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Out of the Thousand Invitations

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Mary Jane whirled into the apartment with both purpose and a garment bag, and Peter was instantly afraid for his life.

"Good news, gang!" she sang, snagging Harry's half-finished drink out of his hand and downing it in one go. "I got the role of my dreams!"

"I'll drink to that," Harry said, grabbing his glass back. "CATS back on Broadway finally?"

"For your own safety I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," said Mary Jane, collapsing down on the arm of the sofa. "No, it's fantastic - it's a part in the movie remake of that old soap opera, do you remember? Secret Hospital?" She tossed her hair and pushed her shoulders back, thrusting her chest forward and adopting a pouty look. "I'm the fiery hospital administrator with a dark secret."

"Why Ms. Watson," Peter said, setting his textbook down with a grin. "I do believe that's the role you were born to play."

Harry tugged at the zipper of MJ's garment bag. "What's in here, anyway? Your getup?" The bag parted to reveal a lot of fuzzy red fabric, cuffed with white faux fur, topped off with a fluffy white fake beard. Harry blinked. "Well. That's a dark secret, alright."

"That," MJ said, snatching the garment bag away from Harry, "is the cloud on my silver lining. I had a prior commitment."

"At the North Pole?" Peter asked, leaning back so he could rub the fake beard between his fingers.

"Don't get cute with me, I'm immune," Mary Jane said. "The problem is, I have a friend who works at the Baxter Building - you know, that huge apartment complex for the mega-rich and ultra-nerdy, with all the science stuff?"

"I've heard of it," Peter teased. "I applied for an internship there last semester."

"And then your adviser turned into a giant lizard and there endeth the dream," said Harry, saluting Peter with his empty glass. "New York, New York."

"The building's holding a big Christmas charity thing all next week," Mary Jane said. "My friend roped me into playing Santa."

"Well that's great and all," Harry said, falling backwards across her lap. "But where will the kids sit?"

"Watch it, Har," she said, grinning down at him. "That floor looks cold. Anyway, obviously I can't do it now, but I hate to leave a friend in the lurch. And then I thought, hey, you know who else would hate leaving a friend, ie, me, in the lurch?"

"Is it one of the other friends you don't let us meet because you're so ashamed of us?" Peter said, not filled with a whole lot of hope.

"Nope," Mary Jane said. "So come on - who wants to make the season merry and bright so I don't have to? Peter?"

"Why can't Harry do it?" Peter demanded, waving a hand at him. "He doesn't have, oh, I don't know - a job?"

"Any Osborn worth his salt would rather walk the plank than wear stretch velvet," Harry drawled, tipping his head back. "And I have lectures."

"That you don't attend," Peter pointed out.

"But I have them," Harry said.

"Actually selling Peter's point there, Har," Mary Jane said.

"I got you Louboutins for Christmas," Harry said.

"And the argument goes to Harry!" Mary Jane said, jumping up off the couch. She held the garment bag aloft. "Peter, your suit."

"This is unjust," Peter said. "He bribed the jury. I want a retrial."

"The world's just not fair, is it," Harry said, kicking his feet up on the coffee table.

"Sorry," MJ said, swinging the bag back and forth from her fingers. "It's a corrupt system. Them's the breaks. Take the suit, Peter."

Peter gave up and took the suit.

 


 

"You're not mad, right?" Mary Jane asked later when they were alone on a coffee run.

"No, I'm not mad," Peter said. The cashier signaled for them to step up. "How many shots of espresso can I get before you'll cut me off?"

Mary Jane hip-checked him out of the way and ordered for the both of them.

"And you'll do it? You said you'd do it," she said, drinks in hand. They fell into step together; the weather was turning chilly and Mary Jane shivered when the wind blew. Peter took the drinks so she could wrap her coat tighter around herself.

"I'll do it, I'll do it," Peter said.

Mary Jane hummed, elbowing him a little. "What's one more secret life in a red suit, huh?"

"Yeah, yeah," he said. He figured she had a good half a dozen years left to rub that in his face before his self-loathing let up enough. "When you put it that way, I don't know why I haven't been playing mall Santa for years."

"And you're good with kids!" Mary Jane pointed out. She took her cup from his hand and popped the lid off, practically inhaling whipped cream. "Can you imagine Harry? Nightmare."

"He'd try to hand them back," Peter said. Mary Jane laughed, but it was a quick thing and a moment later her face fell.

"I don't like lying to him," she said.

"It's not a lie," Peter said, even as his own heart throbbed with guilt. "I just - I can't tell him. He hates Spider-Man, MJ."

"I know," she said, leaning against him as they walked. He tangled one hand in her soft bright hair, tugging a little, glad they could do this again. Talk. Be friends. Get emotionally blackmailed into wearing a fake beard. The hole in his chest felt a little less jagged than usual. She took a long sip of her coffee and said, "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

"No," he agreed, tugging her closer. "Doesn't mean that at all."

