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The Soul of Love

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The first time was right after the Negative Zone.

Johnny didn’t know what woke him at first, only that he snapped awake with his heart pounding, a muffled gasp on his lips. For a second he didn’t know where he was – the bed underneath him was soft, and the room was dark. Plain, old darkness, not the strange alien glow through the window of his cell, green light tinting everything. He pressed his hand to his bare chest, but the skin there was smooth and unmarked.

Someone was crashing around in another room. A familiar voice swore.

“Peter,” Johnny said, and then he groaned, rolling over to bury his face in the pillows. He was in Peter’s apartment, not in the Negative Zone, and he was safe and whole and nobody was coming to drag him into the arena.

It still took a few moments before he could stop trembling. He breathed deep and tried not to think about the vicious twist of Annihilus’ fingers in his hair. All of Peter’s bedding smelled faintly like webbing; he knew it said weird things about him that he found that smell so comforting. He breathed it in, letting the sounds of New York surround him, the cars down below, the distant rattle of the subway.

He counted to ten. When the noise didn’t stop, he dragged himself out of bed.

Peter was standing in the kitchen, breathing heavily. He was wearing most of his costume – the mask he’d tossed to the ground. Johnny bent to pick it up.

“Careful,” Peter said, without looking up. “One of the lenses is cracked.”

“What the hell happened to you?” Johnny asked. He smoothed the mask out, avoiding the shattered eye piece, and laid it out on the counter. “People are sleeping, Pete.”

Right on cue, someone in the apartment underneath Peter’s started banging on the ceiling. Johnny had always figured that was a cliché, right up until he’d moved in. Peter, in typical Spider-Man fashion, slammed his own foot down in the same spot.

“Can’t a man wreck his own kitchen in peace?” he asked, throwing his arms up.

“Think your charming landlord might have something to say about that,” Johnny said, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrows. “You’re worse than Ben sometimes, you know that?”

Peter turned to look at him; something in his expression softened.

“Sorry. Long night,” he said, shoulders slumping as he dropped his arms to his sides. He turned his gaze towards the floor. “Not your fault. Go back to bed, alright? I’ll be quiet.”

“What happened to you?” Johnny asked, reaching out to touch Peter’s face, just beneath the edge of an ugly bruise. It must have been a bad night, if Peter had gotten hit hard enough to leave a mark like that. Peter sighed, leaning into Johnny’s palm; touch had always been easy, between them. Too easy, maybe. Sometimes it gave Johnny hope that Peter wanted things from him that went beyond friendship.

But Peter had never been shy when it came to telling Johnny what he wanted, so he knew that couldn’t be true. It was just that they were so comfortable together, a natural fit. They’d worn each other’s roughest edges down years ago.

“Guy in a fuzzy suit meets subway car full of German tourists…” Peter said, sighing. He reached up and squeezed Johnny’s wrist, taking Johnny’s hand away from his face. “Nothing you need to worry about. Hey, you just got back. You should be – you’ve been – I don’t know. You should be resting.”

“I’m okay, Pete,” Johnny said. It wasn’t strictly true, but Peter didn’t need to know that. And it would be better, hanging around with Peter. They could watch a movie, joke around. Maybe Johnny could fall back asleep without the fear of waking up back in the Negative Zone.

“Go back to bed,” Peter said, gentle. “I’m going to go hibernate for a year as soon as I get something to eat, I promise.”

Disappointment shot through Johnny; he bit down on it. He turned away, but something made him stop in the doorway and glance over his shoulder.

Peter was filling a styrofoam ramen cup with tap water and sticking it in the microwave.

“Are you serious?” Johnny demanded.

“What?” Peter said. “What now, with the yelling?”

Johnny grabbed the carton out of his hand and thunked it down on the counter. “No.”

“No what?” Peter said. “Come on, I was going to eat that!”

“When’s the last time you ate a real meal?” Johnny asked. “And no, for the sake of the argument, we’re not counting hot dogs from that cart that gives you extra mustard.”

Peter had opened his mouth; he abruptly shut it.

Really?” Johnny said. “How have you lived this long?”

“You’re one to talk,” Peter muttered, and then froze, face like a deer in the headlights. Johnny froze, too, feeling – he didn’t know. Numb, he guessed. In the space between nightmares, thinking about the Negative Zone, the swing of the axe, Annihilus’ hand around his throat… It just left him numb.

He could start a fight. It was what Peter was expecting, probably, and Johnny could have sparked an argument with Peter mute and in pitch darkness, he knew him that well. But Johnny didn’t want to do that. He didn’t know what to say to avoid it.

Thankfully, Peter took the decision away from him.

“Sorry,” he said. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Johnny nodded, still with that horrible icy ache in his chest. “It’s fine, just – eat something real, please? You’re running yourself ragged.”

“I’m way too tired to actually cook,” Peter groaned. “Have mercy on the masked man here, Storm.”

Johnny sighed, reaching over and yanking the fridge open. “This is your problem, you know. You try to solo act everything – even cooking.”

“Wait,” Peter said, peering over Johnny’s shoulder, solid warmth at his back. “Why is there food in there?”

Johnny elbowed him back. “Your fridge just had web fluid and old cheese in it. My sister and I went shopping. Sit down already.”

That had been an experience, hitting their old favorite gourmet market in dark sunglasses, trying to pretend like people weren’t whispering. Sue was treating him like glass, and he didn’t blame her, but he’d spent two years fighting and dying and being brought back. A few gawking New Yorkers weren’t going to be the thing to break him.

Two years in the Negative Zone on nutritional gruel – it might’ve kept him in top fighting shape but flavorful, it hadn’t been. Johnny was still getting used to taste again. He bit his lip, trying to remember how to do this right.

He grabbed the egg carton. Eggs were easy. Kid stuff. He could do this.

