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Keep the Fire Burning

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“Such a shame.”

There was a hum in the voices of the Red Skull’s victims, a high sort of buzz that was grating on Peter’s already frayed nerves, and there was nothing he could do about it but clench his jaw and pretend it wasn’t getting to him.

“Not a fan of the weather we’re having?” he said, trying to keep his voice even. It was hard, feeling helpless, but he wasn’t about to leave Johnny – or the others – alone. “Me, I like a little spring drizzle.”

So help him, Peter really wanted to hit something, but the fight was over and everyone was, for the time being, at least contained.

Maybe Wong would ignore it if he just started hitting a wall.

“He was so pleased when you swung to the rescue,” the Skull continued, and it wasn’t right, Johnny’s voice twisted to fit that ugly tone. The Red Skull had made him struggle at first, but now he just hung in the webbing.

“That’s me, professional Torch wrangler,” Peter said. “I’ll always come if he needs me.”

If Johnny could hear him, he wanted him to know.

“Oh, he’s aware. He’s so sickeningly besotted with you,” the Skull said and Peter froze. “So in love with his knight in shining armor -- and so averse to pain. Would you like to watch him bite through his own tongue?”

Peter lunged – but there was no one present he could hit. He stopped himself short and held himself back, trembling with anger as the Red Skull threw Johnny’s head back with laughter.

Then, before Peter could contemplate things like a webbing gag or whether Johnny would ever forgive him for that or how terrible of a person he was for letting his brain take a split second detour to gags in other contexts, the laughter stopped. Johnny slumped in the webbing, eyes shut, completely still and looking for all the world like a puppet who had just had his strings cut.

Peter rushed to check for a pulse and hung his head in relief when he found one.

“Uh, Wong?” he called. “Tell me this is a good development.”

Wong was silent for a long moment. Peter used it to examine Johnny’s face – peaceful, like he was resting finally – and comb his hair back. His hands were shaking, just a little.

“The Red Skull’s presence is gone from their minds,” Wong announced at last.

Peter breathed out, slow.

“Well,” he said. “That was a little anticlimactic.”

“Spider-Man,” Wong chastised.

“I didn’t say I was complaining. Hey, hello, beautiful,” Peter said as soon as Johnny looked like he was coming around. “Back with the land of the living?”

“Pete—Spidey…?” Johnny said, brows furrowed. He struggled against the webbing, less wildly than before. The slip-up was a good sign, too; the psychic blocks Reed had had put in place back when Peter had taken the mask off the second time wouldn’t have let anyone else know Peter’s identity.

Whether those same blocks would let any psychic intruders know if Johnny was in love with Spider-Man was a question that had never occurred to him before.

“In the flesh,” Peter said. “Which is what I’m very happy to see you in.”

Johnny offered him a smile, shaky but real and completely Johnny. Relief swept through Peter, powerful enough to make him laugh a little.

“Hold still,” he said, snapping the webline that kept Johnny anchored to the signpost. “I’ve got some solvent in my belt.”

“I thought this stuff took an hour to dissolve,” Johnny said, making a face as Peter manhandled him down.

“I didn’t think you’d appreciate the fire-proof version without a shortcut,” Peter said.

“I don’t necessarily appreciate the fire-proof version,” Johnny said. “But I guess right now I can’t complain. My head…”

“Those psychic hangovers are killer,” Peter said. He resisted the urge to comb Johnny’s hair back from his face again only because he had webbing on his hands, and it was already a little awkward, kneeling over Johnny so he could pour solvent over his webbed knees. To the rest of street, he announced, “Well, gang, not that it hasn’t been fun wrecking New York, but I think it’s time for me to flee the scene before someone makes my boss pay for it. See you all next mass mind control.”

Johnny cringed, gaze averted. His hair was still damp, dark gold and curling across his forehead. Peter ripped half-dissolved webbing from him as gently as he could manage.

“See most of you next mind control,” he amended. “Come home with me, Torch?”

