It all begins in such a small, innocuous way that neither Johnny nor Peter fully understands the enormity of it until many years later.
Well, Peter certainly doesn't, but then again, he's always been a trifle dense where matters of the heart are concerned.
It starts, to be more precise, on a cold, wintry day, not long before Christmas, when the sky is pale gray and overcast, the streets of Manhattan blanketed in thick, thick snow.
A small, garish, red-and-blue vehicle veers haphazardly through the busy streets that surround the Baxter Building: the Spidey-Mobile.
Johnny's hanging on tight to anything he can and shouting frantic instructions at Peter, who is following them the best he can, not that that's saying much. Johnny's given him a number of driving lessons by now, and Peter still hasn't managed to get the hang of this whole driving thing.
He's a New Yorker, okay? One who's been web-slinging since he was fifteen. Why on earth would he ever have needed to learn to drive? He's only learning now because those people paid him to build this car, and Johnny categorically refused to let him drive it until he'd had a few lessons. When did he get to be such a killjoy?
"I'm not going to be an accessory to mass murder!" Johnny'd snapped after witnessing five tortuous minutes of Peter's driving skills, which had somehow included six near accidental collisions with other vehicles and eleven instances of Peter coming within a hair of running someone over. The latter was probably because he'd been driving on the sidewalk instead of the street. Those things should be more clearly labeled, in Peter's defense.
Today's driving lesson hasn't been any better, and it's his fifth. Johnny's been shouting himself hoarse all afternoon. He's gone white as a sheet on three separate occasions. Peter has no idea why he keeps putting himself through this, other than that he's a real pal.
Peter finally manages to pull up to the curb next to the Baxter Building, so he can drop Johnny off at home. He doesn't kill anyone, at least.
Well. Okay. Peter actually drives the Spidey-Mobile onto the curb and narrowly misses hitting an elderly couple. They stand there and stare at him, mouths open, frozen in shock.
"Sorry!" he calls out. "My bad."
That snaps the old lady out of it. She shakes her cane at him and scowls viciously. "Jameson is right!" she hollers. "You are a menace!"
Peter's eyes narrow. "I'm less sorry now," he says.
He despises being talked to like this.
"Learn to drive!" she shouts.
That's it. Peter feels a sharp, suffocating burst of anger. He doesn't have to take this from her. He doesn't have to take this from anyone, not anymore, not since that spider bit him all those years ago. He's not a weak, helpless kid everyone can just bully and slap around. "I'll learn to drive if you'll learn some manners, lady!" he shouts back, rising out of his seat a little. "I said I was sorry!"
The old lady flips him off and then drags her husband away by the elbow.
New Yorkers, Peter thinks, shaking his head. Why are they like that? He's one too, but he thinks that fact gives him more of a right to complain.
When he plops back down, he notices that Johnny's got his head in his hands.
"Um," Peter says. He squints. "So that probably wasn't what a good driver would do?"
"Ya think?!" Johnny snaps, tearing his hands away from his face. "What gave it away? The part where you almost ran over a little old lady? Or the part where you yelled at her for it?"
Peter winces. "Well," he says. "It sounds...pretty bad when you put it that way."
He sinks down into his seat and feels his cheeks burn. He's glad the mask is hiding his shame.
He knows, okay? He's a terrible driver.
Johnny deflates. He sighs and looks away. "Look, Spidey, you'll get better," he says. "Just keep practicing." He frowns over at the couple Peter nearly ran over. "Maybe in a parking lot. Somewhere where there aren't too many people for you to run over and scream at."
"Right," Peter mutters.
Driving. Yet another thing Johnny's better at than him. Johnny Storm, professional race car driver; Peter Parker, amateur disaster of a driver. Story of his life.
The car door clicks as Johnny pushes it open and hops out. He doesn't walk away, though. He stands there for a few minutes, looking down at his boots and chewing at his lower lip like he's trying to work up the courage to say something.
Peter gets tired of waiting. "Something the matter, Torch?" he prods.
"No," Johnny replies with a shake of his head. "Just wondering. You free at all on Christmas Eve?"
Peter's a little taken aback. Why's Johnny asking this? They've hung out before, it's true--after those long, weary afternoons of working on the Spidey-Mobile, Peter'd find himself staying for dinner and hanging out afterward more times than he can count.
He doesn't, however, think they're quite at the stage of their friendship where spending the holidays together isn't a little weird.
"Sorry, Torchy. I...have family stuff," Peter says. That's appropriately vague, and it has the benefit of being true. He's going to spend the evening with Aunt May. Probably Anna and Mary Jane Watson too.
"Oh," Johnny says, disappointed. He kicks at a clump of snow with his foot.
Against his better judgment, Peter adds, "But I'm free Christmas morning. It'd have to be pretty early, though."
Peter hates having to get up early on holidays. It's when he catches up on some much-needed sleep. But Johnny's been going out of his way to be nice to Peter lately--pouring countless hours into helping him build the Spidey-Mobile, giving him driving lessons, letting Peter talk his ear off about Gwen and his deep and abiding guilt--and, suffice it to say, Peter owes him a debt. One he'll probably never be able to fully repay.
He doesn't know how he'd've gotten through Gwen's death without Johnny. He's the only person Peter can really talk to about it. All of Peter Parker's friends can't be told the truth about his role in her death, and Johnny's the only friend Spider-Man has.
Johnny nods. He seems to have perked up a bit. "Five work for you, buddy?" he asks. "Usual place?"
Peter blinks. "Well, I didn't mean that early."
"My nephew," Johnny explains apologetically. "He gets up at six. I don't want to miss the whole opening the presents thing. I got him some stuff."
"Oh," Peter says. He frowns. "Right." Well, there's no way around that. You can't exactly ask a one-year-old kid to put off opening presents. "Five it is."
"Cool," Johnny says. He grins. "See ya later, Spidey."
He starts trudging through the heavy drifts of snow that cover the sidewalk towards the Baxter Building.
Peter frowns at Johnny as he walks away, trying to figure out what the hell this is all about.
It's a while before it occurs to him to just ask. "Hey, Torch!" he calls out. "Can I ask why?"
Johnny's almost at the door by then. He turns, grins widely, cups his hands around his mouth, and shouts, "You'll find out, Web-Head!"
He sticks his hand in the air and waves cheerfully, and then he's gone.
What the hell is all of this about? Peter wonders as he starts up his car. It takes him three tries.
Johnny was acting fishy.
Oh, man. Is this going to turn out to be some kind of prank?
Peter actually does, shockingly, manage to drag himself out of bed at 4:30am so he can meet Johnny at the top of the Statue of Liberty.
He's half expecting Johnny to stand him up. Maybe that was the gag. Get Peter out of bed at 4:30 in the morning on Christmas.
But no. By the time he's done paddling out there in the little web-raft he made for himself and climbing wearily all the way up to the Statue's crown, Johnny's already there, waiting for Peter.
There's a brightly-colored present wedged under his arm. There's a bow and everything.
Peter stops dead in his tracks and gapes at it. "Is that a present?" he asks. He can't believe it. "You bought me a present?"
Johnny smiles brightly at him, but it's maybe tinged with nervousness. Peter doesn't think he's seen Johnny nervous before.
"Yeah," Johnny says. He strolls over to Peter. "I saw it and, I dunno. It made me think of you, so I decided to give it to you. Don't laugh."
He shoves it at Peter, who takes it and stares numbly at the little snowmen on the wrapping.
He looks up at Johnny, and he could swear that his cheeks are a little pink. He's positive that he's never seen Johnny blush before. Not from embarrassment, anyways. Flushed with anger, that he's seen plenty.
"I..." Peter starts, and then swallows because it turns out his mouth has gone dry. "I didn't get you anything," he finishes lamely.
"It's okay, Spidey," Johnny says, waving a hand. "I wasn't expecting you to. Get me one next year."
Oh. So they're doing this again next year. Good to know.
Peter stares down at his present again and doesn't move. He's still trying to wrap his head around this. Johnny Storm, who this time last year he was still barely getting along with, bought him a present.
A lot has happened between them in the last year, that's for sure.
A lot has happened in the last year in general, Peter supposes. It's been devastating for Peter. Gwen's murder, Harry's descent into madness and supervillainry, Norman's death, Aunt May's near marriage to Doc Ock...a lot has happened.
His newfound friendship with Johnny, he supposes, is the one bright spot in all of that darkness.
"Well?" Johnny says impatiently, interrupting Peter's ruminations. "It's Christmas already, Web-Head. You can open it."
"Right," Peter says. "Yeah. Of course."
He tears off the wrapping. Underneath is a package, unopened, containing four little action figures. Peter recognizes them immediately. They're collectibles. Released the year the Fantastic Four debuted. The first figures of them released, in fact. Limited edition.
There's no way Johnny bought this in a store. Peter's looked these up online and wished he had the money to afford them. They cost thousands nowadays.
He'd had some that looked exactly like these, once. Battered and scratched rather than still in their original packaging, but the same.
Uncle Ben had been the one who'd saved up for months and bought them for Peter on his fifteenth birthday. They were less expensive back then, but still pricey.
They were the last birthday present Uncle Ben had ever bought him, in fact. Peter had treasured them, especially after his uncle passed away, but they'd been destroyed during a fight at Aunt May's with Doc Ock. Peter'd been depressed for weeks.
He's sure he told Johnny that story, vaguely, without giving out too many details. He'd only shared it because he hadn't thought Johnny'd been listening at the time--he'd been busy looking through his phone and picking at his french fries in the cheap little diner they were eating lunch at--but it turns out he heard every word.
