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All That We Were

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The first thing Johnny notices when he wakes up is the small hand poking him in the face. Which, honestly, is the first thing that he notices most mornings. Waking up Johnny is Franklin and Valeria’s favorite hobby.

Johnny never minds when the kids wake him up. He pretends he does. He’ll swing his niece or nephew over his shoulder and growl all through breakfast about how he never gets a good night’s sleep anymore. Then, he’ll cheerfully play with Franklin and let Val experiment on him for the rest of the day.

The mornings where the kids wake him up always lead to the best afternoons.

However, when Johnny opens his eyes on this particular morning, he doesn’t see his niece or nephew. What he sees is a little boy he doesn’t recognize. A little boy with sweet round face, a mop of curly blonde hair, and large brown eyes.

“Papa. You said you’d make French toast,” says the boy.

“Uh,” says Johnny.

The kid can't be talking to him. Right? Johnny doesn't have any kids that he knows about, and any kids that he doesn't know about wouldn't be comfortable enough with him to make breakfast demands. Right? Right?

So the kid’s talking to someone else. Probably Someone in bed with Johnny. Although this seems a hell of a lot like Johnny’s bed, and he doesn't remember going home with anyone last night. Come to think of it, he doesn't remember anything about last night. Did he get drunk enough to accidentally become someone's stepdad?

Johnny looks behind him and sure enough, there's a head on the pillow next to his. He can't make out a face yet. All he can see is a mess of brown hair and about a million miles of broad, bare shoulders. Tentatively, Johnny reaches forward and pokes at those shoulders (and their soft soft skin. Drunk Johnny made some really good choices last night).

“Hwuh?” says the sleeping man, barely stirring. Johnny nudges him again, harder.

“Wake up,” Johnny says, “Before your kid starves to death.”

The little boy giggles.

It's then that the body next to him finally starts to move. The shoulders (the gorgeous freckled shoulders) shift, the head lifts, and Peter Parker’s face stares up at him.

“Oh what the hell,” Johnny says, and the child behind him squeaks.

“That’s a bad word, papa!” he says and Johnny is so, so screwed.

***

There are crayon drawings taped to the fridge. Pictures of the kid (“Benji” is written in huge messy letters over the stick figure with the shock of blond hair) riding a dragon, playing with the moloids, holding Spider-man’s hand.

Other than that, everything seems the same as Johnny’s regular kitchen. Well, except for all the junk food in the pantry. Fruit pies and pop tarts and more Doritos than any human man should be able to consume. Junk food that only Peter Parker hates his body enough to buy. Johnny shoots an irritated glance over his shoulder at Peter.

They're parents now. They should be setting an example.

Dear God, they're parents now.

Peter doesn't seem to notice the nasty look Johnny sends his way. He's sitting next to the kid at the kitchen island, talking in hushed voices.

Peter’s eyes are so wide they might never go back to their regular size. He hasn’t said anything to Johnny, probably because he thinks Johnny is a native of this universe (Universe? Timeline? Incredibly excellent dream?). Also probably because Benji’s been clinging to their sides all morning and hearing one father confess to the other that they don't remember anything about you is a sure way to mess up the poor kid for life.

At least the kid doesn’t seem to notice that something’s up. He’s talking animatedly, waving his hands around and kicking the legs of his chair. Now that he and Peter are sitting next to each other, Johnny can see that they look alike. Same button nose, same curly hair, same crinkle between their eyebrows when they're thinking hard.

Seeing them together makes something hurt in Johnny’s chest. Something he can't quite identify.

So he's going to ignore that.

“French toast coming up!” Johnny says, and starts digging through the fridge in search of an egg carton.

“Uh,” says Peter, “Should I help?”

“Stay away from my oven, Parker,” Johnny says. He tugs the eggs out from under a precarious pile of tupperware. Then, he remembers his last words, and freezes. “I mean. Snookums.”

That's what married couples call each other, right? Or at least, Johnny thinks they're married. They've both got gold rings on their fingers, but maybe the two of them are having some kind of weird affair. An affair where they share an apartment, and also a child. Whatever. It’s too early to rule anything out.

“Okay,” Peter says, glancing between Johnny and Benji with no small amount of panic, “Sugar.”

Wow.

Fortunately for them, Benji doesn't seem to notice that both of his parents are losing their damn minds. He's still telling Peter some story about his Aunt Sue and a giant grasshopper. Johnny can't tell if it’s made up or not.

They're probably not going to get any good info about this world from a four-year-old.

“Where is your Aunt Sue?” Peter asks, evidently on the same wavelength as Johnny.

“Field trip,” Benji says. “To the moon.”

“Did Uncle Reed go with her?” Johnny asks. The moment the words are out of his mouth, he has to resist the urge to smack himself. What if there's no Reed in this universe? What if there is a Reed, but he's dead? Or evil? Johnny could’ve just opened a veritable worm can of childhood trauma.

He cracks some eggs into a bowl and watches Benji for signs of distress. What are the signs of distress in a four-year-old? Crying, or is it more complex?

“He's working,” Benji says. Johnny breathes a sigh of relief. Behind him, he's pretty sure he hears Peter do the same. “He wants French toast.”

“Typical.” Johnny rolls his eyes. The universe may change but one thing stays the same. “Tell your Uncle Reed that he can come up here and get it.”

“Uh,” says Peter. “I can bring some down to him. I need to talk to him anyway.”

“Oh, yeah,” Johnny says, “I need to talk to him too.”

“I need to talk to him first.”

Peter’s voice is heading up to somewhere towards a panicked squeak.

“I think we can talk to him at the same time.”

“No, I really think we should talk to him at separate times,” Peter says, and Johnny takes a break from whipping the eggs to hang his head in despair.

“We’ll talk to him,” Johnny says, pointing an egg-soaked whisk at Peter, “At the same time.” After a moment, he remembers to add, “Darling.”

***

After breakfast, Benji runs out of the room, face still sticky with syrup, to play with the FF kids that aren’t on the moon. Johnny has a moment of panic, watching that tiny body go off without supervision. The kid should be able to make his way through the Baxter Building without getting vaporized or anything, but what if he can’t? What if Johnny is the worst father ever? He didn’t think to read any parenting books before going to sleep last night.

He’s going to have to google it.

That’s what he’s doing when Peter grabs his arm and yanks him into the hallway. Johnny makes a noise of outrage, but honestly, it’s kind of hot when Peter manhandles him.

“Excuse you!” he says anyway, not allowing himself to get caught up in fantasies of Peter carrying him places. Peter carrying him to the bedroom, the grocery store, the kitchen when Johnny’s too lazy to get up. All of that is so far from Johnny’s mind.

