Peter woke up the morning after the field trip and the whole world was bright and loud. He couldn’t figure it out at first: all he knew was that suddenly everything was so much more. Before he even opened his eyes, he felt like he was aware of everything in the room – the breeze blowing back his curtains ever so slightly, the spider crawling on the windowsill.
Upstairs Mrs. Chen had her television blaring. In the kitchen he could hear Ben hum Sinatra as surely as if he was in the room. The radio was on, and Trish Talk was playing too loud. Ben was shuffling backwards in his socked feet, scraping at something -- probably the nonstick pan. May was going to have a fit. Peter turned and smothered his face in the pillow.
Then he rolled over and opened his eyes and wondered why, when he’d obviously forgotten to take his glasses off before bed again, there was no bulky plastic frame digging into the bridge of his nose.
He touched his face; no frames. No lenses.
Peter closed his eyes and opened them again. Everything was still bright and sharp, almost painfully in focus. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his bedroom ceiling so clearly – every chipped flake of paint, every hairline crack, the sudden depth of color.
His glasses were where he’d left them on the bedside table. He fumbled for them, and the world descended back into a blurry mess. He took them off: crystal clarity, so crisp it almost gave him a headache. He put his glasses back on: blurry. Off: clear. On: blurry.
Peter remembered, with all the surround sound technicolor detail of a fifteen-year-old neurotic, watching some television show with May, once, about a woman who had gotten her eyesight back after hitting her head in a fall.
He remembered his own tumble to the ground yesterday, just after that spider bit him on the class field trip. The memory was overlaid with Flash Thompson’s laughter.
He opened and closed his eyes one more time, just to be sure, and then pinched himself. His vision stayed eerily clear, and now his arm stung too.
“Peter!” Ben called, jovial. He was a morning person, which was enough of a headache on days Peter’s eyesight hadn’t spontaneously fixed itself. “Breakfast isn’t going to eat itself!”
Peter raised himself up on his elbows, struggling out of bed. The floor felt strange against the bare soles of his feet – the room pushed in on him, an awareness all over his skin. The sunlight streamed in bright through the window, warm against his back.
“Coming!” he called back, heading for the door. “Ben, something really weird’s going –”
There was a weird split-second where it was like all the hairs on his arms stood up and a warning alarm blared in his head and all he knew was that he had to get away – and then he sprang to the side just in time to keep the door from crashing down on him.
The door that Peter had yanked off its hinges. Just by touching the doorknob.
Ben came crashing into the hall, his own glasses askew and the I’m Not Irish But Kiss Me Anyway apron May had bought him for his last birthday all rumpled. He gaped at the door, then at Peter.
“Honest to God,” Peter said, hands held up in front of himself. His skin tingled all over like he’d just been shocked. “I have no idea.”
“Huh,” said Ben, very slowly.
In the kitchen, the smoke alarm started beeping.
A lot happened, Peter’s first year of being Spider-Man. Just twelve months felt more action-packed than the last twelve years, like he was living his life in fast-forward, everything sped up ten times as fast as it should have been.
He loved it, for the most part. There was a lot of good: being Spider-Man was electrifying, indescribable – Peter felt alive, really and truly, for the first time since he could remember. Finally, he felt like he had a body that could keep up with his brain – he felt like he could go fast enough, be strong enough.
On the best days, being Spider-Man was incredible.
On the worst days – that was blood and his uncle’s ringing shout and Peter’s own fault. When you could do what Peter could do, it meant that when bad things happened, they were your fault.
So Peter just kept going. That’s what you do, Ben had always said, when you fall down, you pick yourself back up. You get back up on that horse.
If only Peter could figure out how to keep from falling in the first place.
Staying in the air seemed like his best bet, so that was what he did – he swung around the city, and he let his new senses guide him, and he did everything he thought he could, and a whole lot of stuff he thought he couldn’t.
He snatched purses back from purse snatchers at breakneck speeds, caught speeding cars barehanded before they could careen into taxis and, oh yeah, found himself in Germany of all places, kicking Captain America of all people in the face.
“The world is way too weird,” he said on the flight back with, dear sweet merciful God, Black Widow in the seat next to his, staring evenly ahead. “I don’t even have a passport.” Then, his one last bit of impulse control gone out the window with his fun new head injury, he added, “You are like, just super pretty.”
She turned her head just enough to give him a look and said, “I think you might have gotten hit harder than Tony said.”
“Maybe. Possibly. Probably,” he admitted. “Hey, can I ask? What happened to – y’know, everyone? Where are they?” With sudden trepidation: “What’s going to happen now?”
Black Widow’s mouth tightened, very minutely. Something buzzed at the very edges of Peter’s awareness, almost but not quite drowned out by his headache and how tired and hungry he was and how awesome everything he’d just done had been.
“It’s being taken care of,” she said, and that was that.
Peter had thought – he hadn’t known what he’d thought, but after that, life went back to normal. His version of normal, anyway: school, home, leaping off the roof after midnight to stop a mugging, May’s book club where he’d never actually seen anyone read. It just all felt different after you’d toppled a giant man in an all-out actual superhero brawl.
Well. Not May’s book club, he reflected, daring to step out of his room and sneak into the kitchen on a Wednesday evening. Hoodie up and headphones blaring, he could still hear them -- “Oh, there’s the nephew, isn’t he adorable—” followed by ”You know I’ve got a niece…” and May’s answering, “First one to give me fifty sheep, ladies.”
It felt weird and wrong to just continue on doing what he’d been doing after Germany. He felt like things should have changed somehow. He felt like he was waiting for something.
Peter could feel however he wanted – the world spun on.
Then Dr. Reed Richards stole a rocket, crashed that rocket, and changed Peter’s life forever.
The newly-minted Fantastic Four were everywhere overnight, and that was the way it stayed. Everyone seemed to love them instantly, even more than the Avengers – but then again the Fantastic Four hadn’t come together in the middle of an alien invasion that trashed the city. Between Sue Storm’s brilliant mind and movie star looks, Reed Richards’s storied career, the teenage boy who could light on fire, and the huge rock man, how could anyone focus on anything else?
Peter was getting pretty sick of it. Not that it stopped him from talking about them either.
“I mean, what kind of a f-” May cleared her throat, and he just managed to save himself “- fakakta plan is that, stealing your own spaceship? This isn’t Star Trek!”
“Nice save. They didn’t build their own ships in Star Trek, did they?” May said, flipping a wheatcake. The whole kitchen was starting to smell slightly smoky. Peter manfully fought the urge to sneeze. “They had people for that.”
“Scotty could,” he mumbled under his breath, arms crossed over his chest.
“Well, I guess we found real life Scotty,” May said, smirking at him. “Are you going to tell me what this is really about?”
“Um?” Peter said, gesturing expansively. “Dr. Reed Richards, super science pioneer, throws his whole entire career out the window by stealing his own space shuttle, irradiates himself, is now on The Late Show right this very moment?”
Strictly speaking, it had been on the night before, but Peter had DVR’d it citing homework and then climbed out his window to go stop muggings and catch runaway cars. He did the math: around the time this had actually aired, he’d been yanking up a subway grate with his bare hands to rescue someone’s illegal pet ferret. New York, New York.
On the television, Stephen Colbert was laughing at a science joke Dr. Richards had made. Nothing in the whole universe was fair.
“Doesn’t seem like he hurt his career too badly,” May hummed. “Leave him alone, he’s cute.”
“Cute?” Peter repeated. “Cute? Don’t call my former science idol cute. He turned himself into Gumby, how is that cute?”
“I think it’s the whole nutty professor vibe,” May said, thunking a plate of wheatcakes down in front of Peter. “What, I can’t think someone’s cute now?”
“Can we change the channel?” Peter asked, elbows up on the table. “And the conversation subject, please?”
“Alright, Mr. Grumpy. You’re the one who wanted to record this,” May said, searching for the remote – but then the camera panned away from Reed Richards and onto Johnny Storm. Peter dropped his fork.
It wasn’t like he hadn’t known what the Human Torch looked like – in one word: gorgeous. In many more: stunning, beautiful, like one of Peter’s idle fantasies had come to life and wrapped itself in tastefully distressed $300 skinny jeans and a smile like a supernova. Of course Peter knew what he looked like, he had the internet, and besides Johnny’s face was splashed across every magazine cover in the city. It was pretty convenient for Peter’s seething jealousy -- he had permanent mask-hair and this guy had crash-landed out of orbit looking like the star of a surfer movie. Nothing was fair.
There was something different about him in that moment, though. He looked giddy, excited to be in the spotlight. He’d run his hand through his bleach blond curls so many times they were no longer picture perfect, and there was a spark in his eyes as he gestured wildly, laughing at his own joke while the Thing rolled his eyes. Peter had accepted ages ago that he was a sucker for a pretty face – he’d walked into a door the first time he’d seen Liz Allan, which had done wonders for his high school rep – but this? This was like standing on the edge of a building, fifty stories high, preparing to step off. This was like knowing he could practically fly.
“Shit,” he said to himself, very, very quietly.
May made a triumphant noise, locating the remote between the couch cushions, and flipped the channel to the weather. Peter’s traitorous heart just about broke.
“You okay?” she asked, glancing at him. “You’re looking a little flushed.”
“Fine,” Peter squeaked, trying to banish the image of Johnny Storm’s smile from his head. He was unsuccessful and also totally, completely doomed. “Could you just – put it back for a second? I want to hear the end of Dr. Richards’…” He floundered for a word, because he had absolutely no idea what Dr. Richards had been saying. “Words.”
May gave him another long look but obligingly flipped back.
“You sure you’re alright?” she asked.
On screen, Johnny tilted his head to the side, obviously preening a little. It should have been obnoxious. It was obnoxious, but Peter was irrevocably caught anyway as the loose neckline of Johnny’s soft-looking shirt slipped to reveal a sharp collarbone.
“I just – love breakfast,” Peter tried valiantly.
May cupped her palm to his forehead. “Well, you don’t feel warm…”
“Yeah! Yeah,” he said, quickly. “I’m fine. I’m good, May, really.”
He was 100% screwed.
Peter knew it was only a matter of time before he ran into the Fantastic Four in a professional capacity. (Not that Peter got paid. The Fantastic Four looked like they got paid – Peter should look into that. Getting paid sounded pretty good.) He knew firstly because New York might have felt like his whole world but it wasn’t actually that big, and secondly because that was just his luck.
