a few things, frown deepening. “Sounds like I was a bit overconfident about my ability to outsmart whatever Oscorp has going on.”

Peter is so startled by the modesty he almost drops his arms. “Am I hallucinating, or did you just admit you might not be as smart as you think you are?”

“I’m exactly as smart as I think I am,” Tony corrects. “It’s yesterday’s version of me I’m not so sure about. Or — hmm. Yesterday’s version? Alternate universe version? I guess we don’t really know. Maybe that distinction matters.” He gestures Peter over and points at the screen. “You’re definitely showing elevated levels of something,” he explains, tracing a light blue glow haloing his image.

“What is it?” Peter asks. When he glances up, he’s disconcerted to be met with a concerned expression.

“Not quite sure yet, Pete,” Tony admits, tone betraying worry. “But we’re going to figure it out.”

It makes him nervous, to be glowing blue on a computer screen, so inexplicably that even Tony Stark has no idea what’s happening. But he swallows the fear down, willing the tears prickling in the back of his throat not to make it to his eyes. He’s a junior in college, he’s been a superhero for over five years, he died and came back from it. A little unexplained time loop isn’t going to shake him. He’s stronger than that.

Suddenly Tony’s arms are around him, folding tight across his back, holding him close. The comfort of it hits him like a wave, knocking his breath away.

“Kid, we’re going to fix this,” he says, mouth almost touching Peter’s ear. His voice is deep and determined, vibrating through his chest and down Peter’s body. “I’m going to fix it.”

Peter nods against his shoulder, pressing his face into that stupid Black Sabbath shirt that he’s sick of seeing every day, letting himself believe it’s true.

***

That afternoon they don’t go to lunch. Instead, Tony explains everything he’s putting into his computer, running through round after round of theories about what the blue halo might be.

“I can really only test one thing at a time, so I’m going to need you to keep all of this up here,” he says, tapping Peter’s forehead, and Peter agrees, doing his best to commit everything Tony tells him to memory.

They work so late that Peter has to sneak into Oscorp in his Spider-Man suit after hours. He’s bold enough to pull the front panel off the machine to get a better look at its insides before trying today’s set of instructions. This time, he doesn’t even expect them to work. It’s okay, though. More information, more trial and error. They’ll get there.

***

Seven days later Peter knows every one of Tony’s theories as if they’re his own. He’s taken the machine apart in the dead of night enough times that he can draw a blueprint by heart. And they’re no closer to figuring out what’s going on.

“That won’t help!” he snaps when Tony suggests a ‘new’ set of blood tests that they’ve already run twice. “All the results are negative.”

“You don’t know they’ll be negative this time,” Tony replies, an edge of impatience in his voice, which makes Peter more annoyed. He fights the urge to lash out again. It’s not really Tony’s fault that nothing has been working. And it’s definitely not this Tony’s fault that Peter is completely over having the same conversation on repeat.

“Uh, I’m living the same day over and over, so I think I do know,” he says, as calmly as he can manage. “And I’m tired of needles.”

“Yeah, but do we actually know you’re not changing? On a biological level?” Tony approaches him, eyes running across his body with methodical precision, as if he’s an interesting experiment. He’s been getting this look a lot over the last week. Peter hates it, these moments where Tony gets so caught up in the mystery that he seems to forget that for Peter this isn’t a cool scientific problem. It’s his life.

“Honestly, I should probably be running blood tests every day,” he continues. “To see if you’re changing. Do you think you could remember the results?”

Peter wants to tell him no. He doesn’t need needles jammed in his arm every day, can’t stand the idea of adding a long string of numbers to the equations and blueprints and speculations about alternate timelines already buzzing around his brain. But that would be a lie. He can. Doesn’t want to, but can.

“Do you really think it would help?” he asks, and is embarrassed to hear his voice sound strangled. Fuck. He hadn’t meant to let his frustration leak out.