 


 

The Santa costume was itchy. Peter didn't know why he'd expected any different. Of course the Santa costume was itchy. He hooked his fingers beneath his billowing fake beard and scratched.

"Quit it," Anya, his teenage elf helper, said. She wasn't looking at him when she said it, just like she hadn't the last four times, busy trying to figure out how to get her tiny hat on without undoing her spiky ponytail.

Peter was a little bit afraid of her. Something about all the jingle bells made her menacing.

"Have you done this before?" he said, nervously adjusting his beard. There were no children lurking around the corners of Santa's tiny village, surrounded by fake snow and surprisingly realistic reindeer, but Peter had no illusions that it would stay like that.

Mary Jane would've been so much better at this, all easy joy and cheer and holiday-themed hair.

Anya jingled when she nodded. "Yep, I'm a pro. Listen, just try to smile, okay?"

Peter tried. Anya made a face.

"Or maybe you're more of a wise, stern Father Christmas type," she said. "We'll work it out."

Maybe it was just the beginning of the season, but playing Santa Claus so far mostly involved watching Anya play Candy Crush on her phone.

"It'll pick up," she said. "Beginning's always a little slow. Ugh, why can't I beat this level?"

The elevator doors dinged open just as Anya was hitting up her facebook friends for more lives, and out stepped the best looking man Peter had ever seen. He was about Peter's height, long-limbed and slim with a smile movie stars would've killed for. He had a little boy by the hand and a baby pressed against his shoulder, and Peter thought, oh no.

Hot Dad smiled at Peter, looking too perfect to be real in his tight jeans and soft-looking sweater, cute baby all sleepy sighs and curly hair nuzzled up against his shoulder. He looked less like a person and more like a holiday ad for expensive cologne.

I know what I want for Christmas, Peter thought, two seconds before, not that it matters, because if Santa was real I'd be stoned to death with coal.

"Hey, Franklin, why don't you tell Santa all about the real, live dinosaur you want for Christmas?" he said, and the kid's eyes lit up. He practically scaled the fence surrounding their makeshift Santa's village and Anya had to hop over to give him a leg up.

"Santa!" he said, staring up at Peter with a perfectly serious face. "Daddy said he'll take me to see REAL DINOSAURS."

"Daddy said, huh?" Peter mumbled, sliding a look Hot Dad's way. Anya subtly stepped on his foot.

"Not me," Hot Dad said, snorting, just as the elevator doors opened again. A man Peter had only ever seen in photographs stepped out - Dr. Reed Richards, super genius and Peter's own private science idol. "Speak of the devil."

"I was really hoping they weren't set up yet," Dr. Richards said, looking long-suffering. He clapped a hand to Hot Dad's shoulder. "Johnny. I begged you."

"I know," Johnny said. "It was funny."

Of course - that was typical Parker Luck. The hottest guy Peter had ever seen was married to his #1 brain crush and they had adorable moppet children and were probably disgustingly in love. The holidays were the worst.

"Daddy!" Franklin said, beaming. "I was telling Santa about the dinosaurs!"

Dr. Richards brightened.

"It's actually a temporal portal," he said, only to be cut off by his improbably hot husband.

"Reed? Don't do that to Santa," he said, shaking his head. He walked forward, smiling at Anya and the woman behind the camera, and then he was handing his baby to Peter. She squirmed unappreciatively and gave Peter the most murderous face he'd ever seen on anyone under the age of five.

"Smile for the camera, Val," Johnny said, brushing the baby's soft curls out of her face. This close Peter could admire his long eyelashes and the sharp curve of his jaw. He shouldn't - but he could, and he did. It was all the hits to the head, he told himself. They'd destroyed his impulse control. "And please, please don't bite Santa."

"Wait," Peter said. "What?"

Chubby tiny baby fingers grabbed Peter's beard and yanked, just as the camera went off. The resulting photo had him and the baby looking equally shocked, and Franklin looking scandalized at the reality of Santa - an unpaid twentysomething giving up valuable swinging hours out of sheer and unrelenting guilt.

Ho, ho, ho.

Hot Dad - Johnny - burst out laughing so hard he doubled over. He was less holiday card perfect like that, his hair falling over his forehead, his hands slapping his knees, but he was a hundred times more real. Peter really had to stop thinking like that with the man's baby still tugging on his fake beard so ferociously that the elastic bit into the skin behind his ears.

"We should probably take another one," Dr. Richards said, looking faintly guilty under the weight of his son's accusing glare.

"Are you kidding?" Johnny said, overhead lights casting a halo over him. "Sue's going to have so many wallet prints of this made up they'll be coming out of our ears. No, that's the one."

"You think?" Dr. Richards asked, stroking his chin.

"I know," Johnny said, grabbing Dr. Richards' arm as he pulled himself back up. His eyes were shining as he squeezed his bicep. Peter wanted to look away. "It's perfect."