He wasn’t helping his odds with all the swinging he’d been doing around Madison Ave lately, the Baxter Building always in his peripheral vision. It was on his route, he told himself. The whole city was his territory! All the avenues and each and every block, even the ones where famous celebrity families with abilities lived.
He was eating lunch on top of the building across the way when part of the Baxter Building exploded.
“Annnnnd I think that’s my cue,” he said, tossing the last leftover bite of his hot dog bun at a waiting pigeon. Across the street he could see a fiery shape dart from the mangled, broken windows, and his heart started to beat a little faster.
Cool it, he told himself, flipping his wrist over and aiming a webline. You don’t even know the guy.
Up ahead the Human Torch was doing – something. It took Peter’s brain a moment to catch up to what his eyes were seeing: Johnny was pulling the fire out of the building and into himself. The flames that surrounded his body leapt higher and wilder. Peter could feel the heat he was putting out from yards and yards away.
He couldn’t see Johnny’s face, but it looked painful.
The fire died down, tamed under Johnny’s blazing hands. Johnny shot straight up, flying high into the sky until Peter couldn’t see him any longer. He squinted, shielding his eyes – only to have to shut them quick, blinking the sparks away when something far above the city exploded in light.
Not something. Peter could figure that much out: that was Johnny, probably getting rid of all that extra fire.
“God,” Peter said to himself, clinging to the next building over by the tips of his fingers. He couldn’t imagine.
Then again, he would never have imagined getting bit by a radioactive spider, either.
It’s a weird world, Pete, Ben had told him after the Incident, his big work-hardened hand heavy on Peter’s shoulder. Now it’s only going to get weirder.
There was a figure, falling from the sky.
Peter didn’t think; he just moved.
He swung out, the math doing itself in his head, and shouted, “Go limp!” seconds before he made contact.
He hit Johnny hard, scrambling to get a good hold on him with his free arm. Johnny’s hands grabbed at him desperately, his quick intake of breath loud as a shout in Peter’s ear. Peter had expected him to feel hot, but he was cool to the touch, the fabric of his blue Fantastic Four uniform smooth under Peter’s palm.
“Oh my God!” Johnny said against his neck, scrabbling for a better hold.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Peter said, tripping over his own tongue as he swung them towards street level. “I’ve got you, it’s fine, you’re okay.” He squeezed at Johnny’s side, trying for comforting. “You’re safe, I promise you that. You okay?”
“Oh my God!” Johnny repeated, clutching at him tight. There was wonder in his voice. “You’re – oh my God!”
Peter swallowed, and carefully didn’t say anything else until they were on ground level, just outside the Baxter Building. Judging by the sounds, he guessed the fight had moved to the lobby.
“Ground floor, there we go,” he said, setting Johnny neatly on the ground. He flipped himself over, hanging upside down, eye-to-eye with Johnny. “So, um…”
This was his chance to say something dashing, something to leave an impression. Something so that when he swung away Johnny could think, wow, that was Spider-Man, and maybe sigh a little. Maybe want to see him again.
Look, Peter could dream.
“Did it hurt?” was what came out of his big dumb mouth instead.
“Um?” Johnny Storm said, staring up at him with wide eyes. He was, if it was even possible, even more gorgeous up close and in person. Peter’s palms were so sweaty he worried he was going to slip off his webline and land on his face – and after the great first impression he’d made, too.
Well, Peter had the grave halfway dug already – he figured he might as well commit. “When you fell from heaven?”
Johnny’s eyes went even wider.
“Because, uh, your space shuttle,” Peter rushed to explain, “it fell? From space? Heaven? Get it?” Also because you look like an angel. He bit his tongue before he said that part out loud. “I’m, uh. I’m Spider-Man. Hi.”
“I know,” Johnny said.
“Oh, right,” Peter said, gesturing at the mask, the webs, the full-body Spider-Man suit in general. Bright red and blue: maybe not so much with the subtle. “Obviously. So –”
“No, I mean,” Johnny said. He broke off to wet his lips and Peter nearly let go of his webline all over again. “I used to watch videos of you online. It is you, right? Just in a different suit?”
“Yeah, I – I got an upgrade,” Peter said. He added, because his own mouth was his number one nemesis, “Do you like it?”
Goodbye, dignity, Peter thought to himself. It had been nice while it lasted.
But Johnny only nodded hard, blond curls bouncing. “Yeah, it’s – it looks really good.”
The only thing that let Peter know he wasn’t having some kind of beautiful dream was the sudden blare of his spider-sense, shouting at him in surround sound that he needed to move now.
“Get down!” he said. He threw himself at Johnny and knocked them both to the ground. A thrown car whizzed by, missing them narrowly. Johnny yelped, clutching at him. Peter’s arms tingled where Johnny’s fingers dug in.
Someday, Peter was going to write down a list of do’s and don’t’s for the young and super set – and first item on it, underlined, in bold and red, would be don’t flirt in the middle of a battle for your crush’s home.
“Are you okay?” he asked Johnny.
Johnny nodded. “I think so. How --?”
“Danger sense, kind of,” Peter said. “It, uh. It comes in handy.”
“Wow,” Johnny said, staring up at him. “That’s twice you’ve saved me in five minutes.”
He was so close to Johnny, braced over him on his palms and his knees, and his whole body tingled, electric.
He was in so, so much trouble.
Something blue snaked towards them in Peter’s peripheral vision, and next thing he knew he was being treated to the bizarre sight of Dr. Reed Richards -- the Dr. Reed Richards, who was still incredibly brilliant, rocket-stealing lunatic or not – unfolding himself from giant slinky into a lanky man.
“Ben, for God’s sake!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Watch where you’re throwing things! They could’ve been – are you hurt?”
Dr. Richards’s attention snapped towards them so fast Peter’s head spun.
“Um,” he said, eloquently. He was just knocking it out of the park today, quip-wise.
“We’re fine,” Johnny said, seemingly content to have this conversation trapped underneath Peter. He pointed up at him. “He has a danger sense!”
Dr. Richards looked at Peter, arching an eyebrow. “Does he?”
“Um,” Peter said again. “Yes, sir, Dr. Richards. Sir.”
“Interesting,” said Dr. Richards, not sounding particularly interested. His gaze was fixed on the spot where Peter still gripped Johnny’s shoulder. Peter took a second to register that, and then he scrambled backwards, hands held up in front of him. Dr. Richards’ raised his eyebrows meaningfully, but held out his hands to help both him and Johnny up. He flicked dust from the shoulder of Johnny’s uniform. “Well, as long as you’re both alright. Johnny, do you think you can flame back on?”
Johnny beamed at him like Dr. Richards had hung the moon. Peter was instantly, stupidly envious.
“’Course, boss man,” he said. The flames sprang up instantly – Peter took a hasty step back as Johnny took off, hovering a few feet above the ground. “I’m good to go.”
That was going to be the end of that, Peter figured, except for the part where his mouth had a mind of its own.
“Hey, Torch!” Peter called after him. “I like the way your suit looks, too!”
Johnny twisted around mid-air, laughing with delight. His flames flickered higher; Peter’s heart beat faster.
Dr. Richards looked pained.
“That’s not the suit!” Johnny shouted, fiery hands cupped to his mouth. “That’s just because I’m too hot to handle!”
Peter waited until he had shot ahead before he threw his hands up in the air and whooped. If there was anything that made him weaker in the knees than a pretty face, it was a terrible joke.
“Oh, New York,” he said, shooting a webline towards the top of the building. “I think I’m in love.”
Johnny Storm liked guys; that was public knowledge. In the chaos after the crash, one sixteen-year-old from Long Island’s social media accounts had been the least of anyone’s worries. They’d been wiped clean by the time the Fantastic Four made their proper debut in matching sky-blue uniforms, but by then it had been too late. People had screencaps; a handful of kids from Johnny’s old high school had old texts, old photos.
Johnny was young, he had abilities, he was beautiful and, as he posted on new accounts, ones that had never had a cell phone shot of him giggling and kissing another boy (simultaneously the best and worst picture Peter had ever seen, depending solely on whether or not his hand was covering up the other guy’s face), he was bisexual. The media had collectively lost its shit.
“Get the hell out of his face with that before I smash it,” Ben Grimm snapped in one infamous clip, heavy Lower East Side accent distorted by the deep stone grind in his voice. Johnny was hidden from the camera by one huge arm. “He’s just a kid, fer chrissakes!”
“What I’ve learned from this experience?” Johnny said, the first real interview he did about it. “Uh, don’t kiss Mike from English class out behind the gym.” He laughed, and Peter remembered the way he’d held onto him, how he looked even better up close and, oh yeah, the fact that Peter had asked if it had hurt when he’d fallen from heaven.
He was hopeless.
“Seriously,” Johnny continued, smile fading, “it’s been—”
Then May came home and Peter changed the channel so fast he snapped the remote in half.
Even when Johnny Storm had just been plain Johnny from Long Island, he’d been gorgeous. Peter was 5’8” worth of pointy elbows and knees. He read a lot, and got too excited about math, and tripped over his words sometimes. The universe had only seen fit to grant him coordination in radioactive spider-bite form, and, unless Iron Man took him to Germany, he always did his homework on time.
Johnny liked guys; it didn’t necessarily mean he would like Peter.
He tried not to brood about that one too much, but given the number of times May had been warning him that his face was going to freeze like that lately, he wasn’t doing a very good job.
The next team-up of a fight, Peter got knocked out. Go figure.
He came to like something straight out of a Disney film – big blue sky stretching endless above him and Johnny Storm’s face filling his vision. There might have been birds singing; Peter couldn’t be sure. There was definitely at least one unimpressed pigeon.
“Hey,” Johnny said, kneeling next to him. “Did it hurt?”
“Wha?” Peter said, blinking dazedly up at him. Johnny had pretty eyes. Peter really hoped he hadn’t said that part out loud.
“When you fell off that roof,” Johnny said, grinning. He held up two fingers, waving them in front of Peter’s face. “How many?”
“Hard to tell with the cartoon tweety birds in the way,” Peter said. Johnny’s face fell and he quickly added, “Two, you’re holding up two. S’just a joke, put that face away.”
“Speaking of putting faces away…” Johnny said, hand gesturing vaguely in the air by his own temple.