"You said you used to have some of these," Johnny says casually, like it's no big deal that he just spent thousands of dollars on Peter. He must know that Peter knows how much they cost. "But they got destroyed. I thought you'd like some new ones."
"Torchy," Peter says blankly. "These must've cost a fortune. I can't accept this. I could never get you anything as nice."
He tries to hand them back to Johnny, who shoves them right back.
"They didn't cost a fortune, Web-Head," Johnny tells him. "C'mon. Take them. They're for you."
"Torchy," Peter says, "I really can't. It wouldn't be--I can't take these."
Johnny makes an exasperated noise. "Fine," he huffs. "I didn't want to tell you. Look, they're mine. I had some saved, so. They didn't cost me a penny. I just dug them out of storage. Took me three hours to find them, so you'd better take them."
Peter hesitates. He doesn't know whether or not to believe Johnny.
Johnny puts a hand on Peter's shoulder and squeezes. His eyes are kind. Peter's still getting used to Johnny looking at him like that. It's a little thrilling, although he can't quite put his finger on why. "I know they mean a lot to you. And you've been going through a rough time lately. Let me do something nice for you."
They do mean a lot to Peter. Because of Uncle Ben, and now because of Johnny.
It means so much that Johnny went so far out of his way to do something this nice for Peter. That's. It's--Peter's deeply touched by Johnny's gift. "Oh," he says, fumbling around for something to say. He presses a hand to his chest and tells Johnny, as flippantly as he can even though he actually means it, "What can I say? Torchy, I'm touched."
Johnny shoots him a wry grin, but it's tinged with relief. "Yeah," he says, without missing a beat. "Sure you are. In the head."
Peter pushes past the insult to a few of his own. "I really didn't know you had this in you. You, thoughtful. I've seen everything now. What's next, Doom being humble? If that happens, I'll know it means the world is ending." He gasps like he's just realized something important. "Oh, my god. Is the world ending? Sparky, be honest."
Johnny rolls his eyes. "The world is not ending. That I know of." He smiles at Peter then, and something in Peter's chest flutters like the delicate beat of a hummingbird's wing. "And that'll teach you to underestimate me, Web-Head. I'm a complicated guy."
Peter's started to realize that over the course of this past year. He can't say he wasn't shocked when he discovered it, but Johnny really does have hidden depths. He's not the shallow pretty boy most people mistake him for (Peter was guilty of that too, he thinks with chagrin). Johnny's brave, kind, loyal, caring, and generous to a fault. He can also be pretty damn smart and observant when he wants to be. He's emotionally intelligent in a way Peter readily admits he isn't.
It's why Peter's started running to him whenever he needs advice. Johnny's less than a year older, but somehow he seems so much more experienced than Peter. In many ways, he's lived more than Peter has. Hasn't been as sheltered. Peter doesn't know too much about what Johnny's life was like growing up, but he knows enough to know it wasn't easy. He lost his parents too when he was a kid, but he didn't have a loving aunt and uncle to care for him. Just a harried, grief-stricken preteen sister and a mostly indifferent aunt. That can't have been easy.
The fact that he's turned into this, into a hero through and through, into a kind, warm, loving person, despite all of that is a testament to his strength of character and essential goodness.
Suffice it to say, the more Peter finds out about him, the more intrigued he is and the more he can't help but admire him.
Peter, liking and admiring Johnny Storm. He feels like they've come full circle. Before the old rivalry had begun, Peter'd looked up to Johnny, who was everything Peter wanted to be. Beautiful, wealthy, successful, beloved, and so close to Peter's age. It had been like a promise--this is the sort of life you can have someday too.
Maybe that had even been part of why he'd come to loathe Johnny--no matter how hard he'd tried, how much he'd sacrificed, how good he'd been, he'd never been able to get what Johnny had. It had seemed unfair. He couldn't understand why Johnny deserved it all more than he did.
But then, after Gwen's death...all of that had stopped mattering. Peter'd done a lot of growing up over the weeks that followed, and Johnny'd been going through his own special kind of hell with his girlfriend Crystal.
In the end, their shared misery and shattered hearts had brought them closer than either of them had ever thought possible.
And so, Peter's not ashamed to call Johnny his friend now--his only friend, it feels like some days. Peter doesn't regret it for a second. Best decision he ever made.
He knows that even if the whole world turned against him, Johnny never would. Peter's wanted for murder, after all, and Johnny never doubted for a second that he hadn't done it. He never doubts Peter's goodness at all. He's let Peter into his garage, into his home, into his bedroom, without a second thought.
Peter finds that deeply touching too. It's all that keeps him going, sometimes, knowing there's at least one guy out there who'll always think he's a hero and all-around great guy. Even if he does still love playing embarrassing pranks on Peter.
Johnny, Peter realizes, might rapidly be becoming the best and truest friend Peter's ever had. Not that there's not that much competition, not anymore.
A memory rises, unbidden, to the surface of Peter's mind--Harry's face, twisted in rage and loathing until it was nearly unrecognizable, as he ranted and raved and tried his best to unravel Peter's life as thoroughly as his father had. The feeling of Peter's heart breaking at the loss of yet another loved one, so soon after the loss of Gwen, and the overwhelming terror--his hands had shaken with it--that he might lose yet another. It had been a narrow thing, too.
Peter swallows and shoves down the memory. It's Christmas. Just for today, he's going to give himself permission not to dwell on the past. He's going to focus on his better angels, and right now? That means Johnny, the guy who's been inspiring him and pushing him to better himself ever since he first pulled on his red-and-blue tights.
When he looks at Johnny, he can't help but remember that there's still some good left in the world. Johnny gives him hope, hope that his tomorrows will be better than his yesterdays, the way he always has.
And that's really all he has going for him right now, it feels like sometimes. Hope.
A warm affection for Johnny swells within Peter's chest. He'd hug Johnny right now if he didn't think that he'd never be able to live it down.
He can at least give the guy a hard time. What kind of a friend would he be if he didn't?
Peter smothers a smile beneath his mask. He's glad Johnny can't see it. "Guess I was sort of distracted by your dumb blond act," he says idly.
Johnny's scowling now. "What dumb blond act?"
Peter feigns surprise. "You know. Pretending you're not as smart as you are so people'll underestimate you."
"Oh," Johnny says. He's caught on to the gag now. Peter can tell because there's a smile playing around his mouth. He starts to play along. "Mmmhmm. I totally do that." When he grins, it's sharp as the blade of a knife. "So what's your excuse for acting like a moron, webs-for-brains?"
Peter squints. "I was dropped on my head once too often as a baby?"
Johnny cackles. "Yep, that'll do it," he says. He looks appraisingly over at Peter. Oh, here it comes, Peter can just see the joke forming beneath those blond locks-- "It explains why your head's such a funny shape too."
Ah, there it is. "Oh, man," Peter laments. He paws at the back of his head. "Now you did it. I'm gonna spend all of Christmas spinning around and trying to see the back of my head in a mirror. People are going to think I'm weird."
He regrets saying that last bit almost as soon as the words leave his lips. It's like throwing a bone in front of a dog. They can't help but pounce.
"I wouldn't worry about it too much," Johnny says breezily. "People already think you're weird. Hell, I think you're weird." He frowns. "Why do I hang out with you, again?"
"C'mon, Torchy. If you didn't hang out with me, who would bring you cheap hot dogs and web your butt to things?"
Peter gives him a toothy grin underneath his mask, not that Johnny can really see it.
Johnny stares at him, unmoved. "Why do I hang out with you, again?" he deadpans.
Peter tips back his head and laughs, delighted.
Inside of ten minutes, they're shrieking with laughter and hurtling snowballs and merciless taunts at each other with equal rapidity.
It's the most fun Peter's had in ages.
Until, that is, Johnny sees what time it is, yelps, and shouts that he's gotta take off.
And he just leaves Peter there, stranded. Doesn't even ask if he needs a ride. Typical.
Peter sighs, climbs down, and starts making himself another web raft.
It doesn't take long for it to become a tradition. Every year, Christmas morning, Peter drags himself out of bed and meets Johnny with a thermos full of Aunt May's hot cocoa and the best present he can afford.
Half the time they're just silly gag gifts, but it's worth it to see the way Johnny's face lights up when he laughs.
Peter finds himself looking forward to it every year, and he puts a lot of time and effort into coming up with presents that will make Johnny crack up.
Surprisingly, Johnny actually keeps Peter's presents. All of them. No matter how stupid and inexpensive they are. He's a sentimental idiot, Peter decides.
Still, it makes Peter smile, swinging by the Baxter Building and seeing the presents he bought for Johnny scattered around his bedroom.
The little Spidey doll he bought Johnny the second Christmas they did the Statue of Liberty thing spends a long, long time perched on top of Johnny's television.
Johnny wears the dumb t-shirt Peter bought him for their third Christmas a couple of times when he does the talk show circuits. Peter has them all bookmarked on his laptop. He watches them sometimes and smiles.
Peter wonders if Johnny wears the shirt specifically so Peter'll see it. Like a private joke, just for the two of them. He wears it too often for it to be an accident.
It's nice, being able to see tangible evidence that he matters so much to Johnny.
He knows now that when Johnny says they're pals, he really means it.
And then...and then comes the year Johnny's life falls to pieces.
Peter's heart breaks for him, over and over.
He starts to dread seeing Johnny's name in the news. Each new headline is worse than the last.