"Well, I trust you," Dr. Richards said, his hand between Johnny's shoulder blades. Casual, comfortable. Maybe it was the time of year, or maybe it was the way Johnny had looked when he'd first shown up, but Peter was getting pretty sick of married people. "Though I have no idea why."

Peter was glad when the baby tried to strangle him with his own beard again - it was a mercy killing.

 


 

Harry was halfway to passed out on the couch when Peter came home, and whatever seasonal joy playing Santa Claus and then turning around and foiling a minor bank robbery had instilled in Peter disappeared, just like that.

"Looks like someone had a good night," he said, flipping the lights on.

Harry groaned, throwing his arm over his eyes.

"The guys in my econ class are wild," he said, words just a little slurred. "Have pity, Pete. It's Christmas."

"It's December 10th," Peter said, but he had pity anyway. He helped maneuver Harry up off the couch, swinging Harry's arm up over his shoulders.

"When'd you get so strong?" Harry asked. Peter bit the inside of his cheek. It would be an easy thing to carry him to bed - Peter had done that, once or twice. But stumbling though he was, Harry was too awake not to ask questions. Peter was too tired for the usual easy deflection.

"The building's got a gym, right?" he said. Harry's heavy head met his shoulder. "Doesn't matter. C'mon, let's go. Bedtime."

"Yes, mom," Harry said, not quite vicious but with more bite than Peter had expected. He shouldered that, too, as they stumbled up their way up the stairs. He nudged Harry's bedroom door open with his hip before toppling Harry gently onto the mattress. Harry groaned, turning over, as Peter yanked the blankets out from underneath him.

Harry hummed sleepily, eyes slipping closed as he pressed his face against the pillows. Peter clasped his shoulder.

"Sleep it off," he said, when he really meant sleep well, and turned to go.

"Hey," Harry mumbled, catching Peter by the hem of his shirt. His eyes were still closed. "Wait a sec. You didn't tell me - how'd your first day as jolly ol' St. Nick go?"

"Oh no," Peter said. "No no no."

"Best friend privileges," Harry slurred against his pillow.

"You want to know how it went?" Peter asked him. "I met a married man and stared at him in creepy, inappropriate lust while his baby tried to kill me and his husband checked his phone. That's how it went."

Harry snickered into his pillow and clumsily patted Peter on the hip. "That's my boy."

"G'night, Har," Peter said, snorting.

 


 

"Oh," Betty said, tapping one of the photos with a snowflake manicured nail. "I like this one."

"Yeah?" Peter hummed, glancing at it. "I don't know, it's not my favorite."

"What can I say? Spider-Man's got a cute butt," she grinned. Peter snorted, hoping his neck hadn't gone all blotchy in a blush.

"And if we can convince the Grinch in there," he jerked a thumb towards Jonah's office, where he was busy yelling into the phone, "that it caused, I don't know, a ten car pile-up, he might even pay me the going rate for it."

"There's Christmas miracles and then there's that idea," Betty said, leaning back in her chair. "What've you been up to, anyway? I feel like I've seen less of you than usual lately."

"Mm," Peter hummed, sweeping the photos up into a neat stack. "I've been a little busy. Took up a second gig."

A third, actually, but who was counting all his unpaid swinging labor.

"Does it pay well?" Betty asked, raising her eyebrows. "Are they hiring?"

"No and no, unless you want to be my Mrs. Claus," Peter said. "It's a volunteer thing. I play Santa in the lobby of the Baxter Building. I think every kid in midtown has coughed on me."

Betty made a face and dug none too subtly in her desk for hand sanitizer. "I think I'll stick to being screamed at by Jonah. At least he won't ask me for a pony."

"MISS BRANT!"

"Are you so sure about that?" Peter asked. Betty rolled her eyes. She bustled into Jonah's office, tiny bells jingling on her Christmas sweater, and when she came back she looked only slightly murderous.

"He says get him coffee, Marla Jameson leaves me five messages a day saying if he kills himself with a caffeine overdose she'll raise him from the grave and kill him all over again..." she blew a short dark lock of hair out of her face. "Merry Christmas to me. Anyway. The Baxter Building's not a bad gig for you, though, right? There's that lab there. You're a science guy. Maybe you can slip someone your resume."

"Maybe," Peter said, shrugging. Then, idly, "Did you know Dr. Richards was married?"

"Reed Richards?" Betty said. "Sure. He's the face of scientific achievement. The Richards-Storm wedding - it was huge news. Read a magazine, Pete. Though I guess you would've been in high school at the time. Probably had better things to do than read wedding specials."

"It was a little dark in all the lockers I got shoved in," Peter said, head reeling a little bit. It had happened when he was in high school? Reed Richards wasn't old, but he had a good ten years on Peter, and Johnny looked about his own age. Visions of teen brides danced in his head. "God, that's so weird."