But it seems to have brought him back into Tony’s focus, because suddenly he’s inches away, hand on his cheek. It takes all of Peter’s willpower not to lean into the touch. Instead he lifts his eyes to meet Tony’s, and finds compassion radiating back.

“I don’t know what will help,” Tony admits. “I’m sorry if I’m pushing you too hard. I don’t — I’m not going through this with you, I realize that. I wish I were.”

“No you don’t,” Peter tells him, ignoring how hard his heart is beating, how much he longs to nuzzle into that hand, to lose himself in the warmth of calloused fingers against his skin. Ignoring that he can hear Tony’s heart beating hard for some reason, too. “It really sucks.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why I wish I was. I hate that you’re doing it alone.”

Peter forces himself to smile, straightening his shoulders and trying to project confidence he doesn’t feel. “I’m not really alone. I have you,” he says. “I can do the tests. If they might help, of course I can.”

Tony brushes his thumb down Peter’s face, grabbing his chin and tilting it up gently. Observing him again, but this time it feels the opposite of scientific; intense and piercing. Then, as if making up his mind about something, he nods and drops his hand. “Okay, let’s try.”

***

After another week of sticking Peter with needles, they conclude that as far as they can possibly tell, Peter’s entire body is resetting every day. Which gets them exactly nowhere.

Fed up with the monotony, Peter resorts to increasingly elaborate attempts to figure out what the hell the machine even is, including staying up one night dismantling the whole thing bit by bit, dodging multiple security guards in the process. At the center he finds a solid metal box he can’t pry open, even using all his strength. His attempts to crack it end when all at once he’s back in his bed, waking up, disoriented and a little nauseous from the sudden switch. It teaches them the change happens at 3 a.m., which turns out to be hopelessly useless information.

After that, Peter decides he’s had enough. The next morning, he doesn’t go to see Tony. Instead, he marches straight back to the Oscorp lab and lets the energy hit him again. It didn’t kill him the first time. What could possibly go wrong now?

Answer: Nothing, actually. Nothing goes wrong. It’s precisely the same as before. He buckles over as if punched. His body seizes, a tickling sensation surges through him, and then he’s on the floor, breathing heavily, nursing a painful bruise, but otherwise fine.

The problem is, it doesn’t help, either. The next day he still wakes up in the same nightmare.

He screams into his pillow.

***

His next bright idea is to let the energy hit him again, but this time he goes straight to Tony afterward.

When he charges into the SI lab, still shaking a bit from the aftershock, Tony drops what he’s doing to rush over to him, hands immediately flying to smooth his hair. He tries to pull him into a hug, but Peter shoves him away and screams for a full body scan.

“We need to do it as quickly as possible!” he demands. He knows he’s coming across as frantic and maybe even crazed. He should have given Tony a heads up about the whole situation first, but fuck it, he’s here now.

Tony follows his instructions without question. Once the scan is going Peter relaxes enough to explain what’s going on, again — again, again, again — words he’s recited until they’re rote spilling out so fast Tony has to ask him to slow down.

The blue halo looks exactly the same today as always; there’s no indication he was hit less than an hour ago. In frustrated rage he kicks a lab chair, sending it flying. It smashes against the far wall, breaking in half with the force of the impact.

“What’d that chair ever do to you?” Tony asks, startled, and Peter thinks he sees something close to actual fear in his eyes.

This must be completely insane for him, Peter realizes. He just erupted into his lab in the middle of the afternoon, yelling about Groundhog Day, kicking chairs and — wow. He’s losing it.

He can’t be losing it. He cannot afford to lose it.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I’m so sorry. I’m just very, very tired of this.”

Tony closes the distance between them. “You’ve been favoring your right side,” he says matter-of-factly. He tugs at the edge of Peter’s t-shirt. “Let’s see the damage. That’s new information, right?”