“Johnny!” Peter says, gripping both of Johnny’s shoulders. Johnny doesn’t even bother to look up from his phone. “What is going on!”

“Whatever do you mean, buttercup? Everything is totally normal and just like it was yesterday.”

What’s a good thing to google? “Parenting tips”? “Help I’m suddenly a dad”? Eventually, he settles on “what kills four year olds”, and types it into the search bar.

“Stop texting!”

“I’m not texting,” Johnny says, although maybe he should start. He could send a snapchat of his and Peter’s horrified faces to Wyatt with the caption “Wrong universe whoopsie!” That would be so hilarious and topical. “I’m researching how to parent. Because I’m responsible.”

“No, you’re not!”

A human voice shouldn’t be able to get that shrill. Now, Johnny wants to send a video of Peter flipping his shit to Wyatt.

“Screw you, I’m the best dad. I made French toast.”

When Johnny finally drags his eyes away from his phone screen, Peter is making a valiant attempt to rip out all of his hair. God, what a drama queen.

“Dude, chill. We’ll talk to Reed, he’ll figure things out. We won’t even have to do any work.”

Peter makes an unintelligible noise and buries his face in his hands. His hair is sticking out in all possible directions. Johnny should take a snapchat of that too, but instead he reaches forward and pats the top of Peter’s head. He makes shushing noises like Peter’s a panicked horse.

“Don’t worry, buddy,” he says, when Peter’s shoulders finally slump. “Leave all the parenting to me.”

***

Reed’s lab looks the same. Ominously bubbling beakers. Twisted metal whatsits and doohickies. More dials and buttons than any sane human would know what to do with. And Reed, body stretched into three separate corners of the room. It shouldn’t be such a relief to see Reed’s elongated elbow.

“Reed,” Johnny says. He pokes at the nearest limb, as Reed’s head is currently MIA. “We’ve got a problem here.”

There’s Reed’s face, peering out at them from above a Faraday cage in the far right corner.

“What kind of problem?” he asks, pushing up his safety goggles with the back of a gloved hand. He squints at the two of them. “Did Benji eat one of Valeria’s experiments again?”

Again? What kind of parent is alternate/dream/future Johnny?

“Nope. Better,” Johnny replies. There are a lot of things he wants to say to his alternate/dream/future self, but he brushes them aside. For now.

“I doubt that, Johnny,” Reed says. His limbs start contracting back towards his torso. They’re going to get un-stretched Reed for this conversation. An honor, a privilege. “Last time, Benji’s skin turned a color never before discovered.”

Before Johnny goes back to his regular world, he’s going to buy this Johnny some parenting books.

“Well, see that’s the problem. My lovely husband and I,” At this, Johnny slings an arm around Peter’s shoulders. Peter elbows him, but it’s so half-hearted that it just kind of tickles. “Don’t remember that. We don’t even remember getting married. When I went to sleep last night, I was the most eligible bachelor in New York City.”

“Second most,” mutters Peter.

“Fascinating,” says Reed.

***

Half an hour later, Johnny and Peter are still sitting on an examination table in Reed’s lab, trying not to die of boredom while he pokes, prods, and scans them. At least the boredom seems to have worn away some of Peter’s panic. Every few minutes he whines about how he won’t be able to leave this room until their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Peter isn’t smart like Johnny, who grabbed his phone off the bedside table the moment he woke up. Peter probably doesn’t even know where his phone is. Amateur.

The password is the same as his regular phone, and he’s spent the last twenty minutes scrolling through other Johnny’s photos.

Pictures of Benji at the zoo, face painted like a lion’s. Benji hanging upside down from the monkey bars. Benji asleep, curled up on Peter’s lap. Peter holding Benji as a newborn, wrinkled, tiny, and pink.

Looking at the photos makes Johnny feel like something is caught in his chest. Something like panic. Something like sheer, high-flying, exuberant joy. He keeps tapping through the pictures anyway, even though this kind of thing has got to be either sadism or idiocy.

“Can I play a game on your phone?” Peter asks, and Johnny starts, suddenly self-conscious. He presses his phone against his chest.

“No,” he says, “You’re like a toddler.”

“You married this toddler,” Peter says. Immediately, he scrunches up his freckled nose. “That came out wrong.”

“It sure did, buddy,”Johnny says. He looks back down at his phone. On the screen is a picture of Johnny with his head in Peter’s lap. While Johnny laughs at something off-camera, Peter gazes down at him. His face is open. Gentle.

The Peter of this world must adore Johnny. It’s so obvious.

“Would you look at that?” Peter says. His chin is poking into Johnny’s shoulder. “We really are married.”

“What did you think we were, webhead? Good pals?”

He reaches up and pushes Peter’s head away. It pops right back onto his shoulder, like a nightmarish whack-a-mole.

“I don’t know,” Peter says, thoughtful. He reaches for Johnny’s phone, and against his better judgement, Johnny relinquishes it. He’s been looking at it too long anyway. “Maybe we were both married to other people, but there was only one bed?”

For a genius, Peter’s sure got some stupid theories. At least Johnny’s weird affair theory only took one or two giant logical leaps.

“What do you think the deal is anyway?” Peter asks. “My money’s on dreamscape.”

“Twenty bucks says it’s an alternate universe.”

“Nuh-uh, pal. It’s a dream for sure. Or a nightmare.”

It’s the kind of joke they’d make any other day, but on this particular day, Johnny doesn’t want to hear it. He lies back against the table and throws a arm over his eyes.

“Whatever,” he says, “Wake me when Reed’s done.”

Peter hums in agreement, and the only noise Johnny hears afterward are the gentle taps of his fingers on the phone screen.

***

Although, Johnny does manage to fall asleep for a little bit, it’s a bad idea. His dreams are full of stupid, ridiculous things, like Peter Parker’s eyes in the middle of a small, round face. Like Johnny with his head on Peter’s warm chest. Like great glowing happiness as far as the eye can see. He wakes up disoriented, back aching.

Peter’s leaning over him, hand on his shoulder, a concerned line between his eyebrows. For a second, Johnny can’t tell if he’s awake or not.

“Reed’s figured it out,” Peter says, and the pieces of Johnny’s bizarre morning start clicking back into place. “And I owe you twenty dollars.”

“Sweet,” Johnny says, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Some part of him, some twisted, traitorous part is disappointed. Of course it’s an alternate universe. He shouldn’t have expected anything else. “Don’t pay up until we’re back home. Reed can get us home, right?”

“Yeah. It might take a couple of days though. You okay with being a parent for a couple of days?”

“Sure,” Johnny says. “I’m a great babysitter. Kids love me.”

Suddenly, Peter’s expression goes drawn and serious.