"What? People in love, getting married, living happily ever after in expensive skyscrapers? Yep. Ugh, now I'm depressed," Betty sighed, slumping forward and making grabby hands. "Show me the photo of Spider-Man's butt again."

 


 

Someone's rooftop holiday brunch got taken hostage a week before Christmas. The only thing worse than the fact that Peter spent his mid-afternoon webbing up masked assailants wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers was the fact that Johnny Storm was in attendance.

Johnny Storm was in attendance, and also apparently stupidly brave. Or maybe just stupid. Peter had always had a hard time telling the difference, which probably had nothing to do with all the time he spent in tights.

One moment, Johnny was crouched with the rest of the hostages, their redheaded former-child star host included. The next, he was shouting, "Spider-Man, look out!"

His voice clashed with Peter's spider-sense, an alarm in stereo. He spun, kicking one gunman back into a very large, very expensive-looking potted plant. Someone screamed. A second gunman fired just as Peter did; the webs stuck, the shot narrowly missed Johnny, who scrambled backwards. The backs of his knees hit the ledge - arms windmilling, he fell.

Peter didn't think before he dove.

"Got you!" he said, pulling Johnny Storm close against him. Johnny stifled a gasp, arms winding around Peter's neck as Peter's hand found purchase on his hip. "I got you."

People, Peter had found since he'd started swinging around the city in his signature red and blue, generally fell into two categories: good passengers and bad. Mary Jane was a good passenger; she held on tight, but not too tight, and she trusted that he wouldn't drop her.

Harry was a bad passenger, because three out of the four times Peter had whisked him out of danger he'd tried to punch Spider-Man in the face. The fourth time he'd been unconscious, so Peter was hesitant to label it an improvement.

Johnny somehow managed to land himself directly between the two: he clung a little too hard, and the rapid beat of his heart pressed up against Peter's chest was a distraction, like the harsh intake of breath in his ear.

Then, like a switch flipped, Johnny let out a whoop, leaning his head back into the wind. His grip loosened and then it was easy to swing them both up and over.

"This is amazing," he said, stretching out gloved fingers into the wind. Peter chanced one single look at him and had to glance away; Johnny's smile was bright like the sun on new snow. He laughed out loud. "This is amazing - I would never stop if I was you."

"Yeah, well, web fluid's expensive," Peter said, even though he felt the same way. He was never more himself than when he was in the air at the end of a swing. "Where do I drop you, Mr. Storm?"

"Spider-Man knows my name," Johnny said, grinning. "Spider-Man's - oh my god. How cool is that?"

"Any old patch of sidewalk, huh?" Peter said, trying to ignore the pleased flush of heat down his neck and across his chest. "You got it, mister."

"Oh, there!" Johnny said suddenly, pointing. "By the weirdo in the scarf!"

The weirdo in the scarf was a tall, brick wall of a man with a shock of dark brown hair and the bluest eyes Peter had ever seen. He was, it had to be said, wearing an extremely ugly scarf. It sort of looked like it'd been knitted by an octopus.

"What the hell, kid?" Very Handsome Ugly Scarf Guy demanded as Peter neatly deposited Johnny down in front of him.

"Hi, Ben," Johnny said, rolling his eyes. "Nice to see you, Ben. I'm fine and nobody got killed at my rooftop garden party, Ben."

"I can see that. Why Reed puts up with you..." Ben said. He turned those blue eyes on Peter, who resisted the urge to fidget. He was handsome in a different way from Johnny - Johnny looked like he could be playing the movie version of an all American hero, an astronaut or a fireman. Ben looked like he could easily be either of those in real life. He looked Peter straight in the mask and said, "Guess you're not such a bum after all. Thanks for saving the kid."

Peter was way too late and way too short on patience and little tingly still from where he'd had Johnny caught against him. It was not the time for handsome strangers with heavy New York accents to be calling him a bum.

"Well, I'm off," he said. "Places to go, criminals to web. Try to keep your feet on the ground, would you?" The last bit he directed Johnny's way.

He swung off, but he heard Johnny shout at his back: "Never, if I can help it!"

"Married," Peter repeated to himself, shaking off the shivers down his spine. "Married, married, he's married."

He was five minutes late when he made it to Baxter, but from the look on Anya's face it might as well have been five hours. Her long brown ponytail swung as she jumped up, abandoning her cell phone. She was already wearing her elf costume.

"You're late!" Anya said, jingling furiously. She shoved an armful of red and white suit at him. "Where were you, in a hurricane? What happened to your face?"

"Santa's going to hell, Anya," Peter said, yanking on the hat.

 


 

"Hey, it's you. The mall Santa."

Peter turned, and the rude reply died on his lips. Johnny Storm was standing on the street behind him, hanging half out of a coffee shop doorway. The tops of his cheeks were pink from the wind, his eyes were too bright. He was wearing a leather jacket and a scarf that even Harry would have called a waste of money was wound tight around his throat.

