He's never really put a whole lot of thought to relationships and crushes and all that. Sure, he had girls he was into, and he always wanted to have a girlfriend, because that seemed to be the thing boys got entangled in, but his first real crush had been Liz. And she was wonderful. She was kind and generous and so, so smart. And he screwed that right the heck up. So the next one had to be different. It had to be safer, better, more fair to the other person, right? And that's if anyone would ever want a big, awkward nerd like Peter Parker. And, uh, there's... this kid.
In gym class.
It was honestly not something he lingered on at first. But the more he hung around Andrew, the more he started wondering if maybe there was something a little more to the way he couldn't help but track him up and down from afar, or the way he was temporarily taken aback by his bright grin and high-rising eyebrows, so full of confidence. Full of muscle and grace. Not a pompous jerk like Flash, but cool and composed and actually genuinely liked and humble and —
And maybe he had a thing for Andrew. Maybe? And it makes him panic a little, because he didn't want to be — like, you know. Gay... ish... Gay. And it wasn't even because he thought it was — wrong, or anything like that. It's just... He didn't want to be gay, because he was already made fun of for a plethora of other reasons; why the unholy hell would he want to add another target on him? No, nonono, he should just... push back the feelings that flutter up in his stomach. Right? Right. Don't think of Andrew and his strong-looking hands, or the way he makes all the girls wave him down, or how cool his shirts are, or how funny his jokes can be from across the gym to your stupid enhanced ears—
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
But would Spider-Man be such a coward?
'I like you.'
"You should totally just go for it," Liz says over a skype call (he's not sure why he tells her about his crush first and not Ned, because it's not like he thinks Ned would ever judge him for liking both sides of the coin, but like—)
Peter's hand moves over a fastly beating heart. "Noooo, no, I can't."
"Why not, Peter? It's 2017. We're working on being allowed to be ourselves, right? You should always follow your heart." She smiles at him, pressing a pink pillow against her stomach as she looks between the screen and her cellphone, where there's no doubt another conversation going on via text; how the heck she does that and still seems so invested in their talk is beyond him. She's a magician. A smiling, confident magician who looks at him like he's being ridiculous for hesitating. "That's what you usually do, right? Follow your heart? You have a good one, so it's not, like, a big deal to do that."
Oh, how one wishes it was that easy.
So Peter's in a hallway. Again. With another person he likes. Again.
"I like you. I mean, I have — a crush on you. I think? I'm sorry."
Andrew runs a hand through his perfectly combed brown hair and looks a little stunned. Peter wants to melt into the floor and just die, his ears turning agonizingly red. He sucks his hands into his sleeves and strains the cuff fabric. "I'm so — I should go."
"I knew it," Andrew says. Then clears his throat. "Hey, man, it's cool. I knew it. I mean, you were always kind of watching me in gym, so. I figured as much."
"So, uh. I totally think you're cool, too. I just need some time to think about it."
Peter deflates a little, gaze locked on Andrew's clean converse shoes; he's probably rolling in cash, because he seems to have a new pair every other week. Always fashionable. Very popular. What the heck is your problem, Peter, picking the cool kids you have no right to be with? And now — to just go for it like this, maybe... "I didn't mean to make things weird, so I'm sorry if I... did that."
"Nah, no. It's cool." Andrew smiles, shrugging a shoulder. He looks a little uncomfortable, but. "I gotta go, but... you know, I think... maybe we can hang out more. Later. See how this thing goes? If you're interested in it, too."
"I am! I mean, yes — yes, I'd love to hang out."
He's so relieved, he almost wants to cry. For the second time in a year, he's walking quickly through the halls — practically skipping, if he's honest — and when he leaps the fence later and pulls on the Spider-Man mask, there's a bounce to his step that even Karen seems to notice. He wonders if he should ask someone for advice on how to approach this kind of thing? He knows some gay people, but he's really bad at opening up about this kind of thing. Has Mr. Stark ever considered boys? Has Aunt May ever considered girls? And why has it taken him this long to even fathom these kinds of talks? There's noooo waaaay he can go to them about something this embarrassing. Not that — not that being gay is embarrassing! Or is it? Is he being all secretly 'no homo' at himself? That'd make no sense. But gay panic is totally a real thing, and —
Oh, that's a purse snatcher down below, he's gotta focus.
"Hey buddy! That's so not your color!"
Spider-Man job now, Parker romance life later.
'SOLVE THE EQUATION:
LOSER + FAGGOT ='
Below the all caps written across his locker door, the predictable answer:
Peter stares blankly at the message for a long moment. Most of the other kids aren't really paying him any mind at the end of the day. One or two look embarrassed for him; another laughs at the joke sharpied across the metal; Andrew's friend Will nudges by him as the bell rings, echoing sentiments as his elbow sharply grazes Peter's spine: "Faggot."
Oh, Peter thinks. He probably wrote it. It's super unoriginal.