He wanted someone to keep an eye on Johnny, at least for the next few hours, and he couldn’t think of anyone else better suited for the job. Johnny had almost died in front of him. It wasn’t wrong, that Peter wanted to take care of him after that, to settle both their nerves.

He expected Johnny to argue – but he only nodded instead.

“I’m too woozy to fly,” Johnny said, rubbing at his freed wrists. Peter had tried to distribute the stress of the webbing as evenly as he could, but there had been no denying he’d made it tight. Peter had refused to risk Johnny’s safety until he’d been free of the Red Skull’s control; he kept seeing it in his mind’s eye, the graceful tilt of Johnny’s head, the careless way he’d selected the shard of glass. He could still see the sharp edge of it glimmer.

It was like there was a split-second movie playing on a loop in his head: “If I can’t make him watch as I kill you – perhaps you’ll enjoy watching as I kill him.”

Peter breathed out, slow. His nerves were still shot in the phantom way a strong burst of his spider-sense sometimes left. Or maybe that was just the close call talking. He snapped another string of webbing, brushing it from Johnny’s costume.

“Well, I am, shockingly, low on the old web fluid,” he said. He held out his hand for Johnny to take, wrapped his own arm around Johnny’s waist, and tried not to think too hard about what the Red Skull had said. “So one quick stop and then I think we’ll cab it.”

He probably should’ve stayed for the clean-up, but Johnny needed him more, and he wasn’t about to leave Johnny. You took care of family – that was the Fantastic Four way. With Reed and Sue still missing and Ben avoiding the phone like an eight-foot-tall orange luddite, Peter was as close as Johnny had. So Peter said screw it in the privacy of his own head and used the last of the web cartridge to swing them up and away, past the police barricade, to a quiet spot where he could change the costume back into civilian wear.

Johnny was a little unsteady on his feet when they landed. He leaned back against the wall while Peter changed, head back and eyes closed.

“I’m not tired,” Peter said. “I can carry you.”

“Try it and you’ll be one very hot spider,” Johnny said.

“As if I’m not already,” Peter scoffed. He tried not to hover too much as Johnny shakily pushed himself away from the wall or when he hunched his shoulders and crossed his arms while Peter hailed them some slightly more conventional transportation.

“The Baxter Building,” Peter said when a cab finally stopped, moving back to let Johnny in first.

Johnny had his fingers pressed to his forehead, silently putting up with Peter tugging brittle strands of webbing away from him. He rubbed his thumb against the side of Johnny’s knee, hoping for soothing. Johnny was tense all over, every muscle coiled tight. “Your head hurt?”

“A homicidal maniac with a Halloween mask for a face almost made me burn you alive,” Johnny bit out, leveling Peter with a glare. “How do you think my head feels?”

“Alright, alright, I know. It’s okay. I’m fine, see?” Peter said, hand on his knee. He caught the cab driver staring at them in the mirror and snapped his fingers. “What, you’ve never seen a superhero before? Eyes on the road, pal, and so help me if you try to take us down 42nd.”

“Every moment with you is a new humiliation,” Johnny told him.

“Yeah?” Peter said. He snapped another strand of webbing, dragging it away from Johnny hip, and tried not to let his hand linger too much. “Imagine how much worse it is actually being me.”

“Oh,” Johnny said when the cab stopped in front of the Baxter Building. “I don’t have money.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Peter said, pulling out his wallet and thanking the universe for hidden pockets. “I’m your billionaire baby now, remember?”

“Right. That’s still weird,” Johnny said, and then before Peter could finish paying he opened the door and headed for the building. Peter swore under his breath.

The cabbie whistled, long and low.

“Don’t,” Peter said, thrusting what was probably too much cash at the cabbie.

“Hey, didn’t he used to be one of those Fantastic Four folks?” the cab driver asked.

“Keep driving before I decide to take that tip back,” Peter said, slamming the door shut a little harder than strictly necessary.