Peter's lungs felt a little like they had that one time after he'd swung into a billboard.

He should've said hello.

Instead, what he said was, "You call the lobby of your building a mall?"

"Really?" Johnny said. "That's the part you're going to argue, Mall Santa? I'm going to keep calling you that until you tell me your name, just so you know."

"It's Peter," he said, sliding his hands in his pockets. People bustled by them on the street, stepping between and around them, but he didn't make an effort to come closer and Johnny kept hanging half-out of the coffee shop doorway despite the man behind him saying 'excuse me' in an increasingly murderous tone. "Peter Parker.

Johnny's smile widened. He finally moved from the doorway enough to free the man trapped behind him. He had very long legs wrapped in very skinny dark jeans. Peter couldn't forget catching him out of the air, the press of Johnny's body against his own.

Once Mary Jane had dragged him to a palm reader who had claimed Peter had done something terrible in a past life and that he would be haunted by it forever. In the moment it seemed a pretty plausible explanation.

"Well, Pete," Johnny said. "You should let me buy you a cup of coffee. As an apology. For letting Val strangle you with your own fake beard."

Oh, Peter thought, relieved and disappointed in equal measure. Coffee as an apology for standing by laughing while his infant tried to garrote Peter with polyester. That made more sense.

"Sorry," Peter said. "I'd love to, honestly, but I'm late."

"C'mon," Johnny said. "There's no way we're paying you enough to actually show up on time."

"You're actually not paying me at all. It's a volunteer position," Peter said.

"Ouch," said Johnny. "Well, see, that's even more reason. C'mon, Mall Santa. I'll give you my Christmas list."

 


 

Johnny brought over two steaming cups of coffee and pushed one of them Peter's way.

"Okay, Mall Santa," he said, grinning at him over the top of his own cup. "What's your story?"

It felt disturbingly like a date, but it couldn't be, because of the whole married thing. If it was a date, he had to get up and leave immediately - again, because of the whole married thing. Peter burned his tongue trying to drown his thoughts in caffeine.

"No story," Peter said. "Plain old Peter Parker. I go to ESU, I work for the Bugle, my friend foisted her Santa job off on me to try and kill me and then a baby failed to finish me off. The rest is," he gestured around them, "history."

"That story is not worth the price of this coffee," Johnny said.

"So trade me," Peter said.

Johnny shrugged one shoulder. "Not much to tell. Everything interesting happens in Reed's lab, and I don't understand any of it."

"So we're two storyless guys, huh?" Peter said. "I don't believe that."

Johnny just looked at him for a long moment, mouth twisted, chin resting on his palm.

"Okay," he said. "But only because I like you."

"What?" Peter said, startled into a laugh.

"We were supposed to go to space. My family. Reed and his best friend Ben and my sister Sue and me," Johnny said, wistful like a favorite story. Then, the exact opposite of every fairy tale Peter had ever heard, "We tried to steal a rocket."

Peter choked on his coffee. "You were going to steal like - like a spacecraft? How do you steal a spacecraft? With a forklift?"

"The launch codes, actually," Johnny said, picking at the sleeve on his cup. He looked a little embarrassed, like he didn't tell the story often. Peter felt a little special - but that was a dangerous feeling, so he tried to drown it in too-hot peppermint coffee. He succeeded in burning the roof of his mouth, but the spark still held. Johnny's eyes were faraway. "But maybe we should've tried the forklift thing. You know, most people ask why."

"Alright, I'll bite," Peter said. "Why did you try to steal a rocket?"

"Space storm," Johnny said, grinning over the top of his cup. "Reed -" here, Peter's stomach twisted. It was unfair to Dr. Richards, who was innocent of everything except apparently attempted rocket theft, "- was studying this anomaly, right? This weird cosmic storm. Except he wanted to get up close. They said it just wasn't in the budget. That his research wasn't enough. So you know. We tried to steal a rocket."

"As one does," Peter said, a little struck by the idea - to believe in someone so much you'd steal a spacecraft to help prove them right.

"Well, we got caught," Johnny admitted.

"I'm shocked and appalled," Peter said. "Who knew NASA had security?"

"Laugh it up," Johnny said. "It was a really good plan."

"No good plans involve stealing a rocket," Peter told him. "So I've got one huge question: if any of this is true, and the only reason I think it might be is because Dr. Richards has a reputation as an eccentric -" he drew air quotes around 'eccentric' - "why the hell aren't you in jail right now?"

"Reed can talk his way out of anything," Johnny said, smiling. "I'm not exaggerating when I say - he's the smartest man in the world."

Peter swallowed, feeling guilty. It was just coffee. There was nothing wrong with getting coffee with his science hero's stupidly good-looking young husband. Just coffee, he told himself. Then, who let Johnny Storm have eyelashes like that? It's a crime. Those are arrestable eyelashes.