“Wait,” Peter said as Johnny grabbed a pan. “You can cook?”

“I’m going to try and ignore the shocked tone,” Johnny hummed, turning the stove on. The flames leapt up a little higher than they should have, almost like a hello there, you’re like us. It made Johnny smile even if it was a sign of his lapsed control.

One of the reasons he’d wanted to stay with Peter – besides the fact that, deep down, he always wanted to be with Peter – was that after two years of lashing out with all he had, he felt clumsy with the finer of points of his powers. The choice between a building full of tiny, vulnerable children or the guy with the danger sense was no choice at all.

He ghosted his fingertips over the little flames anyway, thankful for their warmth.

“Sorry,” Peter said. “It’s just, I never pictured you as that guy.”

“I’m multi-talented,” Johnny said, watching the butter start to melt. “And Sue can’t cook. Besides sandwiches, anyway.”

“Let’s not be hasty there -- I’ve had your sister’s sandwiches,” Peter said. Johnny laughed, and after a second Peter joined in. “You’re good to me, you know that, Torch?”

“Just luring you into a false sense of security,” Johnny said, cracking the eggs into the pan. “And a little freaked out by the show when you first got home.”

“Sorry. It’s just – I try to see things from the other side. Why people do what they do. Even most of my villains, you know?” Peter said in a tone that was almost wistful. “They’re just guys who’ve been dealt a bad hand. Me, I channel my anger productively, like any man bit by a radioactive spider should, but hey if they want to go put on a stupid costume and rob a Citibank…”

“Your costume’s dumb, too,” Johnny said, biting back a smile.

“Thanks, fashion police,” Peter said. Then he sighed. There was a long moment where neither of them spoke, and the only sound in the kitchen was the scrape of the spatula against the pan. “An old man got hurt tonight. I don’t let people who do that get away with it.”

Johnny turned the burner off and slid the eggs onto a plate.

“I know,” he said, setting it down in front of Peter. “Here, eat. You won’t feel worse.”

“I’m taking that as a guarantee,” Peter said, picking up the fork. “Looks good -- I really had no idea you could cook.”

“They’re a little burnt,” he said, feeling sullen. A dish he’d mastered at the age of eight, and now he was screwing it up. He sat down across from Peter and leaned one elbow on the tabletop, setting his chin on his palm.

“They’re great,” Peter said, practically inhaling the plate.

“What do you know?” Johnny asked. “Do you have fire powers, huh? I’ve seen you eat those Hostess snack cake things, you don’t have taste.”

“Torch, look at me,” Peter said. Grudgingly, Johnny raised his gaze. Peter was looking back, a black-eye forming and his hair everywhere, and he was smiling at Johnny like there was something funny. Johnny loved him so much he couldn’t stand it. “This is the first hot meal I’ve had delivered to me by anybody other than a belligerent bicyclist in who knows how long. Relax, beautiful – it’s amazing.”

Johnny, thrown for a loop, found himself smiling back. It seemed to satisfy Peter.

He rose from the table, clapping Johnny on the shoulder. “I’m gonna go pass out for twelve hours now. Wake me if the world’s ending.”

Johnny, still sitting there stunned -- relax, beautiful --, took a second to remember. “Don’t you have that big presentation tomorrow? You know, the one you won’t shut up about? Something something funding, blah blah nerd politics?”

There was a moment’s pause, then, out in the living room, Peter groaned.

“I could,” Johnny started. Stopped. Forced himself to continue. “I could make you breakfast? You know, if you wanted.”

It would be good for him, he thought. A reason to get out of bed before three in the afternoon. He’d always liked cooking – it would be nice to feel good at it again. And Peter could use food that didn’t come out of takeout container or from that one hot dog cart owner Peter swore up and down was practically family.

“Really?” Peter said, leaning back into the kitchen with his eyebrows raised.

“You liked the eggs, right?”

Peter nodded, still looking like he was waiting for the punchline.

“Well, tomorrow I’ll make them with bacon,” Johnny said. “Go to bed already, Parker.”

 


 

Johnny had learned to cook out of necessity. Sue worked late after school, and their father was absent most nights and rarely in mood to attempt dinner when he was home. Franklin Storm had never learned to cook, anyway, and burnt grilled cheese only led to arguments Johnny didn’t know how to have, his father so angry and him so young. It was easier, then, first to pour cereal and milk for them both, later to drag the stepstool over to the stove and figure it out.

He laughed about it with Sue years later, on one of those rare nights when they were both in the mood to laugh about the past.

“You could’ve burned the house down!” she accused without any real heat. He snorted, head lolling onto her shoulder as she poured another glass of wine.

“Sure, sis,” he said, snapping his fingers, the briefest spray of sparks. “Good thing there’s no chance of that now.”

“I always thought it was Dad leaving me dinner,” she hummed. “That was sweet of you.”

He’d stopped cooking for a while, after he’d moved in with Aunt Mary. She’d been territorial about her kitchen. But then the team had come together, and, well – Reed tended to forget to eat, and Sue inherited their father’s skills with the stove, and Ben had been so angry in the early days. Johnny, sixteen and impatient, got sick of waiting for someone to order pizza fast.

It came naturally to him – the kitchen had been the first place he’d realized just what he could do with heat, sans fire – and if he enjoyed himself, and if it made his family happy, well, then it was all good. Dates tended to appreciate the way their coffee stayed hot, and the fact that nobody ever had to leave the couch to get more popcorn.

The fact that he could toast marshmallows on his own abs garnered more mixed reactions.

His repertoire evolved as the family grew. There was a solid month where the only thing Franklin wanted was chicken fingers, but only if Johnny made them, and all the cold hard logic in Valeria’s tiny head was no match for the time she’d refused to eat anything in any shade of either green or purple. Ben had blamed the Hulk.