“What?” Peter said, hands flying up. His mask had slipped, revealing half his face. He swore, quietly, under his breath, and fell back against the sidewalk. “Agh.”
Peter was starting to realize that he was really, really bad at this whole masked man thing. He was going to have to start webbing the stupid thing on.
He startled at the touch of fingers against his cheek. Johnny tugged the mask back down, smoothing the line of it against his neck with care. Peter was never going to wash his face again.
“There,” Johnny said. “No worries, mystery boy. Nobody else saw.”
“Oh,” Peter said, relaxing a little as relief flooded through him. “Thanks. The fight, we should – do we have to --?”
“Nah, I think my sister settled that one. Fight’s over,” Johnny said with a loud sigh, pulling his knees up to his chest. Peter had expected him to get up and leave – he had kind of been counting on it, actually. It was hard to lick your wounds and wallow in general humiliation when you had an audience. Especially an audience as distracting as Johnny – wasn’t there some kind of rule against looking that good after a fight? Peter was going to petition the courts. “I thought you were older.”
“Huh?” Peter said, pulling himself up into a sitting position. His head had mostly stopped spinning.
Johnny shrugged. “I mean, I didn’t think you were that much older, but – I don’t know, I thought you were in college, maybe? How old are you?”
“Uh,” Peter said, feeling thrown for a loop. Possibly that was the fall talking but Peter would have put the smart money on the way Johnny was staring at him like he was the most fascinating person he’d ever seen, as the reason he suddenly couldn’t string two words together. “I um. Just turned sixteen.”
“Yes!” Johnny whooped, throwing his arms in the air. “Ha! Now I’m not the baby of the superpowers set!”
Johnny Storm, Peter knew from what one might call obsessively stalking his wikipedia page, was sixteen years, eight months, and seventeen days old.
It was not Peter’s fault he had a head for numbers.
“Yeah, yeah. Twist the knife, why don’tcha,” he muttered, rubbing at a sore shoulder.
“So why the mask?” Johnny asked.
“Sorry?” Peter said, possibly a little distracted by the way the afternoon light hit Johnny.
“Why do you wear the mask?” Johnny said. “Ben kept saying it was because you were all scarred up or super ugly or whatever under there, but I think he was just making fun of me. Anyway, your face is cu – fine, so why the mask?”
“Because,” Peter said, feeling uncharacteristically lost for words. “I’ve got people.”
“Um,” Johnny said. “Okay…?”
“Not like you’ve got people,” Peter rushed to add. “My people, they don’t – they can’t do what we can do, me and you. They’re just … normal. And I go out and I do stuff that’s not normal. And that gets attention.” He licked his chapped lips, swallowing hard. Pushed away the memory, things he hadn’t done. “I don’t want the things I do getting used against them, just because I do the things that I can do.”
Johnny was quiet for a long moment, just staring at him. “And your people – do they know? What you can do?”
Peter shook his head, and Johnny nodded, biting at his bottom lip. It was very distracting. Peter was blaming the head injury.
“What’s your name?” he said, after a second.
Peter hesitated. He almost didn’t say it – saying it was a bad idea. But Johnny had already seen his face, and who would ever believe scrawny Peter Parker was the amazing Spider-Man?
“Peter,” he said, a thousand butterflies in his stomach. Feeling daring, and maybe a little stupid, he added, “Parker.”
Johnny beamed at him, brighter and warmer than sunlight. It was like Peter had gotten the breath knocked out of him all over again.
“Nice to meet you, Peter Parker,” he said. “I’m a big fan of your work.”
“Thanks. Yours, too. So, um,” Peter said, floundering. “Since you know my name and my face and everything… You maybe want to go to a movie sometime?”
It was an innocuous enough question, he thought. It could totally be a friend thing if Johnny didn’t want it to be a date, and if he ignored the hitch in Peter’s voice and also the time he’d asked him if it had hurt when he fell from heaven.
Here was another good reason to wear the mask.
Johnny looked at him – then, slowly, he smiled, and it was like all the lights in New York City had lit themselves up somewhere deep inside Peter’s chest.
Oh, he was in so much trouble.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. He put his hand over Peter’s. “Okay. But I get to pick.”
The thing was, Peter was aware of his surroundings to a ridiculous degree pretty much every waking moment. It had been a less immediate realization than the enhanced strength, the speed, agility, the eyesight – but it had been there since that first day, too, like all of his senses had been cranked up to eleven. His eyesight was sharper, colors were crisper – his peripheral vision was frankly insane. His hearing was a little better; his fingers were more sensitive in addition to the wall-crawling. Even his sense of direction, now that he could crawl up walls and hang from ceilings, seemed greater than before.
It all fed into his fun new danger sense. A creak before a floor collapsed, the flash of motion out of the corner of his eye before a gun was drawn – all of it added up to the prickle at the back of his neck, the alarm echoing in his head. The fact was New York pressed in on him all the time, a hair’s breadth away from oppressive, so many people, sights and sounds and sensations all warring for Peter’s attention.
The whole world was like a spider-web, and every change vibrated at the edges of his awareness.
The first time Peter kissed Johnny, all of that fell away. There was just this – just them, Peter’s mask hastily pulled up out of the way and Johnny’s lips chapstick soft against his. Just the faint taste of vanilla ice cream and the memory of the way Johnny’s face had lit up when Peter had pulled crumpled dollar bills out of his costume. Just the way his palm tingled, electric, where he was touching Johnny’s knee.
High up in the trees wasn’t exactly as classic as a bench in Central Park, but Peter figured he scored some points for originality.
He was still aware of everything else, in a background sort of way – the chatter of some tourists down below, the rustle of the leaves, the very annoyed gaggle of pigeons getting their feathers all ruffled on the next branch over – but it didn’t press at him. It just rolled off his back like water, completely unimportant in the face of things like Johnny’s soft lips.
Johnny laughed when they pulled away, flushed and practically glowing, and then he started to sing, “Spidey and the Torch, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N –”
“Hey, c’mon, a little respect here?” Peter said, feeling just as giddy as Johnny sounded. The teen heartthrob of the century, and Peter had made him blush like that, all the way up here in their own little world above street level. Nothing was going to bring him down. “The bad jokes are kind of my whole deal.”
“Yeah?” Johnny said. He pointed at the spider on Peter’s chest. “You got a little something…”
Peter knew it was a set up, but he looked down anyway, and of course Johnny flicked him on the nose. He wrinkled it, making to tug the mask back into place while Johnny cackled at him.
“No, no,” Johnny said, catching at his wrist and leaning in again, those soft warm lips brushing Peter’s. His wild grin kind of got in the way of the whole kissing thing, but Peter couldn’t bring himself to mind. “Don’t.”
“Okay,” Peter promised, eyes fluttering shut. He twisted his wrist free from Johnny’s grip, but only so he could twine their fingers together. “Okay, okay, okay…”
Johnny kissed him again, and it was perfect.
Right up until a guy in a stupid mask tried to rob some tourists down below.
Peter sighed, annoyed, as he pulled his own mask back on.
“Ugh,” he mumbled, swinging out of the tree. Johnny groaned, dropping off the branch and lighting up. “Time to go back to work.”
Peter’s parents used to do dinner every Friday night – the candles, the challah and the wine, the whole shebang. Ben and May had tried at first, but it was hard to juggle with their schedules, and besides, it just wasn’t who they were. Eventually they fell into their own informal traditions: Chinese food and whatever movie was playing on TCM.
“Like Christmas every week,” Ben used to say. Peter had two sets of memories he held sacred: the quiet gravity of his mother standing over the candles in that old brownstone with her hands held in front of her face, and Ben laughing uproariously at something May said, unpacking a seemingly endless bag of white takeout cartons. Neither was more important than the other.
Ben’s weekly tradition was more important than ever, now.
He was on the couch with May, watching Young Frankenstein and trying to fend off her wandering chopsticks from his fried rice, when she said, for the second time, “So, you keeping secrets from me now?”
He nearly choked. “What?”
“This whole thing you’re doing,” she said, grinning at him and gesturing with her chopsticks. “All the smiling, the good mood, doing the dishes without me telling you twelve times –”
“That, okay, that offends me,” Peter said, feeling more than a little lost. “Mostly you only have to tell me five times.”
“Then there’s the constantly staring at your phone when you think I don’t see,” she said. He realized where this was going and, against his will, he felt his face heat up. “And the blushing! Peter, you are blushing. There’s somebody.”
“There’s only this fried rice,” Peter said, furiously trying to will his blush away, “and my one true love, Madeline Kahn.”
“Glory, glory hallelujah,” sang his one true love Madeline Kahn on-screen, and Peter’s traitorous brain took that exact moment to remind him that that was how he felt whenever Johnny smiled or laughed or so much as fluttered those eyes Peter’s way. Hallelujah.
He shoveled roughly half the carton of fried rice into his mouth before he said anything else.
“Mmhmm,” May hummed, eyebrows raised knowingly, but she turned back to the television. For one long moment, Peter actually believed he was safe.
Then she said, “Are they cute?”
He groaned. This was the one way his danger-sense let him down: attacks by aunt went unwarned. The spider that bit him had clearly had no close relatives.
“I just want to know if they’re cute,” she said, snickering.
With one notable exception, Peter had always been terrible at keeping things from her. He sank back a little further into the couch cushions, giving up.
“Just,” he said, gesturing, as if he could encapsulate everything Johnny was with a motion. Impossible. “So cute.”
May pressed her lips together to hide her smile – entirely unsuccessful, and great, now Peter’s face was tomato red all over again – as she reached for her wine glass. She took a long, slow sip, and Peter just sat there hunched like a gargoyle over his dinner, staring at the television and waiting for the death sentence.
“Bring them over sometime,” she said at last, grinning when he groaned out loud.
“Don’t embarrass me,” he said. “You gotta promise not to embarrass me here, May.”
“I’m going to wear a leopard print cocktail dress, laugh like Fran Drescher, and show off all your baby photos,” she said. “No, wait – I’ll do a slideshow. On actual slides.”
He slithered down the couch, glowering when she stole the carton out of his hands. “Thanks, May. Love you.”
“Love you too,” May said, twisting on the couch so she could shove her toes under Peter’s thigh. “Bring ‘em over.”