Peter nearly choked gulping the rest of his coffee down, then shoved his seat back. Johnny looked startled.

"Sorry," Peter said, less casually than he'd intended and more like a bat out of hell. "I really have to run! Red suits to wear, crying children to be awkward around! Thanks for the coffee!"

 


 

For the last week of Christmas he mostly managed to avoid Johnny Storm. Mostly. He was trapped in the guy's lobby for most of the morning and half the afternoon, after all, and there was only so much he could do when the guy walked out of the elevator, accompanied by his beautiful sister, or the blue-eyed guy from before, or his famously brilliant husband and their adorable moppet children.

Worse yet, sometimes he thought he caught Johnny out of the corner of his eye, lingering in the lobby. Maybe watching him right back.

The stress was maybe starting to get to him.

"No offense, Spider-Man," a mugger said to him the Monday before Christmas. "But you are like, really off, dude."

"I'm having a life crisis," Peter said, snatching the handbag out of his webbed hand. "Thank for you noticing."

At least, he thought, he had his friends.

"Homewreck that," Harry said, pointing a finger at him. "Why not?"

Scratch that: Peter had no friends.

"I'm sorry, I think I misheard that," he said. "Did you just tell me to homewreck that?"

"C'mon, dude buys you coffee, tells you his life story..." Harry shrugged. "He wants some. You like him. Why not?"

"Because my aunt will know like, spiritually, and she will get on the train and come all the way down here to tell me that she's not angry, she's just disappointed?" Peter said. "And because I hate myself enough as it is? I don't want to ruin the guy's marriage, Harry, god."

"You wouldn't be ruining anything," Harry said. "He's clearly down. He's an adult, it's his decision."

"You're an adult," Peter muttered, nonsensical and grudge-y.

"Oooh," Mary Jane said, coming in from the kitchen with a bottle of vodka. "But what if like, he's really unhappy? You said he must have gotten married really young, right? Maybe he's just looking to escape with you, the man of his dreams."

She sighed dreamily, twirling once before she collapsed between them on the couch.

"I think this movie is going to your head," Peter told her.

"You know what you need to do?" Harry said. "You need to get drunk and forget about this guy. Easy as that."

"No," Peter said.

Which was how three drinks later he was saying, "I just - I have all these feelings when I look at him. You know? So many feelings."

"Feelings. Ugh." Harry, hanging halfway off the couch, said, "Well, buddy, sorry, but I think you might be screwed."

"Totally," Mary Jane agreed, not without sympathy.

Peter slithered halfway off the couch with a groan and reached for another drink.

He woke up the next morning remarkably un-hungover, something he was pretty sure he could thank his spider-constitution for. He left Mary Jane and Harry in a miserable, sulky pile on the couch, flipping through foreign horror movies on Netflix and groaning at every sudden noise.

He was nearly late for the last day of his Santa gig when a gang of robbers wearing bird-themed costumes decided that 9 AM was a great time to knock over a major bank. Changing outright was out of the question, so he just tossed his clothes on over his costume and headed for the Baxter Building.

At the end of the day Anya threw her hands up and cheered.

"We made it!" she said, holding out her hand for a high five. Peter slapped his palm against hers, making sure his sleeve didn't slip down to reveal any signature red and blue.

"We did," he said.

"You should come back next year," she said. "The last guy, Logan? He made way more parents cry."

"Thanks," Peter said, "but I think I've gotten my fill of holiday cheer forever."

Anya's girlfriend Rikki was loitering by the entrance waiting for her, so Anya didn't bother to do anything but throw her coat on over her elf costume before she left, long ponytail bouncing in her wake.

Peter sighed and went to go change. The Santa costume was way too warm - his spider-suit was practically stuck to his skin with sweat. It was going to have to be covert secret identity laundry night a few days early this week - happy holidays to him.

He was halfway through freeing himself from his velour prison when typical Parker Luck struck - the door opened and Johnny Storm got an eyeful of him, dressed in baggy red pants and clingy spandex shirt.

At least, he thought, trying valiantly to find a single silver lining, he'd already taken off the beard.

"Would you believe," he said, "that I have another job entertaining at children's birthday parties?"

Johnny, a little wide-eyed, kicked the door closed behind him before he settled back against it, arms folded casually across his chest. "Sure. You did Patsy Walker's annual holiday brunch, right?"

Peter was possibly going to pass out, or maybe just lose it entirely and try to wriggle out a window before starting a new life in Antigua or the south of France.

"I have never been to brunch ever in my life," he said. "I actually was just on my way to go mug tourists for cash in Times Square."

"You don't have to lie," Johnny said. "And you probably shouldn't anyway because you are really, really bad it. I know you're Spider-Man."

He took one step closer to Peter, cautious, like he was approaching a wounded animal. Peter tried not to cringe, his mind reeling. For a second his voice didn't work.