Johnny was standing in the lobby, head tilted back as he stared at the statue Peter had commissioned of the Fantastic Four. Peter breathed out, slow.

It was late, but not late enough for the Baxter Building’s lobby to be deserted, and the news of the Human Torch’s attack had been broadcast far and wide. People were staring at Johnny, on edge. Peter’s spider-sense buzzed faintly as one security guard’s hand twitched near his gun. Johnny didn’t seem to notice, staring at the statue with the strangest look on his face.

Peter took him by the elbow and Johnny snapped out of it, whirling to face him. Peter squeezed, meeting Johnny’s startled gaze.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi,” Johnny said. He was pale – it hadn’t been very obvious on the dark streets or in the cab, but the lobby lights revealed the grim, bloodless set of his mouth, the faint tremble of his shoulders. It still struck Peter like lightning, sometimes, what a pretty shade of blue his eyes were.

Peter needed to get him out of the public eye before someone started taking pictures, or worse.

“Upstairs?” he said.

“What?” Johnny said.

“We should go upstairs,” Peter said, drawing him gently away from the statue. “You’re freaking the locals out a little bit, Torch.”

Johnny suddenly seemed to remember there were other people besides them in the lobby.

“Sorry,” he said with one last longing glance at the statue. “I got – distracted.”

“I know,” Peter said, ushering him into the elevator.

“Do you know how this elevator used to work?” Johnny asked, leaning back against the mirrored wall.

“I’d say no system of pulleys could be sophisticated enough for Dr. Reed Richards, but I actually did manage to break into this elevator shaft once,” Peter teased. “Looked like pretty standard operation to me.”

“Secret signal beam in our belts,” Johnny said. His eyes were closed and the corners of his mouth twitched, almost a smile. “The doors would only open for one of the Fantastic Four. Reed liked his secret agent man stunts way more than he ever admitted.”

“Bet you loved it, too,” Peter said.

“I was sixteen, I had superpowers and I lived in a building with a robot receptionist, all footed by my sister’s genius boyfriend who never seemed to care when I ran up his cards,” Johnny said. His eyes drifted open and the smile fell. “I loved absolutely everything.”

The doors opened to the penthouse apartment. Johnny strode through them without waiting for Peter.

“Do these windows open?” he asked, prying at them. “Reed never – all the kids, he always childproofed everything, but I really need some air, Peter –”

“Here.” Peter batted Johnny’s hands away, undid the lock and slid the windows up. “You know I hate to leave by door.”

The night air this high up was cool and refreshing; Johnny took huge breaths of it, eyes fluttered shut. Peter stroked a hand up and down the line of his spine, shushing.

“Normally I don’t worry about you and high places,” he said, “but today hasn’t really been a normal day.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny said.

“Well, I’m not, and I didn’t go through half of what you did today, so I don’t see how that can possibly be true,” Peter said, flicking another bit of webbing away from Johnny’s costume. “But if we’re lying to each other now…”

“Don’t,” Johnny said. He took a ragged breath. “He made me see my family.”

Peter froze. “What?”

“He – he made me hallucinate that they were back,” Johnny said. “In this building, actually. Up on the roof. I flew over to them and then he made me think I – it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t real.”

“Johnny,” Peter said, softly, at a loss for what else to say.

“What I almost did to you,” Johnny continued, staring out the window. “That was real.”

“Not you. It wasn’t you,” Peter corrected him. Johnny didn’t seem to hear him.

“Reed and Sue had their old uniforms on,” Johnny said. “That’s why I was thinking about the old elevator. It’s stupid.”

“That’s not stupid,” Peter said. “I miss them, too.”

“I know,” Johnny said, miserably.

“Every day,” Peter said. “Every single day in this building – I think about them.”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny said. He reached out and squeezed Peter’s shoulder, too brief. “I’m stealing your shower. Your webbing smells terrible.”