Reed was partial to anything he could take down to the lab with him on a second’s notice – so Johnny made that difficult for him on at least three nights a week, and easy whenever he and Sue had a movie they wanted to watch without the science being nitpicked. Ben was an easy mark at game night as long as the chicken wings were good and the chips and salsa kept flowing. Sue was a sucker for cheesecake; it had gotten him out of trouble more than once.

The Moloids were convinced they were allergic to celery and wailed mournfully at so much as the sight of a mushroom. Bentley would eat anything as long as it was in the shape of a skull, but Artie and Leech preferred dinosaurs. The fish kids took their shrimp chilled. T’Challa hung up on Johnny when he called to interrogate him about a favorite recipe of Onome’s, but shipped a crate of Wakandan produce overnight.

Then, in the blink of an eye, that was all gone. It was just him and Ben, alone on Earth. He’d made an effort. All of Ben’s favorites, steaks and club sandwiches and the matzo ball soup recipe Ben had taught him when he’d been just a kid. It didn’t matter; they were both too angry, too hurt. Too alone, off-balance without Reed and Sue. After a few months, it was just him.

He’d tried a little, with Medusa. She’d curled her hair around his wrists and told him simply that there were people for that. He’d gotten the message. Crystal had always liked his cooking – he remembered, vividly, introducing her to pancakes – but he didn’t think it would be welcomed.

And then the Inhumans left, too.

So he went home, to the last piece of home left: Pier 4. He remembered rebuilding it with Reed after Diablo’s attack. Somehow he’d never realized how big and empty it was before.

Cooking had always been about other people; doing it for himself held no appeal. He got on first name basis with no fewer than a dozen delivery boys and fell asleep in front of the giant television screen he rigged up in Pier 4 with oven ready pizza congealing on the coffee table. He went out with the Unity Squad and came home and then he did it all over again.

Then one day in April, just after they’d taken down the Red Skull, he glanced at the calendar on his phone and made a decision.

 


 

“Why does my apartment smell like food?”

Johnny tried to suppress his grin, calling out, “In the kitchen, Pete!”

“Johnny?” Peter said, appearing in the doorway. He was rumpled in a different way than usual, tie askew and collar crooked. He still looked unfairly good in a suit. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, it turns out that I have absolutely no flair for Inhuman cuisine, not that that’s much of an issue anymore,” Johnny said, standing over Peter’s stove – a much fancier model than the last time he’d done this. “And cooking for one is boring. So I know it’s been a while, but I’m making you dinner.”

“You broke into my apartment to make me dinner,” Peter stated, flat.

“Broke in sounds so harsh,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. “Also? I thought you bought the building to hold it for me.”

“I did, I just – I was on a plane for ten hours, Johnny,” Peter said, scrubbing a hand through his hair and leaving it in even worse disarray. “Have some pity.”

“Why would you do that to yourself on your birthday?” Johnny asked.

“Today’s my birthday?” Peter said, sounding genuinely surprised. He seemed to think about it. “Oh, wow, you’re right.”

“You don’t – Peter, it’s your stupid birthday, you should know what day it is,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes.

“Johnny, hot stuff, I guarantee I have no idea what year it even is,” Peter said, but he was grinning now, that one dopey one Johnny would never cop to loving the most. He had to turn back to the stove before he did something stupid. “Damn, I have to call my aunt. You really broke into my apartment to make me dinner on my birthday?”

“Again with the broke. It’s not like I jimmied open a window while wearing all black.”

“Like I’ve never seen you literally do that,” Peter snorted. He eyed Johnny’s legs. “The jeans are black.”

Alright, so Johnny had gotten a little dressed up. He was tired of the uniform all the time and he wanted to feel like a real person again, just for one night. And if feeling like a real person meant digging through his closet until he found that shirt that matched his eyes and the jeans he knew made his ass look amazing, what was the harm?

“They’re just jeans, Peter,” he said, turning back to the stove.

“This isn’t a – this isn’t like a guilt thing, right?” Peter said. “A ‘sorry I almost lit you on fire’ celebratory birthday dinner? Because I keep telling you, that was the Red Skull’s fault, not yours."

Johnny snorted. “Peter, I know this is a foreign concept to you, but you can want to do nice things for other people for reasons that have nothing to do with misplaced guilt. Will you stop? I’m fine.” He breathed out, slow. It had been weeks since the Skull. He barely even dreamed about his family burning on the roof of the Baxter Building anymore. “Mostly fine.”

“Okay. Hey, you know – just checking,” Peter said, coming up behind him. He leaned over Johnny’s shoulder. “What’re you making me? Smells amazing.”

“Spaghetti and meatballs, because you have the taste of a twelve-year-old,” Johnny said. “There’s salad on the table.”

“Wow,” Peter said, whistling. He blazed at Johnny’s back, and for one split second Johnny thought he might wrap his arms around him. He’d been more tactile since the Skull’s mind control, and Peter was a handsy guy to start with. Knowing all that didn’t stop Johnny from wanting Peter to kiss his neck.

He shoved him back. “Go, call your aunt. Let me work my magic in peace.”

“Ugh, yes, your highness,” Peter said with a mocking little bow as he exited the kitchen. Johnny rolled his eyes and turned back to the stove.

Dinner was fine. Johnny was out of practice but Peter didn’t seem to care. He seemed happy, even, tension slipping from his shoulders as he told Johnny a mix of weird work stories from both his jobs.

“And why exactly,” Johnny said, clearing their plates away, “did your old boss think you only worked in your underwear?”

“Because I am a very, very serious scientist,” Peter said, grinning as he got up from the table, “who had to make some very, very quick changes. Hey, give me those.”

“It’s fine,” Johnny protested as Peter took the dishes from his hands and set them in the sink. “It’s your birthday. I don’t mind.”