“It’s not the same as babysitting, Johnny,” he says, and Johnny feels a flash of irritation. He sits up abruptly, shoving Peter’s arm away.

“Really, Pete? I never would have guessed.” He stands, and straightens out his shirt. “I can handle it.”

“Okay,” Peter says.

Johnny hates when he gets this solemn. They’ll be home in less than a week, and he’s acting like someone died. Is that what it feels like for him to be married to Johnny? To have a kid with him?

“Okay,” Johnny snaps. He checks his reflection in one of Reed’s shiny chrome doohickies. Runs a hand through his hair. “Anything else?”

“We can’t tell the kid. Reed doesn’t think he’d understand.”

Benji, Johnny wants to say, He has a name. We named him.

“Makes sense.”

“I’m going to stick around here. See if I can help out.”

He’s talking tentatively, like at any second Johnny’s going to fly off the handle. Which is pissing Johnny off enough to make him want to fly off the handle. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s fine.

Is he that obvious?

“What should I do?” Johnny asks.

“Whatever you want,” Peter says, already turning around and heading back to the corner where Reed’s typing furiously. “The universes aren’t that different. So do what you’d normally do.”

Which has got to be the most useless advice that Johnny’s been given.

***

In the end, Johnny decides to do the dishes, and God, the signs of other Peter and other Johnny are everywhere. The cheesy Spider-man mug in the sink that Johnny definitely picked out. The chipped “Planets of the Solar System” plates that must’ve been Peter’s choice. Tiny cutlery in bright colors and animal patterns litters the bottom of the sink,

This must be what other Johnny does most mornings. The rest of the time, he probably whines enough that Peter does the dishes. And maybe Benji is like Franklin was at that age. When he was little, Franklin was insistent upon helping out with dishwashing. Of course, then he’d do nothing but play with the bubbles. Johnny would go along with it, even though he knew that it always ended with the two of them covered head to toe in suds.

He imagines Benji humming as he pours soap onto a sponge. Covering all the dishes with a fine layer of bubbles and refusing to rinse any of them off. Scolding Johnny when he does rinse them, because doesn’t Johnny know how dishes get clean?

He has to stop doing the dishes. He can’t wipe off the counter either. Or take a nap. Or play Candy Crush. This universe is so, so similar to his, but every inch of the place reminds him of where he is. There’s multi-colored building blocks scattered across the living room floor. Magnetic letters of the alphabet stuck to the fridge. Stuffed animals and Disney movies and tiny pairs of socks. He even finds a crude crayon drawing on the wall of the living room, in vibrant purples and blues, and he spends twenty minutes staring at it, like it’s a piece of modern art he’s trying to interpret.

Benji’s still out playing with the FF kids. Peter’s in Reed’s lab. Sue’s on the moon, and who the hell knows if Ben even exists in this universe. Johnny’s alone. He’s trapped in this big child-proofed apartment, and he’s alone. Lonely. It’s a cavernous, hungry feeling. Huge and claustrophobic. Empty and full.

***

Benji comes back in time for lunch. Drags himself through the doorway, shoulders slumped almost to his knees and head hanging somewhere near his waist. When he sees Johnny, he sighs and collapses face first onto the couch next to him. There’s a clump of pink paint in his hair.

“Tired, buddy?” Johnny asks. “Do you need a nap after lunch?”

Johnny’s not sure if that’s how he’s supposed to talk to his kid. Is it how the other Johnny talks to him? Because right now Johnny’s just mashing together stuff he’s heard Reed and Sue say. Little kid buzzwords like “naps” and “snack time” and “the zoo”.

Naps are a thing, right? Four years olds still take naps?

“I’m not tired,” Benji says, voice slurring with exhaustion. Johnny huffs out a laugh and rubs Benji’s back.

“Sure, kid. What do you want for lunch?”

Immediately, Benji shoots up, looking like someone gave him a couple of shots of espresso. His eyes are wild when he says “Grilled cheese.”

“On it.”

Johnny walks into the kitchen and Benji trails in after him, like he tiniest shadow in the world. He starts telling Johnny about the game he was playing with the other kids, something complicated and nonsensical involving an evil ogre. And an office building? Johnny doesn’t get it, but he nods along and “ooohs” in all the right places. Years of barely understanding Val (and Reed) (and Sue) have made him an expert in acting like he’s listening.

The kid’s a good storyteller, even if Johnny doesn’t understand him. He’s bright and engaging, acting things out with waving arms. He even does a different voice for each person in the story. The voices usually make it even harder to understand his kidspeak, but it’s cute.

He pronounces his Rs like Ws. Every time he says Reed, Johnny wants to pinch his little cheeks.

Things are going smoothly while Johnny makes lunch. He’s not the kid’s dad, but he’s doing a pretty good job faking it. Or at least, he does a good job faking it until he puts the grilled cheese down in front of Benji.

Benji sticks out his lower lip. Pokes at the top of the grilled cheese. Tilts his head to look at it from the side. Pries apart the top and bottom pieces of bread. Inspects the melted mess in the middle.

Just as Johnny is starting to wonder what kind of pre-lunch ritual this kid’s invented, Benji says: “Where’s the tomato, papa?”

“Is there no tomato?” Johnny asks, picking up the plate. “How odd. It must have been stolen by the tomato elves.”

Benji blinks at him. Damn. Blaming things on elves always used to work with Franklin. It even worked on Val, a couple of times.

“I’ll make a new one,” Johnny says, finally. Now, he only needs to figure out where other Peter and Johnny keep the tomatoes. It would be just his luck if tomato storage turns out to be one of the few differences between this world and his own.

“Where’s Daddy?” Benji asks, and it takes Johnny a second to figure out who he’s talking about. “Did he eat lunch?”

“Uh,” Johnny says. “He’s working with Uncle Reed.”

“Can we bring them lunch?” Benji asks, perking up.

Johnny thinks, logically, that he should say no. Reed and Peter are working hard, and they probably won’t appreciate the disruption. But the kid’s giving him the biggest brown eyes he’s ever seen, and he looks so damn hopeful, and really, if Johnny doesn’t intervene, Peter and Reed might never eat again.

“Sure, buddy,” Johnny says.

A little while later, the two of them head down to the lab. Benji is armed with two sandwiches carefully wrapped in paper towels. One for him and one for Peter. (He didn’t seem to care about delivering one to Reed, so that sandwich was left to Johnny.) Benji is walking slowly, taking bites of his sandwich as he goes. Crumbs are getting everywhere. There’s probably a trail of them leading back to the kitchen, like Hansel and Gretel.

Johnny opens the door to the lab. He manages to shoot out a hand to stop Benji from barrelling straight in, but just barely.