“Okay, okay,” he relented. He was pretty sure she had figured his whole deal out, the way she kept saying ‘they’ – and the way he really couldn’t keep anything from her, that one huge thing the primary colored exception aside. Still, it took him a moment, nervous all over, before he could say it. “I’ll bring him over.”
“Okay,” May said, nodding, and that was it – she turned back to the television, her posture easy.
Peter slumped towards her, ending up with his head on her shoulder.
“Love you, May,” he said again.
Her hand came up to card through his hair, gentle. “You, too.”
Peter let himself have the silence, just for one moment. “You, um. You might already know who he is, though.”
“It’s not Steve from 12C is it?” May said, making a face. “With the overbite? Because I love you, kid, but you can do better.”
Peter stifled some mildly hysterical laughter, pulling himself back up so he could look her in the eye. “No, just – he’s kind of famous.”
“Kind of famous?” she said, smile wry. “My nephew, dating someone kind of famous?”
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you are,” he said, hands held up in front of him. “But, uh. You know the Human Torch?”
May dropped her wine glass.
“So she doesn’t know,” Johnny said, licking ketchup where it’d dripped onto his hand. Peter really had to stop staring, but hey, with the mask in the way he could be looking at anything at all and not specifically at the dart of Johnny’s tongue across his own knuckles. The fingerless gloves were very distracting.
“She does not know,” Peter confirmed.
Johnny nodded, frowning, and stole another fry. “And why doesn’t she know?”
Peter choked on a slightly hysterical laugh, snagging the soda sitting between them.
“Because she’d freak out,” he said. “You should have seen her when I broke my arm in third grade – she went full mean and green in the ER when we had to wait. No, nah, my aunt does not do danger well. She finds out, I’m on the next plane out to the world’s first new age boarding school, which she will personally found.”
“Even though you can lift a truck over your head?” Johnny asked, chewing thoughtfully.
“Especially because I can lift a truck over my head,” Peter confirmed. “So it’s lips zipped on anything arachnid. Capisce?”
Johnny nodded again, face a perfect blank for one.
“But she’s okay? With me? With the whole…” he kicked his heels out, trailing sparks. “I mean, I light on fire, dude. Not the safest thing in the world. Is she going to read me the riot act? Is there going to be a SWAT team waiting with fire extinguishers? What am I looking at here?”
“Uh, no,” Peter said, snorting. “No, you, she’s cool with.”
“That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” Johnny said. “Is this a trap?”
Peter sighed, tipping his head back. “She thinks that video of you singing Friday in your kitchen the Thing put on instagram was, and I’m quoting here … adorable.”
Johnny groaned. “She saw that? Your aunt saw that?”
“The internet is forever, Torch,” Peter said, dusting off his hands and yanking his gloves back on. “And it was pretty adorable. So?”
“Do I have to?” Johnny whined, tipping his head to the side. Peter’s stomach clenched uncomfortably.
“Of course you don’t have to,” he muttered, ducking his head. “It was just a suggestion, it was – let’s forget it –”
“Dude, slow down before you sprain something,” Johnny said, flicking a fry at his forehead. “I was joking. Obviously I want to meet your aunt. I mean, you’ve met my family.”
Peter wasn’t entirely sure the handful of comments and shrieks he’d traded with the other three members of the Fantastic Four counted as ‘meeting’, considering they’d mostly happened when people were trying to maim them, but who was he to argue?
“Serious?” Peter said, almost tripping over the word.
“’Yeah, of course,” Johnny said, frowning a little bit, which only served to make Peter feel like a jerk. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Okay,” Peter said, forcing his shoulders to relax. “Then it’s good we’re eating now, because she’s on another new super food kick.”
May and Johnny loved each other almost instantly, which was great, because Peter’s plan if either of their reactions had been the opposite was something akin to freaking out forever, then maybe faking his death and starting over as the masked protector of Tokyo.
Not that he’d been obsessing or anything.
But of course they got along – they were both the best people Peter knew, easygoing, effortlessly kind and funny. The kind of people other people gravitated towards. Considering the universe wasn’t usually Peter’s biggest fan, he counted his lucky stars daily to have either of them, let alone both.
“So I’m dying to know,” May said, pointing between the two of them. Her eyes glimmered; Peter groaned, ducking his head as he set the table. “How exactly did my nephew meet a genuine superhero?”
“He asked for my autograph,” Johnny said, beaming at Peter. Peter stuck his tongue out at him behind May’s back. He’d come up with a long, detailed back story and made them both run over it three times on the way over – so of course Johnny had tossed that right out the window. “I gave him my phone number.”
“Give that to all the boys, huh?” Peter muttered as soon as May’s back was turned, snagging Johnny around the waist with just enough force to get him to stumble into his side.
“Just the cute ones,” Johnny grinned, incorrigible. Peter tilted his head to kiss his cheek – only to catch his aunt in the kitchen smirking down at the counter, obviously pretending to be busy.
He sighed. Mood ruined.
“You can keep him,” May announced later, after Johnny had left. “He’s adorable.”
“You can’t tell the book club about this,” Peter warned, but he felt his shoulders relax of their own accord and the smile on his face was one he didn’t want to hide.
Everything felt pretty great – even if the @spideywatch twitter account, which tracked his movements around the city, had gone from awe and admiration to heckling him over his frequent sightings around the Baxter Building pretty damn quickly. For once Peter couldn’t find it in himself to be bothered – maybe because of all the kissing. The pretty ridiculous amount of kissing. That was great, too.
He would have preferred, though, to not have his tongue in Johnny’s mouth the first time he met Dr. Reed Richards face-to-unmasked-face. That was just his luck.
It went down like this:
He was hanging around on a fire escape, taking a quick swinging break and making thwip motions at the two kids on the other side of the window, when he got two new texts from Johnny: i’m bored, and spideywatch spotted you close by. they’re making fun of you again so you might as well come over.
“Spidey!” the little girl called through the window, rapping on the glass. “Want to watch cartoons?”
“Sorry, I can’t,” he’d said, waving his phone around apologetically. “Duty calls.”
He threw in some extra loop-de-loops on his swing away, just for kicks.
Johnny had left his window open for Peter. Peter climbed through it, and then pretty immediately climbed onto Johnny. They were kissing on the bed, Johnny spread out underneath Peter, one hand at the back of his neck. Peter’s mask had been tossed carelessly to the floor and one of his gloved hands was inching its way up under the criminally soft fabric of Johnny’s shirt.
Then the door swung open.
“Johnny, have you seen my –”
Peter broke away fast, but not fast enough that there was any denying they’d been making out. He felt his face turn red.
“Oh my god, Reed!” Johnny said, sitting up. He was flushed and disheveled, hair all mussed and mouth all red. Peter really wanted to still be kissing him instead of slowly but surely dying of mortification. “Knock first!”
Reed Richards’ jaw hung open maybe a little more than a normal person’s. Up close and out of costume, Peter was surprised by how tall and gangly he was, and how young he looked. His face was unlined despite the grey creeping up at his temples. He wasn’t even thirty.
“Sorry, I –” Reed’s gaze traveled from Johnny’s rucked up shirt, to Peter’s guilty face, to the spider on Peter’s chest. “That’s –” From the spider, to the mask on the floor. “How did –” Finally, his gaze lit on the open window. “Ah.”
Peter felt frozen in place. Johnny, apparently, did not.
“Reed!” he repeated, louder this time. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to see if you’d borrowed that… I… this door,” Reed summed up, still sounding more than a little tongue-tied. Peter, meanwhile, was fervently praying for another alien invasion. Just a little one. Anything that would let him swing right back out that window.
“Um?” Johnny said. “No, that’s been my door since we moved in? How would I borrow a door?”
“This door,” Reed repeated, looking pained. “I think we should leave this door open when there are – visitors. Over. In your room.”
“Are you kidding me!” Johnny said, but Reed was already backing down the hall, hands held up in front of him. “Reed!”
“You know what’s great!” Reed’s voice came from the hallway. “The living room! With other people! Like Ben! Come introduce your – Spider-Man to Ben!”
Ben’s deep voice rumbled indistinctly and disapprovingly.
“I’m leaving the mask on next time,” Peter mumbled to himself, diving to retrieve it.
“Sounds hot,” said Johnny, which absolutely did nothing to help the situation. “No, c’mon, don’t put it back on.”
“I am putting it back on forever,” Peter swore, but then Johnny was actually pouting at him.
“I like your face!” he protested and that was it, Peter was a goner. He’d have to write the small collection of weird guys in vaguely animal-themed costumes who had it out for him a bunch of apology notes. An Animal Planet reality star wearing five different kinds of leopard print and trying to hunt him in Central Park was just an annoyance compared to the look on Johnny Storm’s face.
“That’s not fair,” he said, but he left the mask off and let Johnny drag him into the living room anyway.
Ben Grimm was somehow more intimidating when he was just sitting in his living room like anyone else, one huge rocky leg thrown over the other and an actual newspaper held in his huge fingers. He lowered it just enough to give Peter a chilling once-over when they stumbled into the room.
“Um,” Peter said, resisting the urge to pull Johnny in front of him like a human shield. “Hi?”
Ben’s mouth curved into a wicked smirk.
“He took down the poster of you before you got here,” he told Peter, returning to his newspaper. Johnny yelped, outraged, and Ben threw his huge head back laughing – until the newspaper he was holding went up in flames.
“Johnny,” Reed said sharply.
“There was no poster,” Johnny said, ignoring him.
“There was a poster,” Ben said, at the same time as Reed tried, louder, “We’ve talked about fire in the living room!”
Someone cleared their throat.
“Reed,” Susan Storm said, fading back into sight at his elbow; Peter almost jumped a foot in the air, but nobody else batted an eye. It was a strange sight – she faded into view quickly, but not all at once. There had definitely been a split-second where he’d seen the bones of her reappearing arm, the overlaying muscle. But only a split-second. “We have to leave in ten minutes.”
“I’m ready,” Reed said. He was wearing socks, rumpled slacks and the top half of his Fantastic Four uniform. He had a tie draped over his shoulders. Sue rolled her eyes, reaching up to fix one of her earrings. “Johnny has a – visitor.”
Here, he waved vaguely at Peter, as if he were an alien and not a sixteen-year-boy in a spider-themed costume.
“Dr. Storm,” Peter said, raising a hand awkwardly. Sue glanced at him and smiled, every inch as dazzling as her brother. “It’s a complete honor to meet you.”