Peter nods. He’s not really sure how it will help, but he’s desperate enough for any spark of hope that he pulls up his shirt without question, exposing the bruise, which has blossomed across half his torso, deep splotches of blue and black radiating from where the blast hit his ribs. He knows it will be completely gone when he wakes tomorrow, and not because of his healing powers.

Tony presses his lips into a displeased line as he reaches out to touch the bruise, fingers light, barely skimming Peter’s skin as they trace the blotchy contours of the wound. Peter can feel his muscles tense and twitch under the touch, and not because of pain. He presses his eyes closed again and wills himself to stay calm, concentrating on the cool suck of air as he breathes deeply.

When he opens his eyes Tony is doing his observation thing again, the intense and piercing version, focused not on the bruise but Peter’s face.

“Well,” he says after a moment. His voice is thick and tense; he clears his throat. “That looks painful, and it doesn’t seem to help, so how about you quit throwing yourself in the line of fire? Just come straight here tomorrow.”

“Unless you crack it today,” Peter points out, bitterly unhopeful. He drops his shirt, running his hands across it to smooth the wrinkles, though he doesn’t really know why he’s bothering. “Maybe tomorrow will actually be tomorrow. A whole new day of work.”

“Either way, come straight here.” If Tony picked up on the despair in Peter’s voice, he doesn’t mention it. “You can skip that stupid internship for a day, if you insist on going back at all. You always have a job here, you know, and I’ve yet to get you stuck in a time loop. By my count, that puts me one up on Oscorp.”

“Yeah, hanging out with you has never gone wrong,” Peter replies darkly, but he can’t deny that the idea of coming to Tony once he wakes up on a new day sounds very appealing. If he ever wakes up on a new day. “But, okay. I’ll come, either way.”

“It’s a date,” Tony replies with a smile and a wink, and Peter smiles back. For a brief moment he’s dumb enough to feel like maybe they can crack it today. Maybe the universe would be nice enough to let this be the conversation that sticks.

***

When he wakes up, tomorrow is still today, and he’s back to explaining it all again.

***

And again.

***

And again.

***

It’s been exactly a month since it all started.

This time, when Tony greets him with a depressingly familiar confused expression, Peter breaks down sobbing. Immediately Tony’s arms are around him, hands running through his hair, asking what’s wrong, who hurt him, who the hell, he’ll kill them —

Peter manages to choke out an explanation between hiccupped gulps of air, wrangling his meltdown into a slightly more dignified quiet cry. When he gets to the part where it’s been a full month, Tony pulls back, looking him in the eyes. His fingers dig into his shoulders so hard it hurts, but at least that helps him focus. His tears finally stop as he concentrates on that worried gaze.

“You’ve been doing this for a month?”

Peter nods, wiping his face dry on the inside of his wrist, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted, and also very silly. There’s nothing special about it being a month. He just needs to keep going. Eventually, they’ll figure it out. They have to.

“And you’ve been coming to me every day?” Tony clarifies, grabbing Peter’s hand, stilling it.

Again, a nod.

“And we haven’t gotten anywhere.”

“Not really.” He tells himself not to start crying again. It’s fine. It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.

“Okay.” Tony drops his hands and stands up straight. “Change of plans. You’re taking a day off.”

“I — what?” He can’t take a day off. They have to get to the bottom of this. “No. I can’t.”

“What we’ve been doing clearly hasn’t been working,” Tony counters, gesturing broadly in Peter’s general direction. “Maybe a change of pace will jog something new.”

Peter tries to think of a reason that doesn’t make sense, but he comes up blank. He doesn’t really want to say no. A day off from being stuck with needles, going over the same equations and theories, spending as much time talking about what’s failed as what might work — it sounds wonderful.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “I could go to a movie or something.”

“You?” Tony seems surprised by the suggestion. “You mean we.”

Peter feels a flutter against the back of his chest, a tug of longing. “Do I?”

“Of course you do,” Tony says. “Unless you’re sick of me.”

“Never, sir.”

Tony answers that with a dazzling grin. “Atta boy. So, what movie are we seeing?”