So, Andrew told his friends. He doesn't even bother hiding himself from Peter's radar... just stands with his friends close enough that when Peter turns, he locks eyes with him from down the hallway. There's no signs of that winning smile or twinkle in his eye. He just — stands with his arms folded, defensive, a flash of belated second thoughts in his expression just before he turns away and disappears to leave the campus for the day. Weekend. Good time to go hang out with friends, right? Good time to tell them all about the loser who admitted he liked you.
At his side, Ned catches him by the elbow, looking worried. He'd stayed behind longer to talk to the teacher about his essay rough draft.
"Peter? Dude, hey — " The boy quiets when his eyes meet the locker.
MJ is right behind him.
"Who did this?" she asks, expression darkening with indignation, as she motions a knife-like hand toward his locker.
He doesn't want to handle this. His stomach churns, and before he knows what his own legs are doing he's rushing blindly away through the hall, desperate to pretend nothing's wrong; the best way to do that would be to leave the school, just leave and go be Spider-Man and not think of how fucking stupid he is, how fucking naive—
"Peter!" MJ calls out.
He hears them try to follow, but he's Spider-Man. He's too fast. Fast enough to try and outrun any problem that comes along. Watch as the lockers pass, the teacher yelling 'no running!' futilely, the student he nearly knocks over in his mad sprint for freedom. He jumps down a long set of stairs, staggers, and then face-plants right into Happy Hogan's waiting chest. Panting, he's panting, and he must've really been booking it. "Kid? Hey, you didn't forget our plans tonight, did you? Tuna casserole upstate?"
He looks at Happy sharply, awed.
He hiccups a sob.
His face scrunches into something ugly and recklessly vulnerable. Does he ever learn? Being vulnerable is such a bad idea, no matter how hip it is in 2017. And yet he buries his face in Happy's shoulder as two drip-dripping set of tears squeeze by his pressing eyelids. He's gonna freaking barf; can't breathe or see or smell, but he does eventually feel the man's palms pressing on his shoulders. "What happened? Hey, are you alright?"
Then Happy's arms wrap around him with some hesitancy and hold him there, a small comfort the guy's not used to offering just anyone. Peter presses his hands into his face, stifling what feels like hoarse panic now.
"He told them — he told people, and he didn't really —"
A set of fingers hook around the back of his neck, pressing to comfort before leading him forward when his legs refuse to carry him.
"C'mon," Happy says, as grave as a six-foot hole reserved for a coffin. "Here, c'mon, get in, get in." He ushers him into the backseat of the car and Peter promptly curls up, forgoing a seat belt. He's Spider-Man. Spider-Man doesn't need a goddamn seat belt, okay? He can survive falls off ten story buildings, no sweat. This is nothing. And he shouldn't even be freaking out like this. How is a rude message scribbled on his locker worse than being dropped out of the sky on a fiery plane?
... He feels bad, leaving Ned and MJ behind; his phone keeps buzzing in his pocket, but he's scared to explain. He shouldn't be, because they love him, and they're his friends.
But he is.
"Listen, Peter," Happy says after a long and concerned pause. "We're gonna stop by the diner on 11th and order some burgers and fries, and you're gonna tell me everything, alright? Then I'm gonna decide if I need extreme measures. I'm not above endangering high school students, and trust me when I say nobody should want to cross paths with me on a golf cart in broad daylight."
"No, angry, I'm very angry. And stressed out. I don't get paid enough for being worried about emotional wrecks in superhero suits as often as I am." He looks at Peter and his puffy red eyes in the rear-view mirror, expression lacking any of the usual annoyed punch; he really does just look worried. "You know I'm in charge of you, right? So your problems are my problems."
"You don't have to help with these kinds of things," Peter says lamely.
Stopped at a red, Happy twists around in his seat to point at Peter.
"I want to, kid. There's a difference." A pause. He motions at Peter with a hand. "Crawl up here, spider-boy. Up front. C'mon, tell me everything. The diner thing still stands."
And boy, it'd be easy to leap out of a window and find somewhere to sling away into isolation. Easy, but not... what Peter wants, actually. He shrinks in his seat.
(Now, maybe he should text MJ and Ned back before they storm the Avengers headquarters.)
First things first:
"... Don't tell Mr. Stark?"
Peter's not sure why he doesn't want him to know. At least right now. Maybe because he blows stuff out of proportion? And this isn't even a big deal; he's making it a big deal. It's not the first time he's been taunted for being him. And yet Happy's words have eased back a harrowing panic in his lungs, and when the driver promises he won't say anything without Peter's approval, he knows this is someone who'd never betray him. He crawls into the front seat and wipes his nose on his sleeve. Happy sighs, "Okay, bud... Start from the top. And it'll be alright. Just breathe through it... I've been really working on my meditation expertise, if you need tips. Gotta manage my blood pressure somehow, right?"
Peter actually smiles at that. And even if Happy doesn't smile, too, he knows he's right where the guy wants him. They talk all the way upstate, through a diner, and over a bridge, and up many a-street, as Peter's blotchy face clears up.
When he hears all kinds of stories about the boys Happy had fallen for miserably in high school, he feels — less alone.
That's all he really wants, right now.