"MJ and I are seeing each other," Gwen said.
Peter blinked. He tried to think back to last night's terrifying attack. The Green Goblin had been difficult to take down. Had Peter hit his head?
"Sorry," Peter said, and he smiled pleasantly, "I thought you said you and MJ were seeing each other?"
Gwen grimaced. "I did."
"MJ as in, what, Michael Jordan?"
"Mick Jagger? Magic Johnson? Milla Jovovich?"
"You know a disturbing number of celebrities with the initials MJ," Gwen said. "But no to all of those. MJ as in your neighbor, Mary-Jane Watson. That MJ."
Peter stared, and then chuckled.
Gwen's eyes narrowed. "What's so funny?"
"You'll laugh too," Peter said.
Gwen's grimace didn't go away but it faded a little. "I will?"
"Yeah. I thought for a second there that you meant seeing each other romantically," Peter said, holding up both of his hands. "Funny, right?"
Gwen stared at him. "But that's what I meant," she said.
"I'm sorry, Peter. But, y'know, you're never around, you're always disappearing."
Peter's response was beautifully eloquent: "What?"
"And you give the most terrible excuses," Gwen said.
Gwen was steadfastly ignoring Peter's semi-breakdown. "And MJ and I have just spent so many evenings waiting for you to show up for, what, ten minutes? And we just grew closer, and realized we were spending more time with each other than either of us ever had with you. And, well, one thing led to another, and she kissed me—"
Gwen's eyes crinkled softly around the edges. "I'm sorry, Pete. But I'm in love with her. She loves me too. I can't be with you when I'm in love with someone else, I'm so, so sorry."
Peter stared at her. Then he stared down at the tabletop to see if that made more sense. It didn't. He stared some more. There was some crumbs around his plate. He empathized. He shook his head.
"But I love you," Peter said, and looked up again, into the eyes of a confused looking waitress.
"Your girlfriend left like, ten minutes ago," the waitress said.
Peter said, "What?" again. It was pretty much the only decent response to the whole situation.
Fighting villains, when you had a broken heart, was about the worst thing ever.
Peter was going to be stuck doing the worst thing ever forever.
He sighed and sprayed web fluid in the Looter's face because if he was gonna be stuck in hell, he might as well drag the incompetent fools loitering around New York down with him.
"You're such a freak, Spider-Man," Looter screamed, wiping madly at his face.
Peter shrugged and sprayed the fluid at his knees, plastering him upside-down to a nearby wall.
"Hey," Looter said. "No witty comment? None of your usual spider-sass? What, am I like, not even worth the effort anymore?"
Peter shrugged, and turned to scope out the rest of the fight. None of the Avengers on-scene seemed to be struggling, alas.
"What, so now you're Spider-Emo-Man?" the Looter sniped, trying to wriggle out of the spider-web. "What, did your girlfriend dump you or something?"
Peter's head whipped back to the Looter in surprise. "What?" he blurted. Wait, no, that wasn't the right word. It hadn't helped him win Gwen back, anyway. "How? Is it somehow written on my spidey-suit?"
"No, it's written in you being a fucking bitch," the Looter sniped. "I get a snappier reception from the X-Men."
"Then go and hassle the X-Men, see if I care," Peter said. "And your gendered insults are tired and offensive."
The Looter laughed. "I'm a villain, I'm supposed to be offensive."
Peter stared. "Political correctness never goes out of fashion."
"Fashion," the Looter said with a long sniff, "tends to be horribly offensive."
"Says the man with his underwear as outerwear."
"Spidey, buddy," the Lotter pointed out, "your whole costume is underwear."
Peter paused. The Looter had a point.
"Why are you even fighting villains if you're so miserable?" The Looter asked, after another moment of futilely struggling. "Shouldn't you be off, like, crying into a bowl of Cheerios?"
Peter neglected to mention how that was a pretty effective summary of his morning. "Because if I'm miserable everyone should be miserable?"
"Y'know, that sounds disturbingly like a potential supervillain slogan to me," the Looter said. "I was starting to be bored by your whining, but if you're going to turn to our side, that might be fun."
"Ugh." Peter slumped against the wall, shielding his eyes with one hand as he looked back out to the rest of the battle. "There's just no point in living. I'm never going to love again."
"If no point in living is your angle, I could kill you," the Looter suggested. "Could help my villain street cred."
"You could come up with a better villain name. That might help."
"I've been thinking about maybe Meteor Man?"
Peter huffed. "Think harder."
The Looter made a sound like he was thinking about it, and Peter kept watching the battle. This was apparently a mistake, as he found out when a flash of light crossed his vision. Peter yelped and dropped to the floor in a crouch, and there was a lot of loud yelling, something hot streaking past him, and by the time Peter's vision came back to something approaching regular, he could see that the Looter had gone, and Johnny Storm was standing there, arms folded across his broad chest.
Johnny's hair was crowned by small spirals of smoke spinning up into the air. "Looter had his Dazzle Gun," Johnny said.
"Oh," Peter said.
"Somehow got out of your webbing even though you were right there," Johnny said, looking between Peter and the straggling lines of spider webbing still half-attached to the wall.
"Yeah, I guess so," Peter said.
"This isn't like you, webhead," Johnny said. "Spill. What's eating you?"
Peter shrugged. "What's the point? We catch him, he gets out, then we have to catch him again."
Johnny stared. "Wait there, I'm just gonna go get Reed's Skrull-detector--"
"I'm not a skrull."
"I bet that's what they all say," Johnny said. "You're sure not acting like yourself."
"Yeah, because my life is over," Peter said, "not because I've been switched for an alien that looks like me."
Johnny frowned, and looked over to where the Avengers were now mingling with the rest of the Fantastic Four, finally rounding up the spate of villains that had attacked. "You look relatively sprightly for a dead guy."
"My life is over, my girlfriend is dead to me," Peter sighed, contemplating going over to see if the others need any help, but not being bothered enough to put that thought into action.
When he glanced back at Johnny, Johnny's mouth was slack with shock. "Your girlfriend is dead?"
"No, dead to me, she's dating my—well, she's not really my ex, because we only went out a couple of times because— Anyway, like, I had dibs? I've known her longer, but Gw— my girlfriend just swooped in and took her, and now I have zero chances of anyone ever loving me."
"You're not making much sense," Johnny said.
Peter threw up his arms. "Why would I? I'm heartbroken and I'm never going to love again." He thwipped away before Johnny could follow him, because he was 100% done with life in general.
"Thought I'd find you here," Johnny said, and Peter groaned, because, seriously,why couldn't Johnny let him die in peace?
"You're not dying," Johnny said, and Peter blinked. Oh. Maybe he'd said that last bit about dying in peace out loud.
"Not just a maybe, Spider-Moan," Johnny said, gingerly sitting down next to Peter on his hammock-style spray of web. Across a short distance, J. Jonah Jameson eyeballed them warily from his office window.
"Leave me alone," Peter said. "I'm going to be alone for the rest of my life, might as well get in some practice now."
Johnny looked confused. "There are other girls out there, y'know."
"For you maybe," Peter huffed. "You're a dream boat. I'm a guy in tights."
"It's spandex," Johnny corrected, "and sure it's not as cozy or cute as unstable molecules, but you've got your own charm, Spidey. As Namor tells me, and he would know, there are plenty of other girls in the sea."
"None that would give me a second look," Peter sighed.
"You're a superhero."
"But one with a mask," Peter said. He looked at Johnny contemplatively. "You get a lot of girls, right?"
"Sure," Johnny said. "I mean, I don't like you enough to loan out my sloppy seconds, but—"
"Eww," Peter said. "It's just the whole getting of the girls part I'm querying. How do you manage it?" He huffed. "Don't tell me it's because you're handsome, because I don't wanna know how doomed I am to a sad life of Kraft dinners and hamburger helper. Although that would be a delicious sad life if I had enough ketchup."
"Anything's delicious with enough ketchup," Johnny said. "Except pause and rewind for a second, you think I'm handsome?"
"You know you're handsome, it's not cute when you fish for compliments."
"Except you think I am cute. I recall your exact words were dream boat?"
"Oh, my god, just kill me now," Peter said, letting his head fall back as he stared hopelessly at the blue, blue sky. Not even an angry looking cloud to illustrate how he was feeling inside.
"Death is too easy for you," Johnny said, "and it would make him too happy." He pointed at J. Jonah Jameson, who was now alternating between eyeballing Johnny and Peter, and checking over what looked like advert layouts all over his desk. "What did you ever do to him, anyway?"
"As far as I can tell, I existed," Peter sighed. "See, it's not just me who thinks me existing is a bad idea."
"Man, you're even more melodramatic than usual when you're heartbroken," Johnny said, trying to straighten up and nearly falling. He pulled a face. "Cheer up, Spidey. It's not all bad. You can get a new girl. C'mon, the ones I get don't all just fall over me because of my muscles. Some of them I have to work at, y'know. Woo."
"Yeah," Johnny said. "I mean, my pride hates to admit it, but there's definitely some girls out there I'd have to work for."
"Hmm. But you still get them."
"Yeah," Johnny said. "Obviously. I'm the bomb dot com."
Peter thought about it for a minute. "I can't believe I'm about to ask this," he said, eventually. "Especially from someone who non-ironically used the phrase bomb dot com in a sentence. In a sentence about themselves."
"Babe, hate the game, not the player," Johnny shrugged.
"You do get a lot of girls. And I can't believe it's entirely because of your face. I refuse. You're not that attractive."