Johnny took forever in the shower, but Peter supposed if it had been the Red Skull in his head he’d want to try and wash every trace of the day away, too. It wasn’t like the water bill would bankrupt him for once.

“You’re not fighting Hydro-Man in there without me, right?” he called once, rapping on the door with his knuckles.

“Go away, Peter!” came the terse reply.

He was checking his e-mail when Johnny finally reappeared, dressed in a ratty old pair of pajama pants Peter had never bothered to throw out and the Fantastic Four hoodie Johnny himself had thrust on him years ago, right before Aunt May’s wedding. Peter hadn’t even known he’d still had it. His throat felt tight, seeing Johnny back in the familiar blue.

“Sleeps in my bed, steals my clothes…” he said, clearing his throat. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you cared or something.”

“Or something,” Johnny agreed, curling up against the arm of the couch. “You mind?”

“You know I don’t,” Peter said, moving to join him. He expected Johnny to sprawl out immediately and begin their usual war for couch space, but he stayed where he was, knees pulled up. The hoodie was big on Peter; Johnny, narrower in the shoulders, huddled in it. “Are you hungry? I’ve got an empty bottle of ketchup and some cheese I think is about to graduate college, but we can order in. Pizza?”

“I’m not hungry,” Johnny said, propping one elbow up on the arm of the couch and planting his chin on his palm. His damp hair shone under the overhead lights, curling a little the same way it had when the fire hydrant had extinguished him during the fight. Peter wanted to touch it, to see if it was as soft as it looked.

He was being a terrible friend. It was just the rattled nerves talking, his self-control a little frayed.

If he was honest with himself, the way he so rarely was, it was the things the Red Skull had said.

“Is there someone I should be calling?” Peter asked after a long, uncomfortable minute spent trying not to stare too hard or too much, reminding himself that Johnny wasn’t really his, no matter what some supervillain had said, and Peter had no business admiring his jawline like that. “The Queen of the Inhumans have a landline or something?”

“No,” Johnny said, cringing. “No, that’s not – we’re not doing that anymore. Medusa and me, it’s over. She’s – Black Bolt – They’re… I wouldn’t have wanted her to see me like this, anyway.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Peter asked. It came out sounding as awkward as he felt.

Johnny glowered at him. Peter held up his hands.

“Alright, stupid question…” he said. “I’m sorry, if y’know, you want me to be sorry.”

He wasn’t really sorry, too busy playing the Red Skull’s words over and over in his head. So in love with his knight in shining armor. The Red Skull had no reason to lie – but maybe he’d only said it to hurt Peter more, to kill Johnny and leave him wondering forever if it had been true. Or maybe he’d known, somehow. Scanned Peter’s mind too and found the moment on Doom’s Battleworld when he’d looked up at the sun and realized who burned at the center of it and been hit with it, with all of it, everything he felt for Johnny.

A hell of a time to fall in love.

He’d almost said something half a dozen times, but there had always been some reason: the disappearance of the Fantastic Four, and then Johnny so wrecked after Ben’s departure that Peter hadn’t wanted to put this on him, too, to make Johnny have to turn him down if he didn’t feel the same. No reaction to the unspoken gesture that was the Baxter Building. And then, of course, there had been Johnny’s relationship with Medusa.

One down, but all the other reasons still stood. That was the Parker Luck in action.

“You were never even at the usual place, right?” Johnny asked after a long uncomfortable moment.

“What?” Peter said, glancing at him. Johnny was staring determinedly at the wall.

“I got snatched from the Statue of Liberty,” Johnny said. “Quicksilver told me you wanted to meet up with me.”

“Why would I ever pass a message through Quicksilver?” Peter said.

“I don’t know, Peter! I wasn’t thinking!” Johnny said, throwing up his hands. “For some reason it never occurred to me that my possessed teammate would be using you to play me and that I’d end up a psychic puppet rampaging through Madison Square instead of, I don’t know, listening to you ramble at me about your weird life for a few hours!”