"How?" he asked.

"You sound the same," Johnny said. "You put on the same fake voice for Spider-Man and Santa Claus, which - it's sort of weird. And then at the brunch - I saw you get hit. And when I dragged you in for coffee you had a bruise on your face in the same place." He shrugged, looking a little guilty. "You had webbing on your boot once."

"Oh my god," Peter said. "Does the whole building know?"

"I'm pretty sure it's just me," Johnny said. He reached out, tracing one of the webs on Peter's shoulder. "I was watching you. Kind of a lot." His eyes flicked up to meet Peter's. "Almost as much as you were watching me."

Peter swallowed. He wondered if he could covertly pinch himself, because this was feeling a lot like a dream. A weird dream. A weird dream he was going to be slightly ashamed of in the morning.

Except he was pretty sure that even he wouldn't dream Johnny Storm about to kiss him while he was wearing Santa boots.

"I like it," Johnny said. "You being Spider-Man. Did you know I had a crazy crush on Spider-Man as a teenager?"

His lips were so close. They looked soft. His breath smelled like peppermint.

Peter's stomach was tying itself into the most complicated knot of his life.

"But you're married," he blurted out. Johnny's hand stilled on his arm.

"I'm married?" he repeated, frowning.

"Yeah," Peter said. "To Dr. Richards."

Johnny blinked. "I'm married to Reed." He repeated it once more, sliding Peter a long look. "You think I'm married to Reed? Reed Richards, my brother-in-law? As in, brother through marriage? As in, the man my sister is married to?"

It took a second for his words to click. Peter blamed Santa suit heat exhaustion, and also the fact that his life was ridiculous. "Oh my god."

"Yeah," Johnny said, looking confused. "You thought I was - do you not own like. Anything connected to the internet?"

"I lead a very busy life," Peter said, gesturing to his costume. "I didn't - I just. You had a baby!"

"Yeah, my niece," Johnny said. "Oh my god, you thought I was married with kids? Do I look like I'm married with kids to you?!"

"I don't know!" Peter said. "You were all - there was touching! His hand was on your back!"

"Reed's touchy! I don't think he was hugged as a child!" Johnny said. "Married with kids - Jesus. This is why you ran away from me in the coffee shop. I thought it was some kind of gay panic but you just thought I was married."

"Can you please stop saying it like that?" Peter asked. His stomach hadn't managed to unknot itself yet and now his heart was pounding in his ears, his fingertips felt tingly. He was sure he was red all over. "I'm maybe having a heart attack over here."

"Hey," Johnny said. "Since I am 100% not married - can I kiss you? I can kiss you, right?"

The laugh that escaped Peter was only slightly hysterical. "Yeah, because that'll make the palpitations -"

He didn't manage to finish the sentence, not with Johnny's lips on his. It was a simple first kiss, easy, with Johnny's hands at his waist. His lips were as soft as they'd looked. If he sighed when they broke apart, he didn't think anyone could blame him.

"I'm definitely dying," he said, resting his forehead against Johnny's.

"That's what I like to hear," Johnny said. "Listen. I really like you, even though you apparently have never heard of google and thought I was married to my nerdy brother-in-law. Can I take you out?"

"I don't know," Peter said, closing his eyes. He plucked at his costume. "This - it makes things difficult. This is not how I like people finding out."

"If it helps," Johnny said, "I'm very good at keeping secrets." There was a pause. "I swear the rocket was Ben's fault. C'mon, Spider-Man. Peter. One date."

"If I don't pass out right here," Peter said. "Then. Okay. One date."

"You maybe need more than one fake voice," Johnny said.

Peter made a strangled noise. "I had a cold!"

"Uh-huh," Johnny said, twining his arms around Peter's neck. It was very hard to argue with him when he was kissing Peter like that, which Peter grudgingly realized might've been his strategy. "Merry Christmas to me."

 


 

Harry grabbed him from behind in a sad excuse for a headlock. "How's my favorite homewrecker?"

"For the last time," Peter said. "He's not actually married and I made a dumb, easily googleable mistake. What else do you want me to say?"

"Honestly? Nothing," Harry clapped Peter on the back. "But I have to get my fun somewhere."

"It is kind of funny, Pete," Mary Jane said from the doorway. "And it had a happy ending!"

Her eyebrows waggled on 'happy ending', despite her innocent expression, and Peter narrowed his eyes.

"Note to self," he said aloud, "get better friends."

Harry made a wounded noise while Mary Jane reeled back in faux shock, her hand clutched to her heart.

"How can you say that?" she asked, falling backwards across the couch. "Harry, I've been fatally wounded. The words have cut me deep."

"Same," Harry said, hand pressed to his forehead. "Weren't we always the very best friends a man could ask for? Didn't we carry out the bare minimum of mocking? Peter Benjamin Parker, you should be ashamed. Not once did I say anything about your purple jeans."