"My feelings would be injured if I had any," Johnny said, sniffing. "Good thing I'm gonna help you anyway."
"Wait," Peter said, "you will? But— I'm hopeless. Why would you help?"
"Um, because I'm your friend?" Johnny said, and Peter felt a little bad, because really, Johnny was the best friend he probably had at the moment, what with Harry in an insane asylum and oh yeah, wanting him dead. "And, well, there's a person I've got my eye on who's a little out of my comfort zone, the practice wouldn't hurt, I guess."
Peter resisted the urge to sniffle, because Johnny already thought him pathetic enough. "Thanks, Torch," he said, instead of bawling over him. "You're a good friend."
"Mm," the girl leaning against Peter's table said, clasping a textbook to her chest in both hands and dreamily staring off into the distance, "I'd lovethe Human Torch to give me a love lesson. I wonder who the message is meant for?"
Peter rearranged his pile of ESU prospectuses and tries not to give her the stink-eye, even though she blocked half his stand before wandering off with her friends without giving him a second glance. He resented having to work just outside ESU, making him almost invisible. He resented a lot of things in general. Three in that particular moment were bothering him the most.
One was not giving Johnny a cellphone number to reach him on, so everyone in New York saw the "LOVE LESSON ONE AT MY PLACE EIGHT O' CLOCK" message burning across the sky that morning.
Two was agreeing to sign up to work for the student union, because the free meals they lured him to the union with were probably not worth the long indignant hours of manning the grad school booth outside the main building.
Three was ever laying eyes on Gwen Stacy, of course, because Peter lost his heart that day for good. He still wasn't sure Johnny's love lessons would do any good. Johnny was just annoyingly persuasive.
He regretted thinking regret number three. Gwen Stacy was an angel. A world without her beauty was incomprehensible.
"Woah, big sigh there," Johnny said, and Peter startled, knocking a bunch of flyers advertising ESU's social media prowess to the ground. Peter blinked. It was always a readjustment when he came across any of New York's superheroes when he was out of costume. Peter was glad he'd been clumsy. Having to bend down to pick up the flyers gave him a moment to give himself the talk. Act normal. They don't know they already know you.
Peter straightened, put the flyers back on the table, and smiled sheepishly at Johnny. Peter was out of costume, but Johnny wasn't. As far as Johnny knew, Peter was just a regular boring college student trying to sell him regular boring college classes. That is, if Johnny even remembered him from the week before.
Last week had been an okay week. Johnny had stopped by ESU's career fair, and had listened to Peter ramble for a good five minutes about grad school options before being distracted by ESU's varsity cheerleading squad.
Last week, Gwen had still been in love with him.
Or so Peter had thought.
Peter was having to re-evaluate so many of his past assumptions. Johnny probably didn't even remember him.
"Uh," Peter said, realizing Johnny was staring at him patiently, apparently waiting for an answer. "What was the question?"
Johnny laughed. It was the same laugh as when they were fighting a lot of villains and the fight was going well. Peter felt incredibly self-conscious and tried not to yank at his Empire State University! Excellent Student Union! ESUX2!! t-shirt. Somehow he felt more exposed in his baggy student clothing than in skintight spandex.
"You sighed," Johnny prompted. He beamed at Peter, showing all his teeth. Peter rarely got smiles like that from Johnny out in the field. He wondered for a moment which of Johnny's smiles were more genuine, and concluded it was probably Johnny-out-in-the-field rather than Johnny-shmoozing-in-public. "I was a concerned citizen and commented on it in the hope you would feel free to share why you're sad. It's a public service. Someone with a face like yours shouldn't look like that when there's lots of people around."
"Oh," Peter said. His supervisor said something about remembering to smile. Crud. He forced a smile. "What can I help you with today? Are you still interested in our grad schemes? I got a few booklets from admin about converting previous course credits, and I talked to my adviser, we've had ex-Metro students before able to get straight onto the second year of a course—"
Johnny held up a hand. "Not that I don't appreciate the effort, and I'd love to talk about that more in the future, but I'm here for a safety demo with the rest of the F4."
"Ah," Peter said, already withdrawing his hand from where he'd stashed the credit conversion booklets. "No worries. I'm here all week."
Johnny smiled and nodded at him before jogging towards the college, somehow acquiring three girls just in that short space of time who follow him making what sounded to Peter like cooing noises.
Peter stared. Well. Maybe tonight, when Johnny was a friend and not a stranger, Peter would learn how Johnny did that.
"Is that what you're wearing?" Johnny asked, as Peter let himself in through the window.
"This beautiful blue and red number?" Peter asked, straightening from his crouch and gesturing at his spider suit. He looked around. Johnny was obviously mid-working on a car, several engine pieces lying in methodical order on a white sheet, but the white apron Johnny was wearing was too clean to be one of his car servicing ones. "Wait, do I need to strip for these lessons? That's not the type of love lessons I was expecting—"
"Chillax," Johnny said. "I don't even know what I was expecting. Not like you were going to show up sans mask or anything." He sounded disappointed, but Peter blocked that out, because his secret identity was important.
"A tux over spandex, maybe?" Peter said with a snort. Like he could ever afford a tux. He'd had to borrow Uncle Ben's old engagement suit for his bar mitzvah. It obviously hadn't fit, and Rabbi Spector kept mentioning mothballs for the entire day, mumbling about them like they were some sort of religious allegory and not the overwhelming stench from Peter's direction.
"Well, what you wear on a date, or trying to get a date, can be an important part of the process," Johnny said.
"I have this same outfit but in red and blue instead of blue and red," Peter offered.
Johnny was obviously struggling not to laugh. "I guess I can just give you some examples from my own wardrobe," Johnny said.
"Ooh, fashion show. Wait, forget I said that in an actual excited tone." Peter drew up alongside Johnny and smiled. Johnny couldn't see that through the mask, but Johnny's smile widened like he could, so maybe he was just used to how Peter's mask twitched. "C'mon Storm, teach me your magic."
Johnny inclined his head in the direction of the door and started to move. Peter followed. "I don't use magic," Johnny said, holding up his hand and letting it flame up briefly. "This was all freaky space accident."
Peter pouted, glad Johnny couldn't see it. "Don't remind me how jealous I am that you got to go into space."
Johnny huffed a noise. "The same space travel that turned me into a human candle at the age of fifteen?"
"Well, yeah," Peter acquiesced, "but you went into space."
"Yeah, okay, true," Johnny agreed, turning the corner towards the kitchen. Peter frowned, wondering what lesson one was going to be.
"I got bit by a spider at fifteen," Peter muttered, "you're not special."
"Excuse you, I am special. Can we re-iterate the recent moment of our acquaintance where you asked for love lessons from me?" Johnny stopped by the kitchen fridge and folded his arms over his chest, beaming smugly at Peter.
"I didn't ask for love lessons," Peter said, narrowing his eyes at Johnny. He could see the smear of red and blue in the reflection of Johnny's stainless steel fridge. Alas, any expression he threw in Johnny's direction was essentially useless.
"Basically you did," Johnny said. "And why are you sassing the one person who's offering to do you a favor?"
Peter made a disappointed noise in the back of his throat which neatly outlined how much he despaired of everything in the universe all at once. "So what are we doing in your kitchen?"
"Love lesson one," Johnny said, and flung open the door to the fridge. "Food is the language of love!"
Peter stared at the fridge's bulging contents. He stared some more. "Am I going to… lure a girl into my spider-web by tempting her with fresh produce?"
Johnny stared back at Peter, the confusion Peter's mask was able to hide mirrored on his face. "This is probably going to take longer than I anticipated," Johnny said.
"I still can't think of a convoluted reason how I can get a girl to notice me mid-cooking," Peter said. He wrinkled his nose at the frying pan he was holding, waiting for bubbles to start popping up in the batter.
"It's a double-edged tool for your dating and wooing arsenal," Johnny said, leaning against the counter, watching Peter work. Well, watching Spider-Man work, which probably lent the whole event of cooking pancakes an edge of surrealism. "A man who can cook is confident, confidence gets you dates. And a man who can cook breakfast the morning after is a man more likely to keep said dates. I presume it's the keeping girls part you also need help with."
"You presume correctly," Peter sighed.
"So… pancakes," Johnny said.
"Because it's good breakfast food?"
"That and it's the only thing Sue lets me cook in here," Johnny said.
Peter looked at the counter tops covered in splashes of milk, the smear of egg yolk on the tiles, and the cloud of flour making his Spider-suit a more patriotic red, white and blue and conceded Sue probably had a point.
"So I meant to ask," Johnny said. "Well, clarify, I guess. You said her when you were talking about your girlfriend dating someone else."
"Dating the only other girl in the universe who I've ever thought might look twice at me," Peter said.
"Yeah. But. Her. Your ex-girlfriend is dating another girl?"
"Yeah," Peter sighed miserably.
"That's hot," Johnny said.
"Ew, don't be gross." Peter grimaced and tried to flip the pancake with the turner. It splattered everywhere, but looked vaguely brown and golden. Huh. Maybe this cooking thing wasn't so difficult.
"But think of the sex, c'mon, you're human."
"I repeat: gross. And anyway, MJ and Gwen aren't even having sex," Peter said with conviction. "They just hold hands and stare into each other's eyes and- and- skip through meadows, and Netflix and chill, and fuck, I'm miserable."
"Miserable and lacking in imagination," Johnny said.