“Okay, okay,” Peter said, giving into instinct and hauling Johnny into a hug. “It’s okay, it’s happened to me, too. No, I wasn’t there. I was in the office all day.” Johnny mumbled something against his shoulder that sounded like ‘typical.’ Peter sighed. “Maybe we need a less visible meet-up spot.”

“I like the Statue of Liberty,” Johnny said, shoving at Peter.

Peter moved back, a little alarmed that Johnny, the touchy-feeliest guy he knew, didn’t want to drag the hug out – and maybe a little disappointed, too, if he let himself stop feeling so guilty about it for two seconds. But Johnny only slumped back down against his side, his head down on Peter’s shoulder, in a way that made it all too easy for Peter to drape an arm around Johnny’s shoulders.

“Alright, no changing the not-so-secret hangout. You tripped my spider-sense, you know,” Peter said, dragging a hand up and down Johnny’s arm. He didn’t know which of them he was trying to comfort. “When he made you pick up that glass, I just – red alert, red alert, all hands on deck.”

He mimed an explosion with his free hand, wiggling his fingers in the air.

“What does that even mean?” Johnny asked.

“I get a feel, sometimes, for the people around me,” Peter said, rubbing little circles against Johnny’s shoulder through the soft old fabric. “An awareness. Where they are in relation to me even with walls in the way, that kind of thing. Incredibly useful when I had to sneak in and out of the house as a kid.” He swallowed. “If they’re in trouble, maybe.”

“Maybe?” Johnny snorted. “It’s your magic danger sense, shouldn’t you know why it’s going off?”

“It’s not as reliable,” Peter said. “Danger to me, sure. Danger to the people I – it’s not a sure thing, always.”

He’d almost said ‘love’ and nearly bitten his tongue. He could throw himself off the tallest of buildings and he could go up against super-strong stone cold murderers without so much as a flinch, but he couldn’t tell his best friend – who maybe felt the same way – how he felt. He was a coward.

The better half of him told him that Johnny was upset, and tired, and even if Peter could get the words out, it wouldn’t be fair to tell him now. The worse said that was just another excuse on a long list of excuses.

“Has it ever gone off for me before?” Johnny asked, still not looking at him.

Peter couldn’t stop seeing it – Johnny’s long fingers picking up that huge shard of glass. The entire world had narrowed and slowed, the way it did sometimes when his spider-sense kicked into high gear, all his instincts screaming at him. He hadn’t been thinking when he’d webbed Johnny’s hands – he’d just moved.

He couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened if he’d been too late. Would the Red Skull have done it fast? Made Johnny slash his own throat? Or would he have realized that the unstable molecules of Johnny’s uniform would have offered some defense – aimed for his unprotected face instead?

Perhaps you’ll enjoy watching as I kill him instead. He shuddered, just a little, biting down on the jumble of emotions that surged through him – anger at the Skull. Anger at himself, for almost being too slow, for the fact that Johnny had been lured out in the first place with the promise of Peter’s company. Relief that Johnny was, if a little worse for the wear, in one piece, leaning heavily against Peter like all his strings had been cut and Peter was the only thing keeping him up.

He was touching too much already, he knew that. Still he raised his hand to the vulnerable line of Johnny’s neck, pushed the hood of the sweatshirt down a little so he could touch the bare skin there, blissfully unmarred. He pressed his thumb to Johnny’s pulse, comforted by the steady beat. He couldn’t stop imagining Johnny, bleeding. He’d never even seen Johnny bleed, but he could imagine it – Peter, a second too slow, the flash of the glass, and the red spill of Johnny’s blood. It had almost happened.

“No,” he said, hoarse, thumb skirting up and down Johnny’s neck. “That’s never happened before.”

“Oh,” Johnny said, sounding a little surprised. He lifted his head, meeting Peter’s eyes.

Holding Johnny’s gaze seemed unbearable; Peter looked down instead and hissed when he saw what the sleeves of his old hoodie didn’t quite hide: there were red marks on Johnny’s wrists, where the webbing had bitten into his skin.