He does what little he can to help, but it's not enough. It's never enough.
When Peter had been reeling after Gwen's death, Johnny'd known just what to say to ease Peter's guilt. Cheer him up, make him forget, help him laugh again.
Peter tries to do the same for Johnny--he leads him on a merry chase through the city, playfighting and clowning around, and Johnny smiles at the end, really smiles, but it's not...as bright and carefree as Peter remembers it being, once. It's darker. Haunted. Maybe even a little tortured.
It makes Peter sad, thinking that he might never see Johnny smile the way he used to. He remembers how he'd felt, the first time Johnny'd smiled at him that way. He'd hardly been able to believe it. He, plain, nerdy Peter Parker, had made Johnny Storm smile. His chest had swelled up with pride. He'd felt as though he was walking on air for days.
And now...now that might be nothing more than an increasingly distant memory.
Peter blames himself. He doesn't have Johnny's way with people. Doesn't have his knack for saying exactly the right thing. If he did, he could help Johnny heal. Fix him.
Peter should've been there for him from the very beginning of all of this. It's not fair. He knows exactly where to find Johnny when he needs to talk, but Johnny doesn't know how to find him at all.
Well, he thinks determinedly as he waits for Johnny on top of the Statue of Liberty on Christmas morning, today's the day that changes.
He waits. And waits. And waits. And then he starts to wonder if Johnny's showing up at all, the way he does every year.
And then he sees it. A streak of fire, racing over from the general direction of the Baxter Building. He smiles.
When Johnny gets close enough, Peter waves and shouts, "Well, it's about time! Here I am freezing my webs off for half an hour, and you're in a warm bed, dreaming of sugar plums. It's the same thing every Christmas. I don't know why I bother..."
"Sorry," Johnny says tersely. His face is drawn. He looks tired. More so when he flames off.
"'Sorry'?" Peter scoffs. "No comeback? No insult? No snowball to the face?" His eyes narrow suspiciously. "You okay?"
He knows Johnny's got plenty of reasons not to be. He's just wondering if there's a new one.
He starts unscrewing the cap on the thermos, full of Aunt May's cocoa, that he brought with him. He brings it every year, ever since he brought her cocoa once and Johnny complimented him on it. He figures there's not much he has that Johnny can be envious of.
He figures it might cheer Johnny up. The guy looks like he needs it.
"Yeah," Johnny says tonelessly. He seems distant. Shut down. He sure doesn't seem okay. "It's just been a rough year."
Johnny's not...not pissed at Peter, is he? Peter knows he'd been searching for Johnny during Johnny's whole fugitive phase, but... "Listen," Peter tries to explain as he starts to pour Johnny some cocoa, "if it's about me trying to get you to surrender to the cops after that thing at the college, I'm sorry. I didn't want..."
Johnny cuts him off. "Nah, don't worry about it. You were right, and besides, they dropped the charges. Everything worked out fine."
Peter doesn't get it, then. "So what's the problem?"
He hands Johnny a cup of cocoa.
Johnny smiles halfheartedly as he takes it. "Besides the cocoa being cold?" he says. He lights his hand on fire and it instantly begins to sizzle, steam rising from the top. "Well, let's see: I got arrested, my wife turned out to be a Skrull, she died, came back and tried to kill me, she was pregnant, she wasn't pregnant, I nearly burned a major university to the ground, my brother-in-law died, my sister's turning into a psycho, oh yeah, and the woman I thought I married is in love with my best friend."
Okay. So Peter can understand where Johnny's depression is coming from. "Jeez," he says sympathetically, and then kicks himself.
Smooth, Parker. That's really gonna help Johnny feel better about the whole situation. Why can't he figure out what to say to help Johnny?
"Can you imagine what's that like?" Johnny continues. "I don't know if I can explain...well, are you married?"
Peter's taken aback. "What do you mean? Of course I'm not married." Almost, but there'd been that whole disaster on his and MJ's wedding day, and it hadn't happened. "You know th--"
He cuts himself off. Wait. Johnny doesn't know that. Because for all they talk, they rarely ever say anything important. They've been so close for years, and Peter knows just about everything there is to know about Johnny, but Johnny hardly knows the first thing about Peter.
Doesn't even know his name, come to think of it.
"Right," Peter corrects himself. He rubs the back of his neck. "You don't know. I was almost married. We, uh, we're still talking through stuff."
"Okay, then maybe you can understand. I just don't get it. When did everything get so complicated? I mean, in the old days, it was simple. Like you and me--we'd get together, we'd knock each other around a little, we'd realize we'd been tricked, and then we'd go after the Fox or the Lizard or whoever. Simple. And sometimes, I think we even did a little good. Like that Christmas we spent fighting the Sandman. Y'know, to this day, I think that the fact that we trusted him enough to let him go visit his mom was a big part of what made him go straight."
Johnny pauses to take a sip of his cocoa.
"Yeah," Peter says wryly. "But he still escaped down her drain!"
"Hey, I didn't say it happened overnight!" Johnny retorts.
"Listen, Johnny, I don't think I've been a very good friend," Peter begins. He's been rehearsing this speech all week. "I mean, we've known each other a long time. Heck, you're probably the closest friend I've got in this business. But I've kept secrets from you. And, well..."
He starts to tug his mask up. He's going to tell Johnny now. Johnny deserves to know this. After everything he's done for Peter, Johnny deserves to know.
Johnny reaches out and catches Peter's wrist to stop him. "No," he says firmly.
Peter freezes and stares at him, wide-eyed.
"You think I want to see your ugly face?" Johnny jokes. "Look, you don't need the hassle of people knowing who you are, and I don't need to know your name." When he smiles, it's fond. "It's enough to know you're a friend." He hands Peter a present, wrapped in a garish purple and yellow, as Peter tugs his mask back down. "Here. Merry Christmas."
"What in the--?" Peter says after he opens it. He holds it in his hand and stares at it, bewildered.
"It's a talking Venom doll!" Johnny says. "They're all the rage. If you push the button, he says, 'I want to eat your brains!'"
"Oh, good," Peter says wryly. "My girlfriend's going to love this."
He hands Johnny the present he picked out. His is better, he thinks. "Here. This one's for you," he tells Johnny.
"Huh," Johnny says when he opens it. He doesn't seem too enthusiastic.
It's a little figure of the Statue of Liberty. Their usual place. Peter doesn't really need to explain that part, right? He and Johnny have been meeting here periodically since they were around sixteen. "Check out the base," he says.
"What's this?" Johnny says, frowning at the phone number Peter scrawled across the base.
"That's in case you ever need to talk," Peter explains. Maybe Johnny won't let Peter tell him his name, but Peter can at least do this much.
Johnny beams at him. His smile's happier than it had been when he arrived, at least. It even reaches his eyes.
Thank god. Maybe everything is going to be all right.
Johnny's strong. He's survived so much. He'll survive this too. Peter knows that.
The first Christmas they spend together after Johnny finds out Peter's secret identity, Johnny invites Peter to bring his family over on Christmas Eve and spend the night at the Baxter Building. They have a terrific time. Drinking eggnog, singing carols off-key together, watching cheesy Christmas movies, goofing off.
The next morning, Peter doesn't have to swing out to the Statue of Liberty in the freezing cold to see Johnny. He's waiting there in the kitchen with a mug of Aunt May's hot cocoa and a smile, and this time, he's the one who hands it to Peter.
Johnny gives Peter bug spray for Christmas; Peter gives him a fire extinguisher. It takes both of them ten minutes to stop cackling long enough for Reed to take a picture of them holding up their presents and smirking at the camera.
It's wonderful. Peter regrets not doing this sooner. He likes being a part of Johnny's family, likes being able to spend holidays with him, likes watching the way his face lights up with joy at being surrounded by all of the people he loves.
It's too good to last. Peter should have known it would be.
The Earths of the multiverse collide, and afterward, Johnny's family has simply vanished, save for Ben, who refuses to speak to Johnny.
Peter's stopped trying to ask Johnny about what the hell happened with Ben, because every time he does, Johnny just shuts down. Whatever it was, it must've been bad, for Ben to abandon Johnny at a time like this.
It hurts Peter to look at Johnny these days. It's like a light has been extinguished somewhere inside of Johnny. He's not as bright, not as joyful, as he used to be. He's gotten downright somber. Peter can hardly bear it. He doesn't know what to do to fix it. Suspects there's nothing he can do.
Johnny's reeling, and Peter doesn't know how to help him, apart from showing him that, no matter who else he's lost, he still has Peter. It's the same thing Johnny did for him, all those years ago, when Peter was the one who was reeling after Gwen's murder.
He knows Johnny's really not doing too great when Johnny turns down an invitation to go to the Parker Industries Christmas Party. Peter can't really blame him.
who are you and what have you done with johnny storm? Peter texts light-heartedly in between meetings.
He's sitting in his empty, much-too-quiet office, at the giant, expensive desk he still feels out-of-place behind.
He watches the little dots pulse on his screen and waits for Johnny's answer. He's hoping to get an eye-roll emoji or something. Anything that'll let him know Johnny's okay.
sorry, pal, Johnny texts back. i'm just not in the mood to party.
No joke. No insult. No teasing. Peter's really worried now.
Peter can imagine the kind of mood Johnny must be in. The holidays must be especially rough for Johnny right now. Seeing everyone with their family must remind him that his is, well, missing. Possibly dead. It must be like a knife to the heart, every time.