“Leave it,” Peter said, expression gone soft. “I’ll get it later. Hey, you…”

“What?” Johnny asked when Peter couldn’t seem to finish his sentence, just standing there with his mouth open. “You want to catch a movie? We could go out or stay in, either.”

Peter shook his head, still with that serious look on his face, the little line between his brows. Worry blossomed in Johnny’s chest.

“Pete?” he said.

“You know, I thought I was going to come home tonight, dig whatever takeout looked the least moldy out of my fridge, fall asleep in front of the television,” Peter said. His hands came up to frame Johnny’s hips as he tugged him away from the sink.

“Are you trying to depress me with that story?” Johnny said, a little distracted by the way Peter was backing him up, until he was caught between the countertop and Peter. “Spidey?”

“You think I was looking forward to it? I didn’t even know what day it was,” Peter said, cracking a grin. “And then you surprise me like this?”

“I could have jumped out of a cake instead,” Johnny said. He told himself it was just joking, like it always was, that Peter was just being funny. Just another I just had to see your lovely face, Torch, or, Take a look, Blondie. Don’t you photograph well?. Peter just didn’t know what he did to him.

“Naked?” Peter said. Johnny swallowed, trying to remember that it was just a game, one he could play as well as Peter. Trying not to remember the time he very much had been naked in Peter’s bed and Peter hadn’t been interested.

“If you’ve been good,” he said, wrapping Peter’s tie around his hand and starting to sing. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Mr. Spider-Ma—”

Peter cut him off with a kiss. The press of Peter’s mouth was hot and wanting, and part of Johnny didn’t believe it was real, that it was actually happening, here in Peter’s kitchen as Peter pressed him back against the counter, hands hot on his hips. Johnny gasped a little and Peter took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, licking into Johnny’s mouth, sucking on his tongue.

Johnny had imagined kissing Peter Parker so many times, but he’d always thought Peter would be a little hesitant at first, that he’d need Johnny to warm him up. In reality, Peter was pure fireworks right out of the gate. Johnny was lightheaded when they broke apart.

“I think I’ve been pretty good,” Peter said, sliding his hands up to Johnny’s waist. “Right?”

“Peter?” Johnny said, running his tongue over his bottom lip, stunned. “Did you just --?”

“Why, how do you usually do it?” Peter said, but his expression had gone weirdly serious. “Johnny, I’ve been thinking a lot about things recently, about us, and I … just messed everything up, didn’t I?”

Johnny couldn’t think – Peter had just grabbed him and given him the best kiss of his life, Johnny’s secret fantasy since before he’d even known what Peter’s face looked like, and now he was asking if he’d messed things up.

He still had Peter’s tie wrapped around his hand; he yanked, sealing their mouths together again. The second kiss was less successful than the first when Peter started laughing, wild. He kissed Johnny’s cheek instead, then his temple.

“Pete, I,” Johnny started to say, but his words weren’t working right. He slid his hand to the back of Peter’s neck. “You don’t – you kissed me.”

“Uh-huh,” Peter said, nodding. Their faces were so close together that Peter’s eyes were all Johnny could see. “And I finally figured out how to render you speechless.”

“Don’t joke,” Johnny said, squeezing the back of Peter’s neck. “I’m reeling here, don’t joke.”

“M’sorry,” Peter said, forehead down against Johnny’s. Every word between them was a whisper. “It’s a defense mechanism. You’re very disarming.”

“I said no jokes,” Johnny said, closing his eyes. This close there was no distracting himself from the blaze of Peter’s body heat.

“Who’s joking?” Peter said. “The whole flight home, I was thinking about you. Ten whole hours, I swear, and the whole time my only thought was you. What I felt when I thought the Red Skull might hurt you – and then here you were, breaking into my apartment.”

“It’s not –”

“I know, I know,” Peter cut him off. “Can I kiss you again?”

Johnny nodded and Peter did, soft and sweet this time. Johnny’s throat was tight; there was too much emotion caught up in his chest.

“I feel like I’m dreaming,” he said before he could stop himself. Peter pinched him. “Not funny. I didn’t think you –” liked men. Liked me. “—I didn’t think.”

“I’m sparing us both the obvious comeback,” Peter said, squeezing Johnny’s hips. It was the only warning he got before Peter lifted him up. He locked his legs around Peter’s waist as a reflex; he knew Peter wouldn’t drop him, and his muffled gasp had nothing to do with Peter picking him up. He’d never seen Peter look at him like this before, like he’d dropped all his defenses. His gaze was magnetic.

“Hey, hot stuff,” he said. “Can we take this somewhere a little more comfortable?”

Johnny couldn’t help it; he started to laugh, wrapping an arm around Peter’s neck. This was real, he told himself, and it was happening, and he was going to enjoy it. Even if just for one night.

“Okay,” he said. “I got you something else, you know.”

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Should I be afraid? Is this payback for the time my clone webbed you on your birthday?”

Johnny tugged at the collar of his own shirt, grinning down at Peter. “Unwrap me and find out.”

 


 

Johnny woke up alone and for a second he didn’t know where he was. Nothing new with that. But then he remembered: Peter pressing him back, Peter kissing him. Peter taking him to bed. Johnny laughed to himself and rolled over onto his side, briefly smothering his smile against the sheets.

Peter had left this floor’s big windows intact; the sunlight spilled across the bed. Johnny had always loved the view. He sat up to better appreciate it, pulling his knees up to his chest and settling his arms on top of them. He’d forgotten how beautiful New York could look in the morning, the light between the skyscrapers.

There was just one thing missing.

“Pete?” he called out, touching his fingertips to a spot on his throat Peter had really seemed to like. Johnny had hoped for a repeat performance; now he was just hoping Peter hadn’t panicked and legged it out the window. “Peter?”

“Just a second!” Peter called back from somewhere else in the apartment. “Be there in a minute, hot stuff, just stay where you are.”