“I hurt you,” he said, taking Johnny’s hands in his own. He turned them over to examine the angry marks, circling Johnny’s wrists like bracelets. The sight made him wince.

“Stow the guilt complex,” Johnny said with a tired laugh. He twisted his hands in Peter’s grip, touching Peter’s wrists instead, right over the spot where the webshooters would’ve clasped if Peter had been wearing them. Right over his pulse. “I’m the one who almost killed you. You saved both our lives. It’s not your fault I bruise easy.”

Peter remembered – he’d immobilized every joint, laying the webbing on thick and tight when the Skull had made Johnny thrash in its hold. Peter maybe hadn’t been thinking straight – webbing loved ones was always an unpleasant experience, always made him think of Gwen. He knew that wasn’t fair, but all he’d been thinking in the moment was not him. Not him too.

All he’d thought afterwards, a little hot under the spandex collar, was that a cocoon would’ve probably been more practical. He and his instincts were due a long talk about the proper ways to restrain his best friend.

“Geez,” he muttered. “You must be bruised all over.” He’d meant it to be sympathetic; instead his voice sounded faintly awed, heavy with – something. Not something. Desire. “That, uh, that came out wrong.”

“Did it?” Johnny asked, raising his eyebrows. “I am sore and while it’s not how I ever imagined you webbing me up would go…”

Peter laughed, a little nervously. Johnny didn’t.

“Johnny?” he said, laughter dying.

“You never thought about it?” Johnny said, pressing a little closer. “Never? I’m finding that a little hard to believe, considering how you webbed me up.”

“I, uh,” Peter said. Johnny’s face was very close to his own, and Johnny’s fingers were curling in his shirt, and all he could think was, is this really happening? “Can I plead the fifth?”

“For so long, I had almost nothing to go on,” Johnny said. “I couldn’t see your face, and – Peter, in the costume? You’re kind of a clown.”

“Oh, only in the costume?” Peter said, but it was hard to make it sound like a joke when Johnny was so close, when he was looking at Peter like that, when if Peter had moved just a second too late –

Peter couldn’t help it. He touched the hinge of Johnny’s jaw, feather-light, and tried not think of the damage the Red Skull could’ve inflicted if Peter’s reflexes were even a fraction less of what they were.

“I only had your voice for years,” Johnny said. “My friend for half my life and I only had your voice… I’ve heard you angry, and I’ve heard you scared, but I’ve never heard you like that.”

“Johnny,” he said, struck completely speechless, and then all of a sudden they were kissing, Johnny practically in his lap and one of Peter’s hands on his waist, the other in his hair. Johnny’s lips were soft and yielding; he tasted faintly ashen. Peter wondered if he always did, or only after he’d spent the day on fire. Maybe only when he was sad.

His hair was so soft, and the noise he made when Peter curled his fingers in it – Peter was going to remember that noise forever.

“I don’t care,” Johnny said when they broke apart, forehead pressed against Peter’s. His eyes were shut. “I don’t care if this is just you doing your guilt thing, if you – if you don’t love me.”

The words hit him worse than the punch that had sent him sprawling through the window hours before.

“Johnny, he made you pick up that glass and my spider-sense went off like a bomb,” Peter said. “How could you think I don’t love you?”

“I know what the Red Skull told you,” Johnny said. “I could see and hear everything. So if you’re just doing this to be nice to me, or because you feel guilty because he told you what I feel…”

Peter kissed him again.

“This would be a terrible time to start being nice to you,” he said. “No, Johnny, no – I’m over the moon, up the wall, gone for you, just completely –”

“Babbling,” Johnny said, cutting him off with a kiss. His mouth was so hot. Peter had always wondered.

“Babbling,” he agreed. He cupped Johnny’s jaw with one hand, running his thumb across Johnny’s lower lip. “It was true? Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“You weren’t paying attention. I wasn’t very subtle, Pete,” Johnny said. “Naked in your bed? How dumb can you be?”