To top off everything that's going on with Johnny's family, last Peter'd heard, Medusa'd dumped Johnny a few days ago and gotten back together with Black Bolt, and now Johnny's scrambling to find a place to live.
He's been staying alone at a hotel, but given the current state of Johnny's finances, that isn't really a viable long-term option. Peter'd offer to help, but he doubts whether Johnny'd take him up on it. He's too proud.
but you're coming to christmas with me and aunt may, right? Peter writes immediately. you can't spend christmas alone, buddy. i won't let you.
There's a pause. Johnny's texts are usually lightning fast, so that's unusual.
i dunno, Johnny writes.
I don't want to be a burden, Peter reads.
That's okay. He knows just what to say. The one argument Johnny can never turn down.
you're family, Peter writes. that's what you told me. He said it during that message he left in case of his death, the one Peter's watched so many times he can recite it from memory. He knows every quaver, every inflection of Johnny's voice. He can hear all of the things Johnny didn't say in between all of the things he did. christmas is for family. you HAVE to come.
Johnny takes a while to answer. He probably knows Peter's got him now, but he's putting up a fight anyways.
"Say yes," Peter mutters to himself. "Come on, buddy. Say yes."
Peter won't be able to enjoy his Christmas while thinking of Johnny sitting alone in an empty hotel room or, worse yet, in a bar, missing his family and drinking the pain away.
He can't let that happen.
it's just going to be you and may? Johnny asks at long last.
Peter's got him on the ropes. He can tell.
and anna watson, Peter confirms. at our old house. just like old times. spend christmas with the parkers. you won't regret it.
There's another long pause.
okay, Johnny texts. i'll be there.
Peter smiles at his phone and rejoices. Those four words are the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
It's going to be a downer of a Christmas--Johnny is mourning the loss of nearly his entire family, Aunt May the loss of her second husband, so Peter's going to have one hell of a lot of cheering up to do.
Being the life of the party is not something he's used to.
Maybe he'll put on a Santa outfit, beard and everything. That's sure to get Johnny giggling, maybe even get him to make a risqué joke or two about sitting on Santa's lap.
When Johnny shows up on Christmas, he looks worse than Peter remembered. His face is worn and thin, and he looks like he hasn't been getting much sleep and has probably been hitting the bottle far too often.
The holidays must've been rougher on him than Peter thought.
Peter's hand tightens around the doorknob, and he tries not to let his worry show on his face.
His eyes settle on the presents wedged under Johnny's arm.
He tries for a smile, but he suspects it looks forced. "You got us something?" He lowers his voice. "It's not bug spray again, is it? I'll have a hard time explaining that one to Aunt May ever since the whole memory-wipe."
"It's not bug spray," Johnny says tonelessly. "Thanks for inviting me. I...didn't really have anywhere to go, apart from the hotel bar."
Peter reaches out and squeezes Johnny's wrist. Maybe Peter's just imagining it, but it feels so brittle all of a sudden. Squeeze too hard and it'll break. Johnny'll break.
It's a disconcerting thought. He's never thought of Johnny as fragile before. Johnny's strong. He always has been. Like tempered steel. He's been through fire, through hell itself, and it's only made him stronger.
Johnny never gives up. He's the one who taught Peter that. Maybe it's time to return the favor.
"This is exactly where you were supposed to go," Peter says kindly. "With your family."
Johnny's staring fixedly at Peter's hand as though Peter's just done something shocking. His intake of breath is harsh. "Right," he says. He drags his wrist out of Peter's grasp. His hand is shaking, almost imperceptibly. "Right."
He pushes past Peter brusquely and goes into the house.
Peter frowns after him, deeply worried, and kicks himself. He should've done a better job of checking in on Johnny, but he's been too caught up in his company. Stupid. He's been stupid.
Johnny needs him. He doesn't have anyone else to help out when he needs it anymore.
Peter's been a bad friend. Again. And Johnny's never been anything but a good one. Always there when Peter needs him, without fail.
He has to make it up to Johnny.
Well, maybe tonight he can start doing that.
Johnny's very quiet and subdued the whole evening. He just sits on the couch and broods.
Peter's seen him like this before. He gets this way when his life hits one of its many low points.
It's when he's in this mood that he tries to drown out the pain with as much noise and alcohol as he can. It's not good for him. Peter's never more worried about Johnny than when he's off trying to fool himself into believing he's the shallow, carefree party boy Peter--and everyone who knows him at all--knows he isn't.
That's the thing about Johnny: he's exceptionally good at shutting people out if they don't know him very well. All he has to do is play into their mistaken assumptions about him by pretending that he's the airheaded moron the media has made everyone believe he is.
The charade only becomes a problem when Johnny starts trying to make himself believe it too.
It must have some appeal, keeping himself busy with parties and alcohol and sex so he doesn't have to stop and think about everything he's lost. The everything he's lost.
He needs Peter to snap him out of this, the way Peter had last year, back when Johnny'd lost his powers and his family shattered to pieces.
Tonight, Johnny answers questions politely if he's asked, but other than that, he doesn't talk at all. He seems restless.
He hardly touches his cocoa or the appetizers, despite the fact that Peter asked Aunt May if she could make some of Johnny's favorite dishes, ones he's seen Johnny wolf down during Christmas parties at the Baxter Building.
Peter's busy pouring out eggnogs and chatting with Anna about how Mary Jane's job with Tony Stark is going, when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees Aunt May, who's been eyeing Johnny's gloomy face all night, go sit next to him on the sofa he's taken over and offer him a fresh cup of cocoa.
They speak quietly for a while. Aunt May's face is kind, and Peter notes, with a sigh of relief, that the tension that has been in Johnny's shoulders all evening begins to lessen. He even starts smiling a little.
Peter suspects it's because Johnny's rather desperate for some maternal comfort right now, and also, Johnny's just always had a soft spot for Aunt May. She's always been able to work wonders with him.
Things seem to be going great, until Johnny's smile disappears, from one second to the next, and he gets up and walks out of the house without a word. Aunt May watches him go confusedly.
Peter sets his eggnog down and rushes over. "What happened?" he asks.
"I don't know!" Aunt May says. She looks a bit stricken. "I just asked him how Mr. Grimm was doing. Did I say something wrong?"
Oh, hell. Peter starts heading after Johnny.
"They had a fight," Peter calls back to Aunt May. Why the hell hadn't he warned her? He'd meant to, but he'd gotten called into the office on an emergency this morning, and he'd been busy with that all day. He hadn't even managed to get away until right before Johnny'd been due to arrive at Aunt May's. It was only one of his fancy-as-hell cars that'd gotten him here on time. "Ben's not talking to him."
He needs to do some damage control. He hopes Johnny hasn't flamed on and left entirely.
Peter rushes outside, recoils at the bitter, icy cold, and wishes he'd had the presence of mind to bring his coat.
He finds Johnny, luckily, still out on the porch, clutching at the snow-covered wooden railing. He's trembling, and it can't be from the cold. It must be from some confluence of overwhelming emotion--despair, grief, loneliness, Johnny's probably feeling them all.
Peter can't really see Johnny's face, but he's a little afraid he might be crying. Oh, boy. Peter is not great with crying people. Maybe he should go get Aunt May?
But no. Johnny's his friend. Peter needs to man up and deal with this himself. Be there for Johnny. It's the least he can do.
So he squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and says, "Johnny? You okay, buddy?"
Johnny jerks upright, like he hadn't heard the door close behind Peter. "Yeah," he says roughly. "I'm fine. Go back inside, Peter. I'll be back in a minute."
Peter hesitates. He doesn't want to intrude on Johnny's grief if he isn't wanted, but, at the same time...he has to offer. "Are you sure you don't want to talk? I'm here if you do. You know that, buddy."
Johnny doesn't say anything. Just stares grimly out at the snow-covered street, the rows of houses with shimmering Christmas decorations--plastic reindeers and Santa Clauses. There's even a family of snowmen right across the street. Peter knows the family that lives there. They have two kids, a boy and a girl. Just like Johnny's niece and nephew.
Peter knows how much Johnny adored Franklin and Valeria. He'd been proud, so proud, of both of them. Eager to see what they'd end up doing with their lives. If they'd turn out to be as heroic as their mother and father. Johnny might never find out now, if they're really dead, the way everyone's been saying.
Those people are right--this does feel different than all of the other times the FF have gone missing. Something is...not right.
At first, Peter had been sure--so damn sure--that they'd be back. Any day now, he'd tell himself, any day now, Reed and Sue Richards are gonna come back in a blaze of glory and save everyone, and then everything'll be all right again.
As the months have ticked by, Peter has started to lose his certainty. It seeps away, more and more, every day the sun rises and Reed, Sue, and the kids are nowhere to be found.
What if they never come back? he's started to ask himself. What if this is just what the world is like now?
Nothing's the same now that the FF are gone. The world seems so much darker, so much crueler, so much colder, without them.
It's funny, but just...knowing that they were all there, in the Baxter Building, ready to defend the world on a moment's notice, knowing that Sue and Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm would always be there to stand between Earth and whatever dangers the universe hurled its way...it had made everyone feel safer.
Now they're gone, and it feels like nothing will ever be the same again.
Two days ago, Peter came across a picture of the early days of the FF in The Daily Bugle. Peter couldn't help but stare, spellbound, at the smiling, youthful faces of Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny, being given the keys to the city for the very first time after their breathtaking defeat of the Mole Man and Giganto.
It had been all anyone'd talked about for months, Peter remembers. He'd been just as dazzled by them as everyone else. They and their glorious feats of heroism introduced the world, after all, to the golden age of superheroes.