“Bossy,” Johnny said, but he laid back down and grinned up at the ceiling anyway. He felt happier than he had in months -- and scared, too. Peter had stayed, he hadn’t freaked out and left. He wanted Johnny. Johnny had wanted this for so long, he didn’t know what to do now that it was happening.

Peter took longer than a minute. Johnny had almost fallen back asleep, enjoying the warm sunlight and the soft mattress, when Peter cleared his throat and came back into the bedroom. He was scruffy, his hair sticking up in all directions and his jaw dark with stubble, dressed only in his boxers. He held a tray in one hand, hefted high above his head.

“Breakfast in bed?” Johnny said, smile tugging at his mouth and warmth blooming in his chest. He sat up, leaning back against the pillows.

“Room service,” Peter grinned. He tipped Johnny’s chin up with two fingers. “There’s a gratuity.”

“And me without my wallet,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes a little and ruining the kiss Peter pressed to his lips by laughing. “What’d you do? Go for a morning swing, get me Starbucks?”

“Uh,” Peter said, scratching the back of his neck. “I thought I’d return the favor, actually. Don’t laugh.”

He slid the tray into Johnny’s lap, face gone a little pink.

What’s wrong with you that you only blush when you’re being nice? Johnny wanted to ask. Instead, he looked down at the plate on the tray, and what came out of his mouth was, “Wait, you told me you couldn’t cook.”

“I never said that, exactly. With, y’know, words,” Peter hedged. “And I can really only make one thing, so…”

Johnny looked down at the plate, then up at Peter. Repeat. “The one thing you can make is an omelet?”

“I told you not to laugh!” Peter said, even though Johnny wasn’t laughing, just kind of staring at him in bemusement. Johnny never even bothered with omelets – he’d fucked up on his first few attempts, and besides, it was easier to just scramble or fry eggs. It was what the kids had always preferred, and nobody else had ever complained.

“I’m just trying to make sense of this,” Johnny said. “I’ve seen you be too lazy to peel string cheese.”

Peter mumbled something under his breath. Johnny elbowed at him, picking up the coffee sitting on the tray – just how he liked it, and it shouldn’t have made him feel so warm because of course Peter knew how he took his coffee, but it did anyway – until Peter spoke up.

“I thought it was romantic, okay?” Peter said, rolling his eyes.

Johnny couldn’t help it; he burst out laughing. It was the only thing he could do when he was lying naked in Peter’s bed, and Peter had made him breakfast, and Peter was pink-cheeked and talking about being romantic. When Peter was trying to be romantic for Johnny. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this happy, sunlight-warm through and through.

“I can’t believe you taught yourself how to cook one dish so you could be suave the morning after!” he said, still laughing helplessly. “Peter Benjamin Parker, you dog.”

“Ugh,” Peter said, tangling his fingers briefly in Johnny’s hair and smacking a kiss against the side of his head. “Stop torturing me, okay? We already know you excel at that. Just try it already.”

Johnny kissed him on the cheek, once, just to enjoy the liberty of it, the scratch of Peter’s stubble and the way he sighed, pretending to be exasperated. Then he picked up the fork, sliced into the omelet, and took a bite.

It was good – a little dry, and the cheese had gone a little cold while they’d been arguing with each other, but Johnny could fix that part. It was, actually, probably the best breakfast anyone had ever brought Johnny in bed, and not just because it was Peter who’d brought it.

“There’s bagels in the kitchen if you hate it,” Peter said.

“Shut up, you know your sex omelet is great,” Johnny teased, taking another bite.

“Don’t make my sense of romance into something filthy,” Peter said, sidling up next to him properly and grabbing the second fork.

He set the tray on the bedside table when they were done with it and then he was reaching for Johnny, pulling him practically into his lap, hands sliding beneath the sheet wrapped around Johnny’s waist.

“Good morning,” Peter said. His hands settled at Johnny’s bare hips. “Didn’t get the chance to say that before.”

“Great morning,” Johnny said, grinning at Peter, at the way his hair was everywhere and his smile was soft and goofy with none of his usual defenses. He smoothed Peter’s hair back, laughing a little when a few flyaway locks fought him. “You made me breakfast in bed.”

“Uh-huh,” Peter said, still pink down to his collarbones. Johnny kissed him long and deep, hands sliding down Peter’s neck, over his strong shoulders and then down Peter’s solid chest, enjoying the heat of him, affection and attraction all over, the way he tasted like orange juice. Even here, they meshed well.

“You like me,” he murmured in the space between them, giddy with it.

“Just warm for your form, that’s all,” Peter said, laughing when Johnny practically tackled him.

 


 

The Baxter Building went up in flames a month later – not Johnny’s doing, but he wasn’t able to salvage as much of it as he’d have liked to, either, pulling all the flames into himself until he had to fly up, up, and let go. He felt stupid and selfish, worried about Alicia’s statue in the lobby, but it was still standing when the smoke cleared.

His reunion with Peter was frazzled. He’d been so sure Peter would be devastated at the loss of Parker Industries’ New York headquarters; it turned out Peter had worried about how Johnny was going to take the Baxter Building’s destruction.

“Are you kidding me?” Johnny said. “This place blows up so often this is practically nostalgic for me. But this is your –”

“I’ll deal with it,” Peter said, shaking his head. He knocked their foreheads together, smoothed a hand over Johnny’s hair. It was intimate, and they were out in public – Johnny was aware of eyes on them. If Peter noticed – and Peter had a built-in proximity alarm, he had to notice -- then he didn’t care. That was enough to shake Johnny all over again. “Hey, I gotta go talk to some people, alright? Hobie’s in the suit. Can you go drive him up a wall and sell the whole Peter Parker’s not Spider-Man deal for me?”

“Fine,” Johnny said, “but it’s so much less fun than annoying the real deal.”