“Was I the one dating an alien queen, huh?” Peter said. “You’re really going to put this one on me?”

“Yeah I am,” Johnny said. “And the Inhumans aren’t aliens, they’re humans the Kree—”

“This is like some kind of crazy sex fantasy for me,” Peter cut him off, lacing his fingers together at the small of Johnny’s back. “Johnny Storm, sitting in my lap, correcting my science. You should be wearing glasses. I should buy lab coats.”

“Pass,” Johnny said, pulling him in again.

Peter had imagined kissing Johnny a lot in the past year, but it had always been silly daydreams, imagining fireworks at the top of the Statue of Liberty, the Fantastic Four coming back and Peter feeling free to kiss Johnny without giving him any more grief. So much for that one.

Back in reality Johnny was kissing him like it was the only thing he knew, like he needed it. Like he needed Peter. It was hot and hungry and deep, and he had his hands fisted so tight in Peter’s shirt. He was trembling, just a little.

“Hey, slow down,” Peter soothed when they came up for air. “I’m not going anywhere.”

It was the wrong thing to say; Johnny’s back stiffened under Peter’s hands, the kiss faltered. His grip on Peter’s shirt slackened. Peter made a soft, questioning noise as Johnny pulled back a little.

“I want this too much,” Johnny said. That blue gaze burned. “I’m scared it’s just another nightmare. That you’re going to go up in flames, too.”

Suddenly Peter knew what had happened to the rest of the Fantastic Four in Johnny’s hallucination. He gripped Johnny’s waist, maybe a little too tightly. If there was one thing he knew fun-loving Johnny Storm had always feared, it was hurting his family.

The Red Skull had ripped into him so deeply; Peter deeply regretted that he hadn’t been the one to go smash his face in.

“Would anyone in a million years make this up?” he asked, jerking his chin at their surroundings. “Peter Parker, billionaire? You really can check the fridge – I promise if this was some set up for a perfect tragedy, there’d be more in it. This is real.” He slid his hands up under the sweatshirt, touching bare skin. Johnny shivered. “I’m real. Psychic blocks, remember? If you don’t trust me, trust Reed.”

“I feel so,” Johnny started and then stopped, like he couldn’t find the words. He just pressed his hand to his chest instead, like he could claw the sensation out. Peter knew the feeling. “The things he saw, the things inside me he touched –”

“I know,” Peter said, remembering every oily brush of Otto against his memories. He was thankful in that moment that Otto had had no interest in Johnny – he’d ignored every brilliant smile gifted, every moment together on top of the world at the Statue of Liberty, never investigated the long appreciative glances Peter had thrown Johnny’s way over the years. “Trust me. I know.”

“I love you,” Johnny confessed, eyes shut tight and fingers digging into the center of his chest. Peter caught his arm, trying to avoid his bruised wrist, and drew his hand away. “So much. And he was in my head, he knew, he was going to make me watch--”

“Didn’t happen. Never, not in a million years, was I going to let it happen,” Peter said, bringing Johnny’s hand up to his lips, even as he remembered how time had seemed to speed up, the panic as he’d flipped his hands up and over, pressed his fingers to the webshooters’ triggers. He kissed Johnny’s knuckles. “I wasn’t going to let him hurt you. Or me, obviously – some very good advantages to not being flambéed right now…”

Johnny shook his head, refusing to be lead along.

“He was going to make me hurt you,” he said, voice breaking. “I tried to stop it, Peter, I really did, but I wasn’t –”

Peter kissed him again before he could say it.

“You can’t think like that,” he said, catching Johnny’s face between his hands. “I know it’s easy, I know it’s the easiest thing in the world, but you can’t. Promise me, Johnny.”

“You don’t know what this feels like,” Johnny told him, eyes sparking angrily.