"I have imagination," Peter defended. "Look, you can do that cloud thing with pancakes."
"That cloud thing?"
"You know," Peter said, "when you point at a cloud and go, oh look, a spaceship."
"In my line of work, sometimes spaceships come through clouds."
"Okay, or a pig, or a dog, or a line-dancing pony—"
"I stand by my assertion you lack in imagination," Johnny said. "That pancake's done, by the way."
"You're a pancake," Peter grouched, but dutifully scraped it off onto the plate Johnny held out for him.
Johnny poured some syrup on and taste-tested it. "Not bad, I guess. Maybe try again?"
Peter sighed, but poured some batter onto the pan. "Are you sure girls wouldn't be impressed by cereal? I pour a mean bowl of Cheerios."
"Shut up and keep trying," Johnny said through a mouthful of pancake.
Peter's next pancake was apparently too big. Johnny ate it anyway while Peter tried again. The next one was too small. The next one was too thick. The next one wasn't brown enough. The next one didn't quite taste right.
It was when the next pancake wasn't round enough that Peter figured out his pancakes were just fine — Johnny was just hungry and manipulating him into making him more. So the next pancake landed on Johnny's head.
If he'd wanted to avoid the resulting food fight, Peter probably shouldn't have picked up the bottle of Aunt Jemima's and added syrup on top.
"Well," Johnny said, about twenty minutes later. Both of them were lying on the flour. There was flour everywhere. Peter was contemplating making a flour angel on the tiles. He was also going to have to go home and Google how to get pancake syrup out of spandex. "The pancakes were pretty decent. Eight out of ten."
"You suck," Peter sighed, without much energy behind it. Somehow Johnny had gotten butter inside Peter's suit. Peter was never going to forget how bad it felt, oozing down the back of his legs. Johnny was the worst.
"Mmhmm," Johnny agreed. "Something dates like a lot, so you might wanna think about practicing that too." He wiggled his eyebrows in Peter's direction. "I'm always a willing victim." He gestured down at his crotch where a dubious amount of pancake syrup had unfortunately marked up the front of his pants. He'd lost his white apron somewhere around the fruit portion of their food fight. Strawberry slices looked really good in Johnny's mess of blond hair.
"I guess it was fun," Peter said. "Which is probably another way to woo me a date?"
"Sure," Johnny said easily, reaching down to scratch at his midriff. His shirt came up a little. There was a definite smear of raw egg across the hair trailing down his stomach. Peter's mouth felt weirdly dry for a moment, so he looked up at Johnny's face instead and the more amusing stripe of chocolate spread down his left cheek. "You might not want to try and score the first date by starting a food fight, though."
"Thanks for that stellar insight, Doctor Love," Peter said. He felt a bit itchy. Maybe there was flour inside his uniform too.
"Ugh, me, a Doctor? Could you imagine that?" Johnny put both hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling like they were outside, watching clouds pass by.
Peter followed his gaze and winced at the number of food stains across the white ceiling that weren't there earlier. Whoops. One of the splatters of pancake syrup actually did look like a line-dancing pony, though. Ha. "You're clever enough, right? I mean, you're Sue Storm's brother. The Storm brains can't have skipped you."
Johnny pulled a face. "I couldn't even make it through a basic three year undergraduate degree at Metro. Doing a doctorate? I can't wrap my head around it. I mean, I'd basically have to start again from scratch."
"You could do it," Peter said, stubbornly loyal. "And not from scratch. ESU has a great conversion program, you can use your previous modules as credit."
"Actually I heard that about the place already," Johnny said.
"Good. You should think about it," Peter said, and mostly because he meant it. Although it might be nice to see Johnny more often in a non-fighting environment. "It might be—"
He didn't get to finish his sentence.
Mostly because Sue was screaming at a volume Mr. Fantastic could probably hear in his lab twenty floors above the kitchen.
"What on earth happened in here? Johnny, explain yourself," Sue yelled, striding into the kitchen, hands flung up like she was expecting to have to fight someone.
"You're on your own, buddy," Peter said, and promptly flung himself upright as he leaped over to the nearest window. He unhooked it and crawled out, upside down.
"Hey," Johnny yelled from behind him, "nice of you to leave me to face the music."
"Hey, I'm a city menace," Peter called back. "Ask any Bugle reader."
Betty was nice. Peter met her outside a shop selling kitchen utensils, and she followed him in to give advice on what pan to buy to make the best pancakes. She smiled, laughed when Peter described his food fight with Johnny (leaving out some of the less gracious moments, like when he opened the Fantastic Four's fridge and deposited a frozen chicken down the back of Johnny's shirt), and was just about to give him her number when the building across the street collapsed.
Peter sighed. "I have to go," he said, addressing the air mostly, and he left to go figure out the situation. It was only when he'd changed into his spider-suit and was mid-way through battling a massive host of doombots that he realized what he'd done.
Ugh, even Johnny's love lessons couldn't save him from having to walk out from nearly every conversation with a girl halfway through.
"There's the kitchen ruiner," Sue Storm said as the Fantastic Four arrived on scene.
"I had help," Peter said, pointing at Johnny as Johnny landed next to him. He winced at Johnny and then remembered his mask hid the wince. "Sorry. Your sister terrifies me."
"Eh, she terrifies most people, don't stress about it," Johnny said, and patted Peter on the shoulder.
"Wait, I'm forgiven?" Peter punched a doombot in the face, cleanly knocking its Doom-shaped head off, and he promptly nearly brained himself on the wriggling remains. Surprise was never a good look on him.
"My sister terrifies me," Johnny said. "Besides, if I didn't forgive you, I wouldn't get to deliver love lesson two. Which is just me being a gentleman and saving the fair ladies of New York from otherwise unseemly conversation."
"Huh?" Peter said. Huh was his new replacement word for what. It was working out for him so far.
"I mean you need to work on your conversation skills. Learn how to linguistically woo the ladies. Sometimes you're occasionally funny, and that works with chicks, but you gotta practice," Johnny said, flaming up and following Peter up to a higher building to check out how far the doombots were spreading. Why Doom thought making a million robot clones of himself was a good idea every single time, Peter didn't know. A guy's gotta have a hobby, Peter supposed.
"Yeah. I've always had a sinking feeling you're probably terrible at chatting people up. So you need to practice."
"So like… pick-up lines?" Peter squinted across at where four doombots seemed to be not moving much while hundreds of others flew around. The still ones had to be up to something. Peter pointed them out and Johnny nodded. "Like… baby my spider-sense isn't the only thing that's tingling?"
"Um," Johnny said. "Try again?"
"There's a reason people put Amazing, Spectacular, and Sensational before my name?"
"Don't worry, that wasn't web fluid?"
"Sometimes I hate being right," Johnny sighed.
"That's a terrible pick-up line," Peter said. "I bet you got that one from Reed."
"Look," Johnny said later, the remains of about fifty or so doombots sizzling on the sidewalk far below them, "you just gotta hit on everyone you can. With their consent, y'know? Practice. You didn't smoke your first supervillain on your first go, did you?"
"I guess my first real supervillain was Chameleon, and I caught his helicopter just fine."
"Okay, so, maybe you're a superhero prodigy," Johnny said. "But you're obviously not a dating prodigy. So you gotta work on it."
"By going on and hitting on people with their consent," Peter said.
"Yep," Johnny said, setting another doombot on fire.
"Got it," Peter said. "Maybe after this next group of doombots, though."
"It's hard to sweet talk people when you're punching robots in the head and setting them on fire," Johnny agreed.
Peter got separated from Johnny in the next part of the battle, but he could see him flaming around a block or so away. Secure in the support, Peter cast around at the Avengers who'd joined the battle, and zoned in on his nearest target.
Thor was busy smacking doombots left and right with his hammer, but in the lull before the next wave of doombots (seriously, he needed to go steal some money from Latveria - it was much too wealthy a country if Doom was able to waste so much metal on these stupid things) Peter sidled in next to him.
"Hey, Thor," Peter said. "How's it hanging?"
Thor glanced at him, brow furrowing. "How's what hanging, Man of Spiders? Have I left some of these foul metallic contraptions hangingsomewhere?"
"Never mind," Peter said. "I was just wondering — would you mind if I hit on you?"
"Not at all!" Thor said, beaming at Peter. "This battle is not wearing on my skills much. Yes, of course. Would you have any objections to it being mutual?"
Peter blinked and squinted at Thor. There was a reason the demigod was constantly hitting number one in every magazine's list of the hottest superheroes.
"Sure," Peter said.
Thor's smile widened.
"Ow," Peter said.
"I have no sympathy for you," MJ said.
"But then why did you buy me these when I asked for them?" Peter said, waving the bag of frozen peas at her before putting them back against the side of his head.
It turned out Thor hadn't learned the local meaning of hitting on. And even super strength didn't help against a demigod when he was trying to hit you.
"I felt guilty for stealing your girlfriend," MJ said. "Consider the debt paid." She flashed a toothy grin at him, and then stomped back off towards ESU. Peter scowled in her direction. MJ wasn't an ESU student. She was probably going to go wait somewhere to meet Gwen. So they could resume their illicit affair and their handholding and skipping through meadows and ugh, everything sucked.
"Woah, what happened to you?"
Peter squinted through his one good eye. The world looked funny like that. Hey, no wonder Fury was always super cranky whenever Peter ran into him.