***

They go to a matinee, laughing together at the double-take the woman at the ticket booth does once she realizes who Tony is behind his sunglasses. She frowns at Peter, as if trying to figure out what he could possibly be doing out with Iron Man in the middle of the afternoon.

“You might not want today to stick,” Tony whispers as he guides Peter away, hand between his shoulder blades. “I’m pretty sure we just landed ourselves on the front of Page Six.”

They indulge in the largest barrel of popcorn available — “Is this what the masses are eating these days? I’ve been missing out” — passing it back and forth during the movie, fingers sometimes brushing as they both reach in at the same time. Peter spends the entire movie uncomfortably aware of how close they are, legs occasionally bumping, Tony’s breath tickling his ear when he leans over to whisper commentary. If this little outing is supposed to help him relax it’s not working. But it definitely is distracting, so that’s something.

Afterward, Tony insists they take a walk along the High Line (“I hear that’s a thing people do. We’re people, let’s do it”). The elevated walkway is teaming with tourists, but it’s still pleasant as they stroll slowly along, enjoying the greenery weaving its way through a sea of concrete.

It’s hot and sticky in the way New York summers are; within minutes Peter’s t-shirt is clinging to his chest. Despite the humidity, he feels like he’s blossoming. Until this moment he hadn’t registered that, as a side-effect of spending his days locked in the lab, he hasn’t been outside for any extended period of time in the last month. Even in its unforgiving blaze, the sun is a gift. He makes them stop at a bench so he can sit and simply turn his face upward, basking in the heat.

“Thanks for making me do this,” he murmurs into the air, eyes closed. He hears a small laugh, a rustle of clothing, and then Tony’s arm is around him, resting across his shoulders.

“Any time, kid. You look like you needed it.”

Peter opens his eyes to see Tony beaming at him with a fondness that makes him a little faint. “I did,” he agrees. “And I think I may have an idea, too.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I was just thinking about how I hadn’t been outside the lab in a long time, and it made me think. Lab, science — maybe we’re going about this all wrong.” When that gets a confused head-tilt, he explains, “I think we should go see Doctor Strange.”

Tony raises an impressed eyebrow. “I’m taking credit for this idea,” he says as he stands, extending a hand to Peter. “Since I’m the one who thought of taking a break.”

***

“This has been happening for how long?”

“A month.”

Strange presses a hand to his forehead, rubbing his temples. “And, to confirm, this is the first time you thought of coming to me?”

Peter wants to point out that his tone isn’t exactly fair. It’s not like there’s a guidebook for what you do when you’re stuck in a time loop. On the other hand, now that he’s thought of it, it does seem pretty dumb not to have gone to the actual wizard with an expertise in time. The Time Stone was destroyed along with the rest of the Infinity Stones, but Strange must know more about this kind of thing than anyone else. If it hadn’t been for the fact that it all started with a machine, he probably would have come straight here. But machines are a Tony thing.

Except clearly not this time. This time machines might also be a wizard thing. So he just nods, looking a little abashed.

“You, I’m not surprised,” Strange says, pointing at Tony. “Of course you thought you could fix it on your own. But you I expected more of,” he adds to Peter.   

“Leave the kid alone. He’s been through a lot.” Tony lays a protective hand against the back of Peter’s neck. It sends a distracting shiver down his spine.  

“He’d have been through less if he’d come to me sooner,” Strange retorts, waving his hands in a complex arc. A book appears on the table, flipping itself open with a heavy thud. “I could have told you Oscorp has been meddling with things they don’t understand.”

“Wait,” Peter asks, embarrassment slipping into frustration. “You knew about this?”

“We knew they’d gotten their hands on something powerful,” Strange replies absently, scanning through the book with deliberate speed, as if he knows exactly what he’s looking for. “This little situation of yours helps clarify, actually. Ah — yes, here we go.”