In the photograph, there was exhilaration and dizzying joy pouring out of smiles that were bright as sunlight and an eagerness to see what exciting new adventures tomorrow would bring, what new worlds to discover, what new friends to meet.
All of that joy, all of that promise, and all it had led to, somehow, was this: Johnny, bereft, grieving, and alone on a snowy porch in the middle of Queens, his family lost.
It's not fair, Peter thinks as he looks at Johnny's dim silhouette. They didn't deserve this. Not any of them. All they had wanted to do was have a few adventures, explore the universe, raise their children in peace, maybe save the planet a couple of times along the way. How could any of them ever have deserved this?
The porch creaks as Peter takes a few steps towards Johnny. "C'mon," he says. He has to make this better, somehow. He doesn't know what, if anything, he can do, but...there must be something. Everything about this is so wrong. "How long have we been friends? You can talk to me about anything. You know that."
Peter notices Johnny's knuckles whitening as his hands tighten around the railing. He comes to a halt. He's not sure what's happening. Wishes he knew what was going on in Johnny's head. Maybe then he could help.
"I," Johnny starts, stops, and then starts again. "I tried to contact Ben," he admits. "Just to wish him a happy Hannukah. He wouldn't even take my damn calls!"
Peter can't even imagine how much that must have hurt. Ben is like Johnny's older brother. He and Johnny may tease each other constantly, but they'd die for each other. In a heartbeat. Hell, Johnny has died for Ben. More than once, judging by the bits and pieces Peter's been able to worm out of Johnny and the Light Brigade about what Johnny went through in the Negative Zone.
And now Ben won't even take his calls during the holidays? It must be like a superpowered punch to the guts.
"I'm sorry, pal," Peter says gently. "That's gotta be rough. Maybe he was busy saving someone?"
He takes that as an invitation to stay and talk, so he walks the rest of the way to Johnny, leans back against the railing and crosses his arms. He can see Johnny's face now, can see the way the twinkling lights of Aunt May's Christmas decorations dance through his golden hair.
Johnny's mouth is a tight, thin line, his startlingly blue eyes far too bright, even in this dim light. Peter's stomach twists. He doesn't like seeing Johnny like this. Johnny should always have a smile on his face, bright enough that it could light up half of New York. Not this. He shouldn't be dark, gloomy, and dour. It's just wrong.
"I know he's mad at me," Johnny says, frustrated, "but I was hoping...it's the holidays. I thought we could, I dunno, patch things up. He's pretty much the only family I've got left. If I don't have him..." He swallows. His shoulders are tight as he presses a hand to his forehead and says wretchedly, "Pete, what am I gonna do? I'm not...used to this! I'm not used to not having anyone. I don't think...I know I can't handle this. I'm no good at being alone. I never have been. I'm better when I'm with them." He raises his eyes up to the cloudy gray sky, and his eyes are bright and desolate. "Everything's better when they're around."
Peter doesn't even stop to think about what he should say. He reaches out and squeezes Johnny's shoulder comfortingly. "You're wrong," he says kindly. "You can do this. Never give up, buddy. I learned that from you, and I've never forgotten it. And, anyways, you aren't alone. You have me. Always have, always will. Anytime you need me, buddy, I am there. I'm just a phone call or a skywritten message away."
Johnny's looking directly at Peter now. He looks touched by Peter's words. He reaches up and grasps Peter's wrist. "Thanks," he says. "That. It means a lot, buddy." There's a slight pause as his brows dip slightly downwards like he's thinking something over. His eyes flick back up to Peter. "Wait, so does this mean I'm your best friend again?"
Peter blows out an irritated gust of air. "Buddy," he complains. He lets his hand drop. "We're not doing this again, are we?"
"I'm just saying," Johnny says. There's a smile playing around his mouth. Maybe Peter finally did find the right thing to say. "I've never tried to kill you. I mean, I've wanted to a few times, so I can totally sympathize but I've never actually tried--"
Peter bumps his shoulder against Johnny's playfully. Johnny staggers to his right a bit, but the smile he gives Peter is fond and amused.
When Peter grins back, it's just as affectionate. He thinks. He passed the point of having any sensation in his face ages ago. He hopes his lips aren't turning blue. "You're an idiot," he says, but there's no heat to it at all. It comes out sounding more fond more than anything.
"Right back at you, old friend," Johnny replies. He twists around so that he's leaning back against the railing too and drapes his arm around Peter's shoulders, the weight all too familiar and comforting.
The way he's looking at Peter--it's adoring, it's warm, but beneath it, Peter detects a flicker of sadness and what looks like...longing? Peter can't really figure that last part out. Longing for his family, perhaps?
It's something someone who didn't know Johnny as well as Peter does would never catch, but for Peter, there's no way to miss it.
He sighs internally. He supposes it was a little unrealistic to hope that one conversation alone would fix everything.
"C'mon," he tells Johnny, "I know things suck for you right now, but how about you try not to think about it, just for tonight? It's Christmas. Time to be merry and drink lots of eggnog and eat too much of Aunt May's apple pie." He presses a hand to his stomach and grimaces. "Seriously. I mean it, buddy. Stop me from eating too much pie."
Johnny shakes his head and laughs, and Peter's overjoyed by the sight.
They stay outside and talk on the porch for at least half an hour. Peter's grateful that Johnny must've spiked his body temperature, because it's not long before Peter starts to be able to feel his fingers again.
Peter's relieved to note that Johnny's much more cheerful, more his usual, incorrigible self, by the time they go back inside.
He can tell by the handful of freezing cold snow Johnny dumps down the back of his shirt the minute they get back indoors that he's gonna be just fine.
Peter knows what it's like to do your best to pretend everything's okay, until one day you look around and realize you aren't pretending anymore.
There's mistletoe in the kitchen that Johnny stands under without realizing, later on in the evening.
Peter, who's busy tidying up for Aunt May after dinner, doesn't know if he should say anything at first, but he's saved from having to make that call when Aunt May and Mrs. Watson walk in and notice right away, much to their delight.
They both smilingly press quick, affectionate kisses against Johnny's lips.
Johnny blushes but doesn't seem to mind much.
"Well?" Aunt May says expectantly to Peter, who's trying to do the dishes as quietly as possible so that no one'll remember he's there. Aunt May's eyebrow is arched, and she's about ten seconds away from tapping her foot. "Go kiss the boy! He's your guest, dear. It's rude to not."
"Ah," Peter says, up to his elbows in dishes and hot water. "Um. I don't--Johnny doesn't want to kiss me, Aunt May."
It would be awkward, right? Kissing his best friend would be awkward.
Johnny shrugs. "I don't mind if you don't," he says. There's a quirk to his lips that makes Peter suspect he's mostly doing this to give Peter a hard time. "It's just a kiss, Pete. It doesn't mean anything."
"It's tradition in this house, let me just remind you," Aunt May says to Peter, foot tapping against the startlingly clean tiles of her kitchen floor.
Peter knows. Every year, while Uncle Ben was around, he and Peter would hang mistletoe in every place Aunt May was likely to sit or stand, and she'd blush and laugh at both of them for being silly fools.
"Yeah, Pete," Johnny agrees. He looks much too pleased with himself for having discovered a new way to embarrass Peter. "It's tradition. Where's my kiss?"
Peter looks at the judgmental faces of Aunt May, Johnny, and Mrs. Watson. He feels very ganged-up on right now.
"Fine," Peter grumbles.
He dries his hands on the dish towel that'd been draped over his shoulder and walks over to Johnny, who's smirking triumphantly at him, the sprig of mistletoe that started all of this hanging innocently above his head.
If Johnny's bluffing, Peter just called it. Time to see who chickens out first. Besides, what the hell, it's just a kiss, it's not a big deal, he tells himself, even though it strangely feels like one.
Peter wants to wipe that smug smile off of Johnny's face. He comes to a halt right in front of Johnny and complains. "You're enjoying this way too much, Flamebrain," he grumbles.
"You're way too embarrassed by this," Johnny shoots back. His smile falters. "It's...kind of cute, honestly."
If Peter didn't know him so well, he might be fooled into thinking he meant it.
Peter feels his face heat up. "Cute?" he huffs, outraged, trying to save face. Johnny said that just to piss Peter off, didn't he? "I'm cute now? I take offense. I am manly. Very manly, I'll have you know--"
There's a muffled, surprised grunt from Peter as Johnny unexpectedly grabs and kisses him. Peter suspects it was primarily motivated by a desire to shut him up. He can sympathize.
The kiss itself ends up being pretty damn anticlimactic considering the giant stink Peter'd raised over it. Johnny mostly just slams his mouth against Peter's, kisses him hard for a thrilling ten seconds or so, and that's that. It's over.
Except that it isn't, because Peter can't keep himself, the rest of the night, from thinking about how soft Johnny's lips had been, how sweet they'd tasted, or wondering what had been that unreadable emotion that had flickered across Johnny's face in the few breathless moments that followed the kiss, right before he'd burst out laughing at the stunned look on Peter's face.
He can't...seem to take his eyes off of Johnny either.
Why can't he make himself stop?
Oh, god. This is trouble. Peter can tell.
Johnny strolls next to Peter as Peter walks to his car at the end of the night like he doesn't want it to end. Peter can hardly blame him. There's a bed waiting for Johnny that's as cold and as lonely as Peter's. He doesn't mind lingering and enjoying more of Johnny's companionship and warmth.