“Go already,” Peter said, fighting a snicker and adopting the look Johnny had come to think of as the Yes I Am a Serious Business Man Who Does Not Swing Around in Bright Spandex face.

The Spider-Man suit was easy to pick out in the crowd; Hobie had his arms crossed, his back straight. He was a little broader than Peter, less wiry and more solid.

“Do you need something?” Hobie asked him.

“Just wondering how nobody notices,” he said. “You’ve got different physiques.”

“I don’t wanna hear from you about his physique,” Hobie said. It was probably all the years around Peter, that Johnny could read raised eyebrows through the mask. Johnny smirked, waggling his eyebrows and Hobie pointed one finger at him. “Do not.”

“You’re not fun,” Johnny said, stretching his arms above his head and closing his eyes briefly. Burning buildings always took their toll, anxious fire running through his veins and an unsettled feeling he could never shake for hours after he burned it all off. “He’s fun.”

“Agh,” Hobie said. “He doesn’t pay me enough for this.”

“Oh, no way,” Johnny agreed. “He just stuck you with keeping me out of the way, like I wouldn’t notice. Feel free to frame him for a bank job or something.”

“He’d deserve it,” Hobie grumbled.

“Want to play this knockoff Spider-Man game I found on the Apple store?” Johnny asked, pulling out his phone.

That was how Peter found them, half an hour later: failing miserably to beat tiny pixelated knockoff Venom, who was inexplicably orange.

“Thanks, Spider-Man,” Peter said to Hobie, throwing his voice a little. Johnny gave him the as if anyone’s listening to you look. “I think we’re fine for the rest of tonight.”

“Gonna be stuck playing this forever now,” Hobie grumbled, walking away without taking his eyes off his Webware.

“So?” Johnny said as Peter sidled up beside him, throwing an arm around his shoulders and tugging Johnny against his side. “How bad is it?”

“Could be worse. I’ll get us a hotel room for tonight, anyway,” Peter said, squeezing Johnny around the shoulders. His Webware watch went off and he muttered a little under his breath. “Sorry, it’s my aunt – gimme a second, let me let her know we’re fine?”

“Sure,” Johnny said, a little thrown by the use of ‘we’. He turned back to the game as Peter wandered off to talk, but he wasn’t really in the mood to watch a badly animated version of his boyfriend get chewed on by Dayglo Venom anymore.

Peter came back a few minutes later, running a hand through his hair and looking frazzled.

“Change of plans,” Peter said. “The explosion freaked Aunt May out a little bit. It’s been hard for her since Jay died. I told her I’d spend the night over at hers.”

“Okay,” Johnny said, shrugging. “I can go back to Pier 4 for the night, I guess. It’s not a big deal.”

Pier 4 was the only one of the Four’s properties he’d managed to hang onto and after the Inhuman royal family had left it was where he’d been staying until that first night with Peter, where afterwards he’d just kind of accidentally moved in. But Pier 4 was fine for a night or two. Dusty, lonely, full of old machines covered in cloths with signs hung on them reading DON’T TOUCH in Reed’s handwriting, but fine.

Peter’s face did a series of complicated things; Johnny wished for a camera.

“I was still going to get you a room,” he said, “if you, you know, don’t want…”

“Don’t want, what?” Johnny said and Peter sighed, long and low.

“Just come home with me, okay?” he said.

 


 

Johnny had met May Parker before – he’d crashed her wedding, after all – but he hadn’t been sleeping with her nephew those other times. It made him feel self-conscious, like he’d say the wrong the thing and May would look at Peter like, really? That one? And then Johnny would be out on his ass.

He knew he was being ridiculous, but he’d lost so much recently, and he’d only just gotten Peter. He was so scared he was going to do something wrong and lose him, too.

But May Parker just smiled at him and asked how he was, told him that of course he must have been tired, and directed him to sit on the couch with tea and coffee cake. It was late already, and easy for Johnny, still with that alien feeling foreign fire left him with buzzing just under his skin, to let his attention wander a little as Peter talked to his aunt.

There were framed photos all over the walls. May and her late husband, Jay. Peter and Harry Osborn, laughing together. A pretty woman Johnny recognized as Peter’s friend Betty, arm-in-arm with Mary Jane. J Jonah Jameson, caught mid-rant, red in the face and holding a cigar. His son, John, in full astronaut regalia. Peter at what must have been his high school graduation, smiling for the camera. He looked so young – Johnny had known him, then, but he hadn’t known.

There was one photo high up on a wall, and Johnny knew without ever having seen his face before that that was Ben Parker with a little boy held in his arms, both of them beaming. Johnny took in the big round glasses, the awkward haircut, the skinny shoulders, and found himself smiling at Peter as a kid.

“Hey, Earth to Johnny.”

He snapped back, looking over at Peter. Peter was looking back, eyebrows raised.

“Sorry,” Johnny said. “Just –”

“Proving my point,” Peter said, smiling a little. He stood up and held out a hand for Johnny. “I think we’re just going to turn in now, Aunt May. He’s dead on his feet and I’m not far behind.”

“Sorry,” Johnny repeated to May, letting Peter pull him to his feet.

“The guest room’s all made up,” May said. “Tell me if you need anything, but Peter knows where all the linens are.”

Peter tossed her a salute and snickered when she arched an eyebrow his way, leaning down to hug her.

“We’re okay, Aunt May,” he said, soft. Johnny’s chest constricted; he had to look away, throat gone all tight. He couldn’t have spoken if he’d wanted to.

The guest room was picked out in shades of cream and blue. It had the look of a professionally decorated space, but there were handmade touches: the quilt at the foot of the bed and more photos on the walls.

“Your aunt’s place is nice,” Johnny commented.