Tony and Peter crowd in to see. The page is ancient, rust colored and flaking. In the middle is the image of an amulet, light blue stone surrounded by metal woven into a delicate pattern. The rest of the page is filled with flourished script in a language Peter can’t make out. 

“I don’t like the look of that,” Tony comments faintly, and when Peter glances over he sees he’s trembling. He grabs his wrist, trying to be comforting, and is rewarded with a weak smile.

“Yes, the Infinity Stones aren’t the only ones with powers,” Strange agrees. “This is far less dangerous than those, of course, but it still shouldn’t be treated like a toy. We’ll have to retrieve it once we’ve solved our young friend’s problem.”

“So — do you know how to do that?” Peter asks, almost afraid to hope. If the answer is no, he might break.

“Not precisely,” Strange says slowly, as if trying to figure out how to respond. “Only you can know that.”

“Strange, if you start talking cryptic nonsense again —” Tony warns.

“I believe that last time we worked together, my ‘cryptic nonsense’ saved the universe,” Strange replies archly. “What I was going to say is this amulet traps people in a time loop until they get what they need. It’s up to Peter to figure out what that means for him.”

“What I need?” Peter asks blankly. “What do you mean, what I need? I don’t need anything.”

“Clearly you do,” Strange replies with a shrug, finger tracing along lines of text. “The amulet is known for picking wisely. Only those it can help.”

“So you’re saying this is my fault?” Peter asks, a flood of anger burning through him. “This thing picked me for this?!” Tony places a gentle hand on his arm, but he shrugs it off. “Did I do something wrong?”

“It’s supposed to be an honor, actually,” Strange says, skipping a few pages ahead. “Ancient Babylonians would pilgrimage for hundreds of miles to see the amulet, in the hopes that it would bless them with selection.”

Peter feels the urge to punch something. “Well, that’s great for them, but I didn’t ask for this, and I don’t want it. I want to give it back. Just make it stop.”

Strange shakes his head, closing the book. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Oh, of course not,” Tony cuts in, sarcastic.

“What do I do?” Peter adds desperately.

Strange glances between them, an amused smile playing across his lips. “I told you, that’s up to you to figure out, Peter.”

“Wow, that’s so incredibly helpful.” Then, because this actually has been very helpful, even if it makes him want to tear his hair out because they’ve been going about things entirely wrong the whole time, he adds, “Sorry. I’m sorry, Doctor Strange. Thank you for your advice, really.”

Strange bows his head in acknowledgement, and then waves, transporting them back outside unceremoniously.

***

“I hate magic,” Tony grumbles as they stumble onto the busy New York sidewalk. The sun is starting to go down, and Peter has already resigned himself to another day doing it over. “So, any ideas?”

Peter looks at him, and feels his heart skip a beat. Tony stares back, unreadable. So unreadable it almost seems intentional. As if Peter’s supposed to read into the unreadability.

No. Life cannot possibly be as cliché as what he’s thinking, right? That would be — well. Ridiculous. Taking the Groundhog Day metaphor way too far. There’s no way.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Maybe. Probably not.”

“Want to get dinner and talk it over?”

“I want to get dinner. I don’t want to talk it over.” Not yet. Well, probably not at all. Either he goes for it, or he doesn’t. There’s really no point in talking about it.

“Works for me,” Tony agrees. “Where to?”

And so they end up in Chinatown, eating dollar dumplings out of styrofoam containers, Peter explaining that this used to be Uncle Ben’s favorite thing to do. Whenever they were in Manhattan with even a hint of free time, he would insist on coming to this exact spot. Three orders of dumplings, a sesame pancake, and then, if they had time, a stroll over the Brooklyn Bridge to “walk it off.” Peter loved those days.

Tony listens to this story with a focus bordering on reverence. “You never talk about him,” he says when Peter’s done.