“I know,” Peter said, nose to nose with Johnny and voice pitched low, so Johnny could feel every word, “exactly how you feel. And I would have done anything to make sure you never knew how it feels. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Johnny took a deep, shuddering breath; Peter waited him out.

“See, this is why I love you,” Johnny said. “You always think you could’ve saved me.”

“I should have saved you,” Peter said, quietly. He should have paid more attention, listened closer when Johnny told him about the Unity Squad’s missions. He should have made sure nobody could have ever used him to capture Johnny.

“He knew before you,” Johnny said, eyes suspiciously shiny, “and he tried to make me hurt you because of that. It’s not fair, Pete. It’s not right.”

“Hey, take it easy,” Peter said, stroking the highest point of his cheek. “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. If you start, I’ll start, and I’ve already used up my lifetime quota. They’ll start charging me overages.”

Johnny laughed, wet and horrible. “You can afford it.”

“It wouldn’t have been you,” Peter said, cradling his face. “If I got burned. It would’ve been him. It wasn’t you, Johnny.”

“You’re just mad someone else’s getting in on your guilt game,” Johnny said. “They’re my powers. You’re supposed to know all about responsibility.”

“Nothing to be responsible for, this time,” Peter said, shaking his head. “Say it with me.”

“My boyfriend for five minutes and already you’re telling me how to feel,” Johnny said, but the tiny bit of teasing in his tone was enough to make Peter smile.

“Let’s be fair here: I did that before, too. Is that what I am now, huh? Your boyfriend?” he said. He ran his thumb over Johnny’s cheekbone again, gaze dropping to his mouth. His heart beat loud in his own ears, so he talked over it. “Let the record show that it’s what I want to be.”

“If you didn’t want to be, I’m going to admit, I was probably going to take a page out of Ben’s playbook and leave the planet,” Johnny said.

“Guess I have to be, then,” Peter said, unwilling and unable to stop the smile. “You know, for the planet.”

He twisted and fell backwards so he was lying on the couch, taking Johnny with him. Johnny sighed as he put his head down against Peter’s shoulder.

“I can’t believe the Red Skull is what got you to kiss me,” he mumbled. “Only silver lining is I’m pretty sure it would just make him madder. Well, that and the kissing.”

“I know,” Peter said, idly playing with Johnny’s hair. “I’ll send whatever’s left of him a card in the morning. You tired?”

“Exhausted,” Johnny said. “You’re comfortable.”

“Finally, I have a purpose,” Peter said.

“Sorry,” Johnny said, flinging an arm over Peter’s chest. “This isn’t very romantic. Usually I’m a lot more fun when someone get me horizontal.”

“You’re tired and sore and you had your head messed with in the worst way,” Peter said, stroking his hair. “I’m tired and sore and got thrown through an Urban Outfitters window, which I’m still resentful about. This is good, right now. The rest, we can table for later.”

“Oh, tables, fun,” Johnny said, snickering a little. Peter smirked in spite of himself. “You want to go out and hit something, don’t you?”

“Someone hurt you and then I didn’t get to hurt them, so yeah, I’ve got a little aggression I want to work out,” Peter said. “But since I’m apparently so comfortable, I can table that for a few hours, too.”

“My hero,” Johnny mumbled, a little sarcastically.

“Your mattress,” Peter corrected, flicking him on the ear.

“You are, you know,” Johnny said, raising himself up on his hands so he could stare down at Peter. Peter reached up to palm his face, pressed his thumb right under Johnny’s lower lip.

“Your mattress? Yeah, I’ve pretty much resigned myself there,” Peter said, grinning, just to watch Johnny roll his eyes. “You could watch the elbows a little more.”

“No, stupid,” Johnny said, bending to kiss him. “The other thing.”

Peter smiled into it, sliding his hand to the back of Johnny’s head, curling his fingers in his hair. He brought their foreheads together when Johnny broke the kiss.

“Okay. That’s fair,” he said. “You’ve been mine long enough.”