“He remembered the doctor part,” she said to Johnny. “I like this one.”
“Suck up,” Johnny muttered.
“Susan!” Reed hissed.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Spider-Man, and to put a face to the mask. Make yourself at home,” she told Peter. To Reed, she added, “Ten actual minutes,” then faded away again. Peter heard the sound of her heels against the floor, moving away.
He was very glad he didn’t live with anyone who could turn invisible.
“There was no poster,” Johnny repeated to Peter, though why he honestly thought Peter wasn’t thrilled at the prospect – the idea that Johnny had him on his wall, maybe somewhere he could see from the bed, maybe looked at him before he went to sleep.
Peter should get a poster, but he liked the three or so dozen candid shots of Johnny he had on his phone so much better than anything posed or airbrushed. Johnny was more caught mid-motion, in the moment.
Meanwhile, back in this moment, Reed Richards was frowning at him like he was auditioning for the part of the disapproving dad in every sitcom ever written.
“Unclench, Stretch,” Ben Grimm muttered in a voice like stones grinding together. “Toldya he was just another dumb kid like Johnny.”
“Reed,” Sue’s voice said, and suddenly there was an arm slipped through Reed’s. “Who is this dinner tonight honoring?”
His shoulder slumped; the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile. “The most wonderful woman and brilliant doctor I know.”
“That’s right,” she said. “And who is making us late?”
“The absentminded scientist she somehow puts up with?” he said, smiling for real now.
“Two for two,” she said, leaning up to smack a kiss to his cheek. “You’ve got shoes and a real jacket in the car, so move it.”
“Shouldn’t we call Spider-Man a cab?” Reed asked as Sue pulled him down the hall by their joined arms.
“Hon, it’s seven o’clock, leave them alone,” Sue said. “They’re not twelve. And the other one looks responsible.”
“Hey!” Johnny shouted down the hall.
“You know what you did!” Sue shouted back. “We’ll be back in a few hours; order a pizza or something.”
“Ugh,” Ben grumbled, chair groaning as he rose. “No matter what, I’m stuck with lovebirds.”
That was how it went: Sue Storm approved, and Ben Grimm tolerated, and Reed Richards silently but weightily judged Peter’s every move.
“I think Dr. Richards probably hates me,” Peter blurted out one afternoon while they were playing video games in the living room.
“It’s not you,” Johnny said, sighing dramatically. “He’s been like this since the accident. He’s all guilty about –” he raised his hand in the air and set it alight, then closed his fist and extinguished the flames “—this, so now he’s trying to run my whole life. What photoshoots I do, who can interview me… He’d probably lock me in this stupid tower he bought if he could, but Ben and my sister outvoted him.”
“That’s kind of good, though,” Peter said, unsure why he was arguing the point when Reed had not-so-nonchalantly checked in on them three times in the past two hours, eyeballing the lack of space between them on the couch critically. “Somebody trying to watch out for you.”
“It’s annoying,” Johnny said. “He needs to stop trying to be my dad. Didn’t need that before, don’t need it now.”
“How’d you end up on that trip, anyway?” Peter asked, the question clumsy in his mouth. “I mean, I know the story you guys gave the press…”
How does a sixteen-year-old kid end up on the same stolen mission as a couple with half a dozen doctorates between the two of them and an astronaut? was what he wanted to ask.
Johnny shrugged one shoulder, staring at the screen. “All everybody at the base kept saying was that it was too dangerous. I mean, they canceled the launch – but I knew they were going to go anyway. What was I going to do, stand by and just watch Sue go up there? Let her die on me, too? She tried to say goodbye to me.” His voice had dropped, tight and furious. He shook his head. “No way. Not in a million years were they leaving me behind.”
Peter didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth anyway, trying to come up with something –when the game blared, announcing the end of the match. Peter had been too distracted.
“Ha! Beat you,” Johnny crowed. He tossed the controller to the side and draped himself all over Peter, suddenly beaming. “What do I get as a prize?”
There were so many things Johnny didn’t know about Peter. How the sharp sting of the spider-bite had felt, or the last thing his uncle had said to him. He didn’t know about Peter Parker, before Spider-Man. It hadn’t occurred to Peter until that moment that there was plenty about Johnny he didn’t know, either. He wanted to ask -- Let her die on me, too? Who had died on him before? – but Johnny was warm like the best kind of summer day, and instead Peter flipped him over easily, wrestling him down on the couch.
“You know what,” he said, squeezing Johnny’s wrists. “A rematch, because that was cheating.” One quick kiss and he pulled back, snatching up Johnny’s controller. “We’re switching, I think that one’s weird.”
“You’re weird,” Johnny shot back, rolling his eyes. He shoved a knee into Peter’s thigh. “Best two out of three.”
“Well, I like you, kid,” Ben said, the next time Peter was over. Out of the other three, he was the easiest to be around -- once you got past the literal mountain man exterior, anyway. “Stick around. Keeps the firefly from bugging me all the time.”
Contrary to popular belief, most of Peter’s nights were slow. Maybe there was a purse-snatcher or two, an attempted mugging, a carjacker left webbed up and dangling from a lamp post with a note pinned to his jacket. Criminal-shaming – Peter had to love it.
Sometimes, on a rare night with nothing to do – no runaway dog on a late night walk to wrangle, no tourists needing the best directions in town – Peter just went swinging, exploring the city he’d known his whole life from a whole new vantage point. As a kid he’d been to the Empire State Building’s observation deck and to the Statue of Liberty -- May and Ben had taken him on a lot of trips those first few months, trying to keep his mind off of things, and Peter had always loved heights.
“Kid’s afraid of the dishwasher, and here I am making sure he doesn’t lean too far over the railing,” Ben had joked. “How does that one work?”
Peter didn’t know; the only thing he knew was that being up high made him feel incredible, like he was on top of the world. It was a whole new way of looking at things – dizzying, dazzling, and it made him want to throw his hands up in the air and cheer. New York City was beautiful at night, and Peter had access to all the best seats in the house.
He wanted to show Johnny, but he didn’t know how to ask. Every time he thought about it he got nervous all over again, palms sweaty, imagining Johnny laughing at him – or worse, Johnny agreeing, but not really getting what made it all so special.
Besides, Johnny definitely had better things to do on a Friday night. Just hours before he’d laughingly told Peter about how he’d been asked out by a movie star so big even Peter knew her name.
“What’d you say?” Peter asked, and Johnny’s laughter had died down and his smile went all soft at the edges.
“That I had a hotter date,” he said, flopping over into Peter’s space. “Duh.”
“Jerk,” Peter said.
“Dork,” Johnny returned, making a huge show out of kissing Peter’s cheek.
Maybe Johnny would understand, and maybe that was even more terrifying.
Quiet nights gave Peter too much time to think, sometimes. That didn’t mean he didn’t miss them whenever things really hit the fan.
It had been a bad night. It had been kind of the worst night, actually, the kind where everything went wrong and no matter what Peter did he could only help so much. Only so much was never enough – intellectually, Peter knew that he couldn’t always save everyone.
It still hurt, worse than the ceiling that had fallen on him, the rubble he’d had to dig himself out of. His hands stung, nothing compared to the memory of hefting a limp body up out of the rubble.
Peter wanted to sleep for a week, or possibly until he turned thirty. He only just managed to strip out of his costume before he hit the bed face first.
One hour and forty-eight minutes later, his alarm went off.
He broke the alarm clock. It didn’t really do anything to make him feel better, but at least the noise stopped. Except it didn’t: the world was still loud. Down below cars rushed by, and in the apartment above Mrs. Chen’s six-year-old was stomping around like she was readying herself for a hoedown championship. May had the radio on – too loud, and a song Peter hated. There was an actual bird chirping outside the window.
Peter rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head.
Just five more minutes, he told himself, already knowing it was futile. Five more minutes and he would stop feeling like there was a whole construction crew rattling around inside his head. He’d get up and grab breakfast and maybe with a little creative swinging he wouldn’t even be late to class.
The next thing he knew the bed had dipped, and May was saying, “Hey, tough guy. Up and at ‘em.”
He groaned, cringing.
“What’s wrong?” May asked, tugging the blanket away from his face. “You’re not feeling sick, are you?”
“Headache,” he mumbled. May hummed in sympathy, her palm cool against his forehead. “You know I never ask this --”
“You want to skip school,” May filled in, wry warmth in her voice. He cracked one eye open.
“I want the ceiling to cave in and put me out of my misery,” he said, “but I’d settle for skipping school. Which I never ask. Ever. Did I mention that part?”
He hadn’t even skipped school the morning after the bite, rushing out the apartment before Ben could ask too many questions and playing everything over in his head all day – the world so sharp and clear, his locker nearly dented under the very tips of his fingers, a buzz along the back of his skull at the approach of a less than beloved classmate.
“You might have mentioned it,” she said. She palmed his forehead again. “Well, you’re not warm…”
“Think it might be a migraine,” he tried, throwing a pitiful whine behind the words and screwing up his eyes dramatically. “Owww…”
“See what I told you about studying too hard?” she asked, carding his hair back from his forehead. “Okay. Just this once.”
Peter sagged back against the mattress with relief. “Thanks, May.”
“Mm, don’t mention it,” she said. “You’re going to be okay on your own today?”
“Don’t mind me,” he said, already pulling the covers back up. “I’ll just go back to quietly dying.”
“Yeah,” May said fondly, “you’re going to be fine. Call me if you need anything, okay?”
“’Kay,” he muttered, already halfway back asleep.
He dozed for a couple of blissful hours, and when he woke up in the early afternoon his headache had receded a little, the threat of its return just hanging around at his temples. Everything else still ached like he’d dropped a building on it, more or less accurate. He dragged himself out of bed and into the kitchen for food, and then he flopped back down onto his bed again. His glorious, beautiful bed, which he was quite possibly never leaving ever again.
His phone went off. Peter glared at it, but it just trilled at him again, cold and uncaring.
He groaned, giving in and fumbling for it, just in case it was something important, like May saying she’d be late.
There was one new text from Johnny: when are you gonna be home?
Home right now, Peter wrote back, stifling a yawn.
The reply came almost immediately: cool, cuz I’m on your roof. Let me in? That was followed by about a million unrelated emoji.
Peter dragged himself up enough to glare blearily out the window; outside the world it was grey and cold and wet, the kind of weather Johnny hated. He glanced back at the screen, then out the window again.