"Alright, alright," Peter said, grabbing Mary Jane's raised hands and dragging her back on her feet. "Don't we have a New Year's party to decorate for? How do you even decorate for New Year's?"

"Dunno," Harry glanced at Mary Jane. "What goes with expensive champagne, MJ?"

"Me," she said. "And whatever leftover tinsel you guys have from Christmas."

In the kitchen the phone started to ring.

"I'll get it," Peter said, shrugging off his friends. He grabbed the kitchen phone before anyone could beat him to it, sandwiching it between his ear and his shoulder. "Hello, Peter speaking."

"Oh thank god," Johnny said. "If it was your weird roommate I was going to have to hang up again. I think he hates me."

Through the phone he could hear Ella Fitzgerald croon, what are you doing New Year's? New Year's Eve? He squashed the phone between his cheek and his shoulder, dodging past MJ and a huge armful of tinsel.

"Is that an invitation or are you starting a radio show?" he asked.

"Are you kidding? Waste this face on radio?" Johnny replied. The music faded back a little. "What's up?"

Peter glanced back into the other room where Mary Jane was pelting Harry with stale popcorn balls and Harry was miming his own elaborate death with a tiny plastic cocktail sword. "The usual. You?"

There was a loud crash across the line, followed by a high-pitched scream. Peter could feel Johnny's wince across the line.

"I love my niece and nephew," he said. "But if I don't get out of here soon it's going to get drastic. I was thinking maybe you could... swing by?"

His grin was audible. Peter let the back of his head hit the wall with a dull thud.

"Only if you promise not to make that joke again," he said.

"No dice," Johnny said. "C'mon. 10:30 tonight. It'll be fun."

The last time anybody had said 'it'll be fun' to Peter, he ended up wearing a Santa suit. The time before that involved considerably more firearms. All in all, it wasn't a phrase that filled Peter with hope.

So, of course, what he said was, "Make it 10:45."

 


 

"Can't you get us closer?"

Peter shivered, half because of the weather and half because of Johnny's voice in his ear. His arms were wrapped around Peter's shoulders, chest pressed tight to Peter's back.

"This is already closer than I ever wanted to get," Peter said.

Down below them Times Square was a riot of people in winter coats and 2016 glasses. Clinging to the wall of a building a two dozen stories up got them a pretty good view. Joyful voices drifted up. Someone new was about to take the stage, but Peter hadn't caught the name. The sky was the kind of white-ish grey that promised fluffy snow.

Sometimes it even surprised him, how much he loved this city.

"I guess it could be worse." Johnny tucked his nose into Peter's neck and shivered. "Suck it, Seacrest."

"Do I want to know the story there?" Peter said. "And I told you to wear something warm."

"Put more clothes on," Johnny grumbled. "Some third date."

"You take a guy to the best seat in the house to watch the ball drop -" he stopped himself. Johnny snickered. "Don't say anything."

"Wasn't going to. You made it too easy."

Peter heaved a sigh, readjusting his grip under Johnny's thigh. "I should've brought travel chess. I don't know how much longer I'm gonna last."

"That's what he said," Johnny said. The fingers of one hand slipped down Peter's side, feeling at his waist. Peter yelped as cold fingertips slipped underneath his costume. "Ooh, two pieces. Wouldn't have guessed."

Peter grabbed his wrist. "Can you not surprise me? I don't know if you've noticed, but it's kind of a long way down."

"Weirdly, I'm not worried," Johnny said, nudging him. Peter tried not to feel too fluttery about it. "Besides, if I can't handle these kind of heights, space is going to be hard."

Peter, a little distracted by the press of Johnny's lips against his masked jaw, said, "Space?"

"Reed thinks there's going to be a repeat of that weird cosmic storm he wanted to get readings of," Johnny said. "Blah blah origins of life on our planet blah blah understanding where we came from. All I know is, space storm sounds awesome. So we're going. For real this time."

Peter squeezed his thigh, tipping his head back to give Johnny better access. "I want you to know I won't wait for you when you're in jail for grand theft spaceship."

"We're not going to steal a spaceship this time," Johnny said, sounding exasperated, as if stealing a spaceship was so eight years ago. "I'm helping Reed build one. Much easier."

"You're helping Dr. Reed Richards build a spaceship?" Peter said.

"I'm a man of many mysteries," Johnny said. He pointed over Peter's shoulder. "Oh, look! It's starting."

Johnny counted all the way down to five, his voice drowned out by the screaming crowd below, before he was fumbling over Peter's shoulder, reaching for the edge of his mask.

"What're you doing?" Peter asked as Johnny got his mask up over his mouth, chilly fingertips sliding along Peter's jaw. He caught Johnny's hand to keep it pressed against his own skin. Beneath them the crowd shouted, THREE, then TWO, then -

"What do you think?" Johnny said, sealing their mouths together. "Happy New Year, weirdo."