Johnny Storm smiled back at him, of course, because who else would be lining up to torture Peter today. Except, of course, Johnny barely knew him. He hadn't stopped by to taunt his ol' pal Spider-Man. Ugh. This dual identity thing was so annoying sometimes.
"Doing another superhero demo?" Peter asked.
"No," Johnny said. "And don't think I didn't notice you side-stepping my question."
"Side-stepping is what went wrong," Peter lied. "I side-stepped into a wall."
Johnny winced and moved in closer, putting his hand up to move the bag of frozen peas slightly to one side. His fingertips were delicate on Peter's bruises and Peter felt cross-eyed as he watched. He wasn't sure what Johnny was trying to do. "Looks pretty bad."
"Hurts pretty bad," Peter said. "At least I won. You should see what happened to the other guy."
"The wall," Johnny said, frowning.
"Smushed into dust," Peter said, shoving the peas back into place, dislodging Johnny's hand.
"You should get it looked at by someone professional," Johnny said, nodding and stepping back a pace.
"It's fine," Peter said. "Honestly, it's just bruised." Bruised face, bruised ego, Peter sighed internally. All to perfectly match his bruised heart.
"Heh. You said something last time about a booklet?" Johnny asked. "For converting college credits to ESU credits?"
"Oh, sure," Peter said. "It's just under the table. Hold these for me?"
"Sure I won't accidentally cook them?" Johnny asked, but took Peter's bag of peas gingerly in his fingertips, while Peter rummaged under the table for the right booklet. He straightened and swapped one for the peas.
"It's fairly self explanatory," Peter said, "but feel free to stop by if you don't understand anything. Or look at the website or Twitter, they're listed on the back page."
Johnny nodded, turning over the booklet before looking up at Peter. "Are you on Twitter?"
"Oh, I think someone in PR or admin runs the ESU twitter account," Peter said, waving his non-pea-holding hand airily.
"I meant you personally."
"I don't have time for that stuff," Peter said. "Instagram, snapchat, it might as well be a foreign language."
Johnny leaned against Peter's table, smiling softly at him, booklet clenched in his hands. "Yeah? What do you do that takes up all your time, then?"
"Oh," Peter said, because it was shorter and easier than "I swing around the city with my pal the Human Torch, watching him set supervillains on fire and also getting love lessons from him because I'm awkward and am destined to be forever alone." He shook himself. "I work in the student lab, I'm double majoring in physics and chemistry, and I take photographs."
"Double major, huh? So you're smart?" Johnny raised both eyebrows. "Huh. Guess I'm destined to keep being surrounded by science geniuses."
"Yeah, must be tough sometimes having to share a dinner table with Dr. Richards and Susan Storm," Peter said. Personally he was jealous of that idea of company, but he couldn't imagine it always being easy for Johnny.
"Sometimes they just converse using chemical elements," Johnny sighed. "It's why I thought I'd better try and come back to college. Everyone thinks I'm dumb. It would be nice to prove them wrong."
"No one thinks you're dumb," Peter said.
Johnny looked down for a moment and shrugged. "Sometimes I think I'm dumb."
"Well, those are pretty much the only times you are dumb," Peter said.
Johnny looked back up sharply, an almost fond look on his face before he held up the booklet at Peter. "Thanks for this. I better jet."
"Sure," Peter said, "New York's supervillains never sleep, huh?"
"They don't seem to, alas."
"Remember to come back if you need any more help."
"Thanks, I will," Johnny said, backing up a few paces. "And, um, if the wall ever gives you trouble again, I live in the Baxter building downtown. Stop by if you need to. I'm not afraid of, um, setting a few bricks on fire, if you get my drift."
Peter's smile fixed into place as Johnny waved and walked off, nose buried in the booklet.
Now Johnny thought he was being abused? Well. Maybe he wasn't so wrong about being kinda dumb.
Honestly, Peter had only rolled in through the window in Johnny's garage in the vague hope that he could lie under Johnny's table for a while and get some rest.
The Rhino had been a little shit for hours. When did he get so sneaky and good at running away is what Peter wants to know. Freaking stupid New York supervillains.
"Aha!" Johnny said brightly, the moment Peter landed on the floor. "Here for lesson three, am I right?"
Peter shifted so he was sat in a crouch, and he looked up as Johnny wiped his hands clean on a rag and straightened up.
"I'm not so sure I want lessons from you anymore," Peter said darkly.
"Aw, it hasn't been that bad, has it?"
"Thor threw me through a window."
"Well," Johnny said reflectively, "that just makes it sound like you need more lessons, not less."
Peter glared. "It was partially successful. Boy was I Thor myself for hours afterward."
Johnny stared deadpan at the terrible pun.
Peter shuffled on the spot. His superheroing wasn't widely applauded. It just stood to reason that his good sense of humor might not be appreciated either. "What did you have in mind for lesson three, anyway?"
Johnny grinned and leaned over to where a radio was hooked onto the wall. He flipped a switch and music started floating out. "I know you can move gracefully in a battle," Johnny said, "but how are your moves on the dance floor?"
"Sick," Peter said, after a moment's thought.
Johnny disagreed. After a few demonstrations of Peter's best moves, Johnny stopped the music, and stared at him, appalled. Even Peter's fake web-slinging move, combined with a pretty slinky hip shimmy if Peter said so himself, wasn't enough to impress Johnny.
"I thought you meant sick as in actually maybe good," Johnny said, standing hands akimbo. "Not sick as in I am holding back the urge to vomit, pretty imminently."
"I may have exaggerated my skills," Peter admitted.
"Could have been worse."
Peter shrugged. "One day I exaggerated so badly that I died."
"Come on, let me show you how it's done," Johnny said. He turned the music back on and stepped forward, holding his arms out.
"Oh, so that's how it's done," Peter said, mirroring him, sticking his arms out. "It's for balance, I suppose?"
Johnny huffed an indulgent noise, and stepped forwards, yanking Peter smoothly into hold. "Hands on my waist, bug boy. And if they slip further down, I wouldn't blame you, but I'd also have to bring you a whupping."
"Got it," Peter said. "Butt grabs leads to my kind of sexy times." He put his hands on Johnny's waist as directed, though.
"Does anyone ever tell you that you spend too much time with Deadpool?" Johnny asked, nudging Peter with his knee until Peter starting moving with him.
"All the time," Peter said. "I think he has one good point, though."
"What would that be?"
"That the guy who named chimichangas should have been given the authority to name other stuff."
Johnny thought for a moment. "Yeah, okay, I'll give him that one."
They waltzed awkwardly for a minute, Johnny trying to coax Peter into leading.
"So go on," Peter said, "tell me how this is going to help me woo someone new."
"Everyone loves a good dancer," Johnny said. "You can move your body on a battlefield, but you're not looking to actually slay someone when it comes to the dating world. You wanna impress them. Dancing is an excellent way to do that. And a good place to meet people."
"Because there are so many ballroom dances going on where I could meet someone new," Peter said.
"Well, in New York, yeah," Johnny said.
"But far more actual clubs," Peter said.
"I can teach you how to club dance," Johnny said, and pushed into Peter's personal space without even hesitating, bringing their hips together and pushing a leg in-between Peter's. He beamed at Peter and moved his hands from Peter's shoulders to Peter's hips. "Do some of that hip shimmying from before, but less… awkward."
Under Johnny's grip, Peter tried his signature hip shimmy, but under Johnny's warm palms, the move felt more fluid.
"Oh," Peter said, "yeah, I kinda see what you mean."
"Right?" Johnny said. "When you're dancing like this in a club setting, other people pressing you around, it's a great way to get up close and intimate with a new potential partner." He lifted one hand from Peter's hip and cupped his left cheek with it, and leaned in. His voice was softer, just above a whisper. He didn't stop moving, sensually twisting against Peter, and Peter did his best to mimic the sinuous movements. "Even in a loud environment, it can be a really intimate way to get to know someone."
Pressed together like that, Peter was abruptly aware of how well their bodies fit together. Johnny had muscles for miles, and the cotton shirt he was wearing and Peter's brightly colored spandex did nothing to stop the heat from his body spreading into Peter's as they moved together.
Johnny's thumb settled right on Peter's cheekbone, and Peter swallowed, the generic music in the background swelling into a crescendo. Johnny's eyes were darker up close. Were his eyes always that blue? Peter couldn't remember.
"Now that's not a sight I expected to see, well— to be honest, ever," a voice boomed loudly from the doorway.
Johnny leaped back from Peter as if he'd been scalded. His face was blank for a moment as they both looked over at Ben standing in the doorway, his rocky arms so large they brush the door frame at both sides. Then Johnny beamed broadly. "Hey, Ben. Just sharing some of my smoothest moves with my buddy Spider-Man."
"Ahuh," Ben said, sounding decidedly unconvinced.
"He's trying to learn how to woo the ladies after some terrible heartbreak," Johnny continued, moving to the radio and turning off the music. Peter was disappointed. He really wanted to know what track that was they were dancing to. Johnny's cheeks were a little pink. Dancing was exhausting. "Good progress, Spider-Man. We'll try another lesson in a couple of days. I'll leave you a note, usual style?"
"Sure," Peter said. He waved at Ben. "Good night, Mr. The Thing."
"It's just the Thing," Ben yelled as Peter headed quickly for the window.
"Don't worry," Johnny said, "adding an extra honorific's one of his favorite things to do to wind people up. You should have seen Reed's face last month."
"Mister Mister Fantastic does have a nice ring to it," Ben agreed.
"So terrible I named him twice," Peter said in a sing-song before hurtling out into the night.