His phone went off again: Please?
Peter frowned down at the screen – what, like he was going to leave his boyfriend out in the cold?
Yeah, he wrote back. One sec.
He stuffed his feet into his shoes and snagged his keys, taking the stairs two at a time because it was faster than the elevator. His headache was suddenly no match for the knot of worry in his chest – why was Johnny texting him from his rooftop in the rain on a Tuesday afternoon, of all times? What if he was hurt? What if something was wrong? Peter’s mind was a riot of worst case scenarios.
He flung open the rooftop door and was immediately hit with an armful of wet teen superhero. He rocked back but didn’t stumble as Johnny’s arms wound tight around his neck, his legs around Peter’s waist. He clung on like a spider-monkey.
“Hi,” Johnny said against his neck. His hair smelled faintly like something burning; Peter wondered why he hadn’t stayed flamed on to avoid getting soaked. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Peter said, holding him up easily. “What’s the matter? Are you hurt?”
“No, it’s fine, it’s nothing,” Johnny said, but if nothing was wrong Peter seriously doubted he’d be clutching at him up on the rooftop in the damp. He sounded miserable, too, and beneath Peter’s palms he was shivering ever so slightly. Peter’s heart beat wildly against his ribs.
“Kind of getting me all wet here, dude,” he said. “Wanna go inside?”
Johnny nodded, disentangling himself from Peter clumsily and taking a step back. His eyes were kind of red. Peter was even more worried than before. He wrapped his hand around Johnny’s wrist, tugging him out of the rain and into the stairwell where they stopped for a moment so Peter could mop rain water from Johnny’s face with the cuff of his sleeve.
Johnny was soaked; Peter wondered how long he’d been up on the roof and why he hadn’t texted him before. Why he’d been on Peter’s roof in the rain in the first place. He rubbed at Johnny’s arms, though truthfully he didn’t know if that would do any good when Johnny was, well, Johnny.
“Can I borrow some clothes?” Johnny said when they made it back into the apartment, making a face as he fumbled with his gloves and his boots. “Wet unstable molecules, kind of not fun. And I don’t want to light up inside your place.”
“Yeah, sure,” Peter said, trying not to trip over his own tongue. He reached up to brush a damp curl from Johnny’s forehead, fingertips brushing the little furrow between his eyebrows. It was a little overwhelming, sometimes, how much he wanted to touch – and it scared him. His own new strength still occasionally surprised him when he stopped a speeding taxi with a hand or, on one memorable occasion, lifted a police horse over his head like it weighed less than a cat. It made him afraid to touch too much, to hold too hard. People felt so delicate under hands that could rip through concrete.
Sometimes the twist of Johnny’s long fingers in his own scared him as much as it thrilled him.
“Clothes?” Johnny reminded, tugging at Peter’s collar.
“Right, yeah,” Peter said, snagging Johnny – so gently -- by the wrist and leading him down the hall and into his bedroom.
Luckily they were more or less the same size, Johnny just a smidge taller, all long fine-boned limbs. Peter tossed the first clean pair of sweatpants and a shirt his way, only to find Johnny already pawing through his closet, curiosity written all over his face.
It was a better look than the abject misery – at least until he held up the Hello Kitty pajama pants with his eyebrows raised.
“Long story,” Peter said, blushing. He tossed the clothes at Johnny. “Here.”
He left while Johnny changed, trudging back down the hall to grab a glass of water from the kitchen. Johnny had confessed once that he got thirsty sometimes after he’d been flying – Peter was pretty sure he’d only said it because he was tired and he knew that if he complained enough Peter would take the two dollars from his hand and go buy him a bottle from the nearest hot dog cart, but he thought the sentiment would be appreciated anyway.
Now that he was back in the apartment, with Johnny intact if not fine – Peter had never seen him this subdued before, and it nagged at him, something not quite like his spider-sense telling him something was wrong – his headache was starting to creep its way back across his temples. His sore shoulder made itself known again. The world pressed in; a spider skittered in his peripheral vision and almost made him jump.
“Real funny,” he said to it, shutting his eyes against the pounding in his head.
“What’s funny?” Johnny called from his room.
“Nothing,” Peter said, leaving the kitchen. “You decent?”
“Why, you hopeful?” Johnny shot back, but he was dressed when Peter nudged his bedroom door open. His back was to Peter and he was rummaging through the closet again.
“Here,” Peter said, passing him the glass. Johnny took it gratefully, downing half of it one go. He handed it back so he could shrug on Peter’s mathlete sweatshirt, bunching his hands in the sleeves like he was cold. Could he even get cold? Peter didn’t know – all he knew was that the sight of Johnny huddled up in Peter’s sweatshirt did a lot of complicated things to him.
“What?” Johnny said, glancing up at him.
“Nothing,” Peter said, stumbling over the word. “Just – you.”
“Me?” Johnny grinned. He climbed onto Peter’s bed and it was almost enough to cure his every ache and pain.
“You,” Peter confirmed. “Are you – do you get cold? Is that possible?”
Johnny shrugged one shoulder. “Sometimes. Not really. It’s more like the memory, you know? I remember what it used to feel like to be cold. So if I’m out in the rain…” He huddled a little deeper into Peter’s sweatshirt, frowning. “It’s weird.”
“No,” Peter said, sitting down next to him. He still woke up sometimes in the morning, thinking he’d forgotten to take his glasses off the night before. He still expected to hear Ben in the kitchen, whistling along to the radio. “That’s not weird.”
Johnny snuck him a sidelong glance, then twisted toward him, leaning in. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Peter said, meeting him with slightly less enthusiasm than usual. What he really wanted to do was lie down and go back to sleep for a few hours, but he had Johnny to take care of first. Johnny with his strange, quiet mood, and the way he had cocooned himself up in Peter’s clothes and now the edge of desperation in the kiss, Johnny’s hands fisted in his shirt. Johnny came first; he could nap later. “Johnny…”
“What?” Johnny mumbled. The brush of Johnny’s lips against his sent sparks down to his fingertips and toes, even with his head threatening to explode on him. Peter sighed, tilting his head for a better angle and –
Bad move. He hissed, pulling away too fast, and accidentally smacked the back of his head against the wall. No help for his headache there.
“Peter?” Johnny asked, scrambling after him as Peter groaned and clutched at his head. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Yeah, I just – need a second.”
Johnny fell quiet, but the fretting was nearly palpable, his hands rubbing at Peter’s shoulders.
“Headache,” Peter explained after a second, eyes still closed. “Had a little too much fun with a brick wall last night.”
“Shit,” Johnny said.
“Yeah,” Peter agreed. He wanted to laugh, but he had a good feeling it’d just make him feel worse. Very gently Johnny reached up to touch his face, fingertips warm and gentle above Peter’s eyebrow.
“I know you don’t do doctors,” Johnny said, “because of the whole spider-blood thing but I could call Sue. She’s discrete, you know she is –”
“No,” Peter said, wrapping his fingers around Johnny’s wrist and tugging his hand away. “I’m okay. Really, I’m okay. I just need a nap or something. I have had way worse.”
He’d worried, the first time, but inevitably he was fine after crashing for a day or two. It was really inconsiderate, the way crime never took his schedule into consideration. This time, though, he thought it was less injury and more the weight of everything. He was still raw all over, blinking back the image of a still body in the wreckage.
Johnny nodded, obviously unhappy about it. This was an argument they’d had before. Peter realized he was still holding his hand, running his thumb restlessly against the knob of Johnny’s wrist. “If it gets worse –”
“It’s not getting worse,” Peter cut in. Johnny snorted. “Really, it’s better, I’m better. I just need a little quiet.”
“Quiet. So I should probably go, huh?” Johnny said, wry little smile on his face as he made to pull away.
“What?” Peter said. “Why?”
“Because quiet?” Johnny said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not something I’m good at. So I should like – I’ll just go, but I’m going to call you later and if you don’t pick up I’m probably going to assume you’re lying to me and you’re dead so you really have to pick up –”
He was babbling, making to climb away from Peter, shoulders hunched up and every line of him miserable. He had flown to Peter’s roof in the rain, clearly there was something wrong, but he wasn’t talking and now he was going to leave. Peter was still holding his wrist – he yanked gently, sending Johnny sprawling back onto his mattress.
“I don’t want you to go,” he said.
“But,” Johnny said, frowning. “You said –”
“I know,” Peter said. “Everything’s too – everything’s too everything sometimes. I need to focus on something and there’s nothing better than you. That’s it.”
“Me?” Johnny said, sounding honestly surprised.
Peter, face hot and possibly more embarrassed than he ever had been before in his life, felt him shuffle back; he cracked one eye and saw that Johnny was leaning back against the wall at the head of the bed.
“Okay,” Johnny said. “Here’s what we’re gonna do: put your head in my lap.” Peter squinted at him; Johnny rolled his eyes. “Come on! Get your mind out of the gutter. Just put your head down.”
Peter thought about protesting, but his head was pounding so bad. There was a whole world pushing at him, neighbors shuffling on the other side of thin walls, a traffic copter somewhere far above. The air was wet and electric, strangely stifling. His shoulder ached where a beam had hit him hours before, his body reminding him that he was still healing, and in the street below a car honked, and then another, and another, loud snatches of music. There was the constant prickle of awareness that the world was filled with unpredictable people doing unpredictable things, and that Peter had the power – no, the responsibility – to stop as many people as he could from getting hurt.
It was enough to make the spider bite feel like a curse, and not gift: strength, speed, almost precognitive reflexes and, oh yeah, a beautiful celebrity superhero like Johnny Storm lounging around in Peter’s bed on a Tuesday afternoon, asking Peter to put his head in his lap.
“Dude, c’mon. Don’t be so stubborn,” Johnny coaxed. “I promise you won’t feel worse.”
“Not sure that’s possible, unless you’ve got an ACME brand piano to drop on me,” Peter mumbled, but he gave in. He curled up on his side with a minimum of wincing and slowly placed his head on Johnny’s thighs. It was a little better, lying down, and Johnny’s borrowed clothes were worn soft and familiar. He smelled nice; kind of smoky, but that was part of the charm.
“Better?” Johnny asked softly.
“Maybe,” Peter allowed, shrugging one shoulder.