“You’ve got to be careful in Uncle Reed’s lab, buddy,” he says, and Benji looks outraged.

“I’m careful!” he insists, straining against Johnny’s grasp.

“Uh-huh,” Johnny says. “I believe you, kiddo. Hold my hand while we’re in here.”

Benji delivers a sigh dramatic enough to be worthy of… well, Johnny. But he holds out a tiny hand and Johnny takes it.

When they walk into the lab, Benji shouts “Daddy!” and it takes Peter a long time to look up. When he finally does, his expression is stricken. Gently, Johnny pulls Benji towards Reed.

“Thank you, Johnny,” Reed says. He removes one of his gloves and picks up the sandwich delicately. “Did you make this, Benji?”

“Yeah,” Benji says, sounding bored and a little bit smug. Reed shakes his head.

“You’ve got a humble kid there, Johnny,” Reed says, grinning. It takes him a moment to remember himself. Remember who Johnny really is. His expression freezes.

“That’s what I’m learning,” Johnny says. He forces out a smile before he points Benji in Peter’s direction.

It seems like the closer they get to Peter, the more closed off his body language becomes. He’s curling in on himself, moving stiffly. His eyes keep flicking in their direction.

Benji’s straining so hard against Johnny’s grasp that he’s practically horizontal.

“Daddy,” he says, gasping like he’s just run two marathons and knocked out fifty supervillains, “I made a sandwich for you.”

He holds it out reverently. The last gift of a dying man.

“Thank you,” Peter says, taking it. His voice is stiff and oddly formal. Like Benji is the queen or something.

He turns back to his computer then, and starts typing. Johnny can’t see his screen, but he’s pretty sure he’s not writing any actual words. Just tapping away at the keyboard to look busy.

Benji watches him, a disappointed slump to his shoulders. For a long moment, there’s no noise in the lab other than the clicks of the keyboard. Johnny feels like he should do something, say something, like there’s a proper parent protocol for this and he’s missing it.

Benji steps forward and grabs onto the end of Peter’s t-shirt.

“What are you doing?” he asks, quiet. Peter looks down at him, and Johnny can’t identify the emotion on his face.

“I’m working,” he says, “On a...Special secret project.”

“What is it?”

Peter doesn’t quite smile at that, but his expression warms.

“It’s a secret,” he says, putting a hand on the top of Benji’s head. His skin is rough and dark against Benji’s light hair. “But I’ll tell you soon, okay?”

Instead of replying, Benji presses his forehead against Peter’s hip with a thump. Peter huffs out a laugh.

“Alright, Benji,” Johnny says, taking the kid's hand again. “Time for your nap.”

Benji fights him half the way back to their apartment. The other half he spends asleep in Johnny's arms.

***

The bed in Peter and Johnny’s room is large, soft, and comfortable. It’s got about a million throw pillows in tasteful grays and browns, and lovely silk sheets. Honestly, it’s one of the best beds Johnny has ever seen.

However, there is one insurmountable problem with the bed.

There’s only one of it.

“I can sleep on the couch,” Peter offers, and Johnny slugs him in the arm.

“If anyone’s taking the bed, it’s me, asshole,” he says, “And no one’s taking the bed. You big baby.”

“I’m not a baby. You just kick in your sleep.”

“I don’t kick in my sleep. Who told you that?”

Johnny runs a hands over the smooth, velvety comforter, and nearly melts into it. This is the best bed in the world. He might be in love with it.

“Ben,” Peter says.

“Ben can’t talk. He crushes people in his sleep.”

Before Peter can reply to that, Johnny leaps onto the bed facefirst.

“Pete, baby,” he says, snuggling his face into the pillow. “Take my shoes off, willya?”

He sticks up a booted foot and Peter smacks it away.

“Put on some pajamas,” Peter says, “You are not allowed to sleep naked.”

“So bossy.”

Of course, most of Johnny’s bravado abandons him by the time he and Peter are actually in pajamas, in bed, and under the covers. It’s a big bed, but Johnny’s still paranoid that at any moment his hand is going to brush some exposed bit of Peter’s skin. From that touch alone, Peter would inevitably be able to divine that Johnny’s been hopelessly in love with him for years and also wants to kiss him a lot and touch his hair. He’s not sure how Peter would be able to figure this out. Spider sense, maybe.

Peter is perfectly still beside him. They both forgot to turn the lights off, but neither of them is moving. Johnny’s sure that if he waits long enough, the lights will turn themselves off. Maybe this world’s Reed decided to add that feature to the Baxter Building.

“Uh,” Peter says, and Johnny has to agree.

“Night,” Johnny says. If he ignores the burning overhead light hard enough, he’ll fall right to sleep.

“Night,” Peter replies, half-hearted. The bed groans as Peter sits up. As soon as he stands, Johnny rolls into his abandoned space, octopus-ing his limbs out to every corner. The light flicks off and Peter shuffles back towards the bed. The moment Peter’s roving hands hit Johnny’s stretched out arm, he swears and Johnny laughs.

“Oh, you dick. Move over.”

“There’s plenty of room, snookums.”

“I hate you so much.”

Despite Johnny’s best efforts, Peter manages to wrench Johnny’s fingers loose from their iron grip on the mattress (Damn that spider strength.) (He even heats up his hand to make Pete let go, but the guy perseveres.) and he cruelly rolls across the bed.

By the time they get settled in, Johnny’s breathless from laughter and he’s pretty sure Pete is too. Johnny turns onto his side and props his head up on his hand. Barely, he can make out the outline of Peter in the moonlight.

“What a day,” he says, and Peter’s head shifts towards him.

“You always get this chatty at midnight?” he asks and Johnny shrugs.

“Most of the time.”

“You’re so annoying,” Peter says, but there’s an undeniable fondness in his tone. Or at least, that’s what Johnny chooses to believe. “How does other Peter get any sleep?”

Johnny snorts. Peter groans.

“I walked right into that one,” he says.

“You’re off your game today, webhead.” To comfort him, Johnny reaches forward, starts patting at the spot where he thinks Peter’s face is. There’s something firm under his hand that’s definitely either a forehead or a cheekbone.

“Yeah,” Peter says. He doesn’t even bat Johnny’s hand away. Now there’s a frown forming under Johnny’s fingers. Or crow’s feet.

Johnny pats Peter’s face again, for good measure, and pulls his hand away.

“You alright?” Johnny asks, about ready to go off and set whatever’s bothering Peter on fire. Even if it’s this whole stupid universe. Even if it’s Johnny.

“Tired.”

“Okay.”

He’s still watching the outline of Peter in the light. The lift and fall of his chest. The curve of his chin. The flicker of his mouth. Other Johnny gets to look at this every night. Other Johnny gets to see Peter sad or stressed or angry and actually do something about it.