Peter wriggled. He wriggled again.
"There's no point, webhead," Johnny sighed.
They were both tied up. It was probably a Tuesday. That sort of thing seemed to happen to Peter on Tuesdays.
"Reed will be back at some point, he can figure out anything the Shocker makes," Johnny said.
"And you're sure you can't burn through— whatever this junk is?" Peter wriggled against the chains again. "Dammit."
"Stop struggling, you'll hurt yourself."
Peter stopped moving and looked at Johnny in surprise. Johnny was staring at him with what looked a lot like worry. "You… care about that?"
"Sure," Johnny said, "you're my best friend." After a moment, Johnny frowned. "I can't tell because of your mask, but… are you crying?"
"No," Peter lied.
"Crying's terrible for a complexion," Johnny said. "You should try and avoid it. Or at least moisturize, preferably at night."
"Sometimes I—" Peter started, then faltered. "Wait, are you giving me another love lesson? While we're tied up?"
Johnny shrugged as much as he could considering the restraints the Shocker had used on them both. "Are you busy doing anything else?"
"Mentally composing sad songs about how no one will ever love me again," Peter said. "Other than that, I'm as free as a man bitten by a radioactive spider and trussed up by a D-class villain can be."
"Heh," Johnny said. "Well, I guess we can work on your conversation skills again."
"My conversation skills are sick."
"I believe we've covered that word, and how the definition of it isn't what you think it is." Johnny shook his head. "It's that or work on your face."
"Yeah. I mean, not all of us can have naturally high cheekbones and chiseled jaws, but just because you don't have all this to work with, doesn't mean you can't work what you got." Johnny preened for a moment, practicing his best selfie angles and visibly deflating when he realized he couldn't reach his phone. "Don't suppose you're going to show me yet what I've got to work with?"
"Think back to your garage," Peter said. "Did the mirror above your sink, the last time you saw it, look whole or broken?"
Johnny's brows lifted quizzically. "Whole?"
"It's because I'm wearing a mask," Peter said. "And seeing as it's your mirror I've been kindly not breaking by exposing it to my face, you're welcome."
"If you're that ugly, there's probably not that much I can do," Johnny said.
"See," Peter said, "that's my point. Forever alone. That's me. I'd start buying cats now but I'm broke. And I think cats like to eat spiders. Or at least pull the legs off them. I'm not keen to experiment."
"Your ex," Johnny said. "Was she ugly too?"
Peter tried to lash out and hit Johnny for such terrible slander, but forgot he was still in the Shocker's restraints, so got a lot of pain for his trouble. He winced. "No," he said sourly, when Johnny snickered at him. "No, she was beautiful. Is beautiful. Has beautiful everything. Inside and out."
"And she saw you without your mask, right? Or did you court her in full-body spandex? Some girls might be into that."
"She saw me without my mask," Peter said.
Johnny made a low noise in the back of his throat.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Peter asked.
"Well, obviously you're not all that ugly, then," Johnny said. "Pretty girls don't date beasts unless the beast is rich or has a hell of an awesome personality. You're zero for two, webby."
"Hey," Peter said. "Accurate. But hey." He narrowed his eyes. "I have an awesome personality."
"Every time you see Dr. Strange, you try and trap his cloak in a car door," Johnny said.
"It's a cape! Superheroes shouldn't wear capes."
"You spent an hour a few weeks ago pointing a hair dryer into traffic and laughing at how many cars slowed down."
"I think that was awesome."
"You told CNN that friendship was like peeing yourself!"
"Well," Peter said, "that's because people can see it, but only you can feel the warmth of it."
"I'm not sure I can help you," Johnny said. "I'm gonna quit trying. Good luck with your future of a thousand spider-eating cats."
"Johnny, c'mon," Peter said.
Johnny shook his head and pushed his mouth into a line.
"Aw, c'mon," Peter said, "don't underestimate yourself."
Johnny turned away to glare at the door.
"You do that a lot," Peter said. "You shouldn't. You're awesome."
"Hmm," Johnny said, partially mollified.
"Maybe I just need… a script," Peter said.
"Something that shows off your best traits," Johnny said. "But nothing too big-headed."
Peter hummed under his breath for a moment. "Not to brag, but my antics at work have resulted in several key additions to the employee manual."
Johnny was silent. Not even a huff of amusement.
"Obviously you don't approve of my one-liners," Peter concluded. "What one-liner should I be using?"
"You shouldn't be using any in an ideal world, just be yourself. But as yourself sucks sometimes—"
"—then maybe you can borrow one of my lines," Johnny continued, finally looking back at Peter.
"So hit me with one," Peter said.
Johnny's mouth wrinkled into a moue. "Give me a hypothetical situation and I'll give you a line for it."
"Okay," Peter said slowly, "I met this girl in a cookery shop and I didn't really know what to say to her. How should I have introduced myself?"
"Well, if you're being stubborn about that secret identity thing," Johnny said, "I guess Hi, I'm Spider-Man is out of the window."
"I could say it in uniform," Peter said.
"Mmhmm, but how long do you think a girl would date someone who wears a full-body leotard day in, day out?"
"Not for as long as I would want her to?" Peter guessed.
"Fine," Peter sighed. "Share with me your wisdom. What would you do? How would you introduce yourself to someone you were into?"
Johnny shrugged and leaned his head back against the wall as far as the restraints would allow. "I'd lean in, touch their elbow, smile at them, and look them in the eye and say I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
Peter side-eyed him dubiously. "That it?"
Johnny shrugged again. "It's the best I can give you. I mean, if you really are ugly, you could try pairing it by wearing a snazzy brown paper bag over your head?"
Peter grinned. "Aw, matchstick, how did you know what I was wearing under my mask?"
Johnny cackled. He was still laughing when Reed turned up to rescue them, who promptly informed them how indecorous it was for superheroes to be smiling and laughing while in enemy restraints. Peter and Johnny both tried to keep a straight face as they thanked him, but it fell apart as soon as the restraints dropped to the ground.
Peter leaned against Johnny's shoulder, holding his ribs as he laughed.
"I actually think the villains get peeved when you're having a good time while you're in one of their traps," Johnny said, while Reed amusingly kept giving them both a stern expression across the battlefield — the Shocker had teamed up with the Sinister Six, or the Sinister Twelve, or Sinister Ninety-Four — they kept changing their number too often for Peter to keep up.
"Probably," Peter agreed. "Hey, question: what happens when the person I hypothetically ask to talk to me says yes?"
"Then you go on a date," Johnny said, flaming up to try and confuse Hydro-Man into returning to solid form. After a pause, he added, "You have been on a date before, right?"
Peter thought about it. He and Gwen studied together a lot. Met up at cafés for a drink or lunch, but that usually only lasted for five minutes before a supervillain attack interrupted them and he had to flee with a terrible excuse on his lips. Sometimes they went to check books out of the library together. But an actual date? He wasn't sure.
Johnny sighed. "Guess we're gonna need to practice one of those too. Can't have you hit into the fair zone only to be tagged out before you reach first base."
"I didn't answer your question yet," Peter said. "The answer might have been yes."
"Spidey," Johnny said, with a long-suffering sigh, "the pause was all the answer I needed."
"Creep," MJ yelled, hustling Gwen along the path to her front door, shielding Gwen with her body. "You won't win her back by stalking us outside my own house, buddy."
Peter's mouth fell open, but MJ hurried Gwen through her front door before Peter could say anything.
He sighed moodily. It wasn't like he was a good excuse for either of them why he was out in the front yard anyway. "I'm waiting for a message written in fire in the sky because I'm going on a fake date with the Human Torch" didn't exactly have an easy cover explanation.
Peter leaned on the fence, staring up at the sky until he saw it, the faint flaming message curling across the horizon. "DATE AT EIGHT! MEET ME AT OUR SPOT!" He smiled to himself and jogged inside. He slipped his costume on, and then carefully threw some clothes on top; he needed the civilian disguise both to get out of the suburbs, but also he might need to get a ferry across to the Statue of Liberty — helicopters were never predictable. He really needed to get a more convenient spot to hang out with Johnny after battles.
He was heading downstairs and for the front door when Aunt May caught him.
"Oh, Peter," she said, beaming at him in delight, "you're so rarely in at night, what a pleasant surprise. I was going to make some snacks and watch quiz shows, do you have time to join me?"
Peter hated letting her down. He loved that his Aunt May was safe from supervillains with vengeance on their minds, but he hated that his disappearing act hurt her so much. She would be proud of him if she knew the truth. "I—" he started, and even as her mouth fell down at the corners, he pressed on, "—have a date?"
This had the opposite effect to what Peter was expecting. Instead of disappointment, Aunt May looked delighted. "Oh, my gosh, I'm so pleased for you, Peter. I worried after poor Gwendolyn broke your heart that would might sulk like your father used to. So melodramatic, that man. Once he and your mother broke up for a spell, before their marriage, you would have thought the world was ending."
"Ha, ha," Peter said quietly, without humor, because that sounded vaguely familiar. "I'll try not to be back too late, Aunt May."
"Take your time, my boy," Aunt May said, clasping his hands and smiling at him. "Oh, I've missed how your face looks when you're in love."
"I, uh," Peter said, eloquently. "Sure. Thanks. Bye?"
Aunt May laughed. "Bye, Peter. Take care."
"I will," Peter promised, and fled.
Because Aunt May was lovely and darling and everything to him, but she was also worryingly insane.