“Yeah, well, Jay left her some money,” Peter said. He sat down on the edge of the bed and began to take off his shoes. “But I’m pretty glad for Parker Industries right now, gotta say. She deserves nice.”

Johnny reached out to touch a framed photograph of Peter. He must have been seventeen or eighteen in it, just starting to grow out of that teenage lankiness. He’d taken it himself, pulling faces at a mirror from behind a clunky old camera. There was a fresh scrape above his eyebrow and his hair was wild. He’d probably been out Spideying right before he’d taken the photo. Johnny traced the lines of him.

Peter’s arms came around him from behind. “What are you looking at?”

“You,” Johnny said, leaning back against Peter and tilting his head to the side. Peter got the message; he pressed his lips to Johnny’s neck. “You were cute.”

“Oh, past tense? I’m not cute now?” Peter said, laughing. “You didn’t think so back then.”

Johnny looked at the photo again, thinking of the boy he’d known then – the one he’d viewed as competition for Dorrie, the one who was definitely going to get into college while Johnny had been so unsure. The one who’d always made him take a second glance, who he’d offered his autograph a little too enthusiastically, who he’d jumped at the chance to tour around Security College.

“No,” Johnny said, letting himself be honest about those years for once. “I did.”

Peter arms tightened around him. He kissed Johnny’s neck again, lingering a little, sighing against his throat.

“Okay,” he said, letting go. “Okay. You want the first shower?”

“You’re going to let me shower alone?” Johnny said, turning to face Peter.

“Yeah, there’s a funny story about me, a shower, and my aunt’s late husband,” Peter said, “and by funny, I mean mortifying.”

“The mortifying stories are my favorites,” Johnny said. “Tell me?”

“Maybe in ten to twenty years, when I’ve recovered from the trauma,” Peter said. He handed Johnny an old shirt and a pair of sweatpants. “Here, I keep some clothes over here for when I stay over.”

Showering alone after weeks of Peter joining him felt weird. It felt like now that Peter wanted him, he wanted him all the time, which Johnny was more than on board with. He rushed through it – fights rarely left a man on fire particularly dirty. He heated up just enough to dry off, ran a hand through his hair to try and tame the worst of the waves, and then pulled on Peter’s clothes.

Peter was messing around on his Webware watch when Johnny came out of the bathroom, grumbling under his breath with pure murder all over his face. Johnny collapsed next to him, putting his head down on Peter’s shoulder so he could see.

“That Spider-Man game?” he said. “Really?”

“Don’t judge me,” Peter said. He promptly managed to swing little pixel Spider-Man straight into a wall. Johnny snickered as Peter groaned. He shut the Webware down, unstrapping it from his wrist, and buried his fingers in Johnny’s hair instead.

“Long day,” he said. “You okay?”

“Took in a lot of heat,” Johnny said, yawning. “I’m just tired.”

“You’re being quiet,” Peter said, kissing the side of Johnny’s head. “I love your hair like this. Should take you to,” his jaw cracked as he yawned, “Aruba, Jamaica. What’s the name of that song?”

“You’re delirious,” Johnny said. “How long have you been running yourself ragged?”

“Only fifteen, sixteen years now,” Peter said. “I’m worried about you. The building –”

“It’s been rebuilt before, it’ll be rebuilt again,” Johnny said, twisting to knock his forehead against Peter’s. “I’m fine. Go shower already, I’m not sleeping with you when you smell like concrete dust.”

“Okay,” Peter said, kissing him once, twice, quick and easy. It tangled up all the feelings in Johnny’s chest; the soft little noise he breathed into Peter’s mouth made it worse. He shoved at Peter’s chest, swallowing hard. Peter laughed. “Okay, going, going. Yeesh, bossy. Don’t mess with my contacts.”

Johnny was too tired to bother. He used Peter’s Webware to check his e-mail for a few moments, but there was nothing important.

He hadn’t been lying to Peter, not exactly; the building getting a little blown up was pretty nostalgic. That wasn’t what had him so upset – the problem was what was missing. Sue’s dry humor as she hefted rubble out of the way with forcefields. Ben nagging at Reed – “What’s that big head good for if ya can’t build a Doom-proof dining room, huh, smart guy?”. Eating dinner all crammed into Alicia’s small kitchen while Reed went on and on about how he’d been meaning to expand the top fifteen floors anyway, Ben doing a silent impersonation of him behind his back and Johnny trying not to give the show away by laughing.

He missed Ben. It hurt more, having him so close.

The quilt on the bed looked handmade; Johnny pulled it up to his shoulders, rolling over onto his side and squeezing his eyes shut.

The door opened and he cringed. He didn’t want to be alone, but he didn’t want Peter to see him like this.

“Johnny?” Peter said.

He kept his eyes closed and pretended like he was asleep, but he knew he’d never been good at that act. Peter sighed as he turned the light off, climbing into bed behind him. Johnny tensed, expecting a conversation he didn’t want to have. Peter always wanted to fix everything, and he couldn’t fix this. It would just make him feel guilty, which would make him restless, which would make him swing out the nearest window. Johnny didn’t want that.

But Peter didn’t talk. He only slung an arm over him and kissed the back of his neck, soft, whispering, “good night.” He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Johnny, lulled by the distant sound of the city and the soft smell of fresh sheets, the comforting warmth of Peter at his back and the heavy weight of his arm, followed not long after.

Johnny woke first, for once. Once upon a time he’d slept like the dead no matter where he was, but the Negative Zone had made him a light sleeper, prone to snapping awake at the slightest creak in new environments, a split-second of panic knotted up in his chest.

Peter’s face was pressed up against his shoulder, his knees behind Johnny’s. His hand had crept up Johnny’s shirt sometime in the middle of the night, pressed up against his stomach. Johnny’s breathing slowed; his eyes slipped shut for another minute.