Peter's all bundled up in a coat, a scarf, and gloves. His face is probably pink from the cold. He certainly can't feel it at all.
Johnny's wearing a simple, light gray jacket, hands thrust idly into his pockets, utterly unbothered by the icy cold that's making Peter's face go numb.
There's a light snow drifting down from the heavens. It catches in Johnny's hair, sparkles in his eyelashes. The sight takes Peter's breath away.
Johnny's so beautiful it makes Peter's heart ache.
Peter's always known on some level that Johnny's extraordinarily good-looking, but this is the first time he's ever given himself permission to think it. He was afraid, he realizes now, to let himself think that way because he knew exactly where that sort of thinking could lead: right here, to this moment.
Their idle conversation fizzles out around the time they come to a halt next to Peter's fancy, absurdly expensive sportscar. He'd parked it in a rush a few blocks away, because Aunt May's block had been busy with a party the neighbors a few doors down were throwing.
Johnny grins when he sees Peter's terrible parking. "I can see your driving skills haven't improved at all. Run over any pedestrians lately?"
"Oh, you know," Peter jokes, "one or two. Who doesn't hit the odd pedestrian every now and then? It's good for getting the old heart rate up."
Johnny tosses his head back and laughs. He looks gorgeous. Peter's hands curl into fists in his coat pockets with the effort it's taking not to grab Johnny by the lapels of his jacket and kiss the smile right off of his lips.
He swallows. He knows that if anything is ever going to happen between them, it has to happen now. Or else he'll think too much about it and talk himself out of it.
But he's terrified because this is--it's risky. Johnny's his best friend, and he's all Johnny has right now, and if Johnny doesn't feel the same way...it might ruin everything, everything between them, and this is one of the most meaningful and long-lasting relationships in Peter's life. He can't let it end for something this stupid.
He shouldn't say anything, right? It's a bad plan.
"So about the mistletoe thing," Peter starts, all hesitation, and not really sure what he's asking.
Johnny's laughter dies away. "Yeah?" he says suspiciously. "What about it?"
"Was it," Peter says. He has no idea what the hell he's doing. "I mean, did you? Yeah. Did you?"
He squints at Johnny and waits for an answer. He hopes that made sense.
A faint line of confusion appears between Johnny's eyebrows, so he suspects it didn't. "What? Peter. What? I don't know what you're asking."
"It's just," Peter says haltingly. "I thought that maybe." He stops.
"Maybe what?" Johnny prods. His frown doesn't seem any less confused.
Peter debates over whether or not he should really ask. He decides against it. "Never mind," he says, shaking his head, disappointed. "If you'd felt it, you'd know what I mean."
Johnny's eyes snap open comically wide when he catches on to what Peter's asking, and Peter's pretty sure he's stopped breathing because there's no breath misting into the brisk night air anymore.
"Peter," Johnny says when he finally manages to find his voice. "Peter, do you mean you--?"
"You don't, I get it, it's not a big deal. Just ignore me," Peter interrupts. He doesn't want to ruin their friendship. Oh, god. That's the last thing he'd ever want. "Things don't have to change between us. I can deal with this. Not your problem. It's my thing. I'll handle it. Don't worry about it. You have enough to worry about."
Peter's heart is pounding. Please let Johnny just...laugh at him for being so lame and then forget all about this. People must fall in love with him all the time, right? They must throw themselves at his feet. This is. It's embarrassing for Peter, because he's always been the guy who scoffed and was honest about all of Johnny's flaws, but Johnny'll get it. He won't think it's a big deal, right?
The look on his face says he maybe does. His jaw is literally hanging open. God, he even looks pretty like that, even with that ridiculously stupid look on his face. How is that fair? Peter wants to know.
Then Johnny snaps out of it. His eyes blaze. "What do you mean it's not a--" he growls. "Are you really this stupid? How are you this stupid?" He stops. "What am I talking about? You're you. Of course you're this damn stupid. Jesus Christ, Peter. This is a new low."
Peter squints. He's a little taken aback and definitely totally lost. "Okay? Yes? Yes. I am stupid. I'm going with yes." He pauses. "So...what am I being stupid about?"
That's the last thing he says for quite a while, because, next thing he knows, Johnny's rolling his eyes and kissing Peter hard enough to make his toes curl. Peter feels a jolt of electricity pass through him, all the way down to his toes.
He feels that kiss in every inch of his body. It's intense. Johnny's one hell of a kisser.
Peter's starting to suspect that Johnny may have known before this. That maybe he's known for a very long time.
It's the way Johnny's kissing him, hard, fast, desperate, fingers buried roughly in Peter's hair, that clues Peter into that fact. This isn't the way someone would pity-kiss their best friend who they only just found out has feelings for them. This is the way they'd kiss the stupid idiot they've been pining for over the last fifteen years when he blunders into confessing he feels the same way.
Okay. So Peter's a stupid idiot. He accepts this.
A thrill--heady, intoxicating--shoots through him as he realizes what that all means. Johnny wants this. He wants Peter, just as much as Peter is discovering he wants him. He likely has for a long time.
So many things about their relationship suddenly start to make sense to Peter. Peter's a little mortified at how obvious it is, now that he knows. Oh, god. He is stupid.
Another thought strikes him. Everyone else knew except him, didn't they?
Aunt May figured it out for sure. Holy hell. That was why! The mistletoe! That was why!
It's embarrassing that he realized that he has feelings for Johnny because of something as cliché as a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas, but....Peter can't really bring himself to care very much, not when Johnny's kissing him like this.
This is everything he and Johnny have always been building towards. It feels right. So very, very right.
Why hadn't he ever let himself do this earlier? He could've, so many times, and now he knows Johnny would've let him, Johnny would've let Peter kiss him, let him fuck him. Is Johnny going to let Peter fuck him? Does Johnny want Peter to fuck him?
Peter's mind spins with the implications of that, with the endless possibilities.
Peter's convinced he's going to die, he's so turned on. He reaches up, grabs Johnny's jaw, and kisses him back deep. He pushes his tongue roughly inside of Johnny's mouth, wild with the need to be inside of him, any way he can. And Johnny lets him. Johnny moans and moans, low in his throat, as Peter takes over the kiss, gives as good as he got, and Peter would do anything, anything to be able to keep hearing those noises every day of his life.
Peter groans at the thought and presses his hips against Johnny's, feels Johnny's cock, hard against his hip, and the whole Earth heaves and spins.
This isn't enough. Peter wants more.
Peter tears his mouth away. "Come home with me," he says roughly. He can't help the heat that's in his eyes. "Come home with me."
Johnny's eyes are electric and full of fire. "Yes," he says. He doesn't even stop to think about it.
Peter drives them both to the Baxter Building, Johnny's hand hot and heavy and thrilling on his thigh, and does his best to ignore all of the jokes Johnny makes about how it took becoming a billionaire for him to finally learn how to drive--until, that is, Peter runs a red light.
"Almost learn how to drive," Johnny, smirking, amends it to.
Peter shoots him a glare. "I'm in a hurry, Matchstick," he says irritably. He pointedly eyes Johnny's hand--the one resting, so distractingly, on Peter's thigh--and adds, "And you aren't exactly helping me focus."
Johnny gives him a pitying look. "Pete," he says. "This is not me being distracting." He arches an eyebrow. "Unless...do you want me to be distracting?"
Peter doesn't even have to think about how to answer that one. "Yes," he says instantly, but then thinks better of it. "It's probably not a good idea while I'm driving."
Johnny shrugs, although he seems a tad disappointed. "Suit yourself."
Peter waits a beat, but nothing happens. Johnny's hand stays, infuriatingly, intoxicatingly, right where it is. "You gonna move your hand, buddy?" he prods.
"Where exactly do you want me to move it to, Pete, old buddy, old pal?" Johnny asks, a mischievous smile playing around his lips. Just to prove his point, he starts sliding his hand teasingly up Peter's thigh, and by the time it's settled right beneath Peter's crotch, Peter's lost all ability to breathe.
Peter curses and slams his foot down on the accelerator, weaving through traffic at what is most definitely not an advisable speed.
He's pretty sure that this is how he's going to finally kick the bucket. Everything he's been through, everything he's survived, and it's not gonna be a supervillain that does him in. It's gonna be Johnny Storm who's gonna be the death of him, because he won't take his damn hand off of Peter's thigh and it's gonna kill Peter, one way or another.
Why does Aunt May have to live so damn far from Manhattan?
It feels like it takes years to get to the Baxter Building. It's torture, and Johnny does everything he can to make it even more unbearable for Peter.
By the time Peter finally careens, tires squealing, into his private garage under the Baxter Building, Johnny's lips have been firmly attached to Peter's neck for at least ten minutes, he's been sucking at that sensitive spot under Peter's ear for the past minute easy, and that's not even taking into account the hand he's got jammed down the front of Peter's trousers, stroking his cock deliciously slowly.
If it'd taken any longer to get here, Peter's absolutely positive that it would've been Johnny's mouth sliding around Peter's cock, not his hand.
Johnny's driving Peter crazy and that's making Peter's driving crazy. He hasn't driven this badly since he paid a fortune for those private driving lessons. It's truly a miracle that Peter didn't hit anything on the way over--to be honest, it's probably entirely due to his lightning fast reflexes and Spidey sense, because god knows the entire trip is a blur.
The moment he hears the thrum of the car's engine die down, Johnny doesn't waste a second. He unbuckles his seatbelt, climbs into Peter's lap, and crashes his mouth against Peter's, like he can't wait another second. Frankly, it's cramped, and neither of them can really move enough to make this practical--Johnny's hand hasn't left Peter's cock, but that angle can't be pleasant.