Peter wasn't in love with anyone. Not even Gwen. Oh. He definitely wasn't in love with Gwen. Wow. That was a nice thought. Aunt May had done some good with her crazy, Peter supposed. Huh. Once upon a time Peter had thought he would never not be in love with Gwen Stacy. What a weird sensation.
He was glad for his mask when he slipped it on, Aunt May's words twisting through his mind like the most annoying ear worm.
There wasn't anyone in his life that Peter even could be in love with. Aunt May was just finally getting to that age where senility started to creep in. That was a shame. She was a good person. Peter had been dearly hoping she would stay compos mentis for decades to come. Ha. The only other person Peter saw regularly, he wasn't even himself, he was Spider-Man. And Spider-Man did see a lot of Johnny Storm, Peter supposed, but that was ridiculous. There was no way he was in love with Johnny Storm.
Peter told himself it as he swung into the city. He told himself it as he stashed his clothes in one of his usual hiding spot and swung over to where helicopters sometimes flew by. He told himself it as he caught a lucky break and was able to thwip onto one of the bright red tour helicopters heading the right way.
He told himself he was not in love with Johnny Storm right up until he detached from the helicopter, landed on the top of the Statue of Liberty in a crouch, and saw Johnny standing there. Johnny was in his Fantastic Four uniform, the blue hugging him in all the right places, and he turned to look at Peter with a wide smile gracing his handsome face while behind him, a darkening Manhattan spread out in a wonderland of lights and sounds.
"You ready to go on our fake date, Spider-Man?" Johnny asked.
"Yep," Peter said.
Mostly because the alternative was yelling at him in nonsense syllables. Because holy shit, Aunt May was right.
Peter was in love.
With his best friend.
The friend had no idea what he actually looked like under his mask and who understood the superhero lifestyle because he could set himself on fire and be okay afterward.
Peter's life was so weird.
Even though he could feel the new truth of his situation keenly with every moment, Peter didn't spill his guts. Even though he wanted to. Johnny deserved nice things to be said to him. While he pretended he was confident, he clearly had bad self-image when it came to his intelligence, and Johnny needed someone around to remind him how smart he really was.
Johnny took him to a carnival for their pretend-date. It was kind of awesome. Especially when people kept assuming he was in a costume as part of the event and kept shoving one dollar bills into his hands. Hey, they all added up. With the amount of money Peter was raking in, he could be kept in hot dogs for a good four days. Maybe five.
"So this is what you do," Johnny said. "Find a person you like, take them somewhere interesting, chat to them. I know a place that caters for all kinds of diets, but they have a dress code that probably doesn't include spandex. You might have to pick somewhere that won't be hit by too many dietary restrictions. For example, we don't have to eat at all here."
"It's probably better not to," Peter said, because his spidey-sense tingled at a couple of the food stands.
"Ha. Exactly. Sometimes I like to find places which aren't too food-focused, and let them pick where we eat, considering I'm easy." Johnny winked at him. Peter blushed so quickly that he was very glad of his mask. "In all the meanings of the word, of course."
"So, um, how can you even tell someone's into you?" Peter said. "You know, so I can see whether to approach them, or if the date's going well, or whatever?"
"The things they do are a good tell," Johnny said as they skirted around a large group of kids yelling at a high pitch. It was the kind of yelling Peter didn't get to hear from kids much so he didn't mind it. Normally when he heard kids screaming it was because someone or something was trying to kill them. Regular sugar-fueled yelling was almost a relief.
"Body language is a good start," Johnny said. "If it's someone you've run into before, or know casually, if they're keen to spend time with you when they don't have to, that's an excellent sign. Especially if it's for an especially flimsy reason."
"Okay," Peter said, slowly. Love lessons seemed a flimsy reason for Johnny to be hanging out with him. He pushed that thought away. It was just wishful thinking.
"Eye contact, that's an important one," Johnny said, looking Peter directly in the face.
Peter thought about how Johnny looked at him sometimes. He pushed that away too, annoyed. He was just seeing things how he wanted to see them, that's all.
"If they've blushed around you, also a good sign," Johnny said, and Peter's brain comes to a crashing halt.
Since realizing he was in love with Johnny, Peter had been thinking one other thing continuously - don't tell him, can't let him know.
But that advice was too much to bear.
Johnny's blushes after their food fight, after their dancing in his garage.
The flimsy reasoning for the pancakes.
The way Johnny looked at him.
Peter was starting to feel a little braver than usual.
"Sometimes it doesn't matter how many signs there are, you just gotta be brave and go for it," Johnny said. "I've been thinking that a lot for myself, actually."
"Yeah," Peter said. "Me too."
Johnny smiled at him and Peter stopped walking, because his love life tanked out when he followed his own impulses. Johnny was an expert. Peter should follow Johnny's advice.
He leaned in, touched Johnny softly on the elbow and said, "I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
Peter held his breath.
Johnny smiled it at him warmly. But he didn't say anything.
Peter frowned. Had he got the words wrong? "That was it, wasn't it? I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
"Yeah," Johnny said. His smile didn't falter. He didn't say anything else
Peter took a deep breath and said it again, firmly. "I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
"That's it, you got it," Johnny said, smiling proudly.
"You don't get it," Peter said. "I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
"No, you get it."
"Johnny," Peter snapped, frustrated. "I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
Peter knew the instant that Johnny got it.
Mostly because it was the instant a light died in Johnny's eyes.
Peter's gut tensed in horror.
Especially when Johnny's face crumpled into something— something soft and sympathetic and so sorry.
"Oh god, Spidey, Spider-Man," Johnny said, shaking his head, and looking at him with moist eyes, already holding up his hands and stepping back. His face was creased with obvious regret. "I should have known something like this would happen, what with me all over you all the time. I'm so sorry."
Peter couldn't say anything else. He was struck dumb.
"If it helps, what you're feeling, it's not real," Johnny hurried on to reassure him, and that was bullshit, it was totally real. "It's just a totally normal crush, totally to be expected. After a heartbreak, and then someone's around and nice to you, it's just— It's perfectly normal, okay? Don't beat yourself up. But I'm— I told you from the start, there's someone I'm really interested in, and I— I'm totally into them, Spider-Man. I'm so sorry. This really isn't you, it's all me. And I'm flattered, but I can't."
Peter stared, the horror cold and insistent, spilling down his spine, filling out his skeleton with humiliation and embarrassment.
What was Peter even expecting? A thank you? Hey there, yes, I wanna talk to you too, let's date? Johnny doesn't even know what he looks like. Johnny knows nothing about him. Why would Johnny want to date him anyway? Peter was an idiot. He'd known he was destined to be alone forever and still, he blundered forwards with MJ and Gwen's advice like a total moron.
He was so stupid.
Now there were two people out there who had joint custody of the jagged pieces of his heart.
It was probably a good thing he wasn't going to need it.
"You're right," Peter said, his voice tight with the embarrassment and stilted. "I've just been hit in the head by too many villains this week, it's making me light-headed and stupid."
"Yeah," Johnny said. "I mean. You should probably get yourself checked out by a medical professional, if that's— You know."
"Yeah," Peter said. "Look, it's late, I'm just gonna, y'know. Thwip, thwip." He waved his hands in a web-thwipping gesture at Johnny.
Johnny nodded. "It is late," he said. He smiled, the expression tinged with so much sympathy that Peter wanted to scream. "We're gonna be okay though, right?"
"Sure," Peter said. "Maybe we'll cool it on the love lessons for a bit, though." He swallowed. The idea of not seeing Johnny again for a while burned like acid. "See you the next time Doom rumbles in the Bronx?"
"Yeah, sure," Johnny said. "See you then."
Peter nodded back and with as much dignity as he had left, disappeared quickly into the milling crowd around them. He did not look back as he fled.
Okay, Peter really was going to be alone forever. Forever alone. Singledom, your population is one lonely and pathetic Peter Parker, get used to it. He wasn't smiling and his supervisor had been past the booth twice this morning already. Peter was probably going to get fired. Good riddance to a terrible job, Peter thought viciously, restocking the table with a handful of free pens, probably the only reason anyone was stopping by to even glance at his literature. He knelt under the table to retrieve the spare box of pens, contemplating sniping a couple for himself, and when he straightened back up, Peter wanted to kill himself.
"You look rough," Johnny said.
Johnny Storm. Fresh-faced and smiling. Standing in front of Peter's table.
Kind of the last person Peter wanted to see. He'd take MJ first in a heartbeat, even though she'd taken to waving heavy items at him whenever he walked past her house. Which was daily, seeing as they were neighbors and all.
"Thanks," Peter said. "I feel so much better about myself right now."
"I didn't mean that in a bad way," Johnny said. "Just a—"
"—concerned citizen, yeah," Peter said, waving a hand laxly. "Can I help you?"
"Yeah," Johnny said. "No. Maybe?"
Peter stared. When there weren't any villains around, an indecisive Johnny was always a cute Johnny. Peter had no patience for cute Johnny in his life. Not today. "Maybe come back when you've made your mind up," Peter said. "Dee Dee Devereaux has the next shift, she specializes in student transfers. She's on at twelve, maybe come back then when you've made your mind up?"
Johnny shifted on his feet and shook his head. "No," he said. "I, uh. Actually I came to see you."
"Oh?" Peter said, crying on the inside, because his life sucked. Cruelly romantically rejected from someone he was now probably going to be forced to speak civilly to and give advice to, all the while pretending like his heart wasn't breaking the whole time. Ugh. It would be worse if Johnny did transfer to ESU, because then Peter would risk running into him for years to come. Everything was awful.