Then he yawned and pried himself out of Peter’s iron hold. He spared a moment to snicker at Peter’s sleeping face, mouth halfway open, and smoothed his hair back from his forehead before he got out of bed.

He didn’t know what he’d been thinking – that he’d make Peter coffee, at the very least – but of course May Parker was already in her kitchen, standing in front of the stove.

“Oh, morning, dear,” she said, looking a little surprised to see him. Johnny couldn’t blame her; he’d pretty famously given some interviews about what it took to get him out of bed before noon. Still, she smiled, and it looked genuine. “I didn’t expect anyone else up this early. There’s coffee in the pot, if you want it.”

“Thank you,” he said, moving mechanically. He’d never done this before, he realized – been around someone’s mother. The last time he’d been sixteen and Dorrie had made him explain to Mrs. Evans why her linoleum was scorched. It hadn’t been a great first impression.

He poured himself a mug and cranked the heat up until it was boiling, closing his eyes at the first sip. May was staring at him when he opened his eyes.

“That doesn’t burn you,” she stated.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. He fidgeted with the cup. “Nothing burns me.” He coughed. “Except hellfire.”

She was still staring. Johnny wanted Peter to wake up already and come take control of the situation. He didn’t know how to do this. He hadn’t known how to pretend to be normal before he’d been cosmically irradiated.

“Peter’s still out,” he said, then took another long sip of coffee. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be up yet either.”

“I don’t sleep much these days,” May said. “And Peter’s usually an early riser.”

“Tell me about it,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes on reflex. May glanced at him, amusement written all over her face.

“You’re good for him,” May hummed, flipping a wheatcake. “He’s actually still in bed for once. I was halfway expecting to wake up to another note on my fridge. How many walks can one man go on before the break of dawn?”

Johnny coughed, unsure how to deflect there. “Can I help?”

“Oh, that’s alright,” May said. “It’s sweet of you to offer, but I’m fine. Just sit down, make yourself comfortable.”

“I don’t mind,” Johnny said. In a moment of early morning vulnerability, standing barefoot in the kitchen of the woman Peter credited with everything good in him, he continued, “I miss cooking for my family.”

He felt stupid as soon as he said it, but all May said was, “oh, sweetheart,” as she turned the stove off and wrapped her arms around him.

For a second he just stood there, stunned, and he slid his own arms around her, his eyes prickling and his throat too tight.

May rubbed circles on his back for a few, long moments, and then she said, “There’s bacon in the fridge. I’ll let you handle that.”

That was how Peter found them, ten minutes later after he’d finally dragged himself out of bed.

“There a party going on in here I wasn’t invited to?” he asked, standing in the doorway and yawning.

“I’m leaving you for your aunt,” Johnny told him, grinning. May hit him with a dishtowel.

“Whatever,” Peter said, kissing his aunt on the cheek first and then Johnny. Johnny turned his head last second so their lips brushed together, chaste. “Just so long as I get breakfast first. Coffee?”

Johnny handed him a mug, heated just how he liked it, and Peter smiled sleepily at him over the top of it.

He’d downed half of it before he glanced at the stove again. “Wait. You’re letting him help?”

“Mmhmm,” May hummed, adding another wheatcake to the growing stack. Johnny would’ve ask how much she thought Peter could eat, but then he’d seen him order at Shake Shack.

“You never let me help!” Peter said, throwing up his free hand. “Your only nephew!”

“You once told me I was making eggs wrong,” May said, throwing him a look. “That I was making breakfast mathematically wrong.

“Really?” Johnny said, snickering as Peter grabbed him around the waist and leaned in.

“I was concussed, don’t laugh at me,” he whispered in Johnny’s ear.

“I’ll laugh at you whenever I want,” Johnny murmured back.

“Alright, alright,” May said. “Peter, you can set the table. Johnny, that bacon’s going to burn.”

“Aye, aye, captain,” Peter said, yawning as he opened the cabinets.

Getting everything set up was a little like trying to remember the steps of an old dance. May’s kitchen was nice, but it was a Manhattan kitchen; Johnny kept almost bumping into both of them. May clucked her tongue at him each time, but fondly. Peter treated it like a game, taking Johnny trying to edge around him with a plate of bacon as an excuse to grab first the bacon and then Johnny, dipping him low and humming some old song. Peter was different than Johnny had imagined he’d be, with them together, whenever Johnny had guiltily let himself imagine it. He was goofy. A little ridiculous. Stupidly romantic. It had been so long since Johnny had had this, and never with the sheer intensity Peter poured into it.

Johnny didn’t know why he was surprised; everything about Peter was like someone had turned the knob up to eleven. All the complaining he did as Peter pulled him to his feet was a bad cover for how much he loved it.

May laughed at them, shaking her head.

The knot in Johnny’s chest loosened a little.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the veritable buffet, but he cooks, you know,” Peter said halfway through breakfast, pointing at Johnny with his fork. “I promise we’re not starving. And I do just fine on my own.”

May raised her eyebrows in his direction.

“I can afford a whole different league of takeout now, thank you very much,” Peter continued, grinning. “It’s only dollar chips for dinner every other night now.”

“I’m pretty sure I caught him before scurvy set in, don’t worry,” Johnny said. Peter knocked his ankle against Johnny’s under the table and left it there. He cleared his throat and said, “I could make dinner, if that’s – if we’re going to be here tonight?”

He glanced at Peter.

“Parker Industries’ New York headquarters, much like Rome, won’t be built in a day,” Peter said, scowling, as if being unable to put a whole building back together single-handed was some terrible personal failing. Johnny kicked him under the table, just to be difficult.

“Right,” Johnny said. “So I could, if you wanted.”

“Well,” May said, getting up to get more coffee. “That would be very nice.”

Peter caught his eye and smiled, crooked and easy. After a second, Johnny smiled back.

“Yeah,” he said. “Definitely.”