When Peter shoves his tongue into Johnny's mouth roughly, Johnny slows his pace, starts sucking at Peter's tongue with leisurely, unhurried drags of his lips. It takes Peter a second to realize that he's doing it in time with the hand he's got curled around Peter's cock, but when Peter does, it's enough to make his head spin.
It's beautiful. Wonderful. Dizzying.
Peter needs to get them the hell out of here, because if he doesn't, he's going to come right here, with Johnny sucking enthusiastically at his tongue, and Johnny's hand curled so perfectly around his cock.
He curses, reaches out blindly for the door handle, and kicks the door open with slightly too much force. It flies through the air and ends up smashing into the wall on the opposite side of the garage. Johnny snickers a little into Peter's mouth and pulls back like he's going to make some kind of crack, but Peter's too quick to distract him, not that it's entirely on purpose.
Johnny's neck is right there, and Peter wants to taste it. Johnny's mouth drops open on a gasp when Peter moves to nip down his jaw and mouth along the slender column of his throat, and he shudders everywhere when Peter sinks his teeth into the corner of his jaw.
"You're good at that," Johnny says, breath hot against Peter's ear. "Why are you so good at that?"
"Are you complaining?" Peter teases, right before he drags his teeth down Johnny's neck. Johnny's fingers tighten where they're clutching at Peter's coat.
He still has the presence of mind to keep up the jokes, however. "When am I not complaining, Web-Head?" he shoots back. "It's what I do."
"I've noticed," Peter says with a smile, and then he eases them both out of the car with great care.
"Pete, what are you--" Johnny says sharply when Peter rises to his feet. He carries Johnny with him, holding him up with just one hand. It's easy enough for him.
Johnny scrambles frantically to grab on tight to Peter's shoulders and lock his legs around Peter's waist so he won't get dropped. Peter smothers a laugh at Johnny's panic. If this was any other guy, he should maybe be worried, but to Peter Johnny weighs about as much as a feather pillow.
Johnny glances wide-eyed down at the floor.
"Relax," Peter says. "I'm not gonna drop you. I could do this all day and then some."
Johnny doesn't seem to hear Peter, at first, but when his eyes return to Peter's face, they're dark and ravenous. "Oh, god," he says, voice thick with lust, and then he's smashing his mouth against Peter's once more, and it's all Peter can do to keep the presence of mind necessary to stumble to his private elevator.
There's a very eager Johnny Storm in his arms, after all, and Peter doesn't know how he'll ever be able to think about anything else now that he knows what this is like. His board meeting on Monday is going to be interesting.
Johnny rips his mouth away from Peter's the moment they're in the elevator, the doors safely closed behind them, and Peter's got him pinned against a wall. Peter's confused and a little upset at the abrupt absence of the slick heat of Johnny's mouth on his own.
It's somewhat assuaged by the heat he sees in Johnny' eyes when he says, "Put me down, Pete."
Peter's brain isn't working too well at the moment. All he can think is that he likes Johnny right where he is. "Why?" he says. "What for?"
"Just do what I tell you for once, would you?" Johnny says impatiently.
Peter hesitates, until Johnny dips his head forward and brushes his lips tantalizingly against Peter's. "It'll be good," Johnny says, "I promise. I'll be good."
"Good for me?" Peter breathes, more turned on than he thinks he's ever been in his life. He can feel the heat rising to his face. "Johnny, are you going to be good for me?"
Johnny groans as though he's just as turned on by the thought as Peter. "Yeah," he breathes. "So good. Let me down. You'll see."
This time, Peter does what Johnny asks, eager to see what Johnny has in mind. He frowns when Johnny slams his fist against the emergency stop button, and says, "You know you aren't supposed to press that unless there's an--"
The rest of his sentence is shoved back into his mouth by Johnny's tongue, and then he finds himself being pushed into a wall, Johnny's fingers fumbling clumsily with his tie and the buttons of his shirt.
Johnny's mouth is hot and dizzying when it slides down to Peter's neck. Peter gasps and moans helplessly when Johnny sucks a blazing hot trail of kisses onto Peter's chest and abs and every inch of skin Johnny's trembling fingers lay bare.
Johnny's on his knees by the time he's done, his fingers moving deftly to Peter's belt, trouser buttons, and zipper, and Peter understands now why Johnny'd demanded to be put down. He's going to suck Peter off, right here in the elevator. Peter's brain can't handle that thought. This is good, it's too good--
"You're gonna--" Peter pants, chest heaving. He swallows thickly. He can't quite believe this is happening. "Oh, god. You're gonna--"
Peter's half-formed questions are answered the moment Johnny pulls out Peter's cock and starts mouthing at its head. Peter's eyes flutter shut as his entire world narrows to the satiny heat of Johnny's mouth around Peter's cock.
"So good," Peter gasps brokenly. "Oh, god, Johnny, you're so good."
Johnny moans each time he says it, tries to swallow down more of Peter's cock, so Peter keeps it up until it becomes a sort of litany.
Peter's brain shorts out from pleasure the first time Johnny deep-throats him as far as he can while Johnny moans and moans. He cries out and throws his head back against the elevator wall so hard he's sure he dented it, just as he's certain that there'll be ten tiny indentations from where his fingers are clinging to the wall for dear life.
It won't be fun trying to come up with an explanation for that one that won't make Peter look like a fool.
Peter tries his hardest not to come, because he doesn't want to come here, like this. He wants to--he needs to be buried inside of Johnny when it happens, needs to see him writhing with pleasure on Peter's cock...
Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god. Peter can't let himself think like that or this really will be over soon.
He scrunches his eyes shut tighter and wills himself not to come.
Johnny keeps going and going, and it's sheer bliss and utter torture.
Finally, Johnny grunts and slides his mouth off of Peter's cock with a wet pop. "Pete," he says hoarsely, "stop holding back. I want to make you come. I want to be good for you."
"You are," Peter says, shaking, trying his best to get his body under some semblance of control. "I just don't want this to be over so fast."
Johnny rolls his eyes. "We have so much time," he says, and then grins. "You can get it up again, can't you, Parker? Or are you really getting that old?"
Peter narrows his eyes. He knows what Johnny's doing. Egging Peter on like this always works like a charm. And it's going to work again now. "I can get it up again," he says. "I can get it up as many times as you want me to."
"Promises, promises," Johnny says, shaking his head like he doesn't believe Peter at all.
"I can," Peter repeats stubbornly.
"So prove it," Johnny challenges, eyes sparkling up at Peter.
"Oh, I'll prove it," Peter says.
Johnny smilingly lowers his mouth to Peter's cock, unceremoniously swallows Peter down to the root in one abrupt movement, and his lips, his mouth, they feel glorious, and that's it, Peter can't take it anymore, can't hold back the dam. It's taken every ounce of self-control to hold back so far.
Peter comes so hard that his vision whites out at the edges, his body arches and writhes as his cock pulses and pulses desperately into the hot wet heaven of Johnny's mouth.
Peter stares, completely spent, as Johnny grins up at him, and says, "Ready for round two?"
When Peter gets Johnny into a bed at last, he takes it slow because he wants to make this good for Johnny, make it last as long as he can so that Johnny doesn't have to think about anything else.
He kisses and kisses Johnny's lips until they're red and raw and he thinks Johnny's had enough, and then he moves on to exploring the rest of Johnny's body, tortuously slowly, with his wet, open mouth.
No, it's not an exploration, not exactly. It's more a kind of worship. Peter's never been able to communicate to Johnny exactly how much he cares about him. Words have always failed him. Maybe this will get the message across. Maybe Johnny will understand what Peter's only just begun to admit to himself: that he's wildly in love with Johnny Storm, and has been always.
It's been, he thinks, the hidden truth of their relationship since the very beginning.
Fifteen long years it's taken them to get to this point, to Johnny, spread out beneath him, naked, golden as the sun, glorious, gazing up at Peter with a thrilling mixture of what Peter would call adoration and lust if he had to, but there are no words, none, that can adequately capture it.
Peter doesn't ever want to forget what it feels like to have Johnny looking at him this way. It's the closest thing to heaven Peter's ever found.
Peter gets it now. All of those times over the years that he's done his best to help Johnny, it hasn't been because he's been trying to pay back a debt. Nothing that simple. It's because he cares about Johnny, because he likes seeing him happy, enjoys even more being the cause of his happiness, and so, now more than ever, he wants to make the tension bleed out of Johnny's body, wants to ensure that his sadness and grief are replaced by pleasure, by bliss, by ecstasy, even if it's only for a few brief moments. Peter can give him that much.
So Peter takes his time. He wants to watch Johnny fall apart from pleasure rather than pain, for once.
He noses lazily down Johnny's neck, seals his lips over the soft spot at the base of Johnny's neck and sucks, licks over Johnny's surprisingly sensitive nipples and sinks his teeth into them when Johnny cries out at it, traces shapes with his tongue across the taut, muscular planes of Johnny's stomach, scratches his teeth across the sharp jut of Johnny's hips, and bites kisses into the delicate skin of Johnny's thighs.
He listens to the sounds Johnny makes, the gasps, whimpers, and groans, watches the way Johnny arches into Peter's every touch as though he can't get enough of this either.
By the time Peter's done, Johnny's a shivering, moaning mess on the sheets.
Peter sits back on his haunches and gives himself permission to drink in the sight, marvel over what feels almost surreal--Johnny Storm, in his bed, flushed, panting, completely debauched, waiting breathlessly for Peter to fuck him.