“Okay,” Johnny said. He slid his fingers into Peter’s hair, combing it back. His hand was warm, like stepping out of school into a beautiful bright afternoon. Peter sighed a little, remembering how Johnny’s own hair always felt sun-warmed to the touch.
“Stop thinking so much,” Johnny said, still stroking Peter’s hair.
“Can’t,” Peter said. “I can’t help it.”
“Try,” Johnny insisted. “Just turn that big brain off for a while.”
“Easy for you to say, maybe,” Peter grumbled, but his eyes were heavy. Suddenly it was easy not to think about anything at all, just to focus on the slow slide of Johnny’s fingers through his hair, the song he was humming out of tune.
Peter didn’t remember falling asleep. When he woke up the sky was clear again and sunset was just starting to paint the horizon orange and red. He blinked a couple of times; his headache was gone, and the ache in his shoulder was better, too.
Johnny had pulled one of Peter’s books off the bedside table and was scowling at it like it personally offended him.
“Hey,” Peter said drowsily, still feeling a little hazy at the edges. He slipped one hand up under the edge of Johnny’s stolen sweatshirt.
“’Sup, Rip Van Winkle,” Johnny said, flipping a page. “You were out.”
Peter reached up to take the book from him, flipping it over; it was one of his chemistry books. “Learning something?”
“Don’t you read anything fun?” Johnny asked, wrinkling his nose. It was so adorable that Peter started laughing.
“Hey, I think this stuff is fun,” Peter said, letting the book drop to the bed. He didn’t move other than that, though – it was comfortable, lying partly on top of Johnny’s long legs. “Comics are across the room, sorry.”
“S’okay,” Johnny said, shrugging. “You feel any better?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Peter said, finally making himself sit up. The world didn’t swim, his head didn’t pound. It was official – Johnny was magic. Somehow landing him was the best thing that ever happened to Peter since the spider bit him.
“Any time,” Johnny said, stretching, hands high above his head. He still wasn’t smiling, not really.
“Can I ask you what happened now?” Peter said.
“What happened, when?” Johnny said.
“When you texted me from my own roof. Could’ve used the buzzer,” Peter said. Johnny mumbled something that sounded like “didn’t want anyone taking photos” under his breath. “What were you gonna do if I wasn’t home?”
Johnny shrugged, defensive. “Don’t know. Waited.”
“On my roof,” Peter repeated. “In the rain. Johnny, what?”
“Nothing,” Johnny said. Peter shifted to stare at him, eyebrows raised. Johnny was glaring hot-eyed at a spot on the wall, his shoulders hunched defensively. Peter tugged at the cuff of his stolen sweatpants.
“Torch,” he said.
Johnny took a shuddering breath. “It was… this guy wanted to do an interview, okay? Kind of a big deal. Sue and Reed didn’t want me to go – they always try to go with me, or they get Ben to go, and that’s the worst. Like I’m going to screw everything up if I’m allowed to talk for myself for two minutes, so they need to play damage control, even though Ben’s way worse than me. I hate it. They said I’d understand later, but it’s hard to stop a guy who can fly, right? And Reed’s always busy in his lab, and Sue’s gone again this weekend, and Ben’s at his girlfriend’s studio, so I – just went.”
Peter looked at him again, at the color high in his cheeks and the way he huddled into Peter’s sweater, curled in on himself, and something unpleasant curled in his veins. He slipped his hand around Johnny’s bare ankle, squeezing.
“What happened?” he asked, trying to keep his voice casual.
“Nothing!” Johnny protested immediately. “That’s why it’s so stupid.”
“Hey, hey,” Peter said, scrambling closer. He wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, but he settled next to Johnny at the head of the bed, taking him by the hand. “Start slow, okay? From the beginning.” When Johnny hesitated, Peter added, “Please tell me?”
“It’s dumb,” Johnny repeated. “Nothing happened."
“Something happened,” Peter argued.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Johnny said, raking one hand through his hair. “That’s why I didn’t go home, because,” his breath hitched, “because there’s nobody there to talk to, anyway, so what does it matter. I hate this.” Another broken breath, wet and awful; he pressed the heel of his hand against his eye. “I hate this.”
“Hey, stop, okay,” Peter said, squeezing Johnny’s fingers, still trapped between his own. “Stop, you don’t have to tell me anything.” Impulsively, he raised Johnny’s hand to his mouth, pressing his lips against Johnny’s knuckles, not quite a kiss. “S’okay, I don’t need to know.”
“It’s just dumb,” Johnny said, scrubbing at his face. “The guy just starts asking all these questions. Really personal stuff. And I’ve done the personal stuff before, I’m not shy--”
“You are so not shy,” Peter huffed against the back of Johnny’s hand.
“Right?” Johnny said, swiping at his eyes. Peter’s heart ached – he needed to fix things, the way he always did, the way Spider-Man could. He didn’t know how. “But it got, I don’t know. Weird. Too personal. Too… he put his hand on my leg.”
Peter’s whole world seemed to go very still.
“It just,” Johnny said, voice breaking, and Peter was suddenly reminded how young he was, just a dumb kid like Peter even if he was on a hundred magazine covers, even if he was one of the biggest names in the world. “It just creeped me out, alright? So I lit up and left. That’s it.”
“Okay,” Peter said, voice rough. He pulled Johnny in towards him, kissing the side of his head. He lingered, breathing in the scent of his hair, clean shampoo and smoke, buzzing all over as he thought about it. “Okay.”
Like a man possessed, he moved, wrenching himself away from Johnny and up off the bed, sinking to his knees to search around. His costume was still under his bed where he’d buried it under some other junk the night before, too tired to bother really hiding it. Johnny scrambled after him.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“What does it look like?” Peter asked, fumbling for a fresh cartridge of webbing. “I’m going to break his hand, and then I’m going to break his face.”
“Peter!” Johnny protested, trying to grab him by the elbow.
“Someone touched you –” Peter bit out furiously, stomach twisting at the idea.
“I light on fire,” Johnny said, snorting, and for once he was less than picture perfect, eyes a little red and mouth set in a miserable line, kneeling on Peter’s bed with his shoulders hunched up. “Tends to take care of the problem. Nobody touches me if I don’t want.” There was a long pause where Johnny breathed in shakily and Peter tried hard not to put his fist through his bedside table, before Johnny added, “That was an invitation, genius.”
It took a second for the words to register, and then, gingerly, Peter climbed back onto his bed. He stretched out his arm behind Johnny’s back and some of the awful tension in his chest was freed up when Johnny leaned against him.
“Sorry,” he said, only feeling sorry about the look on Johnny’s face.
“You can’t do that,” Johnny said.
“Yeah, I sort of can,” Peter said, playing with the sweatshirt’s neckline. His fingers brushed against the nape of Johnny’s neck, drawing little patterns. “Spider-Man, remember? You guys go to space and play around with weird science; I swing around the city on my own invention and stop muggers.” He took a moment to steel himself, wondering why saying what he wanted to say was so much scarier than flinging himself off the ledge of a fifty-story building. “And I get to beat up creeps who try shit with my boyfriend.”
It was the first time he’d said the word out loud.
“Oh,” said Johnny, wide-eyed.
“Yeah,” Peter confirmed, nothing but nervous butterflies all over. “If you, you know, want –”
“Don’t be stupid,” Johnny said, tilting his head towards him. “Obviously I want. That’s why you can’t do anything – you go over there, you do something, it’ll be a story, you’ll get stuck in our stupid media circus. It wasn’t a big deal --”
“Hey, no,” Peter said, kissing Johnny slow and sweet. “Stop, stop, okay, I’m not going anywhere -- come here.”
Johnny melted into it, letting Peter take the lead. His hands curled in Peter’s shirt and his eyes drifted shut. Peter kept kissing him, a slow slide of their lips, until the rest of the tension drained out of Johnny’s shoulders. He waited until Johnny sighed, so quiet he almost didn’t hear it, before he tilted his face up to kiss Johnny’s forehead, the high sweep of his cheekbone, the bridge of his nose and both closed eyes.
Johnny started to laugh, infectious. Peter’s next attempt to kiss him was unsuccessful; they were both grinning too hard.
“Stop being so weird!” Johnny said in between peals of laughter, yanking at Peter’s shirt. Peter stopped, but he leaned their foreheads together and just held onto Johnny until the laughter faded away into a comfortable sort of quiet, the kind Peter had never really thought he’d have with anyone. He’d always needed to fill up the silence, tripping over his own thoughts and tongue. Now, though, he was content to look at the sweep of Johnny’s eyelashes, to marvel at him up close.
Two thoughts warred for first in his head: I can’t believe he wants me, and I’m totally going to web that guy’s slimy hands to his own behind.
Maybe it was all the kissing talking, but Peter was pretty sure he was going to spend the rest of his life fighting anyone who made Johnny unhappy.
Johnny leaned forward to kiss him one last time, short and sweet.
“Hey,” Peter said, swiping his thumb across Johnny’s cheekbone. “Better?”
“I just feel dumb,” Johnny admitted, shaking his head. “I’m pretty sick of feeling dumb.”
Peter’s heart ached.
“You should tell your sister what happened,” he said. Johnny groaned, glaring balefully at him. “I know! I know, trust me, I’m the last person who should be talking about telling their family anything, but if you won’t let me web him from a lamp post and play tetherball with him, then you should tell your sister. Your scary sister. Who can be invisible.”
“Is this supposed to convince me?” Johnny asked, dropping his forehead against Peter’s shoulder.
“Yeah, a little. Call at least one of the other three Fantasticos?” Peter cajoled, playing with Johnny’s hair. He’d remembered right; it was warm like sunshine. He wrapped a lock of it around his finger, tugging gently. “Tell them where you are before someone sends out a search party. Then stay for dinner?”
“Yeah?” Johnny asked, raising his head. He was smiling a little, which automatically made Peter smile too.
“Sure,” Peter said. “My aunt loves you so much more than me now. Stay; she’ll never subject you to vegetarian meatloaf.”
Johnny laughed a little bit, shifting against him. It seemed natural to wrap his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. Peter squeezed a little, rubbing little circles against Johnny’s arm through the material of the sweatshirt he was pretty sure he was never getting back. It was a noble sacrifice.
“What can I do?” he asked, quieter now. “Besides webbing him upside down outside his place of employment.” He toyed with the soft hair at the back of Johnny’s neck. “I could… swing you home later?”