Whatever. There are plenty of other Johnnys out there, who get to do all kinds of stupid things. What’s the point of dwelling on it? There are versions of Johnny out there who’ve never met Peter, who’ve hated Peter, who’ve been hated by him. Johnny’s better off than all of them, isn’t he?

“You better not kick me,” Peter says, and Johnny smothers a laugh into his pillow.

***

The next morning, he wakes up with Peter’s head on his chest and Peter’s hair in his nose. Evidently, a sleeping Peter had come up with a solution to Johnny’s kicking problem, and that solution was crushing Johnny’s legs under a couple thousand pounds of spider-nerd.

So simple, so elegant, so cruel to Johnny and Johnny’s stupid heart.

The aforementioned stupid heart is now pounding at a million miles per hour, and the stupid brain is thinking about how soft Peter is in Johnny’s arms. How this feels right. How it would be so easy to pull Peter in closer and fall asleep again..

Also Johnny really needs to sneeze.

With a significant amount of effort, he manages to shove Peter off his chest and get out of bed. It’s too much damn work for this early in the morning. Stupid Peter Parker and his stupid, serene, beautiful, stupid, sleeping face.

***

This world’s Sue comes back from the moon, and she’s as tall, blonde, and bossy as the other one. She busts into their apartment the moment she arrives, and starts inspecting Johnny. Gripping him by the shoulders and twisting him back and forth.

“You look the same,” she says, wrinkling her nose.

“I am the same,” Johnny says, “It’s a psychic transfer, not a body transfer. Or something.”

Even without switching bodies, Johnny feels like he looks normal. He’s got the same hands, the same feet. The same ugly ruddy birthmark on his thigh. He even has the same haircut, which was a major relief the first time he saw it in the mirror. There might be some new scars, like the one on his thumb that’s kind of shaped like the Eiffel Tower. But maybe he didn’t notice it before.

Scars are sexy, anyway.

Sue’s first order of business is to make Peter and Johnny sit down to a nice family lunch with her. She even insists on cooking all the food herself, because the two of them aren’t only her guests. They’re the universe’s guest.

Of course, Johnny still has to clean, peel, and chop all the vegetables.

“You’re still my brother,” Sue says, looking smug while stirring her tomato sauce. “Even if we’ve never technically met before.”

Ben’s here too. Somehow he managed to get out of kitchen duty, so he’s sitting on the couch watching Dora the Explorer with Benji. The faint sounds of him heckling Dora keep trickling into the kitchen.

Peter wasn’t able to get out of helping, even though he claimed that cut up onions cause him horrific, unbearable pain. Apparently, the other Peter has tried that excuse too.

“Make the salad,” Sue says, “It won’t kill you.”

“Beg to differ,” Peter mutters under his breath, sitting at the table and chopping up lettuce with slow, miserable movements.

After all of this, Johnny hopes he might get a reprieve from being big-sistered. He’s horribly wrong, of course.

“So the two of you aren’t married?” Sue asks.

“Uh,” Peter says, eyes shooting toward Johnny. Then pointedly shooting away from Johnny, and down at his cutting board. “No. Just friends.”

“I suppose I knew that must be true in some universe out there,” Sue says. Her stirring slows as she stares off into the distances. “But the two of you have always been such a package deal.”

“Have we been together that long?” Johnny asks.

“Around six years,” Sue says, turning down the burner under the saucepot. “But you’ve known each other longer than that. You were always a little bit obsessed with each other, to tell the truth.”

She takes a pot down from over the stove and heads over to the sink. As the pot is filling, she turns and leans against the counter. Her expression is thoughtful.

“We always assumed that the two of you would get together,” she says, “Although I can’t remember why. I know Johnny had a huge crush on Spider-man as a teenager. ”

“Other Johnny has good taste,” Peter says, and Johnny decides that now is a good time to start hacking away at some zucchini.

It’s also probably a good time to stop asking questions, because hearing the answers is making Johnny kind of nauseous. But that would require some self-control on Johnny’s part.

“How did Benji happen?” he asks. He’s been wondering ever since he noticed that despite having Peter’s nose, Peter’s eyes, and Peter’s goofy sense of humor, Benji’s got Johnny’s chin. Also Johnny’s general charm and awesomeness, but that’s probably nurture, not nature.

“Well, you were talking about adoption,” Sue says, “Not much. You’d only been together a little over year or so at that point.”

“At what point?” Peter asks.

“The cloning accident,” Sue says, simple and to-the-point like this is where they should’ve seen the story going. Given Johnny’s life (and especially Peter’s) they should have. “I’m still not clear on the specifics of what happened. I was fighting a Skrull upstairs at the time. But the two of you had almost defeated all the Skrulls in Reed’s lab when there was a small explosion. To everyone’s surprise, when the smoke cleared, there was a baby on the floor.”

Peter’s jaw is practically on the table, but Johnny doesn’t know why he’s so surprised. Johnny’s more surprised that nothing like this has happened in their universe. If they’re being realistic, at least six separate science babies should have been created in Reed’s lab.

“The last Skrull was so surprised she stopped fighting entirely. We later discovered that the child shared the DNA of the two of you. So the two of you decided that you might as well get married. The rest is history.”

Sue flicks off the sink and start lugging the pot of water back to the stove.

“Hold on,” Johnny says, pointing his knife at Sue, “Are you saying it was a shotgun wedding?”

“I am not saying that.”

“It totally was,” Peter says, loading lettuce into the salad spinner.

“Who was holding the shotgun? Was it Ben? Oh man, was it you?”

“No one was holding a shotgun.”

“Because you have powers!” Peter interjects.

“Sue, you were totally threatening Peter with your scary powers, weren’t you? You needed him to make an honest man of your brother, didn’t you? Sue, tell me the truth.”

Sue rolls her eyes, which is as good as a yes. Johnny tells her so. She tells him to shut up and finish the zucchini.

***

Somehow, the lunch attendance expands from four people to what must be everyone in the Baxter Building. Plus Aunt May. Johnny’s not even sure who told Aunt May about the lunch, or about Peter and Johnny’s situation, but there she is. The moment she walks in, she starts interrogating Peter. Is he eating enough? What job does he have? Is he dating anyone? Does the other Aunt May know about the Spider-man thing? Because she really deserves to know, Peter. By the time lunch is on the table, she’s managed to convince Peter to eat more greens and ask for a promotion.

Val and Franklin come down to lunch too, although the two of them and the rest of the FF kids are relegated to the kids’ table. Or, to be more accurate, they’re stuck at one of the several large kids’ tables in the extensive dining hall the other Reed had to install.