It's beautiful. Peter doesn't understand how he's managed to go so long without ever giving himself the permission to do this.
Johnny's eyes slide open, just the narrowest sliver of black ringed with blue and white. Peter doesn't know what his own face looks like--painfully aroused, he supposes, although he's doing his best to ignore it, because this is all about Johnny--but however it looks, it makes Johnny's lips curve upward. "Enjoying the view?" he says.
Peter doesn't feel like making a crack for once in his life. "Yes," he says with the utmost sincerity. "You're beautiful."
Johnny's breath catches at that, and he lurches up, laces his fingers around the back of Peter's neck, and kisses Peter hard.
"So I'm about ten seconds away from lighting your bed on fire," he whispers against Peter's mouth, "if you don't get around to fucking me soon. This was your idea."
Peter grins. He should've known that Johnny'd be this impatient and demanding in bed. He's surprised Johnny's lasted this long without complaining. "Just making it good for you, Torchy."
"It feels more like you're torturing me," Johnny says dryly. "You're killing me here, Parker."
"Oh, buddy," Peter says with mock sympathy. "I haven't even started yet." He reaches for the lube that he'd tossed onto his night stand and dangles it in front Johnny. "I still have to open you up, so you're gonna have to wait a little longer before things really heat up. Think you can take it?"
Johnny eyes the bottle of lube and then the mischievous look on Peter's face. "You know what?" he says, reaching out for it. "Why don't I do that? I'll be quicker."
Peter yanks it out of reach. He has plans that don't include Johnny fingering himself open while Peter watches. Not that that doesn't sound fun, but not tonight. "No," he says firmly. "Johnny, you're gonna let me do this."
Johnny stops, hand caught mid-air, and frowns at Peter, baffled. "Why?"
Peter dips down and kisses the frown away. "Because I want to make this good for you," he explains. "You've been having a rough time lately. Let me do something nice for you. Let me do this much for you."
Johnny's eyes darken, and then he's kissing Peter again, wild and frantic.
He lets Peter stay in charge of fingering him open. Peter was pretty sure he would.
Peter groans when he finally manages to work a finger in. It's so hot inside of Johnny, so soft, so tight, where he's clenching and clenching around Peter's finger.
Peter has to stop and take a second to breathe because if Johnny feels this good around Peter's finger, he's going to feel amazing around Peter's cock.
"Pete," Johnny complains. He shifts restlessly against the sheets. "Come on. I am. I am so ready to do this, you don't have to--"
It ends in a choked-off cry because Peter curls his finger right against Johnny's prostate, just to be a jerk.
"You jackass," Johnny groans. "Oh, you jerk."
"Sure you didn't mean to call me--" Peter does it again. "--an asshole?"
Johnny groans, and Peter's not quite sure if it was at his terrible joke or at his skill at fingering. He knows. He knows. He's great at it.
"I did not--" Johnny starts. Peter thrusts his fingers in, and Johnny's hips helplessly buck upwards. "--mean that!"
Peter laughs at him.
By the time Peter finally decides Johnny's ready, Johnny's threatened to set him on fire four separate times. Peter takes great pride in noting that his threats grow progressively less coherent the longer Peter's fingers are in him.
He makes a soft, disappointed noise when Peter pulls his fingers out, but gasps and arches his back when Peter finally manages to roll a condom on--his shaking hands make it difficult--and starts to press in.
"I'm gonna make you feel so good," Peter promises. That's all Peter wants. His own pleasure is secondary to that.
Johnny's eyes are closed, his red mouth open and panting, and Peter can't help it, he dips down and kisses it, as he slides home.
Peter starts out slow, rocking his hips back and forth in short little thrusts, and it's too much, too much. He's inside of Johnny Storm, the guy who's been his best friend, his idol, since he was fifteen, and this is all so surreal.
Johnny feels good, so good inside. Hot and tight and better than anything Peter ever could have imagined.
"Come on," Johnny's saying, eyelids fluttering, rolling his hips back against every one of Peter's shallow thrusts. "Pete, come on. Move. I can take it, I can take it--"
Peter reaches up and grasps Johnny's jaw. "Eyes open," he says. His hips stop their movement entirely.
Johnny wrenches his eyes open. "Wha?" he says.
He gets what's happening when Peter starts a long, languorous stroke in while gazing intently into his eyes.
Peter keeps fucking him like that for what feels like ages. It's intense, almost painfully intimate, Johnny vulnerable and naked in ways Peter suspects he's never been before. There's no way for either of them to hide anything like this. Everything they are laid bare.
Johnny's the one who breaks first. "Please," he begs, voice shaking with the effort of keeping his eyes open while Peter fucks him, nice and slow. He scratches at Peter's shoulders. "Peter, please."
Peter takes pity on him. He snaps his hips forward, slams in deep, and Johnny's eyes fall shut as he cries out in pleasure.
That does it. Peter can't help it--he's so worked up that he can't control himself anymore. He starts fucking Johnny in earnest.
The pace is relentless, merciless, frantic, the headboard pounding against the wall so noisily Peter's glad there's no one else on this floor at this time of night. Peter's been holding back for what feels like forever, so now he lets loose with bone-jarringly strong thrusts.
Johnny loves every second of it. He moans, throws his head from side to side, claws at Peter's shoulders--there'll be scratches there for a few hours until his healing factor clears it away, not that Peter minds a little pain. He can take it.
Johnny's been teetering on the brink of an orgasm for so long that he comes fairly quickly. Peter watches, awestruck, as Johnny's overwhelmed by bliss, watches as his body seizes and arches, taut as a bow, a deep, deep blush blossoming all over, as he thrashes against the ruined sheets and squeezes and squeezes down around Peter's cock, tight as a vise. Peter doesn't think he's ever seen anything hotter.
He watches Johnny fall to pieces around his cock, but it's all right because Peter's there to catch him and help him put himself back together, no matter how long it takes.
And then Peter can't take it, he has to, he just has to. He grasps Johnny's hips hard enough that it'll probably bruise and starts to ram in ruthlessly. It's not long at all until he comes too, spills deep inside of Johnny, and collapses on top of him.
"Well, that was fun," Johnny says. He starts to laugh.
"I guess this might be good for me," Johnny muses, not long after, fingers combing through Peter's hair. "Taking care of someone'll give me something to do, at least. Take my mind off things."
Peter lifts his head, from where it'd been buried against Johnny's neck, and narrows his eyes at Johnny. "You taking care of me?" he says. "I'm taking care of you. Why do I even need taking care of? I'm fine. I'm a successful businessman and stuff."
"You're also really lonely, Pete," Johnny points out, and it brings Peter up short because he realizes the truth of it as soon as he hears it. "You need someone. Let me be that someone. And I don't need you taking care of me, Pete. I want a partner, not a mother."
Peter snorts. "Sorry, buddy, but if you date me, you're gonna get good and mothered by my aunt. She has a soft spot for orphans."
Johnny laughs a little. "That's okay," he says. "I'm used to that. Sue and Reed are--" He stops, then starts again. "--were the same way. Besides, I like your aunt. She's nice. But I don't need you doing that too, buddy."
Peter thinks it over. "Deal," he says. He can still take care of Johnny without him noticing.
"I'm definitely going to notice," Johnny says, like he knows exactly what Peter's thinking. "So don't try it."
Peter blinks. "How did you--?"
Johnny grins, delighted that he was right. "I know how that bug brain of yours works," he says. He touches a finger to Peter's forehead. "Fifteen years are nothing to sneeze at."
Peter considers which part of that to correct. "Well, not exactly fifteen," he settles on. "We hated each other for a good long while in the beginning."
Johnny's smile falters. "That's not true, Pete. I always liked you a little," he confesses. "Even when I hated you, I always thought you were the best. Better than me, anyways. I think that's why I hated you so much. I was afraid you were better than me. I was mean to your face all the time but nice behind your back. Ask Reed or Su--." He stops again, and the light in his eyes fades. "Right," he says quietly. "Sorry. I keep doing that. I think it's just...being back here." He looks up and around at Peter's quarters, eyes distant as he remembers the fifteen or so joyous years he'd spent living here with his family. "It brings back so many memories. It almost feels like...if I walk out that door, my family's all gonna be there, waiting. Like they never left."
He looks miserable.
Peter presses his forehead against Johnny's. "Hey," he says. "They'll be back." He's sure of it now. He regrets ever doubting it. "I know it."
Johnny's mouth is a thin, quavering line. "I'm not so sure," he admits. "I wish I was as sure as you."
"Look," Peter tells him. "If an idiot like me can figure out he's in love with you after fifteen years, anything can happen."
Johnny's laugh is startled out of him. "Well," he fumbles, "I'm glad you're finally starting to accept how stupid you are, at least. All thanks to me, I'm sure."
"Eh, it's a process," Peter says, playing along. His smile softens. "And, hey, when they do come back, this place is yours again."
Johnny frowns. "Pete," he says, "you're sure about this?"
Peter nods. He can't imagine it any other way. "The Fantastic Four, together, in the Baxter Building. Everything the way it should be. It'll happen someday. I'd bet everything I have on it. You just...can't give up hope, Johnny. They'll be back, and you'll all be together again. You just need to have faith."
Peter's hardly done talking before Johnny kisses him.
Johnny moves in with Peter, into the Baxter Building, by the end of the week. It's not the same as having all of the Fantastic Four back where they belong, but it's a start.