"Yeah," Johnny said, and leaned in and touched Peter's elbow. A hopeful smile crept onto his face. He looked Peter in the eye and said: "I've been wanting to talk to you for a very long time."
Peter sat on MJ's stoop and waited.
He didn't have to wait that long.
He sat and waited even as MJ turned the corner to their street, saw him, and instantly turned from the sweetest girl in Forest Hills to someone you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. Gwen hovered behind MJ, looking instantly guilty.
"I said we were even once I bought you the frozen vegetables, Parker," MJ said, striding up the path towards him. "So if you're here for a favor, you're shit out of luck. If you're here to try and woo Gwen back, you're shit out of luck."
Peter shook his head and looked at Gwen.
"I'm here for Gwen," Peter said. "C'mon. You kissed MJ while we were still dating, Gwen. You owe me a few minutes."
"Come in," Gwen said.
"But it's my house—" MJ started. Gwen shot her a look.
"We do owe him," Gwen said, soft.
MJ melted like ice-cream on a summer's day. Peter remembered how that felt, Gwen making him feel like he was suddenly a liquid when everything had always felt so solid. He didn't blame MJ for stealing Gwen away from him at all. He can understand the impulse.
"The kitchen, no further," MJ snapped. Peter straightened and nodded. He could feel Gwen following him in. He didn't look around. He walked over to MJ's kitchen table and leaned against it casually. Gwen and MJ moved into the room cautiously, Gwen hovering close to MJ's shoulder.
Gwen stood stiffly, hands tangled in her purse straps, worrying the fabric between her fingers.
Peter looked her directly in the eye. "I need you," he said.
Gwen sighed. "Peter, we've gone over this—"
"No, no, not like that." Peter nodded awkwardly over at MJ, at where her hand was inching closer to a frying pan, actually. Ugh, no wonder Peter struck out with both of them, they were both way too close to actual perfection. "I need both of you."
"Pervert," MJ said, fingers closing around the pan handle as she lurched forwards.
Peter startled back, only just remembering to tone his powers down so he didn't leap all the way out MJ's front door and into her yard. " Not like that," he repeated. "Well," he amended, after a hasty reconsideration of the prospect, "unless you'd be—"
MJ took another step forward, frying pan still in her grasp.
"—definitely not like that," Peter hurriedly amended. He looked over beseechingly to Gwen, who just looked tired, and Peter's gut clenched, because he was making her look like that. Maybe he'd always made her look like that. Sapped away all her energy, stealing it for himself. He flattened his mouth into a line and looked at them both, pleadingly. "I need your advice."
"Oh," MJ said, and put the frying pan behind her back. "Why didn't you just say so? I'm awesome at advice. Spill it, Parker. Aunty MJ's got you covered."
"I already have one Aunt," Peter said, rubbing at his forehead, "I'm not sure I want a second one that seems to like brandishing frying pans at me."
Gwen threw him a look which doesn't quite say I'm okay with everything that's going on right now, but did have a shade of sympathy that Peter appreciates. "She's creative with cookware," Gwen said, after a moment.
Peter's mouth, pressed into a line, wobbled dramatically.
"We can sit in the living room, I guess," MJ said, inclining her head in that direction. Peter followed, and noticed that MJ hadn't let go of the frying pan. Oh, well. It's not like it would cause him too much permanent damage.
Once they were all in the living room, MJ seemed to remember her default mode around Peter was gonna be forever hostile and over-protective of Gwen, because as soon as Peter took the seat she directed him at, she pointed the frying pan at him again. "Two minutes, buster, and make your question fast."
Peter squinted at the frying pan nervously, but decided to follow instructions despite his constant urge to be contrary in the face of orders, because it wasn't like Gwen was going to laugh at him any less just because his phrasing was more careful. "So, I went to Johnny Storm to get advice about how to become more attractive to girls and learn how to woo them, and I accidentally fell in love with him instead."
It was almost gratifying, but ultimately unhelpful, when Gwen's first response was: "What?"
"But then it got worse," Peter continued, "because when I told him how I felt, he rejected me. Which I thought was just typical, because I'm destined to die alone, blah blah blah—"
"You're not destined to die alone," Gwen said, rolling her eyes and tugging MJ over, gently pulling the frying pan out of MJ's hands, putting it carefully down on a low coffee table. She sat on the couch and tugged MJ down to sit next to her. They looked good together, Peter thought. "Just because you and I didn't work out doesn't mean you're destined to be single forever."
"You're a melodramatic tool, though, so it's an option," MJ said.
"MJ," Gwen sighed.
"Anyway," Peter said, "it turns out that Johnny rejected me because there was someone else he wanted to hit on."
"Okay," Gwen said slowly, drawing the word out. "That sounds a reasonable reason for a rejection. You can't take that as a personal slight."
"Apart from the fact that sounds like a challenge and I might accept it on principal," Peter said, "that's not the point. Johnny rejected me so that he could hit on me."
Gwen and MJ blinked almost in unison. Peter would laugh if he wasn't still a little heartbroken about them being together.
"That makes no sense at all," MJ said. "Are you sure this guy is someone you want to be in love with?"
"Eh, I can't control my heart, it's whimsical and impassioned," Peter said. "And of course it makes sense. He hit on me this morning, he rejected Spider-Man last night."
"So you hit on him, he rejected you, then he rejected Spider-Man, and then he hit on you this morning?" Gwen said, very slowly.
"I'm beginning to think dumping Peter was the best idea you've ever had," MJ told Gwen. "I mean, not just so you'd be available to date me. But because he's maybe actually insane. I can't believe I dated him a couple of times."
"Oh, hang on," Peter said. "I guess this all makes more sense when you know I am Spider-Man."
Gwen's shrieked "what?" this time was a little more satisfying.
"Well," Gwen said, in a measured tone, after Peter finished explaining himself, "at least some things make more sense now."
MJ was still staring at the webfluid on the wall. She apparently had future plans involving Peter and the frying pan if it didn't dissolve with water like he promised it did.
"You can't tell anyone," Peter said, hurriedly. "I only keep my identity secret to protect the people I love. If anything happened to Aunt May, I don't know what I'd do."
"Relax, bug, we'll keep your secret," MJ said, finally dragging her eyes from the webs covering her walls. "Keeping your secret keeps Gwen safe too. Of course I'm going to be all over that."
Peter nodded. "Thanks." He looked over at Gwen. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before."
"It's okay," Gwen said. "It's nice to know why I didn't have your heart from the start."
"You totally did," Peter argued, instantly. "I loved you. I still do. I probably always will."
"And yet you fall instantly in love with Johnny Storm?" Gwen snorted. "Peter, Spider-Man and the Human Torch are like, everywhere together. You've been fighting crime and hanging out for years. I know you. You might have only just figured it out, but you've probably been in love with him for longer than a few days. Trust me."
Peter stared at her. And frowned. "That makes everything worse."
"How?" MJ said. "Because gotta say, it makes me feel better for stealing your girl."
"It's worse because okay, Johnny - for some reason - likes Peter Parker, but he doesn't like Spider-Man," Peter said.
"You are Peter Parker," Gwen said. "Spider-Man's just a costume. So isn't that a good thing he prefers the real you?"
"Is this the real me, though?" Peter pointed at himself and shrugged. "I spend so long in-costume, and Spider-Man is so much of who I am, I don't know if I could be happy with him only loving half of me."
"You were okay with letting me do that," Gwen said, in a prickly voice.
Peter lowered his head and shrugged. He didn't quite know what to say.
"So what did you say?" MJ said. "When he hit on you?"
"I panicked," Peter said.
"Do you remember any of what you said?" Gwen prompted.
"Mostly I just let him talk," Peter said. "He's picking me up tomorrow for dinner."
"Great," Gwen said. "So whatever you said in your panic didn't put him off. That's a good sign."
Peter pulled an unconvinced face. "It is?"
"Sure," Gwen said. "You can go on the date. And then if it doesn't work out, Johnny doesn't have to know the guy under the mask who hit on him is the same as the guy he hit on and didn't like." She smiled, and it was an almost bittersweet smile. "You might as well use your dual identity to your advantage."
Peter nodded slowly. "And what if it goes badly?"
"Good question," MJ said. "It probably will." She leaned in closer to Gwen. "He's not great at dates."
"Mmhmm, but now we know that's 80% down to him having to run off and save lives," Gwen said.
"80% seems wrong," Peter said. Well, sulked.
"You're right," Gwen sighed. "70% the superhero thing."
"Hey!" Peter said. Gwen and MJ ignored him.
"Just be yourself," Gwen said. "If he doesn't like you in either form, that just means he's stupid."
Peter bristled. "I'm the stupid one, really, or I wouldn't end up in messes like this." He looked up at MJ and Gwen expectantly.
MJ stared back, and then squinted at him before sighing loudly. "If you're waiting for either of us to contradict you, you'll be waiting a long time, buster. You jump around New York in bright-colored body-hugging spandex. For fun."
Peter contemplated that. She kind of had a point.
Johnny picked Peter up at seven o' clock. Wearing a suit. Driving the flashy car Johnny had been fixing up for the last eight months that Peter Parker supposedly knew nothing about, but Spider-Man had seen in pieces across the floor of Johnny's workspace.