Benji’s older than Val in this universe, which is so weird. The two of them seem to get along, even if Val’s superhuman intellect makes it hard for them to keep up a conversation. As everyone gets settled into their seats, Val starts trying to explain the finer points of the theory of relativity to Benji, and Benji starts trying to get out of the conversation by drowning himself in tomato sauce. Eventually, Dragon Man has to take away his plate and replace it with simple, buttered noodles.

It’s kind of adorable.

Benji adores Franklin, which Franklin takes in stride. A lot of children would be annoyed by the constant attention of a younger kid, but Franklin lets Benji sit at the table next to him. He even sneaks Franklin some marinara sauce when Benji’s gets confiscated.

It’s cute. It’s all so cute, and chaotic and loud and messy. Over the course of one meal, Ben manages to break a table, the FF kids manage to set a different table on fire, at least three food fights get started and promptly shut down, Aunt May asks Peter why he isn’t marrying Johnny because he’s “such a nice boy”, and Peter gets his first gray hair.

It’s a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong. Johnny only manages to eat two bites of salad and half a meatball before a mashed potato volcano erupts and knocks Johnny’s plate clean off the table. Objectively, it’s the worst family meal they’ve ever had, and most of their family meals get interrupted by supervillain attacks. Speaking of supervillain attacks, a doombot busts through the window at one point to drop off a belated birthday present for Val.

Everyone stumbles out of the dining room, exhausted and battered. Benji needs to take a nap right afterward, and so do Peter and Johnny.

And yet, as Johnny puts his head on the pillow and starts drifting away, he can’t help but wish that all his lunches were more like that one.

***

“We’re going to be able to go home tonight. In a few hours.”

Peter’s the first thing that Johnny sees when he wakes up that afternoon. He’s standing in front of the window, and the light of the sun is so bright behind him that Johnny can't make out any of his features. All he can see are Peter’s crossed arms.

“Oh,” Johnny says. He's not sure if he sounds as disappointed to Peter as he does in his head.

***

Before they go down to Reed’s lab, they set Benji up with the FF kids and a Disney movie. Johnny perches on the arm of the couch as the movie starts up, and the Muses start singing about the feats of Hercules.

Benji and about a hundred other kids are all crammed onto the couch. They’re so busy squabbing amiably and pushing each other for more room that they miss the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Johnny sits there, watching the tops of their little heads and doing his best not to wallow. He can’t wallow when there’s a Disney movie playing. It would be inhumane.

The kids have finally started to calm down when Reed comes to get him. They’re all so entranced, they don’t even notice when Johnny stands up.

For a second, all he does is look down at Benji.

He’s not Johnny’s kid. He’s never going to be Johnny’s kid.

Hades shows up on screen and Benji spins around. He’s got a grin on his face that’s bright enough to light up the whole room.

“It’s you!” he says. It’s not the most flattering comparison, but Johnny still gets a little bit choked up. He lets himself lean down and kiss the top of Benji’s head.

“You’re right, buddy.”

He’s not Johnny’s kid. Even if it feels like he could be.

***

Reed and Peter have set up some kind of chamber, with lots of shiny metal slabs and ominous wiring. All Johnny has to do is stand in it and wait. Then he’ll be back home. Back to his old life.

They’re trying to explain how the machine works. The inner workings, the complicated science, the potential risks. He’s not really listening.

It doesn’t matter if it works or not. If it sends him home, or to a new universe. It doesn’t even matter if it kills him. Peter and Reed would find a way to fix it. They always do. Hell, he’s been dead before. It never sticks. Nothing ever sticks.

“Are you ready, Johnny?” Reed says, standing in front of what must be hundreds of buttons and dials. Peter’s hovering behind him, and fidgeting. Tapping his feet, biting his nails.

On autopilot, Johnny nods.

“It’ll take a couple of minutes to get going,” Reed says, “So be patient.”

They step into the chamber.

When Johnny was a little kid, he liked having nightmares. Sometimes, Sue would hear him crying at night and come sprinting into his room, ready to personally fight all the monsters under his bed. He’d stare up at her, hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. Shaking hard and laughing like a lunatic. She’d never understand when he tried to explain that he didn’t mind nightmares. He liked the feeling of waking up and realizing that none of it was real.

He’d have dreams about monsters eating him, aliens abducting him, Sue dying. Then the next morning, he’d start life fresh. It was a lot easier for him to appreciate his bossy, know-it-all sister when he knew what it was like to be without her.

He hated waking up after good dreams. Hated the sick drop in his stomach when he remembered that it wasn’t his life. He’d try to go back to sleep, try to stay in the dream a little bit longer. But it never worked.

He keeps looking at Peter. Drinking him in. He’s beautiful. Funny and smart and neurotic and more than a little bit annoying. Johnny loves him. It’s impossible to count the number of dreams he’s had where he gets to be married to Peter. Gets to have a family with him. Sometimes, he’ll have one every night in a row for weeks at a time.

Waking up never gets easier.

“Don’t make me go back,” Johnny says. It doesn’t feel like he’s the one saying it. It feels like he’s miles and miles away.

“What?” Peter asks. His eyes are wide.

“Let me stay here. Please, Pete. Let me stay.”

“Johnny.”

But Johnny’s already backing towards the door. He can’t look away from Peter’s face. His sweet, familiar face. Johnny doesn’t know if he’s ever loved anyone this much.

“I don’t want to go back. Let me stay here. Alright? Please.”

There’s the door, behind him. He can feel the cool metal of the doorknob. Peter’s looking at him, terrified. Like Johnny’s transformed into something monstrous.

He can stay here. He can be alright. He can be happy.

The light in the room is changing. He can see ripples in the air, swirling purple and green like an oil slick. He only has a few seconds left.

“Let me stay,” he says, and turns the doorknob.

The air is molten and soupy, and Peter’s stepping forward, reaching for him. His skin is turning to pearl. He’s moving fast and then slow. Fast and slow.

The door’s open, but Peter’s got a hold of him. He’s pulling him close.

Fast and slow. Fast and slow. Peter’s fingers are biting into Johnny’s skin.

The world starts swimming. The walls stretch and contort. Smear thickly across each other like paint across a canvas. There’s a flash of blinding light, and a sick drop in Johnny’s stomach.

When the light clears, Johnny knows that he’s home.

***

Johnny wakes up on the floor of Reed’s lab. Peter and the rest of the Four are scattered around him, in various states of consciousness.

Apparently, Ben woke up first. Then, Reed, Pete, Johnny. Sue wakes up about a little while after Johnny does, groggy and mumbling something about sentient machines.