“You never talk about your dad either,” Peter points out. They’ve started in the direction of the bridge. It’s practically muscle memory for Peter, and if Tony’s bothered by the direction he doesn’t say anything. “Not really, anyway. Other than to complain.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because my dad kinda sucked,” Tony replies with a shrug. “Learning not to dwell was a whole thing.”

“Ah.”

They continue their walk in silence, Tony occasionally swaying against Peter, their hips banging. The sun has gone down entirely, and the night air is pleasantly warm. A gentle breeze picks up as they begin across the bridge, ignoring the stares from the people they pass. Tony’s hand finds the small of Peter’s back and stays there, resting lightly. All of Peter’s senses anchor to the touch; it’s impossible for him to think about anything else.

This is absurd, he tells himself as the center of the bridge draws near, Manhattan skyline stretching out in breathtaking lights. This can’t possibly be the answer. But — Strange did look between them with that knowing smile of his, eyes dancing with meaning. And frankly, everything else about Peter’s life is pretty good right now. He’s at his dream college, has great friends, is kind of killing it with the superhero stuff.

If this stupid amulet thinks he needs something, what else would it be?   

He stops, turning to look out over the water. Okay. Worst case, he’s wrong, he makes a total idiot of himself, and then he wakes up tomorrow, it’s all erased, and he can get going on figuring out what else a mystical gem might think he needs. And best case —

Best case would be pretty damned good.

Tony stops beside him. “Nice view,” he comments, nonchalant, nudging him. “So, any developments on the ‘What does Peter Parker need’ front? Because if there’s something you need me to buy, you know you just have to say the word.”

“I have a feeling ancient amulets aren’t really worried about material stuff,” Peter replies, suddenly a bit nauseous. Why is he nauseous? He shouldn’t be. This is fine. He can just start it all again tomorrow. He glances over at Tony, whose eyes are trained on him. “I do have an idea, but I think it might be really stupid.”

“Oh?” Tony asks, turning toward him, stepping a little closer. His hand lands on Peter’s hip. “Care to share?”

Peter’s mouth goes dry. He might not have a lot of experience in this area, but he knows enough to know that’s an invitation. Hands balled in nervous fists, heart thumping wildly, he leans in.

To his relief, Tony doesn’t jump back with a shout, doesn’t ask what the hell the thinks he’s doing, doesn’t say, kid, I’m flattered, but you have to know I don’t see you like that. Instead, his hand tightens on his hip, pulling him closer, his other arm weaving around his back as he meets him in the kiss, pressing against him eagerly, as if he’s been waiting for this as long as Peter has.

It is absolutely the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Better than getting his suit for the first time, better than Germany, better than MIT, better than anything. He never wants it to stop.

When they finally break apart, reluctantly, panting and smiling, something clenches in Peter’s chest. All sense of balance disappears; only Tony’s grip, tight around his waist, keeps him from collapsing.

“Whoa!” Tony brings his other arm up to cradle Peter’s head. “Pete, are you alright?”

Peter tries to nod but that just makes him sway and stumble, whole world gone crooked.

“Okay, I know I’m a good kisser, but this is a bit much.” Tony’s hands are strong and sturdy as he pulls him closer, lips grazing his forehead. “Let’s get you back home.”

And then, because he’s Tony Stark, he activates his suit, scoops Peter up, and takes off. Peter clings to his neck, eyes closed, head pressed against the cool metal of the suit, caught between elation at what just happened and panic at the way the world is dissolving around him. At least he’s in the safest place he could possibly be: Tony’s arms.

Somewhere on the journey back, he passes out.

***

He wakes up with morning sun in his eyes, but when he immediately looks to the left, his alarm clock isn’t there. He swivels and sits, and after a few disoriented seconds realizes he’s not even in his room. Instead, he’s in a king bed with silk sheets and a quilted comforter and —

And Tony Stark asleep in an armchair at the foot of the bed. 

With a relieved sigh, he falls back onto the pillows. Okay then.

It’s a new day.

It’s a new day.

And then, because he realizes exactly what that means, he bursts into a smile.