He introduced himself to Aunt May on the doorstep and Aunt May nearly swooned. Peter had to hustle out of there before she reached for the baby photos. Johnny was charming and attentive and Peter— okay, Peter kind of understood why Aunt May swooned, because Johnny's attention was just that overwhelming. Johnny opened the car door for him and as he slid into the soft and comfortable front passenger seat, Peter had to swallow the instant urge to tell Johnny how willing he is to bear his children, because even Peter knows that sort of thing can kill a first date faster than Johnny will smile if he catches his own reflection in something shiny.
Also, if Reed ever heard it, he'd probably whip up something that could allow a man to get pregnant, because he's a genius like that, and Peter doesn't actually want to ruin his figure. Not even for Johnny Storm.
Johnny drove him to the restaurant that he was probably referring to during the fake Carnival date, because Peter could see a lot of color coding on the menu outside, and was offered a choice of menus. Johnny didn't order Peter's food for him, which already made him a better date than Gwen ever was. Peter had many theories about that phenomena, though, mostly one which came down to him being chronically late to all their dates (for self-sacrificial supervillain reasons, obviously, not because he was that awful a boyfriend on purpose) and so Gwen probably ordered something to see if she liked it before ordering something else to cover up her original bad order.
Johnny asked about Aunt May and Peter's studies at ESU. Peter felt super awkward returning those sorts of questions, especially when he already knew most of the Fantastic Four from years of Johnny's whining about them, but it was nice to see the faint blush on Johnny's cheeks when he talked about his sister without ragging on her.
It turned out without spandex, butt-hugging unstable molecules and bad guys in the way, Peter and Johnny did actually get on.
Okay, they weren't really getting on. Peter could feel it. Maybe it was because Peter was pretending to be just a regular boring science student.
Johnny was being polite and making small talk, but every time Peter got three sentences into a conversation topic, Johnny went kind of… distant. Like when they fight D-list supervillains together and Johnny gets bored and starts thinking about his cars.
Peter endured the drifting through the meal, smiling at Johnny's jokes, waiting patiently for Johnny's attention to return. Johnny was polite and warm throughout the meal, and later too, when he walked Peter to his car. His attention didn't drift too much on the drive back to Peter's house, and he opened Peter's door for him, but Peter could tell from the way Johnny twisted awkwardly on the sidewalk that Johnny was about to let him down gently. Peter ignored the way he could see two silhouettes in MJ's bedroom window that looked awfully like he was being spied on, and turned to face Johnny, smiling politely.
"Ugh, can you not be so pleasant?" Johnny said, waving his hand at Peter's face. "It's making this incredibly difficult."
Peter's smile faltered into a frown. "Excuse me?"
Johnny ran a hand down his face and when his fingers cleared out of the way, he looked a little distraught. "I'm sorry. This is my fault, not yours."
Peter tilted his head. "Are you it's not you, it's me-ing me? After one date?"
Johnny looked instantly gutted and Peter almost laughed, because even at his most pathetic, Johnny was handsome. Even in the dull lighting of Peter's suburban side street. "No," he said. "Yes?"
"Do you want to ask the audience? Take 50/50? Call a lifeline?" Peter asked.
Johnny stared at him, looking appalled. "And you're charming as well as cute," he sighed. "I don't know why I don't want to date you again."
Peter stared, because, well. He was expecting it, but some blows couldn't be softened, even when you saw them coming.
Johnny lurched forwards, one hand gently curling around Peter's limply hanging elbow. "It really is me, not you," he said, his eyes earnestly scraping Peter's face. "You're perfect."
Peter barked a laugh.
"No, really," Johnny insisted. "And I should have asked you out last week like I meant to, and none of this would even be a problem, but stupid Spider-Man…" Johnny trailed off and tugged his hand back to run it agitatedly through his hair.
Peter's gut tightened like he'd been hit again, but this time, there was a frisson of hope to it. "Spider-Man?" he prompted.
And Johnny went instantly red. Not because he was going nova. Blushing. Johnny looked at the sidewalk and muttered, quickly, "Because I fight with him, I was doing him a favor, giving him love lessons, and he ended up having a thing for me, and I thought it was just him, but I guess it's me too." Johnny finally looked up at Peter and he looked so desperate that Peter almost laughed. "But it turns out it's mutual and I'm so sorry, Peter. You're lovely. I'm the dipshit who didn't notice he was in love until it was too late."
Peter grinned. "Really?"
"Really," Johnny said, still desperately earnest, except then he saw Peter's grin and his expression slipped towards suspicious. "Why do you look happy about my utter misery?" He took a small step back and the suspicion on his face deepened. "Maybe I was wrong about you being lovely," he said, although he sounded unsure.
Peter managed to tamper down the grin, even though he felt the same as when he used his spider-webbing for the first time, soaring across New York like he was flying. "Wait there a moment," he said, and patted Johnny briefly on the shoulder before turning and dashing towards his house. Johnny did stay, watching his retreating body with a confused expression that didn't fade when Peter returned with a slightly battered old cookie tin.
"This is for you," Peter said. "I made them for you." He pulled a wry face. "I had to borrow my neighbor's frying pan to make them. Believe me, it was a struggle, and I owe her a favor I'm kind of scared of owing, but— Even if the date went bad, I wanted you to have them."
Because he'd made the decision much earlier in the day, with Gwen and MJ's help. Maybe Johnny only liked Spider-Man as a friend, and Peter was interesting enough to ask out… but what if Peter wasn't enough? Peter would never be able to get over Johnny unless Johnny rejected all of him. He only got over Gwen because… well… Johnny. Getting over Johnny was going to be much, much harder, so Peter would need to start much, much sooner, so he could start adopting a hundred cats for his life of eternal bachelorhood. He quite fancied getting a black one.
Either way, if the date went well or badly, Peter needed to tell Johnny the truth.
Johnny stared at the tin. "Thank you?"
"Open it," Peter said, bobbing on the balls of his feet. He had anticipated Johnny letting him down. He hadn't quite thought Spider-Man would be the reason his date failed. He hadn't even dared hope for a happy ending.
Johnny opened the tin and obviously didn't understand the contents for a moment.
"I'm sorry they're not perfect," Peter said, and leaned in closer to poke at the pancakes. "This one's not bad. But that one's too big, and that one's too thick. I don't think that one's brown enough— and that one's certainly not round enough—"
Johnny looked up at Peter, his eyes wide. He blinked a few times.
Peter beamed. "Thanks for the date, Johnny. Call me, maybe? You already have my number." Johnny didn't have Peter's number, but he had Spider-Man's, and that realization made Johnny's eyes go even wider. "Sleep tight, matchstick," he said, and patted Johnny on the arm before turning to leave, shoving his hands in his pockets and whistling nonchalantly as he walked back to the house.
His spider-senses kicked in and Peter side-stepped the pancake that went whizzing past his face. Peter turned around in time for Johnny to throw himself at him and they both collided into the fence that outlined Aunt May's garden.
"You little shit," Johnny breathed, but his voice sounded full of wonder, and his eyes were bright as they scraped across Peter's face, like he was memorizing every detail. He laughed, loud with delight, and kissed Peter fiercely before Peter could even come back with something. He pulled back. "I don't have any syrup to pour on your head this time, but buddy, next time we're near a kitchen, it's on." He made like he was going to hit Peter, but he just pressed his body closer to Peter's again and kissed him, like Peter was something special, and Peter warmed to his toes.
"I'm sorry," Peter said. "I didn't know how to tell you. And my Aunt— she doesn't have any powers, and I—"
"Dude, of course, of course," Johnny said, leaning his forehead against Peter's. "I'm the dumb one, remember?"
"You're not dumb at all, how many times do I need to tell you?" Peter said, curling his fingers into Johnny's jacket, holding him close. "Thinking you're dumb is the only time you are dumb. It's a vicious circle."
"You're a vicious circle," Johnny said, nonsensically.
Peter squinted. "Is that, like, one of the lines in your flirting arsenal? Because gotta say, that's not the kind of thing I've come to expect from a master of wooing."
Johnny's face did something complicated when he mouthed master of wooing back at Peter. Peter shrugged, unrepentant. "I'm not a master of anything," Johnny said, eventually. "Took me too long to realize I was just using it as an excuse to spend more time with Spider-Man. You were right to decipher my actions as interest — I was into you, for sure. I just didn't know I was. Does that make sense?"
It kind of did, but where was the fun in admitting that? "Not at all," Peter said.
Johnny huffed in irritation, his breath warm against Peter's cheek, making him forget how uncomfortable it was to be pushed against a apparently splinter-ridden fence. Ow.
"I do see what you mean about your face, though," Johnny said, finally tugging Peter away from the fence, depositing them both on the sidewalk under a brighter beam of a streetlamp. Johnny's eyes scoured across Peter's face again. "That's totally going to break my mirror."
"What?" Peter yelled, even though that word was probably cursed.
"When I throw you up against it and kiss you," Johnny said, and beamed. It was an acceptable proposition, in Peter's humble opinion, so he reeled Johnny in and kissed him again.
"I'm gonna do my best to help you keep Aunt May safe," Johnny promised as he pulled back from the kiss. Johnny could have said I love you, and Peter wouldn't have been as thrilled by those words as he was by the ones Johnny chose. Peter had to kiss him again for them, even though it was in full view of his neighbors. Even if it looked like two people in his neighbor's house were possibly watching on and cheering. MJ and Gwen were perverts. God, Peter loved them both.
But probably not quite as much as he loved Johnny Storm.