The moment they’re all conscious, Reed ushers them over to the exam tables and starts scanning them. Johnny’s starting to think Reed and exam tables are the only real universal constant.

Ben won’t stop talking about the world he visited. Apparently, Sue was evil, and it was “disturbing to see, let me tell ya.” Sue’s listening, laughing along and asking questions. The more evil other Sue gets, the more this Sue giggles.

Peter and Johnny aren’t talking.

Johnny’s leaning his head against the wall, and closing his eyes. He’s exhausted, limbs feeling thick and heavy. Maybe if he falls asleep here, someone will carry him up to bed. Or maybe Reed would let him stay there. Sleep the day away.

“We all appear to be our regular selves,” Reed says. Before he can say anything else, Peter’s heading for the door. The other three watch him go, stunned, but Johnny’s out of his seat in an instant.

He doesn’t know why he’s chasing Peter. Doesn’t know what he’s going to say to Peter when he catches him. Is he going to apologize? Thank him? Or is he going to be angry?

The last one seems the most likely. Johnny can feel the anger now, thick and hot under his skin.

It’s not fair to be angry at Peter. He didn’t do anything wrong. But then again, maybe that’s why Johnny’s so furious.

Peter’s at the elevator now, and he’s smacking the down button. The moment Johnny catches up, Peter whirls around to face him.

“Why did you do that?” he bites out.

There’s a lot of things Johnny wants to say to Peter in this moment. Go to hell, being first and foremost. Closely followed by You suck, and I love you.

There aren’t any real winners in the list.

He hates the way Peter is looking at him. The furrowed eyebrows. The firm set of his mouth. It feels like he’s about to get a lecture on the Ethics of Universe Hopping. Like Johnny doesn’t know it’s wrong to try to steal someone else’s life. Cruel and evil.

But he’d try it again, in a heartbeat. If it meant he got to live like that, he’d do anything. And that’s not something he can ever make Peter understand.

Sometimes you don’t do the right thing. Sometimes you’re just selfish.

“I wanted a family,” Johnny says, and Peter’s fists clench.

“That’s not how you get one, Johnny. That’s not how you get anything.”

Johnny can’t say anything after that. He just lets Peter get into the elevator and leave.

***

After that, Johnny doesn’t want to do anything but sleep. So that’s what he does. He sleeps forever, sleeps eternally, sleeps like it’s going out of style. He wakes up, sticky-eyed and groggy, and stares at the ceiling for what feels like hours. If he looks long enough, maybe he’ll find a reason to get out of bed.

Eventually, he manages to drag an arm towards the bedside table to grab his phone. According to the blazing, judgmental numbers on the screen, it’s four in the afternoon. He’s missed six calls. One from Ben, two from Reed, and two from Sue. He listens to the voicemail from Sue, her soft, concerned voice saying nonsensical things like “Are you okay?” and “I want to talk to you”. Then Ben cuts in and starts yammering on about how even though the Sue he met in the other world was evil, he can forgive his Sue. He trusts that she’ll never try to blow up his brain inside his skull.

“No matter what the webhead did to you,” Ben says, voice getting as gentle as something that gravelly can get, “He’s still your friend. Unless he did something really bad. Then I’ll smash him to tiny spider pieces. Alright, kid?”

Sue takes the phone back at that point, but Johnny doesn’t listen to the rest. He wants to go back to sleep. He feels sick and apathetic and heavy. Like his insides have been eroded away.

***

“Alright, get up.”

It takes Johnny a couple moments to recognize the voice. For a terrifying moment, he thinks it’s Peter. This is exactly how he’d want to see Peter after the universe-hopping mess: unshowered, with greasy hair and angry pillow marks all over his face. That would be a cherry on top of the worst sundae of all time.

But when he opens his eyes, all he sees is a smear of bright orange. Which is a relief, because Ben’s seen him a hell of a lot grosser than this. And that means he can go back to sleep, and he doesn’t have to shower for like, another decade.

“Go away,” Johnny says, pulling his blanket up to his chin and smushing his face back into his pillow. It’s still warm, and perfectly Johnny-face-shaped.

“Uh-uh,” Ben says, and grabs Johnny’s blanket. He rips it off, cruelly, and the coldest air Johnny’s ever felt comes rushing in.

“Go to hell!” Johnny yells. He curls himself into a tight ball and presses his face even harder into the pillow. Before he knows it, the pillow is gone too, and Johnny’s head smacks against the edge of the mattress.

“Get outta bed,” Ben says, “Or I’ll carry you.”

Joke’s on him. Johnny likes being carried.

“Whatever,” Johnny says, and predictably, Johnny feels himself being lifted into the air by two very rocky arms. “Let me go.”

Less predictably, Ben listens to him and Johnny hits the bed hard. He goes flying off and lands on the carpet, a painful tangle of limbs.

“Asshole!” Johnny says, although his insult is mostly muffled by the carpet. Reluctantly, he pushes himself up into a sitting position, and then shoots a fireball at Ben’s head. Ben doesn’t even bother to dodge it. Stupid Ben and his stupid rockiness.

“Uh-huh,” Ben says again, smug. He settles down on the bed and probably cracks the frame forever. “What’s your problem?”

“You’re my problem,” Johnny snaps. He smooths out his hair and is immediately disgusted by the greasiness. Maybe he should take a shower before he goes back to bed.

“I’m always your problem,” Ben says, which, weirdly enough, makes Johnny kind of emotional. His messed up brain thinks something about universal constants and family and God, Johnny’s a wreck. “What’s your new problem?”

“I don’t have a new problem.”

Ben doesn’t bother to respond to this. He waits while Johnny picks at a thread on the boring, gray carpet.

He’s not going to tell Ben. He’s not. He’s going to keep this secret to his grave, and probably even after.

“It’s the other universe,” Johnny says, and barely resists the urge to bludgeon himself with his own bedpost.

“What happened?” Ben asks. All of a sudden, he’s delicate, and tactful, even though Johnny knows it’s a hell of a lot easier for him to clobber problems than it is for him to talk about them. Johnny feels a sudden rush of fondness for the big guy.

“Nothing,” Johnny says. His throat feels thick, full of something. If he starts crying now, he’s never going to forgive himself. “It was nice.”

“Webhead didn’t try to kill you?”

“No, he didn’t. That would have been better, I think.”

He folds his arms on top of the mattress and rests his chin on the bones of his wrist. The next few words don’t want to come out.

“We were married,” he says, finally. “We had a kid.”

“Oh,” Ben says. He gets it. Of course he does.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get to be that happy, Ben. And I was right. I don’t get that life. The other me does.”

It’s quiet for a long time after that. They both sit there. Johnny keeps turning the words over and over in his head.