He felt a little daring, finally suggesting it – Johnny could fly on his own. He didn’t need Peter’s pale imitation of the real thing. But flying on fire – Johnny probably never felt the wind whip by, and under his own power he didn’t get to experience the rollercoaster thrill of a webline. Maybe he’d never seen all New York’s lights blur together the way Peter regularly did, a beautiful show.
Peter wanted him to see New York that way, the way Peter got to see it.
“Thought you weren’t feeling well,” Johnny teased. Peter felt himself relax, reaching up to toy with Johnny’s hair again.
“Feeling much better, thanks to you,” he said. “C’mon. It’ll be fun. Let me take you home tonight. Fresh air. Does a body good. And it’s fun, swinging, it’s --”
He had to gesture; he had no words for the feeling. It was bigger than him.
“Yeah?” Johnny said, grinning. “All that, huh?”
Peter held his hands out in front of him, fingers spread. “So much more.”
“Okay,” Johnny said, reaching out to tangle his fingers with Peter’s. “Okay, sounds fun. Not tonight. Tonight I’m taking a car home.”
“What?” Peter said. “Why?”
“Because I don’t care what you say, you’re not fine,” Johnny said. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“I almost called my sister!” Johnny said. “Do you know how bad you looked, to make me do that?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Peter muttered, put out about the fantasy being squashed, Johnny plastered against his back and all of New York spread out underneath them. “Really, though. Next time?”
“You just want to drop me,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, okay. Next time.”
Everything went to hell before Peter could get that next time.
Of course it had to be one of his usuals. Otto Octavius, a particularly sweaty genius of a nuclear physicist who had a weird thing about tentacles. A completely brilliant, if evil, mind – but the last couple of times they’d tangoed he’d been so full of himself he’d let his guard down and Peter had managed to get in close, knock him out.
That wasn’t going to cut it this time. Otto had put that genius to terrible use. He wasn’t even at the scene – he’d spread bombs all over the city, linked together. If one was disarmed, Iron Man said, they all went up. There might have been time to figure out how to shut them all down, if the countdown hadn’t already been closing in when they’d been discovered.
Peter was going to rip every single one of those metal arms off with his bare hands. He just had to live through the evening first.
Call him a pessimist, but that was looking increasingly unlikely.
Everything was in lock down, all the trains shut down, the bridges and tunnels closed. It made it easy to lie when May called him in a panic, to say that he was home and safe and, yeah, of course he was worried about Johnny, that he loved her too and that he’d see her soon.
In reality, she was twenty blocks away and Johnny was flitting in circles high above where Peter was crouched up on the roof of Toys R Us, staring at Times Square down below, at Dr. Richards and Iron Man and a handful of others, all working. He hadn’t lied about everything: he really was worried this time.
Last he’d heard, they’d been saying they could use vibranium to offset the explosion.
“Captain America’s shield. I can get it,” Mr. Stark had said, “but I need at least half an hour.”
That was far more time than they had.
There was a rush of heat just above him; he twisted in time to see Johnny touch down.
“What’s the word from Dr. Richards?” Peter asked as Johnny joined him out on the ledge.
“He’s pretty stressed,” Johnny said, biting at a thumbnail. “Which, I gotta say, is freaking me the fuck out. You?”
“I feel useless,” Peter said. “Gonna amend that: unless somebody needs something heavy lifted, I am useless.”
“Hey,” Johnny said quietly, reaching up to cradle Peter’s masked face between his hands. “Look at me for a second. Just at me – you know I think you’re the best.” If they weren’t facing a major crisis and possibly their own deaths, Peter might have swallowed his own tongue. Johnny continued before Peter could echo the sentiment. “And not just about the superhero stuff – you’re a big brain, too. I’ve seen it. All that stuff you build? Those books you read for fun? You should be down there with Iron Man and Reed.”
“Like I’m in their league,” Peter scoffed.
“You told me I help you focus,” Johnny said, very quietly. “Remember? But I don’t – I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how -- what can I do?”
Peter shrugged helplessly, hands held out. Johnny made a frustrated noise, grabbing them, twisting their fingers together.
“If we had more time…”
“Yeah,” Peter said, glancing over Johnny’s shoulder at the ticker tape running along a screen. The countdown shone red – but up in the corner, there was a time and a date.
Something clicked in Peter’s mind.
“Time!” he crowed, laughing. He leaned in, smacking a kiss to Johnny’s cheek through the mask. “Torch, you are a genius.”
He took off swinging and Johnny shot after him, a bright light in the dark. “Uh? Thanks? Remind me what I did again?”
“Just – you’re beautiful! I’ll explain later, Sparky!” Peter said. “I just want you to know, if I blow myself up trying this, I really wanted to take you swinging.”
He let go of his webline and landed neatly on the ground. He all but shoved Iron Man out of the way, using his considerable strength to force himself between him and Mr. Fantastic.
“Kid, this is not the time –” Iron Man started, trying to catch Peter by the shoulder. Peter only felt a little bad about elbowing him back, hard.
“Sorry, Mr. Stark!” Peter said, getting to work. “Trying to save our all our lives here!”
Maybe it was the adrenaline talking, but he was beginning to think this would work. And if it didn’t – well, there wasn’t enough time left on the clock not to get a little weird.
“Spider-Man,” Reed said. His voice, for the first time, was very gentle. “I know you’re very bright. Johnny sings your praises enough. Please understand this isn’t coming from a place of ego, but Tony and I are two of the best minds on the planet, and if we can’t –”
“Because,” Peter cut him off, babbling as he worked, fingers moving so fast he was worried he’d mess up and equally worried he’d lose his nerve if he slowed down. “It’s not a smart guy idea, it’s not a – it’s a ‘get out of my morning math class’ idea, it’s a me idea, but I think it’s going to – if I can just -- ”
“Don’t reset the timer!” Iron Man snapped. “There are fail safes, there are always--”
“I’m not resetting!” Peter said, shaking his head wildly. “I’m syncing it up with the operating system’s built-in clock! Dr. Richards, Mr. Stark, look at the time!”
There were ten seconds left on the timer. Peter counted down with it, fingers trembling: nine, eight, seven…
“Amazing,” Dr. Richards said.
There was a long, tense moment where nothing happened, and then Peter sagged forward, the relief nearly knocking him to the ground. Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic were staring at him like they weren’t quite sure what had happened, not to mention the rest of the gathered crowd.
“Daylight savings,” he said, laughing to himself. “We just got an extra hour.”
Then Iron Man said, “Jesus Christ, kid.”
Johnny threw his hands in the air with a wild yell. He hit Peter like a miniature hurricane, plastered against his back with his arms wound around his neck, and maybe it was the near-death experience talking but his laughter was probably the best thing Peter had ever heard.
“The best,” Johnny said, right in his ear. Peter reached up to squeeze his wrist, more to ground himself than anything else. “What did I tell you?”
“Because you’re just right about everything, huh?” Peter said, laughing now too, half out of relief.
“I’m right about you,” Johnny said. Peter swallowed hard.
“It was all you. When you said ‘time’ –”
“Spider-Man,” Reed interrupted. Peter straightened up, which of course only meant Johnny clung on harder, peering suspiciously at Reed over Peter’s shoulder. Reed was smiling, though, as he extended a hand. “That was brilliant.”
Peter’s shoulders relaxed as he took Reed’s hand. “Thanks.”
“Alright, people, we can hug it out later,” Iron Man said, clapping his hands. “Let’s get back to work.”
“You’re going to drop me.”
“I’m not going to drop you!” Peter insisted for the third time. “And even if I did, you can fly.”
“That’s not the point!” Johnny said.
“Will you just get on already?” Peter said, rolling his eyes under the mask.
Johnny peered out over the rooftop again, the night breeze ruffling his hair. His knuckles were white against the roof’s ledge – the same roof Peter had seen him fly off half a dozen times. He wasn’t going to laugh, but it was a near thing. Stories below cars sped by and people on bicycles made poor decisions and all the sounds and lights blurred together, electric. Peter loved a good, clear night in New York.
“If you drop me, I’m breaking up with you,” Johnny declared.
“I promise, if I drop you, I will probably feel so guilty I’ll leave the country,” Peter said. “If you don’t want to –”
“I want to,” Johnny cut him off. “It’s just, don’t you ever worry –”
“Pretty much constantly,” Peter said, laughing. “As a general rule.”
“Stop,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t you ever worry that we got these powers and one day…” He held out his hands, flames at the tips of his fingers like birthday candles, and then flicked the fire out of existence. “Gone?”
Peter rocked back on his heels, shrugging. What could he say? Of course he’d worried about it, but he worried about it in the way he worried about everything – the weather and whether he’d get annoyed at school and let some of his strength slip, or worried about May whenever she frowned at a piece of mail. What he was going to do when Johnny found someone he liked more than him. Of course he worried about his strange abilities going haywire, and then, splat. One squashed Spider-Man, like a gorier Loony Tunes short.
“You called me a big brain, right?” Peter said. He held his hand out, the inside of his wrist up so his webshooters were really on display. “Okay, then you don’t have to trust my abilities, because they gave me the idea for this, but the mechanics?” He grinned. “That’s brain power, baby. We got chemistry.”
“You’re so cheesy,” Johnny said, taking Peter’s hand in his own. He traced the mechanism, feather light.
“Also, if you’re not having fun, you can, you know, actually fly,” Peter said. “I feel like I’m reminding you of that a lot.”
“Shut up,” Johnny said, but even with his head ducked and his hair in his eyes, Peter could see the smile. “How do you want to do this?”
Peter turned around, bending down. “Climb on. Arms around my neck.”
“Okay,” Johnny said, following Peter’s instructions. Peter straightened back up, hooking a hand under Johnny’s thigh.
“You can, um,” he said, momentarily distracted by Johnny’s breath in his ear and Johnny’s arms wrapped around his neck, the sheer warmth of Johnny against his back. “You can hang on pretty tight. You’re not going to hurt me, so.”
“I like this already,” Johnny said, but his grip tightened a little as Peter climbed up on the ledge. Peter squeezed at the back of his knee and, with his free hand, aimed for a good spot on the building across the street.
“World’s best rollercoaster,” Peter said. “Ready?”
Johnny sucked in a breath and said in Peter’s ear, “If you drop me –”
“Never going to happen,” Peter promised, and swung them both off the building.