It’s true, isn’t it? He doesn’t get that life. He never will. Especially now that he’s seen it. Lived it.

“Didya talk to Spidey?” Ben asks.

“A little bit. He’s angry at me.”

“You should talk to him again,” Ben says, “And get out of bed. It’ll help.”

Johnny wants to tell Ben that he doesn’t understand, but Ben’s looking at him, eyes soft and sad. So maybe Ben’s the only one who does.

“Okay,” Johnny says, “I will.”

“If I don’t see you downstairs in half an hour, matchstick,” Ben says, “I’m coming back for you.”

Without thinking, Johnny laughs.

The bed creaks as Ben stands and heads towards the door.

“His name was Benji, you know,” Johnny says, “The kid, I mean.”

Ben pauses in the doorway. He ducks his head. Johnny can’t see his expression, but he’s sure it’s a smile.

***

Even after that, he’s not ready to talk to Peter. He wants to take a couple days (or weeks) and psych himself up. Work out the perfect words. The perfect time. The perfect location with the perfect exit strategy. It’s going to be fine, he’s going to figure it out, he’s going to get through this. He’s going to get rid of the constant, cottony loneliness in his chest. He’s going to wake up one morning and not wish Peter were there sleeping next to him, big and warm and breathing softly.

It takes some time, but Johnny finally works up the courage. Of course, then he takes another day to figure out the perfect flaming message he should put in the sky. He settles on “The usual place. 6 pm.” and a crude fiery drawing of a spider. It’s not exactly poetry, but it’ll work. Even though now Johnny’s worried that if this goes wrong, he’ll never be able to look at the Statue of Liberty again. He’ll have to move to Europe. Or worse: Canada.

The sun’s starting to set when Johnny gets there, half an hour early. He just sits for awhile, watching the sun sink into the water and letting the breeze run through his hair. For the first time in a long time, Johnny’s feels okay. Settled.

He doesn’t know how long that feeling’s going to last, but it’s nice for now.

By the time Peter swings in, Johnny’s got his legs curled up to his chest, and his chin resting on his knees.

For a second Peter looks tense, like he’s about to start lecturing again. But the longer he stands there, the more he relaxes. His hands unclench, his posture eases. Then, he slips into the spot next to Johnny.

“You still mad at me?” Johnny asks.

“I don’t know,” Peter says, tugging off his mask, “I don’t think I was ever that mad at you.”

Johnny nudges Peter’s shoulder with his. Throws him a lopsided grin.

“Good,” he says.

“Don’t do anything like that again, Johnny. Okay?” Peter says. From the corner of his eye, Johnny can see that Peter’s staring at him, concern written all over his face. “You really freaked me out.”

“Alright,” Johnny says. There’s not much else he can say without lying.

“Okay. I guess I’ll see you around then, Torch?”

Peter’s on his feet already, arm out to shoot some webbing. It would be easy to let him go. To stop talking now. Everything’s fixed, isn’t it? What’s the use of messing it all up again?

“You weren’t even tempted?” he says, finally, and Peter freezes.

It’s not what Johnny wanted to say. It’s probably about the worst thing he could say. But it’s the question that’s been plaguing him ever since they got back. Wasn’t Peter tempted? He might not want Johnny, but doesn’t he want a family like that? Loud, and annoying, and everywhere, all at once. A family so big you can never forget you have one.

“I wasn’t tempted,” Peter says, “It wasn’t real.”

“It sure felt real,” Johnny replies, staring down at his feet. Twisting the fabric of his uniform in his fingers. “I loved that kid. I know he wasn’t mine, and I didn’t know him for very long. But he was cute, you know? He reminded me of you.”

“Yeah?” Peter says. He falls back into his seat with a thump, purposefully jostling Johnny on the way down. “He reminded me of you.”

“You didn’t spend enough time with him,” Johnny says, “He was basically a carbon copy of you. Dramatic and ridiculous and so cute.” At the word “cute”, Johnny pokes Peter right in the middle of one of his dimples, and Peter bats Johnny’s hand away.

“That sounds like you,” Peter says, “And you didn’t see the other me’s phone. Benji took about a million selfies on there. Just like you.”

“Uh-uh. That was photography. He gets that from you.”

“They were really well-framed selfies.”

“See? He’s a mini-Peter.”

“Well, at least that means he didn’t any of your genes. The poor kid would be messed up for life.”

“Shut your mouth,” Johnny says, shoving Peter over. Peter bounces right back, laughing. “Storm genes are the best genes. Sue and I never even get sick. And we can curl our tongues into a clover shape.”

“I can do that.”

“Oh yeah? Show me.”

As Johnny watches, Peter sticks out his tongue and starts twisting it into some truly terrible shapes.

“Put that thing away. It looks like your tongue got caught in some machinery.”

“You just don’t understand my art.”

After that, they fall into companionable silence. Johnny starts thinking about the other him. The other Peter. He wonders if they got home alright. If the other Johnny fell to his knees the moment he saw Benji. Squeezed the poor kid into a hug so tight that he started to squirm. It doesn’t seem like the other Johnny got to spend much time in this universe, but if Johnny knows himself, he knows that he probably missed Benji. Missed him like crazy. Even after just a few seconds.

Hell, Johnny barely knew Benji, and he misses him. A lot more than he thinks he should.

“I might have been tempted,” Peter says, suddenly. “I think that’s why I got so angry at you.”

Johnny turns toward Peter, who’s staring off into the distance, a soft grin playing around his lips. The last light of the day is spreading out lazily across his skin.

“I realized, though, that it could never work. The other Johnny was never going to want me. He’d always want somebody else.” Peter tilts his head towards Johnny then, looking up at him sideways. “And so would I.”

Johnny swallows.

“Yeah, well. You’re a lot smarter than me.”

Peter slides his hand over Johnny’s, and twines their fingers together.

“I’m not. I didn’t figure any of this out until Reed’s lab. The first time. I was sitting there looking through those photos, and all I could think about was how good you looked in all of them. Even the one where you had play-doh in your hair. That’s when I knew I was screwed.”

Johnny leans forward, and presses his head against Peter’s shoulder. He might never move again. Except to kiss Peter’s lights out.

“Man, you’re dumb,” he says, glad that the grin tearing its way across his face is hidden against Peter’s arm. “You’re the stupidest guy I’ve ever met.”

“I know,” Peter says. His fingers press against Johnny’s jaw, and he nudges Johnny until they’re face to face. “But you’re stuck with me.”

“Not if I go to a universe where I never met you,” Johnny says. Peter huffs out a laugh, and leans forward so that their foreheads are touching.

“Good luck with that,” he says, and then, like a filthy cheater, he kisses Johnny before he can reply.